Monday, March 7, 2011

Put down the Cheddar, and no one gets hurt

“Would you like to contribute to the Whole Planet Foundation this evening?” 

No. I’m sure that they are instructed to say this at each transaction.  It’s all so impersonal and pushy. No.

Yes, give them a freaking dollar.  It’s for micro loans.  You love micro loans.  You contribute to Kiva micro loans all the time.  Muhammad Yunus was a visionary, a genius.  Honor his legacy and give a dollar.  He founded the Grameen Bank.  He turned development assistance on its head.  He changed the world.  You know that it works, don’t deny it.

“You can give one, three, or more dollars,” Joselyn, my Whole Foods Team Member Cashier says brightly.  “It’s for a good cause!”

I don’t want to.  They’re always asking me for something.  Micro loans, save the spotted tarantula, cure spotted river blindness, burn down Trader Joe’s, always something with these people.  They are trying too hard to sell a "lifestyle" instead of just groceries.  "I shop at Whole Foods and they give money to charity so that makes me a better person, right?"  Why can’t I just buy my food in peace?  Prove a point.  Tell them how much you love micro loans, how you think they are a fantastic way to help the poor people in this world, how you would give all your money to micro loans, but they just blew it by being so pushy and smug about it.  So smug.

They’re not being pushy.  You’re being an A-hole.  How else do you expect them to raise money for this project?  People don’t generally just give without prompting.  They have to be asked.  You’re the same way.  And it’s only a dollar.  You have a seven-dollar hunk of cheese in your basket, for goodness sake.  I’ll repeat.  Seven dollar hunk o’ cheddar, real nice.  In the Peace Corps your average food expense was about twelve dollars per week.  Clearly one dollar goes farther in Ghana than is does in the USA.  How about putting back the cheddar and giving a dollar to the poor people, huh?  Cheese is fattening, anyway.

Fine.  One dollar.  It’s tax-deductible, right?

Yes, it’s tax-deductible, ass.  If you remember that you donated a year from now.  Save that receipt.  You’re doing the right thing, even if it's for the wrong reasons.  Keep the cheese, you’re entitled to something nice.  And give them another dollar next time you come.  You’re blogging about Ghana, about Africa, about the poor people of the world.  You have a responsibility to help.  Doesn’t have to be much.  A dollar will do.  And again, micro loans are worthy of your dollar.

“You can add a dollar for the foundation, please,” I reply. 


She’s not getting a bonus for selling these things, is she?  That sounds distasteful.  I want to take my dollar back now. 

Too late, you’re saving the world now weather you like it or not, sucker.

Hardly.  What can one dollar do?  Look on the chart at the checkout stand.  You can donate one, three, five, or One-Hundred and Eighty dollars to the whole planet foundation.  It says here that it costs that much to fund a single micro loan.  Yup, just go ahead and scan the $180, Joselyn, no problem.  Jeez, I go to Whole Foods to buy a $3.99 loaf of bread and walk out with a $183.99 loaf of bread and a micro loan.  Actually, though, given what it costs to shop at Whole Foods, a $180 micro loan might not be all that noticeable on my weekly shopping bill.

But it is tax-deductible, and that appeals to me in some strange way that has nothing to do with saving money.  The way I see it, tax-deductible donations are the most direct way common citizens can dictate where the government spends its money.  It’s tantamount to the government saying “For every 3 dollars (or so) you give to charity, Uncle Sam will chip in one dollar.  You’ll have to put down all four dollars up front, just so we know you’re serious about doing this, but we will give you that one dollar back next year.  You can spend your four dollars on any charity you like, provided it’s a legal charity, and Uncle Sam will reimburse you, no questions asked.  Well maybe some questions asked, if we decide to audit you, but don’t worry about that; details, details, details.”  So if I feel strongly about micro loans, and I honestly do feel strongly about them, in a good way, then I could give a lot of money to micro loan charities like the Whole Planet Foundation, or the Grameen Bank, and the government would be obligated to “chip in” so to speak.  Of course it doesn’t really work that way exactly.  I suppose the government will just make up for the lost revenue due to the charitable donations of a bunch of bloody do-gooders by printing up more money and spending it on whatever they wanted to spend it on in the first place, thus slipping our country into a death-spiral of hyperinflation and fascism.  So don’t get too crazy with the donations, you know, for the good of our country and what not.

But all kidding aside, micro loans are a neat thing.  Kind of like micro beers.  A little more expensive to produce, but generally more satisfying.  Did I say all kidding aside?

Mohammad Yunus, a Bengali economist, came up with the idea of micro loans in the 1970s after witnessing first-hand the terrible famine of Bangladesh in 1974.  Mr. Yunus recognized that the rural poor of Bangladesh – particularly women – did not have access to low interest rate loans because they generally had no collateral with which to secure a loan, they were seen as credit flight risks, and quite frankly it was difficult and expensive for traditional banks to market and sell small loans to rural people.  But the rural poor still needed access to credit in order to create and expand businesses, no matter how small, and also to improve their farms and houses, pay for medical care and emergencies, and generally improve their lot in life.  Because traditional banks could not be bothered with these loans, a market opened up for small businesses that would take on the risk and make these loans.  The only problem was that these gap-fillers were more often than not predatory lenders, charging exorbitant interest rates and ultimately pushing the borrowers further into poverty with their usurious inertest rates and unsavory business practices.

Mr. Yunus recognized an opportunity to step in and essentially compete with the predatory lenders by offering loans to the rural poor women of Bangladesh at more reasonable rates of return.  Starting with a small grant, he created what became the Grameen Bank in 1983, and since then, through some ups and downs, the bank has been a tremendous success. 

Not wholly without criticism, however.  The interest rates the Grameen Bank charges are still about 20%, which is of course much higher than the interest rates from traditional banks.  But still much lower than unregulated predatory loan interest rates, which can easily top 100%.  Certainly not all loans are repaid, and sometimes loans go bad for the borrowers, which can lead to ruin for the family or families that take out said loans.  It’s not perfect but it serves an important niche.

So I’ll give to the Whole Planet Foundation this month, you bet.  Each time I shop at Whole Foods this month I pledge to tack on a dollar to my bill for their micro loans.  And I shop there quite a bit actually, since my office is just a hop, skip, and a jump over the Burlington-Northern stockade fence from Whole Foods.  And I encourage you all to do the same.  Just for a month, put down the cheddar and put up a dollar for the poor peeps out there who otherwise have trouble getting access to funds they could use to build their businesses, build their homes, better their lives.

Peace (Corps) Out.

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