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framing the question?

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Joined: 29 Nov 2006
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 29, 2006 8:11 pm    Post subject: framing the question? Reply with quote

This data sounds interesting and surprising, and therefore helpful to understand more fully. I wonder however if using this data to define compasion is a politicized and rather convenient framing of the question. Charitable donations and time volunteered are a poor measure of "compassion." For example, let's say a citizen works to bring about government policies that generate great wealth for themselves (perhaps new tax shelters or reduced environmental regulations for their business) but increase costs tremendously for other people (perhaps cutting healthcare coverage, safety guarantees at work, and access to funds for education for middle class workers). If this person then gives a $2000 handout to the middle class worker who lost tens of thousands of dollars in healthcare coverage and decent public education support, is that person "compassionate?" Is that person more compassionate than the citizen who forgoes self-interested public policy but only makes a small cash handout? The point is, while economic theories can be argued about which situation will actually make the needy citizen better off, simply counting time and dollars given as handouts is a poor frame for the question of "Who is compassionate?" It seems that an academic should avoid the games and manipulations used in today's political communications.
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 02, 2006 3:28 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Are you trying to make the claim that giving to an art museum or to a political campaign is less charitable than giving cash to homeless alcoholic? Are you trying to argue that volunteering time to help push through a law you firmly believe will help the country is less charitable than volunteering time to care for children in the church nursery?

I think you miss the point. Everyone's definition of what makes people "better off" is different based on their experience. Thank God no one has tried to define "charitable giving" within their own frame of reference and opinions. We'd have a much less diverse and exciting world to live in.

The ACT of GIVING itself is what makes a difference.
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PostPosted: Mon Dec 04, 2006 4:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

You replied: "I think you miss the point. Everyone's definition of what makes people "better off" is different based on their experience. Thank God no one has tried to define "charitable giving" within their own frame of reference..."

Actually, that is the point I make in my post as well -- that Mr. Brook's definition of what makes someone charitable appears to be much too narrow, and that he appears to use that narrow definition to classify people grossly into "compassionate" and "not compassionate." As you and I say, one needs to take into account all altruistic acts if one is going to attempt to make this calculation. If Mr. Brooks is going to measure a much more narrow set of behaviors, than professional ethics would dictate that he also make a much more narrow claim about his findings. That is the fault I find in the marketing of this book.
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 15, 2007 11:06 pm    Post subject: Brooks deals with your problem Reply with quote

You may disagree with Brooks, but he addresses your problem in many places, in particular on pgs. 20-21. He writes:

"The conventional wisdom runs like this: Liberals are charitable because they advocate government redistribution of money in the name of social justice; conservatives are uncharitable because they oppose these policies. But note the sleight of hand: Government spending, according to this logic, is a form of charity.
"Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues. Because government spending is not charity, sanctimonious yard signs do not prove that there bearers are charitable or that their opponents are selfish."

And then on page 25:

"One could argue that my definition of charity is too narrow; and that by focusing only on voluntary giving I have excluded the most significant means by which Americans transfer thaeir assets to the poor: taxes. Certainly, liberals frequently support givernment social welfare policies that (they believe) improve the lives of many Americans. Indeed, 48% of self-described liberals in 2002 said the government spends too little on welfare programs (compared with just 9% of conservatives who said this). Isn't support for welfare programs a kind of charity?
"I argue that it is not. American liberals and conservatives live together in a democracy, and public policies apply to both groups equally. Liberals usually believe that we spend too little on social welfare programs; conservatives usually believe that we spend too much. Which group is right is beside the point. Our prevailing policies reflect the will of the voters, more or less, and one person's viewpoint will not bend policy much unless it is shared by a sufficient number of fellow citizens. I am not more or less compassionate simply because I support taxing wealthy people, nor if I am dissatisfied with the adequacy of government social programs. Although outrage over the callousness of our public policies toward the poor may provide a sense of moral correctness--and may be justified--it will not relieve anybody's suffering. Worse yet, if moral outrage is only a substitute for private charity, the needy will become worse off than before."

Brooks also takes into account "informal giving," but you will acknowledge that this is incredibly difficult if not impossible to measure with a high degree of accuracy. Mostly one just relies on surveys. Nevertheless, with that caveat in mind, even these shaky measurements reveal the divide in charitableness that Brooks details.

Certainly what we've just excerpted is going to be one of the more controversial aspects of Brooks' work. It is, if you will, a tenet of liberal faith that support for and activism on behalf of higher taxes for the wealthy is the pinnacle of selfless benevolence-- a form of charity. Brooks will probably not dissuade these people, but that isn't the point. The point is that he has an argument, it is strong, and he is the farthest thing from a dogmatist. I think that warrants a little more respect (such as reading his book before you attack his book). --Chris
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 26, 2007 9:00 pm    Post subject: Again, what is charity? Reply with quote

"Are you trying to make the claim that giving to an art museum or to a political campaign is less charitable than giving cash to homeless alcoholic? Are you trying to argue that volunteering time to help push through a law you firmly believe will help the country is less charitable than volunteering time to care for children in the church nursery?"

