Who gives a $#%&?

Via mefi, a great two year old essay from the philosopher Peter Singer on what a human life is worth and what the richest of the rich should be giving to the poorest of the poor. There are some stunning ratios he dug up, trying to calculate what percentage of their income the richest .001, .1, .5 and top 10 per cent of the American population should give. To wit.

You could spend a long time debating whether the fractions of income I have suggested for donation constitute the fairest possible scheme. Perhaps the sliding scale should be steeper, so that the superrich give more and the merely comfortable give less. And it could be extended beyond the Top 10 percent of American families, so that everyone able to afford more than the basic necessities of life gives something, even if it is as little as 1 percent. Be that as it may, the remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone yields a total of $404 billion — from just 10 percent of American families.

Obviously, the rich in other nations should share the burden of relieving global poverty. The U.S. is responsible for 36 percent of the gross domestic product of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. Arguably, because the U.S. is richer than all other major nations, and its wealth is more unevenly distributed than wealth in almost any other industrialized country, the rich in the U.S. should contribute more than 36 percent of total global donations. So somewhat more than 36 percent of all aid to relieve global poverty should come from the U.S. For simplicity, let’s take half as a fair share for the U.S. On that basis, extending the scheme I have suggested worldwide would provide $808 billion annually for development aid. That’s more than six times what the task force chaired by Sachs estimated would be required for 2006 in order to be on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and more than 16 times the shortfall between that sum and existing official development aid commitments.

6X… 12X. Take the excess capacity by which Singer calculates the Millennium Develop Goals could be surpassed and then devote this to sustainable development practices. My point is not that we can create new columns on the balance sheet, which we can. It’s just to note the way all of the chatter about our financial straits is talked about, reported on, filmed and scripted is incredibly skewed toward… doing as little as possible. What is going to detract from our way of life? We can’t imagine how tenuous life can be, and we get all the best books and movies!

Americans think our government provides more foreign aid than all other countries combined; even when you factor this as tracking with our geo-strategic priorities, it’s just not true, proportionately speaking – which is what matters. If we decided to do as Singer suggests and began making sure – as we are capable of doing – that virtually no people went without basic necessities, we would also begin changing most of the ways in which our own society is insupportable, in the strictist sense.