Monday, January 31, 2011

Budgets high and low

Expensive jeans are eternal. Whether you wore the wrong brand in the '80s and had to sit at a different cafeteria table (or is this just in movies?) or you bought into the premium-denim craze of 2004 or so, there are perhaps a few moments in between waves of this, when denim marketers can't think of a reason to convince teens or adults that $30 for casual pants is inadequate, but generally speaking, they come up with something.

Jeans, you see, really do have to cost $600. Yes, yes, to each his own, if this gives you pleasure and you have the money, fine. But I almost think the $175,000 closet makes more sense. Below, from an interview with the purveyor of said denim:

"If you’re buying high-end jeans, you’re paying for the fit, fabric, and finish."

So, too, if you're choosing among the selection at the Gap. Add in thrift, Levis, and Uniqlo (although the dye on those last ones sure did bleed), and a New Yorker has more fit, fabric, and finish options that she knows what to do with. One is arguably better off not knowing that the entire selection exists at give or take $600.

"For my handmade jeans I source from a really small, family-owned Italian denim mill."

Of course. A time-honored way to get Americans to drop cash on something ridiculous is to explain that an old European man who takes pride in his craftsmanship hand-stitched whatever it is.

"They only have 30 looms and they specialize in selvedge and pure indigo dyes. Basically, it’s the old way of doing things."

Is there such a thing as artisanal Italian denim? Is this really something Italians were doing way back when? Was this the catalyst for the decline of the Roman Empire?

"An inexpensive jean can wear out in six months, whereas I’ve been wearing some of my handmade jeans for a good eight years now."

Assuming you own more than one pair of pants, and that by "jeans" one does not mean "jeggings" which, being closer to tights on the leg-covering spectrum, would, I assume, fall apart, your jeans, whether $60 or $600, will last forever. You won't wear them forever, because your weight will fluctuate, and because they'll start to look dated. But a theoretical individual indifferent to styles, who wears jeans in a size that weight fluctuations don't impact, could, in theory, wear his jeans forever. However, such an individual is probably just the sort of man who'd own only one pair in the first place, and whose pants, even if $600, would indeed wear out.


On the other end of the spectrum, we have a Peter Singerish suggestion that the reader "Live Like a Grad Student … Forever." Sounds delightful! But it's for charity. Commenters point out that the author, a prof at Oxford, doesn't have the same job stability/social benefit concerns as us 'mericans, who kind of have to (or ought to) save our money, and not give the lot to charity, in case we or our loved ones need some of that fancy schmancy health care. One commenter points out that it's really about asceticism, not where the money goes, which I think gets at the truth. I'm sure part of Toby Ord's decision to give so much away comes from concern for the poor, but there is an undeniable smugness factor: "The things that are most important to me cost very little: such as spending time with my wife and friends, reading books, and listening to music." How nice for him to be immune to material pleasures such as $600 jeans, $175,000 closets, or, heck, discounted Petit Bateau marinières. Some like only books, others only stuff, but as an appreciator of books and stuff alike, I say, good for him, but it's not a sacrifice if stuff does nothing for you in the first place. (Of course, if a grad-student budget is permitted, Ord too can spend 23 euros on a striped sweatshirt.) That, and in certain milieus, such as the one he's perhaps already in, it confers status to be visibly indifferent to stuff. "It's not that it gives me a warm glow, but it does give me a certain peace with myself and a sense of purpose." Fine. One might say, who cares if he's smug if he helps the poor, to which I'd respond, if he turns off others from donating in more moderate amounts, that's itself an issue. 

The other question I always have with this kind of argument, aside from the debate I don't have any great knowledge of regarding whether the type of donation advocated is what's really best for the developing world, is what ramifications a large-scale embrace of this kind of lifestyle would have. If every upper-middle class family donated in this way, not only would all kinds of first-world-ish businesses collapse, but there wouldn't be much motivation for the even marginally more materialistic to go into upper-middle class professions in the first place. Ord goes into work because, presumably, he finds his work fulfilling. What about everyone else, the vast majority who go in largely so that they can pay for necessities and desires? The first world would stop being so first-world, and the bottomless pit of wealth to be donated to those in need would dry up. It seems a better argument would be that those who can should give more, not that those who don't need to live like grad students should play at that lifestyle.


