The Curse of Fungible Dollars

April 11, 2006 | By | 17 Replies More

A friend recently gave me a ticket to a hockey game.  I couldn’t help but noticing the high cost of tickets; the average ticket costs $50. 

Mark Manary, a WUSM pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, is saving the lives of children in Malawi with peanut butter. His revolutionary new method for treating starving children in malnourished regions could become a worldwide standard of care. 

My attendance at this game reminded me that numerous people spend substantial dollars to go to sporting events. As I watched the game tonight it occurred to me that whenever 20,000 people each pay $50 to go to one hockey game, the total gate for the event is $1 million. That $1 million is spent solely to distract and entertain the people for a few hours.  The money is for pure amusement, of course, even when it’s the “game of the century.”

An average of 20,000 starving children each year enter the so-called Nutritional Rehabilitation Units in hospitals throughout Malawi.

The arena literally filled up with Americans.  60% of Americans are overweight and half are obese.  But Americans are largely in denial regarding the extent of this problem.

When Manary first traveled to Malawi a decade ago, he was eager to make a difference. Everyone told him to stay away from the nutrition wards in the large hospital where he worked. It will depress you, they told him. 

People want to think of some dollars as “entertainment dollars” and others as “charity dollars.” Most people despise the thought that dollars are totally “fungible.”  Actually, that’s not strong enough.  That dollars are fungible is a toxic thought they can’t even acknowledge.  They build big walls around this thought in their minds so they don’t accidentally consider it.  If they dared to consider it, they would claim that they were being victimized: “It’s not fair that the fungibility of money has moralized everything. It’s just not fair that the same dollars I can use to buy a hockey ticket can also be used to save the lives of several starving children.” 

It costs between $12 and $14 to feed a child back to health at home with the peanut butter mixture, Sandige said. 

Most people say that to be moral one must follow a set of rules such as the Ten Commandments.  These rules of morality allegedly apply universally because all human beings allegedly deserve respect. In the abstract, most people would consider it highly immoral to spend $50 on pure entertainment when that same amount of money could save the lives of four children. 

The southern African country of Malawi, where Manary works, could soon become the first nation to switch to feeding malnourished children at home with spoil-proof foods.

“This is not a real moral conundrum,” says the voice in my head.  “I haven’t met that starving child.  She is not in my realm of concern.  There will always be hunger.”

Human beings that live across the world are no less human that those that live next door. If the children living overseas could ever look us in the eye, we’d be so ashamed of buying those $50 tickets that we’d curse professional sports.  It’s that ocean between us that allows us to go to professional sports events.

Severely malnourished children are fragile and need stabilizing treatment to recover from starvation, dehydration and illness, she said. Parents often are unable to provide that care at home. 

The gate at one hockey game ($1 million) could save the lives of 70,000 starving children.  Spending big money on sports is just one of the many ways in which Americans consciously decide to entertain, pamper and decorate themselves rather than spend that same money to save the lives of other human beings.  I’m not I’m picking on spectator sports because they just an especially visible way of spending huge amounts of fungible dollars.  This could have been an article about jewelry, SUV’s, expensive homes or vacations to Las Vegas.

Rains come to Malawi only once a year, between November and March. It’s the same time that subsistence farmers are running out of the crop they harvested in April or May. It’s the period when children become malnourished. It’s called “the hungry season.” 

With regular practice, directing our own attention away from painful issues allows us to live our lives in relative peace. Original sin has been described as the overwhelming misery that oppresses people and inclines them toward evil and death.  We are exposed as original sinners whenever we deny the undeniable truth that dollars are fungible.  “But,” that inner-enabler voice says, “the Ten Commandments don’t actually mention anything about fungible dollars.”

Washington University medical student Heidi Sandige showed up in Malawi in June 2002 to work with Manary. When she arrived, Project Peanut Butter didn’t have quite enough money to pay its nurses for the next month. Manary wasn’t worried. He ran the project on $5 to $50 donations collected by his two children back in St. Louis, she said. 

At the final buzzer, the sports fans applaud and smile.  No lives were saved tonight.


Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    This essay puts a very different perspective on the many examples of conspicuous consumption found parked every Sunday morning in local church parking lots! One wonders how much good could be done in this world if all the people making $400+ monthly payments on SUVs and luxury cars would, instead, donate half that money to a good cause and drive something more practical.

  2. Eris says:

    This essay is is good. Its makes you realize that, yes, those people over there ARE actually living breathing humans in need. Its to hard for us to realize things like this when we see them on TV and in pictures because to our highly commercialized brains, those children, men, and women, are paid actors pretending to be starving. no, to our brains these are wealthy people who are better off than us. It would take a long time to see what it really is, and not many people even comprehend that the commercial or article isn't just telling a wild tale to dazzle our imaginations and make our hearts throb.

  3. ladynightmare says:

    recently, I saw a program about this doctor. His product which he developed is called PLUMPY NUT. I would love to invest in the company that produces plumpy nut both for the sake of the children and because I believe it would be a wise decision. this company can only grow with such a wonderful concept behind it. All the children of the world could benefit from this program, but I understand they have to be gotten to before the age of three for proper physical and mental growth. We need to hop on the bandwagon now to make a difference in the lives of all children, both here and everywhere in this world. If someone can direct all of us as to where to go with our money, be it a small amount or large, let us all know now!

  4. Lisa Green says:

    fine and great to "moralize" so you can feel better about yourself =- I doubt you understand morality – just weakness .

