Stingy liberal, exhibit A: Joe Biden

From Jeff Jacoby’s column today “Stingy Liberals“:

Liberals, popular stereotypes notwithstanding, are not more generous and compassionate than conservatives. To an outsider it might seem plausible that Americans whose political rhetoric emphasizes “fairness” and “social justice” would be more charitably inclined than those who stress economic liberty and individual autonomy. But reams of evidence contradict that presumption, as Syracuse University professor Arthur Brooks demonstrated in his landmark 2006 book, Who Really Cares.

However durable the myth, wrote Brooks (who now heads the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank), there is no getting around the data. For years, academic research and comprehensive national studies have confirmed that Americans who lean to the left politically tend to be much less charitable than those who tilt rightward. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s new report is only the latest in a long series of studies corroborating that fact.

The Chronicle’s new study, which is based on IRS records from 2008 (most recent available), accounts for regional differences in the cost of living. It calculates charitable giving only from discretionary income — the dollars left over after paying for taxes, housing, and food. But the economic differences are not nearly as significant as cultural differences. In parts of the country where conservative values dominate, charity tends to be high. Where liberalism holds sway, charity falls. “Red states are more generous than blue states,” the Chronicle concludes. The eight states that ranked the highest in charitable giving all voted for John McCain in 2008. The seven lowest-ranking states supported Barack Obama.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t generous philanthropists in New England. It doesn’t mean selfishness is unknown on the right. What it does mean is that where people are encouraged to think that solving society’s ills is primarily a job for government, charity tends to evaporate. The politics of “compassion” isn’t the same as compassionate behavior. America’s generosity divide separates those who understand the difference from those who don’t.

MP: Joe Biden’s charitable giving, at least until his vice-presidential candidacy in 2008, provides a case in point of being a “stingy liberal.”  When nobody was watching or scrutinizing the Bidens’ tax returns, they gave less than $200 to charity in 1998, which was less than 1/10 of one percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) that year of more than $215,000 (see table above).  According to income tax data available at Forbes, Americans earning the same AGI as the Bidens that year gave more than $5,000 to charity.  The Bidens got a little more charitable over the years, but their gifts were never more than 1% of their income until Biden became Vice-President.

And even now that the Bidens have “found religion” when it comes to charity (knowing that their tax records are now public), they are still only giving about half of the average amount of charitable giving for their income group. Joe Biden’s stinginess demonstrates Jeff Jacoby’s point that the politics of compassion and charity are often much different than compassionate and charitable behavior.

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Mark J.
Perry
  • 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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