Friday, April 22, 2011

Religious People Are More Generous and Voluteer More

Are religious people more involved in their communities and more generous than their non-religious neighbors? Every year when I read philanthropy reports I have asked myself that question. By using IRS data there have been reports for decades indicating that religious people have higher charitable deductions (about three times higher) than those who do not attend a house of worship There have been similar surveys regarding volunteer activity. For years I have wondered if giving and volunteer activity directly related to the person’s house of worship was subtracted if religious people are more engaged in philanthropic giving and volunteering?

Faith Matters has helped to us to understand the nature of difference. Their work shows that when direct religious activity is taken into account, religious people are more generous and more engaged in volunteer activities than their secular counterparts. Except for arts and cultural groups, religious people give at a higher rate and volunteer more hours even to secular organizations than their non-religious neighbors. What is clear that the difference is evidenced most clearly with services to the poor and elderly.

Eighty percent of Americans claim that they have contributed to a nonprofit in the prior year. When religion is take into account 94% of those who claim to be religious make such contributions compared to 70% of secular citizens.

What is not defined in the studies is whether faith itself creates the difference or if it is in some way tied to a collective cultural expectation and a vehicle for providing information and linking members with opportunities. While data indicates that those who attend a service almost every week are more generous than the occasional attendee, care must be given to view it as evidence that belief in Jesus Christ is what creates the difference. Care must be taken as those who attend a church service only two or three times a year, those who are not normally viewed as being committed believers, are more philanthropic and engaged in volunteering than their secular neighbors and are not that far behind their highly religious friends. Additionally those who are part of non-Christian faith communities also show a higher level of generosity and volunteering. Hence, one may tentatively conclude that there is a sociological dynamic within faith-based communities, not faith itself, are helping to create the differences.

While data from similar indicates that religious people are more generous and volunteer at a greater rate than non-religious people, the same data also indicates that non-religious people are significantly more tolerant on a host of civic issues from religious diversity to social issues to education than their religious neighbors. For the most part, the difference in this area is not surprising.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On this day 150 years ago, Fort Sumter was fired upon by the South Carolina militia and the Confederate military. The first shot was the opening of the American Civil War and the exclamation point that the American genius for civil discourse and compromise was shattered.

While Americans with strong views point to the founding of their nation in rebellion as an indication that compromise is not being part of the heart of the national character, all that lead up to the Revolutionary War, during it and in the immediate years following it indicates that compromise and civil discourse rests at the heart of the national fabric. The founding of the nation was not simply a gathering of angry men in a town hall as some suggest and bumper stickers proclaim. The First Continental Congress was made of three representatives from each of the Thirteen Colonies, to press their complaints, to come up with a common plan and argument against the king and if possible achieve an equitable settlement, a compromise, with the crown.

For both the first and second Continental Congress, representatives were selected not for being passionate yet rational men. Some colonies selected representatives with the specific mandate not to force rebellion. The dialogue was passionate, at times heated and frustrating, but it was civil and above all it was designed to work towards common ground between them. Seeking common ground involved compromise. Even when war with the crown started, twice congressional representatives meet with representatives of the crown dispatched to help resolve the crisis. In each case the congressional representatives were empowered to dialogue and to seek compromise with the crown but in both cases quickly discovered that the other party was not empowered to compromise but to persuade the Americans to capitulate to the will of the crown.

When the government system was established, they designed a system to facilitate civil discourse and compromise. Three branches of government (Executive, Court and Legislative) were to be co-equal, not just as part of a check and balance process but as a compromise process. Congress was intentionally designed so that the Senate would have two representatives from each state regardless of the state’s population and the House seats would be allocated by population. The House was designed to allow states with the greatest populations to have stronger voices in the shaping of bills than those with smaller populations. The Senate was designed to allow the state with smallest populations to have equal voice and say as the state with the largest population. The House and the Senate process was designed to facilitate compromise, so that the powerful do not overwhelm the weakest.

The President is not to be an imperial presidency. It is to be provide global leadership, advocating for the national good of the citizenry, not advocating for one party over another, regionalism or corporate causes. Again, civil discourse and compromise for the national good is part of the design.

