Sunday, December 21, 2008

N. Dumbass Kristof

Regular readers know of my general lack of respect for Nicholas D. Kristof, the whiny halfwitted Times columnist. I try not to read him because whenever I do I'm moved to post about why he's an idiot. Occasional lapses are, however, inevitable. In his latest column, he says liberals are tightfisted about giving to charity, and spend too much of their giving on frivolities like the arts. He doesn't stop to consider that, by and large, liberals don't believe in charity as a useful way of organizing the safety net, whereas a fair number of us approve of running the arts on charitable donations. Depending on the precise politics, this may or may not justify not giving to charity absent a better solution, but it seems like a point that one should at least engage. There are fairly serious problems with outsourcing the safety net to Mother Teresa or the clowns who buy up Sudanese slaves to "redeem" them, not least that the semblance of activity makes it difficult to garner public support for saner and more equitable programs.


Jeremy said...

I would rather see the raw data on this. This seems like a case of lying statistics. Is this data collected from the IRS for the tax deductible charitable contributions?

I would hypothesize that liberals donate more or equal amounts of money to charity if you exclude church donations.

I would not consider donations to local churches "charity." There seems to be little or no social good generated by such contributions.

Jeremy said...

Ah, I see that my question is answered in the text. I should have RTFA.
"According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do."

I still prefer to see the raw statistics.

Sarang said...

I don't think it matters. Individual giving to charity is by and large a waste of money; there are relatively few groups out there doing worthwhile things. Also, it's a bit of a fool's errand trying to decouple secular from religious giving: money to feed kids in Darfur is money to feed kids in Darfur, regardless of who does it.

Jeremy said...

I think you miss my point. If you are using the IRS forms for tax deductible contributions to charity as your measure of charitable giving then you are including tithes to your local church. This money goes to the upkeep of the tabernacle and the salary for the grand wizard, not feeding kids in Darfur. The bible says that we should tithe 10% of our salary.

In some cities it may include a food kitchen for homeless. Where I am from it certainly did not. In Panama City, at the local southern Baptist church tithes were spent on building larger buildings, making the pastor wealthy, and influencing local elections. In my mind these are net losses for society.

If you are interested sites such as exist which rate charities according to efficiency of funds spent (money spent on mission / money spent administrating funds).

Sarang said...

"Money spent on mission" (cf. the Sudanese liberators) is potentially much more damaging than money spent on administrative costs, depending on what your mission is. I don't think there's a useful non-ideological way of telling good charities from bad ones, and it isn't obvious that most charities are non-evil.

Sarang said...

cf. Larry Summers's remarks on "our creative mortgage crisis" (and other articles on that blog) for a bunch of generic anti-charity arguments.

Jeremy said...

There is little controversy ending hunger, fighting poverty, and curing diseases are "non-evil" causes. When we can improve one persons lot in life without degrading any other persons lot we have found a "good" cause (in the humanist sense). Of course humanism can be attacked.

In the case of "Free Palestine" and similar heavily politicized causes I understand your point. It is possible for there to exist two charities whose goals oppose each other. There is no useful way of identifying good or evil in some cases.

My brief research leads me to believe that the largest (by budget) of international aid charities strive to supply food and medicine to those in need, not influence international politics. In fact, the top ten largest charities have pretty non-controversial goals.

My initial intent was not to generate debate on the morality of charity. If you want to assert that liberals spend less on charity than conservatives then you should control for the mandatory donation of tithing.

An additional note: This type of analysis ignores those occasions when we purchase an overpriced or inferior good to support the manufacturer (voting with our dollars for green manufacturers etc.). This is not strictly charity, but may belong in the category.

Jeremy said...

The article "our creative mortgage crisis" addressed the unnatural merger of corporate and social objectives. It is not an anti-charity argument.

A non-profit organization is not creative capitalism.

Sarang said...

I don't think non-profits should have any role in ending hunger, clothing people, etc, as these are basic rights. To the extent that they inevitably do, it's a result of institutional failure; to the extent that the institutions can be fixed, they should. Charities are an evil but a necessary evil if the institutions can't be fixed. However, they're very far from being a good solution, just as, e.g. free prison food is not a good solution to unjust imprisonment. Of the ten largest charities, two (nature cons. and volunteers) are political, three (am. heart, cancer, and feeding am. poor) are pernicious because if more people were dying on the streets we'd have a better safety net, one (CARE) is generally worthless in practice, and only one (the Red Cross) is something I'd consider unequivocally worthwhile, because there really is no institutional way of doing what it does.

Tithing isn't mandatory, you could always leave the church, so I don't see why you ought to control for it unless you know that virtually no tithe money goes to program costs, which I'm not convinced of. Some churches seem quite involved in the Third World.

I find "ethical buying" a little distasteful as a political tool -- you have more power if you have more money -- and prefer regulation where possible, but I agree that sometimes it's the best weapon one has available. I also agree that it's on a continuum with charity. Which is why I thought of Summers's argument and e.g. Gary Becker's (same blog). Nonprofit goals and any useful sort of accountability or regulation are hard to reconcile.

Sarang said...

I should emphasize, btw, that I see a distinction between e.g. Food for the Poor, and Feeding America. Dying foreigners have no real political influence, dying homeless people by the Sears tower just might.

Jeremy said...

I agree with most of your points. Micro loans are a superior form of charity to food/etc. Charity is largely a stop-gap measure to reduce human suffering. It certainly should be done better.

Imagine a populace and representative government that is libertarian. This will result in a government that provides minimal services. It is possible to form an non-profit organization (charity) that provides basic social services that is funded by volunteers.

This is not obvious: "if more people were dying on the streets we'd have a better safety net." How would you address a conservative governance model where private industry is left to develop medicines? What about those diseases that disproportionately effect the poor and thus may be unprofitable? Is this a failure in governance?

Practical concerns dictate the necessity for non-profits. Government philosophy does not always mirror your (read Sarangs) personal philosophy. Government can sometimes be supplemented in an intelligent and useful manner.

Sarang said...

It's harder to sustain radical freemarketry when people actually are dying on your doorstep, and I think a case could be made that -- at least as regards the American poor -- the political viability of conservatism hinges on the fact that no one actually starves. There's an element of speculation here but given e.g. Katrina-related anger I think the public is still capable of outrage.

I dislike the idea of volunteer-run public services b'se of the lack of accountability. This is my basic problem with nonprofits. Suppose the government is spending billions on something counterproductive or useless: one knows more or less what the channels for correction are. A well-funded charity is accountable to no one except its largest donors.

As for poor people's diseases, I don't think nonprofits are the answer. The problem with healthcare is that drug companies behave like producers but patients don't behave like customers; therefore the usual structure of incentives doesn't work. Most of the sensible fixes I've heard involve creating artificial incentives for the drug companies by e.g. guarantees and credits: these are govt. rather than nonprofit fixes.

As I see it the useful thing about nonprofits is that since they're less trammeled by laws they can address crises faster. I don't think they have a useful role outside emergencies.