Friday, December 31, 2004

The Stinge-O-Meter, which the United Nations uses to measure the generosity of its members, is busted. The needle is spinning wildly, out of control.

Jan Egeland, the chief bureaucrat in charge of the U.N. emergency relief, such as it is, gave the Stinge-O-Meter a mighty spin in the wake of the Asian tsunami and read the miserable verdict: The United States and the nations of the West are “stingy.”

Mr. Egeland, a Norwegian who throws up at the idea that anyone should spend his own money without bureaucratic guidance, says the trouble is rooted in the fact that Americans are not taxed enough. Americans would love to pay more taxes if only they could. Collecting more swag and turning more of it over to the United Nations would enable Kofi Annan to invite a few hundred more bureaucrats, maybe even thousands, to join the easy ride through Manhattan. Isn’t that what we all want?

When Colin Powell reminded him that Americans are the most generous people in the world and have the record to prove it, Mr. Egeland went back to the Stinge-O-Meter for a second reading. Mr. Egeland, who knows who pays for his sweet life, decided that his churlish remarks had been “misinterpreted,” though “stingy” is a word not easily misinterpreted.

The New York Times and The Washington Post, always on the scout for mean things to say about Americans other than their own grand selves, agreed with Mr. Egeland’s first reading of the Stinge-O-Meter. “Are we stingy?” asked the New York Times. “Yes.”

America the stingy fits with The Post’s view of a world where all news is bad, the sun shines only on the rich, the rain falls only on the frail, and everyone is a victim — of homophobia in Peoria, AIDS in Afghanistan, an outbreak of teenage pimples in San Diego, a tsunami in Sri Lanka, the scarcity of vegetarian restaurants in Topeka, a woman who got winked at in Cleveland, a shortage of condoms in St. Paul. Some days there are so many victims there’s hardly any room for the news on Page One.

The early verdict on the Asian tsunami, naturally, is that it’s all George W.’s fault. Noting that the president had doubled the American aid commitment, The Post reported that the doubling came “amid complaints that the vacationing President Bush has been insensitive to a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions.”

The president was working at the ranch, lollygagging about with Laura and the girls, when Bill Clinton, working his Pain-O-Meter on fading battery power, was busy in London feeling tsunami pain at a 10,000-mile remove. So eager were The Post’s reporters to get the poop to the public they couldn’t stop to find any actual complaints, and the only stray talking head they turned up was a pensioned ex-president of the Council on Foreign Relations, eager to see his name in the paper again but who could supply only weak goo-goo: “You’ve got to show that you care.”

Showing he cared to the satisfaction of nearly everyone else, the president announced that the United States had organized an international aid consortium to act quickly and decisively to assuage as much pain as it could. This was too much for the bureaucrats and their special pleaders. Clare Short, the ex-secretary of international development for the U.N., said the president’s initiative “sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the U.N.” (What the starving Asians need is not groceries and medicines, but resolutions of the Security Council, which only the U.N. can supply.)

“Stingy” is a word that everybody understands. We don’t really need a Stinge-O-Meter to know who’s stingy and who’s not. The blue states and the media elites who speak for them know about stingy. What they know very little about is the generosity of those for whom they reserve their contempt.

The latest index compiled by the Catalogue for Philanthropy, a nonpartisan Boston-based organization, shows that the states with the most generous givers to charity are among the poorest: Mississippi ranks No. 1, followed by Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

The richest states are the stingiest, the natural audience of the media elites. Connecticut, the richest of the states, based on an analysis of IRS data, ranks 44th in charitable giving. New Jersey and Massachusetts, the second- and third-richest states, rank 47th and 49th in charitable giving. George McCully, the president of the Boston-based Catalogue for Philanthropy, says it’s about the culture, not the geography. You don’t need a Stinge-O-Meter to figure that out.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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