Philanthropy Plates: A Decade In Retrospect

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134 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    Are you kidding? Liberals will hate it… bikes don’t have license plates.Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    More seriously, I am very intrigued by this idea. You addressed some of the objections I might have raised, leaving me little to quibble with.

    But little is not none. The question would be what criteria must a charity meet for contributions to it to count? Would donating to the Neo-Nazi Church of America qualify it? What about something less drastic… any organization involved in reproductive rights is going to draw ire from some segment of the population… would all of them qualify?

    The fear I have here is the fear I have whenever the government becomes involved in legitimizing an effort, namely my lack of trust in it doing so.

    If the Neo-Nazi Church of America does not qualify, what about the Westboro Baptist Church? Or an Orthodox Jewish group that does not allow women into the main worship chamber? Or the Catholic Church, with its prohibition on female leaders?

    I recognize that the government already does this, but I don’t like it much now nor will I ever like it very much.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      Also, is there a way to account for time donated? Or other ways in which people serve the population at large? I know that I have the skills and aptitude to work in business. I’d make more money if I did. But I want to help children, which I do through my teaching. Does the lost salary count?Report

      • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

        This is a good point. A lot of charities, particularly smaller local ones, need time as much or more than they need money.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Kazzy says:

        One thing on that front, though I understand and agree with the sentiment behind Kazzy’s question – if a charity received a sufficiently large influx of funds, couldn’t it presumably just hire someone to do the jobs for which it would otherwise need volunteers?Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

        Mark – In basically all cases I’ve seen, it would be a lot more difficult for a charity to gain enough money through donations to hire someone than it would be for them to get enough volunteers to do the work, and there’s a large chance that the quality of the work would go down.

        I’ve volunteered at my local food kitchen (the term doesn’t quite encompass what they do – in addition to their dining hall and snack bar, they have a clothing area and showers) quite a bit and it’s very clear in interacting with the other volunteers there that everyone is there very much because they want to be, because they believe in what they’re doing, and many/most of them have good personal relationships with the shelter’s patrons. If you brought in someone full-time to do the kind of work they do, that person would cost $20,000 a year plus benefits at British Columbia’s current minimum wage. They would do the work of 10-20 volunteers (typical volunteer time is one 2-4 hour shift a week). All of those volunteers are far, FAR more capable of giving 2-4 hours a week of their time than they are of donating the $1000 that would be necessary to pay someone for the work they do.

        And that’s at minimum wage. At those wages, there’s a good chance that you’ll get someone who’s just taking the job because they really need a job and doesn’t have the commitment and personal connection with the patrons that a lot of the volunteers have. If you wanted someone with social-worker training or significant prior experience serving the homeless, the cost would go up significantly.

        Furthermore, a fair number of the volunteers are retired people who don’t have substantial earning power or a great deal of money, but do have a great surplus of time and are extremely kind and caring people.

        The same is true of Ten Thousand Villages, a store that sells fair-trade crafts from around the world; I volunteered their in high school. There’s far more people able to take a 4-hour shift there as a cashier than there are people able to pay the $500-$2000 (depending if they’re volunteering once a month, once every two weeks, or once a week) it would cost to hire a person to fill their position, and the volunteers again are likely to have a stronger personal commitment to the store than someone who takes it as a minimum-wage job.

        Now, there’s one major exception to the rule of volunteers being better – the food kitchen does, I believe, have paid workers who are current or former patrons, which I think is an excellent use of donation money. They have a high level of sympathy and understanding for the patrons because they’ve had the same experiences, and it provides a job to someone who needs and appreciates it and is uniquely suited to the work. Helps people get back on their feet.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

        I want to be clear that when I talk about emotional connection, I don’t just (or even primarily) mean a benefit to the volunteers. Having people who care about them and who become their friends is incredibly valuable to the homeless people who come to the food kitchen. Having people who sympathize with and listen to them and treat them like regular human beings is probably at least as important as the material assistance provided by the food kitchen. And that attitude is something provided by most of the volunteers. Finding an employee with the same kind of dedication who was willing to work for minimum wage would be incredibly difficult (aside from the aforementioned case of current/former patrons). Having someone who was primarily there because they were paid to be would diminish the quality of services. Plus there’s the added cost and time-loss of the hiring process itself.

        In addition, when you’re there 2-4 hours a week rather than 40 hours a week, there’s far less chance of burnout, which is a problem for even (or especially) the most dedicated social workers.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        My ignorance may be on display, but my understanding is that damn near every charity does have paid positions. So I’m curious why we say the lower-level positions ought to be volunteer but not the upper-level ones? Why don’t we manage the CEO’s position in 2-4 hour volunteer shifts?Report

      • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

        On the donating time component, I had this idea expanded more in my initial drafts, but cut it off for brevity. If memory serves I even concocted an idea where hours would count at an average hourly per capita salary level to effectively create a form of redistribution. Poorer people would effectively get “subsidized” by higher incomes.

        How would you design it?Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Kazzy says:

        Kazzy – I wouldn’t be surprised if some people managing charities did it for free (with the mid-level managers and professionals being paid). But aside from that:

        Presumably easier to get a large volume of volunteers for positions with less specialized skills. Not too hard to find 10-20 people who can cook, hand out food, give out clothes, or wash showers for a few hours a week. Finding 10-20 people who are skilled CEOs or midlevel managers or social-work professionals is harder because there’s a smaller pool of people who possess those skills. And even if you could get 10-20 people, there’s more information you need to be on top of for that job, so the amount of time it would take for everyone to keep track of everyone else’s work would make that distribution inefficient. But you can’t just have one person do all the midlevel management work as a volunteer because such people generally have a middle/upper-middle class job and not enough money to just volunteer full time.

        A volunteer doing fairly basic work doesn’t have nearly as much week-to-week information to keep track of – you just need to know your job responsibilities and (preferably) be able to recognize people’s names and faces.

        That said, professionals (either rich enough not to need to work, or retired) volunteering for professional positions with non-profit organizations they believe in is both highly laudable and highly useful (IF they have the time and humility to understand and listen to the organization, its employees, and the people it serves, and not assume they always know best by virtue of their experience and skills), precisely because people with their combination of skills, experience, and commitment aren’t easy to come by and tend to be expensive.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        It just seems that this proposal is biased toward one form of philanthropy. Judging by the salaries of some peers whose jobs I know I could do had I pursued them, I’m sacrificing upwards of 50% of my potential income in service of others. Of course, I also enjoy what I do, something that likely wouldn’t be true had I taken those other routes. So maybe I should get no credit. Or partial credit. Or maybe I owe.

        So perhaps the question for you is why should the government reward/encourage financial contributions and only financial contributions? What makes this uniquely deserving of this attention?Report

      • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

        Corporations do donate executives to charities. If I remember right, we called it the loaned executive program or something like that and the person would become an executive at the United Way or something such for a year or eighteen months.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Kazzy says:

        @katherinemw I understand all that, but aside from the question of employment taxes (which are certainly an important factor in this analysis), I’m not sure that this really addresses what I was trying to get at. If the problem is a shortage of volunteers, then having money to hire people to do the work that additional volunteers would do is a significant benefit to the charity. In the case of food kitchens, this benefit probably goes even further, in that it allows the charity to hire some of the very people it’s trying to help.

        Don’t get me wrong – I think it would be really helpful if volunteerism could qualify oneself for the program Roger’s suggesting above, or perhaps could give rise to an additional form of recognition (and I suspect Roger would fully support doing so, assuming there is a workable way to do it), but even if it didn’t, the proposal doesn’t really do anything to discourage volunteerism, so I don’t think it would hinder existing efforts to find volunteers. Instead, it would encourage greater philanthropic donations from people who either are unwilling to volunteer or who have no additional time to volunteer.

