I’ve been thinking about money a lot lately. Not just in the sense that I don’t have much of it, or that I would really like some more of it, but also in the larger sense like why do all the Walmart heirs have billions upon billions while countries in Africa don’t have enough money to fight off Ebola? Yeah, that’s still going on. Weird, right? I would have thought the rest of the world would’ve have heard about that, but really there’s only so much time to fit in world updates around BREAKING NEWS about deflated footballs. Sometimes when hearing about other places in the world that can’t afford vaccines or even places in the slums of Baltimore that have higher infant mortality rates than the West Bank I can’t help but question things: Is the economic inequality in the US only going to get worse? Do we have any right to complain about getting paid $40,000 at work when somewhere else in the world a kid is getting $40? (Even if somewhere on Wall Street someone’s entitled son just snorted his way to $40 million) And most importantly, am I reading too much Vox?
Their recent focus on effective altruism is, for me, really hard to swallow, even acknowledging that yeah, people outside the world really do have it worse and could use more help from all of us. Yes like most liberals I agree that we should soak the hell out of the rich and redistribute some of those Capital Gains; it’s hard to argue that anyone needs a 5th vacation house more than someone needs clean water. But I agree that the rest of us 99%-ers could do better too. Do we need to spend $500 on new shoes you might wear once? Do you need a new tool that costs three grand just in case something breaks? I know I didn’t need to pay over $1000 on Red Sox tickets this season. I could have just as easily watched them go 0-5 from my couch.
But with effective altruism it not only suggests that we can be more charitable, but advises us how to do so in very focused but effective way. Sure, when you pose something in a simple “either/or way” like “What’s more important paying for your son’s little league or a kid from a war torn country having breakfast?” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing), the choice seems easy. In theory I understand why we should not only donate our excess funds, but do so in a way that helps the most people achieve the mostly highly effective outcome. But…I also really care about my son (hypothetical, don’t worry) playing the sport that I love. Or if he doesn’t like baseball, dedicating that money to buying a piano, or taking arts lessons, or finding a new father because I’ve abandoned him for not liking baseball. Whatever the case may be, I am fully aware that when I do have excess money I’m going to take care of my family and my friends first, then the other people and things that I care about personally. Does that make me a bad person if I give my annual donation to the ASPCA instead of an organization that distributes malaria medicine?
I honestly don’t think so. If I want to justify it rationally I think I could. Firstly, humans are terrible and I think we are overpopulating the planet. Yes, it sucks that children are born into terribly impoverished conditions, and no I don’t think I deserve to have a better life. It’s just luck and circumstance. I didn’t earn it, but hey well, here we are. Anyway, if we were all donating generously (especially those fine folks on all those Forbes’ lists) we certainly could drastically improve on mortality rates around the world. I honestly think with enough money we could provide the basics and get people living well worldwide very quickly. But I’m less convinced we would be able to educate people on birth control fast enough. That sounds like a recipe for disaster even if we all earned ourselves a pat on the old back.
Just look at the US: we have been one of the wealthiest and most educated countries for almost our entire existence and we still have things like abstinence programs as the first defense against dumb teens procreating. And we can’t just blame the teens anymore as their birth rate has actually dropped in the last decade. Across all ages, 20% of all pregnancies are “unwanted”, while another 31% are “mis-timed”. We’re the goddamn U.S. of A. and HALF of the people created here come from unplanned sexual actions? With more money donated globally where it is most needed we will improve life and healthcare dramatically. But how quickly do we really want more babies being born, more kids growing to adulthood, and more adults living until they’re seniors? Sure, it seems like a nice sentiment…until you realize how quickly we are all destroying the planet. Climate change is real, jerks. Want to see more obvious proof? Keep more people alive! More people mean more waste, more destroyed habitats, and more technology that releases more chemicals into the world.
Do we for some reason think every poor country is going to overnight become big proponents of environmental recovery?
“Here is some of our extra money”.
Thank you, we will be able to build many factories to make sure more food is available nationwide.
