One Billion, Nine Million,
and One Lives

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

– Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven

We can think of worse crimes than murder. Torture, I suppose, especially now that we know torture is more effective in producing false confessions than in obtaining truth. Serious crimes against children would be close to the top of the list.

But murder would have to rank pretty high. The Catholic Church designates it a mortal sin, which is to say it kills the soul of the perpetrator, rupturing the relationship between human and God. Most religions see murder as at least close to the ultimate violation.

Those who don’t subscribe to any particular belief are likely to think of murder as pretty much off any chart of acceptable behavior.

So how are we to think of the opposite sort of intervention? How must we regard the saving of a life?

A few years before my father lost his life to a brain aneurysm, an associate at his workplace collapsed, the victim of a sudden heart attack. My dad had never, to my knowledge, had CPR training, but he was well read and had a special curiosity about all things medical. He seemed to know what to do. He never told me about saving the man’s life, and I never asked him about it. I learned of the incident from his awestruck co-workers.

What I heard did not materially affect my own form of filial piety, but it did provide an additional confirmation. He was a great man in many ways.

I have wondered what it must have been like for him to know that another human being was alive because of his intervention. Was it humbling? Did he later feel that, for a moment, he had walked on sacred ground? Or did he just know that, at a critical place and time, he had done what he needed to do, what another person needed him to do.

It is hard to know what could be a greater achievement than saving a life. Perhaps saving two lives? Or several?

How about a billion lives?

Wheat has been a life-saving crop around the world. That has been especially true in India. It has also been a difficult crop. It tends to be top heavy. When stalks bend, wheat crops lose sunlight. That is when crops die.

Biologist Dr. Norm Borlaug worked throughout his life to end hunger. He developed a new grain, “dwarf wheat” that had the virtue of greater survival. That simple development increased wheat production in India from 11 million tons a year to over 60 million tons.

Dr. Norman Borlaug has been a hero of mine for a little more than a decade. Increasing wheat production was not his only accomplishment. He got the Mexican government to divide their long, hot summer into two growing seasons. Death by starvation went to the vanishing point. He went on to advise governments and organizations in Africa and Asia on dramatically increasing food production. He was eventually awarded a Nobel Prize in 1970.

By the time he died at age 95, he was commonly called the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

He is credited with having saved a billion human beings from death by starvation. That would be a billion people who now can live, love, and breathe who would otherwise have died horribly.

Most of us, in our private Walter Mitty type dreams, can imagine ourselves saving a single human life. Saving a billion lives is beyond the imagination of most of us. We find a lot of heroism between those two points: the spur of the moment saving of one life of one co-worker by a computer programmer, and the saving of a billion lives by the constant campaign of a single biologist over his career and retirement.

Somewhere on that continuum might be participating, even in a small way, in the saving of many lives. The Red Cross contacts me every couple of months to remind me to give blood, then later to thank me. But I know the actual heavy lifting is done by paid and volunteer staff, those taking blood and those telephoning me with those reminders.

Multi-millionaires often give some of their millions, joining with ordinary donors who give small amounts. Foundations funnel those amounts into programs. And some of those programs save lives.

Both major candidates for President have established foundations, Mr. Trump formed the Trump Foundation. Mrs. Clinton participates with the former President in the Clinton Foundation.

The Clinton Foundation is easier to track. The group frequently partners with other organizations and with governments to rescue millions from drought, starvation, and deadly illness.

One program in particular catches my attention because it is so easy to document. The Foundation negotiates with mega-huge pharma corporations to make HIV drugs available at low, affordable cost to those who would die without it then supplements that effort with additional funds. The Clinton Foundation estimates that about 9 million people are alive today who would not survive without those drugs. Independent researchers say that figure is excessively conservative. The figure is probably closer to 11 million.

That is only one program. The Foundation estimates that, in all, nearly half a billion lives have substantially improved through education and micro-finance and self-sustaining community efforts and other programs. Hard to say how many of those hundreds of millions of lives were actually saved. Most probably would have survived. But if only 9 million men, women, and children were rescued from HIV related death, I would say that would put the Clintons and those donors, large and small, on the side of the angels.

Mrs. Clinton explained her sometime awkwardness in front of crowds.

When it comes to public service, I’m better at the ‘service’ part than the ‘public’ part. But this is why I do it, and this is who I’m in it for: to make life better for children and families.

Hillary Clinton, September 15, 2016, Greensboro, NC

The Clintons have a combined net worth of about $62 million dollars. They have donated over 23 million of those 62 million dollars to the Clinton Foundation.

Donald Trump has a foundation as well. He has a net worth of 4.5 billion dollars, or about 70 times the amount of the Clinton family. He has donated over a million dollars over the years to the Trump Foundation, about 1/23 of the amount the Clintons have given. His last contribution to his own foundation was about $30,000 in 2009, seven years ago.

The Trump Foundation has not lacked for funds since then, however. Most donors have been those doing business or wishing to do business with Donald Trump, his businesses, or those businesses who do business with the businesses he operates.

The Trump Foundation has been active in improving lives as well. The three largest contributions made by the foundation have been to an organization that tries to influence elections, a Society that pays a luxury hotel owned by Mr. Trump to hold charity golf tournaments, and an exclusive private prep school at which at which one of the Trump children has been a student.

Mr. Trump contrasted the sacrifices he has made for his country with those of the family of an Army captain who had been killed in Iraq.

STEPHANOPOULOS:
What sacrifice have you made for your country?

TRUMP:
I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve done, I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

STEPHANOPOULOS:
Those are sacrifices?

TRUMP:
Oh, sure. I think they’re sacrifices.

Donald Trump, July 30, 2016, ABC News

Both the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation have been involved in some controversy. The Trump Foundation has paid large amounts for memorabilia for Mr. Trump, including two huge expensive portraits of himself. The Trump Foundation has contributed to state officials who had been about to investigate Trump businesses. And they have paid to settle suits involving Trump businesses.

Donors to the Clinton Foundation have occasionally sought official favors. Those favors have been refused.

The Clinton Foundation has been investigated and rated by charity watchdog groups. The reviews have been uniformly favorable. Charity Navigator, for example, gave them a rating of 94.74 on a scale of 100. The Trump Foundation is unrated, having refused to reveal detailed information.

Private unselfishness is not a perfect predictor of Presidential capability. But each national election awards great power to one candidate. A Chief Executive can veto or sign a school lunch program. The head of government can delay or promote clean up efforts in a community that was lead poisoned by an irresponsible state agency. A Commander in Chief can send young members of the military into useless conflict or can use that threat to defend the security of the nation.

And each election tests us as a people. Do we value a President who sees worth in each human life, and shows that vision in exercising the power we entrust?

We are not likely to become another Norman Borlaug. But we do have the opportunity to demonstrate some small portion of the same set of values in what we do, and for whom we vote.

We will choose between two visions of sacrifice. The first involves saving millions of lives, and improving the condition of hundreds of millions more. The second involves using the donations of others to purchase large portraits of himself.


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