Freakonomics inadvertently reveals the futility of transactional giving thinking

My stomach hurts.

In a post on the Freakonomics blog entitled Freakonomics Quorum: The Economics of Street Charity, Stephen J. Dubner poses the following question to personages as varied as Arthur Brooks (author of Who Really Cares?), Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickled and Dimed):

You are walking down the street in New York City with $10 of disposable income in your pocket. You come to a corner with a hot dog vendor on one side and a beggar on the other. The beggar looks like he’s been drinking; the hot dog vendor looks like an upstanding citizen. How, if at all, do you distribute the $10 in your pocket, and why?

Here’s what’s curdled my stomach cheese:

Not a single respondent–from either the “celebrity” panel or the nine pages of comments to the blog–mentions the possibility of getting involved with the homeless man beyond the hot dog or the handout.

Responses fall into one of three general categories, vociferously argued:

  1. Give money to the homeless man
  2. Give a hot dog to the homeless man
  3. Give nothing to the homeless man

From a Christian perspective, Barbara Ehrenreich, a self-identified atheist, offers the most interesting response:

Although I’m atheist, I defer to Jesus on beggar-related matters. He said, if a man asks for your coat, give him your cloak too. (Actually, he said if a man “sue thee at the law” for the coat, but most beggars skip the legal process.) Jesus did not say: First, administer a breathalyzer test to the supplicant, or, first, sit him down for a pep talk on “focus” and “goal-setting.” He said: Give him the damn coat.

As a matter of religious observance, if a beggar importunes me directly, I must fork over some money. How do I know whether he’s been drinking or suffers from a neurological disorder anyway? Unless I’m his parole officer, what do I care? And before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should reflect on the possibility that the beggar is a vegetarian or only eats kosher or Hallal meat.

So if the beggar approaches me and puts out his hand, and if I only have a $10 bill, I have to give it to him. It’s none of my business whether he plans to spend it on infant formula for his starving baby or a pint of Thunderbird.

It would be unfair to hold Ehrenreich to the standard of a full and proper exposition of Christian doctrine, but a few thoughts do bear mentioning here:

  • Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan portrays a much more transformational approach to human tragedy than hot dog/tenspot/bupkus. The Samaritan does not simply give money. He becomes personally involved, with head, heart, and hand attached to his check.
  • Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats shows that it does matter what we give to the homeless man. If you give the homeless man directions to a homeless shelter, you have given Jesus directions to a homeless shelter. If you give the homeless man a hot dog, you have given Jesus a hot dog. Do you want to stand before the great white throne of judgment and have Jesus say, “Hey, thanks for the hot dog and the directions to the homeless shelter. You really put yourself out there for me, man.”
  • One might protest that I seem to be advocating for an impractical level of involvement here. Perhaps. But perhaps God is advocating an impractical level of involvement for us with the homeless. After working with the homeless for a goodly number of years and serving as president of the largest rescue mission in the US, I certainly don’t harbor romantic notions about homeless people and how easy it is to be regularly committed to involvement with them. But I do know this: they are neither a separate species nor objects of pity in God’s view, and He seems to spend a lot of time thinking about how to be involved with them, too.
  • I realize that Ehrenreich’s vegetarian comment is intended to be a bit snarky, but all snarkiness aside, is it just an oversight that she writes, “before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should reflect on the possibility that the beggar is a vegetarian”  rather than writing, “before anyone virtuously offers him a hot dog, they should ask the homeless person whether he is a vegetarian”? Transactional giving thinking turns people into objects of pity or scorn, not subjects of their own lives.
  • It does matter what the man does with the money. God holds us accountable not simply for our generosity but for what results from it. Again, transactional giving separates head, heart, and hands from checks. Transformational Giving bundles them together and considers them inseparable.

I feel much better now. I think I’ll go get a hot dog.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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5 Responses to Freakonomics inadvertently reveals the futility of transactional giving thinking

  1. Matt Bates says:

    What, no libertarians on the Freakonomics message boards advocating for giving the hot dog vendor $10 to invest in his or her business?

    The element that religion adds to the mix on giving is that the giver has need. The assumption is that if you read the Freakonomics blog, and you’re walking down the street in NYC, then of course you are a person of means with no need. But Jesus– and other religious leaders, to be fair, but maybe none so much as Jesus– suggests that there is no distinction of neediness between the person with the $10, the hot dog vendor, or the beggar. In fact, the beggar may be the richest entity present. After all, “Man does not live on hot dogs alone”.

    One of the great distinctions of Transformational Giving is that it assumes a need for transformation in the giver, even if the giver is a billionaire owner of a mediocre basketball team.

    • EFoley says:

      Great comment, Batesy. And, yes, there actually were commentators advocating the $10 hot dog investment, as well as those who advocated tearing the $10 bill in half.

  2. Robert says:

    It seems like Jesus would call us to help both men. I would do it like this:

    For the vendor: Buy a portable sign advertising the hot dog stand with the $10. Give the vendor the sign, in exchange for his promise to quietly give away one hot dog per day to a hungry person in need, in perpetuity, for so long as his prosperity and business success allow it. (It’s a bad deal economically, but a good deal morally, and most hot dog vendors would take the deal.)

    For the homeless person: Talk to the homeless person while he eats the first free hot dog in the series, if he’s hungry, and find out what else he needs. Most likely, he needs a job. Well, you happen to know a hot dog vendor who now needs a sign-carrier; maybe he can work at carrying the portable sign around town promoting the business.

    I would pursue a healthy friendship with the vendor, because I’d like to find out if he’s a Christian or needs to be saved, and to encourage his personal charity and involvement with the work of helping the poor. But the homeless guy probably could better benefit from someone’s friendship, who over time I would try to help become increasingly functional.

    Ideally, over time, I’d help the homeless guy become a franchisee of the vendor, employing other homeless to promote and eventually own their own hot dog stands in other neighborhoods and towns. Each stand could continue to give away one hot dog per day to a hungry person in need, as part of the franchise arrangement. I’d ask the original vendor, now very wealthy from his national network of franchised hot dog stands, to generously support the poor and homeless through charity and real personal involvement. I’d ask the formerly homeless hot-dog stand owners to become DOTW in their business and personal lives. And I’d ask the customers of all these hot dog stands to get involved in some way – given the nature of the business, probably some kind of food drive for the poor or to help food banks. There’s always work of that sort that needs to be done.

    It’s a lot to get from a $10 bill, I’ll grant you, but even if the glorious scheme part doesn’t work out, the vendor has a new sign and some hungry homeless people will get hot dogs.

  3. Robert says:

    One tries.

    Alas, it’s a lot easier on the abstract plane than on the material. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked past a hot dog stand and a homeless person, and with more than $10 in my pocket…but it’s more than one. And I’ve not done this, or anything like it. ;(

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