Issue #86, 5/5/2007
Moving with Grace through a Desperate World
Family Court Philosopher
[Subject to active editing for the next day or two.]
How do you reconcile your current comfortable lifestyle with all the suffering of the rest of the world?
Beyond the bubble that we live in, the world is not a nice place. Most people on earth live very close to the edge, only a few inches away from starvation, trauma or violent death. Very few are achieving anywhere near their potential. They are wasted by their society and are forced to suffer needlessly for lack of the most basic resources.
We, on the other hand, may live in suburban bliss, awash in resources and frittering away our lives in shallow pursuits that anyone who is suffering would regard as trivial. Every once in a while we "give to the poor" to try to salve our conscience, but we have little idea where that money is going. We just write a check and assume that we have cleared ourselves by doing so.
There are two radically different environments on earth: the world of desperate need and the world of wasted resources. In one world, you are struggling just to keep your family alive. In the other world, you are buying a $100,000 pleasure boat and using it three weekends out of the year.
The disparity between rich and poor is obscene. Once people start gaining excess resources, they would rather waste them ostentatiously than give them to others in need. Why is this?
There are several answers. For one thing, people who have excess resources don't believe that they do. Their commercial society has set up impossible standards for them, so that things that others regard as luxuries they come to see as necessities. If all of your friends have mansions in Newport, then you think you need one, too.
Once an artificial racecourse has been created, people will run it, no matter how absurd it may be. If you live in a neighborhood surrounded by rich people, then you are going to start structuring your life according to their standards, not the standards of poor people who you never see. If, in your world, it is important to have a new luxury car every year, then that's what you are going to do, regardless of whether it makes sense. By and large, people let their society make their decisions for them, and if these social standards are wasteful or absurd, most people won't even notice.
Another reason that people would rather waste their resources is that it can be terribly complicated to give things away. Frankly, this is a real problem even for people who have billions to give and who are making a good faith effort to improve humanity.
If you pass a beggar in the street and you give him money, are you really helping him? Is he going to buy a meal with it, or is he going to buy alcohol? By giving him money, are you creating a dependency, so that he doesn't get a job or he pesters you for more money? Or his he really in desperate need and would die without your help. It is really hard to know.
Capitalism is simple: Services (or the perception of services) are exchanged for money. Capitalism is based on clear contracts and nice clean boundaries. Once you depart from this program and start giving things away, then the boundaries get fuzzy, and it is hard to know how to structure yourself.
At the border crossing in Tijuana, there is usually a long wait for cars to pass through U.S. Customs. As you are waiting in traffic, street venders will try to sell you things. These vendors include young children selling gum. "Chiclets, Chiclets!" they cry out.
I don't need any gum, but I have some extra pesos that I have no need for. Changing them back into dollars isn't worth the effort, so I give a peso bill to one of the children while declining his Chiclets. What happens next? Soon, I am mobbed with children! All of them are poor. All of them, I see, desperately need my help, and here am I, a comparatively rich American tourist with resources to burn but certainly not enough resources to serve the needs of all these children.
From my standpoint, it is a very distressing situation and one that I would never had had to face had I not given away that original bill. Any thoughtless act of charity like this runs the risk of tearing open the fabric that keeps rich and poor apart.
On their side of the border, life is desperate. On my side, life is relatively cushy—or at least it seems to be. I think that I live in a pleasant, rational world where life is good and tragedy is an anomaly. Once the boundary is breached, then my delusion starts to collapse. My pleasant world, I begin to see, is a facade. Real life is tragic and desperate, even on my side of the border, and most of my own activities are trivial and wasteful in comparison.
Instead of making you feel good, giving to others more often makes you feel bad, because it opens up a window into tragedy. No matter how much you give, it is never going to be enough.
Most people find it easier to not give to begin with, or to give in some antiseptic way that doesn't require actual interaction with the needy. It is much easier to write a check to a noble-sounding charity then to actually join them on the streets.
Once you start wasting resources, then barriers begin to arise between you and the less fortunate. When you move into a nice neighborhood, then you automatically become cut off from poorer neighborhoods. You start living a more trivial life based on the standards of your neighbors. The appearance of your lawn becomes important, and you stop connecting with the wider needs of humanity.
What is the solution? It is simple: Never waste resources.
There is nothing wrong with having resources; just don't waste any. There is no reason that a millionaire can't live in a modest apartment, driving the same car he had when he was struggling. The important thing is that the car runs and that the apartment serves his needs.
There is a funny thing about being rich. After a certain point, all the things you can buy with your extra money actually end up diminishing your quality of life rather than improving it. Compare a modest apartment to an extravagant mansion. The mansion can be a huge burden. There are so many systems that need to be maintained, but when it comes down to it, the big house isn't doing anything more for you than the apartment was.
The mansion also cuts you off from the rest of humanity. It is not just that you have resources in the bank, but you are displaying them openly, implicitly telling others that you are better than they are. Other people are going to treat you differently now. Either they will kiss up to you trying to get some of your resources, or they will avoid you altogether believing that you are unapproachable. There are many people who are imprisoned in their expensive real estate, with access to every comfort money can buy but lacking any connection with the real world.
There are standards in every culture for what is necessary and adequate for survival. In America, you can have an apartment, drive a modest car and shop at the local supermarket without seeming either ostentatious or ascetic. If you buy your clothes at Wal-Mart, then no one is going to notice your clothes one way or another. Perhaps this middle-of-the-road lifestyle is the most honorable and practical position no matter how much resources you have.
The important thing is social and practical mobility. You want to be able to relate just as well to a pauper in Calcutta as to a Wall Street executive. If you have resources, your shouldn't advertize them, because every adornment you add to your appearance is going to stand between you and everyone else. Your resources should be in the bank until you find the best way to use them;, not displayed in your wardrobe.
If you have resources, you have a responsibility to distribute them for the maximum good of humanity. This does not mean indiscriminate giving. It means getting as close as your can to the real tragedies of the world, understanding them thoroughly, then using your resources for a precise intervention that exactly matches the need.
“simple. status attracts women, percieved status rather” —MD 8/17/10 (rating=2)
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