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Editorial: Golden opportunity

Economists call it opportunity cost: Every choice made forecloses its alternative. For every road traveled, there is a road not taken. Paper or plastic? Milk or lemon? Guns or butter?

Or, in the Philippines, butter or hammers?

Three weeks after Typhoon Haiyan, the survivors’ needs are shifting from subsistence to the implements of rebuilding. The conflict in Syria and drought in Zimbabwe are pulling dollars out of Somalia and the Sahel. Closer to home, we hear the cacophony of pleas that have marked this season for centuries.

No wonder a representative from an international aid agency was on the radio last week, cautioning the public to remember that needs exist all over the world — not just in the latest regions to grab the headlines.

“What we hope,” said the woman from the United Nation’s World Food Programme, “is that the donor community will not prioritize one hungry child, one needy person over another.”

The hope seems far-fetched. We do prioritize victims. We emerged from the swamp doing precisely that, making choices based on self-interest or the preservation of our lineage, our loves and our friendships. Even within those bonds, we perform a rough triage, writing off the lost causes and concentrating our efforts where we think they will do the most good.

In short, opportunity costs are a way of looking at the choices we make, given the biological imperative of maximizing our limited resources.

Still, if opportunity costs are a byproduct of limited resources, a world of unlimited resources should also be a world of unlimited opportunities.

The happy corollary, then, is that opportunity costs should deflate as resources increase. And increasing the resources devoted to good works is relatively simple.

This Tuesday, it will get even simpler. The second annual “Giving Tuesday” features about 5,500 nonprofits nationwide — twice as many as last year’s event, when The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore led the nation in money raised.

This year, the Baltimore area’s Giving Tuesday campaign — Bmore Gives More — hopes to raise $5 million for 200 nonprofits participating locally. Name your cause, and you are likely to find a group that is working to accomplish it, whether it’s equity for veterans, medical treatment for the homeless or humane treatment for animals.

Maryland already ranks high in charitable giving; by one measure, in fact, The Chronicle of Philanthropy ranked the state first. It found 40.1 percent of the state’s residents claimed a charitable deduction on their 2011 tax returns, higher than in any other state.

Maryland came in 10th for the median percentage of discretionary income given, at 5.7 percent, compared to 4.7 percent nationally. (By that measure, Utah came in first, at more than 10 percent).

No one forces us to give what we already do and no one is forcing us to sweeten the charitable pot just because it is the season, or just because we can. Noblesse oblige notwithstanding, helping others is not an obligation but an opportunity — an opportunity for a share of greatness.

You are not your brother’s keeper.

But you could be his salvation.