Acton Institute Powerblog

Robert Reich at the Nativity: ‘Try Something Useful!’

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In 2012, nearly $39 billion was spared to American givers via the charitable tax deduction, $33 billion of which went to the richest 20 percent of Americans. If that sounds like a lot, consider that it’s associated with roughly $316 billion in charitable donations.

Yet for Professor Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, much of this generosity is not devoted to, well, “real charities.” His beef has something to do with the wealthy’s obsession with “culture places” — the opera, the symphony, the museum — realms that, in Reich’s opinion, are undeserving of what should be an allocation to his own pet projects. “I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools,” he writes, “but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term.”

The picking and choosing follows in turn, descending farther and farther into the typical terrain of progressive materialism — focusing excessively on surface-level transfers of this particular dollar into that particular hand and lambasting those rebellious Makers and Givers for getting it all wrong.

Though the rant itself is rather routine, particularly for the likes of Reich, Kevin Williamson has a response that cuts through the posturing with noteworthy bite and brilliance. “At its root,” Williamson notes, “this is not about tax revenue or the woeful state of the federal cash-flow statement. This is about envy and its cousin, covetousness.”

Such a claim does, of course, seek to unearth one’s motives, and as such, Williamson may be brushing those particular strokes in excess. What is not left up to interpretation, however, and what feeds such a perception, is Reich’s domineering preference for his own set of distributive methods and the shortsighted materialism that steers it.

Whether such a stilted imagination is due to envy is interesting. What is more strikingly evident is the way his progressive ideology about wealth, poverty, and human flourishing so evidently trickles into the everyday, mistrusting and downplaying private investment and generosity of all varieties outside of clear-cut redistributionist schemes.

On this, Williamson cuts to the core, catching something crucial that colors aplenty:

Professor Reich is writing in a very old tradition, one that is especially familiar to Catholics: Why spend money on beauty when there is necessity? Protestants have a long and rich tradition of abusing the Catholic Church for its supposed wealth — why not auction off the Sistine Chapel and give the money to the poor? The egalitarian liberal’s equivalent: Why incentivize donations to Princeton when we could be spending that money on food stamps? I like to imagine Robert Reich at the Nativity: “Gold? Frankincense? Myrrh? Try something useful!”

…Progressives know that they will always enjoy disproportionate influence in the public sector, but they are vexed that there exist large streams of money that are, for the moment, utterly outside their control. They convince others — and themselves, probably — that they are driven by compassion, but they are in fact driven by envy: Note Barack Obama’s insistence that tax rates on the wealthy should be raised even if doing so produced no fiscal benefit — it’s just “the right thing to do,” he said, necessary “for purposes of fairness.” The battle hymn of “Nobody needs that much money!” has a silent harmony line: “And I get to decide how much is enough!”

And alas, for those who view the whole of human progress as requiring something richer and more complex than this money in that pocket, Reich’s argument isn’t even about effectiveness. It’s about allocation.

Unfortunately, this diminishing of the whole of human life into one’s personal buckets of “poor” and “rich” is not all that unique. And the limiting of stewardship and generosity from the eyes of government that follows demonstrates, yet again, that pesky irony of progressivism: its propensity to take on the image of its own materialistic critiques. When the perfume is spilt with love and sacrifice, bearing obvious positive fruits, tangible or otherwise, let us perceive who throws the stink.

If the rich don’t give what the gods of distribution demand, then “thievery!” of the masses is somehow manifest. Yet when they do give, in clear and undeniable abundance, performing acts of generosity freely and openly, whether to the opera or to the homeless shelter, the State will inevitably feel threatened, whether by form or by function.

Then, as we see with the reactions of Reich and many others, the hands behind the real systemic thievery will begin to warm their palms.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Bill Hickman

    Why wouldn’t a conservative consider Reich’s criticism constructive? Conservatives oppose government spending for the poor because private charity is supposedly more helpful to them. Reich simply suggests that much of our tax-incentivized giving never actually makes it to the poor. How does this display “progressive materialism”? Why couldn’t you interpret this as a useful conservative critique to improve the tax code and private charity?

    I also think Williamson’s point about poverty relief and the Nativity is wrong. Obviously, a single gift given to the baby Jesus is never wasted. It’s because he’s Jesus. Do you think a donation to Harvard Business School or the opera is similar to pouring oil on Christ’s feet? The analogy doesn’t work.

    • Joseph Sunde

      My own response is that “charity” needn’t be limited to assisting the poor, and assisting the poor needn’t be limited to moving money around to so-called “pro-poor” non-profits (Reich’s materialistic assumption). The path to widespread prosperity and whole-scale human flourishing is complex, rich, and varied, and it involves encouraging generosity to a variety of endeavors, including donations to Harvard Business School and the opera.

