Update 11/19/14: I had the format of the pledge wrong. Read Jonathan’s correction here, more comments on the bottom of this post.
People often ask me what EA is. I tried describing it as “trying to make charity as effective as possible”, but that’s kind of implies that everyone not in EA is not doing that. Like evidence based medicine, it’s either obviously correct or horribly mislabled. I can say “we believe in randomized control trials”, but a lot of what I do in the local group is push for everything except RCTs. And my favorite part of GiveWell is not their research into existing charities, although that is excellent for specific problems, but their deliberate seed funding of projects to find the best way to approach unsolved problems. That they picked something I’m passionate about (criminal justice) is a bonus, but the principle would stand either way. So I think that I will describe EA, or at least my interest in EA, as “generating and advertising the evidence for evidence based charity.”
Recently my EA group talked to Jonathan Courtney from Giving What We Can. Giving What We Can has two functions: assessing charities, and taking and monitoring pledges individuals make to give 10% of their income. On charity assesment, they’re basically Pepsi to GiveWell’s Coke. They tend to agree with each other’s research but make slightly different recommendations based on differences in their beliefs about the future.* GWWC also encourages people to register a pledge to donate 10% of their lifetime pre-tax income to what they (the pledger) believes to be the most effective charities for helping developing countries. The pledge is not legally binding, and deliberately refers to lifetime income and not income in a given year (so you can consumption smooth), but they do ask people to log their giving, and perform audits of pledgers at the end of the year.
My EA group had a really great discussion about this, and my tentative opinion is: it’s hard to fault them for what they’re doing, but I sure hope they’re an incremental step. GWWC’s main selling point, simplicity, is also an enormous limitation.
GWWC’s main goal is to head off decision paralysis by giving you a simple number. A subset of this is giving people who feel equally guilty/anxious about retaining 2% and 45% of their earnings because even 2% is better than living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but really don’t want to live on 2% of their income so default to giving nothing. Solving that problem is not insubstantial, and I give them credit for that.
The downside is that 10% is unlikely to be the best number for everyone. If you’re childless, in perfect health, and earn $5 million a year for 40 years and have no extenuating circumstances, I think you should give more than 10%. If you take a 50% paycut to work for a good cause**, I think you get to count all of it. How does volunteering count? How is that changed by whether it’s Effective Volunteering or Personal Satisfaction Volunteering? What if you’re receiving a ton of charitable and government aid for your disabled child?
On the other side of it, I worry about the emphasis on money. Lots of things require mass action that can’t be bought- like the Ferguson protests, or lobbying for net neutrality. Western society has a personal connection deficit, and one of my big concerns with EA as a whole is that it commodifies altruism and in doing worsens the connection deficit.
Lastly, there is fear. I have been out of work for five months due to dental work, and it could easily be another two months before I can start even part time work. I was originally told my (astonishing) disability insurance (that I’m incredibly lucky to have) would cover at most a week of of that time, because “seriously, no one gets that much time for that small a problem”. I eventually prevailed***- last week. That’s 4.5 months without a paycheck, plus the immense cost of the dental and medical care I’ve received. If I hadn’t had the money to wait that out- and to know I’d survive even if I was never paid- I would have had to handle it much differently, and I honestly don’t know how. Beg from my parents (an option very few people have)? Drug myself up to the gills so I could show up at the office, at the cost of, at best, a much longer recovery, and at worst never truly getting better? Debt? Forgo the physical therapy and IV nutrition, at the cost of, at best, a much longer recovery, and at worst never truly getting better? Even if I never actually had to do these things, just worrying about them would have been a huge tax on me when I had very little to spare. At a gut level, I see this pledge as a threat to the sense of safety my savings gave me.
Proponents frequently counter with “It’s not legally binding, you can always withdraw.” But I don’t want to take a pledge on the condition I don’t have to uphold it. That seems wrong.
What I find a lot more appealing is a private consumption tax. For every dollar I spend on things, or things excluding certain expenses, or all things after a certain amount of money, I have to donate. This fits really well with how I donate now, which is often based on a need to restore balance. I use the library a lot, so I give them some money. When I got my shiny new job, I found a family on Modest Needs that needed money to move to a better job. When I got expensive designer antibiotics for SIBO, for which even a diagnosis is a sign of privilege, I donated to a food bank. After a lot of dental care I donated to families needing dental care on Modest Needs****. When I’m feeling especially privileged about how my parents supported my education I donate to Treehouse, which is dedicated to giving foster kids the same support I had. And when I just generally feel rich or need to use up my remaining employer match, I give to GiveDirectly*****. These sound a lot like indulgences, but indulgences buy off the guilt from things you shouldn’t have done. I don’t think anyone thinks I shouldn’t have access to the medical care or library books I do, the problem is that other people don’t have them.
These aren’t exactly consumption taxes. Often what I give is based on what I didn’t have to pay because I have amazing insurance. Actually, that feels really fair to me. There’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that being well off is actually cheaper than being poor, in part for exactly the reasons I listed in the fear paragraph. If my savings (that I was able to accrue due to an incredible amount of privilege) saved me a bunch of credit card debt, paying half of the hypothetical interest on that debt seems pretty fair, and avoids the “I’m punished for being successful.” I’m not being punished, I’m just not getting to keep all the gains for something that was partially given to me out of luck.
Okay, so some sort of sharing of the benefits of privilege (for when I get things everyone deserves, but many people are denied), generally going to share that specific privilege with others, plus a consumption tax, because living in America is a privilege in ways I will never fully consciously comprehend. Either a low general consumption tax, or a higher tax on luxuries. This seems right. I will need to figure out exact numbers and how I will calculate spending, but that is a practical problem.
*E.g. GiveWell no longer recommends giving to the Against Malaria Foundation because they already have a large stockpile they’re unable to move without lowering their ethical standards, GWWC recommends them because they believe a larger stockpile will serve as an incentive to make partners meet their ethical standards. GiveWell doesn’t even advise against the AMF, they just believe there are three charities that are better. Both sides sound plausible, and there’s no way to know who’s right without a control universe.
**And you’re doing it because you believe it’s the best way to help the world, not because it’s a better work environment. There are EA charities devoted to this question.
***Despite a dentist so incompetent at paperwork I was beginning to suspect malice.
*****Although I haven’t for this round, possibly because none of the previous care actually helped
*****GiveDirectly ends up getting by far the most financial support but the least thought.
Update 11/19/14: it turns out the pledge is 10% every year, the year you earn it, not accumulated over time. In defiance of all rationality, this makes me feel less anxious about it. I need to give this more thought and then it probably gets it’s own full entry.