Better than Begging?

A few weeks ago, I went down to Santa Barbara for the weekend with 3 friends. Santa Barbara is the stereotypical California city: the weather was summer-sunny in March, surfers milled around the beach, skateboarders weaved through the laughing tourists, storefronts and restaurants covered all of downtown, and the hills and ocean bracketed the town.

There were bums, too. Alongside the boardwalk leading out to the pier, several beggars had setup coin targets on the beach below. A sheet was covered with a few cups or sharpied circles, where some targets were just bullseye, while others would tell you have good of a lover you were.

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There were some coins on the targets, though I couldn’t really estimate how much was there, or how much money there was compared to a guy with a sign and a hat. There are many reasons why you might guess that targets might be a better or worse strategy.

The targets lack the human connection. You can’t look into the eyes of the man who has nothing other than hope for your pity. Without that, you won’t feel the same guilt or sympathy that might drive you to give. I don’t have a reference on-hand, but there’s at least a Stalin quote about how people are more sympathetic to individuals than to statistics. For example, organizations gathering donations to end hunger in Africa use a picture of a cute kid and may even let you “adopt”a child instead of explaining to you how your donation will affect millions in poverty. So, advantage to the panhandler on this issue.

Looking at the beggar himself may not always encourage us to donate. Many societies have stigmatized begging and homeless people, and interacting with them may be discouraged. We avert our eyes from things that disgust us, and we may feel better pretending as though these things don’t exist or never happened. In this case, giving only encourages beggars to continue to leech on society. A target, however, is less likely to trigger this social reaction, though that may change in the future. For now, advantage target.

The target also does offer some value to society. We play darts, bowling, and other carnival games to test our dexterity, and the target constructors made a game for our entertainment. Beggars, on the other hand, appear to offer little value, other than to Sherlock Holmes. Advantage target.

If we’re looking at offering value to society, though, begging may not be the fair comparison. There are many people who earn money on the street for minor tasks. There are dancers, buskers, the bush man, and those guys who stand really still. Whether you like them or not, they try to offer some service to earn your money. So maybe that last point was a wash.

One last comparison for the target could be fountains, where people will throw coins in for a wish. That’s a lot of money being thrown away just for a silly superstition, and who knows where the money goes. Maybe some really clever beggar made up the practice years ago as an easy way to get people’s money without them knowing it. So I guess it’s no worse than that.

So back in Santa Barbara, we did end up playing, and my friend Jordan almost claimed the title of best lover in the west. I’m not sure whether just missing the cup means that he’s almost the best in the west, or that he almost could have been the best in the west, but either way, he missed. I should head back to Santa Barbara again: not only is it as delightful as stereotypical California can be, but there’s a target maker who deserves my quarter by now.

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