Charity, Nation-Sized

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    But if we give dictators money, they’ll just use it on drugs!Report

  2. Avatar clawback
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    says:

    So running a minivan full of food from Costco two miles to the local food bank is exactly like airlifting wheat halfway around the globe to people who prefer rice? OK.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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      says:

      Yes!

      They are exactly alike in that they are inefficient in the same ways and for the same reasons.

      In both cases, the cash would do more to help, and the food would do less. But the food gives a warm fuzzy feeling, and the cash does not.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        Isn’t this in part because the food is actually needed and stands a greater chance of getting to the people who need it, while cash gets diverted to people’s pockets who don’t need it?

        I seem to remember this being a political issue some time ago; perhaps as long ago as the 1990’s; but memory can play tricks.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to zic
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          says:

          If you have serious doubts or even moderate doubts about the honesty of a charity’s honesty you shouldn’t be donating anything to them.

          And yes, Jason’s original point (giving cash to charities is better/more effective than giving them solid goods) was correct and also was blown out of proportion, misinterpreted and generally savaged rather lamentably and embarrassingly by some folks.Report

      • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        No, the last time you brought this up you failed to establish that direct food contributions are necessarily less efficient than cash donations. Your thesis rested on the notion that food bank proprietors somehow have significant market power with suppliers; a laughable proposition. At any rate, pointing out a specific instance of inefficiency doesn’t prove your general point.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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          says:

          No, last time I established the point by citing the actual preferences of people who run food banks. I presumed that they know best, and it’s very odd that you think you know better.

          I also presumed that institutions can get volume discounts that are unavailable to the typical individual. This was and is so obvious as not even to bear mention.

          And it’s especially odd, and even downright laughable, to claim that a cash equivalent is worse than an in-kind donation, because the cash equivalent can always be used to buy what you would otherwise give with the in-kind donation.

          So unless you are basing your in-kind gifts on clairvoyance, you’re not going to be making choices that are as good as the people who work on the problem from day to day. And you certainly won’t do better by rummaging around the stuff you happen to have in your pantry.Report

          • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            says:

            As I recall, you cited the preferences of a large nationwide charity. Yes, it’s understandable they prefer cash donations; a few large organizations do, in fact, have purchasing power and can exploit economies of scale. This is not true in general. Here’s my local food bank’s page soliciting donations:

            http://www.circleofconcern.org/donations.html

            They express no preference for cash over in-kind donations, and I know for a fact they have no such preference. This is because they’re too small to have efficient infrastructure dedicated to purchasing, accounting, auditing, receiving, transportation, warehousing, etc. And they’re certainly not unique in this.

            So again, you may think it obvious that cash is always more efficient than in-kind donations. But you need to establish that beyond hand-waving to advance your “charity is self-regarding” narrative.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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              says:

              Nope.

              I cited a Matt Yglesias column, in which he revealed that even ordinary food banks can get food for “pennies on the dollar.” See in particular the passage about Bread for the City, in which this local DC food bank kept “politely quiet” about the problems they had with in-kind donations.

              He was making fun of Mitt Romney soliciting canned goods. Richly deserved, I’d add.

              They will still take your in-kind donations, of course, because getting in-kind donations is better than nothing. But “better than nothing” doesn’t mean it’s optimal.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                Do you understand how logic works? If you want to establish that “charity is mostly self-regarding”, and you want to do so by showing that in-kind donations are uneconomic, you have to show that all, or at least most, in-kind donations are in fact uneconomic. I’ve argued that this is true only for large charities, and the examples Yglesias cites are the Red Cross and Feeding America, both of which are large; and Bread in the City, which objected to in-kind donations only for nutritional, not economic, reasons.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Okay but logic wise how do you deal with the logic of his assertion?
                Food products are inferior to cash in spoilage potential, portability, storage costs, handling costs and substitutability, do you think this is incorrect? Why?
                If not then in what scenario could one ever logically argue that a donation of N$* worth of food is as helpful to a charity of any size as a donation of N$ worth of cash?

                *This is of course first making the huge assumption that you can buy food at the same cash cost as a food charity which is an enormous assumption and gives away a lot of bases.Report

              • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to North
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                If a food bank is small enough that it can’t get significant discounts from buying in bulk, then donations of non-perishable food could easily be more efficient than donations of money because they mean the food bank doesn’t need to have as many people working on purchasing and transport of the food, because that’s taken care of by the donors of food.

