Monday, January 11, 2010

Venting a bit....

A story in today's New York Times got me going this morning. It reports that Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, is considering increasing the requirements for charitable contributions from it's top paid employees--you know, the ones who helped screw up the economy and are now getting million and multi-million dollar bonuses a year later.

The article noted that Goldman has long had a requirement that top earners give 4% of their income to charity--and then check their tax returns to assure that there is compliance. Thus, there is no real charity at Goldman, just an enforced policy, like a dress code or the expectation of cheery attendance at a hated boss's birthday celebration.

The key part of the article was whether this policy--of wringing donations out of otherwise unwilling employees from their obscene bonuses--would reduce public anger over the bonuses themselves.

Yet again, these people are clueless about how real people think and act. I must have heard two dozen interviews over the last year from Wall Street types who absolutely do not understand why the country is mad at them for taking crazy risks (on all our behalf) to make money (for themselves). While there were many, many people who contributed to the economic mess, the Wall Street bankers stand out above the rest for their endless and self-serving rationales of why they were not the ones that brought the nation (and much of the world) to its economic knees, then needed tax dollars to bail them out, and now can go back to business as usual (with no oversight, PLEASE--we know what we're doing).

All of which is a rant to get to this question. Is forced charity really charity? Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that some nonprofits will get what, on my quick accounting, is a ton of money (Goldman has set aside $16.7 billion for compensation this year--calculate 5% of that and you see what I mean), but still, is it charity? Goldman has reported that the firm also put aside $200 million for it's Foundation. I wonder how much of that $ will be given to charity, and how much will be kept in the foundation, invested by Goldman--and who at Goldman will earn investment fees. Pardon my cynicism.

There's a related issue here that has been bugging me for a long time--the courts sentencing people to community service. This sets up a conversation I had with a high school student a few months back where he told me he was busy after school: "doing my community service alongside the felons and DUI guys". His school requires volunteering, but limits the places students can volunteer, the time, and the type of volunteering. The kids get it--this isn't charity, it's forced labor.

A few years back, I was in London giving a talk at a conference and the main topic of discussion at the breaks was the new Charity Act, which paid young people to volunteer as a solution for years of reduced volunteering, particularly by people under 30. All of the attendees from the UK thought this was a great idea. The three or four Americans there smugly noted that we don't pay our volunteers--they actually show up on their own.

Well, sort of.

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