The End of Poverty

Edited to Add:  this had been incorrectly tagged as “Photography”. It has been corrected.  My apologies.

Because I’m just reprinting stuff, I decided on two posts for today . . . this one came from a September 2009 note I wrote on my FaceBook account (so maybe 2 people read it), but I think it was also published on the blog I used to have at Skepticality (before the site crashed and everything was lost).

This is written primarily for those who mistake me, and sometime themselves, for good people.  It has not been modified from the original.

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The End of Poverty

I recently listened to Point of Inquiry’s interview with Peter Singer.  As is the case with most guests appearing anywhere, Mr. Singer was promoting his newest book . . . and telling we, the individuals of affluent nations, should act now to end world poverty. Arguably, it is an admirable goal. 

And there is merit to the argument he gives regarding most of us spending inordinate amount of money to buy transient and generally worthless possessions we classify as deserving luxuries. 

The example he gives is that of a drowning child in a fountain or pond, and the fact most people would not hesitate to save the child even if wearing brand new and expensive shoes.  He then draws the parallel one should give the equivalent of those expensive shoes toward helping to save the 26,000 children who die every day (10 million a year) as a direct result of the squalor of poverty.  Of course, he does not stop there.  For how can someone justify buying a wide-screen TV for multiple thousands of dollars while poor people in other countries die because they cannot get medicine, food, water, or any of the things we take for granted.  And so on . . . 

Hard to argue against that line of thinking, but I’m not one to shy from unpopular opinions. First let me say unequivocally we should help; we should contribute to alleviate the plight of the less fortunate.  I give to food banks and a few other charities, and I like Mr. Singers suggestion regarding Micro-Loans aimed at giving a leg up to people trying to make a go of it in countries where $100 go a long way.  Now comes the hard part.  How do you get your money to a place where it will do the most good? 

GiveWell (http://www.givewell.net/node/430#Listofcharitiesweexaminedwithratings) rates a large number of charities based on their effectiveness, transparency,and proven track records. The only one which directly addresses poverty is BRAC (http://www.brac.net/), and it rates poorly.  One which I tried to research before is Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org/).  That organization is supposed to get animals to the poor.  An animal can make a huge difference by helping people cultivate land, by providing sustenance, and by providing people with low-tech means to better their situations.  Unfortunately, this charity is not rated, which means it was not deemed to meet goals of transparency, effectiveness, and proven track record. 

All of the top rated charity, and the vast majority of the remainder, deal with providing health benefits.  Some have multiple missions which may also include education or economic aid. 

So, where does that leave me?  No closer to where I was before in terms of finding international organizations I want to fund.  You see, it’s not exactly like coming across a drowning child in a fountain. It more like coming across a drowning child in a fountain every day, sometimes thrice a day.  And new fountains are being built every day, and more children being placed next to, and sometimes into, said fountains every day.  It’s a lousy argument for not getting involved, but there it is; after a while you just start avoiding fountains and ponds. 

Because the problem is not unwillingness to help; the problem is we are not addressing the root causes.  Tell me there is a charity set up to kill despotic leaders, opportunistic profiteers, corrupt officials, religious leaders inciting genocide, priests preaching the evils of contraception and safe sex . . . do any or all of that, and I’m there in spades.  Heck, I’ll personally come and help.  Want to get rid of poverty in poor countries?  Get rid of people who are profiting from it.  Also get rid of companies who profit from it. 

Ah, you say . . . how do we know who the good guys are?  Would we not be just like the bad guys if we did all that?  Please!  Point to any action by a human being toward another and any one of us can make a decision as to whether the act is one of kindness or cruelty . . . except when we muddle it with arcane beliefs about rewards waiting for us in a mythical afterlife, or justify them for flag and country.  Then it’s seems OK to offer people holy books instead of condom; it seems OK to back governments who essentially rape the land and its people as long as they also further”acceptable” doctrines. 

Of course, it’s not just doctrine, religious or political it may be.  It’s also our own self interests.  We don’t questions how companies function, how governments function, how what we use finds its way to us.  Mind you, I’m all for capitalism, but I would prefer responsible capitalism.  I prefer companies who show some inkling of having a conscience, of acting more like an individual might as opposed to a faceless entity, and who accept and hence are concerned about the consequences of their dealings.  But you know what? Companies are doing nothing more than what their shareholders want; they are making money, edging out competitors by any means necessary to win the approval of more shareholders.  And we are the shareholders. 

