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Science shows why we'll donate to buy one person a car, but not a bus for the city.

Feb 3, 2015

After a weekend profile in the Detroit Free Press, many of us are now familiar with the story of James Robertson. Because of income constraints and nonsensical public transportation policy, Robertson has walked about 21 miles every weekday for the past 10 years to get from his home in Detroit to his work in the suburbs. 

Robertson now has at least $200,000 to get a car or whatever else he needs to make his commute and life less arduous. The fundraising campaign has also spawned a lot of conversations about how we make decisions to spend our money, especially since Robertson's situation was in part created by the decision of some suburban voters to opt out of a regional public transportation system called SMART.

As columnist Stephen Henderson puts it, "But how many of those willing to help Robertson have voted to opt their communities out of SMART?" 

There's no way to know how many people who have given to this fundraiser have also voted against public transportation taxes that would have kept Robertson out of this situation and helped many others as well. But, there are economists and social scientists who know a lot about what motivates us to give and how that relates to taxes and charity. Fundraisers like these tend to give us the warm fuzzies.

Social science on the same phenomenon evokes just the opposite. It reminds us how tribal and feudal people can be. 

Part of what we can take from this is that giving is not a simple act. It is tied up in our feelings about power, choice, belonging, and duty. Like policy making, it also has a lot to do with a powerful story.