Patt Morrison | KPCC's home for all things Patt Morrison.

Are Taxes the Same as Charitable Donations?

Some pretty startling content to Thursday’s program – and I’m not talking about just the news that the military is refusing to award Purple Hearts to some veterans who have concussion trauma from explosives, a story investigated and reported by NPR and ProPublica. There’s a link on the Patt Morrison page.

What took me aback even more was an argument put forward by a caller and a couple of commenters on the blog. A UC Berkeley researcher had found that poor people -- those earning under $25K a year -- give a higher percentage of their income to charity than do people earning above $75K. And not by a small margin, either -- 4.2 percent for the have-nots against 2.7 percent f or the haves.

There were of course lots of ways to slice and dice these numbers, like how much of this giving goes into church collection plates as compared to arts and cultural organizations, and whether the more prosperous are more likely to give to ''vanity'' nonprofits, like colleges or other institutions that have bigger ''bragging rights'' among some.

One caller objected to the guest's use of the word ‘’class,’’ as in ‘’upper class’’ and ‘’lower class.’’ We like to think of this country as class-free; here, ``class’’ ranks right up there with some four-letter words as a very filth noun indeed. But although we are a very aspirational and mobile society, we do have classes in this country, socially and economically. Paul Fussell’s fabulous book ‘’Class’’ nails a lot of this down. While we like to think of ourselves as classless and always use the example of Abe Lincoln, log-cabin-to-White House, the income divide has been getting larger, drifting toward more of a Gilded Age profile than the flattened class system we like to see in the national mirror.

But I was brought up short when a caller argued that the prosperous already give big dough to charity. It's just called by another name -- taxes. 


I know we Americans don’t like paying much for anything – evidence the Internet – but to suggest that taxes are a kind of forced charity? Some people might find that argument almost un-American. One of them would be the great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

He said that ''Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.'' More specifically, they're what we pay for the roads that take employees and suppliers to and from work and shopping, for police and Social Security, for fixing potholes and for public health programs. It’s what we pay to be able to flush the toilets, and have safe drinking water come out of the tap [and in my case, to call the county public health inspector to come out on a Saturday when my neighbor’s sewer line broke]. It’s what we pay for poor people to afford food so their kids – who sit in public school classrooms alongside everyone else’s kids – can concentrate and learn and grow up to be responsible neighbors and hire-able employees and consumers and taxpayers, and, just maybe, self-made millionaire entrepreneurs.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, who grew up in a country that provides a kind of tax-supported universal health care program that he admired so much, was way off the mark when he was running for governor seven years ago. Here is what he said, and here’s my rejoinder in the LA Times.