The Economics of Charity
Robert Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale, wrote in Sunday’s New York Times (12/16/12) that in changing the tax code, we should not “mess with the charitable deduction.” Once we grasp the meaning of his argument, I think we can understand a lot about what is wrong with American economic ideology.
Actually, he ends his piece with a clear indication of the problem: “Unfortunately, there is good reason to suspect that American income inequality will grow further in coming years. Persevering and strengthening the charitable deduction will help thwart the resentment and social unrest caused by that inequality, while reinforcing generosity as a national value.”
Here is an economist who talks about growing inequality as a fact. Nothing to do about that. What we can do is promote acts of charity to prevent “resentment and social unrest.” The fact is that we can do something about inequality, and we could use economists who would help.
Shiller’s view of economics has a long history. The Methodist leader, John Wesley, famously said, “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” Nice, especially if you don’t worry about how you made it.
Like many others, Shiller appears to suffer what I have called an “economics of dissociation.” It is a disease that splits off the misery of the real providers of wealth from consciousness and then enjoys the privileges of ownership and undeserved wealth—like giving to those less fortunate.
The economics of charity is a part of a larger pattern of refusing to analyze how our social systems work to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of many. It allows people to assume that whatever happens was meant to happen. It is a refusal to be responsible for the inequalities our economic system has created.