I believe that we should use our great power not for military purposes but to bring food and medicine to those areas of the world that have been devastated by war, by disease, by hunger. If we took a fraction of our military budget we could combat malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. We could provide clean water for the billion people in the world who don’t have it and would save millions of lives. That would be an accomplishment we could be proud of. But how proud can we be of military victories over weak nations, in which we overthrow dictators but at the same time bomb and kill the people who are the victims of these dictators? And the tyrants we overthrow are very often the ones we have helped stay in power, like the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
When you find that the backlog of those little apple juice boxes that your wife puts in your lunch has almost filled the comestibles fridge at work, do not take them all out and drink them all at once. If you do, you will rumble, bloat and fart for hours; you will shit green slurry until your fundamental orifice puckers in reflexive terror at each fresh gurgle; you will come to believe that angry weasels are eating their way out of your intestines. Got it? Do not gorge on apple juice: it does not love you back.
It occurred to me that there might be some confusion as to who I was calling parasites in the last entry; then, after some conversation with the spousal unit, it emerged that I am somewhat confused myself. By “parasites” and “thieving bastards”, I meant those panhandlers who are not motivated by genuine need, who have other options but find it easier or more profitable to prey on the goodwill intended for the genuinely down-on-their-luck among whom they hide. (As it happens, the unpleasant lifestyle of the False Cleaner Wrasse might offer a better model than parasitism.) But who are these human Mimic Blennies? Do drug addicts count, or the mentally ill? I was not thinking of them, as they seem to me to be cases of genuine need. In any case, I am not trying to judge who deserves my help, but rather to figure out who most needs it and how best to give it. Among the people asking for money on the streets, who has pretty much nowhere else to turn and who is just lying to me for fun and profit? I have caught a few liars out just by remembering what they told me last time, and have learned to spot hard-luck stories that are carefully designed and rehearsed — but in all but one of those cases, even I could spot telltale signs of serious drug addiction. It’s often apparent that the person telling me that they “just need a dollar for the bus” is lying, but it’s not clear what they really need or want and it is quite often clear that they are not playing with a full deck.
So it’s not clear who the “parasites” really are, since I don’t actually know who any of the people are who keep turning up on the street and asking me for money. I don’t even know what questions to ask to begin to clarify this issue. Spouse and I have decided to try to cure our ignorance with some volunteer work.
*tap* *tap* Is this thing
Unaccustomed as I am
Screw it, I’m just going to start talking. That’s what blogs are for, right? The rest of the site, including bio and list o’ links, is on its way, honest.
Mitch Wagner has a post about Jon Carroll’s “Untied Way” that has generated some light (and a little heat) in the comments (see also the followup posts) and touched on some issues of concern to me. I find it difficult to say no to a direct request for help, and usually give a dollar or whatever change I happen to have to anyone who asks. I never really thought about con artists in Australia, where begging is far less common, but here in Portland OR I started running into the same faces, telling the same damn lies to wheedle money out of the marks. I decided that I was going to have to deal properly with begging (and associated chicanery) if I were going to live here, plus it really chafes my scrote to get had like that, so I started talking to people who work with the homeless — Central City Concern, a colleague who does outreach work with his church, and so on. The consensus was that vouchers, where available, are better than dollars, and that (as Gary Farber said in Mitch’s comments) most of the need in the US today is invisible to most of us who might be in a position to lend a hand. I don’t know what proportion of panhandlers are thieving bastards, but I suspect it’s not trivial, and with a large proportion of need not being represented by panhandlers and the chance of handing money to a parasite1, giving on the street simply does not represent an efficient use of my limited philanthropic funds. If it’s wrong not to help, it seems also (if somewhat less) wrong not to help as much as possible (within your means), especially if you do so just because an inefficient means of delivering superficial help is ready to hand, and even more especially if that inefficient means happens to have a pretty high feel-good factor.