Thursday, December 27, 2012

Nicholas Kristof and the Ups and Downs of Charitable Giving

If you miss a Nicholas Kristof column you never feel deprived.

True, Kristof’s fulminations occasionally target outrageous practices, but he rarely gets beyond his overwrought emotions.

Kristof is not a thinker. His strong suit is reporting. If he ever found himself in the marketplace of ideas he would be lost.

Today, Kristof is not crusading against something horrific. He has offered a paean to philanthropic billionaires, like Ted Turner, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

To keep it balanced he includes a couple of gratuitous swipes at a billionaire named Trump whose eleemosynary instincts are, to Kristof, underdeveloped.

Kristof thrills to the fact that billionaires have made charitable giving cool. He is ecstatic that they are funding leftist causes—like the United Nations.

The prospect of seeing all of those capitalists billions funneled into the hands of leftist do-gooders excites Nicholas Kristof. Just think of how much trouble they can cause for big business. Just think of how much social justice they can engineer.

The mind boggles.

Kristof notes happily that Ted Turner’s billion dollar gift to the United Nations has restored the prestige of the United Nations.

But, ask yourself this: what has the UN done lately? Kristof does not raise the issue because he is gaga over the UN, but this same organization, its prestige raised by Ted Turner’s gift, has recently recognized the legitimacy of Palestine. Lest we forget, the UN seems often to be in the business of bashing Israel.

Were it not for the fact that New York City profits greatly from having the UN in town, few would notice if it disappeared tomorrow.

If Kristof had practiced the intellectual virtue of consistency, he would have recalled one of his best columnar efforts,one in which he, in a rare moment of lucidity, explained that the people of Haiti need more factories and less charity.

Obviously, all of those charitable donations are not being and have not been invested in Haitian industry.

I don’t need to tell you how that’s working out for the people of Haiti.

Today, Kristof devotes his column to the lame idea that Ted Turner has made charitable giving cool again. Forgetting the great philanthropists of the past, Kristof opines:

Tycoons used to compete for their place on the Forbes and Fortune lists of wealthiest people. If they did give back, it was often late in life and involved museums or the arts. Tycoons used to compete for their place on the Forbes and Fortune lists of wealthiest people. If they did give back, it was often late in life and involved museums or the arts. They spent far more philanthropic dollars on oil paintings of women than on improving the lives of real women.

Turner’s gift helped change that culture, reviving the tradition of great philanthropists like Rockefeller and Carnegie. Turner publicly began needling other billionaires — including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — to be more generous. That was a breach of etiquette, but it worked.

Only someone as dense as Kristof would write a sentence like: “They spent far more philanthropic dollars on oil paintings of women than on improving the lives of real women.”

Does Kristof really believe that billionaires collect “oil paintings of women” instead of helping real women? Does he believe that philanthropists who support the arts are to be condemned for not giving their money to boondoggles like the United Nations? Does he not understand that buying art is an investment? Does he want to explain to all of the female artists whose careers are support by charitable donations that they are not real women?

Does he really believe that the United Nations does yeoman work supporting real women around the world? Will he explain how much it is helping the women who are oppressed by Islamist cultures? Is it so distracted by its hatred for Israel that it does not have the time or energy to help those women? Does Kristof really believe that the best way to improve the lives of real women is to give them handouts?

Obviously, Kristof did not think about what he was writing. In his columns, it’s a reversion to the mean.  

If you ask why these billionaires like to give money to leftist causes, the reason might lie in the fact that they can count on useful columnists like Kristof to shower them with good press.

These people did not make fortunes by being stupid. They are happy to enhance their reputation and shield themselves from the peasants with pitchforks by buttering up the zealots of the mainstream media.

My misgivings notwithstanding, Kristof is a star columnist in a newspaper that has seen better days. If you want to know why the New York Times is in something of a death spiral, you should compare and contrast Kristof’s praise of charitable billionaires with a recent article in a reputable newspaper-- the Financial Times.

Admittedly, Kristof writes an opinion column. The FT article was reporting news.

But, even opinion writers should know the facts and should know better than to allow their fantasies to replace reality.

The FT reports the state of charitable giving. It may be cool to give money to charity, but the truth is, charitable giving has fallen off of the cliff.

The FT reports:

The woes of the global charity industry are deepening as donations – both smaller individual gifts and philanthropy – continue to contract as demand for the services of non-profit organisations keeps mounting.

Charity officials and experts harbour little hope for a meaningful recovery in 2013. Individual donations – the single biggest source of revenue for most charities – have shrunk sharply in many western countries. Bigger gifts from philanthropists and endowments have also slumped after the financial crisis took its toll on their assets.

Also, the FT reports that: “…philanthropic giving in the US has contracted for five straight years, from a total of $43bn in 2007 to $11bn this year – the lowest since the list began in 2000.”

It may be “cool” to give money to charity, but, in reality, a drop from $43,000,000,000 to $11,000,000,000 is huge. If it happened to your portfolio you would fire your broker.

As for the United Nations, one of its least controversial arms, UNICEF has been receiving less money: “Unicef, the UN children’s agency, estimates that its income declined 7 per cent to $3.4bn in 2012.”

The moral of the story: when you write for today’s New York Times you do not have to bother with the facts.


Sam L. said...

Now if the Koch brothers gave to charity, askance he would look

SlartiBartFast said...

Whoa... eleemosynary....Thanks for that one Stuart