Thursday, 26 March 2015

An Unfair World Begs Charity?

Charitable acts are a good thing, right? Er, well, I'm not so keen on just going out and agreeing with that right off the bat. Bad Harry! Charity must be inherently good, right? Well, we can see, in some sense, that charity is a way of correcting the unfairness of the world. So, I guess, the logical place to start is with whether or not that premise is true. We can then talk about whether or not charity is actually a way of solving that issue. In this sense, this post will have two parts. One, is the world unfair? Two, does charity help correct that, solve the aspects that are problematic? Also, play a drinking game. Donate one water pump for every time I use the phrase "some people".

Part The First: Unfairness

Some people consider unfairness in the world to be in evidence when we see companies like Virgin earn more in revenue than some countries do in terms of GDP. Is this actually a case of unfair? Well, to my mind, it is not particularly unusual for companies to have revenues larger than countries. This is because these are quite different things and, frequently, because they are drawn from a much larger pool (Virgin, for instance, has a pretty global reach whereas countries are more constrained... particularly when it comes to GDP which only measures products produced within a country and ignores, for a variety of reasons, a lot of things that affect the point of GDP... i.e. standard of living). For instance, Wiki has Apple Inc. at $183 billion versus a 2012 PPP US$ 122 billion GDP for NZ. Exactly the same thing you're pointing out but because it's NZ it creates an entirely different picture. My point, for those who want it more explicitly, is really that this is just a thing.

Speaking of GDP another way of considering unfairness is the fact that some countries have very high GDPs per capita and others, frankly, do not. When we're thinking about this one it is worth bearing in mind that averaged figures are something to be extremely wary of as they are distorted by extreme values and very few people are actually accurately described by a mean value. For instance, you do a test and the mean score is 62/100. How many people actually got that? The point of that example is something to bear in mind with GDP per capita figures as well. You get distortion (think skew and outliers) and the failure to capture the distribution (to the extent that it's a separate issue to distortion), plus all problems associated with just plain old GDP (see the above paragraph where I nearly mentioned things like its failure to include subsistence farming or black market activities and instead let you dream these up as though you were experiencing some really boring trip). This is, incidentally, an issue with taking some random pointless celebrity (e.g. Paris Hilton or the now more "relevant" Kim Kardashian) and stealing all their money to distribute it evenly among the population of some poor country. What will happen is that you're going to help some people much more than others but you're also quite likely not helping as much as you'd think (because of issues with how GDP is calculated).

What will happen is that you're going to help some people much more than others but you're also quite likely not helping as much as you'd think 

Some also argue that it is unfair that there are people (*cough*KimKardashian*cough*) who are rich and famous for, er, well we're not sure what. What we do know is that they're pretty much what we could call the idle wealthy. Except that wealth, by the way, isn't entirely idle. It's quite possibly not entirely accessible either (i.e. tied in such things as shares and properties that require selling). It's certainly not all being spent (which would be a quite major contribution to wider society, at least wherever it is being spent), which means it is being saved somehow and that means it is largely being invested indirectly (this is how banks make money, by using your money to lend to other people at interest... but that's okay because you don't have to worry about having too much cash, and you may be getting interest yourself). In this sense, our pointless celebrities are theoretically helping improve standards of living just by not having all their money sit in plastic bags in cupboards (or maybe they do that, because, you know, weirdo celebrity crap). I would argue that spending more of these celebrity fortunes (than they do currently) has a more immediate impact and eventually leads to increased saving (and therefore investment, which is absolutely crucial to long term economic growth), but it's not an entirely invalid choice.

As to justifying how that money comes into their hands hands? Don't a lot of them inherit their wealth? Well, surprising as it may seem to some people, many people do give a crap about people other than themselves and would like to improve things for their descendants (see, for a fictional example, the slow paced film known as The Descendants, which has a line that is something like "Have enough money to do something, not enough to do nothing"). Sometimes it is a case of pure selfishness (e.g. how much money is an assessment of your legacy). In either situation, it's pretty clear that people will try to help themselves make more money when they believe that they can get something from it. In more general (i.e. non-inheritance) senses, this is often talked about in terms of innovation and the like. People have no incentive to do anything if they're not going to get something from it (which is why some people, maybe jokingly for this first one, say rent control is the fastest way of destroying cities short of bombing them, taxing people at 100% or making it so everyone earns the same etc are bad ideas). This is also pretty much the principle underlying patents. Note, I don't discuss the other position (again) because I should've been in bed hours ago (got to catch a 7:30am train, yay!).

"Have enough money to do something, not enough to do nothing"

Hmm...  I guess that adds up to one conclusion: the world is unfair and describing it as such is, well, fair. Some places, for a lot of reasons (many historical), are at a disadvantage and don't do so well as others. That's not particularly fair. Some people don't do anything but are wealthy all the same, that is unfair too. All these things in the preceding paragraphs are cases of unfairness. But, at the same time, you see from how I've chosen to discuss them that you (by which I mean we) kind of do need to allow for people to be able to do better than others, we're better off helping the short poppies grow slowly than we are if we try to make all the poppies the same height. Let the first crab escape the bucket and try and develop a way to pull the next one up.

