Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Robert Reich and “Real Charities”

You don't have to be a millionaire to love this painting.

There are still a few (and by “a few,” I mean a lot) of potential Curmie nominees to get to, but I’ve got to mix it up a little, here. So we turn to a recent piece on Salon.com by former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. In it, Reich seems to bemoan the fact that rich people’s charitable contributions go to where the donors want them to go, and not to “the poor.”

I get it. Really, I do. It would be nice if more charity went to those who need it most. But it isn’t my call, or his. And the suggestion that the poor benefit not at all from contributions to cultural institutions is as ill-founded as it is pompous. Anyway, here’s Reich:
But a large portion of the charitable deductions now claimed by America’s wealthy are for donations to culture palaces – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters – where they spend their leisure time hobnobbing with other wealthy benefactors.

Another portion is for contributions to the elite prep schools and universities they once attended or want their children to attend…. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest of the Ivy League are worthy institutions, to be sure, but they’re not known for educating large numbers of poor young people. (The University of California at Berkeley, where I teach, has more poor students eligible for Pell Grants than the entire Ivy League put together.) And they’re less likely to graduate aspiring social workers and legal defense attorneys than aspiring investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools, but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term. They’re often investments in the life-styles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have as well. Increasingly, being rich in America means not having to come across anyone who’s not.
Curmie is usually a big fan of Mr. Reich, but not when he’s spewing twaddle like this. Curmie is as cynical as the next guy, but might it not be, after all, that rich folks support museums and universities and the like not out of a desire to hoard the goodies, but to make them available? If that was true of the Andrew Carnegies, Leland Stanfords, and Cornelius Vanderbilts of the world (not exactly the nicest of folks in many ways), why might it not be true for the Warren Buffetts and Bill Gateses?

Berkeley has more Pell-eligible students than the Ivies? Might that be because it’s a state school with a specific mission to educate the greater population? Or that it’s bigger than the Ivies (Berkeley has about five times as many employees as my Ivy League alma mater has students)? And might not contributions to the Ivies be in part necessitated by the fact that they’re not getting a state subsidy, so private donations are all the more important? By the way, I don’t have the figures, but I’d be willing to bet that my current employer, a non-flagship state university, probably rivals Berkeley for Pell recipients, although we have only half the student population and a budget considerably smaller than that. Not to mention the sour taste created by Reich’s holier-than-thou attitude…

There, then, are three fundamental reasons to reject Reich’s argument. First is the “they can do what they want with their money, but I’d do something different, so they should, too” approach. There is no more telling liberal conceit (in both senses of that term) than this: the idea that, in this case, it’s only a “real charity” if Robert Reich thinks it is.

Second, there’s the cherry-picked data and false logic. I’ve already mentioned the Pell Grant business. We could add the bit about all the tax deductions going to the rich. Of course, they do: that’s a function of the tax code, specifically the standard deduction. A much higher percentage of Curmie’s contributions would go to reaching the tipping point whereby itemizing deductions pays off than would be true for Scrooge McDuck. But Curmie has often benefited from the standard deduction per se in a way that ol’ SMcD wouldn’t have.

The greatest weakness of Reich’s argument, however, is the sheer anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic smugness of it all. He smirks that “Poor New Yorkers rarely attend concerts at Lincoln Center,” for example. Actually, they do, though not in person. Contributions to Lincoln Center by rich people allow that venue to survive. Contributions to NPR and PBS allow the concerts produced there to by accessed not merely by poor New Yorkers, but by poor Peorians and poor San Franciscans, as well.

Think of what it costs to produce an opera: just in terms of professional staff, there’s the cast, orchestra, artistic staff (designers, directors, choreographers, etc.), front-of-house staff, technicians… at least 100 people, most of them for the entire run of the production process, from first rehearsal (or before) until the show closes. These are professionals, remember, and they deserve to be paid accordingly. We’re talking well into five-figures in box office a night, just to make payroll. That doesn’t count the cost of the venue, the promotion, the equipment, the upkeep, the sets, the costumes… Guess what? Help has to come from somewhere. Those tax-deductible contributions matter. A lot. And it’s pretty clear that one of the strengths of the current tax structure is its encouragement of charitable giving.

Contributions by millionaires and billionaires (and by a lot of us who aren’t) allow my alma mater (which is also Reich’s, by the way) to have need-blind admissions and to be able to say this on their website: “Students coming from families with total incomes of less than $100,000 and typical assets receive free tuition and no loans at Dartmouth. Many of these students receive scholarship assistance to cover the other costs of the Dartmouth experience.” I think that’s fairly impressive, and frankly, I’m proud to have contributed in some small way to making that happen. The same argument could be employed, of course, for countless other colleges and universities, not to mention a vast panoply of other worthy ventures, including those elitist museums and arts companies.

Whenever I’m in Chicago, I make a point to find a little time to visit the Art Institute. It holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons, not least because it displays several of my favorite artworks, including the Gustave Caillebotte painting at the top of this post (my wife and I refer to this painting simply as “Gus”). It costs a fair amount of money to go to the Art Institute: $23 for someone like me. It’s worth it. But both the quality of the exhibitions and even that level of affordability (Illinois residents can get in free on Thursday evenings, by the way) are very much a function of charitable giving, often by (gasp!) rich people. If I can get a ticket to the Alley Theatre in Houston for $60 instead of $100, that is a direct result of someone underwriting the operation. It means that I can go more often, and that someone with a little less cash flow can go at all.

And do not EVEN begin to tell me about how art is the exclusive purview of the rich, Mr. Reich. I mean, haven’t you seen “The Shawshank Redemption”? Do the names Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, Athol Fugard, Václav Havel, or Joan Littlewood mean nothing to you? Did you not know that the most famous revival of the quintessential absurdist play, Waiting for Godot, is not the current one with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (although I’m sore depressed that I don’t get to see it), but the one at San Quentin Prison many years ago? Have you never heard the Blind Boys of Alabama or Leadbelly? Seriously, Mr. Reich, you don’t get out much, do you?

Over the years, Curmie has contributed to three colleges and universities; several theatre companies, museums, arts councils, and galleries; a wide range of animal rescue or welfare organizations; a few different churches; a handful of health and disaster relief agencies; a couple of charities with a specific mission to help the poor; three or four environmental causes; some free speech advocacy groups; at least a half dozen different PBS and NPR affiliates; and probably a few places I’m not remembering off the top of my head. I don’t know which of these Mr. Reich considers “real charities.” I also don’t f*cking care.

[I should note that Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall has already written on this subject. We agree on this one.]

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