X.Trapnel said...

I have to say, I disagree with your objections to Ord's op-ed (I met him at a Utilitarianism conference awhile back, appropriately enough).

1. Cheap/expensive tastes. There are two issues here. One is that our tastes are partially susceptible to conscious development; we are not purely helpless before the lure of jeans or fine wine or what-have-you. The second is that, well, yes, it's a sacrifice, and not necessarily an equal one for everybody--but these days, netflix & bittorrent have made audio-visual media consumption nearly as (effectively) cheap as text consumption, and film/tv/music spans the high-/low-brow spectrum. Mormons give 10% to the church, and make do (even with typically large families). It's quite reasonable to think secular folks should, too.

2. 'What if everybody did that?' And here I just am truly gobsmacked. First, real wealth--what makes the world of today immensely more wealthy than the world of 1600--is at bottom our capacity to transform labor and available inputs into useful stuff, as well as the availability of those inputs. So long as we're talking about a gradual transition, old machines not being replaced when they wear old, &c., rather than a sudden shock to global demand, all Ord is proposing is that the purchasing power of the rich--that is, our collective ability to channel labor and capital in various directions--go towards useful (saving lives with vaccinations, potable water, &c) rather than frivolous (directing workers to produce artisanal jeans) pursuits. Yes, this involves a value judgment, and this judgment is contestable. Are you genuinely going to contest it? 1 pair jeans vs. 1-5 lives saved, by Ord's reckoning?
Finally, the bit about needing luxuries in order to staff UMC professions--except that by and large, the professions with higher salaries *also* bring higher status and, perhaps most importantly, autonomy. Finally, if you think that the higher-income professions are actually the most socially useful (and yes, again, this involves value judgments; I'm quite ready to defend mine), I don't think you've been paying enough attention to the global economy in the last 3 years.

X.Trapnel said...

Ready to defend my value judgements, that is, not my (nonexistent) profession.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) It's not that people are helpless, but to some extent being the kind of person who doesn't value material things is either the result of being raisedlike that, or the no less random result of being the kind of person who from a young age was identified by others and came to identify himself as "bookish" - perhaps someone not all that social, who thus wouldn't be spending on primping or going out - and so has cultivated a persona around rejecting materialism. If, since long before you considered the problems of the developing world, you've been indifferent to stuff (and no, "stuff" does not have to mean $175,000 closets or $600 jeans), your decision not to buy a new flat-screen TV or whatever is not such a big deal. Of course, "materialism" isn't always about conspicuous/sheep-like consumption (expensive wine, jeans, TV, etc.) What if someone collects strange antiques, dresses as though it were 1820? This is the same from the the money-not-going-to-charity standpoint, but there's absolutely an element of this that's about intellectuals already having a low opinion of the crass rich.

As for Mormons and 10%, I have trouble gauging what % makes sense at this stage of my life, when my luxuries are mostly t-shirts I don't need-need, but as I said at the end of the post, I don't think mimicking a "graduate student" lifestyle is necessary for most well-off people to donate more to good causes than they do.

There's also a significant gender component to this - women are far more likely than men to have been socialized from a young age not only to feel as though they need to shop for clothes, shoes, makeup in order to be feminine (patriarchy), but also to enjoy this activity. I could, I suppose, train myself to ignore the sales in Paris - all it would take is rereading Zola's depressing novel about the early Paris dept store and its effect on suggestible women - but I like looking, and occasionally buying. This is not the main thing that interests me about France, but it makes being here more enjoyable, for me as well as for the other (predominately female) study-abroad students who pick it as a destination. (Yes, I saw that his wife is in favor of the austerity as well. It's not that women can't do it, but that we define that-which-women-like as frivolous, even before world poverty, or the conditions in H&M's factories, or any other concerns enter the discussion.)

