The mystery of Steve Jobs's charitable giving vs. the non-mystery of Joe Biden's extreme stinginess

New York Times Columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote yesterday about the “Mystery of Steve Jobs’s Public Giving“: 

“Steve Jobs is a genius. He is an innovator. A visionary. He is perhaps the most beloved billionaire in the world. Surprisingly, there is one thing that Mr. Jobs is not, at least not yet: a prominent philanthropist. Despite accumulating an estimated $8.3 billion fortune through his holdings in Apple and a 7.4 percent stake in Disney, there is no public record of Mr. Jobs giving money to charity.

But the lack of public philanthropy by Mr. Jobs — long whispered about, but rarely said aloud — raises some important questions about the way the public views business and business people at a time when some “millionaires and billionaires” are criticized for not giving back enough while others like Mr. Jobs are lionized.”

Sorkin does allow for some mystery and uncertainty by saying that “it is very possible that Mr. Jobs, who has always preferred to remain private, has donated money anonymously or has drafted a plan to give away his wealth upon his death.”

Another national figure whose charitable giving is not mysterious or uncertain is Vice-President Joe Biden, see his tax information above for the years 1998 to 2008 (source).  Biden’s AGI in every year exceeded $200,000 and his total income over the 11-year period totaled more than $2.7 million.  How much did he give to charities? Only $5,575 during the entire period, averaging about $500 per year, and representing only 0.20% of his income.  If you disregard his last two “generous” years leading up to the 2008 election, his charitable giving was only 0.1265% of his income, or about one-eighth of 1%.  In 1999, Biden reported only $120 in charitable gifts for the year, which likely included his church giving.  Had he been tithing to his church like many of his fellow Catholics, his charitable contributions should have been about three times that amount – every week.  

Of course, whether you’re Steve Jobs or Joe Biden, you have the right to be as generous or as miserly as you want, and shouldn’t be criticized for personal decisions about spending your own money.  But it appears that Mr. Sorkin is holding business leaders like Steve Jobs to a higher standard for charitable giving than say, a political leader like the Vice-President.  I’m pretty sure that neither Mr. Sorkin, nor any other NY Times columnist has probably ever questioned Mr. Biden’s documented record of (un) charitable giving.  And that’s fine.  But then they don’t have the right to question Mr. Jobs’s unknown record of philanthropy.  After all, if successful business people have some obligation to “give back” to society, then don’t successful politicians have that same obligation as well?

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Mark J.
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  • Mark J. Perry is concurrently a scholar at AEI and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan's Flint campus. He is best known as the creator and editor of the popular economics blog Carpe Diem. At AEI, Perry writes about economic and financial issues for American.com and the AEIdeas blog.

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