Wednesday, October 08, 2008

If You Hate It, Send It Money

We will return to our in-depth consideration of the current economic situation later in the week (I hope). Just as a preview, the next post will be the "finger-pointing-and-fist-waving" post where I lay blame where it is due (read = Greenspan, your ass is grass).

I wanted to post about and expound upon a fascinating idea in Tyler Cowen's great book Discover Your Inner Economist.

In this season of campaign donations and with the charitable onslaught of the holidays just around the corner, I got to thinking about the effect of charitable giving and what giving to charity means to people.

In a certain sense, charity is like any other sort of spending: resources are allocated to a particular purpose and in doing so, people show their preferences. There is more at work, it seems, when it comes to charity.

There is a moral dimension in giving to charity that is not present in other forms of exchange. When you buy (fill in your favorite good here), you are showing that you have a preference for that item at the price you paid for it and in the quantity you bought it in.

When you give to charity, you also do this, but you are trying to show that you are a certain sort of person...namely, the sort of person who gives to charity. It would seem that these sorts of people are good (or at least do one good thing) and that this is the sort of behavior that we all should engage in.

While I am not sure about making these moral judgements (I think that it is a strictly personal matter), I was curious about one assumption of everything said above. That is the assertion that all charity and donations should be given to someone or something that one supports.

Let's play the contrarian, I thought, and see where this goes...

Could there be value to giving to a cause or a person with whom you disagree? It seems at first blush to be, well, a really stupid idea. If I support gun control (which for the record, I don't; this is just an example), it would not seem to follow that I would donate money to the NRA.

Or does it?

Think about what happens when you send a donation to a charity or a political candidate. That entity takes your money, puts your name on a mailing list and proceeds to barrage you with direct mail solicitations. You showed your preference, all right. You let people who are asking for money know that you are the sort of person who gives it away.

The mail keeps pouring in and you begin to wonder about the prudence of your donation. Yeah, you are keen on nature, but c'mon Sierra Club...when does it end?

Have you figured it out yet? Has it dawned on you why "reverse charity" might be a good thing for you?

You gave a cause or person an amount of money. This action caused that party to send you, at their expense, more entreaties for cash. They put your name on a mailing list which may be exchanged with other groups, incurring more expense. It only seems when you have ignored them for a good long time that they finally get the hint.

Do you realize what you have just done? You have, though out of your best intentinos, made a cause that you wanted to support spend perhaps more than you gave. In other words, your donation made your charity of choice lose money.

You should realize what the next step is (and therefore the meaning of the title of this post).

Hate Barack Obama? Donate money to his campaign.

Think Greeenpeace nods at environmental terrorism? Cut them a check.

Think a particular charity/church/aid drive is particularly unseemly? Pass the plate and dig deep, brothers and sisters.

Your one-time donation, though it goes against your preferences (and thus could be called "strategic charity"), could end up helping you by weakening a cause or person with whom you disagree. Yes, it may feel off-putting holding these two contradictory ideas at once, but trust me: every time you get another piece of mail from your "target," consider it a small victory.

Have I ever actually done this? Yes, but it was without knowing the full implications of the situation. In college, we put one of our friends on this guy's mailing list and he got deliveries and calls for donations for years afterwards.

So go out there, think like a contrarian and show your enemies your contempt by showing your "support." While you are doing it, think about all the little interactions, exchanges and incentives that we respond to everyday and in turn show our preferences and, really, little pieces of ourselves.

It is fascinating ideas like these that make people (me included) think deeper and desire to know more about the world around them. I hope they make you think, too.


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

That seems like something we'd do to Pip.

There's also the other form of charity-giving, the "save your ass from backlash" giving, as was very well illustrated in last week's King of the Hill.

That sort of also spiraled into a subset of charity-givers, who do it just so women will think them better and thus more likely to "donate to their cause", if you know what I mean.

But, yeah, I like this reverse-charity thing. We get three or four mailings a day from the Obama camp telling her to vote for him, only because they have called and she keeps telling them she hasn't made up her mind. I see exactly where you're going with this. And, brilliant, as always.

Will Shannon said...

That was indeed something we did to Pip. If you'll remember, he got sent prayer oils, sticks, a calendar with Tilton entranced, a creepy Jesus poster, prayer rugs and other such godly bric-a-brac.

You make a good point that sometimes, when charitable activity takes place in public (voulnteering is a great example), the motivator becomes being seen as the sort of person who gives of their time. If you'll remember, this was one of the arguable reasons I gave for voting.

This is different from the "left-hand-not-knowing-what-the-right-is-doing" sort. Y'know, the kind Jesus was on about.