“Yeah, about that. Those extra factories are not going to release carbon dioxide are they? And all those trucks used for transportation, yeah, do you guys have hybrid 18 wheelers here yet? “
But we need to eat. It’s a basic human right.
“Yeah. How would you feel about waiting until we colonize Mars?”
It’s part of the reason why I’m convinced if I ever have extra money I should donate it to different animal foundations. (And why if I ever have someone handling my donations it shouldn’t be Bill Lumbergh) For one, they are much cuter less destructive to the environment. Secondly, I can’t hold animals, both domestic and in the wild, responsible for their reproduction habits. If anything that’s on us. Bob Barker was put on this earth for a reason. And finally, we have already killed off enough different non-human animal species. We owe them. I mean, take a look a red panda. There are only 10,000 of these left in world. We have over 7 billion people in the world. My choice is easy. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t probably too late for the red pandas. By the time I have any money they will probably already be gone. But we’ll have another billion people ready to help us advance to our ultimate demise! At least there will be more people to buy whatever Apple comes out with next! Long live the iCar!
Putting aside all minor concerns about the destruction of Earth and end of human civilization helped by global charities, I just don’t think I care that much about helping people that I don’t know. I always thought if I won the lottery I would buy a few ridiculous things, help out loved ones, and then spend time researching what foundations to give to. But I also thought I would start a recording studio. Is it more effective to record a dozen shitty bands rather than help fight starvation? Well it’s more effective to me! I’ve been searching for something interesting to do with my life, well, my entire life. If I want to run Empty Bottle Studios, or open Bake’s Wild Animal Sanctuary, I’m going to do so and not feel bad about it. Because it’s what I truly care about (myself). Maybe next time, Zimbabwe .
Anyway, as I’ve said I’ve been thinking about money a lot lately. Not just from the articles about Baltimore or Liberia, or about politicians campaigning against income inequality, but from my own life. I’ve received not one but two raises recently (humblebrag alert) and the question is obvious: how much do I have to make before I have to face myself and give some of it away? Or less depressingly, how much do I need to make to live sufficiently enough that I would have extra money to pursue charitable opportunities? I asked others how much they thought they could live on, not just to get by pay check to pay check, but to settle college loans, get proper housing, etc. Ranges were from $70,000 (good work Seattle CEO) to $150,000. I make far less than even the low estimate so maybe I can still live with myself doing limited donations for a little while. But even at $150,000 would I finally be satisfied with what I have and want to improve something else in the world? Or I would be just another conservative dick telling people to make their own damn money? But guy, they live in in house made of mud. “Yeah, well they wouldn’t complain if they had to open my tax bill.”
It is fairly possible, maybe even likely (crossing fingers) that my household income will be above the level which people with any form of conscience should donate something. And this isn’t to humble brag because this would be about 95% due to my future-doctor-wife’s salary, not whatever I pull down from selling balloon versions of red pandas on the side of the road. But if all goes to plan, there should be extra income coming down the pipe. I know I don’t want to be another asshole in a $100,000 BMW when I couldn’t tell the difference from a KIA. It’s goddamn wasteful. I just hope that when the time comes, I have a better idea of what the best way to spend that money is, and not just because a popular theory says I should maximize the efficiency of my donation. You’re not going win over my hypothetical cash with buzz words.
“So how am I going to spend all this money?!” Obviously this is an enviable problem to have, and it’s one of the more douchey things possible to think about. Still, I never had any money so I know I can live without it even if I do know I would like some more of it. Yet I don’t want to fall into the “gradual comforts” trap of making a few thousand extra each year and still spending it all. Each small raise means a new fence or a better vacation, before finally declaring as a 50 year old with a house full of crap that I don’t use: “How could I ever live on such little money before?!” I don’t think we live in fair economic system in the US when one individual can make 50 times more than another, and I know we live in an unfair world economy when the people who make our clothing get paid less in a year than what we pay for the item itself. But I have no idea how money should be more evenly distributed and I’m not sure anyone else does either at this time. Maybe by the time I have some to spare we’ll figure it out. And most importantly, hopefully I will recognize that I can actually spare it.