        For organizations with adequate volunteers, the additional money would allow them to buy greater amounts of resources for those volunteers to utilize or distribute; but for organizations that currently possess adequate resources but inadequate numbers of volunteers, the additional money would allow the organization to hire staff to make up for the lack of volunteers.Report

      • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

        Nothing makes money special other than its fungibility as a convenient medium of exchange. I agree completely that donating time could work too, or instead.Report

  3. Chris says:

    Have you looked at the contribution of social “signalling” in empirical models of charitable giving? Does it account for the amount of variance you’re attributing to it here? If not, is there some reason why you would predict that this type of social “signalling” would have a significantly larger effect on giving behavior?Report

    • Roger in reply to Chris says:

      In all honesty, I am not sure it would. I do believe that status and signaling are major components of philanthropy. No, let me broaden that, I believe status and signaling are essential components of pretty much all complex human interaction.

      However, this piece is admittedly more a work of science fiction than it is an argument. Consider it a thought piece. “I wonder if….?”

      Let me ask you, do you think increased signaling would effect charitable giving? If it did, would it even be a good thing? After all, we can’t assume that charity is either the most efficient or effective use of this money.

      A libertarian could argue that the money was better off reinvested than given to some noble cause. A progressive could argue that the money could be handled better by elected representatives. A conservative could argue whatever conservatives would argue if they ever argued on this site.Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        I think these things would happen: it would increase charitable giving in the aggregate by a little, though the increase would be mediated by the usual factors (education, s.e.s., and social network size), it would decrease charitable giving in areas that are associated with high levels of giving that don’t qualify for various reasons (e.g. certain religious charities that might run into constitutional or political barriers), it would result in fraudulent “charitable” entities created to take advantage of the new law , and it would cost states money in new agencies or at least FTEs to weed out the fraudulent agencies.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Roger says:

        If @roger and @chris don’t mind me jumping in…

        “Let me ask you, do you think increased signaling would effect charitable giving? If it did, would it even be a good thing?”

        I can say without a question of a doubt that the answer to these two questions are “absolutely” and “it depends,” respectively.

        Signaling is a pretty major component of charitable giving. In fact, in places/times where there is neither a social signaling reward nor a carrot (e.g.: tax credit) or mandatory mechanism (e.g.: safety net) provided by the sate, charitable entities do very, very poorly. This is why charities so often tailor opportunities to give around functions that allow those giving to be publicly recognized for doing so.

        The more signaling you can enable, the more giving will happen — which is why I am intrigued by Roger’s plate-giving idea.Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        Let me add that I suspect that in the increase in giving would be relatively short-term, and it would be “capped” somewhere. It’s been a while, but if I remember correctly the models of prosocial behavior show that, in essence, “conspicuous giving” is seen as a negative, reducing the motivational impact of social signalling. In essence, people like to be seen as generous, but they like to be seen as intrinsically generous, and conspicuous giving is often seen as being strictly for signalling, resulting in a decrease in its perceived value both by givers and perceivers. After a while, except in circles where giving is already relatively high and visible (namely, among the wealthy), the motivational impact of plate color will fade away.

        Next idea: charity tattoos. The more you give, the bigger the tattoos. Eventually, habitual givers are covered from head to toe. This will go over well in places like Portland.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        In many ways our cars are more visible indicators to more people than tattoos. There is of course no way to really know how people would react without actually trying it in various states various ways, and we all know that is unlikely.

        So this just becomes a thought exercise.

        Would people driving around your neighborhood with Blue plates pressure you too display blue plates too? Why not? What happens when people start moving to Black?

        It is a group dynamic thing, and really hard to predict.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Roger says:

          I am familiar with a dynamic by which people acquire prestige by paying the lowest taxes. They tell themselves, and one another, that they are more clever than the government and that they aren’t suckers like the rest of us. Professional colleagues tell stories of those of their clients who irrationally spend more on lawyers and accountants to navigate through complex tax systems than they actually wind up saving in taxes, and who take a peculiar sort of pride in the resulting inefficiency.

          So if I’m wealthy, maybe I find that having the black plate is more prestigious than the gold plate. “Anyone can buy their way into gold. But only a guy with a really clever tax lawyer, like mine is, can get down to black.”Report

      • Chris in reply to Roger says:

        Roger, I was just joking with the tattoo thing. I think your proposal is interesting, and valuable as a gedankenexperiment, but I’m moderately familiar with the literature, both empirical and theoretical, on charitable giving (I’ve done some work with non-profits over the years), and I’m skeptical of how well and how long it would work.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        You might very well be right.Report

  4. North says:

    Clever idea, though I dislike the inclusion of religious organizations in the proposal. Religiously operated charities, perhaps, but religions in general? Nope, don’t like it at all.Report

    • Roger in reply to North says:

      Being relatively non religious, I certainly wouldn’t see religious donations as particularly wise allocations of my discretionary income. That said I am not sure why I would care if someone else gave their money to a religious org. What logic would you use to deny this discretion?

      Or more specifically, why should you and I care?Report

      • Kim in reply to Roger says:

        I care when someone uses money to support oppression.
        I care when someone uses money to act like a scofflaw
        (donate all your money to the Rabbi, and then collect welfare. Plus a great new Gold Plate!).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

        I think the issue, which I attempted to touch on above, is why the government should smile upon such a use of money. People ought to be free to donate to religious organizations. But why should the government give out gold stars for doing so?Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        Yeah. But ALL they gave out was gold stars. What is the real harm?

        Not saying there isn’t a harm, just that the gold stars doesn’t hit upon it.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

        I certainly think that we need a thing to make it so that there are barriers to entry for charities to keep out obvious bad actors. The established players above a certain size can be grandfathered in, of course, but I don’t want people able to set up some bullcrap “I care about Men’s Rights!” charity or “I think more Hmong should go to college!” fakery.

        Real Charities Only.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

        Well, ideally we should reserve gold stars for objectively good behavior.

        Many people would disagree that donating to a religion qualifies as such.

        I, for one, would be uncomfortable with the government endorsing my neighbor’s donations to the Westboro Baptist Church.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

        Many people would disagree that donating to a religion qualifies as such.

        Would many people agree, though? Would more people agree than disagree?Report

      • Kim in reply to Roger says:

        Giving a Gold Plate is equivalent to giving societal approval.
        For some charities, I think society ought to give shame instead.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Roger says:

        I think the way your structure it is based on whether the donation is being earmarked for spending on activities that supplement or reduce the need for specific government functions or programs. So, helping people eat or escape poverty would qualify; donating to the Metropolitan Opera or helping your church expand its facilities? Not so much (yes, yes, I know – the NEA exists; but there’s no reason “supplementing the work of the NEA” needs to be included in our list of qualifying donations).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


        If that is indeed the case (and if it was made clear as such in the OP and I missed it, my apologies to @roger ), I find the idea far more palatable. But I think it risks what @chris discussed above in terms of simply rerouting existing contributions rather than necessarily increasing them.

        I struggle to see how determining a majority opinion helps us arrive at whether an activity is objectively good.Report

      • North in reply to Roger says:

        Well for an extreme example people could be donating their money to Sunni Wahhabi Salafism to fund Madrassas where people are taught to fly planes into American buildings.

        For a less extreme example people could be donating their religiously mandated tithe to the Mormon Church which then plows the money into elections to influence public policy against gay people*.

        Or people donate to the Roman Catholic Church which builds a billion dollar residence for the local bishop.

        Or people donate to Scientology and that religion turns a fat profit and pays it out to their religious leadership cadre.

        My point being that religious organizations do a lot of charity, sure, but they don’t –only- do charity (and a lot of it comes with recruitment strings). McDonalds runs the Ronald Mcdonal Home Charity, can McDonals Corp be a recipient of donations? If the answer is no then why is it yes for the Catholic Church just because the Catholics run a soup kitchen?

