The Consumer Republic

Give and Take
To think it all began with a little frankincense and myrrh. As we crowd-weary holiday shoppers know, in the 2,000 years since the original Christmas gifts were unwrapped in the manger, yuletide giving has taken on a phantasmagoric life of its own. Now on the brink of the millennium, we can see the future of Christmas in the latest holiday trend: shoppers who are buying presents for themselves.
But before you cry, “Bah, humbug,” consider that, when it comes to charitable giving, Christmas is more than ever the season of good will toward men. Like the malls, charitable institutions do the lion’s share of their business during the winter holidays, and this year promises gains in giving that any retailer might envy.
Philanthropy is hot. Billion-dollar bequests and philanthropic top 10 lists have made charity mediagenic. Wall Street wealth is finding its way into financially attractive charitable annuities. The circulation of philanthropy trades is on the upswing. In the ’80s, the likes of Ted Turner or George Soros were notorious for the way they made money. In the ’90s, the big story is how they give it away.
None of this is really surprising. Americans are great givers, contributing as individuals an impressive $120 billion to charitable causes last year, according to a New York Times report. Cynics like to credit much of this generosity to the IRS, which lets us deduct our financial good deeds from our taxable income. Certainly our seasonal generosity has as much to do with the end of the tax year as it does with the birth of the Christ child. But the importance of that incentive is probably overrated. (A study conducted by Lamar Alexander’s group, the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, showed that in the ’80s, when tax rates were cut and philanthropy became more “expensive,” charitable donations still rose.) The American tax code rewards giving because Americans are among the world’s most enthusiastic givers, not the other way around. And Americans are enthusiastic givers for the same reasons they are the globe’s champion getters. They donate for the same reasons they consume and in much the same spirit. Charity is like consumption in reverse.
Long before the marketers of stuff figured out that consumers don’t just buy things, but the experiences those things evoke, charity was sold as an experience. The commission’s study affirms the obvious when it reports that giving is “irrational behavior” in which one of the main benefits that givers experience is a “warm glow.” Moreover, such emotional benefits are unique to charity. Not even the creamiest cashmere sweater can give a consumer the warmth generated by the luxurious feeling of doing good.
At the same time, givers choose charities for much the same reason they buy commodities: to express themselves. With about a million institutions out there looking for donations, you can do some serious shopping before finding the philanthropic need that matches your psychic needs. Whether the gift is $500 or $5 million, giving requires a self-examination that cuts to the heart of a person’s identity. What group do I belong to? What good do I want to promote? What values do I stand for? Next to these moral bottom lines, choosing a car is a superficial decision.
Not all charity is like consumption. The greater number of zeroes attached to a donation, the more giving resembles work for worldly gain. Turner brings his global empire-building compulsions to his ego-crowning gift of $1 billion to the United Nations. Soros, pouring the equivalent of the gross domestic product of several small nations into Eastern Europe, is not just doing a good deed, he’s trying to make history. Giving on such a scale produces not so much a warm glow as a hot flash of power.
On the opposite end of the economy, givers of modest means are most likely to donate their gifts to their houses of worship. The habit of putting money in the collection plate is not at all like consumption. It’s motivated by feelings of duty and obligation, or what the philanthropy experts call “commitment”–values foreign to the consumer mind-set. About half of charitable contributions are received by religious institutions, but that percentage has begun to shrink as more people shop around for the cause of their choice.
It’s the privileged middle class–the same market niche that has made this such a merry Christmas for marketers of luxury goods–who most enthusiastically practice charity as consumption. A charitable donation roughly equal to the cost of a newly fashionable fur coat is not going to change the world. But it’s more than enough to express oneself, and givers of that kind of money naturally want the biggest emotional bang for the buck. The upscale consumer has discovered the pleasures of giving, and pleasure is a product benefit that no consumer can resist.