No one wanted to hire Daniel Brown. The 24-year-old Wisconsin native had begun looking for work in August of 2008, shortly after graduating from Iowa State University. After a four-month-long search, he decided to stop looking.
Instead, Brown persuaded his parents to co-sign a $10,000 small-business loan, which he used to lease a small space in a Campustown commercial plaza. On April 3, that space became the Singer Station – a shop offering micro-brewed beer, posters and what Brown carefully refers to as “tobacco accessories.”
“There’s no other business that would be like ours,” Brown told the Ames Progressive in March. “The best way to describe it, so people get a basic idea, is ‘kind of like a head shop.’ But I don’t want to describe it like that.”
The Singer Station is named for the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (currently a professor of Bioethics at Princeton), whose work Brown said he first encountered as a student at Iowa State. Referring to the shop’s namesake, Brown said, “I don’t agree with everything he says, but there is one thing that I do agree with him very much on, and that is his idea of – I don’t want to say this term, because it can be kind of politically controversial – but the best way to sum it up is ‘the redistribution of wealth.’ He believes that many people – middle class, especially upper class – can give a little bit away each year, and that would help a lot of people out of poverty.”
In keeping with what he considers to be Singer’s beliefs, Brown is giving away 25 percent of the profits from each sale he makes. Customers can direct that 25 percent to one of thirteen organizations (full disclosure: the Ames Progressive is among them), including the United Way of Story County, the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans and the Red Cross. Patrons will also have the option of supporting Iowa State-affiliated sports clubs, such as Soccer Club, Rugby Club and Baseball Club.
Though it is Brown’s stated goal to “carry out” Singer’s ideals, his philanthropic vision will depart broadly from the philosopher’s. To begin with, all but two of the organizations to which customers can donate benefit people in the United States exclusively. This practice is a significant break from the recommendations of Singer, who has suggested that virtually all the aid that Americans give would be most effectively spent abroad.
On his Princeton faculty website Singer writes: “There is no sound moral reason for favoring those who happen to live within the borders of our own country…. If we live in a rich nation like the U.S.A., our money will go much further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations.”
When asked about his own emphasis on local aid, Brown said he was aware that it “might not exactly correlate with Singer.” Still, he defended his decision to provide the option of giving locally on the grounds of economic self-preservation.
“I would want … all the money that’s going to be given to charities to go to the worst off. That is ideal. But that’s just not going to happen, and so you have to be pragmatic about the situation, and be like, ‘So what if this money is going to be given to clubs or other local charities?’ That still does boost the community and my business will succeed, therefore I can eat.”
“I’m really not that altruistic,” Brown added. “I just believe that by raising other people up you make your life better.”
In practice – if not in theory – Brown clearly deviates from some of Singer’s recommendations for giving aid. But there’s another, more profound ideological difference between Singer and Brown, one which suggests the philosopher might not approve of the shop’s very existence. This difference is made most explicit in Singer’s 1999 essay “The Singer Solution to World Poverty.” Addressing the reader, Singer writes, without qualifying his statement, “whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”
As the proprietor of a shop that a) sells only luxuries and b) is named after Peter Singer, this directive places Brown in something of an ironic position. Again, Singer believes that all money that one would otherwise spend on luxuries should be given away. But the survival of The Singer Station depends on the consumer’s willingness to, in the most fundamental sense, violate that principle. Even if he gives away some of their money to aid organizations, the rest is still going to a cause – the purchase of luxuries – that Singer believes is morally insupportable.
Still, when asked if he thought it acceptable for his customers to give him money Singer believes should be spent on aid, Brown said yes. In an effort to explain his answer, Brown said that “living up to” Singer’s luxury-less ideal was “really not even plausible.”
This was one of many occasions the entrepreneur went out of his way to distinguish his goals from Singer’s.
“I’m not naming my store to worship him or fully just say ‘everything he says I agree with,’” Brown said.
In light of all the practical and ideological differences he conceded between himself and Singer, Brown said he wouldn’t rule out changing his shop’s name.
“I’ll change it if Peter Singer says that he doesn’t like it,” he stipulated. “It should be interesting to see what he says.”
The Singer Station is located at 118 Hayward Avenue, Suite 4, right next to the office of the Ames Progressive. Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.