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In Defense of Joe Biden's Tax Returns

A rare case of sloppy blogging by Greg Mankiw:

If Biden’s below-average charitable giving is typical of those with his political views, why am I surprised by it? Because this man has run for President more than once. He must have known there was a good chance that his tax returns would at some point be made public and undergo public scrutiny. He had a far greater-than-average personal motivation for charitable giving and, nonetheless, chose not to chip in.

The assertion that Biden engages in (suffers from?) “below-average charitable giving” is based on the following Wall Street Journal excerpt:

The amount they gave to charity during this period never exceeded one-half of 1% of their annual income. The Bidens never gave more than $995 to charity in any of the tax years, and usually gave much less.

My first thought, when I read the excerpt by itself at Mankiw’s blog, was: Biden is Catholic. Catholics tend to give at church, in cash, via the infamous collection plate. And given that claiming excessive cash or in-kind charitable donations is an express lane to an audit, maybe Biden was being perfectly rational by choosing not to report it. (Or perhaps he was too busy to keep track of his giving, or maybe he just didn’t care one way or the other — has Mankiw never heard of bounded rationality?)

Stated differently, it is sloppy journalism (and, vicariously, sloppy blogging) to confuse what Biden and his family “gave” and what they reported. Easily two wildly different numbers. An occupational journalist, and a Harvard economist, ought to know better.

Of course, the very next paragraph — which Mankiw either didn’t read or couldn’t be bothered to cite — confirms my suspicion:

Spokesman David Wade said the returns don’t show money given to their church or time the couple has spent volunteering, including on wife Jill Biden’s own breast-cancer-education nonprofit.

Works for me.

(I’m not going to weigh in on the politics of Biden’s release of so many years of tax returns or on the research suggesting that religious conservatives tend to give more than other demographic groups. I’m more interested in the sloppy reporting and blogging. Neither will I comment on whether charitable giving should be tax deductible in the first place, or whether someone who gives generously during their life is “morally superior” to someone who waits until they die to give away their wealth. You, on the other hand, are more than welcome to do so in the comments.)

19 Responses to “In Defense of Joe Biden's Tax Returns”

  1. Wow, his wife runs a breast-cancer-education non-profit and they're being accused of not giving enough?

  2. I suggest it is the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. The liberals (i.e. Biden) give "with other people's money" … through higher taxes and more government spending. That's really spelled out in the book … "Who really cares".

  3. Brook's book (which he openly acknowledges he omitted large amounts of of data in order to make the gap more pronounced and therefore more controversial and better-selling) aside. I'd be interested in seeing if there's been much research done into the differences between liberals and conservatives with regards to giving by DOING instead of just forking over cash.

    Anecdotally, the liberals I personally know seem much more apt donate time whereas the conservatives are much more apt to donate money (most of the time to their church). Unfortunately, donations of time can't be claimed on taxes (believe me, as someone who's donated web development worth well over $3000 total in the last year, I know and wish that it WAS something that could be claimed on taxes).

  4. As with most things people already have their minds made up. Don't confuse me with the facts! Too many people are what I call "yes butters." I know I did not REPORT giving much on my tax return, BUT, I did many other things that do not show up. Sadly there is too much talk and not enough action.

  5. As a regular Catholic church-goer: The plate is passed, but every regular attender uses a family envelope that you put your cash or check into OR you throw a check into the plate.

    I just throw the check in because the church has a reader and keeps track of my check donations.

    I get a statement at the end of every year with my donation. so if Biden's declared donations are small it's because he, in fact, donated very little.

    And Biden's wife isn't the only one donating time, almost everyone I know does that. So it's no excuse.

    He's in good company; Al Gore suffered from the same afflication (it's called liberalism).

  6. AFY makes a very good point. Just $20 per week in the collection basket from a registered parishioner gives him a year ending statement from the parish ofice of over $1000 per year in deductable contributions. I cannot imagine anyone who even tithes (as in , some years, giving $30,000 in Biden's case) being audited for their Sunday collection. It is too common to give thoudands per annum to one's church so I respectfully disagree with you on that Kip. It would all be documented in the year end statement.

    Biden can't have it both ways. He's either an active Catholic parishioner who supports his parish or he isn't. But giving $5 per week to the collection basket and nothing to the soup kitchen, disaster relief is a disgrace.

    This is a guy who has made a career out of class warfare and depicting 200-300k earners as fat cats who don't pay their fair share. Yet he's also all but telling us that, in a time period spanning 9/11, Katrina, and a tsunami, he has given a micoscopic amounts (or nothing) to urgently needed disaster relief.

    As to the notion that he is so un attached to credit for giving that that he doesn't report the charitable donations he makes: Biden took the time to report GIFTS, as in the probably value of old clothes, etc left with charities. If he does that, it would be antithetical to not report his other contributions.

    The facts are that Joe makes great coin for just about anyone's standards save the uberwealthy, and he give jack to charity, even his own Church that he claims to ardently support.

    Here's something ironic: Maybe JB thinks that our taxes should support his church since he doesn't.

  7. Ah facts they are so hard to dodge. Dolphin in his post said, "Anecdotally, the liberals I personally know seem much more apt donate time whereas the conservatives are much more apt to donate money (most of the time to their church)."