    You make me vomit –

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Lisa: You broke several of our rules for commenting (see the comment policy). For your punishment, I'm publishing your comment exactly as you wrote it.

      I worked hard at that post and did put some serious thought into it. It's too bad that you are not capable of demonstrating that you understand the main point of the post. It's too bad that you can't write clearly enough to show why you disagree with my post.

      I'm done with my comment. Feel free to go back to reading Ayn Rand's rants against charity or those books on social darwinism that you are probably spending a lot of time with these days.

  5. Tony Coyle says:

    Lisa: your response to a thoughtful post makes me wonder if you understand what it is to be human.

    I doubt it.

    Perhaps you need some time to learn and understand the term 'empathy'.

    ps. In a similar spirit of kindness – I wouldn't waste vomit on you – you're not worthy of it.

  6. Alison says:

    It's hard to decide where to draw the line at what point your spending becomes moral or well, not immoral, but less moral.

    Yes, in theory, all that sports money could save a lot of kids. But is it OK for an American who also donates to a carefully-chosen charity to buy those tickets? Is it more or less OK depending on the balance of spending between helping others and indulging oneself? Is spending the money on overpriced entertainment instead of human interest less moral than spending the money on overpriced military equipment instead of human interest? You can boil it down to a dichotomy, but if you tried writing it up, leaving blank spaces for the "bad" spending and the "good" spending and handed it out to all kinds of people, you'd have to hand out a lot of copies to get two identical pairs of answers.

    Picking out the best choice for spending altruistically is even more tortuous than deciding which type of spending is most wasteful. Need is everywhere – if you decide to support a program in one country, are you wrong for choosing that one instead of another (your own, for example)? Types of need are different – are you a better person for contributing to a medical program, or should you boost your morality points by going for feeding the hungry instead? After you've made those decisions, are you ready to take on the monumental task of finding out how effectively the various groups that address your cause spend that money or solve that problem? Do you pick the one that spends more on administration than help but helps more people, or one that's using more of their funds to help but doing it less effectively?

    I think we've all felt the same as you did – confronted with grotesque examples of wasteful spending, we can easily think of better uses for all that money. The hard part is in trying not to pass judgment on the individuals doing the spending, because we just don't know what else they're doing that might balance the scales a bit. I tend to aim my ire more at the entities that create the opportunities for this type of spending – they're in charge of creating the need, and seeing how far up they can push the price until it begins to reduce the created need. As far as helping needy people, I like to hear about legitimate, dedicated organizations, but I also know that there's no way to help everyone. My husband and I are neither wealthy nor living on the edge, so we plan during the year for one reasonably large donation to a single cause every year. Sometimes it's for a larger group, but we've also sent that check to the town library or animal shelter. Maybe this group will get that check from us this year – but if they don't, another group that makes a difference will.

  7. Niklaus Prirsig says:

    While I consider humanitarian aid in the form of providing for the needy to be an admirable quest, I feel that often it doesn't address the underlying causes of the need.

    Why are the children starving in the first place? In some cases it has been due to crop failures, but in many cases it has been the result of regional overpopulation. It is imperative that the children that survive be given the knowledge and moral strength to voluntarily balance reproduction with the land's ability to sustain them.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Allison: My point was that humans have the ability to compartmentalize their thoughts so well that they can blow big money on frivolities while their fellow humans starve. It is an intensely disturbing thought that we can perform these mental gymnastics so well. I raised this problem as a challenge to confront this tendency head-on, to spur responsible actions.

    In my mind, most of those solutions are long term solutions, such as making certain that we don't create unsustainable populations. That idea is obvious to me (and to Niklaus–see comment above), but most politicians are terrified to even acknowledge it, even as resources are strained to the breaking point, everywhere in the world. For more illustrations on how contentious it is to even broach the topic of overpopulation, see this post.

  9. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Several years ago, the Chinese government implemented very strict rules restricting the number of children adults were allow to have. The policy had many unforeseen effects, but probably prevent millions of deaths by starvation.

    Today the policy is viewed as cruel, but it was a pragmatic approach to their overpopulation problem. Since China's industrial growth, these policies have been abandoned, but when cheap energy runs out, we may see famine on a global scale. At that time, the Chinese solution will be the most humane answer.

  10. Alison says:

    Oh, I see what you mean, Erich. I think I was still in literal mode from commenting on the longitudinal study post. But this actually fits in with the theme anyway: "Thinking am hard. Make brains hurt."

  11. John says:

    Just wanted to say THANK YOU. I read this blog post years ago and it changed my life.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      John: Thank you for your comment. The idea of this post is powerful, truly a curse to kind-hearted people. It would be so nice to declare a moral oasis sometimes. At least once in a while. But I don't know how to honestly do this.

  12. Dan Klarmann says:

    From xkcd

    <img src="; alt="XKCD: Charity" width="100%" title="Click to visit original, and read his mouseover commentary" />

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dan: This is about how it usually goes. I'm not intending this to be a criticism, only an observation. Vague rules to "love thy neighbor" lead to this result. "You see, I'm loving my neighbor by THINKING about him while I play this cool new video game."

      If I were going to write a commandment, I'd like to give less wiggle room than "love thy neighbor as thyself." But who's going to join a religion that has a rule to give a certain percentage of one's income or disposable net income–other than Mormons, of course. And that precise dictate is only aimed at church donations.

      How much to keep and how much to give to the needy? Even setting aside that many desperate people got where they are due to short-sighted decision making or downright terrible decisions, how much should one REALLY give to the needy in a society where most goods and services can be translated into a common currency? That is the curse.

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