                Also, it’s ridiculous to say in answer to someone giving a specific example of a food they’re familiar with that doesn’t prefer cash donations or find them more efficient, “Well, you’re just wrong, because your facts don’t mesh with my theoretical model.” It’s also completely archetypal of economists. And kind of dickish.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to KatherineMW
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                says:

                I suppose so Katherine, but in many cases the discount isn’t due to bulk purchasing but rather the food supplier providing a better cost to them because they’re a food shelf.

                Either way unless you’re talking about an absolutely miniscule charity cash is probably better and frankly I remain skeptical that it’s ever not. What I’m puzzled about is that Clawback is grappling with what is essentially the strongest part of Jason’s original assertion, the math and economics. Why not imput some of the mindreading that goes on instead?Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to KatherineMW
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                says:

                If a food bank is small enough that it can’t get significant discounts from buying in bulk, then donations of non-perishable food could easily be more efficient than donations of money

                Only if those donations just happen to be exactly what the food bank needs at the moment. If they get nothing but canned beets one week, that’s not going to be too helpful. If they got the cash equivalent of the canned beets, they’d be able to help a lot better.

                Honestly, Katherine, I find it very weird that people seem to have a problem with the term “cash equivalent.” If you can go out and buy the same articles with the cash, then what you have given is either those articles, or other, better articles. And that’s just always going to be more helpful, even without special discounts, economies of scale, or any other helpful shortcuts.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW
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                My grocery store, Rouse’s, sells five and ten dollar bags of groceries for a needy family. It’s in a stapled brown paper bag, with a list of items on it, all useful things, a coordinated list, not seconds or crappy stuff nobody would use.

                You just take it to the counter and pay for it. It’s a great solution to an obvious problem. Lets the food bank work with the grocery store.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to KatherineMW
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                says:

                You just take it to the counter and pay for it. It’s a great solution to an obvious problem. Lets the food bank work with the grocery store.

                That is a great idea. It unites the desire to give in-kind with the efficiency of a big supplier and a guarantee that there is a balanced distribution of foods. Great job, I’d say.

                For people living in shelters, there are a different set of circumstances to consider, of course, but for the hungry living out in the community, I think I’ll have to give it my horrible, cynical stamp of approval.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to KatherineMW
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                And what’s more, since it’s packed into a proper bag, it does portion control for the food bank. I simply can’t say enough good things about Rouse’s. Someone was thinking when they put that bag program together.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to North
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                says:

                Based on evidence, one can conclude several things:

                Some charity is, in fact, self-regarding. Romney’s publicity stunt clearly qualifies.

                Some charity is directed inefficiently. Most in-kind donations to large charities are sub-optimal. But this says nothing about the motivations of those making the donations. It could be that they are simply making non-optimizing decisions; i.e., mistakes.

                Some in-kind donations, such as those to small local charities, are in fact optimal. My local food bank has no particular advantage over me in purchasing food, and my purchasing and delivering such food adds value that a cash donation does not.

                In summary, the evidence fails to advance a pernicious Objectivist narrative about the nature of charity.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to clawback
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                says:

                When people are informed that in-kind donations are suboptimal, and they continue to give in-kind donations, what (if anything) does that tell you?Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                That would suggest that the donations might be self-regarding. But you’d have to be careful to show the information was communicated effectively.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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                In summary, the evidence fails to advance a pernicious Objectivist narrative about the nature of charity.

                I would love to see you try to explain how it is either “pernicious” or “Objectivist” to suggest, as I’ve done all along, that people both can and should be a little bit more altruistic.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to clawback
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                says:

                In summary, the evidence fails to advance a pernicious Objectivist narrative about the nature of charity.

                This is exceedingly unfair and a complete – and willful?- misrepresentation of Jason’s point and indeed his whole narrative, which has always clearly been to encourage more effective and efficient charity. Maybe you think he’s wrong about his assertion that inefficient giving is explained by charity most frequently being self-regarding; that is a far cry from him trying to justify a lack of charity.

                With respect to your substantive points, though:

                Some in-kind donations, such as those to small local charities, are in fact optimal. My local food bank has no particular advantage over me in purchasing food, and my purchasing and delivering such food adds value that a cash donation does not.

                I do not pretend to know the particulars of your local food bank, but it seems to me that even in the case of small food banks, they should be able to obtain at least the bulk discounts of a small business. Food banks are, after all, not usually frontline distributors in the US, but instead stockpile food for the frontline distributors.

