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Why Only Rich Politicians Should Donate Money Publicly

Why Only Rich Politicians Should Donate Money Publicly

Cheap gestures don't solve problems.

Why Only Rich Politicians Should Donate Money Publicly

2400 1600 Michael Petraeus

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ritam Singh has found himself in the center of attention not only for his party’s good performance in the concluded general election but, more recently, about his public pledge to donate half of the raise he received as the newly appointed Leader of the Opposition in Singaporean parliament. Some lauded him for using his windfall to help residents and his party. Others criticized more or less overtly for using it to score political points and suggested that real charity doesn’t need publicity.

Personally, I think it was, indeed, a political move – but one that was forced by a certain public expectation.

Let’s be clear – politicians do things that are likely to get them public approval.

That they want to garner support nothing shocking, unusual or irrational. But is it really healthy that the society – any society – expects and applauds this? That’s the problem.

The role of political leaders is not to donate pennies to make themselves look generous but to govern in a way that generates millions or billions, creates more jobs, better living conditions, materially improving lives of hundreds of thousands or millions of citizens. That’s what they deserve praise for – if they achieve it (and scorn if they don’t).

Let’s take one of the darlings of the progressives around the world, the former “poorest president in the world” Jose Mujica – who donated 90% of his salary as president of Uruguay.

When he was noticed after the speech he gave at the UN in 2013, the world’s media and millions of people went crazy, fawning over an eloquent South American sage with revolutionary past, who was, seemingly, quite unlike other politicians.

“We promise a life of consuming and squandering. But this is a countdown against nature, against future humankind. […] It is a civilization against simplicity, against sobriety, against all natural cycles, and against the most important things: Adventure. Solidarity. Family. Friendship. Love … The crisis is really the powerlessness of politics … But today, it’s time to begin to fight.” / Jose Mujica

Here are some examples of subsequent press coverage:

And here’s an entire collection from the Huffington Post

In her excellent report from Uruguay, published by The New Republic (and sponsored by the Pulitzer Center), Eve Fairbanks summarizes the reason for people’s affection for Mujica and distrust for “traditional” politics:

In this age of rapidly increasing inequality and technological ubiquity, the Armani-clad lizard-beings who run things offer assurances about a state of affairs that is inherently disturbing. The suspicion is that they are buttering us up only to eat us later.

People hunger for radically different, plain-speaking, human leaders, leaders who can speak directly to the sources of their existential anguish and fear of an uncertain future. That’s why footage of Elizabeth Warren talking smack to Tim Geithner, or Pope Francis carrying his own luggage, is shared so wildly, and why American liberals are wary of Hillary as she leaves the high-priced lecture circuit and prepares for a possible second presidential run. Progressives, in particular, long for leaders actually living their values.

Mujica is the ultimate such figure.


The problem with “Pepe”, as he is lovingly called, was that for all his idealism he had no clue how to make things happen. His presidency brought no change, his ideas either failed or he failed at pushing them through the parliament.

“He’s a wonderful person. But he’s not a good president,” a member of Mujica’s own left-wing political coalition confided to me. “Sometimes we confuse the two.”

This is in contrast with both his predecessor and successor as president – Tabaré Vázquez:

The Uruguayans I spoke to admired Vazquez’s efficacy—hence the second term they just extended him. But they are not entirely satisfied. His biographer called him “distant and silent.” Two people who’ve worked with Vazquez used the same word when I asked them about him: “Asshole.” He gets things done, but he does not stir the soul.

These observations reveal that the fundamental cause of the current political polarization is a conflict in expectations about politics – i.e. preference for tangible achievements vs. emotional satisfaction.

While charisma and general appeal of political candidates have always played a part, the politics of the past used to revolve around real problems and real solutions, whether they meant more individual liberties or more state interventionism. Today, however, a growing share of the population – especially in more developed countries – is drawn to candidates who offer little else than emotional gratification derived from being a part of their movement.

The best example is Barack Obama. One would be hard pressed to find any decision he has made in both domestic and international arenas that brought meaningful, positive change. He acted when he shouldn’t and did nothing when he should. And yet, despite contributing to the largest refugee crisis since World War 2 and revival of outright slavery in parts of Africa, while empowering radical domestic left-wing groups which today torch American cities, I’m pretty sure that if he could run for a 3rd term this November, he would still win – because of how he made so many people feel.

OBAMA HOPE - Obey Giant

The political scene is now divided between people for whom “facts don’t care about your feelings” and those whose “feelings don’t care about your facts”.

Politicians get caught in crossfire and a classic catch-22 of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. But since the subset of voters who applaud largely meaningless gestures is getting bigger, they feel the need to satisfy their expectations.

Governance, however, should fundamentally be about common sense and practical solutions that address real challenges. Our departure from rationality puts in charge figures that are not fit for the job, regardless of how well they may present themselves.

Good intentions are not enough – and we know where the road paved with them leads.

It should be a public expectation towards politicians that if they want to donate money publicly they should first make themselves rich through demonstrable achievements, fruits of which they can now share with others.

Mujica donated around 90% of an annual salary of $144,000 – that’s around $130,000 per year. How many people can you really help with this sum? Pritam Singh promised to donate S$96,000 before taxes to residents, his party and other charitable causes. That could leave about S$80,000+ – to be split between them. Does this really aid anything or anybody?

When Singapore’s billionaire Peter Lim offered to pay for meals for 20,000 frontline healthcare workers during the Covid-19 epidemic, the tab he picked up was $1 million.

And yet politicians want to buy public support by donating paltry thousands? It’s really rather ridiculous – both that they try to and that much of the society cheers it.

Only Rich Politicians Should Give Publicly – Because it Matters Less

Donald Trump donates his entire salary of $400,000. Of course, few make a big deal about it because he is a billionaire. It’s not a (relatively) great sacrifice for him. Objectively speaking, however, $400,000 can pay for more than $100,000 – so his contribution is considerably larger.

In other words, rich leaders can give a lot more without scoring points with the electorate in the process.

And they shouldn’t be. Politicians should not be evaluated by their charitable gestures but by their performance. What they do, how effectively they manage – or poorly mismanage – entire countries, states, regions, cities or town councils should be the only thing to judge them by. Whether they are nice individuals who make us feel good with how they talk and what they publicly pledge to do with their money should be completely irrelevant.

In fact, in a rational society it should be a target for scorn and ridicule.

Reasonable voters should dismiss any individual trying to garner popularity by giving money away in front of cameras. Those who want can always give silently – especially if their contributions aren’t, in reality, all that significant.

Due to the nature of democracy, however, politicians ultimately behave like we expect them to, doing what we reward them for. So if we want to raise their standards we first have to raise ours. Can we? Can we depart the feel-good irrationality of instant gratification derived from meaningless gestures that melt millions of hearts on social media?

I know my answer. What’s yours?

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Michael Petraeus

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