Last night, The Washington Post reported that Beto O’Rourke released his tax returns for the past ten years. Of course, the feel-good, inevitably government-expanding presidential contender should probably have been more hesitant to release his returns because it doesn’t take much sleuthing to figure out from them that the O’Rourkes made $370,412 in 2017 while giving a measly $1,166 of that income to charity. As The Post noted, this makes Beto’s charitable giving less than one-third of 1 percent of his household income.
Other candidates who claim conservatives are the true greedy ones and deserve to be smited for their fiscal sins don’t stack up much better. Bernie Sanders and his wife gave roughly 3 percent of their astonishingly large $566,000 income to charity in 2017. Interestingly, Sanders recently talked about his impressive sum of book earnings, and Reason’s Peter Suderman pointed out that the socialist is indeed a millionaire:
I think it’s genuinely great that Bernie Sanders is a millionaire, and that in becoming a millionaire, our nation’s most well-known democratic socialist politician has, however inadvertently, started defending one of the core tenets of capitalism—that if you come up with an idea for a product, make that product a reality in the world, and sell it to lots of willing buyers, it’s perfectly just and reasonable for you to earn a lot of money as a result.
He’s exactly right. None of these impressively wealthy Democratic presidential contenders should be scorned for making heaps, providing it’s from creating value that people want to benefit from.
Kamala Harris (and her husband) made nearly $2 million in 2018, giving 1.4 percent to charity (which totals out to about $27,000); Elizabeth Warren (and her husband) made just shy of $1 million (donating an improved 5.5 percent to charity in 2018). They should, however, be thoroughly criticized for demonizing millionaires and billionaires, branding them the no good, very bad, super icky ultra-wealthy, when they are some of the wealthiest people in America.
Of course, many super-wealthy people don’t think of themselves that way. A YouGov poll from earlier this year found that almost 90 percent of respondents who make $90,000 or more annually consider themselves neither rich nor poor. There’s nothing wrong with abundance, but it is odd that people would be not more self-aware about where they stand compared to the groups many routinely demonize.
Charitable giving should transcend political affiliation. It would be bad for our broader societal health if generosity were grossly weaponized to score political points, because then giving becomes more of a manipulative political ploy than it already is (to recipients, the intention behind giving probably doesn’t make a difference).
There’s something to be said for giving credit where due and recognizing when our political opponents do genuine good. Still, Arthur Brooks wrote on broader charitable giving habits in his 2015 book “The Conservative Heart,” noting:
Households headed by a ‘conservative’ give, on average, 30 percent more dollars to charity than households headed by a ‘liberal.’ This discrepancy is not an artifact of income differences. On the contrary, the average liberal family earns an average of 6 percent more per year than the average conservative family, yet still gives less away.
Later on, he notes that there’s a collective action problem as well:
Consider that the total that Americans give annually to human service organizations to assist the vulnerable comes to about $40 billion. Now suppose that we could spread that sum across the 46.5 million Americans receiving food assistance, with zero overhead and complete effectiveness. It would come to just $860 per person per year.
As much as it fits a convenient narrative, it’s awfully weaselly for liberals with political aspirations to claim conservatives are the stingy ones when those same liberals give miserly amounts of money to the people they purportedly care about.
The Betos and Bernies of the world would probably counter that by saying: 1) poverty is a collective action problem that can only be solved by taxing everybody (one person can only make a tiny dent, so why bother?), 2) the ultra-ultra-rich deserve to be taxed (like, the Koch brothers. Not normal millionaires! Extra big millionaires! Billionaires! Those ones! Trump!), or 3) really this wealth should be harnessed via taxes that way nobody can be exempt. The fact that some can accumulate so much means our system must be fixed (by them—supposedly disinterested third parties).
These points are varying degrees of wrong. 1) Lack of adequate provisions for the poor is absolutely a collective action problem. But it is also one that would probably be helped, on some level, with an extra $300,000 from the Sanders family if they would spare it.
2) If the ultra-rich were the only ones taxed, even if taxed at an insanely high rate, the additional revenue generated would not be enough to cover the hefty price tag of the various social programs that progressives want to institute. There simply aren’t anywhere close to enough Koch-level people in this country. We would also probably have a hard time safeguarding against capital flight, as any sane wealthy person would be wise to get his or her money out of the country as quick as possible.
3) The idea that progressive politicians, people who are emblematic of this very problem, would be God’s gift to man, able to fix poverty and wealth inequality despite being wealth-hoarders themselves is completely goofy. People like Sanders and O’Rourke would have more credibility if they didn’t engage in such hypocritical practices, condemning the big, bad rich people whose greed they want to harness for their own allegedly benevolent bidding.