                But beyond that, it’s not as if supermarkets don’t have special programs that food banks can take advantage of, regardless of their size.

                What they don’t get so cheaply are things like gas and rent.

                For what it’s worth, I decided to take a look at my own local food bank’s website to see if they have anything to say about this. Here’s what they say:
                http://www.cfbnj.org/help/donate-funds/

                “For every dollar of our operating budget, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) is able to distribute almost $10.00 worth of food. Donating online is a secure and easy way to support our work. “Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                says:

                If his “whole narrative … has always clearly been to encourage more effective and efficient charity”, he could have simply written this:

                To most effectively help the needy, follow the charity’s recommendations regarding form of donation.

                This was clearly not his whole narrative, which came with baggage about charity being self-regarding.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Question – why do you honestly think Jason was making his point about grossly inefficient charity being self-regarding? How, exactly, is that an “Objectivist” narrative?

                Clearly, he wasn’t trying to discourage charity.

                His whole point was to discourage what he deems as primarily self-regarding charity and encourage more efficient and less-self-regarding (in his view) charity. To do that requires explaining why he views certain forms of charity as suboptimal and what he believes causes the use of suboptimal forms of charity.

                Moreover, if you had a clue what you were talking about beyond just CATO HACK SMASH, you’d realize that an “Objectivist narrative” would be consistent with this http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=faq_index#obj_q7:

                My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

                My emphasis.

                By contrast, Jason emphasized that:

                This is not to say that you should stop giving, however. If all this is new to you, I suggest not changing anything immediately. If you are so moved, give as usual. An inefficient gift still beats nothing at all. Just consider adding something more efficient as well.
                ….But there are also some excellent charities, and the Internet makes finding them easier….All have room to grow. None are glamorous. None have anything to do with me. Probably not much to do with you, either. So much the better.
                …But every December, my husband and I decide where to send our charitable contributions for the year. When he asked me my thoughts, I gave him these. I recommend them to you as well. These will help. Lots of other things won’t help as much. If you’re looking for a big change, consider them.

                ….That mixes self- and other-regard in ways that are hard to sort out. So do most other things we do. I don’t think I can dictate the right ratios between them or delineate the boundaries.

                …Even in a mostly selfish world, there is still benevolence, and there is still a surplus beyond what we need or even what we vaguely sort of want. And there are still great needs beyond our self-regard.

                So on the one hand we’ve got “charity is marginal….screw it,” and on the other hand we’ve got “it’s imperative that we give in ways that allow charity to help others as much as possible.”

                I struggle to think of any way in which these two propositions are compatible with each other rather than antithetical.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to clawback
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                says:

                I’ll also note your failure to respond to my substantive points, which makes me think you’re just trolling. I hope you make an attempt to prove me wrong.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Churchill once said of Stalin: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”

                There are as many reasons for charity as there are charitable people. So what, an Objectivist might say to himself, “A great hurricane has done billions of dollars in damage to the Gulf Coast. I will make a substantial donation to the most efficient charity I know. I will do so because it is in my own long-term self-interest: I do not wish to live in a nation where people are wandering about, hungry and homeless. I may personally despise beggars and oppose charity on principle but these people are not beggars. I will consider this donation, not as charity, but as an investment in my own country and therefore myself.”

                That’s more commendable than giving a drunk a dollar to buy more booze.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                says:

                Question – why do you honestly think Jason was making his point about grossly inefficient charity being self-regarding?

                Well, I don’t know for certain, of course. Do you? But the drumbeat about inefficient charity dovetails nicely with this:

                One way of helping others — while also helping yourself — is to invest in an honest, successful business.

                And this:

                How can we make a decent society out of self-regarders?
                As you all know, I think part of the answer lies in hitching our self-regard to the market process: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith.

                And this:

                Humans find self-regard easiest.

                All of which strikes me as Objectivist, though I’m no expert on that subject so don’t wish to press the point. I do, at any rate, find it all offensive. It can fairly be summarized as, “Charity is pointless, but if you’re so weak as to engage in it anyway, do it this way.” If you don’t see the condescension dripping from the bit you quoted, I really cannot help you.

