Economics

The Virtues of Conspicuous Giving

How self-righteous, empty-headed celebrities promote private charity

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On February 6, Madonna will help save Africa by attending the opening of the planet's largest Gucci store. The party she's hosting is expected to raise approximately $2 million for children who will never get to visit even the planet's smallest Gucci store. Paris Hilton is planning to go on a fact-finding mission to Rwanda, just as soon as she completes her fact-finding mission to determine where Rwanda is. Everywhere you look, celebrities are staring from billboards and bus shelters with sultry benevolence, imploring us to buy globally engaged T-shirts and humanitarian cell phones.

This may be the age of doing good by buying goodies, with glossy magazines like Benefit that celebrate "the lifestyle of giving" via fashion spreads and celebrity profiles, but can we really have our Godiva layer cake with hazelnut ganache and donate it to sub-Saharan AIDS babies too?

Not everyone is swallowing the organic, socially conscious, celebrity-endorsed Kool-Aid. Naomi Klein, whose book No Logo presented Gap T-shirts as the cause of global inequity, not the solution, decries the "Bono-ization" of activism, wherein consumers effect change by buying Project (RED) T-shirts from the Gap and swaying gently at huge benefit concerts. Chronicle of Philanthropy Editor Stacy Palmer recently told The New York Times "there needs to be greater skepticism about celebrity involvement [in philanthropy] than I see in the media right now." Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank frets that "too much of today's charity is about gratifying the giver, rather than helping the needy."

A nation of needy pundits and bloggers might beg to differ: There is no greater gift to those eager to bash fatuous Hollywood actorvism than Gwyneth Paltrow in beads and March Madness face paint gazing indigenously at the camera and declaring, "I AM AFRICAN." But what, really, is so terrible about a movie star who lives in a $5.4 million Hamptons mansion (and at least three other multimillion-dollar homes) expressing solidarity with poverty-stricken Africans through the transformative power of world-class hair styling, raising awareness for the Keep a Child Alive charitable campaign in the process?

In 2006 charitable contributions in the U.S. totaled $295 billion, an all-time high, according to the philanthropy report Giving USA. More than 80 million Americans volunteer each year, with the services they provide valued at more than $200 billion. Purpose-driven evangelicals have a lot to do with these totals, but so do Hollywood stars like Paltrow, who have done so much to popularize the free market approach to solving the world's problems while simultaneously giving us all something to mock at TheSuperficial.com.

It's easy to understand why leftists like Klein are wary of celebrity sing-alongs and the notion that corporations can help save the world one over-extended Visa card at a time. They'd prefer that the government have a monopoly on philanthropy. What's more puzzling is why the pro-market side views celebrity altruists with such a jaundiced eye.

Adopting a Third World baby may seem like moral grandstanding, but it's also the ultimate form of privatization. No one has done more than Hollywood's tax-and-spend socialists to popularize the notion that we can't rely on the government alone to combat global warming, AIDS, breast cancer, homelessness, and every other disease and social injustice under the sun. No one believes in the benevolent power of the private sector more than a rock star telling us to put our hands together for the melting polar ice caps. Al Gore, a man who once wanted to be president so badly he paid Naomi Wolf to pick out his ties, insists he's no longer interested in public service. Apparently he feels he can implement change faster, on a larger scale, working with Leonardo DiCaprio and Fall Out Boy rather than Congress.

Admittedly, the prospect that Hollywood celebrities might end world hunger or stop global warming through philanthrocommerce and philanthrotainment is slightly unnerving. If they think they deserve golden statues for producing dreck like Forrest Gump and American Beauty, just imagine how many award shows they'll throw for themselves, and how many sanctimonious speeches we'll have to endure, if they establish food security in Zimbabwe.

It's also true that celebrities haven't placed their faith entirely in the power of Gucci's $795 snakeskin-trimmed UNICEF sandals or charity auctions featuring lunchboxes customized by David Bowie's personal lunchbox-customizing assistant. No matter how many Project (RED) sunglasses we buy from Emporio Armani or how much we overbid for the Prada tuxedo Matthew Perry wore to the Emmys or how much we spend to watch Shakira's hips battle greenhouse gas emissions, celebrities will still keep asking the government to earmark billions for their favorite causes.

And they don't always put their money where their extravagantly catered benefit concerts are either. Compared to America's bleeding-heart titans of capitalism, celebrities aren't all that generous, at least in terms of their own contributions. The $58.3 million that Oprah gave away in 2006, while substantial enough to establish her as the country's most open-handed entertainer, was good for only 36th place on The Chronicle of Philanthropy's list of the top individual donors for the year. (The list does not include anonymous donors.)

The problem is that celebrities don't take enough credit for their good deeds. The common notion that anonymous donors, or at the very least humble donors, are more virtuous than their more visible counterparts gets it precisely backward. Contributing $1 million to tsunami victims or former child soldiers is a good start, but it's not a truly generous act until you've made it at least as visible as Paris Hilton's crotch on a Vegas bender. Noisy, grandstanding donors sacrifice discretion and good taste in the name of their cause. They get attention—from the media, the public, their peers. The more acclaim Brangelina get for their philanthropic efforts, the likelier TomKat are to start contributing too.

