From the Comments: More Thoughts on Charity

Had some thoughtful responses (blog comments, twitter) to my last post on giving. I tried to tackle them below. Very complicated questions so consider the below speculative…

Is your line of work more important than your giving? [John Danner via Twitter, Ryan Hill via comments]

First, I’ll just say that being in a “good” line of work is no reason not to give. Most Americans can afford to give 10% of their income to charity, and given that this can save the lives of real people, all of us should donate. So I don’t have a ton of sympathy for not giving because you determine your career choice gives you an out. Not that folks were making this argument, but it’s worth remember that “should you give?” is a question independent of “what should you do?”

That being said, one’s line of work is important. But I think it’s not as easy as one might suppose to determine what lines of work are more important than others. Some thoughts:

1. Much of the commentary I hear on this question greatly ignores the fact that the market prices a lot of contributions fairly well. As a starting point, it’s worth understand if people will pay for whatever it is you are producing. People who make a lot of money often provide societal value. So if you’re trying to figure out what to do, I’d start there.

2. Of course, this is not always the case. Jobs in areas with major positive externalities may be under compensated, especially if these jobs involved public good, merit goods, or technological innovation. I just think a lot of people convince themselves that their jobs fall in this category when they probably don’t.

3. If I had to come up with my best answer here, it would be to: (a) try and identify existential threats to humanity where (b) there are feasible solutions that humans can work on and (c) your skills provide a significant value-add over and above the current set of people working to develop and enact these solutions.

Should you count taxes as part of your giving? [Rob Reich via Twitter]

I said it’s ok to count 10% of your taxes as charitable giving. I based this on the fact that roughly 10% of our taxes goes directly to support people living in poverty.

Rob said this shouldn’t count.

I’m not so sure. What if the government taxed me at 80% and gave 90% of this to the poor. Under this regime, I would not feel much of an obligation to give to charity.

So I’m not sure why I should’t incorporate tax based government transfers into my giving calculation.

Should you save now and give later? [Ryan Hill via comments]

Yes, with some sound investing you can increase you giving capacity. But we don’t know what problems will exist in the future, nor how much it will cost to solve these problems.

But right now we do know that many people are dying for reasons that can be solved for not a lot of money.

So long as a few hundred dollars can save someone’s life, it seems like we should be giving rather than investing.

Of course, if you have strong reasons to believe that in the future it will be cheaper to save someone’s life, then perhaps you should invest. I just haven’t seen evidence that this will be the case.

Is giving a cop out? [Ripper via comments]

See this video. Basically, if you job and lifestyle are based on a tax regime that promotes income inequality, an economy that is based on environmental degradation, and so forth… well, who cares if you give a little bit of your income away after you make your money off this corrupt system?

First, I think it’s worth noting that global inequality is decreasing and global absolute wealth is rising. The world’s poor are significantly benefitting from the current global economic regime.

That being said, I’m very sympathetic with the environmental part of the argument. As such, working in this field (either in terms of policy change or technological innovation) may in fact be one of the best things you can do (if you can add real value). But this then just reverts back to the line of work question…

So, yes, do try and understand the system you’re a part of and perhaps helping maintain, but do so objectively. There are both incredibly good (rising global wealth) and bad (environmental degradation) parts of this system.

Give and work accordingly.

2 thoughts on “From the Comments: More Thoughts on Charity

  1. Beth Rabbitt (@BethRabbitt)

    I would love to see the data you’d use to support this statement: “People who make a lot of money often provide societal value.” Most of the people I know whose work connects directly to social causes take a pretty big hit salary wise (not limited just to teachers… but seriously, teachers!). Are you saying the market correctly values their contribution vis a vis others?

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  2. John danner

    Agree with beth, market steeply discounts works of social good vs financial gain. Witness my first and second companies as proof of that, rocketship was far more work than netgravity. And i would do it over in a second because money is highly over-rated compared to a sense of purpose.

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