Friday, January 29, 2010

Only 330 Shopping Days Left till Christmas!

He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich – both come to poverty. Proverbs 22:16

The Christmas season is so wonderful, but when it’s over, we often have a feeling of “Good riddance!” Consider the violent reaction you might have if you tuned into a radio station in mid January that was playing Christmas carols: “What is this? Christmas is over!” Or the agitation you feel with the neighbor who by now still has not taken down the Christmas yard art. Don’t you just want to go over there and take it down yourself? If you can relate, you’ll have to pardon me because I’m about to dip back into the Christmas season for an application of Proverbs 22:16. When I read this verse I thought, My timing must be off. I should have been at this point six weeks ago, now Christmas is over. Then I realized that what I’m about to share was something I learned through the Christmas season. As December 25 was nearing, it was coming more into focus. I probably couldn’t have written this with such clarity while under the influence of eggnog, with a belly full of turkey and gingerbread.

About four years ago, I started growing discontent with Christmas shopping. I’m not a Scrooge, I actually love to shop (time to confess!) and I love to be surprised on Christmas Day just as much as the next person. Even more, I love to plan a surprise for my loved ones on Christmas Day. It is a great Christmas morning joy for me to see someone tear up as they open my gift to them. (This Christmas I did it twice! I surprised both my daughter and my husband with concert tickets to their favorite artists – both were completely blown away with surprise – and the tickets didn’t even cost that much: $16 to see Owl City. George Strait was a little more expensive at $75 – still, not much to pay to make my husband cry!)

Generally speaking, we are a family who doesn’t need anything – praise God, He has supplied our needs! Nonetheless, it’s not too hard to think of something special and not too expensive that someone in my family would be thrilled to have. So, OK, I can get into shopping for them. But there are a couple of people on my list who also don’t need anything and I don’t have the foggiest notion of what might make them shed a tear on Christmas morning. So I spend an inordinate amount of time surfing gift idea Web pages, cruising the mall and flipping through catalogs to usually just end up sending them a gift card. That’s a nice gesture and I certainly love to get gift cards, so I imagine they do too. But what did I just do? I spent $50 to give someone who doesn’t need anything something more they don’t need or even particularly want. Now multiply this times the number of people like this on my list and there’s a lot of money spent on fulfilling some nonsensical gift-giving obligation. Round about Christmas Eve, I was sick to my stomach with this nonsense and still had one more gift to buy – my best friend – another one of those people who doesn’t need anything. After hours of pouring through stupid gift recommendations online, I decided to get her something that would benefit her favorite cause – pet rescue.

Earlier in the season, I got an email from my mother saying she had given a gift to Heifer International on behalf of our family. I greatly appreciated that – actually, it was probably my favorite Christmas gift this year. I know I’m not introducing you to any new concept to give money to a charitable cause in lieu of giving a mug full of candy or fuzzy socks. You may get several of these charity “gift catalogs” in the mail each year. I threw all of mine away in the garbage can at the post office (another confession!). I love the idea, but I had my mind set already on giving stuff and things.

Reflecting on this past Christmas, I see that if I want to give wisely, that is, according to the principles in the Word of God, I have to put myself in that frame of mind well before the Christmas season begins. Now, in fact, is an excellent time to start – even more so because I have children (two plus my husband) who look to Christmas to make all their dreams come true. This is, of course, the true meaning of Christmas – all of our dreams come true in the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life. And yet you know as well as I do that salvation is hard to fit under a tree. If I want to honor God more in my gift-giving on Christmas, I need to begin now to prepare my children to be happy on Christmas morning with less under the tree.

About four years ago, my husband and I decided to put a limit on Christmas spending – each person gets $100 to buy gifts. We have never once stuck to it, but we’ve come much closer than we ever would have without the limit. When we pool that money, that’s $400 our family of four spends on Christmas gifts. That doesn’t include what we spend to make treats and wrap them for our neighbors or in donations through Toys for Tots and other Christmas initiatives we always participate in (I’m good with that spending; it’s the kind I want to do more of). Do you have any notion what $400 can do in other places in the world? Well, a family of four could live off of it for more than a month in these countries: Burkina Faso (where is that?), Benin (I think that’s in Africa), Eritrea (never heard of it!), Chad, Central African Republic (now I know that’s in Africa), Mozambique (sounds like a cool place to live), Tajikistan, Kenya, Mali (not Malawi), Nigeria (not Niger), Zambia, Niger (not Nigeria), Rep. of Yemen, Madagascar (apparently the movie hasn’t done much for them), Rep. of Congo, Ethiopia (still starving after all these years), Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Rep. of Congo (another Congo?), Burundi (again, sounds African), Tanzania, Malawi (not Mali) and Sierra Leone. That’s a lot of countries and a lot of people too – approximately 580 million! That’s like everybody in the United States – almost twice!

Oh, but I don’t know any of those people, so how can I send them a Christmas gift? And what difference would my gift make anyway?
Let me be frank: if you don’t know anyone in Africa by name, you just haven’t tried very hard. I know a young man named David who lives in Nigeria. He can go to school each month because we send $25 to World Vision. I know evangelists in South Africa who just concluded an campaign in Liberia that saw 2,200 people accept the gift of salvation. And I haven’t even really tried that hard to come to know these people and their efforts. Mostly, I’ve just paid attention to the mail I opened (unlike the treatment I gave those gift catalogs).

