Friday, April 25, 2008

Compassionate Hackery

UPDATE: Here's a New & Improved version of this post. Now, with extra snark!

Conservatives are such funny people. Never intentionally, of course, but they're all so simple-minded and predictable that you just have to laugh whenever they yet again refuse to acknowledge their true nature, despite the fact that it's obvious to the rest of us what's going on.

I was reminded of this due to a comment I received on my post on NRO Wanker Larry Kudrow. The post was about how wanker Kudrow exposed his ignorance of economic issues in his attack of Obama's debate performance, so it was only natural that my resident conservative stalker yet again ignored the point of my post to criticize a side note I made at the beginning, when I said that I understood how conservatives can be greedy and selfish. I mean, god forbid I actually be asked to defend my point when there are more trivial attacks to be made, right?

Apparently, I was "wrong" for saying that conservatives can be greedy and selfish. And what was the conclusive proof used to disprove my point: A book that a conservative wrote which argues that conservatives are more compassionate than liberals because liberals rely too much on the government to help people instead of giving money to charity. And yikes, was I chastised when faced with that sort of hard evidence. I mean, the book blurb the guy quoted even said that in the book the author "demonstrates conclusively that conservatives really are compassionate-far more compassionate than their liberal foes."

That sounds like cold hard facts to me. So I guess I lost that debate. Arthur C. Brooks wrote a book called Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, and that's apparently the end of the argument. Case closed.

Begging the Question

Except that it's not. And that's what's so funny about this conservative nutjob who attempted to refute my statement with that, because he doesn't know the difference between an assertion and the facts required to back that assertion. As long as they hear the right conclusion, conservatives know the underlying basis must be correct, because it confirmed exactly what they wanted to hear. And so rather than actually provide any of these underlying facts to back-up his initial assertion that I was wrong, he merely quotes a book blurb which also asserts that this is true. Color me unconvinced.

But it's not just this bozo. After I commented to the guy, I decided to do some research on the book, just to see what kind of thing it really was. And what did I find? My initial search in Yahoo got me page after page of conservative triumphalism. This guy writes a book which "proved" what he set out to prove and conservatives everywhere KNEW it was correct. Over and over, conservatives were rubbing the new book in the faces of the liberal strawmen they created, touting yet more conclusive proof that conservatives are better people than liberals.

And mind you, my search didn't include the guy's name or book title or anything. All I entered were the words Charity Conservatives Liberals and I was inundated with conservatives crowing about this particular book; all entirely convinced of its accuracy, and all quoting the same bits as each other. These guys have taken the echo machine to a whole new level.

Oh, and as an added funny, in nimrod John Stossel's take on it he actually suggests that meatpackers making $35,000 in Sioux Falls, SD count as being "the working poor." Right. He even went on to imply that people on welfare make the same amount. Me thinks somebody's gotten too used to the easy money. But of course, that meatpacker would have to have a family of eight to qualify as being in poverty. And if he was married with one kid, he'd be making almost double the poverty level. I guess $35k must seem like chump change to a guy like Stossel.

And while I'm not really current on the welfare situation, my limited research showed that the only assistance of this kind in South Dakata was the TANF program, which on average paid folks in South Dakota around $4500 annually. So it's obvious that Stossel is totally right when he compares those meatpackers to these welfare queens. As of yet, I haven't seen if Brooks makes this same mistake when he derides the charitable contributions of those on "welfare."

"Surprising" Conclusion

And for as much as Brooks pretends to be an unbiased observer who was surprised by his results, it's obvious that these were the results he set out to get. Besides the fact that the guy is a somewhat regular contributor to the WSJ editorial page (which is famously more rightwing than the rest of the paper), the guy basically admits that his point was to overturn the idea that liberals are more compassionate than conservatives.

I quote from an online Q&A he gave on the book, where he explains why he excluded self-described moderates from the discussion, which is an important point because moderates are apparently far less likely to donate money than either conservatives or liberals (a fact excluded from the book):
My comparison between liberals and conservatives in the book was motivated by the common stereotype that conservatives are less compassionate than liberals, so I really wanted to compare these two groups specifically.