Or at least that's how it works in the larger realm of philanthropy. In 1996, when Slate first started publishing an annual list of America's top 60 individual donors in an effort to spur competition among the benevolent wealthy, it took only $10 million to make the cut. Ten years later, it took three times that amount. Now an organization called the Giving Back Fund has created a similar list devoted specifically to entertainers and sports stars, in the hope of catalyzing a similarly escalating arms race of benevolence.

Still, paying too much attention to the actual contributions of celebrities shifts the focus from their true utility. They're not investors; they're salesmen. Warren Buffett may give billions to worthy causes, but if he poses topless, clutching a Project (RED) T-shirt demurely to his bosom, his lips slightly parted, his splotched, meaty shoulders enticingly bare, that's probably not going to move a lot of units. Put Anne Hathaway in the same pose, and it's a different story. Unless, of course, she starts speaking about capital-labor ratio thresholds and malaria ecology indices with a little too much facility and expertise.

The whole point of malltruism, after all, is to show that philanthropy doesn't have to be time-consuming, difficult, or unpleasant. It can be sexy and fun. It can be as effortless and rewarding as ordering a Big Mac. You don't have to be a saint to do it. You don't have to be serious or well-informed. And who better to convey this fact than people who believe their ability to cry on demand gives them special insight into the world's most pressing problems?

Every time a celebrity reinforces the idea that individuals can make a difference by choosing a blender that will help micro-finance a small farmer in Bangladesh rather than one that won't, she is reinforcing the idea that government aid isn't the only solution to every global affliction. Celebrities are helping to create a system where we have countless easy ways to direct our resources to the issues we believe in most strongly. We should show our support for their efforts with golden awareness ribbons trimmed in cashmere and diamonds.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.

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  1. “gazing indigenously at the camera”

    That phrase made me laugh out loud.

    -jcr

  2. What shallow tripe.

  3. Oh, I get it. It’s satire.

  4. joe, you almost sound like a conservitarian on one of the organic food threads. What exactly do you disagree with?

  5. I agree with whatever joe says on this thread. Of course, I’ve agreed with Dondero before too, so…

    CB

  6. i love the idea of bono asking “governments” to bail out third world shit-holes. that means that his self-righteousness gets funded by involuntarily collected tax money.

    if a celebrity said, “there’s no reason that anyone could ever need more than (say) $1 million per year, so i’m donating everything i make above and beyond that to (insert favorite charity), and suggest that everyone else in my position do the same,” i’d have a little more respect.

  7. Davos would seem to be a fun place to go to, although you’d probably have a lot of people running into you due to their not being able to see what with their heads so far up their own arses.

  8. i love the idea of bono asking “governments” to bail out third world shit-holes.

    As I understand it, he specifically told the Irish government to shell out more money, though Bono himself left Ireland to escape their high tax rates. Few things annoy me more than a multi-mega-millionaire holding onto his money whilst simultaneously insisting that some guy trying to raise a family on $40K a year needs to pay higher taxes to financially support the charities that mega-millionaire supports only via lip service.

    Bullet the Blue Sky is a cool song, though.

  9. On the subject of Anne Hathaway, does going back to the scene with her breasteses to do some spanking negate that I cried at the end of Brokeback Mountain, or am I still gay?

  10. Yinter, you’re a fag.

    Wouldn’t this post do better with a photo, say, of the aforementioned Anne Hathaway? You guys are slacking on the job. Except for Radley with his Sharapova post.

  11. This is certainly a new way to look at celeb endorsements. Maybe they aren’t so bad after all.

    Now if we could just limit the irony factor, as when a massively armed action hero calls for gun control.

  12. It’s the thought that counts.

    It doesn’t really matter if the money the celebs raise goes to feeding the NGO parasite classes, or padding the Swiss bank accounts of people like Robert Mugabe, as long as they can be invited to a nice dinner party, and go home feeling good about themselves.

  13. As I understand it, he specifically told the Irish government to shell out more money, though Bono himself left Ireland to escape their high tax rates.

    Kind of like Al Gore in his massive mansion only starting to get off-grid energy a year or two ago.

    Orders to save the planet only apply to peasants, apparently…

  14. I’m buying whatever the Snorg tees chick is selling, damn.

  15. Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank frets that “too much of today’s charity is about gratifying the giver, rather than helping the needy.”

    When, exactly, were things different?

  16. Yinter,

    As long as you’re not doing it to The Princess Diaries the law doesn’t care. Although society may shun you.

    Disclaimer / confession: I bawled like a little baby at Brokeback Mountain. Thankfully I watched it at home. The worst public movie crying thing for me was Schindler’s List. The worst ever public crying thing for me was when I visited Auschwitz. I couldn’t even stand up for about twenty minutes. I lost about ten pounds of snot.

  17. As I understand it, he specifically told the Irish government to shell out more money, though Bono himself left Ireland to escape their high tax rates.