And that's not even getting into the class privilege of being an intellectual for whom "stuff" is unimportant. If you're already neck-deep in status, as is a prof at Oxford, of course you don't think need to buy a fancy TV to feel good about yourself. But someone earning the same, though less secure status-wise, not in an intellectual profession, may be in a different situation.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

2) Goodness, "gobsmacked," how can I argue with gobsmackedness? I'm not saying bankers are the most useful members of society, but that that your average doctor, entrepreneur, etc. is partly working so as to have the freedom a) not to worry about money so much and b) to be able to buy some silly things. What drives a capitalist society is the desire, common among many if not most, to have more than enough. Even where there's a bigger safety net than in the US, the prospect of extra money, not just status, inspires this.

"So long as we're talking about a gradual transition"

Are we? Is Ord?

"useful (saving lives with vaccinations, potable water, &c) rather than frivolous (directing workers to produce artisanal jeans) pursuits"

Again, define "stuff" as that-which-intellectuals-who-don't-even-care-about-charity-think-is-crass-and-ridiculous, and it becomes too easy to answer. But are we defining the arts as "frivolous" because a trip to opera doesn't provide clean water? "1 pair jeans vs. 1-5 lives saved" - how about one soc-sci research trip?

There's on the one hand an uncontroversial (except insofar as which type of help to the poor is most helpful) point about wealth inequality being unfair, but on the other, the fact that someone who's a male Oxford prof (not to mention living in a society with a greater safety net than in the US) is not necessarily the best person to be telling others what they should or shouldn't value. If the point is, money saves lives, the argument shouldn't alienate those whose pleasures extend beyond books at witty repartee.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Or in less long-winded terms, what bothered me about the article was that it was, as I interpreted it, at least as much about vindicating the cultural values of (male, especially) intellectuals - who already live like this whether or not they give a cent of what's not spent at Gucci to charity, who already look down on those with "crass" taste for purely aesthetic reasons - as it was about saving lives. Between the lines - obviously sentence by sentence, it's mostly an article about giving to charity. But I suspect that many others will interpret it the way I did as well, even if they don't articulate that that's the problem with it, and so will be turned off, as opposed to inspired to give more than they already do.

Think of it like this: it's a bit like if a too-brilliant-to-bathe wrote an article about how we should all be saving more water.

Britta said...

Yeah, the last part of your post was uncomfortably close to "trickle down" economics for me. However, reading that article, she sounds like she's full of BS. She's paying about $40 for material and then spending about 4 hours on making each pair of jeans. I'm not sure how that is worth $600. I also agree that arguing that $600 jeans are more durable than $30 ones are laughable, since the WHOLE POINT of jeans is that they were cheap and durable pants. And, if you are getting distressed jeans, or whatever, chances are they are going to go out of style far more quickly than Levi 501s.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There's a wide gap between trickle-down economics and the idea that people work because, in part, of the economic incentives. This is true even in Western European countries where the gap between high and low salaries isn't as great. One doesn't have to be a full-on no-safety-net capitalist to think the world would work differently if the most luxury anyone aspired to would be grad-student-ish. It's not just the idea that bankers help keep handbag designers employed. It's that excess wealth keeps all kinds of things going, including the arts, decent supermarkets, etc. One might argue that gap between rich and poor is too great, and that the best way to fix this is for the rich to give more to worthwhile charities. Not unreasonable, but different in magnitude from suggesting that the grad student lifestyle for all would work on an individual or general level.

And yes, the more that's been done to jeans, the more quickly they look ridiculous. What amazed me about the interview was that there's really no way to justify the item other than that there's demand for it. So it was interesting to see how the designer claimed that the pants could not be any other way. I suppose $600 comes from the designer getting a high hourly wage? (I'm assuming the jeans I got on sale at Levis for around $30 and have been wearing for a couple years took approximately three seconds to make, and were made by not very well-paid workers.)

X.Trapnel said...

1. The idea that we need this kind of massive inequality for 'the arts' in the abstract is false. It's perhaps true that certain ridiculously capital-intensive spectacles like The Met Opera would have difficulty meeting payroll in a less unequal world, but even there, I'm not convinced--they haven't even begun to fully exploit the potential of HD simulcasts to theatres.

