Chinese earthquake relief: America keeps its wallet closed

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Last week, in the break-room at my wife's office, there was a little jar marked "Chinese Earthquake Relief Fund." While it was there, her coworkers quietly and anonymously filled it with bills and change. At the end of three days, the jar contained $400. Her boss agreed to double all contributions, so the company just sent off a total of $1,200 to help the thousands of Chinese people who are currently homeless and hopeless. While perhaps just a drop in the bucket, these contributions will help somebody, somewhere, in a place that desperately needs every penny that it can get.

Unfortunately, my wife's office is the exception. In the 20 days since a cyclone hit Burma and the 11 days since an earthquake hit China, private individuals in the United States have donated $57 million, which is far below the average response for previous disasters. Traditionally, in fact, Americans are very generous when disaster strikes. For example, in the first five days after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, Americans donated $207 million. In the case of hurricane Katrina, the response was even more intense; within the first five days after the hurricane struck, Americans donated $226 million.

News sources have offered a wide array of reasons for the tepid private response. Some blame the recession, which has left many Americans scrounging for cash, unable to send money to charitable causes. Other culprits include concerns about China's human-rights abuses or lingering questions about the corporate honesty of charities. Perhaps the most interesting excuse is so-called "disaster fatigue," or the belief that we've seen it all before.

Another factor might be the underwhelming example that our government has set. While individuals and private groups have donated $57 million, the United States government has given an anemic $1.3 million, putting us in range of countries like Algeria ($1 million donated), Malaysia ($1.5 million), Ireland ($1.5 million), and Spain ($1.5 million). By comparison, Japan has donated $4.8 million, South Korea has donated $5 million, India has donated $5 million, and Macau has donated $15.3 million.

I probably couldn't find Macau on a map, but they've just outspent our government by ten to one!

One of the questions that we, as a country, are coming to terms with is whether or not we will continue to be a world leader or if we are going to quietly move into a comfy spot as a second-rate power. There's a lot to be said for the latter choice: as a second-rate power, you don't have to worry about leading the world, having all eyes on you, and generally dealing with the nitpicky criticism of other, jealous nations. You get to look back on your proud history and maybe play with the grandkids a little bit as you slowly recede into irrelevance. At the end of the day, there's much to be said for going gently into that sweet goodnight.

Obviously, I can't tell what the next 20 years will hold, nor do I know if we will maintain our position as a world leader. A lot will depend on whether or not we can develop a scalable alternative to fossil fuels, whether we can embrace inclusion, and whether or not we even really care. What I can state pretty definitively, however, is this: if one of the measures of greatness is generosity, our government is failing the test.

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