Smug Index

Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.

By Paul Kix | Boston Magazine |

It still flows through Boston, this sense of righteousness and moral superiority. You see it everywhere, but especially in the nonprofits—in the hospitals, schools, and public charities that dominate this town. They’re all dedicated to the idea of helping others before helping themselves. And they wield a lot of power. In the past few decades, the number of public charities in particular has spiked, more than doubling across the state from 1989 to 2007, according to a 2008 report by the Boston Foundation, itself a powerful charity. The nonprofit sector’s influence has only increased since then. From 2005 to 2010, nonprofit employment in the state grew by 22 percent, or almost 75,000 positions, according to a 2012 Boston Foundation report. By contrast, civilian employment fell 1.9 percent nationally and 3.4 percent in Massachusetts. Johns Hopkins University recently found that nonprofits make up 16.7 percent of the Massachusetts workforce, versus 10.1 percent nationally. And Boston-area nonprofits hold an almost unfathomable amount of money: $203 billion in total assets in 2010, according to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics. No other metro area of comparable size comes anywhere close to that. (Detroit’s nonprofits are second on the NCCS’s list, with $133 billion in total assets.) The 40 largest nonprofits in Boston own property that is equivalent to more than half the city’s commercial tax base, according to city estimates.

But it seems that the do-gooderism at the office ends when everybody punches out for the day. A study released this summer by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that Boston is the second-stingiest major metropolitan area in the country, with its residents giving only 2.8 percent of their discretionary income to charity. That’s a depressing number. Statewide, only 24 percent of us find the time to volunteer, a figure slightly lower than the national average. The Chronicle posits that the differentiation stems largely from our region’s relative lack of religion, and especially its weekly reminder to keep all of our values aligned.

A city that runs on the premise of doing good for others before doing well for yourself will almost inevitably foster a culture of priggishness. Lots of high-profile Bostonians are genuinely doing good, there’s no doubt. But plenty of them seem to think this gives them license to behave very badly. Paul Levy, the former president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, made a big to-do about saving the jobs of low-level hospital employees by cutting back on higher-ranking salaries, all the while securing a high-paying job for a young woman he called a “close personal friend.” John Henry’s wife, Linda Pizzuti, who proudly touts herself as a green real estate developer, oversaw the tear-down of a preexisting 13,000-square-foot mansion on her Brookline property in order to erect a 35,000-square-foot palace with a home theater and its own grotto. Sal DiMasi unwaveringly declared gambling to be a moral evil while he was at the State House, but he doesn’t seem to have felt the same way about the kickbacks he received from lobbyists.

  • CraigInDaVille

    Is there irony in the fact that the writer seems to think that the smugness quotient in Boston is higher than elsewhere and thus worthy of comment? Try living in a place like Santa Cruz, CA, for a few years, then move to Boston and tell me whether the anecdotal evidence is as strong as you think.

    • Jonathan

      Exactly. Boston barely registers on the smug scale of liberal cities – in fact, it could still use more progressive thought.

  • http://www.lifealive.com Heidi

    Smug? Look in the mirror. Your whole topic is smug and self righteous. You have pretended to be a journalist to insult people based on a single study? People who choose to buy organics perhaps struggle to do so because environmental and food safety is important to them. They are actually caring for self and others by spending more. Who is to say giving change to the homeless is more generous? Altruism comes in varied forms. You sit in judgement without thinking deeply. Life Alive’s community is not dogmatic, nor preachy (like yourself) we just work to promote holistic sustainability and share the knowledge. Our choices to give our energy and excess to this cause in addition to or instead of others is just a fact of life for most of us. We are appreciative of the opportunity to learn, give and feel our power to make a difference at Life Alive. Noticing how you feel after eating organic therapeutic food and paying more for it to support fair wages and sustainable agriculture is not smugness, it’s just feeling good inside…and that’s a blessing in todays world when there is so much suffering and stress around us.

    • DevilPatrick

      U so crazy

      • DevilPatrick

        So you take your parents money, spend it on overpriced grass and that makes you altruistic?? Whoooooo whatever gets u thru the night

        • Anonymous

          And how do you know that she’s spending her parents’ money? Not everyone here is a college kid living on their parents’ dime.

          • DevilPatrick

            Well maybe she dropped out who cares? I’m sure she still pays for her PBR with plastic at the bar. She post months ago she prob summering in the hamptons rite now. She makes a good argument about the self-righteousness of the author in the first sentence of her manifesto. Then proceeds to (unironically i might add) spew the most self-righteous penis-shrinking hairy bullshit that has been witnessed outside of an Emperor Obama teleprompter. Eat what u wanna eat babe no one cares. I know girls like this and they’re all chubby cuz they’re hitting the life alive/whole foods scene, then goin home drinkin a box of wine and inhaling a pound of cheese lets be real.

  • Anonymous

    So, you’re arguing that people who work for non-profits do less to help others on a regular basis? And the foundation of your argument is that after work, they don’t volunteer or donate money to charity. So, the 40+ hours a week spent actually doing the service work doesn’t count, huh?

    I’m one of those smug Bostonians you’re talking about here. I ride my bike to work at a non-profit and I eat at Life Alive occasionally. Contrary to your article, I bike because I can’t afford a car and the MBTA ride takes twice as long (plus it still costs money). I volunteer at least 2 hours a week outside of work, and I don’t believe that Life Alive’s food will cure me of anything — I just think it tastes good (mmmm, ginger!). Additionally, if you actually understood how giving works in America, you’d know that the majority of charity dollars go to religious institutions (mostly people donating to their own houses of worship). If you account for religious giving, the Northeast is actually ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of personal giving as a percentage of income.

    I wasn’t born here, and I did have some trouble adjusting at first. We can come off as smug, but that’s just on the surface. Not everyone is a fixie-riding, skinny jeans-wearing, PBR-drinking, eco-fanatic hipster. Yes, some are, and some even own businesses. I don’t magically become a hipster just by buying their products. Like everyone else, I’m an actual human being with diverse interests that don’t fit into any one stereotype. So next time you see my walking into Life Alive, maybe you could dial back on your own smug judgement.