Five years ago in The New York Times Magazine, the philosopher Peter Singer wrote the most important article I've ever read. It was called "What Should a Billionaire Give — and What Should You?"
What I remember best is the haunting hypothetical question Singer posed: If you were to pass a shallow pond in which a child was drowning, would you feel compelled to save the child, even if it meant getting your clothes wet or being late to wherever you were headed? Plainly the answer is yes.
Singer then made this argument: If we feel an obligation to save a child when the cost to ourselves is minimal inconvenience, we ought to feel the same obligation to save a child who is dying ten miles, a thousand miles, or 5000 miles from our home.
I was reminded of this scenario on vacation last week when I visited a harbor filled with megayachts — at least one of them 300 feet long. Subsequently, I learned that the boat cost $200 million to build, $5 million a year to maintain and that its owner spends less than 10 days a year on board.
I felt slightly sickened.
In the days since, I've been thinking about how little real value that yacht provides, even to its owner, and how much impact the $200 million in construction costs, and the $5 million a year in upkeep, could have on the lives of tens of thousands of needy people.
As Singer points out in his article, sixteen thousand children around the world die every day from diseases related to hunger. Ten million people a year die from poverty related causes. More than a billion of our fellow human beings subsist on the equivalent of less than $1 a day.
The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in today's world is breathtaking.
Some 400 people on the Forbes list of richest Americans have a net worth in excess of $1 billion. At least seven hedge fund managers earned more than $1 billion just in 2009. Unfathomably, and unfairly, they paid less than half the marginal income tax rate on their earnings that most of the rest of us do, for no rational or justifiable reason.
Spare me the argument that if they earned it, they have every right to keep it.
They didn't earn it themselves, no matter what their initial circumstances. They earned it with the help and support of many people along the way, including the kindness of strangers. In many cases, they earned it on the backs of others who barely earned anything,or they simply inherited it. Either way, their extraordinary good fortune was hardly just a function of their intrinsic skill or talent or their hard work.
As Singer quoted Warren Buffett, the most successful investor of our time: "If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you'll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil." At The Energy Project, we spend a lot of time talking with leaders about the energy they stand to derive from defining missions larger than themselves — ones that serve a greater good. And we talk, too, about how energizing it is for people to work for such a leader.
In 2000, the United Nations Millennium Summit set a series of ambitious development goals for 2015, among them reducing by half the number of people living in extreme poverty, suffering from hunger and lacking access to clean drinking water. Five years later, a task force led by economist Jeffrey Sachs estimated that the cost of meeting these goals would be an additional $121 billion in 2006, rising to $189 billion in 2015.
Buffett, to his credit, has pledged to give away more than 99 percent of his huge fortune. He and Bill Gates have also recruited nearly 60 other billionaires to give away at least half of their fortunes.
That's a very positive start, but why should this practice be limited to billionaires?
Singer used 2004 tax figures to compute that if the top .01 percent of taxpayers in the United States — approximately 14,000 people at the time — were to give away one third of their pre-tax income, that would generate more than $60 billion each year.
Even then, these 14,000 people would retain an average of $10 million a year in income. Can any reasonable case be made that any of them would be less comfortable, happy or economically secure with that sum?
If, in addition, the top 0.1 per cent of taxpayers in the United States — another 130,000 people — were to give away 25 percent of their pre-tax income every year, that would generate another $65 billion.
Add to that the remaining 1 percent or so of taxpayers, and ask them to contribute 15 percent of their income — or even 10 per cent. That's another million people or so, and the total yield would be between $50 and $75 billion.
That's a total of at least $175 billion a year — enough to meet the UN goals and save millions of lives.
We can justify, rationalize, and pontificate about individual freedom all we want, but in the process we're sticking our heads in the sand. Millions of people are suffering and dying unnecessarily every day. We have the collective means to do something about it with minimal personal sacrifice.
Enough is enough. It's time to step up.
On average, Americans who earn $25,000 a year or less contribute 4.2 percent of their income to charitable causes. Those with incomes above $100,000 contribute just 2.7 percent. My New Year's resolution is to contribute at least 10 percent of my income every year going forward. What are you willing to do?