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This is something all progressives must have an opinion about. How much money should the superrich among us ....okay fenced off from the rest of us....give to charity, to NGOs, to any of the agencies and groups who help to alleviate poverty and to save people dying of preventable causes? More than they do, right? But how much, exactly? And how do we decide?

Peter Singer is a philosopher who has been dealing with these issues for a number of years. He comes at the problem by first asking, What is the value of a human life? Tough to measure in numbers, so he then asks, Are some lives worth more than others? He says no; in the abstract all of us say no (except wingnuts ....sigh). But, if we're being honest with ourselves, he says, when we look at our wealth, our luxurious, pampered wealth, and we look at our patterns of giving -- charity + foreign aid  -- we see that we don't value all lives the same. If we did, we'd give more. Much, much more.

Thinking about this in 1999, Singer came up with this formula: Donate everything that is not a necessity; give away everything you have except what you need to survive (in your particular society). Not so feasible, so this year he revisits the idea.
His premise on giving is that thousands, millions die of completely preventable diseases and of malnutrition. At least a billion others live in degrading conditions that can barely be considered living.
Lots of people think that much of this is solvable; the Millenium Development Goals outline this pretty well.
In the New York Times Magazine this Sunday, Singer talks much more realistically about this. Taking the Millenium Development Goals as his benchmark, he asks, how much giving would it take to meet them. Here's an oft quoted figure:

Last year a United Nations task force, led by the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, estimated the annual cost of meeting these goals to be $121 billion in 2006, rising to $189 billion by 2015. When we take account of existing official development aid promises, the additional amount needed each year to meet the goals is only $48 billion for 2006 and $74 billion for 2015.

So with these as our numbers, let's see how much it would take for Americans -- and Americans only -- to meet these goals.

Piketty and Saez’s top bracket comprises 0.01 percent of U.S. taxpayers. There are 14,400 of them, earning an average of $12,775,000, with total earnings of $184 billion. The minimum annual income in this group is more than $5 million, so it seems reasonable to suppose that they could, without much hardship, give away a third of their annual income, an average of $4.3 million each, for a total of around $61 billion. That would still leave each of them with an annual income of at least $3.3 million.

Next comes the rest of the top 0.1 percent (excluding the category just described, as I shall do henceforth). There are 129,600 in this group, with an average income of just over $2 million and a minimum income of $1.1 million. If they were each to give a quarter of their income, that would yield about $65 billion, and leave each of them with at least $846,000 annually.

The top 0.5 percent consists of 575,900 taxpayers, with an average income of $623,000 and a minimum of $407,000. If they were to give one-fifth of their income, they would still have at least $325,000 each, and they would be giving a total of $72 billion.

Coming down to the level of those in the top 1 percent, we find 719,900 taxpayers with an average income of $327,000 and a minimum of $276,000. They could comfortably afford to give 15 percent of their income. That would yield $35 billion and leave them with at least $234,000.

Finally, the remainder of the nation’s top 10 percent earn at least $92,000 annually, with an average of $132,000. There are nearly 13 million in this group. If they gave the traditional tithe — 10 percent of their income, or an average of $13,200 each — this would yield about $171 billion and leave them a minimum of $83,000.

Is this fair? Is this feasible? Is it enough?

I read this article with split personality. I'm positively giddy about the opportunities for world-changing good that the American wealth machine might make possible. I'm despondant about the chances of getting people to part with that much of their money.
What do you all think?
(In the interest of syncronicity, a few days ago  Adam B postedon this, but before the article came out.)
Happy holidays.

Originally posted to teachergonz on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 01:05 PM PST.


How much SHOULD people give?

16%4 votes
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4%1 votes
33%8 votes
29%7 votes
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| 24 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  I am so grateful you put this diary up! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rasbobbo, teachergonz

    Ever since I read it, it has bumped up in my head as an argument when reading about a variety of issues - for example, the body count we so often make of the War where we count the number of Americans but forget Iraqis or Syrians, or others; there was a powerful passage in that article of the guy from Philadelphia, ...

    Is there a line of moral adequacy that falls between the 5 percent that Allen has given away and the roughly 35 percent that Gates has donated? Few people have set a personal example that would allow them to tell Gates that he has not given enough, but one who could is Zell Kravinsky. A few years ago, when he was in his mid-40s, Kravinsky gave almost all of his $45 million real estate fortune to health-related charities, retaining only his modest family home in Jenkintown, near Philadelphia, and enough to meet his family’s ordinary expenses. After learning that thousands of people with failing kidneys die each year while waiting for a transplant, he contacted a Philadelphia hospital and donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger.

    After reading about Kravinsky in The New Yorker, I invited him to speak to my classes at Princeton. He comes across as anguished by the failure of others to see the simple logic that lies behind his altruism. Kravinsky has a mathematical mind — a talent that obviously helped him in deciding what investments would prove profitable — and he says that the chances of dying as a result of donating a kidney are about 1 in 4,000. For him this implies that to withhold a kidney from someone who would otherwise die means valuing one’s own life at 4,000 times that of a stranger, a ratio Kravinsky considers "obscene."

    What marks Kravinsky from the rest of us is that he takes the equal value of all human life as a guide to life, not just as a nice piece of rhetoric. He acknowledges that some people think he is crazy, and even his wife says she believes that he goes too far. One of her arguments against the kidney donation was that one of their children may one day need a kidney, and Zell could be the only compatible donor. Kravinsky’s love for his children is, as far as I can tell, as strong as that of any normal parent. Such attachments are part of our nature, no doubt the product of our evolution as mammals who give birth to children, who for an unusually long time require our assistance in order to survive. But that does not, in Kravinsky’s view, justify our placing a value on the lives of our children that is thousands of times greater than the value we place on the lives of the children of strangers. Asked if he would allow his child to die if it would enable a thousand children to live, Kravinsky said yes.

    While I certainly cannot match his dispassionate sense of logic, the closest I can come to thinking of all people equally is to instinctively want to keep the Iraqi body count alive and in the forefront;

    In a very different sense his argument also provides a very provocative insight I think, into the minds of Palestinian women who want to offer their sons as "martyrs" to the cause, (for that matter, any military family in any part of the world, US, India, Europe, grooms at least some of their children into the military path with this idealism in mind..) Their level of wretchedness may have allowed them to distance themsleves from their own biological children and instead see the whole fate of the Palestinian race..?? Israelis may do well to understand this instead of dismissing it as a sign that they are inherently violent and inhuman and therefore deserve to be made extinct

  •  after seeing jack welch on colbert last night (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dennisl, teachergonz

    i'm willing to let him keep his shoes & underwear. what a scabrous piece of human excrement.

    "step on the gas & wipe that tear away..." - the beatles

    by rasbobbo on Tue Dec 19, 2006 at 01:32:38 PM PST

  •  thanks. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I agree, this line of thought goes beyond charity and into just about every aspect of global interaction.

  •  thanks for the diary (0+ / 0-)

    And thanks for referencing mine.  People need to think about their priorities.

  •  Glad you posted this (0+ / 0-)

    I just read the whole essay today at the NYT online.  I've long believed that there is enough excess wealth on the planet to wipe out global poverty.  It's great to see that theory so logically demonstrated as being absolutely true. Whether it will ever happen is unlikely, but certainly a lot of progress can be made.

    It also has inspired me to review my own charitable giving practices with regard to not only "how much" but "to whom".  

    Should be required reading for everyone earning or inheriting in the top 10 percent.

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