                As to addressing the rest of your substantive points, I did so: the problem of how best to donate is easily solved by following the charity’s recommendations. We don’t need to indulge in freakonomics-style economic noodling.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to clawback
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                clawback,

                Simply put, I don’t think we can have a good society without both self-regard and other-regard. I reject the idea that either one of them standing all alone is good enough.

                For me it is emphatically not an either-or proposition. Self-regard can often do very great things. So can other-regard. I have serious difficulties with Objectivism in part because it appears to deny this.

                In markets, I find that people’s self-regard often ends up feeding and clothing other people. That’s wonderful, as far as it goes. If it’s not far enough, then there are other options, and we ought to use them too. With enthusiasm and efficiency.

                As I’ve repeatedly said, I think most actions are a mix of self- and other-regarding. I’m not necessarily even trying to change that — remember, I’m happy with a thoroughly mixed world on that score. But if people go around saying “this is other regarding,” when really it isn’t, or when at best it’s a totally lousy way to help others, that offends me.

                It offends me not because it’s selfish, and not because it’s altruistic. But because it’s sloppy and thoughtless.Report

              • Avatar clawback in reply to clawback
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                Fair enough, then, Jason. I agree with everything here.Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to clawback
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                Well, I don’t know for certain, of course. Do you?

                Yes, I do. Do you know how? Because Jason has repeatedly said precisely that, as the quotes from his OP clearly demonstrate. But I can point to many more from his comments on this. For instance, he has explained that All I’m trying to do is to ask what an optimally helpful act might look like, identify some real-world acts that are especially efficient at helping others, and ask whether they perhaps ought to be more popular. In this very thread he has written that his intent is merely “to suggest, as I’ve done all along, that people both can and should be a little bit more altruistic.” Yet you insist on continuing to accuse him of having some entirely separate intent. Should you continue to do so, I will view you as being in violation of the comment policy and will start taking appropriate action.

                It can fairly be summarized as, “Charity is pointless, but if you’re so weak as to engage in it anyway, do it this way.”

                No. It can’t, and I refuse to believe that your reading comprehension is so poor as to make such a summary of Jason’s views in good faith.

                As to addressing the rest of your substantive points, I did so: the problem of how best to donate is easily solved by following the charity’s recommendations.

                That is moving the goalposts rather dramatically, especially given your statement that Jason “wants to do so by showing that in-kind donations are uneconomic, you have to show that all, or at least most, in-kind donations are in fact uneconomic. I’ve argued that this is true only for large charities.” Is my local food bank a large charity? How about this other local food bank, which says that every dollar donated to it buys three meals, which is not something that can be said for a dollar of food purchased at the grocery store and donated? http://www.foodbankmoc.org/?page_id=102Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to clawback
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                clawback has received a hostile reaction despite well stating the problem with the way Jason presented the argument going back to the initial post.

                The issue lies here, in a statement of Jason’s in which I am going to shift where the italics fall from where he initially placed them:

                people go around saying “this is other regarding,” when really it isn’t, or when at best it’s a totally lousy way to help others

                Previously, clawback said

                Some charity is directed inefficiently. Most in-kind donations to large charities are sub-optimal. But this says nothing about the motivations of those making the donations. It could be that they are simply making non-optimizing decisions; i.e., mistakes.

                And indeed, she is right. And Jason is right in what he says above. He was not, however, right in making this statement, “much of what we do for charity is really self-regarding, and we can know this because these acts are inefficient when evaluated for their help-giving power.” It’s entirely possible that misinformation about what kinds of acts actually (or optimally, or efficiently) help is widespread enough that many people acting other-regardingly are doing so ineffectively without being aware of it. The fact that much charity is inefficient tells us nothing of motivations, and to say it tells us that much charity is (primarily) self-regarding paints with far too broa a brush. It’s much supportable, and, well charitable, say that we know that at least some acts taken in the name of charity are (primarily) self-regarding just because in a sufficiently large pool of events, there are likely to some that fit most plausible-sounding predictions about them. Some acts of charity are just bound to be primarily self-regarding because there are a lot of acts of charity (or “charity”). Further, on some accounts of human motivation, most or even all acts of charity are likely or certain to be at least partially self-regarding.

                If that’s all we are looking to establish, we need make no reference to the fact that, for whatever reason, a lot of charity acts are inefficient. It’s unfair to charitable people to say that that inefficiency speaks to some particular degree of self-regardingness vice true other-regardingness. We don’t really know about that; it depends on the person and the situation. If we want to make the point that some charity is likely primarily self-regarding, we can say we know it because of something like the law of large numbers, and not effectively cast aspersions on the motives of everyone who gives not quite optimally efficiently, since we know at leas some of them are doing so out of honest error (again, law of large numbers).

