Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ostentatious wealth and Christian charity

I saw an amusing comment on a website yesterday. The response was following a newspaper article which picked up on Alan Duncan's remarks about how difficult the MPs (he is a Tory MP) would find it to live on a salary of £55,000 ($90,000) a year plus legitimate expenses. Before the scandal broke, MPs had 'allowances' that effectively meant that they were 'earning' the equivalent of £120,000 ($200,000). The posting was pretending to come from an MP who was bewailing his lot. How can I manage, he said, I need 5 new business suits a year at £3000 each, twenty new shirts at £100 each, silk socks are £10 a pair and one can only wear them twice, I need three new dinner suits at £5000 a time, ties are £100 a time and I need at least 10. The women have it worse. A well fitted bra costs £500 and they need at least 5. Silk knickers are at least £400 a pair. And so on. Of course, other viewers of the the site failed to appreciate the irony.

At the same time the supermarket chain ASDA (Walmart in the US) has been advertizing back-to-school uniforms at £2 ($3.3) a time. The juxtaposition of these two items with the comments on a previous article here prompted me to consider the question of ostentatious wealth and Christian charity.

The rich have no idea how the poor live. In China the rulers have adopted a policy of matching the West for wealth amongst the 300 million coastal dwellers. The billion rural peasants have been abandoned to a feudal lifestyle reminiscent of Britain in the 14th century. The boom of the last two decades in Western economies has been fueled by importing Chinese deflation. What would have otherwise been recognized as dangerous overheating was hidden by the import of cheap goods from China, deflating what would otherwise have been ruinous inflation. The Chinese have overpaid for dollars in order to keep the purchasers of their factory output solvent. Now they are riding a tiger from which they dare not dismount since if they did the world economies would collapse and in economic chaos the poor nations would suffer disproportionately.

Compared to my grandparents I live in unimaginable luxury. Both sets of grandparents started their married life in slum dwellings without running water, gas or electricity. They shared toilets with their neighbors, burned coal on an open fire for heating and cooking, kept chickens and rabbits in their yards for food, grew their own vegetables in poor soil, worked long hours for little pay and could not afford a doctor in sickness - instead consulting the local 'wise-woman'. Hot water from Monday's wash was conserved, sharing it with even poorer neighbors for their washing, then using it for a succession of baths for the children. Children's clothes were hand-me-downs, so that boys were seen in cardigans that buttoned on the wrong side. Second-hand clothes from middle class donors were eagerly accepted. Any sort of dishonesty was abhorred. My grandmother would not allow playing cards in the house. Children were given tasks from an early age and learned what it meant to obey. With seven siblings my mother knew that everybody had to muck in.

Today, I can't even spend my pension, it is so large. I live in a four bedroom detached house in a nice part of a nice town. I have so many clothes that I have become one of those middle class donors of second-hand garments, only instead of seeking the indigenous poor I give them to charity shops that sell them to raise money for cancer research. (Not sure this is a good idea as those clothes they can't sell are shipped to Africa where they undercut the local clothes dealers.) Fuel prices are rising, but my house is so well designed and insulated that they do not trouble me. Food is cheap enough (especially at ASDA) that we throw it away if the sell-by date is exceeded. In the old days we used to judge food by the smell - it was only discarded when it stank. I can employ a gardener and a window cleaner and don't need to give my garden up to Brussels sprouts and potatoes or let chickens run wild; instead I grow begonias and hydrangeas and have plastic frogs and rabbits nestling beneath my fountain.

I see that the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has just been rescued by the taxpayer, has signed on a new investment banker with a golden hello of £8 million. Eight million! How could you ever spend that much? I suppose I could take up golf. Goodness, I could probably buy a golf course. One of those luxury yachts, perhaps? A box to watch Manchester United every week. A plane to fly me there. As it happens I can watch Manchester United every week on television and have an expert explain to me the finer points of the game. It costs me about £250 a year for cable television and they throw in the latest movies as well. Mr Abramovitch bought Chelsea football club and runs it at a loss of about £100 million a year - probably it cuts his tax bill.

The British government provides a safety net for the poor with what they call tax credits. Instead of paying income tax they dole it out to those who can't earn enough. The Conservatives have suggested that they will cut public spending by denying tax credits to those who earn more than £50,000 ($82,500) a year. You can currently get more tax credits by having another child. It all started as an incentive to get people back to work. People were saying that working at a basic rate of pay was not worth doing because you were better off on benefits. So they introduced a grading so that you still got benefits while you were working.

