Sunday, December 10, 2006

Swellfare Cassocked Hacks? Is It Really Charity?

Posted by olvlzl

s the book "Who Really Cares" by Arthur C. Brooks an indictment of stingy liberals who don’t put their wallets where their mouths are or is it yet another in the long, long series of books written to both further the ideological propaganda effort of conservatives and make them feel smug? Is it another fat-cat and wannabe, feel good book? What I’ve seen about it doesn’t exactly put it on the top of my “to read” list.

"Who Really Cares" is creating a stir in philanthropy circles -- and garnering acclaim from conservative pundits like ABC News's John Stossel and the radio host Michael Medved -- but is it to be trusted? At the AEI forum, Alan Abramson, director of the philanthropy program of the Aspen Institute, said that one should treat Brooks's sweeping conclusions with caution, given the "softness of the data" on charity in general. (He noted that Brooks himself concedes that we don't even know with certainty whether 50 percent or 80 percent of adult Americans donate to charity.)

I’ll pass up the temptations presented by the Stossel and Medved acclaim, though their recommendation would be a red flag of fawning that what was contained within was probably predictable B.S.* What really should concern anyone who is interested in the truth is Abramson’s “softness of the data” statement. Soft numbers can’t give you accurate results. They can’t and anyone who uses them should be called on their use. Even professors at Syracuse University. No, make that, especially professors at major universities.

Brook’s concession that there could be as great a gap as thirty percent in such a basic number makes me wonder why he would have gone on to write the book. Even the gap in the value of that variable would be enough to make everything else unreliable. But even if you had a solid value, what does it mean? Would it really show what Brooks and his happy audience of right wingers say it does? It all depends on how you define “charity”, the rigor with which you observe your defined limits and the general agreement that your definition is the right one.

Junk in junk out is the polite way of putting it. You plug in all kinds of numbers collected from various places and dazzle the innumerate press and the side your results are spun for and no one looks to see where the numbers came from and what they mean. When it comes to crunching numbers dealing with complex phenomenon, such as an observable behavior, it becomes a bit tricky to even tell if what the hopeful researcher wants to see is what was really there. If it is something too complex and diffuse to observe, say “charitable giving”, then the numbers can really mask other intentions.

First, what constitutes “charitable giving”? Giving itself can be anything from entirely self-serving to entirely selfless. Is that huge donation, with tax exemption, given to the already obscenely huge money hoard of Harvard to get your name put on a building, or will it go anonymously to pay tuition and instructors at Roxbury Community College? Does the condition and level of need of the recipient matter? Does ten-grand given to the Mercedes fund for the pastor of a mega-church qualify as charity? How about paying for a piece of stained glass in a window of dubious artistic merit? How about giving to an ideological institution which will lobby against the estate tax? Of the above, only the donation to the Roxbury Community College, if it goes to teaching children in need, makes it as charity with me.

Before I’m going to even consider a book about who is more generous I’m going to have to know what the numbers represent in both their raw form and in their refined form. Then we can go on to how they are used. This section of the Globe article raises some other interesting points:

Other scholars, like Paul Schervish, a sociologist and head of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, express doubts about the claims, though he found them hard to check on short notice. "One thing he does do," Schervish says in an interview, "is to go to different data sets depending on what he wants to be proving." Among other sources, Brooks uses IRS data, the University of Michigan's General Social Survey, and surveys conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

This review at brings up some interesting issues. I include it for a reason. **

*Stossel in particular is untrustworthy. A “journalist” who has declared that his job is to promote the corporate agenda is a self-proclaimed propagandist dishonestly pretending to be a reporter. Junk journalism from a junk journalist. Medved, just one of the legion of those Hollywood hangers on who can tell us what Mel Gibson’s shoes taste like. Anyone who wants me to read their book should not use their blurbs on the cover.

**J. Straka - See all my reviews (REAL NAME) In the national press release for this book, the big "news" is that "religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals...". What an interesting spin! What makes it especially interesting is that in an October 2003 article by Arthur Brooks in the Policy Review, he states that religious liberals give and volunteer at rates comparable to religious conservatives. Now that is an apples to apples comparison, but not very interesting "spin material". I wonder why the press release didn't contain the findings found on Mr. Brooks' own web page showing that the "working poor" give more to charity than both the middle and upper class. That statistic wouldn't sell books to his conservative audience, I guess. And while Mr. Brooks tries to come off as a neutral observer "shocked" by the results of his studies, all the other articles he has written on the internet shows he has no love for the liberals (one article entitled "The Fertility Gap" predicts the demise of the liberal party because they were having 41% fewer babies than the conservatives!).

I question the need for this book: if you are giving your money and time to those in need out of true compassion, why do you need to compare yourself to others? If you have a need to compare and judge and belittle others, I really question that you are that compassionate. Though I'm sure many conservatives will buy this biased book because it will make them feel good about themselves, they would be much further ahead to donate the money to a charity.

Note: I wonder why only 24 of 126 people found his review helpful. Maybe Brooks is preaching to the choir gloriously robed in his kind of charity. I wonder how many of the admirers of Brooks' soft numbers have uttered the phrase "evolution is just a theory,".