I don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but I can’t help myself after reading the cover story of last Sunday’s (Dec. 17, 2006) New York Times Sunday Magazine. “On Giving,” written by Australian philosopher Peter Singer (Princeton University), whoÂ suggests that world poverty could beÂ elimninated if only Americans donated more of their money to the cause.
I mention the article here because the theme of You Can Hear Me Now is that private enterprise that sparks grassroots entrepreneurship is a better long-term solution to poverty eradication than foreign aid or charity, which inevitably end up in the hands of a narrow elite and enrich those who are powerful enough to grab the spoils.
Singer begins with this “textbook” dilemma: If you, a rich American, saw a poor Bangladeshi child drowning in a pond, do you have a moral imperative to soil your shoes and save the child? The answer, in case you are struggling, is YES! The author moves from this slam dunk to the problem of world poverty, which he claims is largely the fault of developed nations, and thus seeing that and knowing that, do we not have the same moral imperative to come to the aid of the poor as we do to the aid of the drowning child? Again, the answer is YES!
Now comes the fun — collecting the money from rich Americans. Starting at the top of the totem pole and moving down, the author looks at income groups in the 90th percentile and above, and decides how much of their money they should donate. For the top .01%, 33% of their income; for the top .1%, a mere 25%; and so on down to the top 10%, who average $132,000 per year. They are “required’ to donate the “traditional tithe,” or 10%.
Now come the questions that the editors apparently forgot to ask, or the author refused to answer:
- To whom should this money be given?
- How would it be used?
- What’s happened to the billions in foreign aid and charity given over the past 50 years?
- What if someone in the top 10%, who makes $95,000 a year, has a mortgage, two children in college and two cars, which is not an unreasonable assumption? Should he or she take $9,500 off the top and send to — oh, there is no address.
- What if all the money — which Singer figures would total $404 billion from the top 10% of American families — lifted everyone out of poverty for a year, but then the same people sank back into poverty the following year?
- Worse, what if the $404 billion were misappropriated, human nature being something even philosophers cannot control or change, and corrupt governments becoming even more heinous and hateful to their people, and the poverty rate actually increased?
I am sounding like Scrooge, aren’t I? I guess I just need more data. Data, say, that shows that adding 10 phones per 100 people adds .6% to the national GDP (from the London Business School). Stuff like that. I don’t think philanthropy or charity are necessarily misguided, any more than I think that free enterprise or markets are the solution to poverty. But I am appalled that a cover story in a widely read Sunday news magazine could be so illogical and unpersuasive.