Ending world hunger: A thought on power and free will

Last night, The Girlfriend and I were watching Hulu and saw the following PSA:

For those unable to watch it, the commercial presents a variety of online statistics and then sets them side by side with “every minute, ten children die of hunger.” It then proposes that the billion people currently online can band together to help the one billion chronically hungry people in the world and encourages us all to do our part to spread such sentiments through our respective social networks. (I suppose I’m doing that now! I’m such a good person… — and that reminds me that I’ve been sponsoring a child since I graduated college, providing much more than the 25 cents per day quoted in the PSA. Looks like I’ve already done my share and can get on with my life!)

As this commercial was airing — one of many in the “every two seconds something horrible happens” genre of PSAs that play very frequently on Hulu — I turned to The Girlfriend and said, “Yeah, we could either try to coordinate the actions of a billion people worldwide or like a dozen people at Goldman Sachs.” Another alternative occurs to me: “We could either try to coordinate the actions of a billion people or the dozen or so U.S. Senators who guarantee that farm subsidies will never be repealed.” Or: “We could either try to coordinate the actions of a billion people or the handful of executives in charge of Monsanto’s genetically modified seed racket.”

All of the second options are, of course, unthinkable. It is taken for granted that those with the greatest amount of power are absolutely locked into taking the most sociopathic course of action possible — it’s all about “market forces,” and “getting reelected,” and “they have to make money somehow….”

There’s a radical disjunction whereby one must choose between having power and having free will. The powerless masses get the ambiguous gift of free will, with all the “responsibility” that comes along with it, and meanwhile those with power are regarded as having no effective choice about how to exercise it. (Hence, for example, the scapegoating of supposed deadbeat borrowers while holding banks harmless because they were pursuing the unquestionably moral and responsible goal of making more money).

In this context, the ridiculous plan of hoping that a billion people will spontaneously choose to donate — and will necessarily have to continue to freely donate, since charity does not solve the underlying problems — feels like the only realistic way forward. They create a billion starving people, and we get to freely choose whether to take responsibility and clean up their mess yet again. Doing so is necessary and salutary — indeed, it’s something that I try to do in my own way. What would it look like, though, to do it in such a way as to simultaneously say, “This is not my responsibility, it’s theirs“?

9 thoughts on “Ending world hunger: A thought on power and free will

  1. Wow. I’d not yet read that FP article you linked to. This was distressing on every level:

    What’s the solution? The last time I visited the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, I asked a handful of wheat brokers what would happen if the U.S. government simply outlawed long-only trading in food commodities for investment banks. Their reaction: laughter. One phone call to a bona-fide hedger like Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland and one secret swap of assets, and a bank’s stake in the futures market is indistinguishable from that of an international wheat buyer. What if the government outlawed all long-only derivative products, I asked? Once again, laughter. Problem solved with another phone call, this time to a trading office in London or Hong Kong; the new food derivative markets have reached supranational proportions, beyond the reach of sovereign law.

  2. This is so spot on it is almost literally true. In our Western tradition we have macho’s going out and doing damage. If they get challenged on the damage they do they say that if they don’t do it somebody else will. Or that the market can’t be argued with. What is left as nagging conscience is dealt with by organizing charitable events and organizations and preferably in a way that blends in with social networking.

    It is trickle down in the sense of a few having big swimming pools and then once in a while throwing a party where they all fill a cup of water such as to feel wonderful in throwing it over the fence.

    The only thing to be done I guess is to vote left. Personally, I don’t believe in trying too much the “if we all would”-stuff. The gaps that get created by some are much too big to be filled, even with many.

  3. At Starbucks yesterday I was alerted to a horrible plague: either one child drowns every two minutes or two children drown every minute. I can’t remember. Anyway, that’s something between 275,000 and over 1 million children drowning per year. It wasn’t clear if that was 1 million Canadian children drowning per year or 1 million children drowning globally. Fortunately, the solution to this problem isn’t as difficult as ending world hunger. All you need to do, apparently, is hired a certified swim instructor (i.e., the teenager living down the street) to come to your backyard and give private swimming lessons to your children. No word on whether we have an absolute duty to give money to swim instructors even if we don’t have (1) children or (2) a pool.

    While not the point of your post, where do these “statistics” come from? What is the epistemic status of these claims: do people take them seriously or do they make jokes about them while drinking a grande Three Regions Blend?

  4. I guess they come from brainstorming sessions at the Lions Club or something. More specifically, marketing subsection – outreach on misery awareness with the unspoken rule that nothing published may ever suggest that there’s structural ways in which one may avoid misery.

  5. I think that the “every two seconds someone gets murdered with a nailgun” format is so much of a cliche that it actually inclines people to take the cause less seriously.

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