Voters, progressives, and philanthropists

Consider the following story:

A couple of progressives were sitting in a Starbucks in Seattle, lamenting the state of public policy.  The government was raising enough revenue to address many social problems, but the vast majority of domestic spending went to middle class entitlements.  Another big chunk of spending went to the bloated military budget.  Much of the small foreign aid budget went toward our military allies, not the global poor.

Bill the businessman overheard this conversation and was touched by their lament.  Bill suggested an idea:  “How about if I impose a private tax on every single operating system for PCs, and then consult experts on effective philanthropy.  I’ll give the money where it will do the most good.”

Bill then talked his friend Warren into imposing a tax on all financial transactions, and also donate the funds to charity.  The idea spread rapidly.  Mark put a tax on social media advertising, which raised vast amounts of money.  Jeff imposed a private tax on internet retail transactions, while Larry and Sergey put a tax on search advertising.

The progressives said that’s all very nice, but the money is still far too small to address “unmet needs”.  And yet they kept losing elections to populist candidates that promised to spend the money on the sorts of things that made average voters feel more comfortable, such as middle class entitlements, and also programs that made America seem like a Great Power, such as the defense budget and military aid to Israel, Egypt and Pakistan.

Then the progressives decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. Because they could not get Americans to vote for candidates who favored helping the less fortunate, the progressives decided they’d start favoring policies that helped the middle class, programs that ignored the needs homeless Americans and hungry Africans.

The progressives decided to advocate expanding federal health care programs from the poor and elderly to the broader population, at such a huge cost that it would absorb most of the revenue that could be potentially be raised with higher taxes.  In addition, they decided that all Americans should pay taxes to pay off the debts of the relatively well off minority that graduate from college.

Thus the 21st century saw a very unusual phenomenon. Billionaires became bleeding heart progressives, donating hundreds of billions of dollars to the world’s neediest people.  The progressives became power hungry politicians, grasping for votes wherever they could find them.

Of course that’s just a story.  You’ll have to read the news media to find out what’s really going on in America.



29 Responses to “Voters, progressives, and philanthropists”

  1. Gravatar of carl carl
    16. July 2019 at 09:10

    Progressivism was founded on the notion that expanding government control helps society. This drove Progressive programs to expand expanded government control to provide education to the poor, to protect workers from unfair business practices, to provide a safety net for the elderly and the unhealthy. Progressives, however, cease to be Progressives when they recognize that government can be the problem, such as when it is running trillion dollar deficits because it is transferring massive amounts of money to people who don’t need it.

    Your parable is actually a much cleverer way of making the point, but I felt like jumping on my soapbox for a moment…

  2. Gravatar of LK Beland LK Beland
    16. July 2019 at 09:10

    There is some merit to this post.

    However, cancer treatment or a child in the NICU without adequate coverage will very rapidly transform a lower-middle-class family into a poor–and possibly homeless–family.

  3. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    16. July 2019 at 10:01

    I generally agree with LK: progressives favor policies that help the lower class as well as policies that help to increase the financial security of the middle class; most of which are one accident, mistake, or recession from disaster.

    I think you also vastly overestimate the philanthropic use of those “taxes”. Bill has accomplished some amazing things but he’s an outlier and even then he’s not using all of that “tax” in the process.

  4. Gravatar of rayward rayward
    16. July 2019 at 10:08

    The median household income in America is about $60,000. That’s not much to support a family. Do these households have unmet needs? I suppose so since housing, private health insurance, and higher education costs are so high and rising, making it very difficult to achieve class mobility. Sumner seems to be suggesting that folks with this level of income are greedy since they insist on receiving public benefits that otherwise could go to the very poor (a family of four with household income of about $25,000). Of course, the unmet needs of the very poor wouldn’t cost all that much since food, shelter, and Medicaid are pretty much what they need. By comparison, the unmet needs of a family with an income at or about $60,000 are expensive: housing located in an area with good jobs, private health insurance, and God only knows how much for higher education. This is a dilemma: who ya gonna help? One solution would be to reduce the number of families with a household income at or about the median and increase the number of families in poverty. Come to think of it, isn’t that what we have been doing in America?