But, at the same time, I hope it's clear that I am not saying that it's okay to accept the world as it is. I don't think that's right. There are a lot of issues in the world today and I've only discussed a few aspects of fairness in the world as we know it. But, I am trying to build towards getting any reader who has stuck with my verbosity and presumed lack of clarity to accept the bigger point that I want this blog to make: one is justified in trying to defend the current approaches that we have.

Party Of Two: Does Charity Help Resolve These Sorts of Issues of Fairness?

Let's start with what I think does help. And we'll start with an unsavoury way of achieving that because it's much easier to imagine actually happening in real life (and when you read it, you'll understand why we have problems growing poppies/teaching crabs how to build ladders). We discussed, earlier, the idea of stealing some celebrities money and just spreading it around. I wasn't keen on this idea (and, apart from the stealing bit, it's not too far removed from charity). If you wanted to fix anything, you'd be much better off installing some strong dictator with a decent life expectancy and the ability to set up a stable state with the mentality to retire and set out a clear way that the system will follow in the future (once our strong dictator has retired). Once you have a system that you can trust, that will be able to back such ideas as "this is the factory that I own and operate" and that is, therefore, able to attract investment and allow people to keep the money that they have, you can actually improve things. For a historical illustration of this principle, it was only a little over a decade ago that we saw the very real advantages that sometimes come from having absolutely terrible people still be in charge.

So, if that's what works and if creating it is easiest through something that isn't particularly easy to achieve (I mean, some people say power corrupts for a reason), does charity also work?  Well, charity is all well and good for people who need it in a specific moment. If you're about to starve to death and some random offers you a famine diet gruel, you're going to take it (hell, you'd probably take a muffin but that might kill you, so don't). That's charity and it's helping someone out, it is being good. However, that act of charity hasn't actually done anything to resolve why you were about to starve to death. In some sense, charity cannot and should never be thought of as an actual solution for anything. In other words, charity is like paracetamol/Panadol: it blocks the symptoms so, hopefully, you can forget about the problem. But does all charity look like this?

Well, charity is all well and good for people who need it in a specific moment.

To be honest, I've got no idea. After all, there are varying ways of doing things and charity is not an exception to that. And like many things with multiple ways to do them, the specific way you choose does have a big impact. I mean, when you're looking at exceptions, a lot of charitable efforts do relate to trying to establish some sort of system (even if one a limited scale). Take, for instance, pretty much any water pump project ever. But this is within one village or surrounding area, it's very restricted in scope. Still, it's a start and it's something that's actually achieve something beyond what is effectively "success at a point". But, you can already see a bigger issue with this limited scope, and that's made quite clear with the following example. If you wanted to help raise literacy rates, building a whole bunch of libraries is a pretty good way of helping to do that. A lot of the time, people are illiterate because they lack access to a textual world. But, this is really assuming that any given library will still be around x-amount-of-time later. That's obviously dependent on bigger picture things like war, environmental conditions (e.g. flooding and droughts, the latter might drive people away from the library's location and the books are pretty much excess dead weight) or what have you and these big picture factors aren't really things that charities will ever be able to have any major influence on. I guess, in some ways, I'm pushing a "pick your battles" and "don't even both trying" message here.

You could argue that helping lots of individuals out and trying to have many points of success is, in some meaningful way, equivalent to not dealing with points of success. You may even be able to generate broader change if you had a great enough density of these success points in terms of time (high density = lots of success points in a short period of time). The problem here, though, is that to do this you need an absolutely massive organisation. It would need a lot of reach in terms of who it draws resources and other support from and also in who it can reach out to. That reach on the helping end would also need some depth... really be able to reach in and address fundamentals in a great many communities (such as water access or shelter)... although because it's through many points of success that depth needs to be even greater. The organisation also needs to be able to monitor the costs involved with this (and with spreading the word). All these costs add up and have further associated costs. These are the problems that some people started discussing more earnestly post Kony 2012... how much of a donation actually goes towards the point and also the wider transparency of the group. The costs are, in fact, such a problem that the likes of Andrew Carnegie often choose to have their bequeaths spent as quickly as possible so that the cost problems are minimised.

Speaking of Carnegie, I'd like to very briefly discuss the relevance of motive. You, as our nearly dead starved person, don't care why the person with the gruel bowl is giving it to you. What you care about is the help. If you think the bowl is poisoned, though?

You, as our nearly dead starved person, don't care why the person with the gruel bowl is giving it to you. 

It sort of follows from this that foreign aid (which is often basically charity) is something that I'm not that keen on. I believe that aiders would be better off taking on more refugees (this could also resolve demographic issues, refugees don't care where they are settled, they are just happy to be safe... short term at least) and that the places the refugees come from are better served not having to stretch their resources over so many people.

So, basically, my conclusion is that the the world is unfair and that this requires some attempts to try and help resolve some aspects of these issues. Further to that, charity is an option that I don't think is usually an appropriate one and, indeed, there is a definitely better alternative (i.e. having some sort of govt. which is able to provide stability, security, infrastructure and the like), although that is not very easy to achieve.

If this has seemed a little, uh, different to usual that's because it was originally written as an OP for a forum I participate in but I've deleted it from there and moved it here because it got very few views and no comments and I decided that means it's obviously sharing the defining features of this blog's posts. And, hey, I just wrote likes for comments. Welcome to narcissistic blogging. The quotes are because I wanted to break it up and I briefly flirted with the idea of submitting it to Craccum.

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