Billionaire Warren Buffett has joined the chorus of those calling for Donald Trump to release his tax returns. Buffett even offered the author of “The Art of the Deal” a deal of his own: If Trump releases his returns, so will Buffett. “Anytime, anywhere,” Buffett told a crowd in Omaha last week. “I’ll bring my return, he’ll bring his.” As of this writing, however, Donald Trump remains the first presidential candidate in roughly four decades not to release his tax returns.
When Mitt Romney finally released his tax returns late in the 2012 campaign, Romney was pilloried for his effective tax rate below 20 percent. But it was another figure buried in Romney’s returns that captured my interest: In 2011 Romney and his wife, Ann, gave 29.4 percent of their income to charity.
Charitable giving reveals much about a candidate’s values and character. Seeking to serve in elected office should raise questions about how candidates previously have served the public good, even with their checkbooks.
The Obamas’ record
In 2011, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama gave away 21.8 percent of their income to charitable causes. Since 2010, their charitable giving has hovered around 15 percent of their income, though before the White House campaign — and prior to Obama’s books becoming best-sellers — their giving rate was much lower (1.2 percent in 2004, 1.4 percent in 2003, 0.4 percent in 2002). So, we’re left to wonder if it was making millions in royalties, or planning to run for president, that so positively affected the Obamas’ charitable giving.
Many a candidate for elected office has been embarrassed by paltry giving. Then Sen. Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, claimed only $995 in charitable gifts in 2007, or 0.3 percent of their combined income. Compared to the Bidens, Ted Cruz’s contributions of about 1 percent from 2006 to 2010 looks significant. But for Cruz, an evangelical who has called himself a “Christian first, American second,” that was 9 percent short of a tithe. That discrepancy was duly noted in attack ads prior to the Iowa caucuses.
Serving in elected office is a high and worthy calling that, I’m afraid, is increasingly unappealing to sane humans. Who would want to submit oneself to the endless town halls, the grueling schedule, the constant fundraising, and the peculiar experience of having perfect strangers write about your tax returns and charitable giving?
Given these circumstances, it’s tempting to skirt the topic this election cycle. We call them “personal” tax returns, after all. Many Christians, when declining to discuss their offering with other church members — or even with their pastor — describe their contributions as “between me and God.”
WaPo’s numbers are — well, un-huge
And yet, in 2016 more than ever, the question of charitable giving remains spotlighted due to intrepid reporting from The Washington Post that finds Trump’s charitable gifts fail to live up to his rhetoric, time and again. According to the Post’s estimates, while Trump has promised to give away proceeds from his books, Trump University, and “The Apprentice,” actually tracking gifts received by charities reveals numbers so, well, un-huge as to be nearly nonexistent.
Over the last eight years, the Clintons’ charitable giving has averaged around 10.8 percent of their income. The vast majority of those gifts — nearly $15 million — were to the Clinton Family Foundation. According to the Giving USA 2016 report, Americans on average give away about 2 percent of their after-tax income.
At its best, a consistent record of charitable giving reveals how one cares for and serves one’s neighbors. Giving to others — through acts of love, and through gifts of money — is central to every major religious tradition. Giving from one’s own resources to support others’ needs is a form of self-sacrifice. It shows concern for the public good and a willingness to share.
A measure of generosity
Despite recent evidence, I still maintain that serving in public office is an honorable act that shows a commitment to the common good. A strong record of charitable giving is at least one measure of a generous and caring heart for others. Trump says he has given over $100 million to charity, that giving “is one of the things I most like doing.” Yet multiple investigations have failed to show anything close to these numbers.
If the candidate truly has an enviable record to trumpet, he should release his tax filings and deductions for charitable giving. After all, generosity is in character with those truly called to serve.
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