Of course it is not charity to give to your preferred political party or candidate. You may call it civil responsibility or community involvement, if you like, but it most certainly is not charity, especially if the law the donor "firmly believe will help the country" is gonna help the donor in the first place, by giving him or her a tax break. Sorry but your reasoning appears to me rather cynical. Brooks clearly makes a moral argument, about generosity and caring. But the act of giving voluntarily, regardless of the cause, is not in itself proof or morality. If your argument were valid, then it would also be a commendable moral act to donate to the Nazi party. Incidentally, charities have been accused of playing a major role in terrorist funding, and Muslim extremist regard donating to terrorist causes as charity. Your argument would equally apply to those people - they firmly believe that what they do is good.

To come back to the book, the major flaw in the book is that it takes all causes of charity as defined by the tax code as equivalent. But that is not acceptable if the author then goes on to make moral judgements. So my take is that Brooks' definition of charity is too broad. In some respects, it is also too narrow. For example, some people are routinely supporting causes they consider good, not by donating but by voluntarily paying higher prices: buying local goods to support the community, buying organic, buying at the farmer's market, buying environmentally friendly products, fair trade, etc. Some might argue that these kinds of consumer habits do actually more good than donating to charity. Some will disagree but this just takes us back to case one: we first have to agree on what constitutes "good behavior", before we can morally judge people's behavior. If Conservatives consider cutting the taxes of the rich and reducing food stamps and donating money to conservative churches and political organizations as "good behavior", then I have to admit that Conservatives are, according to that definition, doing a lot of good. However, I disagree with the premise. They may believe that they are doing good but in my view they are not.
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 27, 2007 10:39 am    Post subject: I agree, justwondering. Mr. Brooks approach is lacking Reply with quote

I agree, justwondering, with your taking issue of how Mr. Brooks frames the issue of charitable giving. First, he refuses to define 'charity'. Second, he focuses on the giver. Lastly, he ignores the distinction between individualistic giving and centralized giving. In the end, his analysis lacks utility.

First, the undefined term of 'charity' leaves the door wide open for differences in reporting of charity. For example, take situational giving versus planned giving. A situational person gives money whenever they have the means to do so to a person on the street or a person that they know is in need. They might give food to a thanksgiving food drive. A planned giver donates to their church's soup program monthly. The one who gives situationally may not consider that 'charitable giving.'

Second, focusing on the giver is a shallow analytical tool. As in the example above, giving five dollars to a person on the street may lead to a meal or a pack of cigarettes. What does 'giving' actually do? From this perspective, one could just as easily point out that wealthy give more because they give more money, even though they give much much less as percentage of income.

The point here is the arbitrary nature of Mr. Brooks definitions and approach.

Lastly, I recently watched a replay Mr. Brooks' discussion at Seattle Pacific University of his findings. He noted how in Europe there is a decreased culture of charitable giving, though an increased tax burden in higher marginal tax rates provides more social programs. In particular he discussed Norway's social welfare system that provides universal healthcare, etc. He continued to attempt to distinguish this from a culture of charitable giving, which anonymous & piglet effectively illustrate.

Yet it begs the question of effective redistribution between cultures that value individualism and cultures that value centralization. Democratic governments reflect a common "will", or rather, a shared value and that is why Mr. Brooks attempted distinction blurs. If an individual gives to a charity that ineffectively utilizes those funds, what is the "real return on charity"? Are Norway's citizens justified in decreasing individualized charitable giving due to a more effective centralized chartitable giving?

To tie these three issues together, Mr. Brooks ignores this critical question: If you allow broad definition of charity and use it a giver-based approach, how is supporting taxation for centralized charitable services, in Norway for example, not a form of planned giving? Enter more Brooks doublespeak.

I am not suggesting here that governments stand as a more effective redistribution tool than charities. Obviously, communism fell and quality charities stretch dollars with committed volunteers and staff who sacrifice time and money to their cause. However, studies on the effectiveness of charities in America show that there are vast discrepancies on the real return, including the recent high profile non-profit organization headed by Mike Ditka that redistributed pennies on the dollar. Mr. Brooks explains and explains away yet always punts on these questions.

In the end, Mr. Brooks approach severely limits the utility of this data and unravels any significance of his analysis. His focus is nothing more than "What cultures value individualistic charitable giving separate from any centralized form of charitable giving?" Thus, the book merely provides a narrow tool to understanding American conservative and liberal lenses on individual charitable giving. In my view, his book does little to propel useful scholarship and leads a reader to the conclusion 'Who really cares?'.
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 30, 2008 8:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Once again, I have to commend piglet's critique of the concept of "charity." You nailed it and your comments are a pleasure to read.

wmarxism's point is also very good. As I just posted in a different thread, in Germany (where I have lived for 18 years) the federal government collects a tax on behalf of the two established churches here which amounts to about 2.3 % of gross income. German citizens who pay this tax consider this a charitable donation and they factor it in when deciding whether to make further donations. (The tax is mandatory if you belong to one of these churches, but you are free to leave the church - and many Germans do - and then you don't pay the tax.)

It is my impression, also, based on things like poverty levels, crime rates, drug abuse, incarceration, and the gap between rich and poor, that the welfare states in Europe do a more effective job of redistributing wealth than individualized, voluntary giving in the US. (There is, after all, a huge difference between communism and the social democratic governments of almost all West European countries.)

There is still one issue, however, that remains open to me and that might have something to do with what Brooks' book is arguing. I would be interested in whether the centralized government form of redistributing wealth leads to increased apathy among citizens? I have a feeling it does. If there were a way to quantify this question, it might be a revealing and helpful bit of research.
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