When It’s Unethical To Be Thrifty

In a recent post, I suggested that people who receive a government stimulus check even though they are not suffering any economic hardship should try to donate the money to charities overwhelmed by those who have lost jobs and income. When asked a related question, The New York Times Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, suggested those who can should spend more to stimulate the economy and resist the urge to be thrifty despite these uncertain times. (See the second question in this column.)

Now there is strong evidence, that those most able to spend are pulling back, just when low income workers need the economic jolt the most. Please take the time to examine their research here.

Viral Ethics: How Will You Help?

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

20200501_135333That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: Food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.  We’ll report on the survey next week.

Viral Ethics: The Value of a Life

Today, we’re happy to lend this space to Tom Galvin, a former journalist who has worked at the intersection of technology, policy, and the economy for the past two decades.11219646_10206707969871603_4201137767317298659_nTom used those experiences to write his debut novel, The Auction, due for release later this year.

The following guest blog grew out of one of Tom’s  recent Facebook posts:

The hesitant steps to reopen the economy are spurring a collective ethics test for us as citizens. Today, many of us may view the demands to end the lockdown as reckless and selfish. In eight weeks, however, if the lockdown is still in place, we may share the belief that the damage to the economy outweighs the health risks.  So, who and what is right? And is there such a thing?

To explore it, I posed a question to my Facebook friends: “Imagine there’s about 500nyc people in your neighborhood. Would you stay in lockdown if it meant one of them wouldn’t die? Or would you say that the life saved (maybe your own) isn’t worth 500 people being out of work?”

I choose that scenario because at that moment the ratio of deaths to jobless claims was roughly 500 to 1. I didn’t reveal that at the time; I wanted to provoke thought about the difficult choices we face.

The responses mirrored the public debate. Initially, most echoed this comment, “That’s a tough one. I can’t imagine that I could live with myself if there was a chance that I had something to do with someone dying.”

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Viral Ethics: Let the Needy Go First

I serve as treasurer of a small nonprofit organization for writers in Maryland, and because of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, we had to cancel our annual conference. That cost us about $2,000.  At a recent board meeting, someone suggested we apply for money being made available by the local government to assist nonprofits in sudden need. We talked about it and decided not to apply. We have a big enough rainy day fund to cover the loss, we have no employees to worry about, and we’re in no danger of slowing, let alone ceasing, operations. Other organizations clearly need it more.

None of us had to think hard about this; it was clearly the ethical thing to do.

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The Ethics of Charitable Giving

Most of us would agree that sharing our good fortune in the form of charitable giving is an ethical thing to do, maybe even an ethical requirement. If we’re blessed with more money than we need, whether by hard work, good luck, or a combination of both, we ought to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Right?

But what does it mean to have more money than we need?

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