    To be clear, I believe the grab-bag of goodies on offer from the Democratic candidates is unbecoming of anyone who would call herself a progressive, but not as unbecoming as pitting the poor against the middle class to compete for government handouts. My preference would be to increase public spending on that which makes America more productive, including building a transportation network for the 21st century that is at least as good as the network in China, rather than spending on current consumption. That would benefit all Americans not any particular class. Well, it wouldn’t benefit the 1% since they travel in private jets.

  5. Gravatar of LK Beland LK Beland
    16. July 2019 at 10:38


    “The median household income in America is about $60,000. That’s not much to support a family.”

    A minor point: the median *family* income in America is closer to $76k.

  6. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    16. July 2019 at 12:08

    My Windows 10 kb4507435 update installation never be successful.

  7. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    16. July 2019 at 12:50

    As a progressive, I think that is an exceptional takedown of the current state of the Democratic party.
    On the flip side, the candidate who is pushing back the hardest against medicare for all and student loan forgiveness is in first place, so all might not be lost.
    I think folks on this site and other places put too much focus on AOC and OMAR. They are freshmen back benchers who yield little power. Until Pelosi and team embrace these ideas, we can all take a deep breath.
    But my main point is that this is a great parable and I will borrow it when talking to my more lefty friends.

  8. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    16. July 2019 at 13:45

    Unfortunately, a lot of progressives these days are more power hungry than bleeding heart. The charity issue is a great point–you never hear people make the argument that government spending helps the poor more than private charity, because that argument would be pretty hard to make on an empirical basis. Instead it’s all about wanting “democratic control” of the money.

    Another example of progressives being more power hungry than bleeding heart is this article by one of Elizabeth Warren’s advisers on progressive foreign policy that was making the rounds a while ago ( It’s the first hit when you Google “progressive foreign policy.” I would have thought that a progressive foreign policy would be focused on the goal of developing poor countries, but development is never mentioned once in that paper. Instead, it’s mostly about fighting Russia and China.

    Where have the bleeding heart progressives gone?

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. July 2019 at 14:03

    Chris, You said:

    “I generally agree with LK: progressives favor policies that help the lower class as well as policies that help to increase the financial security of the middle class;”

    Yes, it helps them to some extent. But a truly “progressive” policy would be much more directly aimed at the poor.

    As for the philanthropists, they are just getting started. I’m expecting them to do much more for the world’s poorest than Uncle Sam will do. We will see.

    Rayward, You said:

    “The median household income in America is about $60,000. That’s not much to support a family.”

    It’s plenty to support a family of one. If you wish to cite data, you need to find data that is relevant for the point you are trying to make. What is the median income for a family of four?

    I’d also ask how that compares to other countries, or America in earlier periods of history.

    Bob, I put zero weight on what those individuals think, so we see eye to eye on that issue.

    I believe Biden gives the Dems the best chance to win, but I fear they will blow it and pick someone else.

  10. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    16. July 2019 at 16:35

    Don’t kid yourself: Trump will lose regardless of whom the Dems nominate (though Harris will do worst).

  11. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    16. July 2019 at 17:09

    My only quibble with this post is the suggestion that it is only “progressives” who favor bloated social welfare programs.

    How about a national chain of federal hospitals, staffed with federal employees, doctors and nurses, for the entirely free benefit of former federal employees? I just described the VA, available to 22 million Americans, and a stealth topic. The VA, a social welfare program for former federal employees, is now a $200 billion a year program, and will double in next 10 years.

    The Rockefeller Institute is the latest research outfit to discover rural states are subsidized, and have been for generations.

    The US, thanks to free enterprise, now is producing huge amounts of oil and gas. The ethanol-fuel program is a welfare program for corn farmers, their regions and allies, by federal ukase.

    As Sumner has advised, one can never be cynical enough about Washington DC, or its denizens. Any of the denizens.

  12. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    16. July 2019 at 20:13

    Just an FYI:
    The VA does not serve federal civilian employees. It only serves veterans of the armed forces.

  13. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    16. July 2019 at 22:22

    $60k is plenty of money if you don’t live in an expensive metro and have health insurance through your employer.

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. July 2019 at 04:51

    Bob at 20:13.

    Yes, and since President Nixon ended the draft in Jan. 1973, we have had a professional, or employee, or mercenary military, choose the words you like (except please, not the insultingly inaccurate misnomer “all volunteer.”)

