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The Financial Immorality of American Generosity
by Lucinda Marshall
January 11, 2005

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The remarkable generosity of Americans in offering help to the victims of the recent Tsunami is truly heartwarming. All across our country, individuals, corporations and countless organizations, religious groups and charities have not only opened their hearts, but their wallets as well, this on top of the $350 million pledged by our government. Drug giant Pfizer promptly offered $10 million in cash and $35 million in drugs, although it is unclear if this was the retail price of the drugs or the discounted price paid by insurance companies. Regardless, it is a clear indication of the health of our pharmaceutical companies.

Individuals have also been extraordinarily generous. Perhaps most stunning was the $1 million given by actress Sandra Bullock. While not meaning to disparage Ms. Bullock's incredible example in any way, it is truly amazing that one individual can pony up 1/350th of what her government is giving and 20 times the amount being offered by tiny East Timor.

But before we pat ourselves on the back as Colin Powell did when he suggested that our largesse might well bolster our battered image in the Muslim world, we would be well advised to view our giving in the larger context of our overall spending habits. For instance, we will spend upwards of $45 million for President Bush's Inaugural festivities. And this last Christmas, Wall Streeters received $15.9 billion in bonuses (albeit this was somewhat overshadowed by the $102 million in fines levied against them).

At the same time we were so generously helping Tsunami victims, we are being less generous in other ways, cutting $300 million in Pell education grants and $100 million in international food aid (despite a rising number of hungry people in the world). However, we are still being most generous in our military funding. The budget for the U.S. military in 2004 was $450 billion and we have spent $200 billion on the war in Iraq (with Congress anticipating a request for another $100 billion in the near future).

And of course there is also the $18 billion Iraqi reconstruction funds (most of which has yet to be spent) and the $877 million being spent on more Anthrax vaccine, this at a time when we can't even competently provide flu vaccines to protect against a known annual cause of death for tens of thousands of people. Completing our spending profile, it's important to mention our national debt of $7.5 trillion and our $422 billion dollar budget deficit.

The reality is that as a nation, we are in fact quite stingy. While the U.S. gives the most foreign aid in terms of dollars, we rank the lowest compared to other developed nations in giving as a percentage of income. Currently the U.S. gives .15% of GNP (compared with highest ranked Norway which gives .92% of their GNP).

But adding up the dollars only tells part of the story. Unfortunately, we also need to count the bodies. Unquestionably, 2004 was a very deadly year. Current estimates are that 150,000 people have died in the Tsunami with hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation and disease. As many as 100,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the $200 billion that we spent invading that country and many more as a result of conflicts all over the globe. Ten million children have starved to death and there were more than 500,000 maternal deaths (95% of which were preventable). And finally, several million people throughout the world have died of AIDS and several million more from malaria.

It is a reflection of our values that these deaths are primarily footnotes and sidebars in the daily media barrage, not meriting the attention that has been lavished on the victims of the Tsunami. In the case of disease, they are deaths that happen one by one throughout the year, not in the blink of a dramatic sound bite. And in the case of war, civilian deaths are routinely discounted as collateral damage, not worthy of our attention.

But the problem is that when it comes time to balance the books, the bottom line is that we are willing to spend much more to kill people than to save people, and that our giving is minuscule compared to our hedonistic quest for power. In other words, far from being the generous nation that we portray ourselves to be, we Americans are morally bankrupt.

Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network ( which publishes Atrocities, a bulletin documenting violence against women throughout the world. Her work has been published in numerous publications including, Awakened Woman, Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, Progressive, Rain and Thunder, Z Magazine, Common Dreams and The Hip Mama Anthology.

Other Articles by Lucinda Marshall

* The Surreality Show: Stranger than Fiction
* (Not) In The News: Media Culpability in the Continuum of Violence Against Women

* Yanar Mohammed on the Impact of the US Occupation on the Lives of Iraqi Women
* The Misogynist Undercurrents of Abu Ghraib