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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > August 2010
back Edwin Drood's Column
6 August 2010
A bird in the hand at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
In which Drood ponders the seasonal transhumance of the French to greener pastures, the generosity of the poor, the relative miserliness of the wealthy and the errant flight of small volatiles.
As Miranda contentedly murmured her way back up through rural France, from village to village, from speed trap to speed trap, without let or hindrance, or any obstruction whatsoever to her sovereign, six-cylindered, twin-carb’d passage, I was forced unwillingly by announcements from the radio (an ancient and crackly Blaupunkt of the type that came out when push-buttons for everything were considered modern), to contemplate the unfortunate lot of my fellow mortals who had unwisely chosen, on this particularly warm, even torrid, weekend to travel the very same distance from similar origins to similar destinations, but had opted, from who knows what motivation of mass hysteria, to spend the last hours of their holidays and the price, at least, of a light meal with a reasonable claret on crawling bumper to bumper along the otherwise excellent but seasonally dreaded autoroute. Did I feel sorry for the poor things?  No, I did not. Yet I smiled and thanked them in my dark little heart for having actually paid cash to donate me 20 square metres of clear road ahead. What a generous gesture? Next year, I intend to return the favour, quite gratuitously, by staying out of their charming country altogether. Thus they had become, despite all signs of rampant consumerism to the contrary, those same poor and huddled millions yearning to breathe free whose pitiable state is so consistently recommended to our charity, in particular at Christmas time. And yet, by so becoming, they had managed to make little me rich with one of those great intangible freedoms so beloved of the modern world: s p a c e.
“For the poor are always with you”
Must wealth, even such a fleeting and harmless kind, depend so gravely on the destitution of others? No, is certainly the answer. For the “truly” wealthy is the one whose heart is full, rather than his pockets, and in that sense it would seem the poor are way better off than the rest of us. A recent study made by Paul Piff and a team of colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, which was reported recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as well as, subsequently and in some depth, in The Economist, suggests to me a motive for this that might enlighten the charitable as much as it appeals to the sceptic.

It would seem that one reason the poor and disadvantaged are “always with us” is because they are more generous: they are simply more sharing and caring than the rich. In other words, they don’t get any richer because they give it away so fast. Laudable indeed, one might say, but rather foolish, were it not that science is there to prove them right. According to the study, what little “wealth” the poor might chance upon, they are far more likely to share with heir fellows than would those who perceive themselves to be further up the social and, by inference, financial ladder. The cynic might conclude that they are keeping themselves poor, but the economics of it shows that they are pulling an entire social group up by the boot straps, albeit in a highly incremental manner. This might seem at first sight to be a slightly condescending conclusion, and I should add, that it is not one directly drawn by the study, which confines itself strictly to observing and evaluating the behaviour of rich and poor with regard to certain situations in which they are given the opportunity to prove their solidarity or lack of it.
Altruism vs. Philanthropy
Paul Piff and his team do not take on the thorny issue of whether the rich are altruistic amongst themselves (we know they are: insider tips, connections through service clubs and lodges, the old school tie, the regiment, the club, the word-in-your-ear, the round of golf ... all the little ways that the wealthy have of ensuring that “our kind of people” stay closest to the water hole, even when they have “had a bit of a bad run”), neither do they tell us whether the poor would hand round a hat to help out a bankrupt day-trader (we know they probably would: after all, third world nations fell over themselves in their eagerness to offer help to the mega-wealthy USA in the wake of hurricane Katrina). What the study does show conclusively, however, is that where you perceive yourself to be on society’s Snakes & Ladders board will have a direct effect on how much generosity you are likely to show others in the same boat. This seems very reasonable, should not surprise us at all and is not a reason to start submitting the names of all those living under the poverty line for immediate benediction.

That the poor share their resources better than the wealthy is clearly to their social advantage and serves both long term and short term ends. By sharing more, an entire social environment is very slightly improved. And “very slightly” is as clearly noticeable to those living down at that end of the scale as a pea under a pile of mattresses would be to a real Princess. The rich man will barely notice if his pool gets a tenth of a degree warmer or his grass one micro-shade greener; the poor man knows immediately when that thin-end-of-the-month feeling moves a day or two further away. Long and short term solidarity and cohesion are more tangible goods to those on the margins than to those at the centre of things. “I know a bloke as knows a bloke wot’ll fix it” is a far more valuable gem of information, relatively speaking, than “I happen to know a fellow who is familiar with a chap who does something rather in that line.” That the rich (and rich nations, while we’re on the subject) give proportionally less to charity or in foreign aid is also indicative of the attitude of entitlement that seems to automatically go with wealth. The poor man is unlikely to boast that he earned every dime of his poverty, nor that he was fortunate enough to inherit it from generations of paupers before him.
... worth two in the bush?  Maybe not
The most obvious short-term benefit of the disadvantaged seeking to improve the even less advantaged is the hardest to quantify: the good feeling that you get from giving something away is all the more pronounced if you have very little. Do your mate a favour, or even some unknown poor sod that has it even rougher than you and you’ll feel good about yourself and increase your sense of worth. That is a significant gain in “personal capital” for the poor man, one that the rich man, as he slips a ten-pound note into the collection plate with feigned discretion, would barely perceive, feeling so full of himself already. Now at this point someone is bound to say: “Wait a minute, what about Bill Gates?”

This raises the issue of the difference between altruism and philanthropy. The philanthropist is made glorious by his philanthropy. Even the most humble and fundamentally “good bloke” zillionaire cannot escape the lionization and instant sanctity that comes with endowing a research institute or two, funding a national AIDS-education project, or writing off someone’s national debt. It’s an ineffably cool thing to do if you have loads of moolah and want to have the chops of a rock-star without working on your dance moves. That’s philanthropy. It’s one of the only substitutes for regular sex that is open to the aging ultra rich, as they would probably get mobbed to death on any golf course by the sycophantic hoards of the merely wealthy. Speaking personally, I wish William Gates had put half the money he pours into indubitably good causes into getting Windows Vista (or anything else Microsoft for that matter) to work properly instead, or at least into cleaning up the toxic wasteland of dead programming that lurks in those dreaded “system 32 files”.

Altruism on the other hand is a genuine desire to expend oneself in the improvement of others. Speaking of Gates, Steve Jobs might be an altruist, he’s certainly very thin, and he seems to get a tremendous kick out of making things that other people feel good about. He may also be a philanthropist, indeed it’s very likely, but it is hardly going to define him the way his altruistic charisma clearly does. The altruist really believes in the better world he is helping to create, because he believes in the people who create it with him. The philanthropist hopes that those he endows will one day prove wise enough to reap the full benefit of his valuable, even noble actions. While I was writing this, a tiny greenish-yellow bird flew right through my house, literally under my nose and banged up against my study window. Gently picking up this tiny creature, checking that he wasn’t hurt, murmuring quietly that he should stay calm within the shelter of my fist, taking him back to the other side of the house and setting him, chirping, on his way again gave me an enormous endorphin rush. I probably won’t have to share anything with anyone for at least a week. Remind me to endow a bird-box or two.

© Edwin Drood, 6 August 2010

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