    In a new survey just released by AARP of people between the ages of 44 and 79 they found that 83% of Republicans said they volunteered for an organization in the last year, while only 67% of Democrats said the same!

    Some other interesting things to note:

    The rate of volunteering was highest among those who attend religious services regularly at 86% and among evangelical Christians 80%!

  8. But much like cash donations (which it's been pointed out elsewhere that the gap becomes much less when controlled for religious versus secular donations), I wonder just how much of that "volunteering" done by 83% of older Republicans means working at the Fish Fry at their church? The second stat you note would seem to, at least somewhat, support the notion that the "volunteering" was simply working church functions. While the "worth" of service work often isn't easily quantifiable, I can't say that I'd put serving fish to your friends at a social event on par with joining the Peace Corps.

    Further while the 44-79 age range is appropriate for AARP to be concerned about, it's hardly a representative sample of the nation.

  9. Regarding JP's comment, I was referring to claims of cash donations without receipts. Anything over something like $250 is an automatic ding on the audit-o-meter. If you have receipts, then the IRS couldn't care less.

    More generally, and keeping in mind that I am NOT an Obama supporter, I find it fascinating how unwilling some of the commenters here are to entertain the notion that anyone thinks differently than they do about receipts and tax returns and whether to bother about such things, and that Biden must "obviously" be lying when he says that he indeed donates to his church and just doesn't bother to claim it.

    Stated differently, "Gee, partisan much?"

  10. Thanks Dolphin you proved my point once again!

  11. I don't suggest that liberals are any more "giving" than conservatives. I only observe that infinitely vague concepts like "giving" and "compassion" are far too complex to be reduced to understandable data. There are just too many confounds to produce any meaningful results. Conservatives are more "giving" than liberals, to whom, and by what measure? Any qualifier you add makes the results more meaningful but simultaneously reduces the correlation's dependence on political ideology.

    If that's your point, then you're right, I have supported it (though not technically proved it). If your point is something else, might I suggest a research methods class in a social science field? Seems to you need to brush up on the basics.

  12. I find Mankiw's conclusions far more convincing than yours. I think it is safe to assume that if he is dropping wads of cash in his weekly offering at church than it is nothing more than token amounts. If the amounts were more than token, then I assume that he would either write a check or would document the cash given. Why would Biden give large amounts and not want to be able to take advantage of the tax deductions available to him for those donations?

  13. I am appalled that more people don't realize just how pathetic Biden is. Do you remember the last part of 2001? All of us were sent $300 stimulus checks. After 9/11 my wife and I sent our checks ($600, total) to the Red Cross. I also dumped $20 bills into the collection buckets of firemen here raising funds for those who died in that atrocity. That's ON TOP of our normal giving (which is about 5% of our income). That was a year for all of us to come together as Americans and contribute to help the victims of 9/11 and their families.

    Biden's TOTAL contribution that year was $360.

    And for you Biden apologists out there bewailing his lack of money: A typical surgical session to implant hair plugs cost $6000-$15000. That's your candidate. That's what he does with his money.

  14. This is ridiculous. Because he's Catholic he gives in cash? Every Catholic has envelopes for such issues.

    Plus lots of people volunteer as well as donate.

    He's worried about an audit? He could multiply his donations 10 times and still would not be under any audit risk.

    This is lame as hell.

  15. Ah the arrogance of those that think they know everything! Must we resort to comparing degrees and class loads? It amazes me that presented with facts that can not be denied some try to twist and turn them to cloud their meaning. An old saying fits here, "If the simple sense makes sense you need to seek no other sense."

  16. Ah the arrogance of those that think they know everything!

    Well, you know your opposition has run out of defenses for their position when they hurling insults.

    It amazes me that presented with facts that can not be denied some try to twist and turn them to cloud their meaning.

    I've not denied any of your facts (and if you feel I have, you're welcome to point out specifics instead of making childish quips about me thinking I know everything when I've said nothing of the sort). I've questioned whether they support the conclusion you've chosen to draw from them. Data is only as good as the conclusions we can draw from it, and frankly, you're making a huge leap with your conclusions.

  17. As a religious person, I regularly give money to my church. As another commenter mentioned, I too receive a print out stating all of my donations at the end of the year, which I may use as part of my tax return. I don't see why Biden doesn't have something similar.

  18. I absolutely admit to being partisan, Catholic and (mostly) conservative.

    At least grant me this, Kip: If Biden is running for elected office and is making 300k per annum, wouldn't it show more smarts on his part to declare larger charitable donations on his taxes?

    I will also admit that I found Dolphin's Fish Fry comment to be hilarious.

    [Kip replies: Can you name a previous campaign where a candidate's charitable contributions, or alleged lack thereof, was a robust issue?]

  19. Kip, are you Catholic, or have you talked to any regular church-going Catholics about their donation habits?

    I am Catholic, and know many Catholics, and in my experience:

    1) Almost every Catholic with significant donations (>$500 year) or who attends weekly mass has a system to account for and deduct donations. I literally don't know anyone who doesn't. The most typical is that you get an envelope from your church and your church documents your donation, but you can also donate by check.

    2) Cash in the basket is pretty much the rule if you are visiting someone else's church, or if you only attend church sporadically (Xmas & Easter, say).

    I would be very surprised if the Bidens are donating thousands per year to their church but not accounting for it.

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