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September 26, 2008

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You need to re-read the comment regarding McCain's wife:

In 2006, her total itemized tax deductions, a category which includes charitable contributions and other deductible items such as mortgage interest, was $569,737, or 9.3% of her income.

That means that all of the deductible items were $569,737, not just the charitable ones. It might very well be that $1 of that $569,737 is to charity, and the rest are other deductions. You don't know how much of it is actually to charity, so applauding that action is a bit premature.

You'd have to imagine that a few of those McCain deduction dollars are interest on two of the homes as well as all that real estate tax... I'd hate to see those bills!

Biden is beyond the pale. That is embarrassing for him.

I have to disagree with your use of reported charitable giving of money as a litmus test for being a good person/leader. People serve their communities in different ways. As jaded as we all are these days about politicians, they are public servants. Most could make more money in the private sector than in office. Sure, many profit from it and write books, etc. but I don’t judge them on how much they give away. Who knows the many ways people show their generosity. Volunteering your time is just as valuable. Also, I don’t think that taking a tax deduction for your giving is all that particularly selfless. Many give and don’t take the deduction so they don’t get “credit”? I just think it’s a very narrow way to judge people. I love your blog and urge you broaden your scope a bit.

Amelia --

I don't think it's the only criteria, of course, but I do think a leader's giving is part of the equation. Fortunately, most of the people above seem to be decent in that regard.

It is interesting to note that, when you use tax returns to compile giving statistics, red states consistently out-give blue states; see http://www.xanga.com/LotharBot/156340037/item.html (posted in 2004, color coded for your convenience.)

Now, this isn't entirely fair -- tax returns don't tell the whole story. Not everyone itemizes, not all giving is tax-deductible, and a lot of religious people "give" to churches that don't do anything charitable with those funds. I suspect the difference in giving, while real, is not as big as it appears. Still, I think it's interesting to see how beliefs about giving play out statistically, and to see how people like Joe Biden (fail to) measure up to their own standards.

I like taking the other side of positions whether you agree or not, because it's fun and it forces you to think about the other side.

The top 5% of wage earners pay 57% of taxes. (IRS 2004) Old info, but I'm running with it. I use this information because I feel that those mentioned in your post are in or close to the top 5%, if not, then they're probably in the top 10% and paid 68% of taxes.

Now, the last time I checked there are numerous organizations that receive this money with the sole purpose of giving and taking care of those that are less fortunate. There are food stamps, education funding, money to fight world poverty through the U.N., AIDS, environmental crisis, employment help, Medicare, Medicaid, just to name a few. There are additional grants for non-profit organizations that help more focused groups of people. By this information, doesn't paying taxes make you a charitable giver? Not to mention more so for the high earners you mention since they pay more taxes than the rest. Why should they have to give another 10% of their income to be considered a "good person.”

Additionally, what about those that don't give money? Serving at soup kitchens, coaching children's sports leagues, using one’s celebrity to bring awareness, those who rescue children through adoption, and Big Brother Big Sister. A couple of those will actually cost some money in the long term.

Lastly, because many use tithing to be their charitable contributions, how do I know that the money given to the church makes it back out to the community? There are some churches in my area that look like palaces.

Once again, please don't misunderstand my points here. Just trying to increase the debate.

LOL.........and you actually trust those figures.

"...His campaign didn't release information about his wife's charitable contributions" hmmm wonder why Cindy?


"and other deductible items such as mortgage interest, was $569,737...." and he don't know how many houses he have

It seems to me like many people who consider themselves to be liberal in this country do so because they feel that more should be done for those with lower incomes. I always find it interesting though when I ask liberals how much they personally have given to charity in the past year. Usually its nothing. It seems from my experience like they believe it is of top importance in the political arena, but of little importance when it comes to their personal checkbooks.

Wow. Surprisingly non-partisan article here. It's hard to find someone who actually writes semi-subjectively about anything!

errrrr....objectively is what I meant--semi objectively, not semi-subjectively!!

FMF, thank you for posting this. I was one of the commenters in your last article that said we would like to see what our politicians give.

I generally agree with the assessment of Biden. It's nice that he's so generous with taxpayers' money, but if only he was generous with his own money.

That said, I do often take a different line of thinking. I'm not entirely sure that we need to give X% (10 or whatever) of your income on a continuous basis. Many philanthropists spend half their lives making as much money as possible -- and they probably give far less than 10% or even 5%. But then in the later half of their lives, they give it all away. I think of Bill Gates, for example. I don't have figures in front of me, but I doubt he gave a significant percentage of his earnings while working hard at Microsoft. But now that he's retired, with a net worth of ~$50 billion, he's working full time at his charity giving nearly all of that away.

In my opinion, this is perfectly good.

Wow, you expect someone to tithe on their net worth rather than just their annual income? That's more than what the Bible or any fundamentalist church teaches.

I'm glad I'm not tithing 10% of my net worth each year. That would be a gradual drawdown of my assets and I'd be eating Alpo homeless in retirement.

Much of McCain's actually goes to the private school their children attend.

