Editor’s Notes

Pub date December 23, 2008
WriterTim Redmond

› tredmond@sfbg.com

Let me say something out of synch with the holiday spirit, something you don’t want to hear in a "season of sharing," something utterly uncharitable. Listen:

Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist, had a piece Dec. 21 complaining that liberals aren’t generous enough. He had a couple of studies showing that conservatives give more money to charity. The progressives, he suggests, ought to be ashamed that they aren’t doing more to help the less fortunate.

Well, a couple of problems. For starters, much of the money conservatives give to "charity" actually goes to churches, some of which spend that largess promoting bigotry, fighting women’s rights, and trying to stop same-sex marriage. Particularly the churches that conservatives support. And when you eliminate religious institutions, liberals give about the same as conservatives.

But Kristof misses the big point. Charity, at least the way the right wing portrays it, is really the privatization of the social safety net.

Look, I’m not against charity. I give money — I hand cash to every panhandler I see. I like Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll’s "Untied Way" approach — give directly to the needy (even if I don’t get a tax deduction for it). I give money to political groups that are trying to make structural change (teach a man to fish and all that). I give money to my public school.

But the problem with charity is that it allows the wealthy to decide where their money goes — which means they decide what society’s priorities ought to be.

Instead of lauding Bill Gates for donating millions to Harvard, a sane political system would tax the hell out of Gates and let democratically elected representatives decide where the money should go. Maybe the public schools in Detroit need cash more than Harvard does. Maybe mental health services for homeless people in the South Bronx ought to be funded instead of a new computer science building at the world’s richest university. Maybe we should all set the priorities, not just the rich people.

That’s what charitable liberals believe. At least, I do.