I almost never carry cash. Most everywhere I want to do business, a debit card is accepted, and it keeps the lines of my pants slim to not have a giant wad of ones and a jangling pile of coins bulging out of a pocket. As has become a beginning of the quarter tradition though, my classes’ syllabi had me off to the Copy Center for some hot, steaming lab packets and class readers, and the Copy Center, stuck firmly in the early 20th century, only takes the physical coin of the realm. The student staff at the Copy Center, located on the third floor, are all too happy to tell you about the ATM, located on the first floor, where, for a nominal fee, I can extract actual cloth and dye money to physically hand them in exchange for a packet that could easily have been posted to Canvas and printed at my own leisure.
After running down and up the stairs again, my $20 bill, the lowest denomination I can produce from the ATM, less my printing fees, has been transformed into the ungainly lump of ones protruding, tumor like, from my hip. As I conduct all other business with my debit card, I generally do not have an outlet for this cash.
However, Capitol Hill, like most of Seattle, has a fairly sizeable, and very visible, unhoused population, and I generally liquidate my cash by handing out a dollar here and there over the coming weeks. I’m not remotely rich by any means, but I feel like one dollar every so often is nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s almost a throwaway gesture, literally just to make my pants fit better; that it helps the unhoused, even a little, is a pleasant secondary effect.
In the last few days, friends of mine have been sharing the news that Elon Musk is planning to help the residents of long-suffering Flint, Michigan. This seems great; Mr. Musk is a problem solver with more money than he knows what to do with, and Flint is a town that needs a problem solved and money to do it with.
But, I can’t quite get myself to become caught up in slapping our benefactor Elon on the back for his philanthropy. Nevermind that it has not even occurred yet, Musk’s plan for assistance is not actually what the town needs. His original tweets suggest that he’s willing to purchase water filters for individual homes to purify the tainted water… but what the city really needs is to replace the pipes altogether.
In this article, Flint’s mayor was trying to contact Musk to try to make sure that his assistance was actually useful, but essentially states that, due to the nature of philanthropy, beggars can’t be choosers.
“[Flint Mayor Karen] Weaver said she used the call to lay out ideas for how Musk and his team could be of help, but that ultimately they will take whatever help he thinks would be most useful.”
Cool. I guess Flint gets to take the help Musk thinks they need, and they get to like it.
But, at least he’s doing something, right? In the wake of some public Elon-bashing at these developments, plenty of Musk fans rallied to his defense, a defense which basically boiled down to, “hey, he’s trying, what are you doing?”
That’s a valid question. What are those of us who aren’t “genius billionaire playboy philanthropists” doing with our meagre means? Let’s look at it:
Say you’re a lot like me, a poor college student, and you occasionally give a dollar to an unhoused person. It’s not much, but it has no strings attached, and they can do whatever they want with it. Generally, after all my bills and such are paid, I’ve got something like $1,000 in the bank or so at any given time. When I give $1 to a homeless person, it represents 0.1 percent of my wealth as a charitable donation, not that I’m going to write it off on my taxes or anything. I do this a few times a quarter, however long it takes me to empty my pocket of physical cash… so anywhere from 10-15 bucks a term, or about $50 a year. I don’t consider it to be a lot of money, especially since I give it out in one dollar increments, but it does represent 5 percent of my total take home “wealth” in a given year.
Let’s return to Elon Musk. According to Forbes, he’s got $19,300,000,000 of wealth just a-sittin’ in some scrooge-mcduckian vault somewhere, growing mold or whatever hoarded wealth does when no one is spending it for basic needs. According to Mayor Weaver, it would take $55 million to replace all of the pipes in Flint, which is the only way to completely solve the problem. Some quick math tells me that’s 0.28 percent of Musk’s wealth (and you can bet he definitely will write that off on his taxes, at a much higher rate than I can). It is the financial equivalent of me giving the mayor of Flint three dollars (I’ll round up, because I hate coinage), and thus Solving the Flint Water Crisis.
But this isn’t what Musk is proposing. He wants to give away water filters (which are cheaper, and don’t solve the overall problem) to people who contact him (so, not necessarily everyone, and they have to go through the rigamarole of contacting him, assuming they are even aware the offer is available). There aren’t currently numbers on estimates for this cost to him, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was as if I had offered to chuck a handful of change at some peasants, and then had a horde of fanboys praise my name across the internet.
However, I’m not done with us poor college students yet, because the disparity is actually more stark than I have described. You see, due to the fact that I’m on the GI Bill, and have no college debt, I’m veritably landed gentry compared to you plebes. Whereas my estimated wealth is a measly $1,000, it’s at least a positive number. If you are in debt, with a negative net worth, like the vast majority of college students, that $1 you’re giving to the unhoused is actually some mathematically ridiculous percentage like negative infinity. Suffice it to say, it is a very generous gesture on your part.
But really, it’s true for most young folk even after college. Most young people, due to ever growing student debt tied to ever not-growing wages, are in debt for years or decades after school. Since things like cars and credit cards put us further in debt (and home ownership, the only debt that also carries accrued value, is largely unattainable for us), the vast majority of us have a negative net worth, and will continue to do so for many years. That $1 is always going to be a proportionately larger portion of our “wealth” (if you can call it that) than anything Lord Elon is doling out to the proles.
I suppose that brings me to the title of this piece, “Two Cent Philanthropy.” The phrase “my two cents,” meaning “my opinion,” or “my contribution” actually comes from a passage in the Bible. Jesus and his disciples were standing outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, watching parishioners as they put money in the offering box. Here is the passage from the NIV translation:
Mark 12:41-44: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Unsarcastically though, at least Elon is doing something, and even if it isn’t very much of his wealth, at least it’s enough to actually do some good in some people’s lives. So, good on him, I guess… you just won’t find me organizing a parade in his honor or anything.
At least he’s not Jeff Bezos. At $150,300,000,000 ($50 billion of which was earned since this January), Flint’s water woes could be solved for a proportional 37 cents.
But he’s not exactly the philanthropizing type.