Amongst the “evergreen” pieces full of canned wisdom that “conservative” opinion writers routinely trot out every year are the figures released by government agencies demonstrating the magnanimous generosity of Americans compared to everyone else in the world. This serves a twofold purpose: not only does it corroborate self-serving presumptions of moral superiority, but it also supposedly confirms the myth that rugged individualism and self-reliance characteristic of a free market economy is actually beneficial to the poor and downtrodden. Another variation on the “greed is good” theme is the notion that societal wealth actually births a “culture of giving” or some such twaddle. Well perhaps, although I’m highly skeptical about that actually being the case.
The stories about American generosity got wheeled out of the shed a bit unseasonably this year because of a remark made by Barack Obama at the Saddleback forum (sorry for mentioning it again) on the weekend, when in response to one of Pastor Warren’s questions, he said that America’s greatest “moral failing” was that Americans “still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” Naturally, “conservative” pundits sprang into action, angrily firing back at the outrageous suggestion that the USA is a selfish society with an impressive array of comparative facts and figures about charitable giving showing that Americans give twice as much as the British per capita, seven times as much as the Germans, fourteen times as much as the Italians, and so on.
Struck by these statistics, “Blogging Tory” Mathew Siscoe awkwardly wrote, apparently oblivious to the irony involved, that “I always find these stats interesting, and I find the way they’re misrepresented as well.” I presume he meant that he also finds the way they’re misrepresented to be interesting. And indeed it is. While there’s certainly no denying that the amount given to charity by Americans is significant, or that “Yanks give more money to charity than virtually anyone else int eh [sic] world,” as Siscoe puts it, this still only represents 1.85 percent of the size of the US economy in recent years and therefore, by the simple reckoning of Mr. Siscoe and others, it could be argued that Americans are slightly more than 98% selfish.
A couple of things about the charitable giving of Americans should also be considered. I’ve long maintained that rather than by virtue of some quirk of human nature, part of the reason that they do tend to give more generously on a per capita basis can be traced back directly to the tax code. In this respect, it should be noted that in Canada, for example, registered charities issue tax receipts for donations, which entitle individual donors to a non-refundable tax credit worth only 16% on the first $200 donated and 29% on donations above this amount, up to 75% of the taxpayer’s net income. In the US by contrast, you can deduct cash contributions in full up to 50% of your adjusted gross income. Obviously, there’s a much greater incentive to give generously when a 100% income tax deduction is on offer.
The second thing that needs to be appreciated, at least in the context of Obama’s remarks about the Biblical precept of giving to help the “the least of my brothers” (and yes, there’s great irony in that remark in light of the story yesterday about his not-so-long-lost relative in Africa, but I digress…) is that out of the charitable giving in America in 2006, only 16.9% went directly to the areas of “health” and “human services” (32% going to religious organizations and 10% to foundations of one sort or another).