Sunday, August 15, 2010

The rich and charity

My grandpa was rich. He owned a bar, he owned a big house in Alaska, a condo on First Hill in Seattle.

Yet he wasn't generous. In fact, he was the worst tipper I ever met. So one day I asked him why he didn't tip better. It was good service, and he could spare the money. "Shouldn't people with more money," I asked him, "be more generous?"

"The reason I have money is I'm NOT generous," he said. "I keep my money. Nobody ever gets rich giving their money away or spending it foolishly."

That had a great effect on me. I thought getting rich would make a person more generous. But the personality traits that allowed a person to get rich in the first place--acquisitiveness, greed, cold calculation--wouldn't exactly change once the person got rich.

And in fact, a lazy view of money ("I have the money, so why not give more away") is precisely the view that prevents a person from getting rich.

So when a new study noted that "the needy or the relatively less wealthy are actually more generous" than the wealthy, I was not surprised.

I was surprised, though, by the study's explanation of that finding's cause. The study believes the generosity is caused by people lower in society's pecking order know they are more dependent on other people to get by.

That attributes some pretty nebulous motives. I have a better theory that reads more like a tautology, an exercise in circular logic. The reason the wealthy are less likely to give to charity is that they are less likely to give away their money. That is, the reason they are rich is that they save their money rather than spending it.

So, in other words, the study found that people who have more money give less of their money away. Turn it around to find the ridiculousness: the study found those who give less of their money away end up with more money.

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