                But why is it even necessary to deal with this motivation question? We know that some part of every act is self-regarding, at least I feel I know that. So what? We still want charity; indeed we still want those doing charity (or “charity”) out of pure self-interest of some kind to keep doing it. It’s still helpful (if it is at all, even if not optimally). The point is just to suggest that if you’re going to give, consider giving optimally. Isn’t it? Here’s how, here’s why it’s so much more helpful to do so. Etc. Where does the mix (and it’s inevitably a mix) between self- and other-regard even come into the equation? Even those giving for purely selfish reasons are hoping to gain in no small part by appearing to help. So why focus on their true motivations and not just take them up on their pretext and say, if you’re looking to help, here’s how?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to clawback
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                Do you understand how logic works? If you want to establish that “charity is mostly self-regarding”, and you want to do so by showing that in-kind donations are uneconomic…

                I know a little about logic! In order for the conclusion that charity is mostly self-regarding to hold (and by that I assume Jason intends to mean that people who give to charities do so out of self-regard rather than other-regard), the argument would have to demonstrate that most people are a) believe that cash is a more efficient way to help the poor and b) they continued to make in-kind donations anyway.

                As I mentioned on Jason’s last post, I don’t think he’s established those claims. What he has established, it seems to me, is that if a) and b) hold, then the conclusion that charity is at least partly self-regarding holds.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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                says:

                The only time I can see in-kind donations being better is when you’re donating at significant savings from grocery store markup. Your eggs. Your honey, your vegetables. To you, the food cost may be “virtually free” (the chickens still lay eggs…). Bonus if you’re becoming a “full time” supplier.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to clawback
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              This is not true in general.

              It actually is true in general that charities prefer cash over in-kind donations (from individuals). Even if they lack proportional buying power. They may gladly accept in-kind donations over cash from entities that can provide a very large utility exchange on that front (think Wal-Mart and Katrina.)

              Really, clawback, you’re focusing really hard on the most easily defended assertion from Jason’s original piece. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions he drew from it, but c’mon.Report

              • Avatar 975 in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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                My daughter brought home a bunch of groceries that someone donated to her after school program last week. We got 6 boxes of chocolate cereal and something like 6 cardboard cartons of 1% milk. I have no idea how much it cost, but I would much rather have had the cash to buy my own groceries, or at least a gift card for that amount to some grocery store.

                If you want your charity to truly be other-regarding, perhaps you ought to take regard for what the other actually wants. I doubt you’ll find very many people who want you to choose their food for them, rather than giving them an equivalent amount so they can buy their own food.Report

          • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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            I’m sure they can get volume discounts, even if they’re less than a grocery store gets, simply by buying from wholesalers rather than going all the way down to retail purchases, then aggregating back up to wholesale volumes, then redistributing to the needy at retail volumes again. Which is exactly the outcome of most food drives.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to clawback
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          Isn’t it sort of… well… given?

          That stores and wholesalers sell surpluses to food banks at a discounted rate is pretty common AFAIK.

          Even if one assumes that the food bank has to pay the exact same cost as an individual for food (which I would reiterate is a huge and unlikely assumption) cash is extremely portable and usable for any food bank location at any time whereas donated food is either perishable, bulky or both. The handling, storing and transporting overhead costs of say, a donated bag of rice is enormously higher than the same costs for enough cash to buy a bag of rice.

          I mean if you and I both have a dollar and you give a dollar to a food bank and I buy a dollars worth of rice and give it to the food bank it is pretty much a solid assumption that your dollar will result in more food bank service being provided to the hungry and my bag of rice will.Report

    • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to clawback
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      says:

      The principles can be exactly the same even in the application or scope aren’t.Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP
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    says:

    Bags of grain, bags of cash — same, same. In every souk you will find sacks of food aid for sale leaching out of ill-run aid programs. Give ’em food, the strong will extort it from the weak. Give ’em money, just makes the extortion simpler and more direct.

