Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Conspicuous Charity

April 18, 2007

You might remember the fact, reported ad nauseam in the mainstream press last year, that Vice President Dick Cheney's 2005 tax return showed he had a family income of $8.8 million. This was due in no small part from stock options from a variety of companies, including the much-vilified Halliburton Corp. This fact provoked howls of outrage from many of Mr. Cheney's critics, who claimed it was evidence of what one syndicated columnist has called an "autocratic, plutocratic regime."
Significantly less-frequently reported last year was this datum: Mr. and Mrs. Cheney gave 78% of their 2005 income to charity. That's not a typo -- the couple donated $6.9 million, including the proceeds from stock options and book royalties that Mrs. Cheney routinely gives away. Their giving went to three nonprofit causes in health, higher education and services for inner-city youth.
While the Cheneys might look like elite philanthropists, Mr. and Mrs. Bush were no charitable slouches either. Foursquare tithers, they gave away 12.2% of their adjusted gross income in 2005, and similar percentages in past years. Their giving tends to go to more middle-class causes, including their church, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
How does the current administration compare with the previous one? In 1999, the Clintons gave away a solid 9.4% of their income, while the Gores gave 5.1%. Two years earlier, however, the former vice president's giving had earned some special attention. In 1997, the Gores only gave away $353 of their income of $197,729, or 0.18%. Mr. Gore's spokesman deflected criticism by pointing out that, "To truly judge a person's commitment to helping others, you need to consider what they have done with their lives and how they have spent their time -- and by that standard the Gores are extraordinarily committed." In other words, Mr. Gore's life was his charity.
Despite this defense, the revelation clearly was embarrassing to the vice president, and the next year the Gores recovered by giving away a far more respectable 6.8%. Why did Mr. Gore feel the need to defend himself when his non-giving came to light, and raise his donations the following year? Indeed, why is it that America's leaders always feel compelled to release their tax returns (which they do voluntarily) and show that they give generously? Are we a nation of scolds, ready to condemn our leaders for insufficient displays of selflessness and altruism?
There is a better explanation for why we look for our leaders to give. Recent research suggests that giving is one way that we identify qualities of leadership in others. For example, in 2006, two British researchers conducted an experiment on human subjects in which participants were given money and asked if they wanted to share it voluntarily with a larger group. Some did, and some did not.
This kind of experiment is quite common, and many economists have used it to understand our tendency to cooperate with each other. In this particular experiment, however, there was an ingenious twist: Without announcing it beforehand, the researchers followed up the cooperation exercise by asking the participants to vote for a leader. Eighty percent of the time, the person who had contributed the most to the other members of the group was elected. The biggest givers were also the most popularly-chosen partners in follow-up tasks, while selfish participants were shunned.
In other words, when Mr. Gore failed to give, Americans probably didn't see mere selfishness; we perceived a lack of leadership. Maybe he seemed slightly less presidential. There are many ways to give besides tax-deductible contributions to nonprofits, of course, and there is no doubt the Gores gave in many ways not captured on their tax return. The problem for him was that we couldn't see them.
This raises an interesting ethical problem: Isn't it somehow less than altruistic to give publicly, especially when our giving benefits us by winning the approbation of others? Perhaps. But it is worth keeping in mind that giving openly also provokes mimicry by others, and thus a public gift can multiply itself. In this way, giving abundantly and openly -- giving like a leader -- benefits everyone.

Mr. Brooks teaches at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs and is the author of "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism" (Basic Books, 2006).

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