      • Bill Hickman

        But why is Reich’s assumption “materialistic” and wrong? If my intent is to help the poor, wouldn’t it be foolish of me to donate to HBS or the Metropolitan Opera rather than a soup kitchen or a poor person?

        • Joseph Sunde

          When I say “materialistic” I’m referring to his reducing of all things to the material, including the human person — that what “the poor” need, nay, that the /only/ thing they need, is soup or cash, for example, over scholarships. The poor, like any human person, need a whole host of things varying from person to person, situation to situation. Our generosity ought to reflect that, and our policy ought not stifle and limit things as Reich would prefer. This, of course, is setting aside the reality that only 4.5% of charitable giving went to art-and-culture organizations. Even this, it appears, is worth putting up a fuss over.

          But even still, why should the charitable tax deduction be limited to “the poor,” and more specifically, “the poor according to Robert Reich” (who are apparently only in need of simple wealth transfers). If my intent is to help the poor, that’s one thing. I’m not sure why the “charitable tax deduction” needs to cover only that, and I’m still not sure why social and cultural institutions are somehow altogether separate from the realm of serving the poor or improving social well-being. If I want to /give/, how might I obey the Lord in giving? Reich’s framework doesn’t allow for much variety here, and I think that misses aplenty.

          It needn’t be this direct, but as a simple example, our local theater company has several days a month that open their doors to the poor and the needy. This is made possible by donations that Reich would prefer go elsewhere.

          • Bill Hickman

            At the risk of dragging this thread on too long, I think you are misinterpreting Reich’s post slightly because you have read it through the filter of Williamson’s post.

            Reich didn’t say the poor only need cash or food. I’m sure he’d be in favor of giving the poor free trips to the theater or educational scholarships. His point was to argue that much of the wealthy’s charity never benefits the poor in any way because the wealthy often use charity to signal class status by investing in cultural goods only they can afford.

            That aside, I’m still confused about your materialism point – surely we agree that the main thing the poor need is “material” help – i.e. money, food, shelter. Isn’t the lack of cash, food, shelter, etc the main problem of poverty? Our obligation to give alms to the poor should not get lost in the shuffle here.

          • Joseph Sunde

            I agree that we may be dragging this out too long, but I think we’re starting to see more clearly where we disagree, which may be the best point of wrapping things up.

            Like I said, acceptable engagement in the arts needn’t be limited to a theater opening its doors to the poor. I just hoped that example would come through a bit more clearly for how you’re approaching these things. Cultural activity in the arts, in my opinion, has broad and far-reaching impacts on society from person to person, generation to generation. Local community involvement in such matters and outlets (if funded) may instill virtues that keep someone from making poor decisions, may help bring skills to young, inexperienced people, or that may connect one to others in a way that helps keep them out of poverty or in a life- and material-giving community (etc. etc. etc.). Life-giving is life-giving, and the various components that contribute to human flourishing have a power and potency that plays out in ways we can’t easily foresee. In other words, even the theater that /doesn’t/ have such a day (opening doors to “the poor”) may still be playing a role in the broader fight against poverty and moral/social/cultural/economic decline. It may not. But it may.

            As for the point on materialism, I would actually disagree that “the main thing the poor need is ‘material’ help.” For some, this may be the big issue (e.g. momentary job loss); for others, I’m not so sure. I don’t presume to know what each individual poor person needs, and I’m not sure we do those in need any favors by lumping things up to cash transfers. Material help is certainly a factor (thus “the poor” designation), but what is driving it? What solves it in the long-term? I don’t mean to downplay the role of alms-giving, temporary or otherwise, but rather to expand our vision to every other area we are called to. Do the poor need education? Community? (Non-material) assistance and discipleship in getting the skills needed? In getting the networking needed? In getting off drugs or alcohol or whatever? The more we approach these things from strictly the material, particularly in our discussions about charity, the less our efforts will actually serve the poor.

            Then, of course, there’s the point that plenty of rich people need “charity” (non-material), whether through volunteering, ministering, evangelization, discipleship, time/dedication/assistance with helping rich folks off substance abuse (a big problem in the 1%), etc.

            We may disagree on all this, but that’s where I’m coming from and how I’m reading Reich’s piece. He sees “charity” as only worth incentivizing/rewarding/etc. if it plays out through donating to what I would call a very narrow subset of the type of whole-life charity and generosity Christians are called to participate in.