2. If you reread his article, you'll note that the key pledge of his organization is to donate at least 10%, hence my invocation of the Mormons. He decided to donate down to 10k pounds because he felt that was the level he felt he could handle. He recognizes not everyone would go down to that level. His own wife, for example, will only donate down to 25k, from her salary as a doctor. His claim is that all of us can do better than we're doing now, and the way to start is just that--start, right now. I think using 10% is a good idea, because it's a nice round number, it's not too huge, and the Mormons already do it.

3. Again: he's not arguing that wealth ought to be *destroyed*. He's arguing, rather, that claims on resources ought to be directed towards their more productive uses. And, yes, it is much more productive to be vaccinating young children, or giving them basic schooling, or building wells and sewage systems, than donating to a symphony or a museum that keeps 80% of its collection in storage.

4. I'm still baffled by your belief that a successful mass movement to do this would be bad for the world, but I'm too sleepy to actually engage with it.

X.Trapnel said...

Also, he's just a postdoc, not a prof; his status is not as secure as you might be thinking.

But ok, I'll bite the bullet and say that, yes: I do think that a professional philosopher at one of the world's most selective departments who specializes in moral theory is, in fact, one of the best people to tell people what they should value. Or at least to point out their failure to consistently work towards the things they claim to value.

PG said...

For $600, come to Vietnam and have someone custom-make your jeans. Vietnam is now like the 3rd largest clothing exporter in the world, so a good chunk of your wardrobe probably comes from here already. If you're going to pay a ridiculous amount, might as well eat some super-authentic pho at the same time (and have the money you're paying go directly to people who live on less than $5 a day).

In economic terms, I'm not quite clear on why spending one's charitable funds on helping the poor instead of the arts would have a deleterious effect on GDP. The main thing with GDP is for people to spend the money -- particularly in the Keynesian view, on what precisely it's spent isn't that important. Moreover, if you care about the U.S. economy, then improving the lives of poor people actually could be good for us, because as poor people have better health and education, they're more likely to be productive themselves and have the income to buy goods and services exported from the U.S. Spending money on U.S.-patented medications and technology that then goes to help poor people in other countries is no less a boon to our economy, in terms of employing Americans and improving the profit statements of American corporations, than spending money on clothes and electronics that may or may not have employed American workers in their production. Why do you think it's worse for the economy for me to spend excess income on funding American scientists in finding an HIV vaccine instead of on funding an Italian diva's opera salary?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

X. Trapnel,

"The idea that we need this kind of massive inequality for 'the arts' in the abstract is false."

See my response to Britta. I'm not saying the inequality would need to be at the same level.

Re: 10%, the article suggested both the graduate student lifestyle and a minimum percentage, although my impression was that it was the former Ord thought was ideal.


"In economic terms, I'm not quite clear on why spending one's charitable funds on helping the poor instead of the arts would have a deleterious effect on GDP."

My point re: the arts was that Ord's article gave the impression of opposing flashy/conspicuous/silly consumption with austerity, while in reality, all non-HIV-vaccine-type-expenditures fall into that category. But as for why expenditures that are not channeled to the poor would help the economy (and I so obviously know less about this than you or X. Trapnel, and am speculating) would be that people work precisely because they want to be able to afford giant TVs, opera tickets, $600 jeans, $80 jeans, etc.

I think you may be onto something, though, with the idea of $600-jeans charity shopping in Vietnam. Making charity feel like consumption (and this does already exist, of course) might be the answer.

Which gets me to X. Trapnel's point - "yes: I do think that a professional philosopher at one of the world's most selective departments who specializes in moral theory is, in fact, one of the best people to tell people what they should value." Ord may have the morality right (who can disagree with lives vs. jeans?), but have gauged people wrong, and thus framed his argument in a way that will not change minds on this topic.

Finally, if he's not a prof, he's still living in England, not the US, but perhaps the relevant fact is that his wife is employed ("an NHS doctor"), so it's not as though he's giving it all away with a real possibility of having no income when the postdoc ends.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

X. Trapnel,

"I'm still baffled by your belief that a successful mass movement to do this would be bad for the world, but I'm too sleepy to actually engage with it."

