Thursday, April 30, 2009
If you claim to be humanitarian and you claim your desire is to help the people who are truly poor, my advice is to ignore the bottom bracket of U.S. income earners and invest your resources in ways to make life better for citizens in developing nations. Here’s the chart — via Ezra Klein, who I’m sure would not endorse the point I’m making — that inspires me to comment on this topic today:
Ezra laments that the number of people who claim to need a car makes it less politically feasible to pass environmental regulations. I celebrate the fact that we are so tremendously, fabulously, absurdly rich as a nation 66% of us actually cited a clothes dryer as a necessity. 52% of us would die on the spot without a TV set, and 8% of us may immediately suffer fatal convulsions if it’s not a flat-screen. 21% of us will suffer labor-induced hemorrhaging and slip into a coma if we have to wash our dishes by hand.
On the other hand, the citizens of some nations have it really, truly bad, and U.S. citizens are almost without fail not among them. There are billions of people on earth who might one day, if they’re extremely lucky, be able to own one of the above products. Technology will make the items cheaper and more accessible over time — provided that we don’t pass policies that make it even more difficult for businesses to pass the savings onto the consumer — but even then this is a misguided comparison. I recommend recasting this survey as a forced ranking and including “luxuries” such as AIDS treatment, malaria treatment/containment, sanitation, clean water, etc. and see what happens. Actually, my guess is iPods and flat-screen TVs will still beat out some of these as “necessities” because U.S. respondents can’t even conceive of a world without them and will psychologically reject the comparison.
Let me be even more direct. If you support protectionism — agricultural subsidies, sugar quotas, or restrictions on anything that prevents workers in developing nations from being able to compete in U.S. markets — you are favoring the less rich to the great harm of the poor. If you oppose an expansion of legal immigration, you are at best (yes, I said at best) promoting selfish nationalism at the expense of the livelihoods of people who are doing far worse than even most unemployed Americans. And if you want to spend even one cent on environmental regulations before you spend it preventing malnutrition and malaria, and ensuring that every child has access to safe water, I don’t want to hear your complaining about how climate change is going to be disastrous for the poor. News flash: the truly poor are in a pretty disastrous situation right now and I’m sorry their actual current plight doesn’t lend itself to as much sexy anti-corporate imagery as their potential future plight.
If you want to help your unemployed uncle or the people you consider part of your community, I’m not saying you should never do it. Anyone with empathy possesses these communitarian tendencies, and rightly so. What I am saying is if you’re going to get on a save-the-world high horse, educate yourself enough to have a chance at getting past the sort of cognitive dissonance that the above poll respondents clearly possess, and then get your priorities in order.