Friday, December 16, 2005

Charity Blues Redux

Mark Hyman recycles a commentary almost word for word from a year ago on the “Generosity Index,” a comparison of charitable giving of various states. The upshot of Hyman’s commentary, both then and now, is that conservatives are generous, liberals are cheap. He basis this on the fact that “red” states tend to rank high and “blue” states low when measured by the Generosity Index.

Below, I’ve repeated the rebuttal I wrote last year—since Hyman’s commentary is identical to last year, I didn’t see much reason to come up with new ways of pointing out the obvious flaws in his case.

The only additions I’ll make are to point you to the
Boston Globe’s story on this, which points out that even the creators of the “Generosity Index” don’t believe it has any scientific validity—it’s simply meant to raise awareness of philanthropy. The article notes that the Boston Foundation (another philanthropic organization) has pointed out the inherent flaws in the creation of the Generosity Index and has come up with a more realistic way of measuring generosity. The result? As you would expect, both red and blue states are represented well in the top tiers of generosity. You can also find the Boston Foundation’s own explanation of their study here.

As I note below, the broader problems of the “Generosity Index” go well beyond the obvious flaws in their methodology (which the Boston Foundation points out in detail). The larger issue is the faulty premise: that you can apply personal qualities to states as a whole (particularly given that a state’s redness or blueness is a matter of a few percentages one way or another in a presidential election).

In short, the Generosity Index is what baseball statistics junkies call a “junk stat”—one that makes inventive use of numbers, but which doesn’t actually describe or predict anything. Of course that doesn’t stop our friend Mark from using it as a way of smearing everyone who is A) left of center politically and/or B) lives in a “blue” state. Isn’t it time we got a class action lawsuit going against this guy for defamation of character, with Jon Leiberman and John Kerry as lead plaintiffs? The list of folks Hyman hasn’t smeared in his commentaries is shorter than the list of people he has!

With that rambling preamble out of the way, here’s a cut from “The Counterpoint’s” greatest hits . . .

Charity Blues

Mark Hyman's argument that conservatives are more moral than liberals because statistics suggest citizens of “red” states give more to charities than those living in “blue” states is filled with deceptive claims, the fundamental one being that you can make judgments about individuals based on collective data. This fails simply as a matter of logic.

But for the sake of argument, let’s put aside this fatal flaw and assume that 1) the category of “red” or “blue” applies not only to the state as a political entity, but to each and every one of its citizens (i.e., if Florida is red, than all Floridians are red) and 2) the average giving numbers Hyman refers to also apply not to the collective population of a state, but to the individual actions of each and every individual in that state.

Even with these two absurdities granted, Hyman’s argument doesn’t work. To begin with, the data is based only on donations claimed on itemized tax returns. The number of itemizers from state to state varies widely. Almost without exception, states that have few numbers of itemizers are at the top of the giving rankings and those with many itemizers at the bottom. Why? If the top 18% of Arkansas population itemizes, but 42% of Connecticut tax payers itemize, you end up comparing the gifts of the wealthiest Arkansans to nearly half of Connecticut. Even when taking into account differences in average income, Arkansas will come out on top. And by the way, nearly all low itemizing states are red; nearly all high itemizing states are blue.

But that’s a trifling detail compared to more fundamental problems. Charity, as they say, begins at home. The most generous states in Hyman’s estimation are also those with most poverty, particularly child poverty. It makes sense that those who see and come into contact with abject poverty would be most likely to give to local charities. The need is simply greater. The poorest states with the most children living in poverty? They’re red.

This is all the more important when we take into account that the states that have the most poverty are those who do the least to help their most impoverished citizenry. The nonpartisan Urban Institute did a study comparing states by their “willingness to spend” on children in poverty. The study controlled for average income, number of children in poverty, and funds received from the federal government. This allowed a comparison of the state governments themselves. The result? The top ten “willing to give” states are virtually all blue. The bottom ten are a sea of red.

Hyman wants us to believe blue staters are less generous. Nonsense. It’s simply a matter of how the money is collected and dispersed. Blue states do it through taxes. Red states rely on charity. Given the state poverty rankings, it’s pretty clear which philosophy works better.
The study cited by Hyman can’t tell us anything about the personal tendencies of conservatives or liberals to make charitable donations. If such a study could be devised, we’re virtually certain it would show a negligible difference.

What this study does show, however, is that poverty inspires people to give. The people who see it firsthand understand how destructive it is to have a significant percentage of your neighbors living in dilapidated housing, going to run-down schools, and not having enough food to feed hungry children. The Mark Hyman’s of the world think poverty is a sign of moral weakness—you’re only poor if you deserve to be, and wealth equals decency. He celebrates charity (as does the administration) not because he admires it, but because it serves as cover to slash government assistance to those who haven’t “proven” themselves by earning as much money as their neighbors.