Not morally bad, just a) unrealistic, given that the average person's interest in stuff is probably 500x Ord's, and b) with major implications the article doesn't get into, in particular what happens to every "frivolous" part of our economy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

PG and X. Trapnel,

Not to comment endlessly on my own blog, but I do wish someone had addressed the idea that this suggestion matches so perfectly what a certain kind of intellectual already does, for reasons having nothing to do with charity and everything to do with aesthetics, and why this is itself a problem with the article in terms of what it's ostensibly trying to accomplish, namely encouraging those who don't already get pleasure from leading such austere lives to give more to charity.

I get that I'm the bad guy for arguing that jeans-versus-lives is anything but a straightforward question. But is this how (without making it personal and asking either of you about yourselves in particular) even good people live? Is it maybe worth looking at why it's not? It's certainly not that before Ord's article, no one realized that the $100 that just went to a new and unnecessary pair of shoes could have gone to charity.

I'm not sure what to make of the Mormon example - all Americans could potentially not consume alcohol or coffee, either, not act on their sexual urges outside of heterosexual marriage, but we have to deal with people as they actually are.

If the point had been for people to give more, that would have been reasonable enough but not very catchy. Suggesting that people live with very little, while catchier, is more likely to produce indifference.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

X. Trapnel wrote, blogger ingested:

I glanced at his organization's website, and here's the justification:

The pledge [to give >=10%] also helps on a larger level:
It makes a public declaration of our beliefs on the importance of world poverty and shows the strength of these convictions.
It forms a society of givers: encouraging others to join us and letting us share advice on the most effective ways to give.
It provides hope for the future as a new kind of organisation built around a new way of giving.

I think these are all sensible, especially #1. I take Ord's main enemy to be the convention that talking about one's income or one's donations is tacky or even rude; how we typically do our best to not think about our personal, unavoidable complicity in inequality and deprivation. And there's a simple reason for that: once you think about it, it's easy to succumb to despair, because it feels like anything short of living in true poverty is unjustifiable, &c. Contrary to what you're saying about his not caring about the reasons why people don't give, I think he's operating on a fairly uncontroversial social-psych view: it's just not expected of people, so there's very little pushing back on self-interest beyond diffuse sense of 'probably should do more.'

So the goal is to counter that with concrete, achievable benchmarks; instead of the idea that "well, it's nice if you give away something, though it's still rude to talk about how much you make, let alone discuss the matter with others in a serious way," try to promote the idea of a new minimum as a concrete social expectation--hence the pledge thing.

I do agree that this sort of thing would work better if there were a wide variety of people with different sorts of lifestyles giving testimony; OTOH, his project is clearly in its infancy. What research has been done on, e.g., virginity pledges seems to show that part of what matters is the local context of that pledge--the social groups it's part of.

Whether or not his particular version is very effective, do you disagree with the bedrock idea--people ought to do more, and the taboo against discussing what one does is part of why they don't?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm responding:

"Whether or not his particular version is very effective, do you disagree with the bedrock idea--people ought to do more, and the taboo against discussing what one does is part of why they don't?"

Good we're now agreed on the fact that my post was addressing his particular version, not the overall principle of whether people should donate to charity.

I'm not sure, however, how to address the general question without getting into some of the specifics. For one thing, 10% for all income levels? No sliding scale? (That, and I put my stipend into the calculator and I'm apparently rolling in dough - no mention of how much of that stipend goes to sharing a studio apartment that's still a subway ride away from campus. "Cost of living" isn't just about the Joneses owning shiny new appliances - do most of the world's inhabitants need to live within commuting distance from Washington Square Park?)

