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The Motives of Very Rich People

By Matthew Yglesias on December 16, 2010 at 10:21 am

"The Motives of Very Rich People"

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I don’t know Peter Orszag nearly as well as Ezra Klein does, but I’m going to put Klein’s piece on Orszag’s non-greedy motivations for going to work for Citigroup in my “clever” file.

At any rate, human motivation is complicated and I think it’s rare for people’s life-choices to be dominated primarily by “doing it for the money” in a crass sense. The important exception to this isn’t what happens when you make a career choice, it’s what happens when you actually receive your paycheck. I give a modest amount of money to charity every year. The reason I don’t give more is, pretty transparently, that I’d rather keep the money for myself. And I think the right thing to say to people who take very high paying jobs in the for-profit sector rather than lower-paying jobs elsewhere, is that if they’re not doing it for the money they should give the extra money to someone who needs it more. New York City is full of people who would benefit more from a marginal dollar of consumption than a Citigroup Vice President. Someone with a passion for deficit reduction could even give the money to the US Treasury!

People generally shy away from offering this critique of others because most of us are vulnerable to it ourselves. I don’t make as much money as a Citigroup VP, but it’s still true that there are people who need money more than I do. And I give some money away, but not as much as my putative philosophical commitments would suggest. But at the same time, it’s important not to let a desire to avoid hypocrisy launch an ethical race to the bottom. I’m vulnerable to the “if it’s not about the money, you should give more money away” critique, but people who earn much more money than I do are even more vulnerable. We’d have a better world if people talked about this sort of thing more.

This would also, I note, genuinely be a good way for former public servants who have a sincere desire for the excitement and influence of private sector work to take high-powered positions without being vulnerable to having their motivates impugned. Many for-profit firms generate more consumer surplus than do many charities. It would be a mistake to argue that capable and ethical people should avoid working in the for-profit sector. But people with a lot of money have an ethical obligation to give money to people who need money more than they do.

So with all this said, I’m going to give $100 away today and so should you. And in keeping with my new “just give money to poor people” thinking, that’s how I’ll do it.

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