Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Theology Is Wrong, But . . . . Richard Carniff on the Law of the Decent Intervel

Richard Carniff needs to reread the parable of the workmen in the vineyard found in Matthew 20:1-15(you know, the one where the employees who worked all day get the same wages as those who worked only an hour), but his idea of the "law of the decent intervel" described in today's column in the New York Times select certainly has secular appeal:

Call me shallow, but I am fond of those little extemporaneous rules, like Murphy’s Law or the Peter Principle, that allow us to recognize and ridicule familiar patterns of social behavior. And I’d like to propose one of my own.
I call it the Rule of the Decent Interval. It holds that the value of a good deed decreases in direct proportion to how badly you need the resulting good will.

This rule first occurred to me several years ago during the criminal trial of rap impresario Sean John Combs, on weapons charges in connection with a 1999 shooting at a New York nightclub. Mr. Combs was eventually acquitted, and he later settled a civil lawsuit brought by his driver in the incident.


But what caught a lot of peoples’ attention was a $50,000 donation he tried to make a few weeks before his trial, to a scholarship fund run by the think tank 100 Black Men. The group turned down the donation because the timing made it look like an attempt to buy support. That is, Mr. Combs was violating the Rule of the Decent Interval.

All this reminds me of a lesson I learned growing up in New Jersey. The nuns at St. Cassian School used to tell us about an imaginary mob boss who’d led a wicked life but went to heaven anyway because of a sincere deathbed confession. They meant to show us that confession is powerful, and God forgiving. But some of my classmates took it to mean they could get away with murder, as long as they managed to eke out a good Act of Contrition at the end. Others (possibly including some of the nuns, behind those starched white wimples) felt that God was no fool and would pack the mobster off to roast in hell regardless.
I would humbly suggest that the latter attitude is entirely appropriate for violators of The Rule of the Decent Interval.
Everyone understands that there’s an element of self-interest in philanthropy. Recent brain studies have suggested that acts of charity produce a powerful sense of well-being for the donor (perhaps more than for the recipient). Doing good is also a way of gaining status within a community. It may even encourage zoning boards or college admissions officers to smile on us a little more willingly. But the nice thing about traditional philanthropy is that we have no way of knowing if there’s a quid pro quo down the line. Meanwhile, we get drawn into the sense of belonging and mutual support that are fundamental to any community — and these things often turn out to be the real quid pro quo.
Just-in-time philanthropy, on the other hand, says flout the laws and damn the community. If you get caught, you can just make the whole mess go away with a well-placed act of contrition, or rather, “charity.” Perhaps I am being obtuse, but it’s hard to see how this is any different from bribery.
Philanthropic organizations, and just-in-time donors, ought to be nervous about that. Violations of the Rule of the Decent Interval tend to remind people of the terrible alternative — not hell, perhaps, but almost as ominous: Enforce good laws, punish violators, and instead of depending on the whim of self-serving donors, make basic social services a function of government — even if that means you have to tax wealth more heavily.
Meanwhile, I like to imagine that Sister Immaculate’s take-home on the Rule of the Decent Interval would sound like this: Do good deeds now. Do lots of them. You never know when you will need the good will. But pray to God it won’t be any time too soon.


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