More generally, there's the question of giving more - not all charitable donations are about fixing world poverty. If we're not talking about Ord's idea in its specifics, are you asking whether I think X% should go to that cause, or whether people should spend less on themselves and their families? Some would say the money should be used to fight poverty domestically. Then there are donations to fight disease, or to Planned Parenthood, or to help homeless gay youth, or any number of legitimate but first-world problems (as opposed to First World Problems)- donations that may not go to the absolute most impoverished, but where the donor perhaps has a better sense of where the money is going. This is not even including donations to prep schools or private colleges - not so easy to condemn when they're directed towards scholarships for those in need, but making sure the talented children of factory workers can get an education isn't as dire as getting clean water to those who don't have any. (Not even getting into donations to museums, saving endangered but adorable species, etc.) Would all these donations fall outside the 10%? Are those who donate much of their income to problems occurring in the developed world to be lumped together with those who'd spend the money on $600 jeans? Are we also to be making calculations about how many lives are saved in the developing world versus how much it costs to build a home for gay kids kicked out of their middle-class homes in suburban America? I'm not sure, I suppose, whether you're asking whether I think people should give more to causes, or specifically to the causes that Ord is saying and presumably most would agree are the world's most pressing. One way to answer this would be for a tax in wealthy countries (with higher rates for the wealthier, perhaps not as much as 10% for anyone) to go specifically towards clean water, HIV vaccine, etc., and to leave the recipient of charitable donations to individual discretion. (I can, however, sense as I type this that those with some knowledge of economics are already rolling their eyes at how idiotic this idea plainly is, for reasons that I, the idiot, have failed to anticipate.)

X.Trapnel said...

1. I'll concede that insofar as you're a demographic that should be winnable for Ord--securely UMC in expected-life-chances, aware of the problems, not yet accustomed to living richly--the fact that his pitch failed so badly with you is, itself, a sign he needs to work on it.

2. It strikes me that your answer is precisely the sort of thing his take on this is designed to avoid. Because, as you well know, stuff like the paragraph you wrote can easily turn into hours-long dorm bull sessions or decades-long philosophy journal back-and-forths. And in the end, the main effect is to substitute debate for action. His response is: bracket away all the hard questions about institutional design. Just look at the easy one, which is: is there not some percent of your income--5, 10, whatever--which, when you compare your own use of it to the most cost-effective quality-adjusted-life-years intervention you can think of (suggestions!), simply cannot be reasonably justified as personal consumption?

If you agree, then I think precisely because of the unanswerability (or rather--lack of answers immune to reasonable disagreement), human psychology suggests--even in the absence of formal institutions to tax or whatnot--trying to embed this idea of 'nondiscretionary spending' into our habits and customs. So that we can continue to have these arguments over how best to channel aid to the less fortunate, or the threshholds for giving, but they take the form of constructive debates towards action, with the understanding that, of course, almost everyone involved shall and ought to earmark a non-trivial portion of nominal income in ways of this sort. But in order to really internalize the idea of 'mandatory', so that folks see these expenditures on the same non-discretionary level as bills or promises or taxes or whatnot, it is probably necessary to dismantle the taboo of talking about how much people earn and the moral component of what they do with it.

PG said...

I'm not getting into the "live like a grad student" because I was the wrong kind (didn't have a stipend during school year, but in summer was paid like a practicing lawyer and dressing accordingly).

If we are just discussing the "give 10%" part, there's no reason that would reduce people's incentive to work. Many tithers, including Mormons, still work hard and still buy stuff for themselves. If a faithful Mormon has to make 10% more money than his nonMormon neighbor in order to achieve the same comforts while also fulfilling religious obligation, then he works more, not less.

Foreign aid is a political nonstarter, so I'm skeptical of trying to impose taxes with the revenue directed to that. Ord probably is as well, which is why he's calling for voluntary charity instead of the tax mandated kind. Americans believe we spend a lot feeding hungry brown people, when all foreign aid (I think including military aid) is half a percent of the federal budget. And when polled on what should be cut first to reduce the deficit, the majority say foreign aid! (no majority for cutting domestic spending on education, defense or even welfare)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

X. Trapnel

Your estimation that I'm "securely UMC in expected-life-chances" depends on all the country's French departments not vanishing, but it's nice to think someone's confident in the employability of a future French PhD.

Anyway, my point wasn't to have a great big philosophizing-fest (although I did just have dinner with some philosophy and literature grad students!), but that I'm not sure whether certain types of charitable giving that do not benefit those in the absolute worst circumstances, would, in the model Ord's describing or in the more general sense you were asking about (whether I think "people ought to do more"), be more like buying jeans or more like helping to solve world poverty. I don't think there's much debate about whether people should give to causes they think matter. The question is, are all uses of excess wealth that go to causes that are not the most pressing problems faced by humanity also suspect, in that people only give a certain amount away, and large donations to causes someone considers worthy will prevent large donations being made to the causes that objectively matter most. I suppose what I'm wondering is, is the bigger deal for Ord, for you, in what we're discussing, the giving up of 10% (or some significant amount) for a good cause, or the pressing need to adress particular problems? So when you asked me if I think people should do more, fine, yes, more, but more of what? I'm not sure there's an easy answer to that, the way there is with $600 jeans vs lives, $600 jeans vs anything, really. (I'd sooner find out what a $600 meal entails, but that could be the pasta talking.)


