In Reagan's Decade of 'Greed,' Charitable Giving Soared to New Heights

GEORGE F. WILL

January 23, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The definitive history of greed is yet to be written but the broad outlines are well-known. Greed was inserted into the human story a while back by a serpent. Since then it has waxed and waned.

For example, there was a little of it during the Dark Ages, when there was little to covet. True, the Visigoths were grasping people, but a distinction should be drawn between their innocent Third World ebullience and the greed Ronald Reagan let loose in America.

There were gobs of greed during America's Gilded Age after the Civil War, when robber barons made disgusting amounts of money. They also made railroads, steel mills and a unified nation capable of employing and assimilating millions of immigrants, but that, of course, was no excuse.

Anyway, journalists and Democratic presidential candidates and other historians are agreed that greed seems to vary inversely NTC with the fortunes of the Democratic Party. The sharpest spikes on the graph of greed coincide uncannily with Republican presidencies. At noon on Jan. 20, 1981, greed began soaring to a particularly amazing peak.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton says the 1980s were a decade of ''greed and self-serving.'' Iowa Senator Tom Harkin says the 1980s featured ''greed and selfishness.'' Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey says ''greed and cynicism'' were everywhere.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown says politics then became ''a Stop & Shop for every greedy special interest.'' Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas says -- and to think he has been called boring -- ''This generation is ready to turn its back on the 1980s and the greed.''

But while waiting to see which of these moralists is nominated to drive greed back to wherever it came from, read ''Was It a Decade of Greed?'' by Richard B. McKenzie of the University of California, Irvine. Published in The Public Interest, the essay notes that in the greed-soggy 1980s charitable giving by individuals and corporations increased dramatically.

While Americans were, as everyone knows, wallowing in self-absorption and going on consumption binges, they also were giving to charities at a rate substantially above even the level that would have been predicted from the upward trend established in the previous 25 years.

Between 1955 and 1980, giving (expressed in constant 1990 dollars) increased at a compound annual rate of 3.3 percent, from $34.5 billion to $77.5 billion. But between 1980 and 1989, giving increased to $121 billion, an annual rate of increase of 5.1 percent, a growth rate 55 percent higher than in the preceding 25 years.

Giving by individuals, which is more than 80 percent of all giving, grew 68 percent faster in the 1980s than between 1955 and 1980. Giving by individuals grew even faster than did spending on the consumption of automobiles (60 percent), jewelry and watches (41 percent), personal services such as hairstyling and health clubs (38 percent) and restaurant meals (22 percent).

In fact, giving by individuals increased faster than total consumer spending (48 percent), which was, everyone knows, at a level indicative of Babylonian decadence.

Does population growth explain away this odd charitableness by the odiously greedy? Nope. Real per-capita giving by individuals increased twice as fast as in earlier decades, from $284 in 1980 to $409 in 1989. And private giving as a share of national income increased 29 percent from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.

Giving increased not only in the teeth of the 1980s gale of greed, but increased in spite of lower tax rates, which increased the cost of giving. For a pre-1980s taxpayer in a 50 percent bracket, a $100 gift cost $50 (the gift minus the $50 reduction of his tax bill). But for a taxpayer in Reagan's top bracket of 28 percent, the $100 gift costs $72 (the gift minus a $28 tax bill reduction).

How can all this be explained? It is, of course, impossible that charitable giving accelerated because people had significantly more disposable income.

Everyone knows (because everyone who says there was a gusher of greed says so) that in the 1980s most people were made miserable. Hence it is unlikely that people gave more because they were happy, optimistic and in a giving mood.

The only acceptable explanation -- meaning the only explanation compatible with what everyone (journalists, Democratic presidential candidates and other historians) knows -- is this:

Charitable giving increased because of the horrors of the Reagan era. Specifically, the virtual extinction of the middle class, the annihilation of the environment were so gross that not even the anesthetizing effect of greedy consumption could prevent a broad outpouring of charitable giving from horrified Americans.

Call it ''the charity of revulsion against conservatism.'' The explanation of it will be complete when someone explains how the orgy of consumption coincided with general economic misery.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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