    The root problem with aid of any sort is making sure those who are starving get fed. You feed the women and children first. Then you feed the men.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    And if you have reasonable skills, you’ll do more good working N extra hours and donating the proceeds than volunteering as unskilled labor, e.g. serving at a soup kitchen. Thus volunteerism is inefficient and self-regarding.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling
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      Am I the only one who sees this conclusion as less and less absurd with each passing moment?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Jaybird
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        I hate to say it but looking at my own wage or, ya know, any middle class wage earning worker and then looking at what it presumably would cost to employ someone working a ladle at a soup kitchen I think Mike’s right. Your N hours worth of donated wages would probably produce more good to the hungry at a soup kitchen than your N hours donated to the kitchen in direct labor(unless you’re somehow donating the same kind of labor your employer is paying you for in which case, in theory, it’d be of equal value).

        So, an assumption that some motive in addition to helping the hungry is at work is not a stretch. Though immediately jumping to assuming it’s self regarding is cynical.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mike Schilling
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      Well, there’s a sorta-problem in there. It comes down to the accounting. A 501(c)(3)’s balance sheet doesn’t look anything like a regular corporation. You have to think about it like little pots of money. You can borrow from one pot but you have to pay back that little pot.

      So let’s say I form a non-profit, Starving Consultants’ Beer and Pizza Fund. So people start writing checks and designate them Pizza-only. I can’t spend any of that on beer. It’s called Directed Giving and philanthropists know how to keep their dollars out of Beer Funds via this process. Even less likely is that some kind-hearted soul will give to the General Fund so I can pay for personnel and rent and keeping the lights on.

      Because they can’t afford qualified administrators, charities use volunteers and it gets awfully inefficient. In one sense, Jason’s absolutely right, charities such as a food bank can do more good with cash than you can do bringing in jars of Grandma’s rhubarb jam, especially when it comes to keeping the lights on. Don’t give what’s not needed.

      If you’re going to support a charity, look at their books, look at their facility. If you understand the mission of that charity, (and know how to read the reports, not an easy learning curve) you’ll see how those pots of money actually work and put your money where the most need exists. In some cases, you ought to give them cash. In others, they might need someone who’s more than just a volunteer.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      I think you’re saying this like it’s a joke, but it’s actually a mathematically-provable statement if you work it out under comparative advantage theory.

      Unless you factor in the personal goodwill benefit of Being A Person Who Volunteers At A Soup Kitchen, of course.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Jim Heffman
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        says:

        There are also the benefits of increasing your connection and understanding with the people who come to the food kitchen, which I think is a worthwhile benefit. Society and community aren’t built simply by transferring resources from one person to another with no connection between them. What a lot of the homeless people at shelters and food kitchens value as much as the food and clothing available there is respect and positive interactions with the volunteers.

        And people are not willing to work six or seven days a week, nor will many jobs pay you to do so. It’s not a choice between working more and donating the money; it’s a choice between spending a few hours online, or a few hours in some other form of recreation, on a Saturday or volunteering at a food kitchen on a Saturday.

        In addition, a lot of the volunteers at food kitchens and the like are retired people, and people who are themselves unemployed or underemployed. It’s a way to contribute for people who don’t have money to give, so claiming such people are self-interested for not giving money is just cynical and an excuse for thinking the worst of everyone.Report

        • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to KatherineMW
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          says:

          “claiming such people are self-interested for not giving money is just cynical and an excuse for thinking the worst of everyone.”

          It is not cynical to point out that there are benefits other than mere cash that might cause someone to put forth effort, and that these benefits should be included in calculations of utility.

          It is not cynical to expect people to act in a way that maximizes their personal utility–or, if you want to use a different phrasing, act in a way that makes them the happiest.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jim Heffman
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            says:

            I don’t intend for my claims about self-regard to sound cynical.

            I think all people are a mix of other-regarding and self-regarding, in just about everything they do. And I am completely okay with that fact.

            Yet on many occasions, people think incorrectly that they are acting from purely altruistic motives. There are negative consequences to thinking in this way, and one of them is that they are subject to being less efficient at helping. If what they want to do is help, they should begin by thinking logically about it, keeping efficiency in mind, and perhaps making some adjustments.

            But — and this is important — there isn’t necessarily anything wrong at all with mixed actions, those that are both self- and other-regarding, and that, for example, build my personal ties to an organization or a community.

            Sometimes those types of actions are great, and other times, they are less defensible. But we first need to be clear that (1) they exist and (2) everybody does them.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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              says:

              Furthermore, and I have seen this at least four times, people who run charities are often their own worst enemies. Doubled over with an attack of Do Gooderitis, they throw themselves into some project without so much as a goddamn clue how they’re going to manage things on an ongoing basis.

