An Interesting Year-End 'Charitable' Possibility

By James Fallows

I am living proof of the way tax codes change behavior. Unavoidably on December 31, I start thinking of all the worthy causes I "should" have been supporting during the year, and rush to mail out checks or send online contributions while they still "count" as deductions for the tax year that's about to end.

Here is a last-minute possibility with interesting implications: a site called "Give It Back for Jobs" that lets you calculate how much you, personally, will save on taxes because of the recent extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, and then suggests that as a prod for contributions to organizations that will "promote fairness, economic growth, and a vibrant middle class."

I won't get into the details of how the site's creators estimate each family's tax savings or how they choose worthy recipients. The interesting aspects are (1) the authors' awareness that this kind of guilt-trip/ noblesse oblige approach, which they call "political philanthropy," isn't really the ideal answer to a society that's becoming more economically polarized, but (2) their determination nonetheless to make what they can of its possibilities. As they say on the site:

>>Americans who have the means should collectively give back our Bush tax cuts...  Such joint action by wealthy visitors to this site will begin to replicate good government policy, outside the government and free from the grip of obstructionists within it. Because contributions to all of the selected charities are tax deductible, donations made through this site draft the government as a partner in funding the projects that they support.<<

In an op-ed yesterday in the LA Times, two of the sponsors -- Jacob Hacker and Daniel Markovits, both professors at Yale -- say more about the limits of this approach ("nothing can take the place of a just tax policy") but also its aspiration and rationale:

>>When political institutions use taxes paid by all to bail out institutions that are perceived to benefit only the wealthy few, our sense of shared fate is threatened....

To their credit, many of the most fortunate Americans believe they should contribute more. The Giving Pledge campaign, started by two of the nation's wealthiest citizens, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, encourages the super-rich to donate half or more of their fortunes to charity.

But that does not mean the rest of us have to sit by... Americans who can afford it should contribute the windfall that they receive because of the Republicans' obstructionist demands to charities that promote the programs -- job creation, housing, education and the like -- that they believe a just government should pursue.<<

The big story of American society through my lifetime has been the thinning of the "middle" in all (non-anatomical) senses of the term. As America overall has become vastly richer, the median family income has stagnated or declined; as the possibilities for knowledge have expanded immeasurably, the middle-ground of agreed-on facts and values threatens to disappear. Those are topics for another time -- and about which Hacker has written extensively. (And, yes, of course, there have been other big stories during the Baby Boom era, including the changed possibilities for women and racial minorities -- but the retreat from Middle Class America is the one I think about most.) Take a look at the site, mainly because of the problem it's attempting to solve. And I'll try to remind myself to support causes I care about more often than on the last day of the year.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/12/an-interesting-year-end-charitable-possibility/68733/