Is Mitt Romney More Generous Than the Average American?

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

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Reuters

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. 

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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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