Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Give it away" -- a dangerous economic doctrine

An item in Tuesday's newspaper about NY's Governor George Pataki's income and charitable giving is noteworthy when considered in the light of the dangerous money doctrines of the Bible.

(Dangerous doctrine hint: Isaiah 53:9, important to both Jews and Christians, and widely used in the recently heard Good Friday service readings: "They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich" -- or "with a rich man". Either way, wealth's reputation certainly suffers from bad associations.)

The news was that the Patakis' joint income has gone way up since he became governor, but that's okay. I don't begrudge them the windfalls that come from his position, although it wouldn't be unreasonable to wonder a bit about the need for tougher standards for determining whether outside income is really legitimate or not.

What's really interesting, however, is his charitable giving. Or lack thereof.

The Patakis had a joint gross income of $889,123 and reported an adjusted gross of $775,169. Their combined state and federal taxes were $212,702 - a combined rate of 27.44%.

Their charitable giving consisted of $1,765 in cash and $4,871 in used clothing which they donated to the Salvation Army and Albany's Capital City Rescue Mission. Together, their charities add up to $6,636 or 0.86% of their adjusted gross. Even if you give them a break by using their after-tax income, it only comes to 1.18%.

There's more -- or, rather, less. When you calculate the tax reduction from the used clothing, you'll find that getting rid of those clothes, in addition to giving them extra closet space, saved them $1,334. That reduced their net out-of-pocket cash outlay to $431.

That kind of frugality would be look good if it were applied to saving money in the state budget. But from the point of view of the governor's church it's not so nice. Even though, taken as a whole, Roman Catholics in the USA don't give as much to church and charity as Protestants, the tithe (an old word for "tenth") is still there as a loose standard of measurement both for churchly giving and secular giving. And the tithe, the Biblical minimum or first step, doesn't take into account the requirement to give alms (for the poor) and oblations (other religious, sacrificial, and thank offerings).

So, even after being lenient in my standards and giving the governor the benefit of calculating his giving on an after tax basis -- and even taking into account his property taxes, to give him the most favorable looking results -- his cash giving amounted to a bit more than 0.08% of his income after all taxes. Just to be clear, if the decimals are confusing, that's less than one tenth of one percent. (Worst case, figuring it on the basis of gross income, the Pataki's gave less than 0.05% -- one twentieth of one percent.)

Now there's one thing the Bible devotes more words to than anything else. Money.

And those words aren't in praise of money.

In general, the Bible's advice is "find ways to get rid of it." Forgive debts, as in the Sabbath and Jubilee years. Give it ALL away, if you're too hung up on wealth, a la the "rich young ruler" of Luke 18. Or give half of it away and make fourfold restitution to those whom you've cheated, as Zacchaeus, the rich chief tax collector, promised in the very next chapter of Luke. Or give it away to meet needs as they arise in your community, as the early followers of Jesus did in Jerusalem, according to Acts 2:45. Whatever the technique, the principle is "don't be a servant of money, be a giver." The most famous phrase is "you cannot serve God and wealth" (otherwise known as "Mammon" - Matthew 6:24).

In this age of political emphasis on values, and especially religious values, Governor Pataki doesn't seem to be on message here. But that's okay. It's not a popular message or a popular religious value. And popularity is what counts. It's money in the bank.


Ambitious said...

Sing it, Brother Billy! Thanks for providing us readers with throught provoking articles.

georgeborrow said...

Well put, Brother Billy! It always irritates me when people take thousands of dollars of tax deductions for clothing which the Salvation army sells for less than a couple hundred bucks. In cosmic accounting, tax savings from exhorbitant deductions for clothing donations to the Salvation Army should count as income rather than charity, and it is only because our system wants to encourage sham-charity that they allow the practice to persist in the first place.

But again, what I tell myself whenever I get upset about the low level of charitable giving in public figures is, of course, that it is not such a great idea to judge others by an inflexible moral standard, because then someone will be tempted to apply an inflexible moral standard on one's own mistakes (the exact words escape me, but I think this is has been expressed in a somewhat pithier fashion somewhere else). I seem to also recall that Jesus also advised that charity is best kept secret that it loses its spiritual benefits once it is publically known, so a true follower of Jesus would probably feel a bit queasy about taking any deductions for charitable giving, particularly if they plan to release their tax returns.