"If we are just discussing the "give 10%" part, there's no reason that would reduce people's incentive to work."

I don't quite think that we are. It was the live-like-a-grad-student austerity idea that I was saying would reduce the incentive to work, not a 10% donation. Ord eventually came around to 10%, but even leaving out the catchy title he may not have written (not to go down that road again), he uses his own wife-friends-books lifestyle as an example. Meanwhile, 10% strikes me as high for those who, though "rich" insofar as living in a developed country, are already spending most of what they do earn on rent and food.

As for foreign aid, right, sorry, the issue's more politics than economics. I can always count on you to highlight my wrongness in either area. The reason I brought up a tax, though, was because, as I mention in my response to X. Trapnel, that there's a difference, it seems, between legitimate causes relating to one's own interests/concerns/region/nation and the kind of pressing, global, universal, etc. concerns (severe poverty, HIV, the environment) that a moral philosopher would argue it's our moral imperative, as humans, to fix. Given that what stops people who might otherwise do so (in terms of wealth, but also inclinations) from giving more to the kinds of charities Ord mentions is in part indifference or too much consumption/saving above what's necessary, but is also the choice to give to other less universal, more first-world-ish, causes.

PG said...

Sure, even tithing to a church often goes to less-than-pressing causes, and sometimes ones with which I'd disagree (such as missionizing). I remember Susan Moller Okin getting booed at a conference on Rawls & the Law a few years before she died, because she suggested that, given how aesthetically hideous the Mormon temple near the BWI airport is, should the money given to build it really have been tax-deductible as going to a charitable cause?

But I think X.Trapnel is still correct that the first thing is to commit to giving the 10%, after which the decision on how to expend it can be made. If you're giving to organizations registered as 501(c)(3)s with the U.S. government, your giving can reduce your tax burden, while spending money on jeans and flat-screen TVs cannot.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I missed where X. Trapnel said 10% matters more than where it goes. The suggestions he links to are of the Ord-approved, universally-supported variety. I don't think the tax burden enters into it, because plenty of causes that would count there don't do anything to fix world poverty.

PG said...

I missed where X. Trapnel said 10% matters more than where it goes.

Probably because he didn't say it, and I didn't claim he did. Instead, see point 2 in his Feb. 1, 7:43PM post, which is what I was summarizing when I said, "But I think X.Trapnel is still correct that the first thing is to commit to giving the 10%, after which the decision on how to expend it can be made."

501(c)(3) status goes far beyond world poverty reduction -- the money given to build that Mormon temple was tax deductible -- but my point was that while charity is itself a form of consumption of income (as contrasted with investment), it's one of the few with tax advantages. (See also electric cars, children.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I looked at that again, and am still confused. If the idea is that it's first important to accept the 10% figure or simply to give more, and then it's time to worry about where the money should go, presumably it's more important to give than where one is giving? I was also responding to the same part of the same comment - "1 pair jeans vs. 1-5 lives saved, by Ord's reckoning." Lots of charitable donation is in most reasonable people's estimation legitimate (which overlaps with tax-deductible), but the kind of thing where $600 wouldn't make much of a dent in saving a life. I'm aware that not all charitable donations are about world poverty reduction, which is precisely why I'm asking about where such donations fit into this scenario, not how they're understood in the current tax code.

PG said...

presumably it's more important to give than where one is giving

That wasn't how I interpreted what X.Trapnel said. Rather, it's that the real hurdle in terms of overcoming one's inclinations is the hurdle of preferring to spend money on nice things for oneself. I don't think it's nearly as difficult to then resolve to maximize the QALYs derived from one's giving.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Could be.

While I'd be up for discussing the topic more elsewhere, my interest in this particular thread, given where I know it has a link from, is done.