But poverty is an inevitable result of a free market economy. As long as capitalism exists, there will need to be help given to those who end up on the bottom of the food chain. Free markets are a wonderful thing, but by themselves they lead to a steady erosion of society. Those in the red states who attempt to assuage the poverty in which so many are mired, and which their state governments do comparatively little to deal with, understand this all too well.

Maybe it’s about time Hyman did also.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Joe H from MN said...

Wow...I honestly can't believe someone would actually use the data Hyman did, and try to make an argument out of it...

Again, thanks for putting in the time and effort in making a clear, concise, and very logical counter-point. I'm quite lucky not to have ever had to, or mistakenly watched one of his points, or I would probably break my tv from anger that people are allowed to do what he does, and that "less intelligent" Americans' might actually believe what he says(even if it's only 1 American it angers me).

Keep up the good work Ted, we all appreciate someone who not only has an open mind, but is willing to take the time and share your wonderful insight, and points of view.

Have a great weekend, and enjoy the cold! :)

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Joe H from MN said...

Oh forgot to add one more thing...I wanted to thank you for doin what you do, because media and journalism in general are a joke these days. A recluse would have as good as information about meaningful events in America these days as an informed viewer of major network news/media outlets.
It's just sad, because it really makes me wonder, the things I don't question, how much is real, and how much is fake, or half-truths? Or how much is paid propaganda, using our tax dollars?

1984, here we come :D

(Sorry had to say it, because it's true).

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Sickofspin said...

Ted opined: "The Mark Hyman’s of the world think poverty is a sign of moral weakness—you’re only poor if you deserve to be, and wealth equals decency."

That's blatantly false. A disdain for lazyness, a disgust for people who refuse to help themselves despite being able bodied and of sound mind should not at all be irresponsibly parlayed into such a stereotypical comment as Ted has made.

If anybody holds a holier-than-thou attitude, it's Ted and his co-horts.

At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Sickofspin said...

Ted slams Hyman for using a 'red state vs. blue state argument, writing, "Hyman’s argument doesn’t work."

Then turns around and makes his own flawed and vague red/blue claim:

"nearly all low itemizing states are red; nearly all high itemizing states are blue."

Gee Ted, this wouldn't have anything to do with populace could it? Naaaaaah..... tangibles and truth just get in the way right?

If you can't be a little more consistent in your arguments, why do you even bother to make them? Oh, I forgot, you have an agenda and such inconsistencies just get in the way.....

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous nm morf h eoj said...

Wow...I honestly can't believe someone would actually use the data Ted did, and try to make an argument out of it...

At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Bradley said...


I think what I appreciate most about this Counterpoint is that you're not attempting to counter Hyman's claim by "proving" that Democrats are more charitable by nature. Indeed, there are caring and giving people to be found on both the left and the right. As you say, "poverty inspires people to give. The people who see it firsthand understand how destructive it is to have a significant percentage of your neighbors living in dilapidated housing, going to run-down schools, and not having enough food to feed hungry children." Very well said-- that's something that most of us (though, perhaps, not necessarily the Mark Hymans of the world) can agree on regardless of political persuasion. Most reasonable people agree that the less fortunate deserve to be helped; often, we simply disagree on which methods to employ.

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sick Smear-o-Meter: TEN
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This is now at least the TENTH time Sick has refused to provide any evidence for his smear against Ted Remington (Sick claimed the Ted abused his academic position)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Also note that Sick is now using other blog user names to continue his attacks. The highly clever name "nm morf h eoj" is, yep, our pal, Sick!

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Bradley said...

This article from today's NEW YORK TIMES seems like it might be relevant to this conversation. A study by the NewTithing Group that analyzed IRS data from 2003 shows that the richest of the rich-- those who make more than $10 million a year-- are a lot stingier (more Scrooge-like, if you will) than most of us when it comes to charitable giving.

Here are some highlights from the article:

"Working-age Americans who make $50,000 to $100,000 a year are two to six times more generous in the share of their investment assets that they give to charity than those Americans who make more than $10 million, a pioneering study of federal tax data shows.

"The least generous of all working-age Americans in 2003, the latest year for which Internal Revenue Service data is available, were among the young and prosperous - the 285 taxpayers age 35 and under who made more than $10 million - and the 18,600 taxpayers making $500,000 to $1 million. The top group had on average $101 million of investment assets while the other group had on average $2.4 million of investment assets."


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