Thursday, June 21, 2007

Philanthropy As Bribery

In a New York Times blog entry, Richard Conniff has proposed a New Rule: the Rule of Decent Interval. The new Rule goes something like this:

It holds that the value of a good deed decreases in direct proportion to how badly you need the resulting good will.

He then shows how many high-profile and wealthy people acting badly (or, at least, charged criminally of acting badly), have promised to make, attempted to make or actually have made philanthropic donations as a way of trying to buy good will. He gives four examples of his new proposed Rule of Decent Interval: Sean "P. Diddy" "Puffy" Combs attempting to give $50,000 to a scholarship fund; Richard Scrushy facing trial before a largely black jury, suddenly finding Jesus and brotherhood with the African-American community, worshiping -- and contributing -- at a largely African-American church; Chung Mong Koo pledging to make a $1 billion donation "to society" when questioned about shady financial dealings; and Lee Kun-Hee, when caught trying to finagle the inheritance tax, had to make an $825 million donation (also “to society”) by way of apology.

Mr. Conniff goes on to say:

All this reminds me of a lesson I learned growing up in New Jersey. The nuns at St. Cassian School used to tell us about an imaginary mob boss who’d led a wicked life but went to heaven anyway because of a sincere deathbed confession. They meant to show us that confession is powerful, and God forgiving. But some of my classmates took it to mean they could get away with murder, as long as they managed to eke out a good Act of Contrition at the end. Others (possibly including some of the nuns, behind those starched white wimples) felt that God was no fool and would pack the mobster off to roast in hell regardless.

I would humbly suggest that the latter attitude is entirely appropriate for violators of The Rule of the Decent Interval.


Just-in-time philanthropy...says flout the laws and damn the community. If you get caught, you can just make the whole mess go away with a well-placed act of contrition, or rather, “charity.” Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it’s hard to see how this is any different from bribery.

Philanthropic organizations, and just-in-time donors, ought to be nervous about that. Violations of the Rule of the Decent Interval tend to remind people of the terrible alternative — not hell, perhaps, but almost as ominous: Enforce good laws, punish violators, and instead of depending on the whim of self-serving donors, make basic social services a function of government — even if that means you have to tax wealth more heavily.

Meanwhile, I like to imagine that Sister Immaculate’s take-home on the Rule of the Decent Interval would sound like this: Do good deeds now. Do lots of them. You never know when you will need the good will. But pray to God it won’t be any time too soon.

I have come to the same conclusion as the bolded sentence above. People who need help should not have to wait for some act of charity. There are some (probably most) acts of injustice that cannot be corrected in any afterlife. We need Justice now. This proposed Rule of Decent Interval shows the fallacy of making health care dependent on charity. As a mobster once is quoted as saying: "It's easy to be generous with other people's money."

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