Friday, January 21, 2011

Make A Wish

It seems like the Make A Wish Foundation has started a new advertising campaign. Either that, or it's a coincidence that, right after seeing lots of ads for them in New York City, I saw one on TV. (There are certainly ads for a lot of things in NYC I don't see ads for back home. The USA network in particular was saturating the billboards and buses with ads for their shows, for instance.)

I feel for the kids that Make A Wish is helping, and I certainly don't object to their mission. But I've never chosen to give them a contribution, and I don't intend to. Why? Well, an answer to that runs the risk of the budgeting fallacy. Taken on its own, in isolation, you could easily argue that the Make A Wish Foundation does good work, and therefore, deserves to be funded. But you can't take it on its own, in isolation. Every dollar that goes to the Make A Wish Foundation is a dollar that is taken away from some other charity. (The exception: people who give to Make A Wish money that they would not have given at all otherwise.)

Ultimately, and I know it seems callous to say so, what Make A Wish is doing seems superficial, shallow, and unimportant to me, compared to other charities. That doesn't mean it's meaningless, that it's nothing. But I would much rather see the money and effort spent on something that actually makes the world better in a lasting way.

If someone's wish is to see a celebrity, and the celebrity is amenable, and the whole thing can be arranged through a few people donating some time plus some paltry travel expenses, that's fine. But some of these wishes are elaborate and expensive. Ultimately the Make A Wish Foundation has a large budget and that money is going somewhere. What if you could take half of that money (and thus deprive half of the kids getting wishes of getting their wishes) and use it to buy medicine that would save one tenth of that many kids from dying? Because there's no question that that much money could easily save that many lives if it were directed to one of the many charities that helps people in immediate need for whom solutions already exist but just aren't available -- food, clean water, medicine, shelter, and safety being the main things that can be provided but aren't.

That doesn't mean I think we should gut all other charities in favor of immediate needs. Some of my charity money goes to feed the hungry and bring medical care to the needy, but some of it goes towards longer-term sources of hope, like environmental protection efforts, and developing technology that may take centuries before it can help what I think is humanity's biggest problem (overpopulation). But it's all aimed at making the world better, bringing hope of real improvements. Sometimes this can be very indirect: for instance, money spent on encouraging the arts is also encouraging the kind of intellectual development that leads to the kind of good changes in the world we need, so while buying tubas for schoolkids isn't saving lives, it does contribute to doing so in the long run.

I'm sure one could make some very tenuous and indirect path by which Make A Wish does that, too. But I think it'd be hard to defend that it is making, even in the long term, a difference that even remotely compares to money spent buying watershed land or funding space exploration, let alone sending doctors and antibiotics to Africa. Am I missing something about what the Make A Wish Foundation does, or is it really just putting sentimentality ahead of true benefit to the world, because no one has the heart to say to a dying child, "that's not really a good way to spend our resources"?

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