January 1st, 2010

An idea for 2010: personal consumption offsets.

Imagine you were confronted with a person in great suffering, and you were capable of helping to alleviate their suffering. If this person were right in front of you, it would probably feel unkind to ignore them.

Yet, rationally, there is no difference between the suffering of a person you can see in front of you, and the same suffering experienced by a person you've never met, thousands of miles away. Is it not equally as necessary to help any fellow human being in great need? Surely geographical location is not relevant to the worth of a life.

This has been my way of thinking for some time. Peter Singer explains it more eloquently in his 1971 essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Yes, charities are less than 100% efficient, and choosing worthy ones can be complicated. And keeping ourselves in love with life is a necessary prerequisite for giving to others. But these are minor caveats in comparison to the main, inescapable point: most people give less than they should. I say this not to criticize any deficiency in their principles, but as an observation that their actions are logically inconsistent with the principles they choose for themselves.

Setting aside a fixed fraction of your income for charitable donations is a pretty common concept. Christians call it tithing, and Singer himself makes a similar suggestion, even proposing specific percentages for income brackets. The problem with the income-fraction approach is that not everyone can afford to give the same fraction of their income. Those barely able to make rent might only be able to afford a little, but billionaires can easily afford to give away most of their income. Singer wrote:

Given a society in which a wealthy man who gives 5 percent of his income to famine relief is regarded as most generous, it is not surprising that a proposal that we all ought to give away half our incomes will be thought to be absurdly unrealistic.

I've never set aside a fraction of my income to donate, even when I've had a regular income. I occasionally donate here and there, at random to a charity that strikes me as a good one, but certainly far less than 10% of my income, probably less than 2%. Having a real job has made me think about what I should do about this.

I have an idea for a different approach that I'm going to try as an experiment. It's pretty simple:

In 2010, I'll match everything I spend on a non-essential purchase with an equal donation to an effective charity.
What's essential? Rent, groceries, furniture, expenses incurred in order to do my job.
What's non-essential? Eating out, movies, gadgets, toys, travel for fun. Gifts for myself, basically.
What's an effective charity? IRC, MSF, PSI, and EFF are my current favourites, though I'm sure there are many other excellent possibilities.

There are a few things I like about this scheme, both practical and psychological:

  • By definition, this only affects non-essential expenses — so anyone can do this, regardless of income level.
  • The statement of the pledge is simple and doesn't involve arbitrary percentages.
  • It motivates me to donate more, while enhancing my enjoyment of the things I buy for myself.
  • I'll become newly aware of how much I spend on non-essential things.

My plan is to use Mint to tag my expenses as non-essential. At the beginning of each month, I'll do a round of tagging and make a donation.

Thoughts, ideas, or suggestions?

Thanks to Mitch and Slim for reviewing this post.

2010-01-09 14:00 PST: Welcome, @PeterSinger followers! — PeterSinger tweets: Nice idea on giving here: http://wolog.net/254527.html Thanks Ka-Ping Yee. And you can pledge as well at www.thelifeyoucansave.com

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