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Is Sticking Your Name On A Wing Of A Museum Charity?
Or merely high-priced narcissism? In The American Prospect, Robert Reich has a few ideas on what should and shouldn't be tax-deductible:

It's your business how you donate your money -- but not entirely. Charitable donations are deductible from income taxes. This year, the U.S. Treasury will be receiving about $40 billion less than it would if the tax code didn't allow charitable deductions. Like all tax deductions, that gap has to be filled by other tax revenues or by spending cuts, or else it just adds to the deficit. (Not incidentally, the government now spends some $40 billion a year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is what remains of welfare.)

I can see why a contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charitable tax deduction. It helps the poor. But why, exactly, should a contribution to the Guggenheim Museum or Harvard University? Not long ago, New York City's Lincoln Center had a gala dinner supported by the charitable contributions of the leaders of the hedge fund industry, some of whom will be receiving billion-dollar bonuses in the next few weeks. I may be missing something here, but this doesn't strike me as charity. I mean, poor New Yorkers don't often attend concerts at Lincoln Center.

It turns out, in fact, that only an estimated 10 percent of all charitable deductions this year will be directed at the poor.

So here's a modest holiday proposal: At a time in our nation's history when the number of needy continue to rise, when government doesn't have the money to do what’s necessary, and when America's very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code and limit the charitable deduction to real charities.

Posted by aalkon at December 29, 2006 11:14 AM

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I am all for people doing whatever they want with their money. Reigh has a point though. Would giving go down if it was no longer tax deductable in specific situations? I woudl guess yes. But if it were still deductable to give to help the poor, then I think a lot more money would go that way. It would be interesting.

We get all these darn magazines, fliers and letters from the alumni association of our university, and I don't want to give them one dime because any money I give would just be like paying for that stupid junk mail.

Posted by: Starfox5253 at December 29, 2006 8:23 AM

What an evil piece of shit Robert Reich and his ilk are. The government has no business touching our money in the first place, let alone deciding what is a more 'worthy' charitable donation. Please, asking politicians to guide us in what's right and proper and morally admirable is the height of madness.

Posted by: Jackie D at December 29, 2006 8:57 AM

Jackie, I'm all for bringing down tax rates (say, by having parents, except for the very poor, pay for their own children to go to school), but the tax base is eroded by people shoving their money into vanity projects...meaning everybody else pays more. That doesn't seem right.

And maybe if you want to "support NPR," you should just give them your money, and without it getting sucked out of the tax base of the rest of us. Just for an example.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 29, 2006 9:06 AM

And Jackie, the question isn't how people can spend their money, but what really justifies removing funds from the tax base. If you help the poor, you're actually putting in money the government (ie, the rest of us) would likely have to pay. My thinking on this issue: If you want to go to a fancy dinner, pay for it your whole damn self!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 29, 2006 9:19 AM

If our government really wanted to do something equitable about our taxes they would start with entitlements. This comes right off the top (30 to 35%) and goes to those who think because of their unique situation that they are entitled to their government benefit. Here’s where folks get red in the face when you start talking about their Uncle Sam check. Some examples… military retirement for people in their 40s, welfare, farm subsidies, the list goes on.

Posted by: Roger at December 29, 2006 10:53 AM

First of all, it might help to toss the word "charity," with all its Mother Theresa overtones, into the dust bin.

My thoughts are going in several directions right now, largely because I'm appalled by Reich's suggestion that our government should not provide incentives to strengthen the cultural and educational infrastructure of this country. The idea that the Guggenheim and Harvard are any less deserving of philanthropic support than the Salvation Army is ridiculous. Given the Army's heavy use of Christian imagery (just visit their website), it's also somewhat offensive. Reich is not an evil piece of shit, but he is incredibly simple-minded sometimes.

Starfox -- Have you considered giving to specific departments within your alma mater -- ie, the ones that don't send out a lot of junk mail? I give a few hundred dollars every year to the gay/lesbian student center at UCLA, because its work improves the lives of some very bright, hardworking young folk. Okay, so gay/lesbian college students aren't exactly homeless single mothers, but I still want to support them. And in my less altruistic moments, the tax deduction gives me the extra little push to get out my checkbook.

Posted by: Lena at December 29, 2006 12:45 PM

Here's another question, inspired by one of Lena's points above: Why do churches and religious organizations automatically get non-profit status? Does the Crystal Cathedral guy look like he isn't making a profit?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 29, 2006 3:16 PM

I don't know the answer to that question, off the top of my head. But I'd like to point out that the Crystal Cathedral guy isn't typical. Most people don't study theology or become ministers to make a fortune. That's why I don't date them!

