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.)