. . . as hopeless as it all seems, and I believe it is hopeless, in the end there is still a child who is hungry, or sick, or otherwise in need.  And there are not only children, but also adults; men and women whose short lives are spent knowing nothing beyond hunger and fear; no joy, no hope, no understanding of having massive debts from living beyond their means.  I can preach all I want about how useless it is to throw money toward a problem which not only has no solution we can see, but which grows every minute at a rate outpacing our capacity to give.  But that child is still hungry, sick, or otherwise in need.  And so I give to organization I think might help alleviate some of those awful conditions. But how much should I give?  How much do I give? 

. . . not as much as I truly could; I give only enough to satisfy a nebulous and ill-defined limit which then allows me to buy some gadget, toy, mildly expensive meal, or fancy car without my conscience keeping me awake at night.  I could tell myself I deserve to treat myself, to make sure I can provide for myself in my old age,and to make sure I can provide for those who depend on me.  All good arguments. 

I could tell myself the likes of Soros, Gates, Walton, and Buffett could give 90% of what they have and still have a thousand times more than I can ever dream of having, and what is left is still much more than they actually need to live an incredibly privileged life. I could tell myself any one of the famous movie stars, entertainers, and athletes could forego a fancy watch, expensive car, extravagant purse, or expensive meal and donate multiple time what I could ever give and not even notice.  I could tell myself company CEOs, top management, board of director members of every major corporation could part with only a fraction of what they make and still give hundreds of times than what I can give.  Again, all good arguments. 

But none of those people do that, and if I point at them as excuses for not giving more . . . then I am like them.  So I’ll be honest . . . I don’t give more than I do because I am belligerently selfish.  I recognize stratification to the human condition as being the way of the world from the beginning of history to well in the foreseeable future.  I believe there is no eradicating what is predominantly the result of man’s inhumanity toward other men.  At best I can call them on it when I see it or learn of it.  But seeing as humanity in general would frown on me picking up a gun and dealing justice, and seeing as humanity in general is not rushing to do what should be done, I donate a little to help a few have a marginally less shitty life than they otherwise might have had. 

Meanwhile I am thankful for opportunities an accident of birth afforded me, and for the chance to work for what I have.  And in my gratitude I help only as long as it does not hurt me . . . because I’m not optimistic as Mr. Singer.  I don’t think we can wipe out world poverty, world hunger, pestilence, or hideous conditions responsible for the death of millions each year . . . and that is enough to tip the scales away from me showing unrestrained altruism, and more toward me selfishly enjoying what I am fortunate to have.

As I write that I could easily see myself as an awful human being, but I don’t.  No excuses, no apologies, no insincere remorse.  Just a realization of how lucky I am to have the luxury of sitting here in my air conditioned house, sipping a coffee, munching on a cookie while I contemplate such matters . . . and to have the honesty not to wallow in false moral superiority just for considering such weighty matters. 

I am tired, I am old, and I am disillusioned with humanity and the kind of world they are carving out.  I don’t know if the way I think things should be would result in any better world than what it is, but even if it would, I have no incentive to fight for the betterment of future generations.  Mainly because I truly believe someone will always screw it up for someone else.  Consequently, all I really want to do is retreat even further, and insulate myself from what I see and read about.  Selfish, I know. 

Genocide Clock (http://www.attacreport.com/ar_diagrams/genocide.php)

WorldClock (http://www.shambles.net/worldclock/worldclock.swf)

About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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13 Responses to The End of Poverty

  1. chefcrsh says:

    Singer’s main failure of reasoning was to completely discount the almost unbelievable amount of increased utility. The incredible, and incredibly, cleverly, diffuse economic benefit of your buying what to you may be a luxury.

    When you buy a new luxury item, you do not only enrich the maker. There is a global chain of beneficiaries to your payment. Most of them, are moved from dirt poor to post subsistence by the many jobs created through your purchase. There are the many makers and assemblers throughout the world who now have jobs. There are the many marketers and shippers and support people who now have jobs. There are all the managers who now have jobs, and so it goes.

    It has been estimated that nearly half a billion people have been moved from scratching in the dirt through 50 year life spans, to comfortable middle class existence and ever increasing longevity at that simply because of economic freedom to make, sell and buy “luxury” items with very limited government control.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China#Health
    “After Deng Xiaoping began instituting economic reforms in 1978, the health of the Chinese public improved rapidly due to better nutrition, although many of the free public health services provided in the countryside disappeared along with the People’s Communes. Healthcare in China became mostly privatised, and experienced a significant rise in quality. The national life expectancy at birth rose from about 35 years in 1949 to 73.18 years in 2008,[299][300] and infant mortality decreased from 300 per thousand in the 1950s to around 23 per thousand in 2006.[39][301] Malnutrition as of 2002 stood at 12% of the population, according to United Nations FAO sources.[302]”

    There is much ado in the news about the “amoral” behavior inherent in buying an iPhone or similar made in China gadget. There is no doubt that the workers who make these things do not yet enjoy the standard of living or employment that the average North American does. However, before the Apple’s and Fox Con’s of the world these people had nothing, I repeat nothing.

