What Good Are Do-Gooders?

Publish date:

"Barack Obama's time as an organizer in Chicago has figured prominently in his life story, though it is clear that the benefit of those years to Mr. Obama dwarfs what he accomplished," is how the New York Times describes its long story on "Obama's Organizing Years."
Wall Streeters should recognize this phenomenon pretty easily. Firms like Goldman Sachs make a big deal of being good corporate citizens. Many of its partners are heavily involved with charity work, and the mini-ballers follow suit in lesser ways. The firm itself has been known to turn down the lights and even ask people to leave early during summer months when power-usage gets dangerously high. Steve Schwarzman has started giving away money to schools and libraries to raise his public stature.
But for all the time and money spent on doing-good, it's unclear hope much good actually gets done. Much of it appears to be largely symbolic. But we suspect the real explanation for the prominence of charity and community service in the financial indicator is that these things are social-status indicators among a certain class of people. Being "involved" is a way to indicate that they are a certain type of person (generally, "liberal with leisure time") with a certain attitudinal disposition (basically, "full of caring"). In short, what community service accomplishes has very little to do with those who are allegedly being helped. Instead, the real beneficiaries are the do-gooders who get to feel good about themselves, hobnob with their bosses, meet potential mates of their own social class, and brag to friends about the good they are doing.
In New York this can have real social and potential financial implications. Prominent giving gets you entrance to parties and social circles that might otherwise exclude you, raising your visibility to your bosses and potential clients. In short, this kind of status signifying has real material benefits.