    I think that all he did was move a particular business enterprise (or part of one) out of Ireland to avoid the particularly high tax on that particular business. Particular.

    I for one don’t see a contradiction between “I wish taxes were lower” and “I wish the government would spend more on X.”

  18. If I were a multi-zillionaire bent on giving out truckloads of money, I would also prefer lower taxes so I could give more money to private charities rather than watching the government piss it away on military toilet seats and wealthy seniors.

  19. When, exactly, were things different?

    That would be, never. When I’m in my cynical mood – People donate for the same reason they copulate. It feels good.

  20. Fashion and entertainment seem to be based on nothing else but selling some ephemeral feeling or other. It’s just specialization and exchange.

    The free market is better at making more high quality product available to more people than any other system. …even if the product in question is that warm, fuzzy feeling.

    Shakira’s hips may not save us from global warming, but they can create demand. …and maybe they can inch us closer.

  21. I guess you’d have to give a damn about celebrities before you could give a damn about their philanthropy habits. Honestly, why are we criticizing people for giving their money to charity?

  22. de stijl and yinter, if you want a real tear fest, red Close Range which is the collection that Brokeback Mtn. came out of. Anne Proulx can write some miserable stuff. I will never live in Wyoming, just because of her.

  23. Lamar,

    Because they generally do it in a sanctimonious, moralizing way. Some people find that annoying. It’s similar to people resenting the preacher man eating off of gold plates while telling the congregation to help the poor.

  24. kohlrabi:

    Fair enough. I guess I’m just criticizing the criticizers. If you (not you personally) buy into all that Hollywood hullabaloo, then get angry that they are sanctimonious moralizers, I have about 3 seconds of sympathy for you.

  25. I for one don’t see a contradiction between “I wish taxes were lower” and “I wish the government would spend more on X.”

    True, but there is a tad bit of inconsistency in saying “I won’t pay a single nickel of taxes to government X”, not saying “government X should lower its taxes” and going on to say “I wish government X would spend a lot more of (other peoples) taxes on my pet projects.”

  26. Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank frets that “too much of today’s charity is about gratifying the giver, rather than helping the needy.”

    From an Objectivist standpoint, such self-gratifying giving is a good thing, while altruistically sacrificing one’s own interests and desires for the benefit of others is thoroughly evil.

    Counterintuitive, yes, but the experience of altruistic impulses under socialism seems to bear out the truthfulness of this statement.

  27. True, but there is a tad bit of inconsistency in saying “I won’t pay a single nickel of taxes to government X”, not saying “government X should lower its taxes” and going on to say “I wish government X would spend a lot more of (other peoples) taxes on my pet projects.”

    Nothing at all inconsistent about believing all of the above. Immoral and evil, yes, but selfishly wanting to hang onto all of ones’ own money, while wishing to loot others so you can hand the loot to undeserving others, thereby making yourself feel good, is a thoroughly consistent, albeit dastardly, philosophy.

  28. Point taken, prolefeed. Point taken.

  29. Not entirely off the subject: I am fed up with celebs weighing in on their political leanings. I mean, c’moon…is there a human being alive on the planet who really gives a wet slap who Debra Messing is going to vote for…?

  30. They Aren’t The World

    by Culturcide

    There comes a time when rock stars beg for cash
    and that’s how the world’s supposed to come together as one
    There are people dying
    whooaah and they just noticed
    and they think they’re the greatest gift of all

    We can’t go on, pretending day by day
    that record companies and media gods will soon make a change
    We all play a part
    in a world which starves us all
    and our cooperation is all they need

    ( CHORUS )

    They’re not the world, they’re not the children
    they’re just bosses and burocrats and rock’n’roll has-beens
    There’s a choice we’re never given to run our own lives
    without it your better day is just a better lie

    Well buy the record, so they can pretend they care
    and their careers will be stronger and guilt free
    well as Michael and Lionel has shown us, the world is just TV
    if children are starving let’um drink Pepsi

    ( REPEAT CHORUS )

    They’re not the world, They’re not the children
    if you want to change anything start from the beginning
    There’s choices we’re never given to run our own lives
    without it your better day is just a better lie

    when your rich and famous there seems no contradiction at all
    If you can just have a number one hit we’ll solve it all
    Wow, wow, wow let us realize that change can never come
    if CBS decides what’s the problem

    ( CHORUS – REPEAT AND FADE )

    They’re not the world, they’re not the children
    their just bosses and burocrats and rock’n’roll has-beens
    There’s a choice we’re never given to run our own lives
    without it your better day is just a better lie

    (additional ad-lib vox by Culturcide)

  31. Oh the horror.

    Problems with this article:

    1. Charity is viewed within it as a good thing. The money expended on charity would be better invested in, well, investments. The third world has not done much with the “development aid” and billions in charitable contributions – but transnational corporations have lifted several countries into much higher income conditions.

    2. Celebrity charities are as much, if not more, domestic political activism groups as they are dedicated to change internationally. Though I am not a libertarian, if I were I would be doubly concerned about the direction this influences the country to go in.

    3. The hypocrisies of celebrities make them poor role models even if what they are advocating were a good thing.

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