So he set-out to overturn the stereotype, found the results he needed that did that, and upon publishing the book, conservatives everywhere crowed loudly about how the results made them look better than liberals, and now I've got one such conservative trying to rub my nose in this dude's book blurb. But of course the question remained: Were the results valid? And the answer: I wouldn't be writing this post if they were.

Religious v. Conservative

Because I did enough research of this book to find that the most basic premise of the book is wrong. The book clearly focuses on conservative v. liberal differences, as evidenced by the book blurb which hammers at liberals. turns out that what he really found was a religious v. non-religious difference. And because religious people are more likely to be conservative, conservatives appear to be more charitable, though this is a function of their religious beliefs and not their political preferences.

Because as it turns out, while religious conservatives are more likely to give to charity than secular liberals, they give only slightly more than religious liberals. And while both religious groups gave more than non-religious liberals, all three groups gave more than non-religious conservatives; who were apparently the most stingy. And that completely undermines the entire right v. left tilt of the book, because if this was a right-left thing, then non-religious conservatives should give more than religious liberals; and they clearly don't. Somehow, all the conservatives trumpeting this book seem to exclude any mention of this, and use the words "religious" and "conservative" interchangeably. But of course, so does the author.

One other thing to remember in all this is that not all secularists are created equal. For example, while most religious people will tend to be upright citizens, druggie-types who don't give a damn about anything will tend to be non-religious; and thus drag down the group as a whole. And so the non-religious numbers are naturally skewed by people who don't at all belong in the same atheist category as people like Atrios or myself. For as much as Bill O'Reilly insists I'm his natural enemy, I can assure you that I'm likely to fit better into his group than I would with some heroin-junkie musician; though this is definitely not something I'm proud to admit.

Flawed Methodologies

Beyond all that, there were several flaws with the methodology. For example, much of underlying data came from surveys, which can be notoriously unreliable. This involved people telling pollsters how much they donated, to what charities, and all that. And according to this liberal blogger, the data Brooks used doesn't jibe with the source he cites and actually shows the opposite to be true; though the blogger didn't actually provide any examples of this so I can't verify if that's true. But in any case, I'm strongly of the opinion that religious conservatives are much more likely to overstate their charitable activities, as a way to make themselves feel better. I believe I once even read a study saying that, but in the five minutes I was willing to try looking for it, I just couldn't find it.

Or another data source he cited was charitable giving as a percentage of wealth, on a state-by-state basis; which I believe is what he based much of his actual right/left argument on. And he found that in almost every case, states that voted for Bush gave more than states that didn't. You can see maps of this at the bottom of this page. But what he forgot to mention was that he didn't adjust for cost of living. This was based upon total income, not discretionary income. And when adjusted for cost of living, it turns out that eight of the top ten states were blue states; not red states. When confronted with this fact, Brooks dismisses it saying "there are lots of ways to look at geography and giving, and the question is far from settled." Of course, and I'm sure that's how he presented it in his book.

But that's yet another of the conservative's helpful dodges. Everything's so straightforward that it's possible to make sweeping assertions that say exactly what they want to say, unless you can find a more authoritative source that disagrees with them, after which the science is still "in dispute." (See Warming, Global and Evolution, Theory of)

Charitable Megachurches

And also important is where the donations went. Because remember, the focus of the book is to show which side is more compassionate, because conservatives have a reputation for being stingy when it comes to helping the poor. In fact, this was a major point, as one of Brooks' conclusions is that we need to give up on government programs and focus on charitable giving like conservatives do. Yet the book apparently focused on all charitable giving, as defined by the IRS; not just charities that focus on compassion.

And as it turns out, religious people gave a majority of their money to their church. And while I'm sure some of that went towards helping the poor and whatnot, much of it stays with the church. And while I understand why churches are considered charities, for these purposes, that's really a bit muddled. Because people generally give money only to their own church; not other churches. And so they're getting a direct benefit from their donation, and while it's nice that they're giving money, that's generally not what I consider to be a truly compassionate donation. This is more akin to someone donating money to their country club or civic organization. They're paying for air conditioning and nice seats and other things that directly benefit them.

