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.