Saturday, April 04, 2009


Yesterday I read a newspaper article that made me intensely envious. It was about a freelance cellist who earns $36,000 a year and leads what the paper describes as a shockingly limited life: He has no cell phone. He and his wife live in a small Cambridge apartment and own only one car. They share a bedroom with their baby and seven-year-old, whom the wife homeschools. To me, it sounds like paradise.

I've heard people, especially Quakers, say that we should value our time above money and our lives above our jobs. Don't work yourselves to death, they urge. Lead a simple life, and you'll be happier than if you ran yourself ragged chasing status or money. This advice would seem very sensible to me if I were responsible for only myself and my family.

How do we decide what our responsibility is to other people? Peter Singer's classic example: you see a child drowning in a shallow pond. Do you wade in to save the child, ruining your $30 shoes? Of course. To value your shoes above the child's life would be monstrous. Now: do you spend $30 on a new pair of shoes, when the money could provide a vaccination (or small loan, or mosquito net, or whatever) that would save someone's life or allow them to get decent housing, education, or healthcare?

I believe that in a better world, we would all shoulder more responsibility for each other. Those who had enough wouldn't spend their extra money on a bigger place to live, or the vacation, or the shoes. They would send it to people who need it. It's pretty clear that a small percentage of rich countries' GDPs - or a fraction of our military spending - could end the worst of world poverty. Governments and charities aren't perfect - some money and effort will always be wasted, but most of it will go to its intended use.

In a better world, Jeff and I might give away only a quarter or so of our income. In ten or fifteen years we could have that one-bedroom apartment with a kid or two. I could even spend some years not working a paid job, but taking care of my kids and growing a rockin' vegetable garden. When we were old, we would have young people in our family. These goals aren't wrong in themselves - I think they're quite a good way to spend a lifetime. But leading the life I would find most fulfilling would be neglecting my duty to other people. Having those kids would mean taking away time and money that would be more effectively spent improving the lives of children already alive and in need. A quarter of our income is more than most people do, but it's less than we can do.

I had the very good fortune to find someone who wants to spend his life with a lunatic philanthropist like me. Jeff does insist on some things I consider luxury - a savings account and a small weekly allowance for clothes, travel, and fun. But when I consider our future, I find myself looking at the soul-deadening life Quakers keep warning me about. The two of us, living in a rented room someplace, earning money to send to people who need it more. Spending our lives chasing a paycheck, and sitting in our rented room when we're too old to work. It's a lot better than living in a refugee camp, but it kind of makes me want to quit now before I have to do 60 more years of it.

Am I missing something? I know about only a handful of people who actually live like this. I know more (Peter Singer included) who say "This is what's morally right, but it sounds miserable. I'll make baby steps, but I'm not actually going to live like that." Does the rest of the world have good reasons for living for themselves and their immediate circle, or do we all just find it too scary to do otherwise?

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