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The Mickelson Effect: Where Do The Autism Centers Come From?

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Phil Mickelson The Open

Before commenting on the “Mickelson Effect,” please read this story about the new autism center at the University of California, Irvine.

The center is a very important step in the effort to understand and treat the various conditions categorized under the term “autism.”  Half of the center’s $14 million in start up funding comes from the Orange County Children and Families Commission and half comes from the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation.

I have served as a member of the board of the Commission since it was begun in 2000, and the Commission has been investing in autism treatment and research for most of its existence.  It has also been making crucial investments in pediatric dental care, the treatment of childhood asthma and obesity, and early education innovation that is measurable and replicable.  Here’s a report on the first ten years of the Commission’s operation.

The Commission, funded by a 50 cents per pack cigarette tax, is obliged by law to spend its revenues on such investments on the health and well-being of children under the age of 5 and their families.  There is a commission in every county of California.  The best-run of the commissions are, like Orange County’s, partners in most of their initiatives with private sector charities, like the Thompson Family Foundation. A preference for partnership with private individuals, donors and not-for-profits greatly assists in the effectiveness and durability of any effort.  This has been proven time and time again.

Over a dozen years in the grant-making sector has taught me one huge lesson:  Every effort that succeeds in helping either the poor or a particularly burdened community like the families of those children with autism does so because of incredibly talented, selfless volunteer leadership and donors providing what scholars like Robert Putnam and Arthur Brooks call “social capital,” which is a fancy term for the non-coerced good deeds and contributions of the community on behalf of the community.  Government can and does provide crucial funding and often leadership.  But the truly successful initiatives depend upon private individuals and non-government institutions like churches, philanthropies and good old-fashioned community not-for-profits like the YMCA or Children’s Hospitals.

Many individuals’ investments in the creation of social capital have religion as its well-spring, but many non-religious people dig deeply into their own pockets and give of their own time to improve the lives of others without a faith-based motivation.  The key is that all contributors to the reserves of social capital are not making those contributions of money and time because the government makes them do so, or to turn a profit, but out of a sense of obligation and/or a desire to do good.  It used to be called “noblesse oblige” until the term took on unsavory connotations of elitism, but the reality is that virtuous people give of themselves for the common good, and that the vast majority of the givers are not aristocrats, simply generous folk.  Over and over and over again in the years I have served on the commission I have seen incredible amounts of selflessness from very blessed people taking the lead to take on some urgent problem in the community and never giving a thought to recognition or reward.

Which brings me to Phil Mickelson who is by all accounts one of the truly good guys of sports.  When the Phil Mickelsons of a region begin to leave, there will be a problem, and not just because of the loss of tax revenues, though that will be a huge hit in places like California, but because of the flight of virtuous people who despair not of getting recognition but of simply not being treated as robber-barons by politicians and press alike.

If you could chart the amount of social capital fleeing places like California for other homes like Texas and Florida, the true cost of ill-conceived high-tax policies could be calculated. 

Ask the executive directors of not-for-profits who people their boards and especially their fund-raising subcommittees.  Los Angeles and New York City may never see their social capital elite vanish, but the consequences of indifference to givers is real and continuing in every state that punishes wealth creation and entrepreneurial success. 

If a community mistreats its most generous citizens, those citizens leave in search of other places that will provide them a welcome and appreciation.  The abuse heaped on Phil Michelson will not in the least change the actions of those being burdened by California’s policies, it will just make them quieter as they go about withdrawing from the state and all the activities they are involved in.

It is social capital suicide, and the folks condemning Phil Michelson are ignoring not just the reality of economic behavior, they are ignoring the consequences on communities impacted by far more than the loss of tax revenue.  When a state legislator dismisses the problem by stating that Mickelson is “the exception rather than the rule,” as California State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson did –he’s a Democrat– that state employee is not only ignoring the treasury of the state, they are ignoring the communities they allegedly represent.


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