    One of my greatest fortunes to date has been working with a man named Ken Sun. Ken was my shop manager in my last restaurant. He grew up dirt poor in rural China before the factory boom. They farmed sweet potatoes, which to this day he can’t stand the sight of, having often only had sweet potato for food (if that). He tells wonderful stories of living without electricity or clean water. Of walking all night carrying bushels of potatoes in order to get to market the following morning. Now his family mostly works in modern factories and eats balanced meals. He’s only 35, and luckily left the farm for Hong Kong when he was about 10.

    He did lose a brother to an accident in one of these factories. Still, I am pretty confident that he would tell you that the rampant free enterprise that is Southern China has caused infinitely more good than harm for everybody. his, all through self serving desire for luxury.

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  2. disperser says:

    . . . Still, there is something obscene about someone having billions.

    It would be hypocritical of me to tell others what is “enough”, but as a guess pulled out of my nether region, I could say as “low” as 20 million to as high as 100 million is a range that should allow for fairly comfortable living. Then again I’m speaking as someone with much, much less than that, and who buys his underwear at Costco instead of some BH specialty shop, so what do I know?

    The problem with people who have much more than that is they are not out there spending it. If they were, they would not have as much. To that end, it’s often people who really can’t afford stuff (they live in permanent debt) who drive the economies of the world. Then again, you only have one life; we all try to strike a balance to live the best we can without it turning into crap.

    Even more annoying than multi-billionaires are celebrities worth multi-millions of dollars using their status to urge “commoners” to give. I would be much more impressed were they to provide matching contributions.

    Regardless, a complicated issue both at the personal and public level.

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  3. chefcrsh says:

    True they are not “out there spending” the millions or billions they have. However most are contributing a good deal to charities. Even so and in any case, they are out there placing it with investment companies who then use it to buy shares of companies or funds that go out and build new factories, power plants, train lines, etc., in China, or India. The money is working, and much of the kick on benefit is going to the lower income levels…unless they hide it in their mattress, and then it is still working, just only against them. The beauty of free economic activity is that it forces beneficence regardless of intention.

    To borrow from Adam Smith, who appears to have understood a great deal about these things:

    “In civilized society [man] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens. Even a beggar does not depend upon it entirely. The charity of well-disposed people, indeed, supplies him with the whole fund of his subsistence. But though this principle ultimately provides him with all the necessaries of life which he has occasion for, it neither does nor can provide him with them as he has occasion for them. The greater part of his occasional wants are supplied in the same manner as those of other people, by treaty, by barter, and by purchase. With the money which one man gives him he purchases food. The old cloaths which another bestows upon him he exchanges for other old cloaths which suit him better, or for lodging, or for food, or for money, with which he can buy either food, cloaths, or lodging, as he has occasion.”

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    • disperser says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fault them for having it (although sometimes it is unearned). The world is what it is. That said, I remember the early days of Microsoft . . . ruthless, they were.

      Also, “free economy” is sometime an illusion. Were it really free, we would not have lobbyists buying senators and congressmen left and right. Many companies get preferential treatment, opportunities denied others, etc. etc.

      Again, you know my views on these things; I’m just saying sometime the system is rigged. I saw it first hand on a small scale in 20 years of owning a consulting company. To this day I maintain you have to be able to skirt ethics and honor to make truly it. In a free economy all you would need is to provide the best product and service of something the public wants.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      To play devil’s advocate, I’m not sure that new factories and power plants being built in India and China is always a good thing. We all know about the Foxconn suicides, which don’t leave the impression that factory workers are receiving much of the money. Most of the power plants being built are coal-fired, making them heavily polluting, while if press reports are true Chinese coal mines tend to have appalling safety records. Is it really progress if working conditions are atrocious and the environment is being ruined?

      See stories like this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9940154. “China’s coal mines are the deadliest in the world, although the industry’s safety record has improved in recent years as smaller, illegal mines have been closed. Annual fatalities are now about one-third of the high of nearly 7,000 in 2002.” If 2,000+ people had died mining coal in my country last year, there would have been a public outcry.