I agree with Amelia. I don't think this is a fair assessment to judge who is or is not a good person/candidate. Frankly, I'm much more comfortable with Joe Biden and his alleged non-charity than Sarah "I can see Russia from my house" Palin, who as you said has yet to release this information (though I was mildly amused that you automatically assumed she has given the most...talk about charity!).

Interesting how some posters will defend their preferred candidate's complete lack of charitable giving by throwing stones the other way.

I think these kind of issues just put the cart before the horse.

It's our business, but I don't think it matters. I don't care if my president is a good person in his heart, just like I don't care or even need to know if my mechanic is a good person or whether or not my teacher is a really nice lady or my surgeon puts money in the church plate -- I don't look to them as role models and I don't need them to by my friends. I don't need to like them as individuals. What I need are people who can get the job done. And do it well.


I think, as a country, we've gotten suckered by following identity politics. We look to what a person is and if they reflect the kind of person we want them to be, instead of looking at the job we want them to do, and determining whether or not they're capable of the task that's required of them.

If the President's job was to inspire me for charitable giving, then I would assess them on their ability to give. But it's not, and I think there are far bigger issues of national interest that can inform voting choice.

If the country were doing well, if we weren't in debt, didn't have the bailout crisis, no trouble with jobs, no concerns about Social Sec or heathcare -- AND if the plans and views each of candidate were _identical_, then it might be relevant to judge them on individual personalities and characters.

In this case, at this time, I think it's unhelpful to conflate what someone is with what someone does. There are plenty of "good" people that don't have what it takes to get a job done. And plenty of loathsome individuals who can consistently produce results. I don't care if my president is an utter toad/more generous that anyone/stingy as all get out/upgraded his wife/loving father, as long as he's able to solidly improve the country.

Trent D: Are you talking about the responses to Palin (who, as far as we know, has 0% charitable giving) or to Biden? :)

I agree 100% that the numbers are disappointing for Biden but I would also be interested in how accurate a method was used in determining charitable giving since (as other have stated), this only covers donations that were reported on annual taxes).

The McCain number seems a little misleading because he could donate 100% of his personal annual salary every year and it wouldn't make a dent in his standard of living. Also why are you breaking out the McCain's separately but including the Obama's together. I assume it's how they file their tax status but I was curious if there was another reason.

What ever happened to anonymous giving? The tax break on $995 worth of giving isn't worth the hassle or bad PR.

Biden certainly isn't being generous, and that disappoints me too. But I think it's unfair to say he does dramatically worse than the average American. Americans typically give about 2%, but an estimated 60% of that is to religious sources, which isn't a good comparison for Biden because 1) he's Catholic and Catholics on average give a lot less to their church than Protestants, 2) he says that he doesn't put the donations to his church on his taxes, and 3) it's arguable that giving to your church really has much to do with "giving to others" in the first place (rather than paying into an institution that you're a member of which provides services to you.)

So by my math, the average household gives a little less than 1% to places other than churches. Which is still more than Biden gave, granted, but it's more apples-to-apples. I still think he should and could have done better... but he's in the general ballpark of the average. (And honestly, I definitely give extra credit to people who spend most of their time serving the public interest as their day job-- Joe and Jill both do. The average American does not.)

And I don't see how we have enough information to say that McCain is more generous than Obama. In 2006 it looks like John and Cindy had about $6.5 mil in income-- they gave no more than about 10% of that, but that's assuming that Cindy didn't itemize anything but charitable donations, which is a big question mark. It's hardly fair to automaticaly conclude that it's gotta be higher than the Obamas' 5.7%, it could just as easily be lower.

Plus the Chronicle of Philanthropy says "Mrs. McCain has donated the same amount to charity as her husband — a total of $170,162 for each of them — over the past two years, his campaign said." That'd be $340,324 out of $6.5 mil in 2006, or about 5.2%... a little less than the Obamas by percentage, with a higher income and a WAY higher net worth (a couple million for the Obamas, over $100 million for the McCains.) (Source: http://philanthropy.com/news/updates/4437/john-mccain-discloses-data-on-his-charity-giving)

I would hope that everyone I admire is a generous soul but I don't really think it's my business. Is the next step looking at who the recipients of their generosity are and then getting to debate who is more needy or worthy? I'd hate for anyone to be scrutinizing my charitable donations that way. I also agree that monetary contributions are not the only way to be charitable.

MonkeyMonk:

I'm specifically referring to a few posters who seemed to be defending Biden's lack of giving. I'll reserve personal judgment on Palin until the information is available.

I agree with the general consensus here - charitable giving isn't overly important for a political race. It is interesting to see the amount of giving seems lower (from a percentage standpoint) for the Democratic ticket, while those same candidates generally support large amounts of entitlement programs.

Small sample size, I know, but it is these four candidates we're talking about. Biden's "giving his time" excuse is bunk - sweat equity can be valuable, but I know from personal experience that most non-profit organizations would rather have your money than your time. Most have the staff they need already, or would have the paid staff if they had enough funding from cash donations. Most volunteers are fairly useless to charitable organization, unless they bring a really unique skill (think skilled labor for Habitat for Humanity, or a marketing professional volunteering to help create advertising).

Charitable giving is important because it will likely reflect their actions as president. I don't think it's about giving at all, its about power and the importance of the growth of government. Many (most) Democrats and a disappointingly high number of Republicans believe that the American people cannot be generous enough to take care of the poor, needy, or less fortunate; therefore, the government must take it forcibly and allocate it as they see fit. Even if every American gave 10% of their income it would be called a "good start" or deemed unworthy due to the causes it supported.

Granted this is a very opinionated generalization and there will always be exceptions to the rule; however, the talk and action I've seen over the past 15+ years from my state and federal government speaks volumes in its support.

Amelia-

If 'volunteering time' does as much good as 'contributing money' then why don't we see our politicians asking the American public to give their 'time' instead of redistributing wealth from those who EARN more to those who EARN less? That would be a solution that doesn't judge based on income level, color or political affiliation. All Americans, low-income and high-income have time... we could all give equally.

The answer is... that is an unrealistic and silly suggestion. MONEY feeds people and equals medicine for people of third world countries. Generous, caring people who contribute that money (republicans and democrats, buisiness mogels and middle income average Americans, among many others) are the reason we as a country make such an impact around the world in the lives of those less fortunate. The time volunteered by those very same people is important as it takes those dollars and puts them into action by aiding others in times of need.

I volunteer time AND contribute money. I work more hours than most people and I earn a good living. (peanuts compared to the politicians representing my state and my country.) The amount of money given by these politicians matters to me as it speaks clearly to their moral conviction and character. They should practice what the preach.

That 9.7% on Mrs. McCain's tax return is a little misleading. After a certain income level ($78,000 for married, filing separate in 2007), your itemized deductions are seriously limited - which would be the case for all the candidates actually. So her itemized deductions could be double that or more, but since she didn't release details...who knows?

The bottom line is that the love of money, left unchecked, corrupts. And one good way of exercising control over corruption is to give money away generously, so that others may gain from it. While a small measure of financial giving tallied at the end of the year doesn't necessarily mean someone is corrupt, I do find it however refreshing to see individuals, especially in positions of leadership, demonstrate they understand this equation, and take it seriously enough to exercise mastery over it. In other words, while a small amount of giving doesn't say volumes about a person, greater giving (in relation to one's earnings) as an attitude of the heart truly differentiates, shows wisdom, shows sacrifice, shows love for others, shows respect, and is inspiring. The most inspiring of people I have known, have displayed generosity in the quietness of their spirit over the length of their lives, in anonymity, and have given far greater than 8-10% of their money, and far greater of their time to people in need, and have interestingly enough, been some of the happiest people I have ever known. These candidates have a lot to learn, all of them, from those who have walked far nobler paths then them.

Lots of great comments. A few responses:

Bryan -- Interesting thoughts! I'm going to post on this line of thinking in the future and see what people think of it.

Liz -- I don't expect someone to tithe off their net worth (did I say that?) but looking at net worth is an indication of how "generous" people are. For instance, consider two people who both earned $100,000 last year and both gave $10,000 to charity. But person "A" has a net worth of $5 million while person "B" has a net worth of $100,000. Now, who was more generous?

Lord -- Do you have a link to substantiate that claim? If so, I'd love to read the piece.

Monkey -- I broke out the McCains because that's the way the article did it. If they had the Obama's info separate, I would have commented on each as well.

Penny -- That's a lot of "funny" math to me. Maybe you could help Congress prove that the $700 billion bailout will only cost us $20 million. ;-)

ItDoesMatter -- Exactly!

EQ -- I agree as well. Good points.

James -- Nice thoughts. Good fodder for another post.

FMF,
Thanks for this article. It points out the hypocrisy in the hearts of certain people. Wouldn't it be something to see how charitable these "leaders" are if they didn't even know their giving would be reported? For example, note how little one presidential candidate gave to charity prior to his decision to run for office.... but I digress.

I admire those who give willingly. I admire less those who give begrudgingly. And at the bottom of my list are those who want to force other people to give through higher taxes (patriotism?) yet don't want to use their own bank accounts to make the world a better place!

From McCain's own website:
http://www.johnmccain.com/mccainfinancial/
"In the past two years, Senator and Mrs. McCain have contributed $340,323 to charitable causes."
With combined income over $12.5M and giving of $340k over 2 year period thats a rate of about 2.7%
Plus they have records of specific charities that their foundation gave to. About $90k of their giving was to two private schools that their kids attended.


Personally I think the exact amount or % of income you give to charity is not a real test of a person.
If Obama or MCcain went and wrote a $50k check tomorrow to a charity would that really make them better people? If the Mccains giving is 2% and Obamas is 5% then does that make Obama better?

Jim

I think that when a person runs on a campaign advocating that Americans need to give more(to the government) all the while looking to reduce their own taxes and giving very little to charity it speaks volumes about their values. The additional fact that the current administration has had so many issues with tax cheats is also very telling. Especially when they are the very one deciding what the rest of us should be paying...

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