Doing. Good. With Money.

With the year of clear vision (2020) upon us, I’ve begun to explore some of my assumptions about “doing good with money.” Especially how we might purchase to do good.

doing: Do we know which actions to take to create good — especially the most good?

To do good with money we must “do” — but what? Even if we agree on the outcomes we want to achieve, we may disagree about how to achieve them.

Consider fair trade as a means to improve the lives of farmers in the developing world. Fair trade offers a price floor, so that farmers at least cover the costs of growing their crops. It pays premiums that communities use for their betterment. Farmers are better off.

Still, most of the profit — from coffee, say — goes to a coffee shop in Manhattan, or a roaster or importer. Relatively little to the co-op providing the coffee. Less still to the grower-members of that co-op who work in the fields.

So, is fair trade a productive approach for improving lives?

To qualify, fair trade must (1) be helpful enough (right now); AND (2) lead to a “real” path forward.

To put the last point differently: if fair is helping “lock in” low incomes, then it does not offer a productive (despite the price supports it provides). Instead, to be considered a real path forward, it must be a building block for a world that is more equitable and more just than exists now.

And: since we, as consumers, can make choices about fair trade products, our actions have effects worlds away.

good: Can we define, or at least defend, our notion of what good is — and isn’t?

To me, a gun is “bad,” but to you it could be “good.”

But even when we agree on what is good, our level of appreciation for different kinds of “good” may vary. Keeping a river clean is something I support, but it’s not front of mind. But I might support the Humane Society before you would.

Sometimes we might be able to fairly arbitrate these differences: If the same amount of money could save 1 life or 100 lives, we could agree on the 100. And some ways of measuring outcomes, like DALYs or QALYs, try to do that.

Often, though, what we are speaking about is our values.

Arguments about what is good can get hijacked by this line of thought: If a sale occurs, it must create good, and for both buyer and seller; otherwise neither would have participated in the sale. But purchases often satisfy our wants — I want a piece of cake more than the $5 it costs me — and have little to do with binging about a better world.

with money: Say what you want about “doing good,” but is money a tool for doing so?

We buy things with money. If we’re going to “do good,” then the things we buy must be good; or else the effects of our purchasing must be what makes our use of money good.

Things we buy with a charitable impulse are good things. A coat, given to someone who doesn’t have one, would be good. So would a well for people who don’t have access to clean water.

What we buy was made, and will eventually need to be disposed of. The processes of “making” and “disposing” involves decisions about livelihoods, about resources, about waste, etc. — which can produce good or bad outcomes, depending on the details.

As a complication, we may buy something that is “good” (like the coat given to someone without one), but our action might have consequences beyond those immediately apparent (a company going out of business would be an extreme, long term consequence of buying a coat from one organization and not another).

But money is also a vote — about what we want for ourselves and our family, the kind of community we want, and the kind of world we want to live in.




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