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Jim Mullen: The cat effect

Jim Mullen • Updated Sep 15, 2017 at 3:00 PM

I’m a little conflicted. No, a lot conflicted.

I just spent $300 to have my cat’s teeth cleaned.

I like this Millie – she’s a nice cat – but she is not my best, nor my only, friend. She’s a cat. I have real friends, human people, and if one of them had asked me for $300 to have their teeth cleaned, I would have to think about it long and hard. 

First, that’s $175 more than it cost me to have my own teeth cleaned, and second, there are so many other things that money could be used for. There are millions of people out there who could have used the $300 I spent on a cat. To someone with medical bills they can’t pay, or who just lost a job, or someone homeless from a hurricane, it seems sinful to spend that kind of money on a cat. It might have changed someone’s life.

What if it had only been $50? Would it have been OK to have the cat’s teeth cleaned then? She’ll lose her teeth if I don’t take care of them. Certainly it can’t be OK to let the cat suffer.

Or is it the large amount that bothers me so much? If it’s wrong to spend $300 on the cat, should I feel bad when I spend $300 on tickets to a Broadway musical? Or pay $150 a month for cable TV? Or spend thousands on a cruise? Couldn’t that money have helped someone in need? 

Or is that even the right question? Is everything we spend on ourselves to be measured against people who have less? If that’s so, shouldn’t people who have more money than I do give me some of their money? After all, I am less “fortunate” than they are. If someone richer than me gave me $600, I could have the cat’s teeth cleaned and then give someone lower down the ladder $300, and I would break even. Problem solved.

Well, not really. I would still feel that the cat’s teeth do not equal human suffering. Without my interference –– feeding, housing, spaying, vaccinating and flea-proofing –– the cat would have died a natural death long before her teeth ever needed cleaning. House cats live a long time. Feral cats do not.

But then I remembered how the vet uses the money that I spend in her office: She buys medicine and supplies. She hires people and pays their salaries. And her receptionist and assistants spend the money she pays them on groceries and automobiles and college tuition and houses –– it doesn’t just sit under a mattress somewhere. And the people who work in the grocery store, and the people buying and selling automobiles, and the people who make the vet’s supplies, and the people who build new homes –– they all buy things that keep other people working, and they all pay taxes, and a lot of that money goes to the less fortunate.

There’s an idea running around that CEOs create jobs, when it’s really just ordinary spending by ordinary people that makes the world go ‘round. People don’t buy millions of dollars’ worth of paper towels and toilet paper because the TP CEO is some kind of business genius. People just show up at the grocery store every day and buy paper towels. Those are the people who create jobs –– the buyers, not the sellers.

So by having my cat’s teeth cleaned, I’m doing my little part to make everyone’s life a little easier. I’m not saying spending money makes us all Mother Teresa. But if you think about it, every time you call a tech support number, you’re doing your part to provide a job for someone in a foreign country.

Contact Jim Mullen at mullen.jim@gmail.com.

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