Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Do Charity Through Politics

Ezra's right about this:
The country needs food banks, of course, but a better system of food stamps would make a much bigger difference. And you could say the same for a host of other issues.

So what I want are politically effective charities. Groups that are particularly skilled at pushing government policy in positive directions. Even one success from a group like that can make vastly more of a difference than any but the largest of individual charities can hope to make over their lifetime. And I think people seriously underestimate how much impact a savvy, well-funded nonprofit can have in Washington. This is a small town that controls a very, very big budget, and corporations, sadly, have a much better appreciation for that dynamic than philanthropists do.

The returns on investment that corporations earn through lobbying are absolutely staggering. This economics professor at Michigan is estimating that corporations spent $283 million to lobby for a tax break in the stimulus bill that saved them $62 billion (or to put it another way, added $62 billion to the deficit). In other words, they took their money and multiplied it by 220. It's the same kind of thing pharmaceutical companies did when Medicare part D was passed -- pay millions for lobbying, get billions in profits.

The good guys need to be playing this game too. If there's a choice between donating $x to charity and donating $x to the political system to generate $220x in charitable outcomes, I want to do the latter. I haven't entirely stopped donating to charity -- the cost-effectiveness of treating neglected tropical diseases is pretty amazing -- but with most of my money, I want the leverage that only politics can provide.

This is why I gave $5000 to Jeff Merkley's leadership PAC a while ago. I found a Senator with plenty of legislative savvy who I agree with on all sorts of stuff, and gave him money that he could pass on to other Democrats to win their support. I'm sort of using him as my superlobbyist for good causes.

If you'd rather strike back against this corrupt system, you should find an effective nonprofit group or political agent that's pushing to fix the system, and make a donation. Maybe something to prevent our political system from being bought by defense contractors or other subsidy-seeking corporations. They can pull a ridiculous amount of money out of the treasury. The alternative to fighting fire with fire is letting them burn you.
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