Monday, November 22, 2004
Street corner charity
Last night, walking home, I gave money to a man, fifty or so, a bit shabbily dressed — an English teacher, he said — who did a song and dance number about having driven his wife to the emergency room, only to have ran out of gas, and his little daughter is waiting in the car, freezing, and would...? On the verge of tears, he seemed, and grateful, afterwards.

We can be analytical about this. Let PT be the probability, however small, that the man is telling the truth; let CT be how bad I would feel if he was telling the truth and I did not give him any help. Also, let CF be how stupid I would feel to have been taken in by a con with talent for tearing up. I should give him money provided the following relation is satisfied:

PT CT ≥ (1 – PT) CF

The probabilities and costs, of course, must be individually evaluated. It seemed about right to me, at the time. So how come I feel pretty much like a fool?

Here is another way to look at this. Around here, one can't walk down the street for a few blocks without having someone, often obviously homeless, asking for two dollars "for the bus". I never give them money, part of the reason being I think they are lying, i.e., the money will be spent on smokes and beer. However, if one of them comes to me, on the verge of tears, saying he has just lost his wallet, but he needs to get to work or he will lose his job — then it will be much harder to refuse. This is not because his story is likely to be true, it is less — that so many panhandlers ask for bus money undoubtedly reflects the fact many of them really do need to take the bus. The consequence of a story increases rapidly with its improbability, and one of the things I learned in science is how difficult it is for lay people and scientists alike, to estimate the probability of unlikely events in complex situations.

What this does is to rewards liars. The more elaborate the lie, the more unlikely it is, the more consequential it is, then the more likely the lie will be rewarded (even if not entirely believed); and it doesn't hurt one to put on a good act, tear up a little, say. If he tells you he needs to take the bus to a homeless shelter, he gets nothing; if she gives you a sobbing story about being beaten up and kicked out by her abusive boyfriend and has no place to go, she gets forty bucks so she can "get a room for the night". After a while, no-one believes anything anyone has to say under a similar circumstance, and one of these circumstances will turn out to be true.

Analysis means literally to divide and divide again, to reduce complications into a collection of graspable atoms; what analysis cannot always do is to tell one how to interpret and act on this newly acquired insight. The latter has always required judgment, an ill-defined sense of the right thing to do, regardless what naïve scientific objectivism would have you believe. As for the issue at hand, there is a simple cop out: avoid carrying cash in your wallet if possible; that way, you can tell the guy: "Sorry, can't help you, I don't have any money."