Tuesday, December 26

The Gift of Giving?

happy holidays to all! i am so grateful to be getting some much needed R&R at my parents house, where in-between the requisite badgering of why i'm still not married, i at least get a chance to eat well, sleep lots, hang with family, and of course, catch up on reading that has NOTHING to do with school. i've accumulated piles of magazines to go through before 2006 gets away from me and the articles become oh-so-last-year.

however, it's been particularly frustrating to read stuff and then share my opinions/questions with my family. my parents' reactions are nearly always the polar opposite of mine-- to a point where a generic discussion often disintegrates into personalized attackes of 'what's wrong with you' to 'you just don't understand where i'm coming from'. it is no secret that i lean just left of center on many issues (and very far left on social ones) and sometimes i have to remind them that i attend a grad program for public service. this implies a need to serve others, which to my parents translates into an unworthy career choice as the end-goal is not one of maximizing personal salary, but something else. this is not to say that my parents are greedy...they are immigrants who have worked their way up for the American Dream which has provided an amazing life for me and my brother. for them, hard work = more money which then = more opportunity. that equation works for them and is true in many respects for me. but more money does not always = more happiness. and by extension, pursuing a career that will not generate AS MUCH money than say...a career on Wall Street does not make it any less worthy, less ambitious, or less fulfilling. and that last word is key. for my parents, fulfillment and career are not always linked-- its not a factor in their 'success' equation. and that's fine, but that's not me.

for my parents, the idea of "public service" is something that should come after i've amassed a "suitable" living for myself (suitable is defined loosely and i am not above admitting to enjoying more than a few indulgences but i am most certainly not overly extravagant). their favorite go-to examples are Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foray into philanthropy took root waaaaaaay after Microsoft took over the world and generated oodles of profits (snark, snark). sure, its easy (and morally responsible, if you ask me) to give back when you have ga-jillions of dollars to play with but not everyone can or wants to wait until they strike it rich to invest in a public or nonprofit-driven career.

this then led to a larger debate we had about philanthropy. it is the end of the year which means it's also peak time for charitable giving. holidays bring out the best in people. holidays, and the rush to get those last minute donations out for those nifty tax deductions. it's okay, i do it too. but philanthropy can be a tricky issue. it can put people on the defensive or put others on some moral high ground. my parents are all for donating dollars to good causes-- they do it every year-- but they think philanthropy should come after meeting the primary needs of your family. i agree with them to a point-- our own need to survive and sustain ourselves should be a priority. but i also believe in the moral obligation we have as individuals to 'give' some parts of our lives-- be it in time or through monetary means-- to those less fortunate than ourselves, especially when we can afford to have more than what sustains us. to have to defend my volunteer time or the extra dollar i'll give to a program i believe in is ridiculous, and not something i ever thought i'd argue with my parents about.

we all work hard to earn each dollar (at least, i hope we do) so we deserve to spend those dollars in any way we see fit. i've justified many past indulgences on the benefits of bonuses and salary raises. hell, it's my money! but when i start weeping after a Nightline segment on the violence in Darfur or children starving in Southeast Asia, it's hard not realize how much those tears are soaked with hypocrisy: i can always give more, but i often always forget, or worse, i just don't.

so this article was particulary interesting, as it helped frame the merits of my argument with my parents . it was written by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who devised a formula for what % of total income people should give to charity. his focus was first on the philanthropic work of billionaires, but extended to middle income earners where he suggested a progressive 'giving rate,' ensuring all able American families can share in the cause. Singer's argument is that if we, collectively as a nation, preach the need to reduce global poverty (hello, UN Millenium Development Goals; or any of the glitzy, celebrity-endorsed campaigns such as Product (Red), or Bono's One Campaign), then we should collectively be willing to contribute more than we currently do.

and what about people who dedicate their lives, whose wages are often built on work to help the poor and disadvantaged? should those people give an additional percentage of their income or should the fact that their career is dedicated to helping those less fortunate be enough? the New Yorker featured an article on Muhammed Yunnus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and others building out the micro-credit industry-- which offers a way out of poverty for those who have struggled for generations. but the article features both sides of microfinancing-- those who profit from these 'loans to the poor' and those who believe such credit lines should be exclusively not-for-profit. Fast Company produces an annual 'Social Capitalist Awards' issue which highlights the work of social entrepreneurs, whose enterprises seek to improve the world around us. is their work philanthropic enough...or is there never enough? and if their work generates a profit, does that profit diminish their social value?

these are questions i often wrestle with both in the choices i make in my daily life, and in the choices i seek to make in my professional one. and it frustrating to constantly hit this wall when i attempt to share these issues with my parents. the ideas of 'social value' and philanthropy don't make sense in terms of a career choice. but i guess that's why there's always two sides to every argument.

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