And it wasn't even close. Apparently, in 2000, the year Brooks cites, religious people on average gave $2210 to charity, as opposed to non-religious people, who only gave $642. But...when religious giving is excluded, religious people only gave $88 more on average than non-religious people. So apparently, religious people gave $1480 to their religion, and only $730 to secular charities. And frankly, that $88 difference doesn't sound that dramatic. And remember, this is a religion v. non-religion split; not liberal v. conservative.

For additional reading, here's the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy's study on giving(PDF), which among other things, shows on page 29 that people who never attend church give slightly more on average to secular charities than people who attend church more than fifty-two times a year (which should include most Catholics, assuming they did their math properly). Or read the study yourself and come up with your own ways to show that Brooks' point is far more complex than he leads on.

Uncompassionate Charities

And once again, the point of the book is to show that the bleeding heart liberals don't really do as much to help needy people as conservatives, yet...he includes any charity. And that includes universities, museums, hospitals, civic groups, public radio, or anything else the IRS considers charitable. And while society surely benefits from these charities, the point is that liberals want the government to do more to help needy people. Like welfare, food stamps, school lunch programs, homeless shelters, etc. So that's the kind of charity we need to be looking at.

It was never in doubt that some religious people give huge sums to their church or televangelist, but what does that have to do with properly funding Medicaid? And how does a rich alumni giving big bucks to his alma mater help some homeless schlub get some food? It doesn't. Yet this book doesn't differentiate between how much of this charity actually addresses the issues that liberals are passionate about, but instead considers a conservative who gives a $10,000 donation to Oral Roberts University to be more compassionate than a liberal giving $1,000 to Habitat for the Humanities.

But the point gets bigger than that. Because, for as much as charities are important, they don't even come close to the amount of aid that the government gives. Yet Brooks went out of his way to entirely exclude government programs from the charity mix, because it's not voluntary. And while that's understandable if this book was only about charitable giving, it completely misses the mark, since the point of the book is to show which group is more compassionate. And so by the standards of the book, a liberal advocate who strives to get the government to give health insurance to poor kids doesn't count as being compassionate, while paying to have Oral Roberts' granddaughter fly to the Bahamas does.

In other words, Brooks rigged his book to entirely exclude the primary way that liberals try to show their compassion and a big reason conservatives are called stingy. He sought to show that conservatives who oppose government programs do more to help people than liberals; but entirely failed to do that. Because government programs do help people. So while he may possibly have proven his point that religious people give more than non-religious people, though even that is contentious, there can be no doubt that he missed the boat on the overall premise.

And so he concludes his book at the exact point that he was trying to make in the beginning. He was trying to show that conservatives do more to help people than liberals, intentionally excluded the primary way that liberals want to help people and that conservatives oppose, and then proudly concludes that we need to get the government out of the way. And in order to show that conservatives are more compassionate than liberals, he showed that religious people give lots of money to religion, as well as to other charities that may or may not be compassionate.

And yet none of this is reflected in the standard conservative's post on this book. Frankly, it doesn't even seem as if many of them even read the damn thing. They just tout its conclusion and move on. Even the folks who defend it at Brooks' messageboard don't seem to have given it much thought beyond the basic premise. They want it to be true, so they miss all the ways that it's not.

Recommendation: Become Conservative

And for as much as Brooks insists that he's unbiased in his analysis, one glowing review of his book has this summary of Brooks' recommendations, which totally exposes his little fraud. Because his recommendations don't even come close to following from the data he collected, and clearly reflect the conclusion that he was looking for from the beginning. Here are a few of those recommendations.

Government should:
Think twice before directly subsidizing nonprofit organizations, or investing in programs that increase economic equality. Such spending often "crowds out" private giving.

Reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies that inhibit charitable activity, including "onerous legal requirements, punitive mandatory expenditures, and impossible hiring practices."

Encourage fund raising among charities by giving more government money to organizations that take fund raising seriously.

