A Small Sacrifice to Help Save the World

Even with the recession, a middle-class American lives like Louis XIV compared to the destitute villagers of the third world

The gods of publishing must have had a good laugh when they arranged for philosopher Peter Singer to bring out The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty
in the middle of the worst global economic crisis since the Great
Depression. First worlders have a moral obligation to give away
thousands of dollars - thousands! - a year of personal income to
eradicate third world poverty? Right. Even when Americans had jobs and
401(k)s, they weren't exactly emptying their wallets for the 1.4
billion people who live in absolute destitution - $1.25 a day or less -
in the developing world. How much harder to get people to give when
money is tight, so many are broke and even those who are doing all
right are worried and afraid for their future.

Even today, though, as Singer would be the first to remind us, an ordinary middle-class American lives like Louis XIV
compared to the destitute villagers and slum dwellers of Africa, Asia
and elsewhere around the globe. Singer can sound a bit puritanical when
he scoffs at our outlays on $4 lattes, restaurant meals, concerts,
movies, that second glass of wine we don't really want and the $600
worth of clothes in their closet that women supposedly haven't worn for
a year. Bottled water comes in for special scorn. His point, though,
isn't that we should forgo all pleasure but that we have more
disposable income than we think we do - enough to save the lives of
many people. If you put it like that - hmm, do I go out for pie or
vaccinate ten children? - the answer is pretty clear.

Singer
suggests that those in the bottom half of the top 10% - those who make
between $105,001 and $148,000 - give 5% of their income, with graduated
increases for those who make more. In other words, a person who made
$147,000 would give $7,350, leaving him a comfortable $139,650 to live
on. If the nearly 15 million people in the top 10% followed his
proposal, they would generate $471bn for the third world poor. If those
below gave just 1% of their income, the total would increase to $510bn.
If the rest of the developed world followed suit, the total would be
eight times what the United Nations estimates is needed to reach the Millennium Development Goals for global health, education, employment, gender equality and so on by 2015.

How
likely is it that people will even take up the challenge? Hard times
can make people cling to what they have, but they can also make people
think differently. There's more to life than bottled water, after all.
The hyper-consumption that was a fun spectator sport for so many during
flush times - remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? - no longer looks so amusing today. People hate hate hate Bernie Madoff, a criminal, but they also hate hate hate Merrill Lynch's John Thain and his $35,000 commode, Citibank's Sandy Weill and his corporate jet
and all those Wall Streeters with their multimillion-dollar bonuses -
the very people who just yesterday represented the acme of human
aspiration and the generators of that rising tide that was going to
lift all boats.

There's a lot of rage and spite and schadenfreude floating about against the privileged - just ask former Self editor in chief and best-selling author Alexandra Penney, who lost her life savings to Madoff and made the mistake of writing in the Daily Beast
and elsewhere expecting sympathy because she had to fire the maid, sell
her vacation home and, after thirty years of riding in taxis, ask a
friend how to use a MetroCard.
Never mind that she was the victim of a conman who fooled far shrewder
financial minds; most commentators thought she was "greedy" for
investing with Madoff and richly deserved her downfall.

The
skewed values of the boom years - which I realize were only boom years
for some - extend far beyond the corporate world. They corrupted the
non-profit world too: the million-dollar galas that raised a million
dollars, the college presidents and NGO heads paid like CEOs of major
corporations. I stopped donating to the New York Public Library when it gave its president and CEO Paul LeClerc a several-hundred-thousand-dollar raise so his salary
would be $800,000 a year. Writing my modest check to the Friends of the
Library made me feel pathetic, like one of the Southern Italian
peasants in Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli
who gave Christmas presents to the local landowners instead of the
other way around. If the library needed money, why didn't it start by
asking LeClerc to give back, say, half a million dollars a year? That
would buy an awful lot of books - or help pay for raises for the
severely underpaid librarians who actually keep the system going.

And LeClerc's case, though egregious, is part of a trend: a few minutes clicking around on charitynavigator.org
will turn up lots of salaries in the $400,000-and-over range. The usual
justification is that you need to pay humongous salaries to get the
best people, but I don't believe it. There are lots of "best people"
out there. If a Wall Streeter won't take a pay cut to do some good in
the world, the heck with him. Nobody needs to make $800,000 a year.
That's sixteen times the median household income.

Now that
middle-class Americans are getting mad about inequality here at home
instead of just getting mad at poor people, can the feeling be extended
to the far greater inequalities between global North and South? What
would that take? I'm not as sanguine as Singer that philanthropy can
turn the world around: we need to look at trade policies, debt,
financial regulation and labour laws as well. Obama's budget reportedly
doubles foreign aid, but how much of that will go to client states like
Israel and Egypt, and how much to build clinics in Liberia and Cambodia?

It's all very well to be outraged by John Thain and his ilk, but to the world's poor billions, Thain is us.