              Every intelligent philanthropist has seen these people. These Do Gooders are hugely counterproductive and truth is, I hate most of them. They haven’t done any research, they don’t even understand the needs of the people they’re trying to help, they wander into these situations and the locals think they’re crazy. Woe betide the long-termer who tries to give them any advice, either, they just know Ever-Thang. They get hooked up with the wrong people who waste and embezzle all the money. They can’t show results to their donors, they work at cross purposes to other agencies, they get in IRS trouble because they don’t understand how to do the proper reporting.

              And then they fail.

              Every intelligent philanthropist knows not to deal with these people. And yeah, a lot of that is out of sheer self-interest, and quite properly so. I am not going to give a dime of my hard earned money — MY MONEY — to some unworthy cause.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jim Heffman
        Ignored
        says:

        it’s actually a mathematically-provable statement if you work it out under comparative advantage theory.

        Or by doing the arithmetic. 🙂Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Schilling
      Ignored
      says:

      And if you have reasonable skills, you’ll do more good working N extra hours and donating the proceeds than volunteering as unskilled labor, e.g. serving at a soup kitchen. Thus volunteerism is inefficient and self-regarding.

      This is actually more justifiable than the giving one. I also happen to think it’s somewhat true, but not with the bald conclusion drawn here.

      Aside from the practical quibbles (about not everybody being hourly, etc.) and the secondary quibbles (sometimes your volunteer work is actually related to your wheelhouse), there are two others:

      One: someone who works a volunteer booth at a charity fair is much, much more likely to be honest than a carney (small hands, smell like cabbage). Not to denigrate carneys, generally, but there’s simple motivational things there that matter.

      Two: not all utility payoffs from volunteering are entirely self-serving, even if they benefit the individual. While you get personal utility, perhaps, from feeling good about volunteering and that can be regarded as somewhat self-serving, you also get personal utility from community building and that’s not entirely self-serving, or self-regarding.

      I think a huge portion of the pushback on Jason’s original piece is that most of the commentariat regards self-serving and selfish as necessarily conflated, and self-regard as framed as necessarily involved in a zero-sum game with social utility. I don’t think that Jason conflates the two on the first hand, and regardless of how he feels about the second one I think it’s wrong.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Schilling
      Ignored
      says:

      And if you have reasonable skills, you’ll do more good working N extra hours and donating the proceeds than volunteering as unskilled labor, e.g. serving at a soup kitchen.

      This would be true under two conditions.

      First, that you can always increase and then later decrease the number of hours you work without any professional consequences.

      Second, that the charity can always increase and then later decrease the number of hours of paid labor it employs.

      Neither of those conditions applies in the real world, which explains why volunteer hours are still very often a good idea. In-kind food donations don’t work the same way, because someone who can give a sum of cash can always decline to do so in the future.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jason Kuznicki
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        says:

        I thought I’d just hand-wave all those practical considerations away 😉

        Here’s an example that works, though. One of the most common ways charitable activities for that professional athletes is visting sick children in hospitals: spending time with them, giving away caps and balls, etc. Nothing against that, it’s a generous way toi spend their free time, and I’m sure the kids love it. But I do wonder if they’d more more good by asking the hospital what it needs most but doesn’t have, and then doing enough autograph shows to raise the money to buy it.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling
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      says:

      Who da fuck volunteers as unskilled labor?
      I mean, even the wise old granny with a slide rule is skilled labor…

      Someone working in a soup kitchen ought to be learning some basic principles on preparing food (not saying they are, but they ought to be.).Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi
        Ignored
        says:

        Often, it’s people who have benefited from that facility. But then, you might have to do some charity work to know the cast of characters. For as much as I pound on Jason, he does exhibit the signs of actual contact with a food bank.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kimmi
        Ignored
        says:

        I volunteer as unskilled labor. Most of “setting up a school fair” is unskilled labor.

