What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?
By PETER SINGER
Published: December 17, 2006
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PHILOSOPHERS LIKE Liam Murphy of New York University and my colleague
Kwame Anthony Appiah at Princeton contend that our obligations are
limited to carrying our fair share of the burden of relieving global
poverty. They would have us calculate how much would be required to
ensure that the world's poorest people have a chance at a decent life,
and then divide this sum among the affluent. That would give us each
an amount to donate, and having given that, we would have fulfilled
our obligations to the poor.
What might that fair amount be? One way of calculating it would be to
take as our target, at least for the next nine years, the Millennium
Development Goals, set by the United Nations Millennium Summit in
2000. On that occasion, the largest gathering of world leaders in
history jointly pledged to meet, by 2015, a list of goals that
Reducing by half the proportion of the world's people in extreme
poverty (defined as living on less than the purchasing-power
equivalent of one U.S. dollar per day).
Reducing by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
Ensuring that children everywhere are able to take a full course of
Ending sex disparity in education.
Reducing by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under 5.
Reducing by three-quarters the rate of maternal mortality.
Halting and beginning to reverse the spread of H.I.V./AIDS and halting
and beginning to reduce the incidence of malaria and other major
Reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access
to safe drinking water.
Last year a United Nations task force, led by the Columbia University
economist Jeffrey Sachs, estimated the annual cost of meeting these
goals to be $121 billion in 2006, rising to $189 billion by 2015. When
we take account of existing official development aid promises, the
additional amount needed each year to meet the goals is only $48
billion for 2006 and $74 billion for 2015.
Now let's look at the incomes of America's rich and superrich, and ask
how much they could reasonably give. The task is made easier by
statistics recently provided by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez,
economists at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris-Jourdan, and the
University of California, Berkeley, respectively, based on U.S. tax
data for 2004. Their figures are for pretax income, excluding income
from capital gains, which for the very rich are nearly always
substantial. For simplicity I have rounded the figures, generally
downward. Note too that the numbers refer to "tax units," that is, in
many cases, families rather than individuals.
Piketty and Saez's top bracket comprises 0.01 percent of U.S.
taxpayers. There are 14,400 of them, earning an average of
$12,775,000, with total earnings of $184 billion. The minimum annual
income in this group is more than $5 million, so it seems reasonable
to suppose that they could, without much hardship, give away a third
of their annual income, an average of $4.3 million each, for a total
of around $61 billion. That would still leave each of them with an
annual income of at least $3.3 million.
Next comes the rest of the top 0.1 percent (excluding the category
just described, as I shall do henceforth). There are 129,600 in this
group, with an average income of just over $2 million and a minimum
income of $1.1 million. If they were each to give a quarter of their
income, that would yield about $65 billion, and leave each of them
with at least $846,000 annually.
The top 0.5 percent consists of 575,900 taxpayers, with an average
income of $623,000 and a minimum of $407,000. If they were to give
one-fifth of their income, they would still have at least $325,000
each, and they would be giving a total of $72 billion.
Coming down to the level of those in the top 1 percent, we find
719,900 taxpayers with an average income of $327,000 and a minimum of
$276,000. They could comfortably afford to give 15 percent of their
income. That would yield $35 billion and leave them with at least
Finally, the remainder of the nation's top 10 percent earn at least
$92,000 annually, with an average of $132,000. There are nearly 13
million in this group. If they gave the traditional tithe — 10 percent
of their income, or an average of $13,200 each — this would yield
about $171 billion and leave them a minimum of $83,000.
You could spend a long time debating whether the fractions of income I
have suggested for donation constitute the fairest possible scheme.