        I’d be fine with donations being allowed to be made directly to charitable activities but to religious groups as a whole it strikes me as being contrary to the spirit of the charitable giving signaling.

        Under your proposal people with colored plates are charitable Or/Also they’re highly religious. It complicates the signal.

        *Though after the PR fiasco the Mormons reaped from those antics they’ve stopped doing it as much and have done some good outreach.Report

      • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Roger says:

        Putting aside all the charitable work churches do (soup kitchens, international aid, addiction treatment, etc.), why shouldn’t donations to a church* count? Those donations aren’t (always) a price of admission, they’re donations, and if they keep the church running, they keep it running for the entire flock, rich and poor. Should there be barriers to religious activity for those who can’t afford to pay for church operations?

        Having a door open so people can address their spiritual needs and desire for community seems worthwhile.

        *Sticking with the thrust of the post, I’d go with churches that are registered charities… I’m assuming that churches register as charities in the U.S.; I know they do in Canada.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Roger says:

        Jonathan – the question isn’t whether these things are worthwhile so much as it’s whether these things deserve additional promotion in the same way that donations to, say, a homeless shelter deserve promotion? Donating to your local church so that it can build a new church, for example, is something that directly benefits the donor, even if it provides intangible benefits to others. Similarly, donating a bunch of money to the Metropolitan Opera may well be a worthwhile endeavor, but for the most part the people making those donations are the same people who want to be able to go to the Metropolitan Opera on a semi-regular basis.

        Additionally, if social status is the reason you give money to your local church or to the Metropolitan Opera, or make some other intra-community donation, the social status you crave is specifically a social status within the very same community to which you’re donating, and that community already has ample means to recognize your contributions and bump up your social status. The primary motives for donating to these organizations are already either premised on social status or premised on a direct benefit to the donor – one donates to one’s local church primarily because one wishes to see the church that assists one’s own spiritual well-being as strong as possible, not primarily because of what that church may do for others (unless of course you’re donating to a specific program that expressly seeks to serve that purpose); similarly, one does not donate to the Metropolitan Opera primarily because one thinks it important that there be an Opera in the city to improve the well-being of poor children, but rather because one likes to go to the opera.

        What we could stand to benefit from is increased social recognition of contributions to assist other communities to which one does not necessarily belong.Report

      • North in reply to Roger says:

        Jonathan, personally I think there’s a big distinction between Churches and charities. I just think including churches in this system would muddle the signalling very badly.

        As in my previous example, for instance, the Mormon Church mandates that members of the faith in good standing donate 10% of their income to the church. Scientology requires people to buy their books and buy their way into higher levels of membership. Do these outlays count?Report

      • Jonathan McLeod in reply to Roger says:

        Mark – this assumes that all donations come from within the church’s congregation. That’s not 100% accurate.

        North – the Canada Revenue Agency disagrees with you.

        Though this likely all moot, as most churches I’m aware of have pretty involved temporal charitable services they provide.Report

      • North in reply to Roger says:

        Sure J-mac, but the CCRA isn’t the final word on the matter and Government has long been deeply fond of soft subsidies for religion of various stripes. If Roger narrowed his religious portion to people being able to donate directly to religious run charities I’d have no objection but donating to religion as a whole? That’s just theism boosting and it dilutes the charitable signalling device in his scheme. People with “donor” plates could be giving not a dime to any charitable activity; just aggressive religious witnessing or normal religious services but they’d be lumped in with with charitable donors.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:


        Just to clarify, I would suggest that the fictional nature of this exercise and the flexibility of countless states and countries allows each of us to experiment with the question of how would we like to see it developed in our state.

        I certainly have no concerns with states doing it excluding religion, or including donations of time. My expectation is that they do it in a way which seems best to them, and that over time they will get some feedback on how well or poorly they did based upon their values.

        Do you think if operated the way you like it would actually deliver socially beneficial results?Report

      • North in reply to Roger says:

        I can’t see how it could do much in the way of harm Roger and it seems plausible to me that it might incent some charitable giving so on balance I think it could produce beneficial results for society.

        Now if it yielded a large increase in giving you’d have to be on the lookout for charities that operate like the political operators of the GOP’s Fox wing. That is to say charities who’s biggest budget item is to advertise for public donations while making some small token charitable donation and paying their employees or executives massive salaries. That, however, would be an indication that the policy had significantly increased charitable giving though so you might actually welcome it.Report

  5. greginak says:

    ughhh…Nice thought and all Roger. But one thing charity is really poor at, is helping non-telegenic or sympathetic causes. If you get a blond starlet or big name actor/rock star to support your cause then you can get resources. If you are a charity based around a problem that affects only a few people, unless someone famous gets the disease, your pretty much boned. Also most charities need more money when the economy is worse ( food banks, homeless shelters, etc) but that is also when charitable giving drops. Charity often needs to be counter cyclical. Another thing, rich areas will often, for obvious reasons, have a lot more charitable giving then poor areas. Which places likely need more charity?

    I’ve told this before but let me note it again. I used to work for a large national Catholic charity. The founder of the charity, a priest, was accused of doing not entirely wholesome things with some of the youth we were supposed to serve. Our income dropped drastically for years. Assuming we were a useful charity doing good works, then literally tens of thousands of young people couldn’t get the help they needed due to a tawdry scandal. Is that really a good way to run a social service system?Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to greginak says:

      Come on, it’s just the market speaking if disease x doesn’t get funded enough because celebrity y, z, or l didn’t happen to be a victim of it.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to greginak says:

      And government is good at helping the non-telegenic, or those who aren’t good at lobbying for their own issues?

      I guess that’s why we have such amazingly effective programs for drug addicts and the homeless.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Haven’t lost a foot for the past twelve years!
        (which is to say, yeah, they’re better than nothing).Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Heroin ring a bell? (I’m pretty sure that was government funded…)Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Ever see a charity for a program for sex offenders or spouse abusers? The basic fact is a charity is great if people want to help the sufferers and preferable if a lot of people suffer for X problem. If you have an unsympathetic group, even one that needs some services, you are unlikely to get much help. That is the problem with charity, it depends on having some good kind of suffering to beg with.

        Gov is better is some ways because they will give money to groups that can show a need and propose a solution even if nobody likes them. Sometimes that means opening up drug rehabs even when nobody else will do it. Most services for the homeless i’ve ever seen are charity sponsored. They do great at the holidays. Other times…well that depends. Even still the money charities get to spend depends on how well they beg not on actual need.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Heroin ring a bell? (I’m pretty sure that was government funded…)

        Government funded heroin?Report

      • The John Howard Society works with ex-cons, so I imagine they might help sex offenders. They do a lot of good work, and they do get a fair amount of support.Report

      • Glyph in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Government funded heroin?

        I think that’s Jaime Sommers.Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        You don’t hear many bionic woman references these days.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Gov is better is some ways because they will give money to groups that can show a need and propose a solution even if nobody likes them.

        So tell me about those effective government programs for drug addicts, the homeless, pregnant teenagers.

        It seems to me, Greg, that your argument relies on government being objective and democratically unresponsive. If the demos despises ugly minority X, then their representatives are likely to despise ugly minority X. Unless, that is, ugly minority X has some means of political pressure or persuasion. Consider, for example, how various governments’ responses to homosexuality, or marijuana use, has tracked the public’s view of gays and potheads.

        I’m not arguing charities do a great job with unloved minorities. And I’m not arguing that it’s impossible for government to do a better job than the charities do for such groups. I’m arguing that anyone who assumes the government is likely to do much better is committing the nirvana fallacy because they hold an unrealistically idealistic view of how government functions and what it’s really likely to do.Report

      • Glyph in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I was originally going with Wonder Woman but I don’t think she received govt. $ (though then who paid for that invisible jet?), and I couldn’t think of anyone more current. Buffy Summers was strictly out-of-pocket.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        If I’m not mistaken, there are a fair number of private and public programs for pregnant teens.Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I’ve always thought Nirvana was really overrated. They had like three good songs at most. But anyway i don’t think Gov is prefect or even always does a decent job. I know the problems with charities very well although i loved working for one. I think it takes a knowledgeable person to study a problem to figure out where resources can be best utilized. Techocrats have a real useful role. Certainly Gov can’t magically give money to really unpopular groups because the people in all their wisdom won’t go for it. But i’ve seen with my own eyes Gov taking the lead to develop services for needy groups few people cared about. Those needy groups did have people to lobby for them, but the funding and services was based more on need since the public in general didn’t give a crap at best or was down on doing anything.Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Chris- Many charities only survive by getting some gov grants or supports. Even big charities often tap into grants or are gov contractors. This discussion does sort of miss that point. If you like charities, then you should be happy gov is helping them.

        Glyph- I’m sure the FAA had to license the IP. It would have been as an experimental type to which is hard.Report

      • Chris in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        greg, true, though a lot of them also get private grants. I’ve known a few people whose job it was to write grant proposals for charities specifically focused on teen pregnancies. State and federal government, religious organizations, and the Kochs are where most of their proposals go.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        @greginak Gov is actually pretty bad at giving to the non-telegenic unless said charity can effectively beg at the Gov window, rather than the celebrity window.

        So really, it’s all the same, either you can win a celebrity or three to your cause, or a elected official or three. Of course, the primary difference here is that the elected officials aren’t just giving away their own time & money. And they are probably just as bad about spotting scams as anyone else.Report

      • greginak in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        MRS- I agree gov isn’t great dealing with unpopular needy groups. I do think it is often better than charity though. Gov is better at this, but not always good. Look at it this way. A noisy pol with a little backing can often get a program funded if it doesn’t create to much ruckus, then the program can stand or fall on how it works. For a charity to get up and running they have to first develop a funding base, keep them involved for the years it may take to build a program, keep begging for money, start up a program, keep begging for money, deal with all the normal struggles of any new venture just to get to the same spot was the gov funded program was years ago and with far less begging.Report

      • @greginak The idea that they only had three good songs is the fallacy.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        I’m not arguing against the abilities of technocrats here, but ultimately they are dependent on the political class.

        With the moderation of both our points, I think we’re not terribly far in disagreement. Possibly just a matter of rather more optimism on your part and rather more pessimism on mine.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        @greginak Of course, the point is somewhat moot, since the OP said nothing (that I recall) about eliminating government aid to charitable groups, only about how the government could boost charitable giving through recognition & signalling.

        If large charities are flush with donations, then government will have more funds to aid smaller ones. Government could also boost the visibility of under-served charities in simple ways.Report

      • Glyph in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        @jonathan-mcleod – I’m afraid that terrible joke has been used recently, you’ll have to find another.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        So tell me about those effective government programs for drug addicts, the homeless, pregnant teenagers.

        Look up Vancouver’s safe injection site. It’s been pretty successful.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        please, stop this stuff and nonsense. The researchers (the ones who actually fix the damn problems) are NOT getting funded by politicians, except in the most broad categories (which is probably good if you like the idea of the CIA paying for AIDS research). Minnesota runs a ton of research on social work, for example. My town’s big into organ transplants and brain research.

        Syphilis research is better funded by a committee of scientists coming up with “how significant” is this research, than it would by by shilling to the general public.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        If politics plays no role in funding, why did Senators try to eliminate the NSF’s political science research grant funding?

        Have you ever considered the value of getting your facts straight before you comment? Or are you just a troll?Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Coburn is a troll. Surely you’ve heard of the Coburn Omnibus?

        So, um, yeah. I can point to 40-50 years of non-interference
        (okay, so the CIA/FBI does meddle, they don’t do it maliciously
        or partisanly…).

        Coburn offering an amendment is stupid, but if I could vote in
        his election, i’d be voting him out, as soon as possible.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        Coburn’s only the latest. Well, actually, he’s not even the latest; After his stunt, Lamar Smith tried to direct the selection process for grants. And let’s not forget the Bush Administration’s efforts to direct the conclusions of climate research. Similar interference has also happened with research on the effects of lead and mercury. Science advisory board appointees have been subjected to ideological litmus tests. Former Surgeons General Richard Carmona, C. Everett Koop and David Satcher, have all said that administrations withhold public health reports that are not satisfactory and complimentary to the particular administration. Darrell Issa tried to defund already granted NIH grants.

        Scientific research inevitably has political consequences, hence it will inevitably be politicized. Agencies like the NIH and NSF are, at their best, strong bulwarks against excessive politicization. But these bulwarks are created by the very class that contains many people who strongly desire to excessively politicize them. It’s a constant battle, and if we hold the naive view that the attacks on non-politicization of research funding is rare, we’ll be unprepared for that battle.

        (And that’s just talking about politicization of science from the outside; it doesn’t even consider the potential for politicization by the research class itself.)Report

      • @glyph Well played, sir.Report

  6. LWA says:

    This is very Rube Goldberg-ish, a needlessly convoluted way of reaching a goal.

    The goal is clear- to reach an ouotcome where the needy and suffering are given assistance while not being coercive.
    Without even bothering with the details, I am stuck at the first line.

    Why is coercion to contribute to the needs of the community illegitimate?
    Why is the ability to withdraw from the needs of the community legitimate?Report

    • Roger in reply to LWA says:

      I am not sure where your last two questions are aimed. How did you read this as an argument against coercive contributions, or for withdrawal from the needs of the community?Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        And you are always talking about our duty to give to the community. Isn’t this a great way to fulfill that duty?Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:


        I still would like to know what you think of the idea. I am not arguing against coercive community contributions, at least not here. I am floating an idea on how we could possibly get more money toward good causes.

        You always speak of duty to the community. Is this a legitimate way to fulfill this duty in your mind? Assume it worked and it increased contributions to programs you see as very worthwhile. Would you think the idea is a success? Why or why not?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to LWA says:

      Just take the money from people in the first place and give it to the Jesuits. If you don’t like it, go to Somalia.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to LWA says:

      Why is coercion to contribute to the needs of the community illegitimate?

      This all depends upon one’s assumptions. If one assumes the community has primacy over the individual, then there is no satisfactory answer to this question. If one assumes the individual has primacy over the concept of community (this assumption treats “community” as a concept, not an entity with any existence distinct from individuals), then the question satisfactorily resolves itself.

      As to the community primacy assumption, I’d note that it has been at the basis of Stalinist, Maoist, Hitlerian, and Khmer Rouge atrocities that resulted in the deaths of around 100 million people in the 20th century. It was the reason young Japanese men became kamikazes in a hopeless cause. It’s also core to repressive communities, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints that marry young girls off to old men, and hushing up of sexual abuse in some Amush communities so that the community isn’t threatened.

      The more individualist assumption has its own problems, but they are not as serious. It tends toward social atomization and more selfishness with less other-regardingness. And admittedly not all coercion is horrible, and sometimes its good to submit to the preferences of a karger group. But from a perspective of minimizing bad outcomes, the individualist assumption has much less downside. Voluntary communities have less tendency toward mass human destruction than coercive communities.

      That’s my answer to your question. Would you walk away from Omelas?Report

      • LWA in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        When you speak of primacy, is it only a set of polar opposites? Complete surrender to the collective, or complete autonomy?

        Legal types speak of property rights, not as a singluar, but as a set, a “bundle of sticks”- you can retain some, while selling others, and your control over your property can be wide or narrow.

        I think of individual rights that way. While I certainly have control and ownership of my self, my freedom and liberty only exists (in a meaningful way) because a community exists to defend and define them.

        Therefore the community has a lien right, a right to demand conditions for their protection. These are negotiable and debatable, certainly but they exist.

        So this fetish of voluntary-ism, of seeing coercion as inherently illegitimate, is entirely unfounded.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        So this fetish of voluntary-ism, of seeing coercion as inherently illegitimate, is entirely unfounded.

        See it as a fetish of “the burden of proof is on you when it comes to whether we should assume you get to tell us what to do, Mister Bossypants. It’s not on us to explain why you don’t.”Report

      • Patrick in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        But if Omelas required instead that when you came of age you threw your name in a hat and if your name came out you became the sin-eater, does that answer the objection to Omelas?

        I suspect that’s a better analog for what Omelas looks like, in the real world.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Shirley Jackson showed us that version.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        It feels like there is a group of people who, of course, are too essential to have their names put in the hat and this group includes the guy whose job it is to tell the person whose name gets picked how important this sacrifice is for the good of all of us.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        The more individualist assumption has its own problems, but they are not as serious. It tends toward social atomization and more selfishness with less other-regardingness.

        Dubious. The welfare state doesn’t seem to have done much for social cohesiveness, and arguably has done much to displace community. Empirical arguments built on two kind-of-parallel time series are dubious at best, but there’s certainly not much evidence for the proposition that the welfare state promotes community.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        No, not polar opposites by any means. But I find it curious that you speak of fetishism. From my perspective you absolutely fetishize the community. In every comment you make, if the community needs, it can take. You give some lip service to individual rights, but you seem to treat all rights as subject to the needs (as defined by whom?) of the community? Whether the community actually has limits is something you’ve never addressed, despite repeated attempts to draw you in that direction.

        So get serious, please, and do more than just attack individualists. Tell us what you see as some limits of the community’s power over the individual? Is the FLDS violating the rights of individual girls in an illegitimate way, even though it is important to the beliefs that hold their community together? If the whole U.S. FLDS, would it be ok to do so?

        Please, LWA, can you move beyond attacking individualists and specify whether you think the community’s authority over the individual has limits–limits that are not legitimately subject to community override–and if so, specify a few of them? In other words, why not defend your position for once instead of just attacking?Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        the law of the land allows us surprisingly little rights that cannot be abrogated by the community.
        Privacy? pbtthf. Private Property? Even worse. Even freedom of religion can be abrogated, under compelling circumstances.
        Freedom of belief, maybe.

        … I’m not sure how much I like any of this, but it is the law.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        But if Omelas required instead that when you came of age you threw your name in a hat and if your name came out you became the sin-eater, does that answer the objection to Omelas?

        Depends on the alternatives, doesn’t it?Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        We’re not talking about the law of the land as is, but what the law of the land should be.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        yes, but the law of the land carves out exceptions for reasons.
        I find holding that in the palm of my hand to be something
        worth considering, in developing my own opinions.

        Right to Private Property — I think very few libertarians (or even anarchists)
        would consider the right to own nuclear weapons to be included….

        Right to Free Exercise of Religion — Contamination/poisoning your neighborhood?

        The list goes on.

        I do tend to believe that the community at large has the right and ability
        to take away rights from individuals (reasons listed above. you are not an island). But I also believe in setting a pretty high bar.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Jaybird–I disagree. In an intellectual discussion the burden of proof is on both sides.

        Brandon–I incline toward your view, but I am trying to give serious credence to the communitarian perspective, and not just be dismissive of communitarian concerns about individualism, in the hopes of drawing LWA out into a serious conversation rather than simply looking like I was making a one-sided attack.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Lovely, but 1) I never thought you were fetishistic about communitarianism (it’s LWA who seems to always–always–place the community over the individual; and 2) you’re not actually answering my question, which is are there actual limits to the community’s legitimate authority over the individual. You tell me, Kim, can the FLDS community legitimately force a 13 year old girl to marry a 50 year old man?Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I think the community should never be allowed to murder someone (even if it would be manifestly good for the community).
        The FDLS seem hopelessly backward, and I think that they are abrogating the girl’s rights without enough of a compelling reason. But, importantly, I can think of a reason for forcing a 13 year old to marry a 50 year old (eyuugh. sometimes creativity is a curse).Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        I’m going to flat out call you evil on the justification of forcing 13 year olds to marry. But at least you’ve demonstrated one limit on the community, which is one more than LWA, in my experience, has ever agreed to.

        I’m still awaiting his move, though, and he may have actual work to do (unlike me, being home sick today).Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        naturally, you’re calling a lot of folks evil with that statement.
        Including most practitioners of Judaism (historically speaking).

        Me? I was just thinking an “uh, oh, we seem to have lost a good deal of the population”
        (combine it with some radioactivity, to make sure that you can’t just wait until the kids grow up).Report

      • LWA in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        You raise a good point-
        What is the line between the needs of the comunity versus the needs of the individual?
        We want to live freely, to pursue our own concepts of fulfillment, yet we also want to be engaged in a community that supports us, and accepts us.
        We want to belong to a place “where evrybody knows your name”, yet we also know that they also know our secrets, they judge us, and can stifle us.
        Luckily for this discussion, we are not the first to encounter this issue. This issue has been discussed for oh, about 300 years or sos written into things like the American Constitution, court decisions, and contemporary theology.

        Specific to your question- can a religious community force a 13 yo girl to marry?
        American laws, court decisions, and community norms all say no.
        Can it force a 13 yo girl to attend Bible classes? Yes. Can her brother be circumcised without his consent? Yes. Can she? No. Can 16 yo minors drink? No. Sacramental wine? Yes. Sacarmental peyote? No.

        An on, and on, etc.

        Notice, the first principle of individual rights (Freedom of religion) is incomplete, and doesn’t address all these nuances. It needs to be fully developed and defined by the community, and these rights defended, by the community.
        This libertarian mantra- “I should be allowed to do anything I want, unless it harms another” is not wrong- its just incomplete and based on assumptions that all need to be examined.

        If it seems like I am being patronizing, its because you jump from “the community can establish mandatory duties” to the FEMA camps- er, the Stalinist Gulag.

        Again, Roger’s thesis here is that this system is just like what we have now, except better because it is voluntary- this seems like it assumes that a majority-approved system of communal charity is somehow illegitimate. I don’t think it is.

        Yes, I believe firmly in the rights of the individual. We all do, even non-libertarians. We just don’t think they are absolute.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        You did not answer the question. I did not ask about current law; I asked whether you thought individuals have any absolute rights against the community, and if so, what some are? That should not be a hard question.

        If it seems like I am being patronizing, its because you jump from “the community can establish mandatory duties” to the FEMA camps- er, the Stalinist Gulag.

        You are both uncharitable and miss the point. First, I obviously I never made any references to FEMA, and you are out of line to make such an implication. Second, I did not “jump to” the Stalinist gulags, but argued that those are the worst-case scenarios of communitarianism run amok. If you think they are not, please make the argument for your case. Or alternatively, please make a case that the worst-case scenarios of individualism run amok are yet worse.

        Now, I am trying to discuss this in good faith, but so far in response I’ve gotten a claim of “fetishism,” a false implication that I was talking about FEMA concentration camps (which appears to be an effort to dismiss me as a paranoid conspiracy theorist), and avoidance of the actual question. I’m hard-pressed to believe that you are discussing this in good faith, but I would be pleased to be proved wrong.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        On second thought, perhaps you did answer the question, albeit vaguely, when you wrote:

        Yes, I believe firmly in the rights of the individual. We all do, even non-libertarians. We just don’t think they are absolute.

        Please forgive me if I lack insight, but I don’t understand the full meaning of that. Were the U.S. to become overwhelmingly FLDS, to the point of changing the law and Constitution in their favor, would 13 year old girls have an absolute right to not be married off against their will?

        If terrorists made a credible threat to detonate a thermonuclear weapon in NYC unless I were publicly raped and tortured to death, would i have an absolute right to not be raped and tortured to death?

        The first one is a very serious question because it’s about a current community practice. The second is outrageous, of course, but it is precisely the type of question philosophers deal with in trying to figure out the boundaries of ethical theories. And I’m trying to find out the boundaries of yours. I know we’ll never agree on a meeting point, what with our differing fetishes, but I’m struggling to figure out if your communitarianism actually has some concrete identifiable boundaries at which you say “No, the community may not override the individual’s rights in that particular way“? Or is your approach ultimately without boundaries, such that if the community decides it has a need, any override of individual rights is ultimately justified?

        You cited historical documents, here, so let me throw one out as well, the Declaration of Independence’s claim that there are “inalienable rights.” Do you accept or reject that? Obviously you know where I stand on that, but I’m not here to attack any answer you might give–I just want to know what your actual answer is.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        In an intellectual discussion the burden of proof is on both sides.

        So if someone comes up to me and says “I am your boss”, the burden of proof is also on me to demonstrate that she is not?

        Is “We Have No Freaking Relationship, Lady” sufficient “proof”? If it isn’t, what would be?Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:


        I wouldn’t classify that as an intellectual discussion. But the debate between communitarianism and individualism is old enough, wirh sufficiently developed arguments on each side, that it’s not as simple as you suggest. Of course neither is it as simple as LWA thinks. Neither of you has approached a particularly good argument, I’m sorry to say.Report

      • LWA in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        So your question is, do we have “any absolute rights against the community”? Even if the Constitution were changed?
        The confusion is when we switch from speaking of rights as a practical matter to speaking of rights as philosophical constructs.

        For example, gay people in 1995 had the right to get married- philosophically speaking. As a practical matter, they didn’t.

        So I could toss out LWA’S Magnificent List Of Inalienable Rights, which are impervious to even a change in the Constitution. To answer your question very specifically, if I were Pope of America and Master of All That I Survey, I would forbid underage marriages, as an immoral intrusion onto personal dignity. To answer your question more broadly, I think the status quo definition of personal liberty versus community norms is very nearly right, with some modifications- (Changing the drug laws a bit, tweaking balance of contract and property rights towards labor). So really, Pope LWA I would be pretty benevolent in His stewardship.

        Unfortunately, that would be as silly and pathetic as it sounds. Because rights really only take on meaning and effect when they are defined and defended by a community. We can postulate all day long about our personal beliefs, but even the most basic rights we can imagine- like the right of 13 yo girls not to be married against their will- only exist in a meaningful sense because a sufficient number of people share that belief and are willing to act on it.

        Isn’t this disturbing? That rights only exist by the consent and agreement of the community? Yes, it is. Sorry.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        So if you were pope, there’d be no forced marriages of underage girls. But if you weren’t pope, and the majority of the community didn’t believe underage girls had any rights against being forced into marriage, you’d just shrug your shoulders and say, “they have no rights because the community has no rights; it is legitimate for the community to force them into marriage?

        Do I have that right, or have I misunderstood you?

        Because that’s how I’m reading “rights only exist by the consent and agreement of the community.” And I don’t want to mis-read it that way if that’s not what you meant.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        LWA, allow me to make my basic position clear. The important issue is not that I disagree with you, but that you always write about the community having authority over the individual as though your position is self-evident, inarguable. As though anyone who disagrees is clearly wrong, and bears all the burden of proof. And you’re wrong in that.

        1. Yours is a position that can be argued, and for which a coherent intellectual argument can be made. I agree with that completely.

        2. But it is a position that is outside both the American founding tradition and the mainstream of liberal thought.

        2.A. It is out of step with the American founding tradition.
        In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote very differently than you do–he said that governments are created to protect these individual rights, but that it is because the rights themselves are inherent, existing prior to and in the absence of government. Now “government” is not quite the same thing as “society,” but of course government is meant to be the voice of society–when society overrides our rights, it is done through action of the government, and Jefferson would have argued that the individual did have some absolute rights against the society as expressed through the actions of its government.

        I fully agree with you (assuming I am interpreting you correctly here) that the idea of natural rights is a bit squishy. And certainly we are under no intellectual obligations to agree with the American founding tradition just because it is the American founding tradition. But for anyone tempted to be cocksure about the communitarian position, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that it is in fact a break with that tradition.

        2.B. It is out of step with the liberal tradition, including contemporary liberalism.
        Do I recall correctly that you said you shifted over to liberalism from a more conservative position? If I remember that correctly, it would explain this quite well, because it is in fact more commonly a conservative position to insist on the absolute primacy of the community over the individual, because ultimately it is a rather authoritarian and traditionalistic position, a position consonant with the British tradition that the Founders rebelled against that society itself was the core of society, rather than individuals.

        The classical liberal tradition, growing out of, for example, Hobbes and Locke, and as expressed (again) in Jefferson, emphasizes individuals as the core of society, and sees it as existing to meet their needs. This provided a focus on individual autonomy and negative liberty. And while contemporary liberalism added on an emphasis on positive liberty that classical liberals and libertarians reject, it has never abandoned negative liberty.

        In fact contemporary liberalism would be incoherent under your approach, which is why progressive communitarianism has always fit oddly within the liberal camp. Those liberals who fought for equality, whether in the original Civil Rights movement or in any of the subsequent equality movements, from disability rights to gay rights, didn’t argue that society should “grant” them equal rights–they argued that equal rights are fundamental, a right held by the individual against state and society even when they were being functionally denies. Those who fought for women’s suffrage didn’t argue simply that society ought to revise its recognition of rights, but that suffrage was a fundamental right that society could not legitimately deny. Those who fight for abortion rights don’t argue primarily on pragmatic arguments, but claim a fundamental right to individual autonomy that trumps the authority of the state and society over the individual.

        So in summary, while I wholeheartedly agree that your position is intellectually defensible, and that you are under no obligation to be bound by the liberal tradition in America, I do ask you to recognize that your position is not entirely self-evident, that the burden of proof does not rest solely on those who disagree (and that the the tradition itself does go a long way toward meeting that burden of proof), and that your position is not even wholly reflective of contemporary liberalism. That is, even though your argument can be reasonably made, it calls for a little bit more humility, a little less assumption of unassailable rightness, than seems to be apparent when you make it.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    For the record, I realize that I have nothing against this plan. It’ll result in more charity all around, which is a good thing. The main complaints I had were of the form “but I don’t want people getting gold plates for donating to charities that are totally phony bologna” and my list of phony bologna charities was seriously legit, unlike the phony bologna charities challenged by other people, but then I realized what I was doing with *THAT*… and then I saw what the “reward” actually was:

    A different color of license plate.

    And my problem was that I didn’t want people who gave to (insert silly charity here) getting the same psychic kudos as the people who gave to (insert serious charity here).

    And I asked if the costs of putting up with (silly person) getting the same psychic kudos as (serious person) are a lot less onerous than the benefits provided by a large group of folks who would be inspired/nudged to donate to (serious (or even a not silly) charity).

    “I’d love to have a reason to donate more to The Heifer Project but I don’t want other people having a reason to donate to The Red Heifer Project.”

    And I realized how silly that was.

    As costs go, there are worse ones. As benefits go (for purely voluntary interactions), this one has surprisingly a lot. (I do like the idea of volunteers getting somewhat equal consideration, though. There are tons of people whose time is worth more than the money they have to offer (or the money they could make in the time they have to offer) and their time should also allow them access to something. Hey, maybe they could have jewel-tone plates. “That’s only a Datsun… but it’s got Sapphire plates.” That sort of thing.

