Thursday, January 13, 2005

Psyching out the philanthropists

We suckers for tsunami sob stories have been taking a lot of heat for our heartlessness toward the dead and dying elsewhere, in particular because those others so exceed the number affected by the tidal waves. But this mathematical proof of our irrational inconsistency doesn't hold water. My own sympathy for the world's suffering has been strictly by the numbers. They're just not the numbers that those lecturing us like to point to. Specifically: Who cares how many died? Dead people don't need money.

My idea was to prevent bad stuff from taking place. Figuring how much to donate involved predicting how much grief would accumulate over what time if people like me delayed or donated nothing. Building an office building in a week will cost you a lot more than building it over a year: There's the Fed Ex costs, the overtime pay, the securing of every rental truck in a thousand mile radius, the bribery to close streets for deliveries...etc. Time is money. Equally importantly, if you want to prevent an impending rapid escalation of grief--as pundits predictedwould result from absence of food, medical aid and santitation in these isolated and devastated coastal communities--you've no choice but to send those dollars instantly and in the absence of info on what everybody else is doing. So if you know that millions in the Congo have died for lack of aid, the smart thing to do is to send as much as you the tsunami victims. That's because (assuming no tidal wave has struck in recent memory) your best inference from experience is that your compatriots are stingy. Of course, now that I know my fellow Americans do cough up the dough for a tsunami, next time I'll give to the Congo. I just hope nobody else reasons the same way.

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