Perhaps the sliding scale should be steeper, so that the superrich
give more and the merely comfortable give less. And it could be
extended beyond the Top 10 percent of American families, so that
everyone able to afford more than the basic necessities of life gives
something, even if it is as little as 1 percent. Be that as it may,
the remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of
donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone
yields a total of $404 billion — from just 10 percent of American
Obviously, the rich in other nations should share the burden of
relieving global poverty. The U.S. is responsible for 36 percent of
the gross domestic product of all Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development nations. Arguably, because the U.S. is
richer than all other major nations, and its wealth is more unevenly
distributed than wealth in almost any other industrialized country,
the rich in the U.S. should contribute more than 36 percent of total
global donations. So somewhat more than 36 percent of all aid to
relieve global poverty should come from the U.S. For simplicity, let's
take half as a fair share for the U.S. On that basis, extending the
scheme I have suggested worldwide would provide $808 billion annually
for development aid. That's more than six times what the task force
chaired by Sachs estimated would be required for 2006 in order to be
on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and more than 16
times the shortfall between that sum and existing official development
If we are obliged to do no more than our fair share of eliminating
global poverty, the burden will not be great. But is that really all
we ought to do? Since we all agree that fairness is a good thing, and
none of us like doing more because others don't pull their weight, the
fair-share view is attractive. In the end, however, I think we should
reject it. Let's return to the drowning child in the shallow pond.
Imagine it is not 1 small child who has fallen in, but 50 children. We
are among 50 adults, unrelated to the children, picnicking on the lawn
around the pond. We can easily wade into the pond and rescue the
children, and the fact that we would find it cold and unpleasant
sloshing around in the knee-deep muddy water is no justification for
failing to do so. The "fair share" theorists would say that if we each
rescue one child, all the children will be saved, and so none of us
have an obligation to save more than one. But what if half the
picnickers prefer staying clean and dry to rescuing any children at
all? Is it acceptable if the rest of us stop after we have rescued
just one child, knowing that we have done our fair share, but that
half the children will drown? We might justifiably be furious with
those who are not doing their fair share, but our anger with them is
not a reason for letting the children die. In terms of praise and
blame, we are clearly right to condemn, in the strongest terms, those
who do nothing. In contrast, we may withhold such condemnation from
those who stop when they have done their fair share. Even so, they
have let children drown when they could easily have saved them, and
that is wrong.
Similarly, in the real world, it should be seen as a serious moral
failure when those with ample income do not do their fair share toward
relieving global poverty. It isn't so easy, however, to decide on the
proper approach to take to those who limit their contribution to their
fair share when they could easily do more and when, because others are
not playing their part, a further donation would assist many in
desperate need. In the privacy of our own judgment, we should believe
that it is wrong not to do more. But whether we should actually
criticize people who are doing their fair share, but no more than
that, depends on the psychological impact that such criticism will
have on them, and on others. This in turn may depend on social
practices. If the majority are doing little or nothing, setting a
standard higher than the fair-share level may seem so demanding that
it discourages people who are willing to make an equitable
contribution from doing even that. So it may be best to refrain from
criticizing those who achieve the fair-share level. In moving our
society's standards forward, we may have to progress one step at a
For more than 30 years, I've been reading, writing and teaching about
the ethical issue posed by the juxtaposition, on our planet, of great
abundance and life-threatening poverty. Yet it was not until, in
preparing this article, I calculated how much America's Top 10 percent
of income earners actually make that I fully understood how easy it
would be for the world's rich to eliminate, or virtually eliminate,
global poverty. (It has actually become much easier over the last 30
years, as the rich have grown significantly richer.) I found the
result astonishing. I double-checked the figures and asked a research
assistant to check them as well. But they were right. Measured against
our capacity, the Millennium Development Goals are indecently,
shockingly modest. If we fail to achieve them — as on present
indications we well might — we have no excuses. The target we should
be setting for ourselves is not halving the proportion of people
living in extreme poverty, and without enough to eat, but ensuring
that no one, or virtually no one, needs to live in such degrading
conditions. That is a worthy goal, and it is well within our reach.
Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics at the Center
for Human Values at Princeton University. He is the author of many
books, including most recently "The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices