Donald Trump can save 600,000 lives — How many can you save?

Donald Trump can save 600,000 lives — How many can you save?
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The attainment of power over life and death has led many human rulers throughout history to portray themselves as gods. The Pharaohs viewed themselves as gods of course, but so too did the emperors of Christian Rome and Confucian China, the Sapa Inca and the Javanese Hindu Kings.

But today, you don’t have to be a pharaoh or emperor to be a god. In fact, there’s a good chance that you too are a god, with the power of life and death. 

In fact, you may be able to save a life right now with a few godlike motions of your index finger (on your mobile device). For a $1,650 donation to Helen Keller International, you can be reasonably assured of saving a life — according to Catherine Hollander, spokesperson for the evidence-based charity evaluator, GiveWell. HKI distributes vitamin A supplements for infants, which not only protect against night blindness, but more importantly lead to reduced death from childhood illnesses in developing countries.

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In addition to HKI, other efficient charities like the Against Malaria Foundation (which focuses on distributing mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa) and Deworm the World (providing deworming medicines) are also highly cost-efficient strategies for promoting health. Deworming initiatives can be highly cost-efficient as parasites and like hookworm and whipworm can stunt children’s mental and physical growth, lead to blindness (river blindness), cause excruciating pain (trachoma), and swollen limbs that make it hard to walk (elephantiasis).

 

Because fighting these and other parasites and diseases leads to markedly better life outcomes but don’t actually prevent deaths per se, HKI is the charity that can save a life for the lowest amount of money.

(By the way, one easy way to maximize your charitable donation is to give directly to GiveWell, which will pass your contribution on to one of their top charities via a thoughtful approach based on organizational capacity, opportunities, and the balance of giving by other major donors.)

Now that you know this $1,650 figure — let’s label it “L” for life — there is no turning back.

L represents the marginal value of a human life, based on the cost of saving a human life lived in extreme poverty in Africa. Just like c (the speed of light) or g (the force of Earth’s gravity) are fundamental values in physics, L is nothing less than a fundamental moral value. 

Fortunately, L=$1,650 makes for easy mental arithmetic: The cost of saving six lives is about $10,000. A million dollars could save 600 lives. And a single billionaire, like President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes MORE, could sell his assets and save over half a million people — 600,000 lives. 

Calculating L can help us understand global inequality by comparing L to the value of a life in the U.S., the richest country in the world. Our courts calculate monetary damages in wrongful death suits, for example, largely based on estimated total lifetime earnings. (Using lifetime earnings to define L in sub-Saharan Africa leads to a roughly similar figure as the cost of saving a life through Against Malaria.) 

In Maryland, the average award for the wrongful death of a man is about $4.1 million — over 2,000 times more than L=$1,650.

Altering that equation is the job of a god. 

Here’s how it works: When we have contributed enough resources to the fight against, say, malaria, the cost of protecting an additional life from malaria will go up. At some point, Against Malaria may reach all the low-hanging fruit — for example, the villages near roads. At that point, the cost of distributing nets in smaller and smaller hamlets will go up. Eventually, it may cost less to save a life from another strategy.

The point is that the more we give and the more lives we save at the margin, the higher L becomes. And that is what we want to see — an increase in the value of the marginal, vulnerable human life on the planet. That is how we will know that we are making progress.

But how do we get there? Rarely do we consider our personal spending and saving choices in the context of the “opportunity cost”, the cost in human lives and suffering of spending on ourselves rather than helping others.

Instead, all around us, advertisements and commercials persuade us to spend on ourselves — we are worth it, and buying the right consumer product is the path to happiness, social status, a happy family, a beautiful girlfriend.

In the past, we have largely relied on discussions of our moral obligations to the less fortunate and suffering in our religious communities. Yet religious belief has been declining in America for decades — in fact, only a minority of millennials, less than 40 percent, believe Christmas has religious significance.

But discussing the issue of L and our moral obligations in our secular culture is not easy. I have found that bringing up the subject with friends can trigger defensiveness. We hide behind an ideology of private property — the absolute right to dispense with our money as we see fit.

Yet the legal right to spend as we like does not give us a moral pass. We who are fortunate should begin to ask hard questions about whether we can save more lives by declining the highest level option package on our next car for the mid-level trim, go on a lakeside vacation rather than a cruise, or add a new coat of paint rather than a full bathroom renovation.

Many of us are quick to point fingers elsewhere: “What I do matters little if one billionaire hoarding his loot could save hundreds of thousands of people. Talk to me after Trump, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson put their billions toward helping the sick and poor.”

Indeed, there is a real question about the moral limits of personal wealth: Is it moral for wealthy individuals and families to hoard tens, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars of personal wealth, while millions die each year from easily preventable deaths?

Ultimately, we each will make our own decisions about how to use our godlike power and resources. But together, driven by godlike compassion and mercy, let’s take aim at L=$1,650 and drive it upwards.

Mark Feinberg is a research professor at Pennsylvania State University’s Prevention Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @MrkFnbrg.