Oh, Yes, the 1% (And Then Some) Should Give Back

Harry Binswanger doesn’t think so:

It’s time to gore another collectivist sacred cow. This time it’s the popular idea that the successful are obliged to “give back to the community.” That oft-heard claim assumes that the wealth of high-earners is taken away from “the community.” And beneath that lies the perverted Marxist notion that wealth is accumulated by “exploiting” people, not by creating value–as if Henry Ford was not necessary for Fords to roll off the (non-existent) assembly lines and Steve Jobs was not necessary for iPhones and iPads to spring into existence.

But he’s wrong.

In my review of Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach, I made the following statement:

Through his characters we see the various aspects of life in Palm Beach: the houses, the Worth Avenue shopping, and the charity balls.  These last are not to be underestimated; they define both the season in general and those who attend them.  They are part of the race to the top that Leamer likens to a greyhound race (an analogy I used in my piece Running Rusty.)  Although these have doubtless raised money for worthy causes, the whole spectacle of the things tends to sour the long-term observer to charitable giving as a whole, which is something else that’s hard to explain outside of Palm Beach.  But perhaps the sincerity of the givers and guests should not be underestimated.  Leamer’s epilogue is the aftermath of the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s scheme, which drained funds from both the Palm Beach Country Club and a good portion of its membership.  In the wake of that collapse, one lament many of his Jewish victims made was that they were no longer able to give to charity, something that struck me as heartfelt.

To this, fellow Palm Beacher and Anglican chronicler George Conger replied as follows: “I was also taught that to those who have been given much, much is to be expected.”  That, of course, is an allusion to Luke 12:48.  It’s no secret that starting out in a place like this and the many other upper echelon communities gives a head start to people, and it’s also no secret (especially if you grow up in a place like that) that success, as much a product of hard work and organisation as it is, is also a product of being in the “right” place at the right time.

Irrespective of the sour taste that the charity/social system in Palm Beach left, giving back in one way or another is part of one’s Christian obligation.  (I’ll leave it to my Jewish readers to make the case in Judaism).  There’s no getting around it.  Binswanger is flat wrong is asserting that “giving back” is a Marxist concept; it’s not.  Marxism, among other things, seeks to eliminate charity and ultimately having any one have anything to give back by levelling society through social evolution into the dictatorship of the proletariat, something no “Marxist” state has ever pulled off.

I don’t see a society based on any secular principles–left or right, as is the case with Objectivist Binswanger–doing anything other than Marxism purports to do in “encouraging” people to give back, i.e., prevent it.  Parading it in front of people–and forcing them to do it as one sees in resume enhancing “charity”–isn’t going to make more people generous.  It’s something that has to come from above and be voluntarily accepted, and as our society turns more and more away from that, the giving back will become all the scarcer.

3 thoughts on “Oh, Yes, the 1% (And Then Some) Should Give Back”

  1. Its the wrong term , “giving back” means you took something and now have to give it back or return it. People choose to “GIVE” to another not “GIVE BACK” . Give back implies borrowing something then giving it back. It is GIVING something that was earned by someone who now chooses to GIVE it to another.Its a subtle way of brainwashing the masses to get them to think and to do a certain way. Sneaky B.S.-

    1. Well, some of us have been around long enough–or have, via other sources, historical memories–to have a different take on this.

      In an American sense, our system has provided people with opportunities to make themselves better. In that sense “giving back” means that, since we (and/or our ancestors) had the opportunity to advance ourselves, we should in turn help make it possible for others to do the same. That’s “giving back” to the society as we have known it.

      Unfortunately the United States is no longer (or is in the process of becoming no longer) a society like that. We are becoming an elite-run, class-stratified society which attempts to centralise the wealth and power at the top and then doles it out as it sees fit. Under these conditions there isn’t much to give; the “volunteerism” that seems to important is just another form of corvee for pet causes of those at the top.

      In a Christian sense, salvation and the benefits that go with it are free and without our merit or cost. Thus we should freely give as we have received. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, make the lepers clean, drive out demons. You have received free of cost, give free of cost.” (Matthew 10:8 TCNT) We cannot give back to God in the measure he has given us, but we can give to others.

      But that too is unpopular amongst those who own and operate our society too, isn’t it?

  2. Don,

    Giving back? Oh!

    When I started building the coin laundries in Japan I only built four or five in the first three years (1972~75), and I lost money at it. Coin laundries are heavily capital intensive in machinery and fixtures, you have a heavy hit to cash in your real estate deposits, and you’ve dug up enough streets and buried enough pipes that the head of Mobil Oil is buying you drinks to get advice on how to get pipeline-building rights out of the government. (My advice to him was that he might have been able to build his fuel line from Yokohama dockside to Tachikawa Air Base if his visa sponsor had been the Emperor’s nephew…)

    Anyway, what this all means is that no matter what the tax laws are — and Japan’s give everybody a sporting chance — you can write your own depreciation schedule, and as long as your cash flow is good profit or loss is your call.