    Anyway, I think that the upsides are potentially really good, the downsides are aren’t that costly, and that means, as silly things for the government to be doing tend to go, this is in the top half.Report

    • Roger in reply to Jaybird says:

      Yeah, I was a bit surprised that anybody cares about giving “gold stars” for contributing to charities they don’t agree with. I grok having the states implementing some kind of rules which prohibit people from effectively giving to themselves and thus gaming the system (after all that would diminish the legitimacy of the program).

      But as you and others have clarified this really is about nothing but gold stars. Why would a progressive care if a conservative gave to their church? How would they consider that a bad thing? Why would it be considered any of their business? (All asked as rhetorical questions). And to be fair if we still had any conservatives they would be complaining about liberals giving to “that global warming stuff.”

      It’s like the old freedom of religion battle. It took centuries and countless wars and deaths for people to come to the conclusion that maybe we should just let people decide on their own. You get gold plates for giving to the church, I get gold plates for giving to the environment.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


        I suppose my issue with gold stars (and the might put me at odds with other liberal/liberalish people) is that it won’t take the government much time to move from gold stars to gold bars. “Hey… not only do you get a gold license plate, but we’re going to give you a tax break… or preferred status… or a get-out-of-jail free card.

        Generally speaking, I don’t have much faith in the government’s ability to determine that which we ought to do and, thus, that which they ought to encourage. So, yea, if the plan is limited to gold stars and only gold stars (and I’ll acknowledge fully your plan as you articulated it did seem to have such limitations), I’m much less opposed. I just jumped to all sorts of inevitable conclusions that seemed, well, inevitable.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        Great point. I don’t trust the government either.

        My concerns on turning color plates into benefits was loosely addressed by my final paragraphs on state experimentation. My fictional solution was that adding benefits would diminish the value of the honor. Some may disagree.

        I especially agree with the concern of the government abusing it. In the fourth to the final paragraph I threw in the idea that a country took the idea and bypassed the government all together. Are there ways you can imagine that being possible?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:


        “…I threw in the idea that a country took the idea and bypassed the government all together.”

        I can’t imagine how this would work unless the government deemed homemade license plates official status. I mean, your plan seems to be based inherently on the government endorsing the behavior, because of just how much faith people DO put in the government.

        I can see people saying, “Anyone can put a smiley face bumper sticker on their car… it doesn’t mean they’re a good person. But a smile face license plate? Well, that shit is official, bro.”

        I believe this perception comes from the fact that the government is assumed to not have conflicting interests. “They’d only give out gold stars to people who deserved them. It’s not like they’re selling them for a profit!” Of course, reality tells us otherwise. What is most troubling about this is that the vast majority of people who work “in government” are good people who genuinely do want to serve the public and who probably can be trusted. The building inspector can generally be trusted to be without a conflict of interest; his focus is usually rightly on safety. But it is the elected officials, with their myriad of competing interests, who set the policy. So maybe the inspector is well-intentioned in enforcing a particular code, but he doesn’t realize it was lobbied for and supported by a politician who wanted to restrict competition.

        I’d venture to guess you and I see eye to eye on this.Report

  8. Chris says:

    Oh, one more thing. There’s a pretty big literature on the ways in which extrinsic motivations reduce intrinsic motivations, ultimately reducing the amount (and quality) of positive behaviors, including prosocial ones. You have to find a balance between social pressure and warm fuzzy feelings. I don’t know that everyone driving around with a colored license plate is particularly balanced.Report

  9. Damon says:

    Ah yes, this seems an excellent idea. Gold stars for the good boys and girls, all publicly displayed to shame the rest of the herd to comply.

    I actually have some experience with this. My old company instituted an employee motivational program where if you “went above and beyond” you got a gold start (literally) on your cube wall by your name and a “trip to the toy box” where you could select a variety of prizes like 1/2 a day off, travel mugs with the company logo, etc. It was pathetic. Sadly, I could not escape the program’s reach as management found almost any excuse to award these stars. After winning two for essentially doing my job, I felt even more disgusted with the program and myself.

    Why don’t you just ASK for the money instead of some convoluted mechanism like this?Report

    • Roger in reply to Damon says:

      I don’t want any money.

      I am not sure where your concern is. I am well aware of poorly designed recognition plans. More objective recognition plans such as name tags signifying years in service rarely run into this issue.

      Let me broaden the question…

      Do you not think charitable giving is valuable? Do you not think the poor or whatever causes you value could use more money? If this did cause more to go to good causes would it be a good or bad thing?

      Or is your concern that it WON’T create more giving? If so, how would you design it so you could get more money?

      Finally, would you give more or less time or money?Report

      • Kim in reply to Roger says:

        Quite frankly, I’m already paying money to kill people (Slowly, granted).
        Why should I pay more money to save them?

        And if I am going to pay money to save people, I want my investment to
        be self-sustaining, which nearly all charities are not.Report

      • Damon in reply to Roger says:

        Apologies if I was not clear.

        The whole concept of Gold plates for people who give x, etc. is rather childish in my opinion. It reminds me of the gold star in first grade or kindergarten. It also reminds me of my past work experienced noted above. It’s infantilizing. “Look at me; I got a gold star (plate)! I’m a good boy! Here’s my external approval. Why don’t YOU have a gold star?” And it’s another way for those self-important types to show that they CARE more than you do and lord it over those who cannot or will not contribute as much. It becomes a status thing, one more box on the checklist that demonstrates that they are better than you.
        So, if a charity or such wants my money, simply ask for it. Don’t implement a “gold start” process.

        And to answer you questions:
        Q: Do you not think charitable giving is valuable? A: Yes.
        Q: Do you not think the poor or whatever causes you value could use more money? A: Yes.
        Q: If this did cause more to go to good causes would it be a good or bad thing? A: I would still view it as a bad thing for the reasons above.
        Q: Or is your concern that it WON’T create more giving? If so, how would you design it so you could get more money? A: I’m not sure it would result in more giving or less. Well, since I don’t like this idea, I wouldn’t advise any changes.
        Q: Finally, would you give more or less time or money? A: A program of colored plates will turn me completely off and I’d give less time and money.Report

      • Roger in reply to Roger says:

        Thanks Damon, your answers were quite clear. I of course do not know if it would increase charitable giving either.

        If it did increase charitable giving, I am not completely sure it would be good either. The reason is that I am not sure that the money is better spent by the charity than it is by the person themselves. It depends on the charity and how the money would otherwise be used. I actually worry that money which is better invested in new capital markets could get redirected to less beneficial but seemingly good ideas.

        If after trying it we proved, for arguments sake, that society was better all things considered, I would consider it a good idea, even though I might subtly resent the pressure. I am just trying to be honest….

        I would probably try to go to a Blue status (the lowest level), via some combo of volunteering and cash donations to what I saw as the best causes. If most of my neighbors or co-workers displayed higher status, I am not sure how I would react. Social norms have a way of changing us in ways which we cannot predict.

        By the way, before I retired, I led product development at a large insurance company. Some of our most influential product designs involved benefit and reward programs. As Chris and you keep stressing, the details matter a lot and it is easy to design a recognition program that backfires. The details provided here were only intended to get the underlying conversation started…Report

      • Damon in reply to Roger says:

        Appreciate the response. I think it’s spawned a decent dialogue. I enjoyed reading the post and commentary, so kudos for getting people to think. 🙂Report

  10. Kazzy says:

    FWIW, since the comparison has come up between this and “gold star” systems in Kindergarten, I feel compelled to weigh in with how I encourage prosocial behavior with my pre-kindergarten students…

    In my room, we have the compliment box. When teachers notice students doing “extra great” work, they write them a note and place it in the compliment box. At the end of the day, we open up the box and read the notes aloud. The notes are worded carefully to identify the inherent good in an act. E.g., “Susie, when you helped Tommy clean up his spill, it helped the job get done faster so you could both get back to playing faster. It also was kind because it made him feel good” instead of “Susie, when you helped Tommy clean up his spill, it made the teacher happy.” The child then gets to take the note home. Technically, this serves as a tangible “reward” of sorts, but all it really does is make it concrete for young children and allow them to share it with their family.