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      • disperser says:

        This shift the discussion a bit toward other issues. Remember I am writing about charity. so, for instance, I don’t see charity as a viable mechanism for raising the standard of living in poorer countries.

        What the discussion is evolving to, and I don’t mind, deals with what is arguably much better then Singer’s plan for ending poverty. That is, to help develop a country’s economy as a means of improving the lives of the poor.

        As far as China, and the numbers you quote, I wonder how many people die early because of lack of decent health care in very poor parts of the country? Natural disasters like droughts, floods, or other extreme weather related events, kill many more people in underdeveloped countries precisely because they lack the resources to deal with not only the event, but the aftermath as well (http://elsa.berkeley.edu/users/webfac/quigley/e231_f03/kahn.pdf).

        We are now looking at China and tsk-tsk-ing their poor safety and environmental record . . . but compare that to many African countries where people die at mind-boggling rates because of despotic dictators, corrupt governments, hurdles placed in the path of anyone wanting to start businesses, etc. etc. The African countries that are improving there are doing so by following an economic development model that allows for capitalism combined with at least a measure of personal freedom. And they are improving; real growth, and while no where near the rate of other countries, there is some hope there. But rest assured, as they do so, they will have to put strains on natural resources and the environment. The question is, who would deny them the right to better themselves?

        The question then becomes how to help those countries do a better job in avoiding the mistakes Western nations did.

        But make no mistake; were the choice between scrounging for food and watching my children die versus taking a potentially dangerous job in a mine so I could feed them, the choice is obvious (and I don’t even have children).

        That said, there is no question some companies,probably too many, take advantage of desperate labor forces . . . but the answer is not to shut them down, but rather to play the delicate balance where they are still able to offer those jobs (because they are making a profit), and provide on-going improvements of working conditions.

        Things must always start and progress based on changing attitudes and conditions. Judging other countries based on where we are now is not, as Chef says, a fair comparison; we traveled a torturous and not optimal road in getting where we are.

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  4. chefcrsh says:

    The Fox Con suicides were actually half the national rate, so working there was significantly better (in terms of suicides) then demographic average. http://www.zdnet.com/blog/foremski/media-gets-its-facts-wrong-working-at-foxconn-significantly-cuts-suicide-risk/1356

    I can believe that China’s anything is not “up to par” with current “Western” standards. I think (and the article linked above insists) that before we can judge the country we must have a fair measuring stick. We in the developed world have had hundreds of years to modernize, and have gone through much worse than we have now. China has had thirty-five. Is it fair to measure ether against our current standards or would it be more fair to measure them at the standards we had when we had been becoming liberal democratic societies for only 35 years?

    Expecting that it is fair for China to forgo the growth process, and to immediately take on far more expensive costs of development…or freeze where they are… all because we have already passed thorough our days of polluting and abuse seems rather one-sided.

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    • Emily Heath says:

      You’re right. That’s interesting about the suicide rates at Foxconn being less than the national average. I don’t think developed world standards are that great either in many ways, especially when it comes to pollution. I feel very thankful to have clean water to drink, a toilet, electricity, heating and equipment like a washing machine and fridge. These things unquestionably make life easier than it used to be and I’d like people everywhere to have them too. But at the same time I worry about how fast the little countryside we have left (in the UK anyway) is disappearing, and feel sad for what we are losing – things like clean air, outdoor spaces for kids to play, many species of animals, and about the global warming that seems to be coming as a result of what we’ve been doing. I think development sometimes has cons along with the pros, but I know not everyone would agree with me on that.

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      • disperser says:

        One of my pet peeves (and there are many – – – wait, that means they are not really “pet”, but “general”) is the fact humans are reproducing at what I consider an alarming rate. No, we are not going to run out of food. Probably won’t run out of resources for a long, long time.

        The concern I have is what you touch on . . . quality of life. Even there there are differing opinions. New York City would drive me nuts, but to many it’s a dynamic, exciting place to be. What’s fun for one person can be pure hell for others.

        I’ll still argue that as we look to double our population in the next 30-40 years we will see more famine, more armed conflicts, diseases spreading faster and being deadlier, etc. etc. All the while people will clamor for “something to be done” . . . but no one will mention population control.

        But, that’s another drum to bang for some other post.

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  5. Emily Heath says:

    Sorry, before I started making rambling comments I was going to give you a link to a charity I thought you might like, as it tries to get at some of the root causes of poverty – http://www.international-alert.org – they try to build peace in countries affected by violent conflict.

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  6. Pingback: Disperser Writes Opinions — The First Four Years | Disperser Tracks

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