Japan: To Give or Not to Give?

In the wake of Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami, Felix Salmon argues against donating to the cause.  Salmon cites concerns about the hobbling effects of earmarked funds, uncoordinated NGOs, and Japan’s wealth.  “[I]t’s entirely possible that organizations like the Red Cross or Save the Children will find themselves with important and useful roles to play in Japan,” writes Salmon. “It’s also certain that they have important and useful roles to play elsewhere. So do give money to them — and give generously! And give money to other NGOs, too, like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which don’t jump on natural disasters and use them as opportunistic marketing devices. Just make sure it’s unrestricted.”   Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen disagrees, pointing to a lower likelihood of corruption in Japan, the need to signal America’s partnership with Japan, and a third factor: “Maybe you should give to a poorer country instead, but you probably won’t.  Odds are this will be an extra donation at the relevant margin.  Sorry to say, this disaster has no ‘close substitute.'”

In SuperFreakonomics, we wrote a chapter on altruism that addressed the “CNN Effect” of disaster relief:

Is it possible to use natural experiments, like the ACLU-prison scenario, to measure altruism? You might consider, for instance, looking at a series of calamities to see how much charitable contribution they produce. But with so many variables, it would be hard to tease out the altruism from everything else. A crippling earthquake in China is not the same as a scorching drought in Africa, which is not the same as a devastating hurricane in New Orleans. Each disaster has its own sort of “appeal” — and, just as important, donations are heavily influenced by media coverage. One recent academic study* found that a given disaster received an 18 percent spike in charitable aid for each seven hundred-word newspaper article and a 13 percent spike for every sixty seconds of TV news coverage. (Anyone hoping to raise money for a Third World disaster had better hope it happens on a slow news day.) And such disasters are by their nature anomalies— especially noisy ones, like shark attacks— that probably don’t have much to say about our baseline altruism.*

*See Philip H. Brown and Jessica H. Minty, “Media Coverage and Charitable Giving After the 2004 Tsunami,” Southern Economic Journal 75, no. 1 (2008).


I'm all for raising awareness about overlooked needy countries but I will ear mark, without guilt, any darn donation I wish to. Who the hell are these people to judge the neediness of Japan? Yeah, Mr. Salmon... the Red Cross probably does have useful roles to play elsewhere with our monies--their personal bankaccounts.

Mike B

I'm waiting for the big celebrity telethon to raise money for the disaster. I heard that NBC might be able to air its show in advance of the other networks for some reason.


I am aware that Freakononmics believed that nuclear power plants have been unjustly maligned in this country, and that we should build and use them more than we currently do.

Just wondering if the Fukushima nuclear situation has made anyone reconsider their position on nuclear power plants and their viability.


Given that the death toll from all but the absolute worst case at the reactors is highly unlikely to eclipse that of the tsunami itself, I'd say that the Fukushima nuclear facilities are still getting more than their fair share of the blame. It is also not reasonable to use an outdated, 40-year-old design to argue against modern developments.


Today's modern development is tomorrow's outdated design.


"Today’s modern development is tomorrow’s outdated design."

Are you proposing that we cease all manufacturing and construction in expectation of tomorrow's better designs, then?


Lara's not the one dismissing a line of argument out of hand.
I believe she's arguing that it's reasonable to use 40-year old designs as an argument for caution, since at the time they were accompanied by the same assurances of safety as are modern designs today - with somewhat greater ignorance then, but certainly some ignorance now. And your last statement goes directly against her point - tomorrow's designs will be flawed too. Hopefully less so.

One can always make excuses - that one's old, that one had corrupt/incompetent oversight, that one suffered from a freak combination of insults, that one's a different basic design, etc. These are all valid points, but shouldn't be overweighted to suggest that there are NO lessons to be learned from one incident that can be applied to other circumstances! Every case of disaster - just like every case of trouble-free operation - is a datum that speaks to how this industry operates in real-world conditions. Which is to say (my opinion), usually quite well, but with significant and very long-term consequences in the exceptions.