Robin Hanson sings the praises misers

Effing odd! Hanson writes:

Steven Landsburg is exactly right:

Here’s what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him. Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that’s a bum rap. …

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser — the man who could deplete the world’s resources but chooses not to. The only difference between miserliness and philanthropy is that the philanthropist serves a favored few while the miser *spreads his largess far and wide. …

Put a dollar in the bank and you’ll bid down the interest rate by just enough so someone somewhere can afford an extra dollar’s worth of vacation or home improvement. Put a dollar in your mattress and you’ll drive down prices by just enough so someone somewhere can have an extra dollar’s worth of coffee with his dinner. (more; HT Adrian Kent)

Why are misers so widely criticized, if their gift is distributed unusually equitably, with little chance to receive praise or gratitude in return? Some might suggest this is caused by economic ignorance, but it seems far more likely that misers are criticized exactly because their gifts are equitable.

Humans have had literally millions of years experience begging from one other. Many primates do it, as do foragers. A supplicant appeals to common feelings that one should help associates in need when one is doing well, in the expectation of getting help later when you are in need, and also of sending good signals about your loyalty and ability.

Associates who hint that you should be less miserly and make more overt gifts are not at all hoping that you will spread your gift equitably across the world. They are instead hoping that you will unequally focus most of your gift on them. By criticizing misers you are working to take the gift away from those distant recipients. Ask yourself: are you really more deserving than they? Do you care?

Added 1:30p: Karl Smith says:

The miser is not as generous as the dedicated philanthropist. … [He] is withholding his assessment of the most utility maximizing uses of his money. (HT TGGP)

True, but I’d still guess that the miser does more good than the average rich-nation philanthropist.

I posted the following comment (number 11 or so):

“Well I don’t see the miser’s shine. Misers can be neurotic, anti-social and may live in fear that one day they will be poor again. It is most likely a form of mental illness. It is no life for a man or woman. A proper balance with regards to money and taking care of oneself is best methinks.”

In Defense of Al Sharpton

Don Boudreaux writes to Al Sharpton:

Rev. Al Sharpton
National Action Network

Dear Rev. Sharpton:

Your organization, the National Action Network, e-mailed me to boast about your complaint to Walgreen’s CEO regarding his company’s alleged ‘underserving’ of minorities.

I like your tactic! But it prompts me to ask: Why are you ‘underserving’ minorities in need of low-priced pharmaceutical products?

What have you done to attract private capital to finance retail outlets? How have you helped to organize supply chains that get pharmaceuticals from factories to consumers at costs that make the on-going retail distribution of these products profitable at prices that also are affordable to low-income consumers? Where’s the evidence of your entrepreneurial creativity – and the evidence of you risking your own money and of you spending untold hours of your own time – to help bring pharmaceuticals to low-income neighborhoods? Why do you not devote more of your ample energies to struggle with details of the likes of inventory management, optimal liability-insurance coverage, and OSHA work-place-safety regulations so that you can create a retail pharmaceutical chain that earns sufficient profit to enable it to stay afloat while it simultaneously achieves all of what you somehow divine such a retail chain ‘should’ achieve?

Walgreen’s investors and employees actually and already contribute infinitely more energy and resources than you do to the process of making pharmaceutical products readily available to the masses. So surely if it’s appropriate – as you clearly believe it to be – to fling accusations at anyone who arguably exerts insufficient effort to improve the retail distribution of pharmaceutical products, you deserve far more criticism than does Walgreen’s and its CEO.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Here’s my comment (you have to go down to about the 100th comment):

John Donnelly    December 14, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Ok, I’ll be your huckleberry. I know that most of the commenters are your fanboys (and girls) so I will take the Sharpton side.

Professor Boudreaux is like a father in his disciplining of the complainer with the old argument, “if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem” or “what? are your legs broken”. His argument is likened to telling an art critic to “grab a brush”!

Unfortunately Professor Boudreaux is not helpful in this case simply because the good Reverend is not in the business of distributing pharmaceuticals and he needn’t be. Nor does Rev Sharpton need to be an economist to express his opinion about Walgreens and their distribution and pricing policies from his social utility point of view.

Chucklehead has it right, Sharpton is just doing his job, complaining on behalf of those he deems to need his help and who don’t enjoy his level of influence. Rev. Sharpton’s attempt to sway a large corporation to do (hopefully mutually beneficial) business to help his community is a very rational thing to do given his unique assets and abilities.

I can go on about the good Reverend’s assets and how he leverages them but that is another debate.

This should generate some interesting comments!