Warning: I’m about to teach you something about taxes. Most you of won’t care. It’s safest to leave now before the boring reaches dangerous levels.

By the way I’m not an accountant. I’m about as likely to be fully correct on the statements below as Neil Patrick Harris is to correctly diagnose your colon cancer. That won’t, however, stop me from trying.

Doogie Howser: not a real doctor.
Nathan Bell: not a real accountant.

I’ve left out a few details because a) I want to keep the examples simple and b) talking about them won’t change the main point:

For large swaths of givers, charitable donations are not incentivized by the government.

Guess what, my donations don’t make a damn of a difference on my taxes. And unless you pay an obscene amount in mortgage interest neither do yours.

Here’s what I learned: You have two options when you fill out your 1040.

  • Option A: Take a standard deduction of $5,350. Every renter does this because it’s simple and gives you a very large deduction.
  • Option B: Itemize your deductions. This only makes sense if your deductions add up to more than $5,350.

Only if you chose Option B can you deduct:

  • Either state sales tax or state income tax (choose one).
  • Mortgage interest payments
  • Donations made to non-profits

This has huge tax implications for renters who donate a significant portion of their income to tax exempt entities.

Let’s be generous

Let’s pretend you’re a renter. I’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re a generous person. Last year you decided you were spending way too much money on booze and hookers and you instead donated $4,000 to a worthwhile cause. Las Vegas mourns the lost income. Also, you paid $1,500 in state income taxes.

What kind of break will the government give you for not being such a worthless hedonist this year?

We’ll approximate: most of you with jobs are either in the 15% or 25% tax brackets. That means for every $1 you make above a certain amount you’ll normally be taxed at either 25% (for my friends who majored in engineering) or 15% (for my friends who majored in English). But if that $1 is deductible then it won’t be taxed at all (via income tax, at least).

$4000 donation + $1500 state income tax deduction = $5500 x 25% = $1375 off of your taxes

Wow, your donation just saved you $1375 on your taxes! Except it really hasn’t because you could have always chosen the standard deduction:

Let’s be greedy

What if, instead, you had kept all that money? Forget the children, you want a big screen.

Well then you would have skipped all that deduction nonsense and instead taken the standard deduction of $5350.

($0 donation deduction + $1500 state tax deduction + …) x 0 (You chose Option A, so you can’t claim any of these) + $5350 standard deduction = $5350 x 25% = $1337.50

Tax credit when you’re generous $1375.00
Tax credit when you’re greedy $1337.50
Tax difference for all you generosity $37.50

Greed wins!!!

Even if you own a home your mortgage interest payments have to be approaching $4000 a year before tax incentives for donations kick in.

Does greed win?

So, fine. It seems that the government has stopped incentivizing donations for all but the very rich. But why?

I’m still trying to figure that out. What I’ve found is this:

  • The government doesn’t like to give up revenue. We already knew that.
  • The government trusts that despite not getting a tax break, you’re going to make that donation anyway. This is backed up by research done here.
  • The above research is hardly definitive, as shown here, here and here.

It all revolves around one very important question: what is the price elasticity of charitable contributions? In other words, are people likely to donate more if there is a tax deduction that comes along with it?

If you can answer that, then you can answer an even more important question: is it more efficient for the government to encourage people to donate to non-profits, or to take the money itself to provide additional services and hand out grants?

I know what I hope the answer is, and I intend to learn more about this. Stay tuned.


This is part two of three of the series “Three small things I’m doing to make a difference in this year’s election.” It was supposed to appear on facebook on Monday, but I figure if it’s still Monday in Hawaii, then it counts. I am, however, a week late posting this to WordPress.

This one’s not as long as it looks because it’s really two notes in one. The second half is a response to Ryan’s comment on my last post, read it if you’re still curious about why I support my specific candidate.

Last week I made my first contribution to the Obama campaign. It was a modest contribution, considering what is at stake, but I know that this year every little bit counts.

Act Two: Contributing what I can.

Here’s why I contributed:

There are a lot of ways to help a campaign or a cause you feel passionately about. By far the two most common ways are:

  • Give your time.
  • Give your money so that other people can give their time.

I hope to, someday soon, give my time to a political campaign, particularly Obama’s. I definitely plan to when he has won the Democratic primary and we’re in the midst of the general election.

But, to be honest, persuading people face to face to support a particular candidate or cause is not my strong suite. Not even close.

So I chose to contribute the best way I know how: by giving resources. Call it campaign contribution specialization. I’ll leave the heavy persuading to the experts, or at least, to those that are half way decent at it, and I’ll help enable them by giving them what they need: money.

Once I decided how to contribute, the question became: how much do I contribute?

That’s a hard question. The obvious answer is, from the perspective of the campaign: “as much as you can!” Yes, well, I’m still working on being that generous.

So I broke it down differently (read: arbitrarily): what am I willing to go without this month to support a cause I believe in? A drink at the bar? A movie theater ticket? A night out at a nice restaurant (I like to treat myself once in a while, okay?)

When I thought about it that way, my contribution was much easier to make. Now I was making a tangible sacrifice as opposed to some arbitrary gift. It even allowed me to put it in terms of working hours. I could start work on a Monday and say “these next four hours are for Obama!” and continue about my day normally doing what I love knowing that during that time I was working double for my cause.