Now let’s do some simple math to figure what difference our gift could make anyway. My family spends less on Christmas than the average American family. Last year 307 million Americans (I thought there were more of us, but this is what U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, and The World Factbook, 2009 reports) planned to spend $743 per person on Christmas, according to Gallop. That’s just over $228 billion. Impressive! What if each person made just a modest effort to redirect some of their inane giving – let’s say $50 a person? Multiply by U.S. population and that’s $15,350,000,000! Do you mean to say that if everyone redirected the funds for one decent gift, next Christmas Americans could give the gift of clean drinking water to the entire developing world ($10 billion) and have enough left over to inoculate all the children in India against childhood disease ($40 million)??? Wait – we still have money leftover –$4.5 billion. Hmm. How about we prolong life for a year for more than 4 million mothers with AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa? That would put a smile on a child’s face on Christmas morning, wouldn’t it?

To all my friends and family: You can take the $50 you were going to spend on me and purchase immunizations for 12 Indian children next year. I can promise you that opening a box with a note inside that says, “12 kids in India were immunized in your honor” will bring a tear to my eye – and joy to my heart.

Contemplate this: At Christmas and throughout the year, am I giving gifts to the rich like the fool in Proverbs 22:16?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

One Wrong + One Right Does Not Make a Right Either

Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice. Proverbs 16:8

Have you ever priced a hearing aid? These tiny electrical gadgets, some small enough to fit completely in the ear without being seen, range in cost from $1000 to $4000. I feel sure that no hearing aid manufacturer would make this information public, but I bet the raw materials on each hearing aid cost about 25 cents. A say this based on the fact that I can purchase an AM/FM radio in the dollar store (the one where everything costs a dollar). Hearing aids are made with the same raw materials as that radio, but fewer of them. As editor of a magazine for people with hearing loss, I know the industry rationale for the other $999.75 worth of cost on even the basic model: research and development. It is true that there are many scientists and engineers working on improving the quality of hearing with amplification. It’s also true that all of the major hearing aid manufacturers not only spend hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising their products to audiologists and hearing aid dispensers, and have nice profit margins, they each also have a philanthropic spin-off organization or at least, some sort of philanthropic program within the company.

This is a pretty common thing among large corporations, and in fact, many people are influenced in their purchasing decisions by whether or not the company in some way “gives back” to the community or the world. I like to eat small, compressed wheat rectangles for breakfast. Recently, one producer of this type of cereal advertised that they are giving away a million bowls of cereal. My purchase of said cereal is going to generate another free bowl of cereal for some hungry kid. “Good!” I think. “That’s nice. If only all corporations would give back in this manner, the world would be a better place.”

Then it dawns on me that if I weren’t be overcharged for my bowl of cereal, Post company wouldn’t have a margin of profit so far above its shareholder expectations that it is able to give away a million bowls of cereal without ticking off the shareholders, cutting back on salaries or advertising, or even lowering office thermostat in winter. The same is true about hearing aid companies. Should I feel good that Starkey Hearing Foundation gives away on average 38,000 hearing aids each year at the expense of those honest hard of hearing folk who bought one of their products?

According to a 2009 Consumer Report, hearing aids are marked up on average 117 percent after all the costs of materials, research and development, advertising and professional services rendered by audiologists are taken into account. That’s a free-market economy at work. Consumers will pay it so companies can charge it. But I have to ask: In all this economic theory played out, where is justice? Oh, right, it’s in those one million bowls of free cereal and in the 38,000 hearing aids a year that the company is giving away. In my opinion, that is dissociated, post-coital justice: an attempt to make things right with a third party after having screwed your customer. Here’s a radical idea: Why not offer the product at a price where the margin of profit is not obscene? Post Shredded Wheat cost $2.98 at my local supermarket. If they adjusted their price so that they couldn’t afford to create a philanthropic program to feed a million, I bet more of America’s truly poor people could afford to buy it. Then those poor people wouldn’t need to stand in a bread line in front of some social services organization to get their free bowl of cereal. And if you think I’m harshing on Post, you should know that their bite-size wheat cereal costs almost a dollar less than the same product under the Kellogg brand.

And yet, it seems an almost insurmountable feat to radically lower the price of cereal, not to mention hearing aids. It would shake the industry if Post or Starkey started pricing their products with a modest profit margin. It could topple the economy! I fully recognize that it’s not just as easy as deciding to do the right thing when it comes to large corporations that are industry leaders. I also fully recognize that those corporations are made up of individuals who will be held accountable by a just God for their daily decisions.

But while I’m pointing the finger at large corporations and the individuals who run them, I should note the three fingers pointing back at me. First of all, I could well be a shareholder of one such company. I have no idea if I am or not. As I’ve mention in a previous post, our global economy and the convoluted way in which we invest money today, through funds, is a huge barrier to tracing my investment dollar and its impact on society. I could be part of the problem! Secondly, small businesses employ over half of private sector employees in the United States in approximately 29.6 million small businesses, according to the Office of Advocacy, which means small businesses play an important role in the economy and also have ample opportunity to justly or unjustly price products and services. Thirdly (the pinky finger), what am I doing as a consumer to let large corporations know that I’d prefer that they price justly, enabling more people to afford their products and services, than to overprice and then scrape off some of their crumbs to the poor, perpetuating a “welfare mentality”?

Contemplate this: Am I economically supporting, philosophically endorsing or perhaps even actively participating in unjust gain?