Is Poverty Real?
It’s hard to overstate how different India is from the United States. There is a continuity between a ranch in Texas and Disney World that does not exist between New York and Chennai. There are no cows on Fifth Avenue.
Such was the setting when I first learned poverty was a thing. I have a vivid early memory of leaving a store in a shopping square to get back to our car and a full two dozen people in tattered clothing and various stages of leprosy following us asking for money. Or at least that’s what it felt like. Safe in the car, I asked my mother about it. I don’t remember what she said, but I ended up believing they were not actually poor but trying to trick us into thinking they were.
The contempt made seeing them easier.
On another trip, when we got to our car being followed by the same two dozen people, my mother lowered the window a couple of inches and told me to pass through a banana to one of the beggars before we drove away.
Scared, I push it out the crease of the window without risking being touched by him or anyone else out there out there.
The beggar had no fingers.
In fact, I think one of his hands was a stub, perhaps an elbow. I saw him struggling to hold on to it, but the car had already started moving.
As we drove away, I realized he probably would not be able to hold on to the banana, let alone peel it.
I don’t know whether my stomach felt worse then or now when I am sharing the story for the first time. It was a singular horror of the world wordlessly revealed to my young mind.
And let’s just not think about all the other people to whom I gave nothing.
I’d like to say that that was the day poverty became a real, tangible thing for me, but knowledge of poverty has always been ephemeral. It is an inconvenient truth whose truth does not fully compensate for its inconvenience.
I do not know, but I suspect that many of you similarly disbelieve in poverty. And by “disbelieve”, I do not mean you deny poverty. I mean that you act as if there were no poverty. And perhaps you never even considered acting as if poverty exists.
Using the 2012-2013 cost per LLIN, we estimate the cost per child life saved through an AMF LLIN distribution at just under $2,300 using the marginal cost ($5.15 per LLIN) and just under $2,500 using the total cost ($5.54 per LLIN).
This does not include other potential benefits of LLINs (non-fatal cases of malaria prevented, prevention of deaths in age groups other than under-5 year olds, prevention of other mosquito-borne diseases, etc.).
Let’s go ahead and ignore the benefits in the second paragraph and take the higher estimate in the first paragraph. If you actually believed that you could save a human life for $2,500, how would you act from now on?
Let’s make it a bit more explicit. Some sort of deity who is able to demonstrate his powers to your satisfaction tells you that from now on, every time you fail to find an opportunity to save to spend $2,500 on mosquito nets, you will find the corpse in your bedroom closet of the person you failed to save. The body will vanish at the end of the day without inconvenience or legal issues. You would nevertheless endeavor to avoid finding corpses in your closet.
If that were to happen, your creativity in finding $2,500 would become unbounded. You’d scrap most expenses, trade in your collection of crap, negotiate a higher salary, and get a second or third or fourth job until you stopped finding corpses. You would start companies in your time off. You would structure your whole life around your knowledge of poverty.
I am guessing that you (like me) have not actually done this. Some of you have may have thought about it, but you probably thought about it in the same way that Louis CK thinks about giving up his first class seat to soldiers flying to wars and then never actually does. The purpose of the thought is to make us feel like better people without burdening ourselves with the nuisance of actually being better people.*
In reality, you don’t see the corpses of the bodies you don’t save. Our brains retain plausible deniability over the fact that we could be saving a human life for every $2500 we pointlessly spend.
How disbelief happens:
Forgive the complete lack of a basis in reality, but I posit that your brain has two parts. One part intellectualizes your decisions on blogs and is already figuring out all the reasons I’m an idiot and this is all wrong. That is the part that you will never let make any decision that matters. That part of your brain can know that people die cheaply preventable deaths that you personally could prevent but will nevertheless find a reason not to.
The other part is the part that actually controls behavior. It decides what we buy. It will sacrifice everything to avoid believing inconvenient truths. It does this by carefully compartmentalizing dangerous knowledge in the safe, ineffectual part of your brain.
This Chinese wall is how I can know that there is poverty but never act like I know it. This is how I spent 1/4 of a human life on a new iPhone, which was actually one of my more defensible purchases this year. (Most things I buy deliver far less value per ounce of flesh.)
How does the intellectual, ineffectual part of our minds rationalize these awful choices? Since our intellects are powerless to change our behaviors, we use them to generate reasons that we either cannot or should not change.
I already described my first rationalization: the supposed poor are liars trying to trick me.
The second rationalization I came up with was that I didn’t know whether charity actually helps. I took this rationalization to the point of reading about cases in which international charities caused great harm through unintended consequences of their aid. And I still internally use this excuse for not donating to charities randomly when someone asks me to.
This second rationalization falls, however, when one has the option of doing real research on a charity. The aforementioned GiveWell believes charities should bear the burden of proof and thoroughly vets the charities it recommends. They document why they come to their conclusions and detail their evaluation process. Their recommended charities offer significant opportunities for good using relatively few dollars.
My third and currently-held rationalization is that while mosquito nets can save lives, they are not transformative. For reasons I cannot entirely explain, transformative change has always come from economic development, and economic development has always come from economic liberalization. It comes from trade, economic freedom, capital formation (including education), peace, and the absence of corruption. Mosquito nets will save lives, but they will not make the poor rich.
The best ways to assist with economic liberalization are unknown to me, but by participating in world trade, we make it more attractive for countries to join in and less attractive for countries to opt out. So, the best way for me to do good is to do what I already was doing.
Which is convenient and a relief, because I was going to keep doing it anyway.
* It’s worth noting that both my confession of how I don’t help people and Louis CK’s confession that he doesn’t help soldiers is also part of the same defense mechanism. Admitting our sin feels good and permits us to continue sinning.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons, Flickr user Michelle Lee