‘Tis the season to be jolly and also to make donations to your favorite charity. This year’s charitable donations are expected to total more than $200 billion, a new record. Some 80 percent of them are made now, in the final weeks of the year.
But lots of charitable dollars – especially from the wealthy, who have the most to donate – are going to culture palaces: to the operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters where they spend much of their leisure time. They’re also going to the universities they once attended and expect their children to attend, perhaps with the help of what’s known as affirmative action for "legacies."
These aren’t really charitable contributions. They’re more like investments in the lifestyles the wealthy already enjoy and want their children to have, too. They’re also investments in prestige – especially if they result in the family name engraved on the new wing of the art museum or symphony hall.
It’s your business how you donate your money. But not entirely. Charitable donations are deductible from income taxes. This year, the U.S. Treasury will be receiving about $40 billion less than it would if the tax code didn’t allow charitable deductions. Like all tax deductions, that gap has to be filled by other tax revenues or by spending cuts, or else it just adds to the deficit. (Not incidentally, the government now spends some $40 billion a year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is what remains of welfare.)
I can see why a contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charitable tax deduction. It helps the poor. But why, exactly, should a contribution to the Guggenheim Museum or Harvard University?
Not long ago, New York City’s Lincoln Center had a gala dinner supported by the charitable contributions of the leaders of the hedge fund industry, some of whom will be receiving billion-dollar bonuses in the next few weeks. I may be missing something here, but this doesn’t strike me as charity. I mean, poor New Yorkers don’t often attend concerts at the Lincoln Center.
It turns out, in fact, that only an estimated 10 percent of all charitable deductions this year will be directed at the poor.
So here’s a modest holiday proposal: At a time in our nation’s history when the number of needy continue to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s necessary, and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code and limit the charitable deduction to real charities