Liberals should:
Be wary of the idea that government offers the best solution to social issues, since such a viewpoint may weaken one's own resolve to take action or give away money.

Yes, that's right. It's not mentioned whether the government really is the best solution; merely that it discourages charitable contributions which is automatically bad. And overall, the point is government=bad. Why? Because the people who don't like government claim to contribute more to charity, so therefore government programs must stifle charity. Lost in all this is that the reason why these government programs were created in the first place: Because private charity was never enough. Even now, children suffer from malnutrition, but like a good conservative, the best Brooks can do is to blame the government programs trying to nourish them.

Even when confronted with people asking about the activities of these organizations, he insists that it doesn't matter because all charity is beneficial. And again, while I agree with that to an extent, it shows that his conclusion is entirely unfounded. Because if it comes down to some televangelist getting a new jet or a hungry kid in South Dakota getting a free lunch; I'd rather the kid get the meal. Call me crazy, but I think that's where the compassion is.

And of course, if we include the amount of taxpayer dollars (which includes liberal taxpayers) into the mix, we'd see that liberal positions do far more to help people than conservative charity. But that's why he had to exclude that from his numbers, because it blows his entire argument out of the water. But again, his study wasn't designed at all to determine the best way to be compassionate; yet that was entirely the conclusion he came to.

When All Else Fails: Attack the Left

And I've decided to save his best recommendation for last. One of the things in the "Liberals Should" section is to "Ignore comments from people on the left wing of the Democratic Party who belittle the importance of charity."

Of course. Because liberals are famous for belittling charity. What a schmuck. And even if it wasn't easy to identify Brooks' rightwing leanings, his conclusion-first analysis gives it all away. But so does all the online triumphalism from conservatives, who couldn't stop crowing about the conclusions that fit their world expectations. Not that these guys even care whether conservatives give more than liberals; they were just happy to get more ammo to attack liberals with.

And that's exactly how it was presented to me: As if this book was a debate-ending finale that crushed liberals with its authority. Sure, even Brooks insists that this should only encourage debate and not settle it, but with his liberal-bashing premise and government-stomping methodologies, there could be no doubt how it would actually be used.


Doctor Biobrain said...

Damn, one last point I forgot to make is that he actually seems to believe that the simple act of adopting the same attitudes of those who donate the most money will not only make us donate more money, but will actually make us happier and richer. Yes, I couldn't believe it either.

Causation. Correlation. It's all greek to me.

John of the Dead said...

This is strictly anecdotal, so take it for what it is. My wife (a staunch liberal) was attending a conference on emerging churches (basically, how do we make churches relevant and effective). A pastor at a mega-church with 6,000 people attending weekly was looking to get away from the mega-church model. Fully 40% of every dollar received went to utilities. That doesn't count staff, mortgage, or internal funds. When all is said and done, not a lot is left over for real ministry - feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, all that jazz.

So, yeah, all charitable contributions have to be examined - what does all that money buy, not just where it goes.

Doctor Biobrain said...

John - My dad's a Deacon in the Catholic Church, so I've had the chance to see the numbers for his church too, and definitely would have preferred if more went to the community. That isn't to complain too much, as it was nice to see that they didn't keep it all to themselves. But people really shouldn't consider the monies given to churches as being directly comparable to what is spent on Medicaid and other programs. Even charities like the Salvation Army spend part of their dough on religious activities. And this book considered scammy charities that eat-up most of their contributions to be more compassionate than a kindergarten teacher who works in a poor school district.

To be meaningful, this book should have focused on outcomes; not incomes. It's not enough to say who paid the money in. To have made the conclusion this guy made, they should have said what was achieved with the money. To my knowledge, it didn't even try that and the author doesn't seem to like it when people ask him about that.

John of the Dead said...

Oh, I agree fully - the better metric would be what was bought, not what was paid. The point to which I was alluding (poorly, it seems) is that the more popular mega-churches, which tend to be more conservative, spend a huge fraction of their donations on internal costs. It almost runs counter to intuition - one would think that pooling more resources would allow a large group to do even more good in the community, when in fact it just allows them to run the air conditioning.