        There are practical reasons for this.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan
          Ignored
          says:

          I’d just note that you could probably be more efficient with your volunteer time.
          (which, again, is not saying that it’s wrong for you to be inefficient)Report

          • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Kimmi
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            says:

            For a short-term event, it’s cheaper and easier to have volunteers because you’d probably spend more time recruiting and hiring a person than the person would actually spend working. Doesn’t seem inefficient to me.Report

  5. Avatar KatherineMW
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    says:

    If this doesn’t involve overall decreases in the overall funding of food aid, it’s an excellent policy change. Providing food aid by shipping food overseas rather than by giving money to purchase food locally or regionally is not only inefficient, it undercuts local (and regional) farmers, who are often very poor themselves and rely on being able to sell some of their agricultural produce to people.

    The vast majority of cases where there are food shortages are ones where food exists, it’s simply too expensive for the poor to afford; providing them with enough money to buy it produces more benefits than increasing the total supply. Even in situations of genuine famine in one part of a continent, it makes more sense to buy the food from a different part of the continent rather than shipping it all the way from North America.

    Giving food to a food bank doesn’t have the same economic/agricultural issues as food aid on a global scale does; it does no harm and some good, it’s just less efficient than giving money.Report

  6. Avatar DRS
    Ignored
    says:

    And once again, Jason makes no distinction between the size of charities (international, national, regional or local) and the kind of work they do (a food bank and a patient support organization are both charities but do different kinds of work). As attached as he is to the food bank model – which is kind of limited to food banks – he’s still conflating efficient fundraising, donor satisfaction/relations and measurable outcomes.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to DRS
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      says:

      he’s still conflating efficient fundraising, donor satisfaction/relations and measurable outcomes.

      On the contrary, I am doing my level best to separate the first two, the better to get at the third.

      Does it satisfy donors to give in kind? Clearly, yes. Should it? That’s a different question.

      But as to the scale of the charities, that’s entirely beside the point. A cash equivalent donation is by definition going to help them more than an in-kind donation. That’s what “equivalent” means; by the very definition of “equivalent,” they can always go out and by exactly what you would have given them. Or they can at times buy something better.

      And, from everything I’ve seen, at all levels of the process, the “at times” is really more like “at just about all times.”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to DRS
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      says:

      Also, you can try talking about me as if I’m in the room. That would be nice.Report

  7. Avatar zic
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    says:

    Somebody please correct me if I’m wrong, but:

    Giving is a very basic human response. It’s the act of taking food to your neighbors when they’re in need. I would call it an essential Libertarian response; the choice to give. And to do so on your own terms, not terms dictated by someone else.

    It seems entirely reasonable that maximum efficiency is one measure of many that might meet a person’s terms. The giving of physical gifts, of food, instead of cash being one of them.

    It seems an organic system; lots of variation should be expected; otherwise, it’s centrally dictated based on a single metric.Report

  8. Avatar James K
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    says:

    I have a hard time seeing the problem here. Cash is weakly superior to goods in all but a handful of special cases, because at worst cash can be substituted for goods.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer
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    says:

    1. Charity might be self-regarding.

    2. This charity even though self-regarding, can also be good.

    3. What’s the harm if not 100 percent optimal according to economists?

    If the self-regarding charity work does harm, I can understand telling people not to do it. I can also understand telling people not to do it if there is a grand canyon wide gap between the results.

    But if someone gets a psychological boost from volunteering for a weekend with Habitat for Humanity instead of writing a check, or doing other work, I see no problem as the result is good. Emotions are important.

    In Judaism, there are seven days of mourning called Shiva or sittiing shiva. During this time, the mourners (usually just direct relatives: spouses, children, parents, siblings) are not supposed to do work of any kind. The community is supposed to come and take care of them and do the housework, cooking, shopping, etc. The purpose is explicitly emotional. You are supposed to allow the mourner to emotionally grieve and remember and not deal with the ordinary tasks of life. It is rather non-optimal but keeps them in company. Should we just write a check instead? I think the person receiving charity also benefits from the emotional but possibly self-regarding support.

    I am rather baffled by the economic preference for everything being optimal and suspicion at anything that is self-regarding, psychological, and philosophical. Humans are not Vulcans!Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to NewDealer
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      says:

      I said both (1.) and (2.) in the original essay.

      (3.) varies a lot, of course, anywhere from 100% to 0% wasted, with the waste effort having varying knock-on effects. (As Blaise mentions above, wasted foreign aid can be especially pernicious.)

      Evidence from food banks is that there is something like a 90% efficiency loss from in-kind donations. That’s pretty darn bad, even if you find optimality bafffling. (An opinion that I find baffling. I mean… how do you optimize on your preference for it, anyway?)Report

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