Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% Society: vanityfair.com

Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% Society: vanityfair.com

An interesting read about why giving to the poor is good for the rich.

Pathological Altruism - When Does Caring Go Too Far?: A Lecture with Barbara Oakley

On Sunday April 17th I attended a lecture in the Feed Your Brain series at the Center for Inquiry in Hollywood. Dr. Barbara Oakley was speaking about her soon-to-be-release book titled "Pathological Altruism", clearly a topic that would be of interest to me. I plan to read her book, which I suspect will be quite good, but I took issue with her talk.

I expected to lecture to be filled with examples of people who do good to the point of hurting themselves: seniors who give away their entire savings to do "God's work"; parents' whose lives are consumed trying to "save" a child who won't get a job; animal rescuers who see too many dogs without homes, and so adopt them all, but provide good care to none. Instead, the lecture contained examples of people who feel concern for another based on bad information. The opening example she used was the story of a woman who has been horrifically tortured by her husband and then killed him in self-defense. Once Dr Oakley delved deeper into the story, we discovered that the woman had not been abused at all, was having an affair, and planned her husband's murder over a long period of time. Dr. Oakley labeled our initial pity for the woman as "pathological altruism."

To me, there was nothing pathological about the audience's feelings. It is normal and healthy to feel for a victim. Once we learned that she was not, in fact, a victim, the audience withdrew their feelings for her. What is pathological about that? I support the main messages of her lecture: use rationality and skepticism before become emotionally invested in a person or a cause; empathy may not always be good and we should study it. But I thought her definition of what counted as pathological altruism was lacking. She defined it as someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others. So under her definition, someone who gives to a charity that later turns out to be a scam is a pathological altruist (her example). I disagree. I don't think it is enough to do harm out of empathy to warrant the "pathological" label. Rather, you have to know you are doing harm and continue to do it before you can call it pathological. I would add to her definition: someone who is empathetic to the detriment of themselves and/or others and has access to information that demonstrates the harm and chooses to continue the behavior. In my definition, the person who gives to a phony charity, but cuts off their gifts when the scam is revealed is not a pathological altruist. The person who continues to give even after the scam is revealed would be.

I'm sure some people see this blog as evidence of my own altruistic pathology. But I really have to disagree. I just had a $50 box of organic produce delivered to my front door. I'm sitting in my warm bed, on my foam mattress, under my expensive faux-feather comforter, typing on my relatively new MacBook, setting my iPhone4 to wake me so I can choose an outfit from my extensive wardrobe and go into my office job in the morning. I live a life of sheer luxury because I was lucky enough to be born white, to middle class parents, in an area with excellent public schools and health care. There is little reason to believe that I deserve this lifestyle more than a girl who, because of chance, was born black, to impoverished parents, in an area with no schools to teach her to read and no clinics to treat her debilitating illness or injury. I owe most of what I have to a lucky birth location.

I gave just over 1% of my lucky income to people living in unlucky poverty last year - what Peter Singer asks each of us to do to help eliminate world poverty. I don't see any kind of pathology in giving at least 1% toward a future in which birth location has little weight on success. But I do see pathology - a moral disease - in a society that has the means to do so much good for so many, but decides to spend almost every extra dollar on leisure and things.

Remember Singer's figure that for $125 billion we could cut world poverty in half, and American's spend $116 billion booze each year? That's moral pathology.

-Selfish Blogger

The Money That Flows to Religion

"What was the total amount given to charity last year?" is a familiar question to anyone who's done fundraising training, and a handy motivating tool for fundraising instructors. When the question is posed, those new to the fundraising game guess embarrassingly small numbers. "$10 million", "$2 billion", "$10 billion!!!!" while the instructor writes their guesses on the board. Finally, the answer is revealed to a (mostly) shocked audience. "Over $300 billion was given in the US last year. And guess what folks, this number doesn't drop much during a recession. Is $300 billion enough for you to do your work? Enough for everyone in this room to do their work?! Let's figure out how you can get some of that $300 billion!" And then comes the breakdown of where that money goes, in the form of a handy pie chart.

Obviously there are shifts each year, but in the 5 years I've been looking at these pie charts based on Giving USA studies, the shifts have been minimal. The pies I've seen have 10 slices, give or take. Education and health/human services are two of the largest slices of pie, around 15% each. Animals/Environment (always lumped together) usually fall to the very bottom with about 2%. The largest chunk is always the same, and it's always far above the rest. No less than 1/3 of all charitable giving in the US, more than $100 billion annually, goes to religion. And when I say religion, I don't mean Catholic universities (education) or Jewish hospitals (health), I mean proselytizing and church building.*

$100 billion is pretty darn close to what we need to cut world poverty in half, and it's not been easy to get it. Are mega churches and televangelist salaries the best way to spend our charitable dollars? Does the vatican need your money more than a hungry child? And when the "charitable" work of religion includes lies to prevent condom use in AIDS stricken regions of the planet, I hope most people will agree that at least some of that $100 billion is causing great harm by going to religion instead of going to reputable nonprofits who are providing life saving services.

When the fundraising classes discuss why religion dominates the charitable contributions in this country, lot's of ideas get thrown around. But the inevitable answer landed on is always "because they ask, and they ask every week". I'm not sure if this is the whole answer, but there is no doubt it's a big part of it. People give because they are asked. And churches never hesitate to pass the collection plate.

I wonder if we can grab on to religion's ability to ask and use it to do real good. Here's my idea for the readers: make your own collection plate. Take a dollar from your wallet each Sunday and set it aside for a good cause. Once a year, you've got $52 just waiting to help someone who really needs it.

