Sunday, January 24, 2010

You Should Sacrifice For Others

Take it from Nicholas Kristof. Writing of a teenager who convinced her family to sell its manse and to donate half of the value to charity, Kristof writes,
Eventually, that’s what the family did. The project — crazy, impetuous and utterly inspiring — is chronicled in a book by father and daughter scheduled to be published next month: “The Power of Half.” It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street.
The joke about his own teenagers is illustrative of what is sometimes referred to as limousine liberalism. Yes, the family did move from their first house to one half its size and cost. Yes, they dedicated half of the proceeds form the sale of their larger home to charity. But please, before asking that your readers share in similar sacrifice (while joking about your own reluctance), how about some context?
  • House #1, 6,162 square feet, equipped with its own elevator, five beds, four baths, eight fireplaces, recently sold for $1,450,000.

  • House #2, 2,986 square feet, three beds, four baths, sold for $962,200.

I don't mean to belittle the act of moving into a smaller home and donating a substantial amount of money to charity. But really....
Back home, our friends and family kept asking us, "What is it like to live in half the space?" Before we downsized, we were a little worried. Would we feel squeezed? Or like we'd made too big a sacrifice? Two years later, I can tell you: It's the best move we ever made.

Of course, our new house required some lifestyle adjustments. In our old home, French doors opened onto a balcony and a wooded yard, and sunshine filled the kitchen. The views from our current kitchen are obscured by our neighbor's house. Our pots and pans fit in the cabinets, but that's about the extent of the space. We can't open the silverware drawer without closing the dishwasher first.
Squeezing a family of four into a 3,000 square foot, four bathroom, $million home? What sort of peer group do you think we're talking about that their first question is "How do you survive?" Also, in context, it's apparent that the family could have afforded to both dedicate half of the house's value to charity while remaining in the larger home. It's on a smaller scale, but Kristof's column still feels a bit like the statement, "Bill Gates gave $1 billion to his charitable foundation - and please don't ask what I have done - but what have you done lately?"

From what I can see about the Salwens, what they're doing is admirable. They've moved on from successful first careers that gave them considerable financial security and are now following a path that is largely focused on self-transformation through helping others. They respect the fact that others are probably not positioned to follow a similar path,
We had more than enough house, and it was something we could cut in half to help those in need. But most people can find some commodity in their lives they could give up, whether it's time (halving the hours of TV you watch each week and volunteering instead?) or stuff (donating half the clothes in your closet?). Like us, your family could set out to make a small difference in the world—and transform yourselves in the process.
According to Kristof, the Salwen's "aim [is] to encourage people to step off the treadmill of accumulation, to define themselves by what they give as well as by what they possess." I just find it interesting that the message is presented to the mass market, rather than being directed at the millionaires and billionaires of our society who rage and froth at the notion of a half-percent tax increase to help the less fortunate. I really wish Kristof, being quite fortunate himself, had taken a step beyond telling his readers what they should do - or joking about what his own kids might ask of him - and telling us of the sacrifices the book inspired him to make.


  1. I knew it! My friend posted the link and I commented and said I wondered if they went from 5000 to 2500. I was close.
    I live in a 900 sq ft house, so maybe I'm just bitter though.... :) :)

  2. PS: I know this is wrong, but I have a really hard time with how wealthy people get so many props for leaving their lifestyles and downsizing. The reason I have a hard time with it is because many (most?) people who downsize are middle income (like, oh, ME). It's fairly easy, IMHO, to "downsize" when you have millions (or even hundreds of thousands) in the bank to fall back on. Most of us who downscale don't. I'd like to see more stories about everyday folks who downscale but never had the lucrative careers and don't have a huge bank account to fall back on.

  3. 1) Teacher Patty - "I know this is wrong" - No, it's not.

    Let me see if I have this right. A filthy rich family who spent the first half of their lives chasing material wealth finally achieves it . . . then decides to make themselves feel good by living off of the proceeds of their earlier successes and lecturing others while they are at it?

    Don't get me wrong, if they want to engage in intellectual masturbation - that's their right . . . and kind of expected of limousine liberals. Just don't expect me to join in the chorus singing their praises.

    The measure of sacrifice is the cost to the one making it, not the other way around. The poor man who gives a hundred dollars has made a larger sacrifice than Bill Gates who has his foundation donate a billion - or then the limousine liberal who "sacrifices" something they don't need . . . (or suffers through the "pain" of living in a larger than average home instead of a mansion).

    This is remarkably like listening to the bilge about many of the Madoff "victims". We are all supposed to feel sorry for the 80 year old who thought that she were "getting an opportunity that wasn't open to the rest of us" and instead lost 8 million dollars and now only has 2 million dollars left to live on . . .

    Aaron - "From what I can see about the Salwens, what they're doing is admirable."

    If they were doing it in private with no expectation of reaping a reward (finanial and probably more importantly to them - through public acclaim) I might agree with you . . . but it's pretty obvious that they aren't.

    They clearly have enough "material wealth" so that cutting the size of their manion in half doesn't much impact their "family utility".

    They stroke their egoes by "doing the right thing" (especially when it costs them nothing) and then stroke their egoes some more by not only publicizing what they are doing by preaching about it as well.


  4. Awesomely said, CWD! (For some reason, I have your name as "Chris" in my head...don't have to say it of course, but that's the thought that is stuck in there :)). I remember reading the book "Your Money or Your Life" by some dude whose name escapes me. He stopped working at like age 30something and lived simply until he died. I was all, "ZOMG! WOW!" until I read that he had been a very "successful" (and of course that word always translates into "rich" these days) Wall Street dude. Now from what I understand, he really walk the walk BUT again, walking the walk is much easier when you are a millionaire (not a "thousandaire", like the rest of us :)--if we're lucky!)

  5. Thanks - it was probably a little more vitriolic than necessary, but glad you liked it.



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