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The Biden Principle

Refining the argument between taxes and charitable giving. How much is enough?

This post is a product of a . One asked something along the lines of "don't I care for the poor." The other "that he'd be happy to pay more taxes if it meant the safety net would be wider."

The right often jumps back with a response along the lines of the safety net is big enough and of course I care for the poor. Republicans contribute more overall than Democrats to charity.

We can take Vice President Joe Biden as an example. His tax returns are notorious for documenting little in the way of charitable giving. In 2011 Biden had close to $400,000 in income and $5,350 in donations. By the way, if you want to see how you might rank there are tables at the bottom of this 2011 article you can use to compare your contributions against the others who file taxes in our country.

It dawned on me, as intuitive as it is to push back on the usual rhetoric with a standard reply, that we need to have a different discussion. It seems the left and the right have a fundamental difference in our approach to what constitutes generosity. Biden must represent the side of the argument which says as long as he's paying taxes, "it's in there." He's paying his version of a United Way donation with that tax bill. He doesn't have to contribute anything more. 

Think of it like I was taught to consider tithing. Theoretically if I pop 10% of my income for the church, I shouldn't have to worry about being nickled and dimed. (Such a lost concept by the way. Now they just assume I can afford it and always come for more.) The plan was to offer a biblical share and then assume the church would manage the donation for the greater good.

Others, though, prefer to direct a donation to a group most likely to provide good works in the manner of one's own priorities. I'd say that's what all those generous Republicans are doing. Why trust the government to distribute funds in the cause of the greater good when government constantly makes decisions contrary to my own goals?

So what we're fighting about here is the same reason we always argue. We battle over who gets to choose the winners and losers. Under our current method of the government assuming the responsibility for a safety net, our tithes end up in Caesar's hands along with the taxes collected to build roads.

In my experience every time taxes are used to benefit society's neediest there are hurdles in place for the organizations who want to gain access to that money. Want federal funds to provide health care to a community? You need to provide birth control and abortions. Want great highways with federal money? You have to set a speed limit within federal guidelines. 

What if we all bowed to the concept of raising taxes but stopped giving to churches who support the poor and to homeless shelters and to NGOs who build libraries in Guatemala. What hurdles would go up for those organizations to get access to government funding? How many new layers of expensive bureaucracy would be required to support the new method of distribution and chip away at those bottom lines and the amount actually used to benefit the needy? Right now there are strict guidelines as to what amount of total revenue must make its way to the service line in order to stay a legitimate 501(c)3 organization. Those requirements don't exist for government.

Plus, the one comment was almost chiding me for being stingy because I didn't want to pay more in taxes. I replied that he was allowing himself to feel glorified by his magnanimity. It is as though he wouldn't support the poor unless he was made to do so by law. Of course that didn't go over well, but what I'd like to continue in the argument is that he's actually abdicating his personal responsibility to the poor by assigning that to the government. Jesus said, "the poor will always be with you." I can't imagine that will change because the government picks up more tax money and redistributes it. 

Between supporting extended family members, charitable contributions like United Way, church, and taxes including various fees and property taxes, more than 60% of our family income goes out already. Now it's a generous income, and I'm certainly well fed (oh, gosh, and I know I just opened myself to the comment I played above regarding magnanimity) but please consider my question: How much am I supposed to give before it's considered my fair share?

In the end this argument is over whether or not I'm a lioness free to roam the savanna or if I will be locked in a cage. Whether I'm able to determine by my own priorities in how my money will be spent or if I must abdicate that responsibility to what one might perceive as a benevolent government when in fact it is always choosing winners and losers. 

And yes. I'll fight for that.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bren July 23, 2012 at 04:40 AM
Tom Bevan co-founded the online fishwrap you linked to. I found Brooks' study of "happiness" (conservative v. liberal) interesting. I prefer to go to the source you see. True conservatives of my acquaintance are very generous (with a few exceptions) because they believe in providing tools for success. But as I indicated above, many people give to their church as their philanthropic efforts (which is wonderful because churches provide many humanitarian services) As I also indicated, FY12 giving will be interesting. Mr. Hoffa, I was interested in Mr. Trivedi. He is the exemplar for the need to roll back Citizens United and radically reform campaign financing. Mayor Barrett was (and still is) the best choice for Wisconsin, by experience, related education, and temperament. More wild accusations of hypocrisy. Yawn.
James R Hoffa July 23, 2012 at 05:28 AM
@Bren - I do believe that you owe Hoffa many citations! I'm still waiting on the following from you: Cite to Ryan's Path or budget that expressly excepts members of Congress. Cite to Ryan's Path or budget that expressly gives oil companies $43B in tax breaks. Cite or link to documents showing that the Walker administration provided Diane Hendricks and Georgia Pacific specific tax breaks, that only benefited them, outside the general jobs incentive tax break program. Cite or link connecting Holmes's acts to Rush Limbaugh's comments about the new Batman film. How could Mayor Barrett be the best for Wisconsin when he is "more loyal to benefactors/special interests than [his city]?" Are you honestly telling us that the people who invested millions in the recall election and his campaign weren't looking to get something from him if he won? So then, I guess you didn't mind John Nichols calling Mayor Barrett immoral on the Ed Show on the night of the election? "More wild accusations of hypocrisy. Yawn." Bren - when someone fails to walk their own talk, hypocrisy is precisely what that is. Spin as much as you like because the truth hurts, but that still doesn't change the truth, does it?
Cindy Kilkenny July 23, 2012 at 01:00 PM
@Bren, sweetheart, since your instinct to hate seems to overrule you instinct towards accuracy I'll give you the syndicated George Will article from the Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/26/AR2008032602916.html?sub=AR Now in my heart I know you won't hold that publication in any higher esteem, but it will ate least provide you with another publication to disparage instead of having to admit the contents of the article to your obviously very sensitive self.
Randy1949 July 23, 2012 at 02:49 PM
"How much am I supposed to give before it's considered my fair share?" Good question, Cindy. I pay (federal income, state income, property tax) 30% of my gross income. And that's in the lowest federal bracket. I don't have a lot left over for private charity. That decreased as my income did. I also dropped the United Way when someone suggested that each individual had a 'fair share' to donate to them. I would really prefer to choose my own causes to which to donate, thank you very much. My entire family also donated blood for twenty years on a regular schedule. I found Mr. Will's article and it's conclusions a tad condescending. Interestingly, I never reported by charitable donations on my income tax return (still don't), so I wonder where he gets his figures and if they're accurate.
Randy1949 July 23, 2012 at 02:58 PM
See below. My charitable contributions decreased along with my income, but there were other factors such as raising a family (the child's education fund is much more important than the Humane Society or the GSA) and increases in my cost of living. Taxes play a part -- the property tax sucks up a great deal of disposable income.

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