In the years following the Revolutionary War, the first amendments are results of compromising, balancing the needs and issues in one section of the country with those in another. Since the process of amending the Constitution is a compromise process while seeking a stronger collective good.

The Civil War is a prime example of what happens when civil discourse and compromise break down and are taken over by strongly held opinions, and those opinions are held with winner take all attitudes. None of us are poorer when we do not compromise and neglect to be engaged in civil discourse. Today, compromise and civil discourse, as well as national statesmen, are in short supply, and that is a national shame.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pump Prices and Taxes

Most of us are aware that Europeans paid three to four times more for gasoline than Americans or Canadians. Last year seeing the difference during last year’s visit to Italy reinforced that impression afresh. Like most I have assumed that the primary difference was that these countries relied exclusively, or almost exclusively upon costly imported oil whereas Americans and Canadians have a greater amount of their own national oil that was cheaper to recover and transport. Hence, the cheaper oil helps to bring down the overall price at the pump. I have also been aware that there may well be differences in taxes too.

Whenever we drive north of the boarder we are immediately cognizant of the difference in gasoline prices at the pump between the United States and Canada. The difference is remarkable given that both countries consume about the same amount of oil produced from national resources. As with the US, every region within the Canada has different prices that are influenced by competition, volume of sales and the costs of transporting gasoline from the refinery. Differences in state/provincial taxes are also a factor, and in the US so are local taxes also, a factor that further accentuates differences.

While the level of imported oil is a factor, taxation differences account for the differences between the US and Canada. According to the Tax Policy Center, if one eliminates tax differences, there is only a 5% price per gallon between the US and Canada, much of which can be accounted for by transportation and volume factors. On the federal level taxes, excise taxes are 110% higher in Canada than in the US (only Mexico has lower excise taxes than the US). Federal sales taxes are also 110% higher in Canada than in the US which has the lowest the lowest sales in the world (Canada, the second lowest).

Using August 2005 as a defining point, an American Petroleum Institute study indicates that US excise and federal sales taxes increased the gas coming out of the refinery by 29% (state and local would be on top) whereas in Canada the same taxes increased the gas by 58%. The same report indicates that the UK and Germany actually had a lower cost per gallon coming out the refinery but the pump costs were greater due to taxes. In the UK the two federal taxes increased the costs of a gallon coming out of the refinery by 179%, and in Germany, by 162%. In Australia the taxes increased the costs by 88.5% and in Japan, by 99%.

While Canada has about 10% of the population of the US and Canada, it has 20% of the miles of the number of miles of its larger neighbor. This means on a per capital basis, Canada’s highway system is about twice that of the US. This is not surprising given the number of small rural and remote communities scattered across such a vast country. In Canada gasoline taxes are higher due to the ratio between highway miles and population. Also in Canada there is an expectation that gas taxes cover a greater share of construction and maintenance costs and with less funding coming from general revenue. In the US, a higher level of general revenue goes into the highway system than occurs in Canada.

In the US, gasoline taxes do not come even close to covering road construction and maintenance costs. Over the last three decades general revenue has covered a growing share of such costs. For the most part taxes of have remained fixed, so much per gallon, even as construction and maintenance costs have increased. While the simple solution would be to increase taxes and modify the tax structure, pump prices are a politically sensitive issue. Any politician who advocates such changes puts his election prospects at risk. Even before the current anti-tax/cut taxes to the bone environment, changes were not likely to occur. Politicians have felt it was easier to draw the funds from general revenue and delay maintenance if it put the road system at risk.

Given a more extensive system on a per capita basis, snow removal factors, the harsher environment and standards to meet that harsher environment, and less general revenue allocated to roads, it is not surprising that gasoline taxes are higher in Canada.

If gasoline taxes in Canada and went to pay fully for the highway systems, the price at the pump would likely increase by 50 to 100%, and come within 25% of Europe pump prices where gasoline taxes cover the full cost of highway building and maintenance. It will be interesting to watch over the next five to eight years as to what will happen to the quality of the road system in the US and Canada in an age of slashing general revenue and budgets.

