Lifestyles of the Rich and Generous?

Lifestyles of the Rich and Generous?

Will the skewed values of the boom years give way to a spirit of generosity toward the poor?


The gods of publishing must have had a good laugh when they arranged for the philosopher Peter Singer to bring out The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty in the middle of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression. First Worlders have a moral obligation to give away thousands of dollars–thousands!–a year of personal income to eradicate Third World poverty? Right. Even when Americans had jobs and 401(k)s, they weren’t exactly emptying their wallets for the 1.4 billion people who live in absolute destitution–$1.25 a day or less–in the developing world. How much harder to get people to give when money is tight, so many are broke and even those who are doing all right are worried and afraid for their future.

Even today, though, as Singer would be the first to remind us, an ordinary middle-class American lives like Louis XIV compared to the destitute villagers and slum dwellers of Africa, Asia and elsewhere around the globe. Singer can sound a bit puritanical when he scoffs at our outlays on $4 lattes, restaurant meals, concerts, movies, that second glass of wine we don’t really want and the $600 worth of clothes in their closet that women supposedly haven’t worn for a year. Bottled water comes in for special scorn. His point, though, isn’t that we should forgo all pleasure but that we have more disposable income than we think we do–enough to save the lives of many people. If you put it like that–hmm, do I go out for pie or vaccinate ten children?–the answer is pretty clear.

Singer suggests that those in the bottom half of the top 10 percent–those who make between $105,001 and $148,000–give 5 percent of their income, with graduated increases for those who make more. In other words, a person who made $147,000 would give $7,350, leaving him/her a comfortable $139,650 to live on. If the nearly 15 million people in the top 10 percent followed his proposal, they would generate $471 billion for the Third World poor. If those below gave just 1 percent of their income, the total would increase to $510 billion. If the rest of the developed world followed suit, the total would be eight times what the United Nations estimates is needed to reach the Millennium Development Goals for global health, education, employment, gender equality and so on by 2015.

How likely is it that people, even those in the top 10 percent, will take up the challenge? Hard times can make people cling to what they have, but they can also make people think differently. There’s more to life than bottled water, after all. The hyperconsumption that was a fun spectator sport for so many during flush times–remember Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?–no longer looks so amusing today. People hate hate hate Bernie Madoff, a criminal, but they also hate hate hate Merrill Lynch’s John Thain and his $35,000 commode, Citibank’s Sandy Weill and his corporate jet, and all those Wall Streeters with their multimillion-dollar bonuses, the very people who just yesterday represented the acme of human aspiration and the generators of that rising tide that was going to lift all boats. There’s a lot of rage and spite and schadenfreude floating about against the privileged–just ask former Self editor in chief and bestselling author Alexandra Penney, who lost her life savings to Madoff and made the mistake of writing in the Daily Beast and elsewhere expecting sympathy because she had to fire the maid, sell her vacation home and, after thirty years of riding in taxis, ask a friend how to use a MetroCard. Never mind that she was the victim of a conman who fooled far shrewder financial minds; most commenters thought she was “greedy” for investing with Madoff and richly deserved her downfall.

The skewed values of the boom years–which I realize were only boom years for some–extend far beyond the corporate world. They corrupted the nonprofit world too: the million-dollar galas that raised a million dollars, the college presidents and NGO heads paid like CEOs of major corporations. I stopped donating to the New York Public Library when it gave its president and CEO Paul LeClerc a several-hundred-thousand-dollar raise so his salary would be $800,000 a year. Writing my modest check to the Friends of the Library made me feel pathetic, like one of the Southern Italian peasants in Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli who gave Christmas presents to the local landowners instead of the other way around. If the library needed money, why didn’t it start by asking LeClerc to give back, say, half a million dollars a year? That would buy an awful lot of books–or help pay for raises for the severely underpaid librarians who actually keep the system going. And LeClerc’s case, though egregious, is part of a trend: a few minutes clicking around on will turn up lots of salaries in the $400,000 and over range. The usual justification is that you need to pay humongous salaries to get the best people, but I don’t believe it. There are lots of “best people” out there. If a Wall Streeter won’t take a pay cut to do some good in the world, the heck with him. Nobody needs to make $800,000 a year. That’s sixteen times the median household income.

Now that middle-class Americans are getting mad about inequality here at home instead of just getting mad at poor people, can the feeling be extended to the far greater inequalities between global North and South? What would that take? I’m not as sanguine as Singer that philanthropy can turn the world around: we need to look at trade policies, debt, financial regulation and labor laws as well. Obama’s budget reportedly doubles foreign aid, but how much of that will go to client states like Israel and Egypt, and how much to build clinics in Liberia and Cambodia?

It’s all very well to be outraged by John Thain and his ilk, but to the world’s poor billions, Thain is us.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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