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By Subhash Kateel

Anytime I talk about a rich person or corporation that really sucks, I get a bunch of negative feedback.  I am usually reminded how said corporation or rich dude “does a lot” for the community and gives “tons” to charity.  That’s when I point out that drug dealers “do a lot” and give to charity too (a point I will repeat as often as needed).  As the Florida Republican primaries kicked into full gear and I try really hard to give a damn,  a whole set of conversations are popping off about how Mitt Romney pays a lower tax rate than much of the country.  Predictably, those conversations are promptly followed by some reminder of how much Mitt gives to charity.

If you look at his income tax returns, it is technically true.  He gave about $7 million (of his +$200 million net worth) over two years to tax deductible charitable institutions.  But as a few news outlets point out, a significant amount of that charitable giving resembles the ten percent tithe he is suppose to give to his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or the “Mormons” for short).  In case you don’t know, tithing is a centuries old religious practice requiring a person to give ten percent of something-livestock, grain, money or stocks- to a religious institution.  It has equivalents in Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism.  Way back in the day (until about the 19th century), when the church and the state often intertwined, tithing closely resembled taxes.
So is it sincere to consider tithes the same as charity?  That really depends on your religious and social beliefs. The funny thing is, some of my pro-Mitt friends that are the least religious are among the first to cite his charitable giving while defending his uncharitable tax rate.  Charity today implies that you voluntarily choose to give to something you believe in.  But historically, tithes were more a requirement, often enforceable by law (like when England raised money to fight the crusades).
Although most Americans in 2012 are not required to pay tithes (it was actually abolished in parts of Europe), in some churches it is still far from voluntary.  For Mormons, you must pay the ten percent in order to remain in “good standing” and participate in church practices.   If you’re Catholic, not tithing amounts to little more than being subjected to a sleep-inducing lecture by a priest at the end of Catholic mass. To be fair, although the Mormon Church is pound for pound one of the richest, it also boasts impressive charitable institutions and social welfare networks.  A Mormon friend once joked that for all the anti-socialist republicans in the LDS church, if it were a country, it would run more like Sweden than the United States (with a little more prayer and cake and a little less alcohol). 
In addition, even though Americans of all income brackets give a lot to charity, much of that giving is also through their religious institutions, making their giving not much different than Mitt’s.  But it doesn’t change the fact that if Mitt didn’t pay his ten percent, he would probably get more than a stern talking to from a Church elder.
It also doesn’t change the fact that even Mitt’s charitable giving reeks of someone making more of an investment decision than a donation.   For example, almost half of his donations were in appreciated assets (e.g. stock in Domino’s pizza).  Donating appreciated assets versus cash is an accountant’s trick that enables Mitt to deduct the higher value of the stock (rather than how much he paid for it) from his taxes rather than paying capital gains taxes on the increased value of the stock.  Smart bookkeeping?  Yes.  A sign of selfless giving? Eh… 
There are still people that point out that rich Mitt still gives a higher sum (even if not a higher percentage) to charity than the average American, so it must still be taken into higher consideration.  After all, charity-wise, it just pays for a lot more.  Once again, accepting that notion depends on your social and religious beliefs.  If you believe in Jesus, for example, you would notice that Jesus says very little about gay marriage or abortion, but specifically says in the Gospel that the poor giving out of their poverty is a higher attribute that the rich giving out of their abundance.
Does this make Mitt’s giving illegal?  No. As a general rule, I assume that the super-rich try to change the law before trying to break it.  As far as Mitt and our tax laws, that seems to be true.  But does Mitt’s giving count more than the cash-strapped working mother who saw the Haitian earthquake on TV, and dipped into her pockets to give immediately?    Does it matter more than the father who has two full time jobs and still volunteers at the local soup kitchen?
Growing up, virtually everybody I knew helped those around them that needed it, regardless of how much they themselves had.  You had the grandmother on a fixed income that still fed kids in the neighborhood that didn’t have much.  You had the atheist kid that hated church but still became a Big Brother.  You had the families that were struggling to survive and still took people in that lost their jobs or been evicted from their homes. You had the church folks that volunteered twice a week at charity events, bringing their bratty kids with them because they couldn’t afford childcare.  Studies show that, if anything, the poor give more of their money to charity than the rich. But the most charitable people I knew growing up didn’t even think about or wouldn’t even know how to deduct the things they did from their taxes.  If anything, some folks would feel embarrassed if anyone made a big deal of the things they did in the community.  Anytime they would get an accolade, they would simply say, “I’m just doing what people are suppose to do for each other.”
That doesn’t mean that all of the super-rich are super-greedy.  Nor does it mean that all of their charity work is a massive tax evasion scheme.  But as the public gets smart to the fact that the super-rich often get more welfare than the rest of us, there will be a public relations push to promote the “good things” the 1% do.   There are probably plenty of good super-rich people out there, but the super-rich don’t get to become super-good just because they do things that the rest of us feel that we are “suppose” to do anyway.   

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