“Join Wall Street. Save the world.” This article went viral in my Facebook feed:
[Jason] Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.
He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.
In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it’s paying so that more wells are dug. . . .
“Many people talk about saving a life as one of the greatest things you can do,” says Robbie Schade, a roboticist at Google who says he gives 25 percent of his earnings to charity, “but seem unaware that it is within their power to save multiple lives every year, with little personal sacrifice. . . .
MacAskill, like Trigg, realized that percentages don’t matter. Absolutes do. Ord may be able to give $1.5 million over the course of his life, but Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein made more than $15 million in 2012 alone. Before the crisis, Blankfein was clearing $50 million annually. And investment bankers don’t even get the biggest cut. Hedge fund manager John Paulson made $5 billion in 2010. Suppose Paulson were to keep his job, move to a studio in Hoboken, reduce his living expenses to $30,000 a year, and give the rest of the $5 billion away. He could save 3,000 times as many lives in a year as Ord could save in 80 years. So why not enter finance with the express goal of using earnings to save lives?”
The article goes on to describe what sounds like an emerging subculture of “smart” do-gooders: people who have realized that it is both possible and advantageous to quantify philanthropy because it appears that simply giving the financial equivalent is both more convenient and perhaps even ethically superior. Gone are the romantic notions of digging wells by hand in third-world countries, replaced instead by the realization that the same $2,000 that would have gone into flight & travel arrangements can instead be used more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably to pay local workers and organizations to do the same. By the numbers, it is a utilitarian strategy that results in a higher yield for the same sort of goal. As is fitting in our post-modern, data-driven society, the primary motivations behind such work (belief in social equity, religious mores, or simply social conformity) are far less important than their end results, which can now be performed and measured much more quickly, accurately, and accountably. It seems that our generation has not only accepted but embraced the notion that philanthropy is a business like any other industry, and that perhaps it would benefit from being similarly optimized and “outsourced.”
Of course, like much utilitarian thinking, it requires breaking down costs and benefits into dollars and cents. This translation of humanitarian need into economic sensibilities is not a new concept, but what seems to have changed is the valuation of the personal experience in helping. Experiences are vague, short-lived, and not always tied to concrete and quantifiable action. Experiences can be easily and emotionally manipulated in ways that interfere with mechanisms of aid delivery or that actually injure the target population being helped. Experiences can be innately self-centered rather than other-centered, cannibalizing one person’s misery to assuage a wealthier one’s guilt. In our post-modernity, we are especially sensitive to cultural taint and imperialism and so outsourcing aid is immensely appealing as a way to minimize such negative spiritual collateral damage.
Caller: My initial trip I was at Miami Airport and the woman was asking me what am I going to do, and I didn’t know how to answer that, and I asked well what are you doing, and she said, “Well I’m going to convert the heathens,” and I realized that . . . 95% of the travelers are Christian mission teams, and I’m a practicing Christian, and I love Christianity, whatever, but what I find with the Christian teams is that it’s almost like a colonization, a fertile ground for these groups to go in, and I know it’s a delicate topic . . . and in general what I see is that you have the Bible in one hand and the aid package in the other, whatever that aid entails. . . .
Wilentz: Well . . . I’m much harsher than you are. Yeah, I think it’s an occupation . . . they come in, they’ve got the Bible in one hand . . . one of them I was examining for my book, and I looked it up and it was for younger people and it said, “Have an awesome adventure in Haiti!”; this was after the earthquake . . . and I just couldn’t believe it, you know? ”Have an awesome adventure?” It sounded like a spring break trip or something. So they come down, and what they’re trying to do is eradicate voodoo, so that’s why they say they’re converting the heathens. So absolutely, they offer money in exchange for souls. It’s very old fashioned.
I cringed when I heard that, mainly because I had been guilty of the same attitude as a high school student going on short-term missions trips with my church. The rest of the interview had other callers who were Christians trying to defend their work in the country, but they did not come across any better. Missiology has become far more nuanced, sensitive, and humble in the past several decades, but the public perception (especially in the United States, and especially in the university environment) can still be very harsh . . . and perhaps deservedly so.
It is therefore unsurprising that even Christian humanitarians, like the caller above, would want to gravitate towards as “neutral” a position as possible . . . and what can be more neutral than funneling thousands of dollars towards malaria nets? How wrong can a Christian humanitarian technocracy truly be?