The Business of Ending World Poverty


Through a plastic film on the envelope from Food for the Poor, one could see a nickel and a penny — six cents that could provide a meal for a starving child.  I kept the coins as a reminder, but added $0.06 to the check that I then inserted into the postage-paid envelope.  Come to think of it, I should have added the price of the stamp that I didn’t have to use, equating to two-and-a-half days’ worth of meals.

Divvying up prices in this way, the problem of poverty seems frustratingly unnecessary, and one can see the appeal of talk at the World Bank to simply set a goal of ending extreme poverty:

The World Bank’s policy committee Saturday approved a proposal to establish the goal of eliminating extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.25 per day, by 2030. The World Bank estimates that there are still 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor.

It would appear that the global extrapolation of that six-cent meal is that, for just $1.5 billion a day, the people of Earth could simply take the “extreme” out of poverty for 1.2 billion people.  This line of thought lands us squarely within one of my favorite chapters in American literature, from Herman Melville’s novel, The Confidence Man:

“The World’s Charity is to be a society whose members shall comprise deputies from every charity and mission extant; the one object of the society to be the methodization of the world’s benevolence; to which end, the present system of voluntary and promiscuous contribution to be done away, and the Society to be empowered by the various governments to levy, annually, one grand benevolence tax upon all mankind; as in Augustus CFsar’s time, the whole world to come up to be taxed; a tax which, for the scheme of it, should be something like the income-tax in England, a tax, also, as before hinted, to be a consolidation-tax of all possible benevolence taxes; as in America here, the state-tax, and the county-tax, and the town-tax, and the poll-tax, are by the assessors rolled into one. This tax, according to my tables, calculated with care, would result in the yearly raising of a fund little short of eight hundred millions; this fund to be annually applied to such objects, and in such modes, as the various charities and missions, in general congress represented, might decree; whereby, in fourteen years, as I estimate, there would have been devoted to good works the sum of eleven thousand two hundred millions; which would warrant the dissolution of the society, as that fund judiciously expended, not a pauper or heathen could remain the round world over.”

The not-quite-stated subtext of the novel is that the speaker of that long paragraph is, in fact, the Devil. Working from the mind of that personage, it isn’t entirely remarkable that Melville should have been so far-sighted back in 1857 as to foresee the attraction of corporatism and the alliance of private industry fueled with publicly confiscated funds:

“Magnifying and energizing. For one thing, missions I would thoroughly reform. Missions I would quicken with the Wall street spirit.”

“The Wall street spirit ?”

“Yes; for if, confessedly, certain spiritual ends are to be gained but through the auxiliary agency of worldly means, then, to the surer gaining of such spiritual ends, the example of worldly policy in worldly projects should not by spiritual projectors be slighted. In brief, the conversion of the heathen, so far, at least, as depending on human effort, would, by the world’s charity, be let out on contract. So much by bid for converting India, so much for Borneo, so much for Africa. Competition allowed, stimulus would be given. There would be no lethargy of monopoly. We should have no mission-house or tract-house of which slanderers could, with any plausibility, say that it had degenerated in its clerkships into a sort of custom-house. But the main point is the Archimedean money-power that would be brought to bear.”

The punchline (stop me if you’ve heard this) comes at the end of the chapter, with: “as no better person offers to supply the place, I have nominated myself provisional treasurer.”  Which brings us back to our charitable friends in the World Bank.  Is it the bankers’ intention to lighten their own skim of their transactions so as to provide the necessary $1.25 per day?  Not quite; instead, the Associated Press article provides another punchline:

The United States is being represented at the talks by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“Strengthening global demand is imperative and must be at the top of our agenda,” Lew said in remarks late Friday before the IMF policy-setting group. “Stronger demand in Europe is critical to global growth.”

Stronger demand in Europe to solve the problems of world poverty.  Providing some context for that statement confirms that Lew means that European governments should stop trying to control their spending and essentially give Europeans money so that they can keep the economic machine running, so that it can generate wealth, so that it can flow to the poor, so that they can no longer be poor.  Who is the provisional treasurer, one wonders.

For that matter, what happens when billions of dollars of value (even if captured in food stuff) flows into a desperate region?  Provisional treasurers are apt to pop up all over the place to offer their services for a fair fee, and some of them might be more appropriately described as “thugs” and “warlords.”

In order to pour so much wealth into an area, it is necessary first to ensure security and the rule of law, and in order to ensure security and the rule of law, it is necessary to supply the means of enforcement, and in order to prevent the means of enforcement from becoming means of subjugation, it is necessary to foster a sense of morality, and in order for a sense of morality to adhere, there must be an understanding of some transcendent purpose and culpability.

The problems of inserting wealth compound as we think through the steps to do it, and if we hold the picture up to the mirror, we can get an idea of the rot that’s running those steps in reverse in the developed world.  We are busily discarding the supports for the morality that allows security and rights and ownership and, therefore, productivity and wealth.

Discarding those supports throws off wealth, in one way or another, for our own domestic provisional treasurers. They may think they can siphon off enough to ensure their own security over time, regardless of what happens to working schmoes, but the lessons of Europe (and Rhode Island) suggest otherwise.  And we’re all going to suffer for it.

We’d do better to ask our questions from a different direction: If eighteen cents can feed a child for a day, what is preventing his parents from being able to come up with it?  And what’s preventing us in the West from stoking our own demand without the aid of treasurers and politicians?