Posted by: Lena at December 29, 2006 3:29 PM

Well, we should never describe politicians as leaders. But at some point someone who reports to us is have to going to decide what charities we think are worthwhile. Christianity and Judaism and all the rest have terrible problems, but they're still better than the Scientologists. Christianity gave us Bach. Scientology gave us Chick Corea, who hasn't put out a good album since 1976.

PS- My handsome nephew has a stunning wife who's an architect working to restore the Guggenheim. Don't fuck with my people!

Posted by: Crid at December 29, 2006 3:49 PM

"Christianity gave us Bach."

And Hinduism gave us yoga, which in turn gives us firm buttocks. Religion has a function after all!

Posted by: Lena at December 29, 2006 4:25 PM

They may be good on the buttocks, but they create a lot of assholes!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 29, 2006 4:40 PM

Amy, hello! My first post...

The idea that the Guggenheim and Harvard are any less deserving of philanthropic support than the Salvation Army is ridiculous. Given the Army's heavy use of Christian imagery (just visit their website), it's also somewhat offensive. Reich is not an evil piece of shit, but he is incredibly simple-minded sometimes.

Lena, the beauty is that (at least the last I checked), Salvation Army doesn't receive any taxpayer funds. So I'm not sure what you're offended about.

But I generally agree with you and Amy. I'm not against charitable giving to whatever organization you want, religious or secular. What needs to change is for society to stop calling it "charity" when Donald Trump gives a mil to St. Jude, and SJ responds by opening the Trump Toenail Emergency Management Center. That's not charity... it's chicanery. Pure and simple.

Posted by: qdpsteve at December 29, 2006 5:39 PM

Hi qdpsteve --

You can deduct from your taxes some portion of the value of donations to the Salvation Army, which reduces federal revenue. But that doesn't offend me at all. What DID offend me was Reich's implication that the Guggenheim and Harvard aren't as worthy of our support as the Salvation Army. Along with fine dining, art and good books are probably the main reasons I stick around in this life. I would be seriously miserable without them. Does that help?

Leener Weener

Posted by: Lena at December 29, 2006 8:39 PM

Leener/Lena, absolutely it helps. Thanks being nice to a newbie and responding. I agree, it makes about as much sense to build a pecking order of charitable giving as it would to have Consumer Reports do a comparison report--just like they do with tomato soup--titled: "RELIGIONS: Which is the best one??" Might make for a great comedy sketch though.

If I could take up a little bandwidth to introduce myself, I also too enjoying fine dining (though I also love a good burger from Chili's now and then), art, and books. 2006 saw me finish Fast Food Nation and A Man for All Seasons and I would like to get Lolita soon. (Have you ever seen Art Garfunkel's website, BTW? He actually lists every book he's read since 1968, and he's read some major-league tomes.)

I also would love to rush to DVD World as soon as I have the extra bucks for a copy of Criterion's remaster of Fritz Lang's 1931 classic 'M' before it gets taken out of print again. So even though I'm a religious believer and you're not, I think we may have a little more in common than either of us thought... :-) And if you just happen to be interested in my thoughts/opinions re present-day Christianity and evangelism, I just yesterday left a slew of posts on these topics under the header "How to Deal with Rational People" at -- NOT a promotion of the site, just FYI.)

Happy 2007 everyone,

Lakewood, CA

Posted by: qdpsteve at December 30, 2006 10:31 AM

I just checked out Garfunkel's reading list. Pretty impressive, but I find myself wondering why he's even bothered to keep track over the years. Perhaps he has a small penis.

Posted by: Lena at December 30, 2006 10:58 AM

Granted, vanity has tainted charity. Fancy dinners or naming buildings after yourself is not a model of giving.

So why supporting NPR should be tax deductible? To avoid double taxation.

Tax is used for public good (public service etc.), and if you spend money for public good, that money should not be taxed again. How about that as criteria for charity's tax deduction status?

PBS deals with information and cultural povery, not economic poverty. I think reducing these poverties are good for society, despite hostility from some fundanutters.

BTW, 'public' doesn't refer to everyone here, but non-specific, large enough portion of people. Citizens will have different opinions about what is public good, but that shouldn't be the reason to take way tax deduction. Why not a free market for social investment? It's not solely the responsibility of the government for social investment. I'd rather tax code that encourages people to invest their money for public good according to their values and beliefs, rather than take away the tax incentive; we can deal with the abuses in other ways, but not by limiting it to help the economic poor.

AFAIK, China has no tax incentive for charity, and no charitable organization. I don't think that's a model for US to follow.

Posted by: Alan C at January 1, 2007 5:00 PM

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