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Continued: Wean nonprofits off special tax treatment

  • Article by: MIKE MEYERS
  • Last update: August 18, 2013 - 11:10 AM

The blurred lines between nonprofit and for-profit are everywhere.

The AARP, once a clear advocate for oldsters, today looks more like a marketing arm for UnitedHealthcare insurance.

The National Rifle Association claims to represent 3 million members. Polls show most of those members favor background checks for people buying weapons. But the NRA stands opposed. Its views more closely represent the interest of gun manufacturers than of all those donors sending in small checks.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation in 2011 had more than $7.1 billion in donations beyond the reach of tax collectors. They also fostered links to food and pharmaceutical companies with a stake in their grants, according to a study that year by researchers at Harvard, the University of California, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

While no one has accused the people running the Minnesota Orchestra of lining their pockets, they’ve behaved like union-busting, hard-charging business managers out to pare spending at any cost. Paying construction workers expanding Orchestra Hall took priority over paying musicians.

Nonprofits are antidemocratic, by definition, and often plutocratic in practice.

Symphony orchestras, art museums, private libraries, dance companies and other philanthropic enterprises routinely have directorships composed of affluent elites culled from the ranks of corporate boardrooms.

Do rank-and-file donors have much say in how these institutions are run? No. Typically, the real power is in the hands of 60-year-old white guys — or their spouses. The boss at work ends up also being the boss in the community.

What’s worse, tax breaks on charitable contributions are regressive. For every charity dollar given by a household living in a McMansion, 35 cents or 40 cents are saved on the family income tax bill. Lesser mortals get charitable tax breaks worth far less because their income tax rates are lower.

If a loaded benefactor wants his name on the side of a new hospital wing, that’s great. But let him pay for it. All of it.

Face it: “A thousand points of light” — President George H.W. Bush’s celebratory descriptor for private charity — sounds better in principle than it plays in reality. Herbert Hoover touted the same idea amid the cold winds of the Great Depression. Passing the hat is a feeble answer to coping with many economic and social problems, from education to health care to disaster relief.

In a $16 trillion economy, only government has the resources to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, educate the population and, yes, promote the arts more consistently, and with deeper pockets, than private charity.

Maybe the idea sounds naive, given the corrosive politics of the moment. After all, Republicans in the U.S. House in July failed to finance food stamps. Yes, the move was cynical and stupid. But politicians are susceptible to public outrage. Make the cuts a political fight.

When charities have trouble raising money in hard economic times, where are irate citizens supposed to protest? At country clubs and plush resorts? Besides, during economic slumps, the middle class seems even more likely to cut back on giving than those with deeper pockets.

I’d choose government as a benefactor over private charity, at every turn.

In questioning tax breaks for philanthropic enterprises, nothing should be sacred. Especially churches. They’re where the real money is.

While ending tax breaks on churches and their property surely would bring howls of harming God’s work, exactly what work is that? Building megachurches and vacation resorts with TV-generated cash? Bankrolling media, retailing and insurance conglomerates? Inserting church “values” into political debates?

One person’s faith is another person’s flapdoodle. Why subsidize religion through the tax code? Test the flock’s religious ardor. Do true believers really require tax subsidies to practice their beliefs? A lot of money changes hands in the temple.

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