Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Protests

When you come across some poor, unfortunate rich person who seems to be very, very upset that they do not pay enough taxes, send them here. It's a link to the address where anyone can send extra money to the US Government. And, unlike regular tax payments, they even let you have a say in where the money gets used.

So give them this address. Then hang around, anxiously waiting to see whether or not they start filling out a check. Offer to help them. In fact, maybe instead of just giving them the address, we should hand out pre-addressed, stamped envelopes.

For the record, despondent, non-tax paying billionaires have not been stepping up. According to this article, the total of all voluntary gifts to the US Government in 2010 was a mere $316 million dollars, which wouldn't even show up as a blip on the federal budget.

And yet, it's not that billionaires aren't generous. According to this article, the 50 richest and highest donating people in the US, the so-called "Philanthropy 50," was $3.3 billion. And that much higher number is reportedly the lowest number in years--it's gotten as high as $50.7 billion, one year when Warren Buffet gave $36.1 billion to the Gates Foundation.

The nation as a whole gave away almost $291 billion last year, so again, less than 1% of that was deemed worth giving to any government organization.

It just seems to me that, when the billionaires or private individuals are deciding how their money could do the most good, they think of places outside of Washington DC to do the job.

Right? Wouldn't you? If you wanted to feed hungry kids, would you cut a check to the federal government or would you donate money or time to an organization like Harvesters?

Once upon a time, that was how we did it. We didn't expect the government to feed our poor--we recognized it was an act of charity, one that everybody should participate in, and we did it through private organizations. Go re-read A Christmas Carol, and see what means people are using to try to help the poor.

The current Occupy Wall Street crowd would have you believe that conservatives believe in keeping all the money for themselves, and exploiting them. This simply isn't true. Conservatives believe giving should be done by everybody, to anyone they want, and that the government will just mess it up. I think most Americans agree the government would just mess it up, which is why so few of their giving dollars go to the government.

But do Conservatives put their money where their mouth is? The book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism makes the case they do. George Will pointed out some of the book's more surprising claims:

Although liberal families' incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household ($1,600 per year vs. $1,227).

People who reject the idea that "government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality" give an average of four times more than people who accept that proposition.

I was actually shocked to find that, from a liberal perspective, this not only wasn't impressive, it was disappointing. That charities are not seen as organizations of compassion, but as the death throes of dying societies. Ralph Nader said, "A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity." That's an absolutely mind-boggling statement to me. Let me see if I can explain why.

To me, and I would think to most people, charity is an act of mercy and compassion. It's recognizing that someone is in need, recognizing that I have more than enough for my real needs, and giving to them. It's both an act of gratitude for what I have and love for the other person. When I'm the receiver, it's humbling and a chance to be grateful and a chance to feel like I'm cared about.

Justice is about making sure people get what they "deserve." It's usually seen in context of punishment for wrongdoing, although it can also mean someone has earned a reward. In some ways, it's the opposite of mercy and charity. It just means everyone gets what they are deemed worthy of.

So never mind the crazy irony of taking away things someone has earned and calling it "justice." This so-called "just" society would actually be eliminating altruism and kindness from giving. It would simply be doing what it thought was "fair." Would we be giving to this person because of love? Or because of compassion? No, it's simply because they deserve it.

But at the same time, the money we take from the wealthy would be taken out of anger and vengeance, money they didn't deserve. Money that, inherently, they had taken immorally.

In other words, there is no obligation on me, as the recipient, to have to feel grateful any more. I'm merely being given what I was owed. I don't have to look on the person who I got this money or food from with any degree of appreciation that they figured out how to get it or that they saw fit to give it to me. I get to look at them as simply selfish for having tried to accumulate the money to begin with and relieved that someone finally took it away from them.

It's everything I know and understand about charity, everything I've experienced both in giving and receiving, being turned on its head.

I have had serious financial struggles. And I have been the recipient of kindness. Most of my furniture has been given to me. I have never bought a refrigerator in my life--I've always had people give me their refrigerators when they bought new ones. When I moved into my home, a virtual battalion of men from my church showed up and filled and emptied the moving van in a matter of minutes. When I was struggling with money in the face of medical debt and other issues, my church provided food and other assistance. It's one of the most humbling, gratitude-inducing things in life, to have someone else do things for you that you aren't owed or haven't earned.

In other words, there was nothing like being the recipient of charity to make you realize that you don't deserve it.

That's not to say we shouldn't do it. It just means we should do it in a way that always recognizes that it's precisely because it isn't deserved that it's so awesome, that it's precisely because it's an act of mercy, not justice, that it's an act of compassion and love.

Complaining about other people's behavior will not change your world nearly as quickly as changing your own.

Want to make a real difference?

Occupy Harvesters. Occupy Second Harvest. Occupy the Salvation Army. Occupy your kid's school. Occupy your local blood bank.

Far from being an inadequate salve on an unjust society, these are the places that a genuinely compassionate, giving, kind society are born.