Is Mitt Romney More Generous Than the Average American?

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He's given millions to charity. But there are better ways to assess the character of the ultra-wealthy.

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Last year, Mitt Romney earned $14 million and gave $4 million to charity. Does that tell us anything definite about his character?

John Podhoretz thinks so.

"The release of these tax records leaves no doubt about one thing: Mitt Romney is an extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous man. A good man. Maybe even a great man," he wrote in the New York Post. "That is all. There is no 'but.' Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant, stupid or a liar."

He estimates that Romney would have an extra $30 million if not for his charitable giving over the last two decades. "Conservatives have long been suspicious that Romney isn't truly one of them," Podhoretz says. "The release of his tax returns should settle the matter once and for all: He's not only to be accepted, but admired and emulated -- and by liberals as well as conservatives."

As best I can tell, Romney is in fact a very generous guy. That's the impression I get hearing people from his congregation speak about how freely he gave of his time and labor for fellow Mormons in need, counseling them on household budgets, helping them to move boxes, even leaving his son's wedding reception early to deliver food to a woman suffering from breast cancer.

By all accounts, he has gone out of his way to help his fellow humans.

The monetary donations are also admirable, and have surely done a lot of good.

But are they "extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous"? Do they tell us he is "a great man"? Podhoretz went with an I-dare-you-to-disagree assertion rather than an argument, so we don't know why he is so impressed by the size of Romney's checks. Perhaps he has good reasons.

On the other hand, disposable income has diminishing marginal returns. When you've got all the houses you can live in, all the cars you can drive, a car elevator to raise and lower some of them, trust funds set up for your five kids, more millions saved than you'd spend in multiple lifetimes, and $14 million additional income in a single year, allocating $4 million of it to charitable causes you support is ... still great, don't get me wrong ... but "extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous" is a couple adverbs too far (the first and the last, to be specific). 

Again, I'm not knocking Romney, who seems to be a very generous guy based on totally separate evidence. This is an aspect of his character that I find beyond reproach given prevailing norms (and one where he apparently bests his opponent, if that affects your vote). What I object to is Podhoretz treating generosity as if the dollar amount given is a self-evident metric of how generous a person is, especially when the donor is extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly rich. 

Back in 1995, Rick Bragg filed a story from Southern Mississippi: "All She Has, $150,000, Is Going to a University." It's worth reading in full, both for the story and for the writing. Here's an excerpt:

Oseola McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw. She had quit school in the sixth grade to go to work, never married, never had children and never learned to drive because there was never any place in particular she wanted to go. All she ever had was the work, which she saw as a blessing. Too many other black people in rural Mississippi did not have even that.

She spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out of shoes if they did not fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out. Over the decades, her pay -- mostly dollar bills and change -- grew to more than $150,000. "More than I could ever use," Miss McCarty said the other day without a trace of self-pity. So she is giving her money away, to finance scholarships for black students at the University of Southern Mississippi here in her hometown, where tuition is $2,400 a year. "I wanted to share my wealth with the children," said Miss McCarty, whose only real regret is that she never went back to school. "I never minded work, but I was always so busy, busy. Maybe I can make it so the children don't have to work like I did... I know it won't be too many years before I pass on," she said, "and I just figured the money would do them a lot more good than it would me."

To me, that's an extraordinarily, remarkably, astonishingly generous gesture. After reading about it, Romney's $4 million gift in 2011 still seems worthy of remark and praise, but it doesn't astonish me. If a list were made of the top charitable givers in America, measured by the total utility they would have derived from the dollars they gave up, it's unlikely Romney would distinguish himself. Is that a perfect metric of generosity? There probably isn't one, but it seems to factor in widely held intuitions that looking at "total dollar amount given" completely misses.

So good on Romney for giving lots of money to charity -- but lots of very rich people give huge sums to charity, and it isn't because they're all astonishingly more generous than other Americans. It's because charitable giving is theoretically attractive to a lot of people, and is increasingly attractive in practice after every conceivable selfish material need has already been met.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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