I know not everyone will do this. But I've taken enough fundraising course to know one thing for certain: the top reason people don't give is because they are never asked. So I'm asking. I'm asking you. Will you give $52 more this year than you gave last year? Will you save $1 a week to help someone truly in need?

List of reputable charities to consider:

If you decide to give, tell us about it.

-Selfish Blogger

*I should mention that I've never actually read the Giving USA report myself - it costs money to get your hands on - so I can't be certain how they classify each category. I'm simply repeating the definitions that my fundraising instructors have used. I assume they are right.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fighting My Selfish Drive

Last week I had two bummer moments: my TV died and someone hit my car.

I don't watch much TV and what little I do watch, I can get online. When I lived without a TV in the past, my house was cleaner, I got more sleep, and I read more books. If I'm honest with myself, I don't really want to replace my TV. But when I think about how other people will react, I change my mind. Professional 20-somethings are supposed to have a nice size flat screen in their home.

The damage to my car is minimal and entirely cosmetic. But no doubt it will eat up my $500 deductible to repair. It bugs me a little - seeing this "black eye" every time I get in the car. But it bugs me more to think about what other people think. Do other drivers look at me and wonder why I haven't gotten this fixed? Do they wonder if I'm poor? Do they think I'm a bad driver?

I have money in my checking account to replace my TV and fix my car. I could take care of both of these problems with no strain on my budget. But if I have that much money just sitting around - not in a retirement account, not set aside for emergencies - why on earth haven't I given it to people who really need it?

If I feel so much shame over a broken TV and a dinged up car, but I can only imagine the emotions felt by a women living with a fistula. A fistula is a hole between the vagina and the bladder, often caused by early childbearing or violent rape, and 2,000,000 women in the developing world have them. A fistula means a lifetime of urine constantly dribbling from the vagina, where you can never get clean, where you always smell foul. A woman with an untreated fistula will never be married or will be left by her husband: she will have no financial stability. Each of these 2,000,000 women in the developing world live a life of incredible suffering and shame due to untreated fistulas, forced into lifelong poverty because they were forced into sex or forced into pregnancy before their bodies had fully developed. The reason we don't hear about fistulas in developed countries is that they are easily treatable through surgery.

The surgery costs $450.

I am sick to my stomach that I know about this problem, I know how to help, and I'm still thinking about fixing a cosmetic problem on a car. Is there one good reason, one sound argument, why I should choose to repair a car instead of repairing a human life? And if there is, does it make it right? Does it make it moral? Does it help me be the person I think I should be?

I'm disgusted at my own selfishness - that I've been thinking about this choice for a week, and haven't acted in the way that I know to be right. I can't help but think that this would be easier if I lived in a culture that valued action over appearance, that valued lives over things.

I think I just need some encouragement. Tell me to give!!!

If you want to learn more, NOVA did an incredible documentary called "A Walk to Beautiful" on this issue.

If you want to help, consider giving to The Fistula Foundation, a highly ranked, transparent, and effective nonprofit funding doctors and hospitals that repair fistulas. That's where I know I need to give, if I can just find the moral courage to do it.

-Selfish Blogger

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Let's Hear it for the Death Tax

It's about time someone stood up for the estate tax - that fairly painless bringer of equality, insurer of social mobility, and bane of the Republican party.

Repealing the federal estate tax, often assigned the pejorative term "death tax", was a top priority for George W. Bush. In 1997, the federal estate tax rate was 55%, with a deduction of $600,000. In other words, if a loved one died and left me $600,001, I would pay $0.55 in federal estate tax. Laws signed by Bush gradually brought that rate down to 35% and the deduction up to $5,000,000, until the estate tax was eliminated all together in 2010.

What's wrong with no estate tax? Shouldn't hardworking individuals be able to leave their wealth to their children? After all, these people didn't work all their lives to give money to the government. That's true, but let's consider how much unearned wealth is being transferred.

With $5,000,000, I could draw a $50,000 annual salary for 100 years. A family could comfortably live off the interest of this inheritance for generations, without ever working for a paycheck or contributing to society. Look no farther than the celebrity socialites of rich parents, and you can make the case that it is actually harmful to be the recipient of large sums of unearned wealth.

What happens to our society if large sums of wealth pass from family to family, without ever requiring these people to work, and where their livelihood is secured through inherited ownership? What does it mean for democracy and social mobility if there are generations of families who, simply through lucky birth, are ensured a life of leisure and luxury through no efforts of their own? I can't help but be reminded of feudalism in medieval Europe, or the deeply impoverished countries with a handful of super wealthy families that we see today.

Rather than opposing such a tax, I think the ultra-rich should be proud to pay their fair share into a system that created space for their success. Our government provides a legal system to enforce their contracts, a patent office to protect their intellectual property, and officers of the peace to prevent theft of their belongings. In lawless lands where ideas and money can be stolen without consequence or the opportunity for recourse, it is doubtful that our mega-rich neighbors would have accumulated the wealth and power they now possess. The chance for upward mobility and personal wealth is unique to those places that have strong government infrastructure and (relatively) low corruption. Those wealthy enough to pay this tax (we're talking about 5,500 families in 2009) owe this country for their success, and should be honored to ensure the continued stability of our system through one last payment.

If you don't think that's a good enough reason, then think of the children. I for one would be embarrassed to create children or grandchildren in the mold of Paris Hilton by giving them seemingly endless amounts of money. And I think the hardworking builders of personal fortune would feel the same.

For 2011, the estate tax has returned with a $1,000,000 deduction and rates between 41-55%. I for one am glad to see it back. It's fair, it's good for the country, and it's good for the children.

-Selfish Blogger