Sunday, October 8, 2023

The Nuance of Charity

In 2004, shortly after I sold Chowhound to CNET, I went looking for a couple charities to donate to. Preferably low-to-the-ground operations that could really use the support. I found an austere Indian organization in Pennsylvania that helps feed the poor in some specific Indian village. Far too small to be listed on Charity Navigator, so I needed to do my own research.

I managed to chat with the lady in charge - a sari-clad feisty grandmother - and asked for her assurance that my contribution would be used efficiently. It wouldn't be stolen or mishandled. 100% of it would be converted into meaningful, real aid.

The woman (who worked on this unpaid) took a moment to consider. Wheels turned as she took a few deep breaths. She felt compelled to tell me the truth, and she understood the good intentions of my question. But she couldn't quite figure out how to explain it to this American in a way that would be meaningful to him. Finally, she sighed and just let it rip, damn the consequences.
"Every level of this operation, from top to bottom, is somewhat inefficient. I can't say we make every decision optimally, or omnisciently supervise every step of every person working for (and with) us. Some of your money will surely be wasted. From sheer incompetence, the food delivered might be spoiled and inedible. Or stolen en route. And what the villagers, themselves, do with the supplies, god himself could not tell you. But I can assure you that, in the end, you will help assure that some hungry people will eat."
In the end, some hungry people will eat.

Her words bristled with deep truth, and it was transformative. I completely understood the effort she'd applied, to make me - so detached from the reality of the world, and so eager to seek some pipe dream of "efficiency" - understand that a two-dimensional mental fantasy of punctilious human beings running a perfect machine to address horrific calamity is sheer fantasy. Only in the movies! With enormous effort, in the end, some hungry people will eat. That's as good as it gets!

Whenever I look back on this insight, it's with the wry recognition that any Third World barber or taxi driver intimately understands many things about the world that brainy First World types - especially think-tankers and policy wonks - are far too blinkered to grasp. Above all, Libertarians - with their smug, pat, artificial, high-level notions about the world, and their abject lack of worldy experience - really don't get it.

Whenever you hear a conservative blowhard deride the wastefulness of social programs, remember Indian grandma. In the end, some hungry people eat. Or, if we cease the process, not. To those fed, the difference is sharp.

As a centrist, though, I see the dangers of going too extreme the other way, as well. As I wrote here,
I wouldn't want to return to 1973. We went too far. You could feel society slogging and smell the rot (and pay a tax rate north of 90%). 1973 could have made a Tea Party partisan out of any but the most fervid of current liberals.
Yes, this sort of thing comes with rot, and trying to expunge it is a futile game of whack-a-mole. So don't aim to feed every last person (it would plunge the world into bottomless corruption). But don't cease feeding some. Always feed some.

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