Friday, January 15, 2010

Oskar Schindler's Path to Insanity

My dad made me watch "Schindler's List" as a kid. I remember being particularly moved by the ending, where Schindler realizes that with more money, he could have saved more lives. His (or rather, Liam Neeson's) emotional reaction to this realization stuck with me.

As a Western consumer, I am inundated with this same scenario every day. Faced with daily pleas of "$10 can save a life" or "Sponsor a child for 2 cents a day," I go back and forth between ignoring them and trying to keep myself from slipping into the same insanity that Schindler must have felt when he looked at his pin and saw in it the value of a human life.

Of course, once I realized that most of these claims are blatantly false, it was much easier to ignore them. But ignoring organizations that lie about their operating expenses can't change reality. The money sitting in your bank account or the money you just spent on that I-pod can actually save (or dramatically increase for the better) another human being's life, assuming you donate to the right organization. It's enough to make you take a vow of poverty. Or loose your mind.

I've struggled to balance my desire to live the life I want with helping others as much as possible. I don't have any answer to this struggle other than to continue to work on balance. But I think it would be helpful, and maybe stave of insanity for a little while longer, to remember that our money isn't actually saving anyone's life.

Schindler was wrong. Money alone didn't keep the people on his list from the concentration camps, he did. His pin held no value beyond the labor that was put into it and what another human would give him for it. The money you give to those organizations claiming to save lives isn't saving anything by itself, it's the organization's employees that do all the work. Money (or in-kind donations or time) transfers resources to these people to help them, but money alone is worth nothing. It's people that save lives, not money.

To conclude, I am going to quote Marx (I'm a capitalist, I promise):
The distorting and confounding of all human and natural qualities, the fraternisation of impossibilities – the divine power of money – lies in [money's] character as men’s estranged, alienating and self-disposing species-nature. Money is the alienated ability of mankind.
As you look to invest, especially during these times of great need in Haiti, don't be distraught because you aren't turning over all your savings to help the under-served. Those messages of small amounts of money making a big difference are compelling, but, like Marx's critique of currency says, ultimately alienate the true power behind your investment. You are not paying someone to save a life, but investing your own resources in life-saving (or society-changing) organizations. You are not making a transfer of funds, but a transfer of ability.

Do not confuse the money in your pocket with the value of a human life. That currency is worth nothing. The only real thing of value you have is yourself and all the people around you.


  1. Jeff,

    This is a great point. I had never thought about it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Humility is important.

  2. As I was watching the football game yesterday, I was prompted to text a number to give $10. Each time the ad came on, my daughter said. "Look, we can text and donate $10, it will make us feel good for about a minute." Yeah, that's right. About a minute. I didn't donate my money in that way, but found an organization through Jeffrey who actually has "boots on the ground" in Haiti. Happy giving.