Lies, damn lies and statistics

Nicholas Kristof’s column Bleeding Heart Tightwads purports to reveal that political conservatives are more charitable than political liberals, and that Americans are more charitable than Europeans.  These are familiar neocon morsels, and Kristof’s willingness to swallow and regurgitate them casts doubt on his claim to be a liberal–not to mention his claim to be a journalist who analyzes and thinks before he writes.

Self-described conservatives donate more money to charity than self-described liberals ONLY if “charity” is taken to include donations to churches.  As many more conservatives than liberals are regular churchgoers–and the most regular and charitable of all are the ultra-conservative Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Days Saints, whose members tithe 10 per cent of their income–any count of charitable contributions which includes church donations will unfairly portray liberals as cheapskates.  The Nonprofiteer doesn’t give a dime to her church because she doesn’t belong to or participate in one, but she’ll measure her actual contributions to charity–social services, education, health care and the arts–against the actual contributions to charity of any registered Republican, any time.

Similarly, Europeans give less money to charity than Americans not because they refuse to put their money where their social-justice mouths are but because they’ve already done so in the fields of health care and education to an extent as yet undreamed of by the United States.  Of course Europeans, Canadians and Japanese give fewer charitable dollars to health care: most medical care is paid for out of their taxes.  Of course they donate less to institutions of higher learning: tuition to those institutions is paid by the state.

The relationship between politics and charity is a complex one, and there are serious people who believe, for instance, that donations to food banks interfere with achieving long-term food security for all Americans because they keep the hunger problem just below the national radar.  (And there are certainly serious people who believe that columnists who try to buy young Asian prostitutes to liberate them are merely increasing the profitability of Asian prostitutes and thus the risk to young Asian girls.)    These difficult policy analyses are not made simpler or likelier of resolution by facile comparisons and repititions of nonsense on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.

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10 Responses to “Lies, damn lies and statistics”

  1. Chrissy Says:

    Churches provide free spiritual care to people from all classes of society. Being in good spiritual health has many benefits. For instance, women who go to church end up working harder at their careers (http://workinprogress.blogs.time.com/2008/04/15/girls_who_go_to_church_work_ha/) I don’t currently give to a church, but I don’t question the generous nature of those who do.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I don’t question the generosity of churchgoers (though I have my doubts about the validity of any research that purports to prove a direct causal relationship between churchgoing and hard work–there are simply too many intervening factors for an assertion of causality to be persuasive). But, in turn, I don’t expect people to question the generosity of non-churchgoers, who believe the support they provide for “care to people from all classes of society” purchases more when it doesn’t go through the hands of institutions with mortgage payments and staff salaries of their own.

      And being in good spiritual health (assuming any of us could agree on what that means) may have benefits, but achieving that sort of health doesn’t necessarily require participation in an institution devoted to religiosity. The time I spend in the theater or at a botanic garden puts me in touch with the Infinite just as well (if not better) than spending that same time in a church/synagogue/mosque.

  2. Scott Jones Says:

    Good points – you should send in your comments to Mr Kristof.

  3. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Well, Kristof did say
    “According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.”
    Still, I don’t trust NDK or his Mr. Brooks an inch. Kristof has made his name asserting again and again that liberals are really illiberal, feminists don’t care about women (i.e. the teen prostitutes with whom he is obsessed), and it’s evangelicals who repair the material world. O what a paradox! I assume conservatives’ “secular causes” include right-wing political activist 501(c)(3)s.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I’m sure as you say that Brooks’ books have been cooked to assure the right-wingers-are-better outcome, so that Focus on the Family is considered a secular cause. Moreover, Kristof’s concession about the generosity of liberals is buried deep within the column–and any journalist knows that burying the lede is a deliberate strategy for changing the story.

  4. Yana Davis Says:

    Nonprofit contributions ought to be figured, for all public information gathering, into two categories, as the Nonprofiteer has implied.

    Contributions-other-than-religious should be a separate category and the measure of true charitable giving.

    Including gifts to donors’ churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., along with gifts to United Way, Sierra Club, etc., mixes apples with oranges.

  5. Betsy Stone Says:

    I have a different perspective on Mr. Kristoff’s column, which I read (in full) at the time. I thought he made it clear that the statistical picture changed when donations to churches were taken out of the picture. What I took away from the article is that liberals (like me) should make sure that our concerns and words are followed by action, which include charitable giving. Any nudge to make giving a more automatic impulse seems to me a good thing. In addition, I view it as my responsibility to check out whatever a columnist or journalist writes when reporting someone else’s research conclusions. And while I’m out here on my blogosphere ledge, I don’t agree with your conclusion about his columns (and personal actions) re: sex slaves. Does the potential damage from rescuing one slave (and resultant effect on the market price of sex slaves) outweigh the good that he is doing to raise awareness of this problem? Seems to me there aren’t enough voices beating the drum about the prevalence of this problem and his platform in the NY Times and other papers is being used appropriately.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      There certainly aren’t enough people talking about the persistence of modern slavery, including sex slavery; but Kristof’s columns on the subject are entirely too self-congratulatory for my taste, not to mention having an unsavory undertone of excitement. Nothing would prevent him from reporting this story–even ad nauseum–without entering into the sex trade himself, however peripherally.

      Likewise, nothing would prevent him from reporting a story about how in fact liberals AREN’T less generous than conservatives as such; but instead he chose to go for the man-bites-dog headline to make it appear that those of us on the left don’t grasp the importance of charity. That’s nonsense, and I resent it. And while I’m prepared to double-check a reporter’s assertions, I also expect him to operate from a position of intellectual honesty.

  6. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Seconded, Nonprofiteer. Furthermore, Kristof says *zilch* to “raise awareness” about sexual abuse and exploitation inside his own country. Fewer exotic junkets for him on that beat, I guess. And a US focus would make it harder for him to dismiss the feminist advocacy at which he likes to scoff. This advocacy goes on in Asia too, but there’s less media coverage and he can pretend not to see it.

    Like most columnists with a perch on the Times editorial page, he’s a waste of ink and bytes.

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