This is Not Okay

I am in favor of more immigration that the US currently allows.  If you asked me if we should stop issuing visas to citizens of certain countries, I would say no.  But if I lost, well, the government does lots of stuff I dislike, that’s the price of living in a democracy rather than a dictatorship run by me.

Preventing existing visa and green card holders from reentering the country is not the same.  People built their lives around a promise from America, and we yanked it away with no chance to adjust.  Newborns have been separated from their parents.  People who endangered their lives helping the US Military are going to be left among people who wish to kill them.  We did not even have the decency to give enough notice to prevent people from getting on a plane to a country that would not let them in.

This is not border security, this is punishing people for cooperating with us and trusting us.  The net effect of this is that people will do those things less.  Honestly, this is probably the point.  Even though the order was overturned in 24 hours, even though it’s probably illegal, even if the next president does everything he can to welcome immigrants, there will be a chilling effect.  To the extent that foreign terrorists living in the US constitute a problem this does not touch it at all, because terrorists are not putting down roots.  Trump didn’t kick out anyone actually in the US, and terrorists probably don’t go back and forth much for this exact reason.

I didn’t participate in the women’s march last week, because it’s not my thing and I didn’t see the point.  I went to the SFO airport protest today, despite coming off of a week of travel and really not feeling like it, because it had a specific, actionable demand that would have concrete effects, and would be a return to the status quo, not a new action.  It worked– but not by much.  People who were on planes when the ban came through are not being sent home, but they may be kept in detention.

For the benefit of any Republican strategists reading this: I am not a liberal, I am not a Democrat.  I voted for Johnson.  You want me in your coalition.  You will never get it while someone this incompetent is your leader.

I considered my donation budget spent after my big transfer to Tostan, but I just donated $35 to the ACLU.  I think this is an excellent example of where effectiveness analyses go wrong.  The ACLU was supremely effective today because it had the capacity to take action immediately.  If Trump hadn’t done this, that capacity would have been wasted and they would look less effective.  Having strong institutions matters, even if you’re not using them.

A note to my fellow protesters: don’t protest bans on travel by shutting down modes of travel.  Seriously, it’s just annoying.

EDIT 1/28: I’m getting a lot of commenters who disagree with me, which is great, but the comments are low quality, which is not.  I’m leaving them up for now, but what I really want are strong arguments from the other side.  People who are angry at me: instead of just saying that, I’d like to invite you to write out your thoughts long form, or link me to a blog post, news article, or book.  I commit to reading the first 20 of these (for books I reserve the right to stop after the first chapter), and anticipate reading all of them eventually unless my blog gets way more popular.

I am linking to this post by Ben Hoffman because I want to declare myself for team words-have-meaning.  But while I’m at it I want to discuss a complication.  The piece is fairly hard to excerpt, but here is a paragraph to give yo an idea.

My working hypothesis is that some people mainly perceive their environment as one in which words have meanings, while for others speech-acts are primarily construed as social moves. If you’re in the first group, you imagine that people are tracking honesty of attempts to inform in a way that contributes to your reputation. If you’re in the second, you might think that they’re mainly interpreting your words as a statement about your current posture and intent. Are you on their side? What are you about to do next? Where are you trying to point their attention?

I take my integrity very seriously, but there are times I treat my word as a social signal rather than conveying literal truth.  For example, I sometimes simplify the anecdotes I tell on this blog.  I do this because the anecdotes aren’t supposed to prove anything, they’re supposed to be illustrations of the data that actually proves things, as a concession to the way the human brain works.  Taking out extraneous details is respectful of the time of you, the reader.  I don’t think anyone took my suggestion that the head of the World Health Association was actually a giant sentient tuberculosis cell  literally either.

Here’s a more complicated example.  Two friends of mine, Alice and Bob, started dating at approximately the same time I started dating Bob’s friend Carl (and Carl and Alice had met, although they weren’t close).  Shortly into this Alice started talking to me about the four of us going on vacation the next year.  Since we were talking about plans nine months away for people who had been dating a week and a half, I assumed we were playing some sort of fantasy game.  Telling her no would have felt like saying no in improv.  It would have cut off a conversation that was really about us being excited about our new relationships.  Apparently she was taking it more literally and immediately approached Carl (who had the most restrictive job of the three of us) to get possible dates.  For nine months in the future.

