What the Ice Bucket Challenge Can Teach Us

August 26, 2014

Inside Insight

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ice bucket challengeIT MAY ANNOY YOU, BUT IT BEATS FISCAL COLLAPSE

I’ll admit, when the A.L.S. Ice Bucket Challenge first began, I was skeptical. Regardless of how noble the cause, it’s easy to be cynical when celebrities and politicians use stunts like this to show us how virtuous they are. It’s difficult to discern if these public figures engage in high-profile charitable acts because they really care about the cause or because they really care about their image.

But does it really matter? You can’t ignore the fact that from July 29th to August 21st, the A.L.S. Association has over 739,000 new donors, and has received nearly $42 million in donations – more than double what the group received in total last year. It’s clear that the end result is positive.

It’s positive because not only has this A.LS. Ice Bucket Challenge raised so much awareness and money to combat the disease and care for those with A.L.S. – a disease that debilitates and ultimately kills its victims – but also because all these donations were given voluntarily. It didn’t take a government program, paid for by non-voluntary taxes, to produce $42 million in donations. It only took a few imaginative people using privately-funded social media platforms.

Annoying? Maybe a little. But it’s raised truckloads of money for a good cause, and no one was forced to give to it.

The voluntary vs. involuntary nature of this event is much to the chagrin, it seems, of the Huffington Post. In a recent article, HuffPo writer Sam Stein calls out politicians who took the Ice Bucket Challenge but voted for the Budget Control Act of 2011 – otherwise known as the “sequester” that resulted in across-the-board cuts to programs, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which saw A.L.S.-specific funding drop from $44 million to $39. Stein calls their decision to partake in the challenge “contradictory.” As the piece points out, the money raised in the past month will more than fill that hole, but then Stein seems upset that this money is going to a non-government program instead of the NIH. “As of Wednesday,” he writes, “[the Ice Bucket Challenge] it had raised more than $31 million. That money, however, goes to the ALS Association for patient care and global research for cures and treatments. It does not go through the NIH, which still grapples with funding levels that science research advocates say is woefully short … Members of Congress could have fixed that shortcoming with a supplemental funding bill.”

First, there is nothing “contradictory” or hypocritical about a lawmaker voluntarily donating his or her own money to a charitable cause, while not voting to allocate more of other people’s money for that same cause. Regardless of how good the cause, there is nothing virtuous about forcing other people to pay for it. If anything, those who chose to donate but didn’t vote for more taxpayer funding would have the moral high ground. Why not call out the lawmakers who voted for more funding through taxation but didn’t donate to the cause themselves? Would that not be, by Stein’s standards, “contradictory”?

Sure, there are far less important things public dollars are paying for (say, corporate welfare) that would be better off going to A.L.S. research instead. Unfortunately, however, that’s not how it works. Citizens have essentially no say in what their tax dollars pay for. A recent study shows that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence on national public policy. That, unfortunately, is just as true on the state level in South Carolina, where lawmakers openly ignore the state budget law that gives citizens a real say in the state budget process.

The truth is this: Besides the fact that we shouldn’t trust politicians to prioritize our tax dollars and the fact that citizens are taxed far too much, governments simply can’t afford more funding for these types of programs, and voluntary charitable organizations will need to fill that void. The federal government is over $17.5 trillion in debt, and can’t afford to keep funding these types of programs without going even further in debt. States can’t be counted on to foot the bill either, with their budgets being increasingly dependent on federal money and being crowded out by massive federal programs (Over a third of South Carolina’s budget is dependent on federal money, and roughly a fourth of its budget is taken up by Medicaid funds).

Now is the time to stop counting on government as a national charity. Millionaire and billionaire public figures can have over half of their income taxed each year – true even in South Carolina when you consider the highest federal income tax bracket of 39.6 percent, tack on the 7 percent the state takes in income tax, and include property, sales, and other taxes. Just think about how much more these people would give to charity – whether as a PR stunt or not is beside the point – if over half of their income wasn’t taxed by local, state, and federal governments. The same goes for ordinary citizens who currently simply can’t afford to give much to charity because after taxes, they can only afford to pay for basic needs.

Things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, as silly as they sometimes are, might very well be the way health care and other types of research ought to be funded in the future – and we should embrace it. We should get accustomed to finding creative ways to fund important and valuable causes.

Irritating? At times. But it beats the fiscal and monetary disaster awaiting us if we don’t start thinking creatively.

Dillon Jones is a policy analyst at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization.