Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Those Stingy, Uncharitable Liberals"

Some myths take significant creative effort to invent. Arthur C. Brooks is evidently such a brilliantly creative force. While attempting to spread his superstitious belief in cargo-cultism he managed to start a pervasive internet myth; "Liberals are less charitable than conservatives."

Now mind you, there is nothing inherently brilliant about the construction of his argument, or in his spurious ability to interpret data... or even to use data that adhered to similar definitions as those he argued. But, nonetheless, he was able to spread this absurd idea via word of mouth through those who were entirely too lazy to read the work they cited. Some parts of his book Who Really Cares; The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism -- America's Charity Divide--Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters are food for thought. Some of the arguments are inconclusive or contain vast gaps in their cited data. Other parts are unquestionably purposeful dishonesty.

Let's start with what the contemplative person can take away from the author's insight. Among the data-sets that the author looks at is one that explains that in terms of volunteering, religious conservatives are more likely to donate time, and are more likely to do so "informally." This, i didn't take any effort in trying to debunk. It is almost intuitive that rural socially conservative communities (as predominate "Red states" and districts) tend to be more communal in terms of supporting their own (even when there is substantial subsidization from government entities), while the urban capitalistic social dynamic (as predominates "Blue states" or at least districts) is more aloof and profit driven. There could be nothing surprising about informal communal interaction meeting some needs that are not met in the trickle down hierarchies of urban life. This could well be food for thought for liberals and conservatives alike.

Next, let's examine the misuse of data in the book. Early in his most substantial and most quoted argument, he defines Religious Conservatives, Religious Liberals, Secular Conservatives, and Secular Liberals for the sake of his argument, altogether comprising 70% of the population of the United States. BUT, the data he cites as proof only accounts for 43% of the population [1]. Obviously there is enough missing data here to throw out the argument he makes entirely, without making an effort to debunk his logic, but in the section on outright lies I will gladly do so anyway.

Now with the outright lies, I'll tackle that big one first, for the sake of continuity. In Chapter 2 of his book, where he examines the "difference" in generosity between conservatives and liberals (and between the religious and secular) he begins his argument be appealing to common prejudice and stereotyping. He compares San Francisco to South Dakota and how much "more" the South Dakotan gives compared to what each earn:

"For a family making $45,364 (the South Dakota state average), $1300 represents a much larger sacrifice than one making 80,822. So the real difference in giving between the communities is this: The average South Dakotan family gives away 75 percent more of its household income each year than the average family in San Francisco.
"I asked an executive at the South Dakota Community Foundation why South Dakotans donate so much of their incomes to charity. Her response was immediate: religion. 'We were all taught to tithe here'"

The first paragraph exposes the bias as well as the dishonesty of the author.  It doesn't take a degree in Rocket Science (or even in whatever field he is an academic in--such that he should really know better) to google "Cost of Living Calculator." I know I did! It then takes not much more rocket-scientific knowledge to type in that you are moving from San Francisco to a metropolitan location within South Dakota (though it need hardly be said that if averaging in all rural areas, tribal lands, etc, the difference would likely be greater still) to quote

Comparable salary in
Sioux Falls, SD
If you move from San Francisco, CA to Sioux Falls, SD....
Groceries will cost:

Housing will cost:

Utilities will cost:

Transportation will cost:

Healthcare will cost:
But in that second paragraph, perhaps blinded by his own self righteousness, HE ACTUALLY DEBUNKS HIS OWN ARGUMENT! After all, HIS definition of charity is absurdly broad--anything which is voluntary and does "no harm." Whereas any rational person would describe charitable giving as alleviating need, or relieving suffering.  In the authors own words:
"About a third of individual gifts go toward sacramental activities, primarily supporting houses of worship." [2]

And of course we all know how that gets paid for:

"We were all taught to tithe here"

Rather striking how we have reversed course now, no?

Whereas it would be impossible to argue that any significant portion given by a secular liberal living in San Francisco goes toward maintaining ecclesiastical infrastructure or clerical salaries; it would be safe to assume that AT LEAST a third of the average South Dakotan's contributions are of the expected tribute to churches.  Some portion of that latter might go to an actual charitable purpose, but the vast bulk of it unquestionably goes to maintenance of facilities and personnel.  This would be much more accurately described as a recreational expense than as charity.

With regard to the next big lie, I'm uncertain if the author himself believes in that cargo-cultism known as the Prosperity Gospel, or if his is simply pandering to those who do for the sake of his own notoriety, and I suppose it doesn't matter.  Whether he lies to himself as well as others, or merely to others is between him and his conscience.  But there can be no question that he is quite purposefully dishonest.  This takes on two parts of the same lie: 1) That people who are poor and dependent on others' taxes, are that way because they are uncharitable, and 2) That people and nations are well off because they are charitable.

The first is easily explained in the reverse.  It is only logical that one who is in dire straits and even all or partly dependent on others would be less likely to give their means of subsistence away.  To say that this is self perpetuating, and that to dig themselves out by giving some of their basic subsistence away is by any objective measure a damnable superstition.  It is no different from primitive tribes encountering the apparent riches of technology and sacrificing their subsistence to idols in order to be enriched: what is anthropologically called a cargo cult.

But the author goes into the realm of sick deception here BY TRYING TO PROVE HIS SUPERSTITIONS WITH DATA.  And of course when one is trying to prove blind faith, one has to provide myopic data.  Or in this case hyperopic data. For the author irrationally compares the charitability and prosperity of the US and European countries. The absurdity of this comparison is obvious. The latter have significant social safety nets that lessen the need for that narrow definition of charity. Secondly their economic systems are far different than... say... between different U.S. States. But of course comparing the later COMPLETELY debunks both his cargo-cultist message and his condemnation of people dependent on "Other People's Money" (title of Chapter 3 of his book)

Take for instance Mississippi. It ranks first in the Generosity Index, but has the highest poverty rate among the 50 states.

New Hampshire has the lowest poverty rate, and ranks dead last in generosity index.  Which isn't to say that being stingy makes one more prosperous by some supernatural phenomenon.  It makes one more prosperous because one can reap the rewards from investing one's capitals.  Duh.  But I digress...

I'll spare readers any further diatribe on this, but feel free to examine these other links with regard to "Other People's Money" and the relationship (or lack thereof) between charitability and overall happiness:


[1] From "Who Really Cares" By Arthur C. Brooks


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