Wednesday, December 24, 2008


There's an old school of thought that says people only help others to make themselves feel good. Pessimistic, yes. For years I've assured myself that I would give more money to charity if I had more. I found myself saying "I just need to make a little more", and sure, as a PhD student, one may argue that I could definitely make more before I donate. But I'm on a pretty good scholarship nowadays. Besides, I just spend the bulk of my income on drinking and wacky t-shirts (though they are cool, and chicks dig them).

So two years ago I decided if somebody was doing something to raise money for charity, I would donate to them - of course, under the condition that it's for a charity I believe in. What sort of charity do I believe in? I've been giving that some thought for a few years now, and I think have a not-so-hazy answer, but that deserves another entry .

I'll admit it. Donating money made me feel good about myself. Some of that wore away when I found out a few months later that the charity had supported causes I didn't believe in, but I'm sure the bulk of my donation went to a good place. Peter Singer, who I wouldn't normally agree with, I wager, argues in this good NY Times piece that more people, particularly the rich, need to give to help this world. Wouldn't that be nice.

There's another school of thought: people don't act rationally, but instead act emotionally, and then to try it support it rationally. I don't agree with this completely. And the bulk of economists, to my limited understanding, believe strongly that people act rationally overall, even when it appears to the contrary. They justify this with game-theoretic arguments such as winning people's trust and benefiting from good deeds later on. Hence, this time of year makes economists feel rather uncomfortable, according to Ross Gittins from Fairfax.

Why give? Isn't it more efficient to spend the money on yourself, and be happy from that? Regularly, yes. But as Gittins points out, this overlooks our original premise: giving makes both the recipient and the giver feel happy. And there's something in that.