    Now, whatever behavior gets complimented today is suddenly being practiced en masse tomorrow. Children will leap out of their chairs to help others with spills. “Mr. Kazzy… do you see me helping Jill?” “Yes, I do. That is very helpful.” “Will I get a compliment?” “We’ll have to see.”

    Now, the great thing about compliments is that they need not come from a teacher. In fact, I tell the children they can give themselves compliments. If they do “extra great” work, they can pat themselves on the back and say, “Good job, me!” (Yes, we actually do this… they’re 4.) And they can also give each other compliments, which they begin doing in droves.

    The ones that stand out the most are when they see their actions have a positive impact on a friend. Children want to feel powerful. Hell, everyone does. Unfortunately, it is often easier to feel powerful by feeling powerful over another, often in a negative way. I can push you and make you fall down and cry and see directly just how powerful I am. So I draw their attention to the positive ways they can effect the world and feel powerful. “Wow, Tommy, you helped Susie with her coat and that made her really, really happy. You did that!” They beam ear to ear… not because of my acknowledgement, but because they’ve met their own need in a way that contributed positively to the group.

    I’d be curious to hear from @chris if this jives with the research on intrinsic vs external motivation. My goal through this work is to pursue the former, though there is admittedly some dabbling in the latter.

    tl; dr: No gold stars in my room.Report

    • Roger in reply to Kazzy says:

      That is really interesting, K. I love hearing your experiences with the kids.

      Let me ask a question…

      If your state offered plates with special blue coloring if you donated time and money equivalent of two percent of income, would you want to display them? How would you feel if your neighbors and co-workers started driving with blue and you and the wife drove regular plates?

      It is an interesting question, and as I have already admitted on a personal, selfish level, I am not entirely thrilled with the idea. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind two percent, but five or ten percent would be more than I want to give. I don’t want to be pressured to give that much to charity.

      I wonder, on a personal level, assuming it did happen and everything worked perfectly, how would people feel about it?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Roger says:

        I, personally, would be bothered by it. It would feel strange for me to display. Hell, my wife gets uncomfortable sometimes inviting people over to our house because it is much nicer than the domiciles of most of our peers (in large part because we live much further from the city than just about all of them and thus have a much lower cost of living). Neither of us are “showy” people. We give a decent amount to charity, though I couldn’t tell you what the percentage is. If you told me tomorrow I got a special plate for it, I’d probably politely decline. If you told me tomorrow I could get a special plate if I gave just a bit more, I doubt it would influence our giving patterns. If we were the only people on the block who didn’t have a special plate… whether this was because we gave less or because we simply opted not to display it, I probably wouldn’t care much. If people started to treat us differently, I might grow frustrated with this, but would probably just say fuck’em.

        I will note that I have no idea how representative I am of society at large. I think not very.

        And thank you for your kind words re: my teaching.Report

    • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

      @Kazzy, we are certainly outside of my area of expertise now, both in talking about young children and talking about motivation, but from what I know of the literature, this sounds somewhat consistent. First, the behavior you describe — of children repeating the behavior that elicited a compliment the day before, sounds consistent with the basic idea that praise and other rewards are effective motivators, but their intrinsic motivation is for the praise, not the helping. The self-praise, on the other hand, particularly when they’re praising themselves for behaviors consistent with those that teachers have praised in the past, likely serves to reinforce their intrinsic motivation to perform those behaviors.

      I wonder, then, do the children display a marked drop off in eagerness to perform a teacher-praised behavior a couple days after the initial compliment? If so, that would seem consistent with the overjustification effect, while slowly displaying the behaviors more and more consistently over time with consistent praise would fit with basic theories of conditioning. In a sense, the latter is a form of internalizing the motivation — turning it from extrinsic to intrinsic.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        I will say that there is sometimes a slight downward turn in the enthusiasm with which they tackle a task, but because we offer praise (in this form or another) relatively consistently, it just becomes habit. So, there is definitely a degree of behaviorism to it. And while some people bristle at that, that is really what teaching is.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        To elaborate/clarify, not every instance of spill-assistance gets a compliment. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, we don’t even know it happens. Sometimes we offer praise in other forms. I will say that over time the obvious fishing tends to subside (“Mr. Kazzy, look how helpful I’m being!”) but by that point, the kids have more or less habitualized the idea of helping each other out when there is a spill.

        For me, the key thing is emphasizing the inherent value of the act. If they only “do good” because it makes Mr. Kazzy happy, well, why would they “do good” when I’m not around? There’s no one to make happy! So I attempt to point out how doing good is good in and of itself… wiping up that spill was the right thing to do because it made sure no one would slip and it helped out a friend and your teamwork allowed you to get back to playing sooner. Who cares what Mr. Kazzy thinks? Ideally, no one.Report

    • Damon in reply to Kazzy says:

      Kazzy, the behavior you describe was at your school was generally mimicked by the people in my office. It wasn’t a month before almost everyone had a gold start on their cube. Then the wave of newness ended and everything went back to normal.

      Additionally, there was a corporate level initiative that was very similar to the gold star thing, but the reward was a “certificate of merit” and a coffee mug full of candy. (Editorial comment: like I’m busting my ass for a mug of candy. The half day off, maybe). Within another month, the entire Accounting team had gotten these rewards. I made a comment to the A/R manager something along the lines of “when everyone is special no one is” and her response was enlightening. She said “I can’t pay them anymore money. I’m never given any budget to do so and this is the only thing I can do for them. You’re damn well sure I’m going to make sure everyone gets what little I can give them.” That was one of the most damning statements made about my old company.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Damon says:


        If my comment read as if everyone gets the same, then that was inaccurate. Kids get compliments when they earn them. Inevitably, everyone gets some, but some kids get more. And I don’t pretend otherwise.

        At one point, my admin pushed back against the idea, saying it was unfair. I pointed to the plaques that hung in the front foyer with the names of various award winners and the sports trophies we give out and the academic awards. I said, “If we can recognize excellence in these areas, why not in citizenship?” That nipped their complaints in the bud.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        I didn’t read your comment that everyone got the same. I was just commenting that once someone got a reward in my workplace, everyone’s behavior started changing so they too could get a reward. That was my, obviously poor attempt, to explain. 🙂Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Damon says:

        Got it, got it, got it. My apologies for the confusion.

        I’m not an expert on adult psychology, but I would venture to guess that a private, handwritten note acknowledging one’s efforts would ultimately be more appreciated than some token mug full of 2-cent chocolate. Ideally, a merit pay system would allow individuals to be compensated financially for their work, but that isn’t always possible. If I had my choice between a supervisor taking the time to see, appreciate, acknowledge, and value my work and having them looking for a reason to reward me with a prize, I’d take the former every time.

        But I might just be weird like that.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        Well, this same company had a “merit pay” system that was pretty sad. Somewhere between 1 and 1.5 percent increase for a merit ranking of 3 out of 5, 5 being highest.

        Given that a 5 would be rewarded with 2%, I asked, “Why should I bust my ass for .5% more when I can just phone it in for 1.5%? And don’t tell me I should because of advancement because our Persident has already said there is no career advancement at this location”. That question didn’t go over well. 🙂Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Damon says:


        You should have followed it up with, “You mean I can do shit for work and keep the same salary??? Aces!”Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        @ Kazzy,

        Yah, that’s basically what I said.Report