    That Nixonian stroke of the pen was 46 years ago. Seems like yesterday.

    There are some Vietnam-era drafted soldiers left who get VA benefits, and good for them. A guy drafted and who worked a battlefield deserves compensation.

    But today the VA is primarily a social welfare program for uniformed federal employees of the armed services.

    BTW, veterans are smartly organized by state and congressional district. They know their stuff.

    The VA budget of $200 billion works out to about $606 from every resident of the US, or $2,400 from an average family of four. That will double in 10 years.

  15. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    17. July 2019 at 08:19

    You make fair points. Keep in mind that unlike civilian employees soldiers enter into a contract with our government that is enforceable by prison time. Part of the consideration that our government offers is a generous pension and VA benefits. Any change to the benefits would need to be grandfathered in or we would be defaulting in our commitments.
    From an efficiency stand point, I wonder which costs more- VA Benefits or private insurance like BC/BS or Medicare- might be hard to compare. Note- I have not served in the military if you are curious, but I have contracted with them in the past so I have some familiarity.

  16. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    17. July 2019 at 10:38


    It’s really hard to find solid data on where people give money, however I don’t think charitable giving is as efficient as you seem to believe. Several sources show that most charitable giving is by individuals (70%) with foundations and corporations trailing behind that. To me that indicates that most giving is not by the super wealthy, as they would tend to give through foundations. Additionally, the largest recipient of charitable donations is religious organizations at 30%. Since most people give to churches in their neighborhood, this would indicate that, regardless of how churches spend the money, it is likely To be less than ideally progressive (wealthy give to churches in wealthy communities who then distribute the money nearby).

    Again, the data isn’t easy to read to, so I may be off base, however that itself is an issue with the argument that private giving is superior to state spending: we don’t really know very well how giving gets distributed or how it will be distributed in the future.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. July 2019 at 12:17

    Ben, You said:

    “My only quibble with this post is the suggestion that it is only “progressives” who favor bloated social welfare programs.”

    Then you have no quibble at all, as the post does not suggest anything of the kind.

    Chris, You said:

    “I don’t think charitable giving is as efficient as you seem to believe. Several sources show that most charitable giving is by individuals (70%) ”

    How do you know my views on “most charitable giving”? Certainly not from this post. First, it’s just a story. And second, if you insist I was referring to real people, then those people would obviously have been Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg, etc., not average people. I was discussing the giving of America’s richest people.

  18. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    17. July 2019 at 13:31

    Are there any good studies that investigate how effective and useful the philanthropy of the super-rich really is? I haven’t found any so far. Surely this has already been examined critically several times. What were the results?

    People like Warren Buffett also like to demand that the super-rich pay more taxes. He himself would like to pay more taxes. Why doesn’t he just do it? There’s no ban that prevents him from paying more taxes, only his own will. Apparently he does not want to pay more taxes. How best to define hypocrites again?

  19. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    17. July 2019 at 16:17

    Scott Sumner: I hereby withdraw my quibble.

    Bob: remember, what starts off in politics as an ideal, then becomes a cause, then becomes politics, then becomes a business, and then becomes a racket.

  20. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    17. July 2019 at 18:22

    Scott, in your earlier response you stated: “As for the philanthropists, they are just getting started. I’m expecting them to do much more for the world’s poorest than Uncle Sam will do”

    You are implying with this statement that the wealthy are, or will be, more effective than the government at helping the response makes sense in this regard.

    Additionally, the wealthy often donate or start charities as a tax avoidance scheme, meaning their charitable giving also reduces the money the federal government has to work with.

    Lastly, your statement that this is just a story and that you may or may not be referring to real individuals is a cop out. If you are willing to tell a story to make a point you should be willing to accept criticism of the story and the point it’s making. Otherwise it’s just playing to an audience that agrees with you which I have known you to mostly be above. It’s like when the far right calls Republicans the party of Lincoln and Democrats the KKK knowing full well that story doesn’t hold up you start to question the context.

