Donations in 2014

I have been trying to figure out how much money I want to donate, and where I want to donate to.  As I described before, my past habit has been maximizing employer matching plus a bit.  That no longer felt sufficient to me, but as I upped the number I started feeling a lot of anxiety.  It’s not about giving up luxury consumption, or having a smaller home, or anything material.  It’s the worry that $15k worth of dental surgery and 4.5 months without any income will not be the worst thing that happens to me, and I’ll need the money for that.  Or that I will have enough money to be okay, but will cut it close enough that I become miserable and miserly.  I like who I am a lot more when I have enough cushion to feel safe.  That’s why I get to the airport much earlier than necessary: so can walk at a leisurely pace and let stressed people ahead of me instead of racing old ladies in walkers to the security line.

Trying to pick a particular number just wasn’t working- it was either too low to satisfy my moral needs or too high to satisfy my safety needs.  So I decided to come up with a formula first, and then abide by what it said.  In that same post I described a severe preference for consumption taxes over income taxes, so I picked a number (20%), and calculated my spending.  This took a little bit of doing- I have several credit cards, plus a few expenses paid out of checking directly, plus I did not feel like medical expenses should be taxed, and of course previous donations shouldn’t be counted as consumption.  But I made a pretty good estimate rounded up to the nearest 10k, and got: exactly my employer matching cap.

I could have upped the percent more, but that’s basically me choosing a number, which is what I was trying to avoid.  So I began really digging in to why income based obligations bothered me so much.  Some of it was that I felt like I had more control over consumption than income.  I have low fixed expenses so that’s in some ways true, but if I am low on money, the correct thing to do is spend less and earn more regardless of whether I’m taxed on consumption or earnings.  But it went deeper than that.   I make enough money that any extra goes into savings, not spending (I am aware both that this is incredibly fortunate and that I lack the life experience to appreciate just how fortunate).  Savings are good and they brought me a lot of security this year, but since they happen automatically my internal sense of wealth doesn’t particularly go up when I have more.  Whereas writing large checks definitely makes me feel poorer.  So I was correctly predicting my irrational feeling that giving away 10% of my income would mean increases in real income would make me feel poorer, and balking.  While I have to commend myself for accurately anticipating something that weird, it was also a fixable problem.  I spent some time sitting down and figuring out exactly how my savings had grown this year, and suddenly any argument I couldn’t afford 10% seemed awful.  So while I’m not ready to sign the pledge just yet, I decided to give the GWWC recommended percentage.  Scott Alexander’s argument that if everyone gave 10% we would literally have more money than we knew what to do with was prominent in my mind here.

Then I needed to define “10% of what, exactly?”  John suggests the income line on my W2, but that includes stock grants (which for tax reasons I really shouldn’t sell right now) and excludes health insurance.  My health insurance has been way too useful this year for it to not count as income.  Plus I won’t know the W2 number until I get all my W2 forms, and that will be tricky this year because I did eventually get disability payments, some of which are taxed and some aren’t.  And hey, given that they’re not taxed (because the premiums were paid with post-tax money), does that mean they shouldn’t count towards my income?

Finally, I hit on a solution: use last year’s income.*  I spent 10 minutes on the IRS’s ridiculous new efile system, got roughly my income for last year, and used this year’s COBRA costs to estimate the value of my insurance last year.  I didn’t get any equity or disability last year, so I can figure it out later.  The W2 income isn’t exactly right (For the benefit of the IRS: this is a 401k issue, not tax fraud), but I was done investigating this, so I rounded up, divided by 10, and got A Number.  It may not be the exactly correct number, but it is most certainly close enough that the correct thing to do is stop fiddling.


All this donation is done partially because helping people live better lives is awesome, and partially because my ability to make so much money is dependent on a number of things I didn’t earn.  My genetics, the time and place of my birth, a feminist movement that opened up lucrative work to me,  a substantial investment in my education made by my parents.    This doesn’t mean I didn’t work very hard or make excellent choices, it just means that I would not have had the same results if I worked this hard and made this quality of choices after being born in Ethiopia, or in 1900.  10% of my income to discharge that debt is actually a pretty good deal.  But there are certain choices I make that incur additional debt.  One is eating animals.  And then there’s high-fixed-cost low-marginal-cost goods I could free ride on, like wikipedia.

Then there’s the question of where to send the money the bulk of the money.  The goal is to have the highest marginal impact, which means picking not strictly the most useful thing, or the most neglected thing, but some combination thereof.  Against Malaria Foundation’s math is very compelling, but so is their story, so they should have an easier time getting funding from non-EAs than GiveDirectly.  I think the research determining what the next Next Big Thing is important, less likely to be funded, and just more interesting to me personally.  So I funded some of that by giving GiveWell an unrestricted donation.

[To be fair, GiveDirectly invests an enormous amount in trying new things and checking their own work.  That is why I gave them some money.  But they are are never going to work in American criminal justice or chronic pain, so they don’t get all the money.]

I also donated to Social Justice Northwest Fund (full disclosure: a fellow EA member is on the board), which is in many ways a (much, much) fuzzier GiveWell.  Their goal is to fund small grassroots organizations working for social/economic/criminal justice and racial/gender/queer equality.  These are important communities to help, they’re often not tapped in to the regular funding machine, and the history of people (usually whiter and richer) who are tapped in to them coming in to help is not good.  SJN gives them money so they can get started.  Many of these organizations are not as efficient or effective as the top GiveWell organizations, but they will not get better unless they are given money and room to fail.  Absent a convenient measure of “utility founder/community knowledge gained”, I have to make my best guess and accept that there will be some inefficiencies.

With all that said, here are my total donations for the year.  I’ll be writing more posts with explanations for specific charities, check the comments for links.

St Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Church (runs a food bank in Ferguson): $500
Modest Needs: $1544 (this was before I was so strongly into EA)
GiveDirectly: $4547
Planned Parenthood: $10
ACLU: $10
Mercy for Animals: $500
Ocean Conservancy: $250
GiveWell (unrestricted): $3000
Social Justice Fund Northwest: $2500
Electronic Frontier Foundation: $2500 (half my patent bonus)

From this you can approximately derive my income last year.  I’m not thrilled about this, but I think the social norms that make me uncomfortable hurt employees to the benefit of employers, so I am trying to fight them.  Apart from the tens of thousands of dollars we donated, one of the best parts of Seattle Effective Altruists Donation Decision day was when a subgroup of us (with comparable jobs) shared our salaries with each other.  It was really informative.

*When I brought this up at my EA group, people were evenly split as to whether this was brilliant or cheating, by which I mean Brian thought it was brilliant and Stephanie thought it was cheating and no one else cared.

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