Saturday, October 01, 2005

Commentary on My Goodness And Goodness In General

These thoughts don't really fit within the constraints of a book review, so I am creating a separate entry. Joe Queenan brings up some interesting issues about charity in his book, My Goodness: A Cynic's Short-Lived Search For Sainthood. I apologize up front for not really having a unifying theme or conclusion to this post--here are some scattered thoughts...

First, I have to scold Queenan's idea of giving tiny amounts to charities as a way of spreading the wealth. Discounting the possibility that he was only doing it to be funny, this is probably the worst way to give. In my experience, if you send $5 to a charity, they will spend far more than that on fundraising efforts with the hope that you will add a zero or two to your initial donation. Besides, why would you spend 37 cents plus the cost of an envelope to send anybody a mere dollar? That is just too inefficient.

Queenan raises questions about "goodness" as an investment objective. There are mutual funds that invest solely in sociopolitically correct businesses, but many of these funds are under-performers. Instead, you can make more money on less ethical companies, and then you can turn around and donate that extra cash to charities. Think of the irony of using profits from Exxon to fund Greenpeace. Not to keep flogging that dead horse, but this dovetails into a criticism of the Tribune's Farm Aid story at the Charity Governance blog. The story chided Farm Aid for investing its endowment in blue chip stocks whose business practices arguably hurt farmers (the entire premise is shaky because, for example, the same banks that foreclose on family farmers also lend money to keep others afloat). Charity Governance noted that the objective of most endowments, however, is prudence rather than activism. Just as investing in socially conscious mutual funds may not be the best way to build wealth for your child's education, investing in biodiesel and organics may not be the best way to maintain and grow an endowment.

What about conglomerates? Do you refuse to invest in a company or buy a product because one subsidiary pollutes, sells tobacco, tests on animals, etc.? What if other subsidiaries are respected for social awareness? Few large, multinational corporations are all good or all evil, especially since many of their subsidiaries get sold back and forth over the years. Even within a small company there can be conflicts. Perhaps one company pays living wages, but their factory pollutes. Maybe their competitor has a high percentage of women in management, but they test on animals. Which product do you buy, assuming there are no perfect options? How do you judge whether one type of "goodness" is better than another? Queenan makes a good point about the difficulty of reconciling these things.

Of course, most people do not go to the ridiculous extremes that Queenan does in his book. It is impossible to support every cause and to make every decision in life based on those causes. We all make choices, though some charities may try to make us feel guilty for doing so. If I send money to the Humane Society but not to the Disabled American Veterans, does that mean I don't appreciate the sacrifices made by our veterans? If I do a bicycle ride for Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer but not a walk for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, does that mean I am pro-children but anti-women? Of course not. And yet, the way charities trade mailing lists, one quickly becomes overwhelmed by the avalanche of solicitations from worthy causes with outstretched palms. Give to the ASPCA, and NAVS will ask for your support. Give to Children's Memorial Hospital, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital figures you are an easy mark. Send a few bucks to Boys Town and then NAMBLA will come calling... Okay, maybe not*. Anyway, I guess I can see how this deluge might tempt someone to actually send a buck to every group just to cover his/her bases. To do otherwise is tempting fate. Imagine the cruel irony of having tossed out that March of Dimes solicitation, then having a child with birth defects.

Today's hyperconsciousness can breed guilt and self-loathing. I know that feedlots pollute, but I still eat burgers. I'll eat a cheeseburger for dinner and hate myself because it's my fault Greeley, Colorado stinks. I know that Ben & Jerry want to save the world, but I prefer the ice cream flavors offered by Edy's and Breyers. I'll have some Breyers cherry vanilla ice cream for dessert and lament that I'm not doing a darn thing for the rain forest. And of course, there are millions of people who won't get any dinner tonight, much less a burger and ice cream. I suppose this guilt or self-loathing is the liberal's burden; I cannot imagine Dick Cheney worrying about such things as he clogs his arteries.

* Yes, I know that Father Flanagan's organization has evolved into Girls and Boys Town, but that didn't work with my tasteless joke.

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