Friday, September 09, 2005

Giving Till It Hurts

Some jackass columnist in our local paper was ranting last week about the lack of foreign response to the recovery effort for Hurricane Katrina. He said the rest of the world is always quick to jump down the United States’ throat about not giving enough foreign aid but then offers no assistance when we’re the ones hurting.

Of course, that’s complete bullshit, since there has been plenty of international aid (yes, even by the French) -- in money, medicine, and personnel coming to the ravaged areas:,1564,1705852,00.html

But the jackass got me thinking about fair measures for any sort of criticism about how we all act as global citizens. I often hear reference to aid as a factor of Gross National Product. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (whoever they are), the United States is by far the largest donor (among 22 Development Assistance Committee countries) in Official Development Assistance (nearly $19 billion in 2004). However, when you look at assistance as a factor of GNP, we are No. 21 of 22 countries, giving just 0.16%. Granted, even the most generous country, Australia, gave a mere 0.25%.

But what does that really mean? I think it’s official, government-channeled monetary aid. So is the GNP really a fair measure? While it certainly shows that we are a wealthy nation, it’s not like all the money made by U.S. citizens goes into the federal government’s coffers. For instance, this chart just blows my mind – suggesting that every American could make $40,000 a year. We should be communists. But certainly the tax rate is much higher in many nations (with fewer loopholes) than in the U.S., isn’t it (yea, I’m looking at you, Sweden)?

Okay, apparently not. I just looked up some international income tax rates, and the U.S. has amongst the highest taxes. Even Sweden is lower in corporate taxes (see here). Which begs the question – why did my friend Henrik’s family move to New Jersey in the early 80s? Must have been the parachute pants. Hmm, though Information Please shows lower individual rates.

So never mind taxes. Never mind how much money we make. How rich is our government compared to others? Well, this chart from the CIA World Factbook shows total government expenditures. Granted, some countries might spend less than they have; some might spend more. But it’s a somewhat reasonable gauge of actual government wealth, don’t you think? You can even look at it per capita (someone at The Vatican’s getting away with something). Now we’re getting somewhere…except that it doesn’t include the United States. What the fuck? You’d think the CIA would keep track of that. Well, according to Information Please, in 2008 U.S. government spending will be $2.5 trillion, so that’s much higher than Japan’s $1.6 trillion. But, per capita (using InfoPlease’s 2000 census number), that’s only $8,432. So that would put us at No. 27, between Austria and Israel.

Give me a minute. I’m trying to decide what that means, if anything. In terms of our larger population, we’re not crazy rich…okay…so does that legitimate being stingy with aid? And can I get my $8,000 back, because I’d really like a plasma TV.

Well, what about private charitable donations? What about non-monetary assistance? And I don’t mean the kind of help that involves bombing the hell out of somebody.

Well, according to this site, none of the richest countries give as much as they could (or should) and tend to do so for political reasons, not philanthropic ones. Even when individual charitable donations are factored in. Though I still think that’s monetary, not people power and supplies, but maybe it is. And it says that in 2002 two thirds of all U.S. aid went to Egypt and Israel. More and more, I’m realizing how thoroughly unaware I am of everything.

But, looking here, among the world’s wealthiest countries, we’re looking…pretty piss poor. Man, would you look at the Norwegians go? Makes me wanna go kiss a Viking. Actually, that’s probably it – those long winters spent doing guilty shots over raping and pillaging lends itself to a giving spirit.

Back to Katrina (wasn’t I talking about Katrina?), I was actually wondering what kind of corporate response there’d been, since it’s such a golden marketing opportunity (you can’t get something for nothing, right?). So far, I’ve seen FedEx providing trucks on Oprah. Wal-Mart has donated $20 million; 1,500 truckloads of “stuff;” 100,000 meals; and a job for every Wal-Mart employee whose workplace no longer exists. Which I suppose makes Katrina the ultimate union buster.

Poland Spring has donated “several million” bottles of water. I’ve also discovered that they are in fact owned by Nestle, which makes me feel a little sick. But a chocolaty, crispy kind of sick.

After wading through all of this, I think my basic conclusion is that people are generous by nature, but only as long as we can see ourselves in the suffering. Understandably, we are wrapped up in our own lives most of the time but will step up and offer assistance when the direct need arises.

There’s been a lot of anger directed at the government’s clunky, bureaucratic response to Katrina, but what’s struck me more has been the smooth and efficient grassroots response. We stepped up as members of a community, not just as citizens of a nation. Honestly, that might not have happened had the government’s actions been more swift and effective. That capacity for generosity is not uniquely American, but I think we tend to forget it by quietly relying on the government’s efforts to express benevolence on our behalf. Best I can tell from all the numbers I've come across, I’m kind of cheap, by proxy.


  1. So, while your political rant is interesting, you occassionally make the assumption that we are making every net connection, which would complete our comprehension of your points. I would rather that it all made sense out of the context of the pictures and web links and that they were just bonus factors. You know? Hey, it's your blog, though, so it's your gig.
    You make me want to invite you as a guest speaker, though, onto my as of yet non-existent blog site, which is an editorial column entitled Modern Day Etiquette or What the BLEEP is Wrong with these People (aka How the BLEEP did these creatures Earn their "Member oh Humanity" License?)...

  2. And did you add the filter? If so, bravo.