As a little footnote, for the Canadian reader….the 401 between Guelph and Oshawa is the busiest highway in the world.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Congress Has Different Rules. A Threat To Federal Funding of Faith-based Organizations

The shutdown of the US federal government is just hours away. Posturing and finger pointing abound. What has come out is that while the government would shut down, and as essential workers and the military remain on duty without being paid, Congress will remain fully staffed and paid. What gives?

Not very congressional aid is an “essential worker” who is necessary to remain on the job. The congressional aids, the researchers, the secretaries and handlers are not essential to the protection of the public safety and national security as are the military, air traffic controllers, customs and border patrol, FBI agents, etc.

Why are congressional aids being furloughed without pay like the rest of the federal workforce? I believe that there is clue to the answer in what is happening with congressional payroll during a shutdown. While soldiers fight in battle without pay, while boarder guards and FBI will continue on duty buy not paid, Congress and their staff will continue to be paid. Congress likes to beat their chests that they are ordinary average Americans but how they rule tells a different story. Congress sees themselves as living by a different set of rules than average Americans. Their offices will remain fully staffed. Members of the Senate, the House and their staff will not have their paychecks interrupted.

I have also followed with interest the fight over the funding of Planned Parenthood. Republicans argue that taxpayers should not be funding abortions and therefore no federal funding of Planned Parenthood should occur. Democrats on the other hand that the Hyde Amendment prohibits taxpayer funding to fund abortions and requires that federal funds must be used for other services such as birth control and cancer screenings. Republicans counter that the funds get comingled, that by allocating funds to be used for those other services frees up general funds from other sources to be allocated abortion and thereby in a sense, regardless of the Hyde Amendment, taxpayers are paying for abortions. A large number of evangelical Christians and conservatives say amen to the Republican reasoning.

My purpose here is not to argue for or against federal funding of Planned Parenthood but rather to deal with the heart of the comingling argument. The old adage, be careful about what you wish for, is applicable here. Many of those who are using the above argument to not fund Planned Parenthood are supporters of taxpayer funds going to faith-based organizations to run feeding programs, shelters, after-school programs, at risk youth recreation programs, daycares, drug treatment programs, etc. Through various programs taxpayer funds flows to such faith-based programs. The organization is not allowed to use the funds to pay for religious activities, for furniture and utilities used in worship space. Accounting processes are well established to establish that taxpayer funds are not used for religious purposes. The Planned Parenthood comingling argument is equally applicable to taxpayer funding going to valued social programs run by faith-based organizations and churches.

Hence, those who are using the current rationale to argue against federal funding of Planned Parenthood by using the comingling and indestinguishing argument are using an argument for government funding in all forms, whether those funds be federal, state or local, going to social programs provided by faith-based organizations. The religious activity, space and salaries of religious officials are in the same budget, thereby comingled with taxpayer funds, and federal funds therefore only result in freeing up funds to be use for religious activities and salaries. The conservatives may win the Planned Parent battle but in the years to come government officials and courts will apply the same rationale to prohibit funding going to faith-based organizations.

Monday, April 04, 2011

A Shortcoming With the American Political Process

With “exploratory committees” being formed by various Republicans, the next presidential political cycle has been underway for at least six months. Today President Obama official announced that he will be running for re-election.

While Obama is governing for the most part from the political center, over the coming year various Republicans will describe him, and thereby the center, as extreme. For the most part Obama is progressive/liberal, but he is not a progressive/liberal wingnut. Unlike he predecessor who was a dogmatic ideologue, Obama is as a pragmatist who is leading from the center to just left of center and is working to coalitions. Unlike his predecessor who was more of an imperialist president than the arrogant power flaunting imperialist Nixon, Obama’s presidency is in keeping with the traditional presidents who hold a traditional view of the Constitution and the Constitution’s definition of congressional powers.

While Obama is governing from the center it will be proclaimed by the Republican presidential candidates and leadership that he is an extremist liberal. Though he is no such thing, he will appear to be that way because the Republican party has moved so far to the right and are arguing against views that were held by Republican presidents Eisenhower and Regan. When there are two parties, and only two parties, one or both can move over time to the extreme. One of the greatest shortcomings of the American political system is that it lacks a good national third party. When there is a viable third party the other two parties have to remain towards the center.