    By my third year it couldn’t be helped. In North America a coin laundry goes profitable f the machines are turning maybe 3~4% of the time on a 24-hour day. In Japan property, gas and electricity are all more expensive, so your break-even is maybe 7~8%. My machines were moving 87% ’round the clock, and lugging the coin to the bank threatened disk slippage. So I sucked it up and paid $14,000 in income taxes.

    For a few months I went around whistling. Every time I saw a school going up, and at this point Japan was just starting to tear down the wooden barns of the 1945~50 period and build real brick and ferro-concrete (this is earthquake country) schools, I could say to myself, “Hey, good for you David, you helped pay for that.”

    Then they audited me.

    I had kept a single set of honest books: a local Vice-President of Chase had taught me double-entry, and of course I had matriculated in math of accountancy because I had needed the easy First to build my university scholarship, so that was no sweat. I had to hire a Japanese bookkeeper to fill everything out in Japanese, and two tax guys came in and sat in my office for three days going through every damn thing.

    At the end of it the chief stood up and said, in Japanese, “Well. Mister Lloyd-Jones. I see you are an honest man. Let me give you a hint.” And then he told me one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. Under Japanese tax law you can take depreciation on stock in trade in the warehouse. This is bizarre and amazing. You have to take the recapture when you move the stuff out, but this was a one-time gift of about $15,000 — at the Japanese tax-payers’ expense — just for being nice and being an honest man. I thanked the man, and shook my head in wonderment, and then did the last thing with my Japanese hired hand, set up the books to take this gift.

    But still, the gift aside, being audited took all the joy out of paying taxes. I never again had that thrill seeing a school go up and feeling proud of having helped pay for it.

    I had read all of Ayn Rand as a teen-ager, and had had my head turned by her for some months, so I altogether understand the thrill going through Paul Ryan’s head; so at that time I had a hard time keeping my bitterness at being audited from affecting my equilibrium. Fortunately my father was an active and creative businessman, and I had succeeded Jerry Caplan, one of Canada’s (and the Reichmanns’) tax geniuses in the informal position of King of the JCR (“Junior Common Room”) at University College so I was able to take things more or less in stride.

    Still it gave me an appreciation for the ugly bitterness with which people like Mitt Romney behave.,

    Given his fine family background and his sound, though, uh, interesting religious antecedents, one can assume that Romney was once a decent man. He certainly knows how to act like one in several different ways for several different publics. Nevertheless he has somehow turned into the lowest sort of preying thief, and an inveterate and serial liar. He has become a man so contemptuous of his fellow citizens that he even goes around telling transparently stupid lies, seemingly under the genuine impression that we are either so feckless that we believe them or so wicked as to be on his side.

    What can change a man so?

    I think the change is caused by the very severe temptation offered a man who has made a profit “with his own hands” and the sweat of his brow, the temptation to believe he did it by himself and is owed whatever he can get.

    Now I had certainly sweated. The paradigmatic moment, well, one of the paradigmatic moments and one that I still treasure, of the whole fifteen year coin laundry caper, is me on my knees in half an inch of cold filthy water, at four in the morning, with the weather outside our unheated store in Kokubunji, a Tokyo suburb, freezing, teaching an 18-year-old how to strip down and reassemble a wounded washing machine. Boy, am I chuffed with myself!

    On reflection, however, it wasn’t all that fun for the 18-year-old, who might have wondered why he was expected to still be at work 20 hours into his working day. And I hadn’t laid the gas pipes for my dryers, nor tramped through the jungles of Borneo to find the gas (though I had advised that Emperor’s nephew, who had financed the insulated ships which brought that gas from Borneo to Japan). So all things considered I had a hell of a lot to be grateful for, and maybe it’s a little early in the day to be breaking my arm by patting myself on the back.

    That is the nut of the “Did you build it yourself?” item in the electoral campaign just past. Romney, characteristically, lied about what President Obama had said, and strutted his pride to feed the pride, sloth, self-pity and invidiousness of his audiences. Barack Obama had run on the obvious truth, that the sweat of our brows only has economic value through the sweat of other people’s brows.

    This latter is a central economic fact.

    It is not the “Marxism” that right-wingers love so much to prate about. It is not even socialism, nor sociology. It is basic Peter Drucker, and Adam Smith (the moral philosopher, remember?), and elementary observation so simple a child can understand it — but a Chamber of Commerce member can forget: our work, and our thought, and our moxie, and our energy, and our encouraging others, and our on-the-job friendship all have value, often very great value, only because of these same qualities, efforts and contributions by all the people around us.

    -dlj.

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