However, if the rich are profligate with their own money, the poor are profligate with mine. People are fat. Poor people are even fatter. I popped into the Council offices to pick a marriage certificate for my daughter's forthcoming wedding. The 'Customer Care' department also houses a benefits office. Every one of the applicants had a beer belly. Obesity may not be such a problem here as in the US, but it's getting there. Recently police in Leicester rounded up the local beggars. None of them turned out to be homeless; many already had jobs but were begging as an evening 'second-job' and could make £200 a night doing it. As a result of similar stories, I would never give to a beggar in Britain, believing that the state has already provided, and if he was still in need the money would just go on booze or drugs. Pictures of skeletal children in Africa might tug at my heart strings, but fat applicants for benefits don't. Of course, the fat applicants may not be typical; perhaps there are some, if not many, who are still poor and managing on less while too proud to pick up benefits.

So in answer to the questioner who inquired whether the state should take on the role of charity dispenser, I have to say I am very dubious of this role and certainly in the UK I think it has gone too far. For example, every man over 65 and woman over 60 is entitled to £100 a year 'winter fuel allowance' even during mild winters (on cold winters they get more) no matter how rich they are. Even the Queen is entitled to it. Similarly all cancer sufferers whose disease cannot be cured by surgery are entitled to £3500 a year 'attendance allowance' even if they are multi-millionaires.

I believe that people in a world of plenty should not be left behind in poverty, but I also believe St Paul's injunction "He that will not work, neither shall he eat."

As to charity, a recent survey found that Christians were the best donors to charities and that left-wing secular socialists were the worst. Perhaps the socialists believe that this is something that the state should do and that they have no responsibility once they have paid their taxes. Certainly the ethos of charity has been lost in the secular community; in fact, the very word 'charity' has become tainted with disdain and disgust. Charitable giving is seen as a way of the rich looking down on the poor. I am reminded of the lady who sent tea-bags to the missionaries. "They have only been used once," she said.

I won't say what I give to charity, but I take the requirement to do so very seriously. As much as I can I seek to see what my charitable donations are doing. I rather distrust big charities like Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, UNICEF and the like, since I believe that they compromise with terrorists and corrupt regimes and also spend excessively on administration. I prefer to support people I know personally who give an account of every penny. I don't support animal charities of those that have difficulty in spending their donations. My major donations go to Christian charities since I believe that changing people's hearts is the only real way of doing good.


Anonymous said...



Burke said...

And, Doc, what was responsible for all this prosperity you describe?


Bill Gates working in his own self-interest has done more for mankind than all the Mother Theresa-types in history put together.

If you and Gates enjoy giving some of it away to the poor, great. But the real solution to the problem of poverty is to leave the producers alone and let them create more of the prosperity that brought the modern world.

And do what they want with it.

That is, have a completely free world. Capitalism everywhere.

In such a world, the poorest people would be fabulously wealthy compared with the poor of today--in many ways, more wealthy than the rich were in past generations.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Burke. I agree that capitalism, 'enlightened self-interest' is responsible for the prosperity in the western world. Compare our civilization with that of 1000 years ago.

I agree that conservatives give much more to charities than liberal/socialists do. I give to a variety of charities, both local that I know, and large ones who can distribute to many more charities than I can.

Although I can afford whatever food (within reason) I want, I do raise food in the garden. I enjoy knowing that the food I grow is organic and grown with care.

I don't know any rich people personally. Everyone I know is middle-class, or is until massive inflation kicks in with the overspending in the US. I agree with Dr. Hamblin on the terrible bargain the West has made with China.

Burke said...

And it appears that things aren't going so well in Canada:

"We all agree that the system is imploding, we all agree that things are more precarious than perhaps Canadians realize,"

Dr. Ann Doig, incoming president of the Canadian Medical Association

Terry Hamblin said...

She asks for a mixed private/public health service - we have that in the UK; she believes that you can get waiting lists down without losing universal coverage - we did that in the UK.

Every country needs to work out their own system to suit their own economies. We just laugh when other systems give such bad value for money. Market forces may operate in America, but the market is flawed because the purchasers have no-one to tell them that they are being sold a pup. No-one's fault, but when you need a research degree to choose between treatments an you trust your doctor to make the decision that's best for you and not best for him?
I feel the same about financial advisors.

50s something professional in recovery said...

Where is your Christian charity in your disparaging remarks about obesity in the impoverished. Walk a mile in their moccasins my friend. I related this post to my dear wife and she wanted to be sure you were told you were a "hypocritical popinjay." And I can but agree....

