Chocolate or Kimchi?

In the television series M*A*S*H, Charles, the Bostonite snob, continues his family’s tradition of anonymous giving with a gift of expensive chocolate to the local Korean orphanage. When he finds out that the orphanage director has sold his gift for money, Charles angrily confronts him. The director explains that chocolate will make his children happy for a moment, but the money he got from the sale will feed them for a month. Charles realizes that “it is sadly inappropriate to offer dessert to a child who has had no meal” and apologizes.

How like Charles are we who scold the rich for not “giving” more. We look at the gift of a new park or a donation to a hospital as morally admirable, yet wag our tongues in disdain when a businessperson spends on expanding a business or creating a new one. The former is transparent and obvious–we see the recipient and the giver linked so that no one can miss it. The latter is more subtle, yet more powerful.

When someone gives to another directly, there is rarely a multiplicative effect. The gift stops there. When someone expands a business or educates him/herself with the money that would have been used to buy the gift, that investment fuels the creation of value over and over and over–the doctor who heals, the company that employs.

Public policy gravitates toward the programs that shine for even the dullest to see. From the Halls of Congress come wave after wave of apparent good–the promise of retirement and healthcare benefits, the showering of struggling industries with favors, the tariff imposed on competitors. All can be argued to do some immediate good, but like the morning dew, they quickly evaporate.

Private givers know that there is a time and a place for giving without expectation of profit. They also know that if they were to go broke, they could no longer help anyone. Public “givers” have no such reality-based restraint. Forever using the wealth of others, they excel at the show of compassion, yet are blind to its source.

We will know we have matured as a country when we learn to celebrate the creator first and the giver second. Without the former, there is no latter. In the meantime, we are a nation of children, seduced by the lure of chocolate when we should be helping bury the kimchi jar.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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