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My Response to Mortimer Zuckerman: Charity Should Be Only A Way Station On the Road to Justice

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Better the occasional fault of a government that lives in a spirit of charity, than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference". (FDR, 1940).

Much of what US News&World Report and the NY Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman says about the American culture of giving to those less fortunate is true, although his digs at European traditions that, he claims, do not match ours in philanthropy are way off the mark. In the end, I had trouble reading Zuckerman's article, "God Bless America!" without concluding that it is a grand rationalization, steeped in Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th century observations, of this Canadian-cum-American real estate billionaire's wealth and life choices.

[Zuckerman is a major charitable donor, and his charities were some of Madoff's victims. When the Madoff scandal broke, Mort was enraged, and very concerned for the recipients. Despite my profound disagreements with the conclusions he draws in his article, I salute Mort for his donations and the genuineness of his rage and concern over the Madoff swindle. It would be telling to learn whether he made up the losses in those charities by digging deeper into his own pockets, or whether those they serve are suffering the consequences of Zuckerman's fund managers' incompetence.]

Zuckerman's criticisms about European traditions actually prove the converse -- that, when it comes to a basic social safety net, Europeans are far more giving than are Americans and far more effective because the safety-net is organized on a societal basis through government and they tax themselves to fund it. Although European 'charity' may have its origins in their aristocratic/authoritarian heritage -- Zuckerman's (unlikely) explanation -- Europeans today vote for broad social safety nets and voluntarily tax themselves to do it. If one believes the rightwing claptrap (for which evidence also goes begging) that these higher tax rates reduce economic growth rates, then European citizens are not only taxing themselves to provide a broad, deep safety net, but they also willingly accept a lower economic growth rate to do it.

American political dialogue has, at least in the last 30 years, never even entertained that choice. It always has been "obvious" that the selection would be higher growth. Recall the blizzard of flak Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden received for suggesting that paying taxes was patriotic. In popular American culture, as fed to us by the elite, it is patriotic to lose life or limb to defend the country, but sacrificing a small fraction of one's wallet to achieve the Founders' mission of "establishing justice" and "promoting the general welfare" is unpatriotic. Most disappointingly, Biden immediately backed down from his remarks.

Dismissing the European perspective as "simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens" (ibid) suggests Zuckerman has either read or conducted a deeply informed psychological analysis of the European mind and character. My (admittedly random) discussions with European friends over many years suggest the opposite: that Europeans take the plight of the least fortunate seriously and feel a broad societal obligation to them. To take it seriously means to address it comprehensively and to provide the necessary resources. They vote for the policies and tax themselves to provide the resources. Europeans can say, honestly, "I gave at the office."

Let us not, however, be as obtuse to the American charitable spirit as Zuckerman was to the Europeans'. The American charitable spirit is real, and a legitimate source of pride. I give, of myself, my time and my money, and it makes me feel good to do it. I have been fortunate -- through a combination of opportunity, hard work and much luck, I have the luxury of certain skills, some free time, and money that enables me to make a difference in the lives of others.

My immigrant grandmother, who had barely enough food for herself and family, would nonetheless provide food for others in the neighborhood who did not eat everyday. Her giving may or may not have made her feel good in the same way that mine does to me, but her comparative sacrifice was far greater than mine, and Zuckerman's.

Her motivations were also more pure. She did it simply because she truly understood their suffering. The least able are often the most giving because they truly feel the others' pain and predicaments.

Probably because it imparted a survival advantage, the human brain appears to have been wired to trigger good feelings from giving. It is also an extension of the nurturing instinct. Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel, speculated that humans domesticated animals initially from the nurturing instinct toward the cubs and pups and other little playful, cute, curious and vulnerable-appearing young offspring.

All this good feeling, however, can be a psychological barrier to fighting the injustice that leads to the great needs for charity in the first place. The Wall Streeters who brought us to the brink of financial ruin attend black-tie society balls at night, dropping what seems like oodles of cash on charitable causes, to great accolades. In cases of fraud or other illegality, their lawyers argue for reduced sentences, citing their giving as an indicator of what good people and pillars of society their clients are.

The next day, without making any connection to the needs that moved them the previous evening, they march right back into their plushly-appointed offices to foreclose on peoples' homes or otherwise protect and extend their profit and power. This psychological disconnect -- present also in Zuckerman's piece -- can be illustrated by a major executive who served on the National Cancer Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute (i.e., good works + recognition). Recruited to run a tobacco company, he resigned from the NCAB demonstrating he clearly understood the hypocrisy, but seemed not to suffer any pang of conscience or cognitive dissonance from abandoning a role trying to reduce or prevent human misery in favor of another role selling death to children, cigarettes' only new recruits. One wonders whether Zuckerman would call down God's blessing on him.

Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs CEO who proclaimed his banking was doing god's work, committed $500 million from the firm for charitable causes, hoping to be cheered for his generosity. That does not even approach my grandmother's comparative level of giving and, for once, the world understood the ruse.

What matters, however, is that Blankfein believes it. That belief (or rationalization or excuse) presents a psychological hurdle to rally support to build a society of not equal, but more shared and sustainable prosperity. Better than Blankfein's gift of $500 million would be a windfall profits tax on financial institutions that were bailed out. That would bring in billions that could be used to subsidize health, or improve teacher-student ratios, or just reduce the deficit. Something of that sort will happen in the UK.

Several nights ago CNN honored heroes. One hero, a breast cancer survivor, was recognized for organizing an initiative to provide early screening for breast cancer for the poor and uninsured. Her organization has knocked on 20,000 doors, arranged for a mobile mammography trailer to visit the neighborhoods, and (I believe they said) found 600 early breast cancers that can be cured by surgery alone.

This lady certainly deserves her award. But, it was necessary only because these women are uninsured, the information about the value of mammography had not been conveyed, and the test required trips to medical centers. While I cheer her achievement and dedication, adequate insurance plus a government program to get all women properly screened could save tens of thousands of children their mothers. That is, with a basic level of health justice, this lady's heroism would not be necessary.

Japan has a very high rate of stomach cancer (not colon cancer as we have in the US, but cancer of the actual stomach itself). Recognizing the problem, the people elected a government that established mobile teams to perform endoscopy (looking into the stomach with a fiberoptic tube) to detect early-stage, surgically curable, disease. The death-rate from stomach cancer plummeted. The hero? Japanese society as a whole that recognized a national problem, and decided to do something effective about it -- for everyone.

Another CNN hero, and another case-in-point. A young man who lost both his lower legs in a freak boating accident dedicated himself to ensuring that children 18 years and younger who need prostheses can get them. Insurance companies (the CNN program told us) will pay for the least expensive not always completely functional prosthetic device -- e.g., prosthetic legs without flexible knees that would allow the child to run with his friends -- and will support only one per lifetime even as the child grows. The young man who turned his own tragedy into a mission for others deserves every accolade and support that can be bestowed upon him.

But, we cannot let our genuine admiration for his work, or the breast cancer survivor's work, substitute for a strong dedication to curing the underlying injustice that makes those efforts so necessary and, despite their reach, still address only a small percentage of the need.

That leads inexorably back to politics. Sordid and disappointing as it often is, political action is the only real solution to problems of this magnitude. The rightwing spends hundreds of millions per year supporting their belief tanks, media and political training, for the sole purpose of holding back progress.

It is easier for the rightwing than progressives to support such a vast infrastructure because the rightwing contributors see it as a financial investment: succeed politically, and far more than they spent will be returned as tax-cuts or at least will preserve their current position. The purpose of conservatism, said William F Buckley, Jr., is to "stand athwart history". By contrast, progressives' political success often results in their own donors paying more in taxes. Their motivation is to build a more humane, just and successful society -- noble and charitable to be sure, but without the financial payoff the rightwing targets.

In his article Zuckerman applauds George HW Bush's "1000 points of light," i.e., summoning the American spirit of help and giving. If HW had been a private citizen when he uttered these words, using his network to ameliorate suffering, he should be applauded. But, as a policy enunciated by a sitting US President who had been handed the immense powers of that office, it is a dangerously seductive rationalization to leave massive injustices unaddressed, as HW did. Even if a president could transform it to "100,000 points of light," large swaths of the population would be unserved.

The HW perspective trickles down throughout the Republican party. House Republican Minority Whip Eric Cantor told an impoverished constituent who asked what she should do for her medical treatment to try to find a charitable hospital. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, told his constituents to go work for the federal government if they wanted health care like he is provided (not to mention the cool $1 million agricultural subsidies he voted himself).

Americans can be justly proud of their charitable spirit and level of contributions.

But, a catalog of these charities and stories like CNN's heroes should serve not only to provide admiration and recognition to those who do extend themselves for others, but also as a mirror to our society reflecting the vast unmet needs that no charity or heroic deeds can adequately address.