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Akst: Generosity should go beyond the bus

A journalist checks out the fundraising website

A journalist checks out the fundraising website in Washington, DC. started accepting donations, aiming to raise $5,000 USD to send bus monitor Karen Klein on a vacation. (June 21, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

By now you may have seen the video, as at least 2 million others have.

Karen Klein, a 68-year-old Rochester-area school bus monitor, is taunted mercilessly by a bunch of foul-mouthed middle-school students. Klein's restraint in the face of this revolting onslaught is extraordinary.

Even more extraordinary: Once the video of this Lord of the Flies episode went viral on the Internet, a stranger's fund-raising effort to buy her a nice getaway brought in, at last count, a staggering $560,000.

The events in this video raise many disturbing questions. How can young people be so cruel? And what kind of homes do these kids come from?

But to me, the Klein saga raises one question above all others: Why do we need a video in order to open our wallets, in this case to a person whose suffering was not strictly the result of too little money?

The answer, of course, is human nature. Putting a face on suffering is usually more effective than any abstract appeal. That's why so many charitable appeals feature images of starving African children or others in dire need.

Yet the outpouring in response to Klein's doleful experience on the school bus suggests that some people, at least, can afford to give more. I suspect this is true of many Americans, myself included. If that's the case, then we ought to give it, even if we never see another video of a person in need.

It's worth noting here that Americans are already among the most charitable people in the industrialized world. Furthermore, I have no illusions that philanthropy can solve all the world's problems. On the contrary, I believe economic growth is the most potent force for progress on almost every front, and that Bill Gates has done more good -- as a businessman and a philanthropist -- than Mother Teresa.

But markets can't solve every problem. Nor can governments. And let's face it, existing levels of philanthropy pale in comparison to the disease, hunger and other woes that more money could alleviate.

So how much should the average middle-class person give? That's a tough question. Personally I do not plan to feel guilty every time I drink a craft beer instead of a glass of tap water, just because I could have diverted a few more dollars to the needy. This kind of self-denial would soon enough make me uninterested in earning any money in the first place. That's how communism failed.

On the other hand, I know I could do more even without sacrificing Racer 5 India Pale Ale. I've had the example of friends who had less than I do, yet followed the tradition of tithing -- giving 10 percent. Besides, charitable giving is tax-deductible.

If 10 percent sounds like a lot, consider the Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, who in 2010 gave away 40 percent of his $39,000 salary. He focuses on fighting tuberculosis and parasitic infections in the Third World.

Despite his modest earnings, Ord is determined to give a million pounds -- more than $1.5 million -- over the next 35 years or so, which he estimates will save thousands of lives. For the rest of us, he's started an outfit called Giving What We Can, whose members have committed to give at least 10 percent of their earnings to the most cost-effective charities.

Finding a charity that will put your hard-earned money to good use is a big problem faced by anyone philanthropically inclined. Giving What We Can claims to have done so, in part, by focusing on the developing world, where the most good can be done for the least cost.

Watching children savage a harmless grandmother has inspired great generosity. The challenge now, for each of us, is to find such generosity in ourselves for those whose sufferings we'll never see.

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.