You would hope that when it’s a cause you care deeply about, you can just write a check and not think about it. Well, maybe you can, but I‘m not there yet. I need to feel like my money has no better place to go. So, when I started comparing my choice to contribute against some of the “luxuries” in my life, it became crystal clear: This month, I’m forgoing them to give hope an edge.

It’s such a small gesture, but one I feel very confident making.

Response to comments

Ryan Erickson brought up some very good questions in a comment to my last post. I want to address them because both: A) there is merit in the discussion and B) some of the points raised by Ryan are common doubts of voters on the fence between Obama and Clinton or Obama and McCain (for us independents).

I owe Matt Stone a few beers, at least, for finding and sharing all of the links I present here. I nabbed most of them from his facebook newsfeed. Thanks Matt!

(Quoted text is excerpted from Ryan’s comment on Sunday)

EVERYONE wants what Obama decribes. The real question is, who can make it happen?

I find the argument that ‘everyone’ wants what Obama describes to be verifiably false. There are several positions that Obama takes that few of the Republican candidates dare. He supports (and voted for) the restoration of habeas corpus for those detained by our country, he supports stem cell research, he supports withdrawal from Iraq, he has policy proposals to lead us off of our oil dependency, and he (actually) opposes torture. Most of his positions I support, some of them I do not, but his positions are verifiablly different than those of other candidates. Each voter can judge for themselves whether or not they agree.

I have yet to hear Obama speak of any specific issue he plans to address or how he will address a issues … He fails to identify specific issues and describe how he will address them.

I think you may be listening to only his speeches. I can’t say I blame you, they’re quite good. ;o)

When you do the research though it becomes obvious that no candidate has a specific plan to the point that it can become legislation the day they take office. That’s never going to happen during an election as long as we keep running them as we do, specific policy proposals are too easy to attack, so it largely becomes a leap of faith for the voter.

But there are allusions to plans on each candidate’s website. Obama’s positions are very clear, and his proposals are no more or less detailed than any other candidate’s. I invite you to verify that yourself.

He has no national accomplishesment, or significant track record at all. So how can we judge his ability to create what he describes?

In my mind, becoming a front runner in a presidential election is significant in itself, but I can understand how you may want something more substantial. :o)

Significant, obviously, is subjective and the ‘my accomplishment is bigger than your accomplishment’ bickering between candidates so quickly degenerates that it makes it a mostly meaningless discussion. However there are things that we can look at.

One common argument that the Clintons make is that Hillary Clinton has more experience than Obama. That’s not exactly true, Obama has been representing constituencies as an elected official for far longer than Clinton has. Obama has a voting record in the Illinois Senate that we can look at and verify. In fact Obama has a significant (there’s that word again) track record, similar to McCain in this way, of cutting through the bullshit and getting things done in a divided legislature.

But, and I think this is by far the most important point, length of experience in national politics is an extremely poor predictor of presidential success.

Is it not just as likely that he will have no idea what to do, which is all I can conclude since he NEVER offers solutions? Or, that his lack of experience and direction will leave this country worse off than it was before he took office?

No, for the reasons above, I believe that there is a better than 50/50 chance of Obama not screwing up our country. ;o)

The implicit argument in your statement is that people are naive to follow someone who hasn’t yet proven to be the most effective candidate.

But then as a voter you’re left with two choices: You can risk naively supporting a candidate who is aligned with your beliefs and will fight for them to the best of their abilities, or you can vote for the candidate who will represent values that are not yours and will do so very effectively.

Given those two choices, I’ll gladly take the first. Thankfully, though, this year we have a candidate who can give us the best of both: Obama shares my values and has shown that he can lead effectively.

A belief that we can be better.

I firmly believe that policies don’t make a great country, its people do. No policy will ever catalyze as much positive change as a leader who can motivate and inspire us to be better individuals and a better nation.

Obama has shown that he shares my values and can move a nation. That’s why I’m contributing.

Good grief. On the same day that the BBC published a story on the seemingly embarrasing difference between Chinese and English math comprehension requirements (which I mentioned earlier here), they report that students are actually being encouraged to drop higher math courses in order to inflate the university’s standing on league tables.

George Mason University recently announced that it’s dropping the requirement for some undergraduate applicants to submit their SAT scores.

The school, after a three-year review, concluded that SAT scores are a poor indicator of collegiate success for high-achieving high school students.

Three years to figure that out, really?

Dozens of private schools have stopped requiring applicants to take the SAT or ACT amid concerns the tests are not accurate gauges of an applicant’s potential for success. Among public schools, however, George Mason’s stance is somewhat unique.

It’s been disappointing to me that, after all these years since I first became disillusioned with these silly numerical grading systems, I haven’t heard of any innovations in evaluating student performance or potential. How ridiculous is it to reduce a person’s potential to contribute and succeed in an academic environment to just a single numerical metric (or even two, or three)? It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside to know that there appears to be some reevaluation going on from within academia (however slowly), and I’m not at all surprised that private instutions are the ones taking the lead. Plus, at this rate, who knows?! In the future, they might even figure out a metric slightly more informative than the GPA. Just give it a few more decades ;o)