Burke said...


Who tells people over there that they are not getting the right treatment? The "committees" you told us about after you retired, the incompetent ones you told us about who have been killing people?

And when people do occasionally learn that what your bureaucrats have decided for them is bad, what do they do? Go buy it in what's left of the free market there, if they can afford it after having been taxed to death to pay for your universal care system and all the other things they have to buy for those who pay little or nothing?

The fact is that our health care system in America is not primarily market based any more and has not been for a long time.

The main reason health care is so expensive here today is that every time we pay a bill, we are paying for health care for people who pay nothing. The administrator for our big local hospital said 20 years ago that 38% of the people there pay nothing and that they make up for it by charging paying customers more.

The fact is that no one is entitled to force others to provide them with health care or anything else. And all attempts to create systems that do so are doomed to fail.

Terry Hamblin said...

What is charitable in reinforcing people in their error? Obesity is a self-inflicted disease. Goodness knows there have been enough warnings about it. Besides, what I was doing was contrasting the poor in Africa who really are thin with those who are called poor in the West who really are fat. There is only one way to get thin and that is to eat less. It's a very cheap solution.

Terry Hamblin said...

OK Burke, have it your way. If you want to live in a society where individuals only think of themselves it's your choice.

Dan said...

"My major donations go to Christian charities since I believe that changing people's hearts is the only real way of doing good."

A good friend works for US Aid in Africa and had this story: He was talking to a friend from the UN's parallel agency who grew up a child of missionaries, but had rejected his parents christian beliefs.

After a long career working for the UN distributing aid in Africa, this friend had come to the conclusion that the only assistance that had any lasting impact was conversion to Christianity. Areas that converted to Christianity consistently and substantially continued to improve long after the foreign aid workers left, while the secular aid had little lasting benefit and was often harmful long term.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hamblin...your thoughts on charity seem to me spot on...yet as I look upon this world I find it hard to know a Christian by his works...are the size of a bank account or a house indicative of a spirit within?...can one be a Christian and live in luxury while others do not have clean water? much should we spend on research for cll vs childhood leukemia where the most innocent amoung us troubled that I may be "doing church" instead of being Christlike...wish the nuts and bolts were easier to apply to my life...thanks for your thought provoking writings....romanbob

Terry Hamblin said...

Remember the end of Schindler's list where Oscar regrets that he didn't do enough. We can never do enough to repay the gift we have been given, but since it was a gift, we don't need to. We are called to be Holy as Jesus was Holy. This means giving up everything for him just as he gave up everything for us. It is my testimony that the more I give away, the more he gives to me. The LORD loves a cheerful giver.

Anonymous said...

"It is my testimony that the more I give away, the more he gives to me. The LORD loves a cheerful giver."

So you give so you can get?

Or is it that you give because you have already received.

Terry Hamblin said...

I have no ambition to have more. I imagine that he finds me a useful dispersal channel. A few years ago I used regularly to recive through the post and envelope full of £20 notes with an instruction on the envelope "For cancer research" or "For kidney machines" or "For the missionaries". I saw myself as a conduit then and I still do.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things.

I don't use medical services because I have insurance. I use them because I have an incurable disease that is slowly killing me (CLL). Believe you me, if I didn't have cancer, I'd go to the doc about once a year for a check-up, or if something else was bothering me (I once had an inch-long sliver of wood right under my fingernail. Try as I might, I could not convince myself to yank it out. I paled at the thought. The doc did it with novocaine in 10 minutes.)

But that is the problem with 'free' health care. People are more likely to go than if they have to pay for it. BTW, I have a $3,500 deductible each year; with CLL that goes rather quickly.

As far as charity goes, I give what I can after I meet basic needs. I am lucky if I break even each month, since I'm in the real estate business and that is terrible now.

No one should criticize another about giving, etc, unless they know 100% what is in their hearts and bank accounts, and even then it is up to the individual.

Terry Hamblin said...

I agree about giving. It is between God and me how much I give to charity. The widow's mite was valued more than the excesses of the Pharisees. You are not right about the abuse of a 'free' health service, though. Even though it is 'free', men in particular, don't go to see the doctor, even when they should. I went for many years without visiting the quack and most men do thr same. There are a few, usually women, who have always got a complaint to take to the doc, but I would guess that they would turn up, even if there were a small charge to deter them.

Anonymous said...

What a joy to read your thoughts. I work for a charity in the remote parts of Kenya. Kindly - you can get in touch with me thanks. Anne

Anonymous said...

congratulations! Get in touch