Getting to first principles

I am very lucky to split my time between 2 almost non-overlapping worlds. One of the worlds I live in is primarily urban, at the intersection of academic science and professional philanthropy (mostly comprised of ex-academics), and financially comfortable. The other world I am fortunate to inhabit part time is rural, made up of farmers and small business owners, and not quite as financially comfortable. In the cartoon world view of the editorial pages the people in the former world are characterized as thoughtful, open to ambuigity amd complexity, and willing to engage in spirited conversations. The people in the latter world, well, not so much. This is what accounts for modern social discourse. You are either one of us or you are one of them. And anyone who is one of them has to be reduced to a one dimensional cartoon. I am tired of the cartoons. One example: a friend (from world 1) talking over dinner about wanting to live with people of like minded politics – by which she meant people who do not ride snowmobiles, shoot guns, or hold personal prejudices she does not hold. Is this a political identity? And here I had the mistaken understanding that a political identity derived from a political philosophy based on fundamental principles of individual rights and responsibilities and the role of govenment in furthering or protecting such rights. I do not presuppose to know the political philosophy of someone based on superficial characteristics. I do not presuppose that Democrats are for education, conservation, and kindness while Republicans are happy to keep everyone ignorant, destroy every resource on the planet, and are usually mean. I have been rudely cut off by large SUVs with Obama bumper stickers and I have seen a weathered farmer carrying his re-usable grocery bags to the store. I believe there are legitimate reasons to carefully weigh the benefits of investing more and more of the budget on scientific research – without it meaning that you are anti science. I do not want to live surrounded by only like-thinking people. I want to argue, and learn, and disagree, and puzzle, and work it out! I want to be free to change my mind. And I want to have my views be internally consistent because they derive from a set of first principles.

To give or not to give?

It is always a relief when someone else expresses curmudgeonly feelings you were harboring silently. In general, it is difficult to be the naysayer, the dark cloud at the party, the pin to balloon. Whenever I have negative feelings about something that is supposed to be “feel good” – I always second guess myself. OK — what am I talking about? In his DE GUSTIBUS in Friday Jan 8 WSJ Eric Felten discusses his dis-ease with a kind of charitable giving that I have also found dis-tasteful. The “stick em up” form of charitable solicitation exemplified by individuals thrusting boots and buckets at busy intersections, the cashier asking if you want to add a dollar to your grocery bill for a food pantry, or the subtle pressure to buy a sneaker or a heart you magic marker your name on and then display at the local drugstore.

I work professionally in philanthropy. I am a staunch believer in the power of philanthropy – private initiative and distributed decision making. I also believe that charitable giving should be thoughtful and intended to have impact. Each year my husband and I plan our charitable giving. What issues to we want to make priorities? What organizations do we want to support? At what level can we contribute and what will our contribution accomplish?

In general – I do not respond to ad hoc pleas, telephone solicitations, or the “bucket”. I prefer to chose the recipients of my charitable giving. I also dislike high pressure social norming that does not agree with my principles. I have little problem with the social norming tactics that have eliminated smoking in public places, or created the reusable grocery bag craze – both these activities make sense to me. But ceaseless everywhere dollar here dollar there charitable giving risks wearing everyone out — it diminishes the impulse to give seriously – to give thoughtfully, and meaningfully, because it matters. I realize there is, among good people, a tendency to adopt an “ends justifies the means” approach to solving problems. Charities need funds and social shaming works. But sometimes such short term thinking jeapordizes long term goals — and most of us should not feel pleased that we have fulfilled our charitable responsibilities by stuffing a few dollars into a few buckets. Charity should be heartfelt.