  21. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    17. July 2019 at 19:41

    Strong news, Sumner, only six House members voted against Cadillac tax repeal:

  22. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    17. July 2019 at 20:15

    Also, Sumner re: sex workers being at greater risk: many of us WANT sex workers to be at greater risk. That’s because we don’t want our wives and daughters to become sluts. Incentives matter, especially for women.

  23. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. July 2019 at 05:11

    Chris, I’d suggest you spend some time looking into where people like Gates and Buffett are putting their money. I’m not talking about average “rich” people (I’m rich, I’m a millionaire), I’m talking about people who have $50 to $100 billion.

    Harding, That’s the sort of comment I’d expect from alt-right scum like you.

  24. Gravatar of Chris Chris
    18. July 2019 at 06:00


    Buffett has donated $37 billion to charity. That is amazing, as his pledge to donate the rest of his fortune posthumously. However, that’s infinitesimal compared to what the government spends on social services. Medicaid spending alone is approx 400 billion each year. The donations of the .1% are not going to solve the worlds problems no matter what they donate the money to. That is why it’s more important to look at the charitable contributions of a larger group.

    Also, my understanding is that the bill and Malinda gates foundation is pretty good at spending its money. I, however, don’t know that about the many other charities, foundations and NGOs that receive money. Every few years a report comes out discussing the efficiency of charitable organizations and many spend almost none of the contributions on the actual charitable work, instead spending it on overhead and marketing. I don’t know that this applies to the organizations that the .1% are contributing to, but statistically, charities are not terribly efficient in their use of money.

    The contributions to social welfare by the extremely wealthy are good and helpful and I’m not trying to minimize that. To insinuate that they are comparable to the work of a government seems unfounded.

    Lastly, another strange aspect of your story: I believe most of the men you listed are and have always been pretty liberal. Essentially, the moral of your story could be that when progressives become very wealthy, they give money to the causes they always thought we’re important and advocate for the government to increase taxes to to further spend on social welfare. When progressives are middle class and lacking financial security they advocate for policies that will help shore up the middle class along with policies that will help others that are less fortunate.

  25. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    18. July 2019 at 06:28

    I really don’t know how you guys ended up talking about sex workers. But I find it very funny that EH seems to fear that his wife and daughters could become sex workers at the slightest incentive. That’s very telling.

    But from the point of view of his wife and daughters it would be understandable. Maybe they just say to themselves: Before we become such an extreme racist as EH, we prefer to get in touch with a certain colossal black body part at least 30 times per day because that’s the best medicine against racism. That’s understandable. Incentives matter.

  26. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    18. July 2019 at 07:06

    I was referring to this post:

    Christian, be pro-White.

  27. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    18. July 2019 at 08:03


    The chances E Harding has a wife or is raising his own children are essentially nil.

  28. Gravatar of Kevin Erdmann Kevin Erdmann
    18. July 2019 at 11:17

    LK said:
    “However, cancer treatment or a child in the NICU without adequate coverage will very rapidly transform a lower-middle-class family into a poor–and possibly homeless–family.”

    On the contrary, in terms of total consumption, as a result of the cancer, they will be one of the wealthiest families ever to walk the earth. It’s just that we have mechanisms in place to deliver a million dollars worth of health services and a moral framework that justifies it. On the other hand, we have mechanisms to deliver a million dollar yacht, but a moral system that looks down on that consumption. And we lack the mechanisms to travel through time, send smells over wireless communication networks, or for that matter to prevent that cancer from developing before it becomes a million dollar problem, regardless of our moral feelings toward those potential forms of consumption.

    This is the core enigma at the heart of our time. Some types of consumption have a sacred status that is unrelated to their claim on resources. A person who saves a couple million dollars for retirement is rich, and deserves to be taxed for the benefit of others, but a person who consumes a million dollars of cancer treatments is poor and deserves to claim those resources without responsibility or stress.

    To a lesser extent, this paradox also exists in sectors like housing and education.

    I’m not saying that the treatment should be refused, but I am saying that it makes the question of rich vs. poor, or of lifestyle choices, providence, geography, and circumstance much more difficult to parse. And, the reason it has gotten this difficult is because of the incentives that have been embedded in our institutions by previous public policies.

  29. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    19. July 2019 at 16:34

    Contemporary progressivism is the politics of the educated elite. As per Piketty’s analysis. Hence the steady abandonment of lower class and working class voters.

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