Helping Japan, continued

As my Argentine friend Sebastian would say, “FahseeNAting.” Felix Salmon over at Reuters titles a post, “Don’t donate money to Japan,” and the comments absolutely explode at him (hat tip to Tactical Philanthropy). Yet he’s making much the same point as the folks at GiveWell, whom I cited last time. What gives?

Part of it is that you’d expect an economist to have a better handle at the importance of signaling. Many of the comments take umbrage primarily at the title, finding it offensive in the extreme, poorly chosen, and poorly timed. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution observes that it’s important to signal solidarity with one of the U.S.’s closest allies.

Which gets me thinking about giving as an expression of personal values – as opposed to giving as an effort to solve a particular social problem. The beauty of “small” philanthropy is that it’s a way for all of us to signal our allegiance with certain causes, whether our not our $10 makes a difference “at the margin,” as economists say.

The difference happens when hundreds of thousands of people make that choice at the margin to give. And what generates that – the aggregate of those hundreds of thousands of decisions – I feel is poorly understood. And yet, a valuable natural resource – not infinitely renewable, but pretty reliable in disaster situations.

There is much to be understood about motivations for giving and how to channel them. People are capable of such generosity and yet also such indifference. The furor over Salmon’s piece puts these issues into sharp relief for me.

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