The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Posted: Dec 03, 2007 3:25 PM

With Christmastime right around the corner, who better to talk to than Arthur Brooks, author of the excellent book: Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism.  

Following is my recent interview with him:

Thanks for joining us.  Are there any studies that show people are more generous during this time of the year?

AB:  Thanks for inviting me, Matt. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to your readers.

There are indeed a lot of studies that show a big spike in charitable giving this time of year. Some nonprofits claim that they get a quarter of their annual gifts in December alone. The holidays are a very big deal to American charities.[# More #]

Everyone knows that your last book, Who Really Cares, demonstrated that conservatives are, in fact, more generous than liberals.  What I found almost as interesting was the benefits that a community gains by having charitable members.  Is there anything going on in the political campaign right now that has you worried that we might be moving away from voluntary giving, and moving toward compulsory giving?

AB:  A major campaign theme, especially among the Democrats, is income inequality. While the data show that the poor are not getting poorer in America, the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer—in other words, we are a nation of haves and have-mores. For some people, this is no problem; for others, it’s a call to action to redistribute income and wealth. This is a disaster waiting to happen for American charity. The evidence is crystal clear that forced income redistribution pushes voluntary giving down. For instance, people who simply support greater redistribution—even before the redistribution occurs—give about a quarter as much to charity as those who are against greater redistribution.

The evidence is equally clear that communities cannot do without private giving, no matter how much income we tax away from the have-mores. Givers are happier people, and there is evidence that giving raises our earning power. Communities where people give have better health indicators, and our nation’s economic growth is strengthened by private giving. For evidence on this, your readers might be interested in this article in Cond Nast Portfolio:

The bottom line is that increasing income redistribution does more than violence to liberty. It can also suppress our giving tendencies, with serious unintended consequences. 

Which candidates are the worst offenders? 

AB:  The biggest proponent of the politics of envy—and thus income redistribution for the sake of economic equality—is John Edwards. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee—despite his considerable virtues—is the most populist on the issue of redistribution. 

Speaking of the campaign, how does the tax rate affect charitable giving? 

In the short run, higher taxes raise giving, because people—especially upper-income folks—respond to tax hikes by trying to avoid them, partly by giving to charity. In the long run, tax increases probably hurt charitable giving though—partly because of the redistribution effects, and partly because they lower economic growth and wealth accumulation. 

Has Bush been good on this issue? 

AB:  He really has been good. He is personally dedicated to the issue of private giving and volunteering, and has tried to make it easier for people to give in America. I had an opportunity to brief Mr. and Mrs. Bush last spring on the findings in Who Really Cares, and found they were very sophisticated in their understanding of these issues. 

Still, there’s only so much Mr. Bush can do, beyond not making giving harder than it has to be. Giving is fundamentally part of our private values—part of our culture. It is a very American institution (note, for example, that Americans privately donate, per capita, 3.5 times as much money each year as the French, 7 times as much as the Germans, and 14 times more than Italians). It’s not up the to the government to protect our giving culture—it’s up to us. 

Did you have a chance to check out Bill Clinton’s book, Giving

AB:  Oh yeah. I’m glad that Clinton is writing about giving, because it helps us to remember that it’s an American value, and should transcend politics. It has some predictable “social justice” themes that will make conservatives roll their eyes—but that’s just a minor quibble. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody on the left (and the right for that matter) were as keen as Mr. Clinton appears to be on using philanthropy—instead of the coercive hand of government—to change the world in the ways they favor?

What do you think of the controversial Free Rice website?

AB:  I think it’s pretty cool. What this kind of thing can do is introduce non-givers to the fun of giving. It makes you work ever so slightly to make a gift—but in a way that invests not just in the needy, but also in yourself (because you have to answer vocabulary questions right to trigger a rice donation). In fact, this is what charity really does, at all levels—it meets the needs of people who get the direct benefit, but also meets our own need to give, and thus brings us nice things like happiness, good health, and even prosperity. It isn’t just moral chatter that it is more blessed to give than to receive—it’s a statistically-verifiable truth. It sure is nice when economic research supports Holy Scripture, isn’t it?  

Your upcoming book is on the topic of happiness.  What were some of the most surprising things you found that makes us happy – or doesn’t make us happy?

AB:  The new book is called Gross National Happiness, and will be out May 1, 2008, from Basic Books. It looks at a large amount of evidence and research on human happiness, and asks who the happiest Americans are, as well as how we can get a happier country—or at least the country best-equipped for the pursuit of happiness. It’s been a big project for me over the past year. 

There were many surprises in the research for me personally. I had no idea how much happier conservatives are than liberals—and how persistent this has been for decades and decades (it does not depend at all on who is in the White House). I also had no idea how critically important economic liberty is to happiness, as well as the importance of meaningful hard work. These things are just huge in predicting whether individuals, communities, and whole countries are happy or not. The book also looks at the importance for happiness of faith, family, and of course, charity. The book ends with nine lessons for the next president on how to get a happier nation. 

You’re an economist who has written about compassionate conservatism.  What are your thoughts on the recent public spat between some fiscal conservative groups like the Club for Growth and some populist “compassionate” conservatives like Mike Huckabee?   

AB:  I’ve written a lot about inequality, particularly in my columns in the Wall Street Journal over the past few months. The big dispute is whether (a) we should work harder on equalizing opportunity and income mobility, while not worrying about equality of economic outcomes--the Club for Growth kind of arguments--or (b) whether the outcomes are key--the Edwards and Huckabee kind of arguments.  

Looking at happiness, the evidence sits squarely with the equality-of-opportunity crowd. Equalizing incomes won’t make us better off, and here’s why: The data show that a perceived lack of opportunities makes people miserable. What they often complain about, however, is income inequality. When politicians respond to these complaints by leveling incomes (by force), they tend to make real opportunities scarcer, because there is less growth and fewer jobs. Which ironically, makes the true problem even worse. 

Every time I make this point in print, I get flamed like crazy by egalitarians. But this is what the evidence shows. 

For any conservatives reading this, where should we give?  What tips would you give people who are looking for a good charity to give to? I mean, how much should groups be spending on overhead?   

AB:  One of the many wonderful things about our great country is that there are so many terrific causes out there. There are about 1.5 million registered charities in America today—and that doesn’t even count houses of worship! My suggestion (to anyone who wants it) is to devote some quiet thought to what moves you…the causes that you think are really important for improving our world. Then look at one of the growing number of rating services like Charity Navigator to check out the fundamentals of the groups doing the work you are interested in—and then give. Maybe even give more than you intended to. You’ll share in the benefits of your generosity, guaranteed. 

Thank you, Arthur Brooks, for joining us.