I think Alice was being unreasonable here.  But my immediate reaction when Carl told me this was “oh shit, I should not have said maybe.” I put the responsibility on myself to determine whether something was a literal-truth-type-situation or not, and viewed the miscommunication as my failure.  The alternative would have been blaming her for misinterpreting me.

I propose that people differ not only in when they think words are social vs. informational, but in who bears the blame when there is a misinterpretation.  I pretty much always put the responsibility on the person who used words as social levers.  I suspect other people are faster to put the blame on the person who took the words too literally, and this correlates with tendency to use words as social levers, but not perfectly so.

What is the Giving What We Can Pledge?

There has been a lot of ink spilled over the Giving What We Can pledge recently.  I had some strong opinions on this that I wrote up, but in the course of researching I discovered that I literally don’t know what the pledge is, and that is not my fault.

Looking at the last year of posts on EA Forums, there are many posts on the pros and cons of the pledge, not one of which actually quotes it.  It is always summarized as “10% for life” with no elaboration.

Here is the text on :

“I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.”

But here is the the text on

I commit to donating % of my income to the most cost-effective organisations.

For any period in which you do not earn an income, e.g. because you are a student, the pledge commits you to instead give at least 1% of your spending money.

And when I or others have asked questions, CEA employees tend to refer to the FAQs.  The FAQs contain enough information not in the pledge that I don’t think that counts as mere clarification.  In particular, whenever someone asks “what if I have a health emergency?”, “what if I take a pay cut to do direct work?” or “what if I’m unemployed?”, they are directed to

How does it work? Is it legally binding?

The Pledge is not a contract and is not legally binding. It is, however, a public declaration of lasting commitment to the cause. It is a promise, or oath, to be made seriously and with every expectation of keeping it. All those who want to become a member of Giving What We Can must make the Pledge and report their income and donations each year.

If someone decides that they can no longer keep the Pledge (for instance due to serious unforeseen circumstances), then they can simply contact us and cease to be a member. They can of course rejoin later if they renew their commitment. Obviously taking the Pledge is something to be considered seriously, but we understand if a member can no longer keep it.

To me, this has always come across as saying the pledge is not a lifelong commitment, it’s “while you feel like it” (which can include “I really want a new XBOX but feel morally obligated to donate instead”).  Which is a perfectly fine thing to do, but I don’t see what’s gained by making a promise to do something while you feel like it.  The “feel like it” takes care of that on its own.  I think my interpretation is quite justified by the version of the pledge that’s usually quoted, and on the join page.  But I think it’s incorrect for the version on the pledge page- “I can live well enough on a smaller income” implies that the pledge no longer holds if that is not true.

But I think there’s a third option here, where people aren’t literally reading the words of either pledge.  They view “taking the pledge” as a ritual signing on to some amorphous thing that includes the word of both, plus the FAQs, plus possibly other sources.

Also note the commitment to reporting your income and donation every year, which is not listed in either /join or /pledge.

This doesn’t get them totally off the hook.  Elsewhere in the FAQs:

What should I think about before pledging?

We believe the Pledge is a good choice for most people reading this, given how comparatively well off those of us in the rich world are – for example, someone earning $25,000 a year is in the richest 5.3% of the world’s population. We also think anyone considering the Pledge should carefully consider how it will interact with other situations in their lives.

Using money to free up time

  • If you can do something very beneficial with your time, it may be better to spend money to save yourself time (by buying a dishwasher instead of hand-washing dishes, taking cabs instead of public transit, etc.) rather than donating it.
  • Consider whether your likely budget would allow you to spend a reasonable amount of time on the things you consider most valuable.

Temporary financial constraints

  • Someone who’s interested in starting a business may need to save up money to cover expenses in the early stages. In this case, the Founders Pledge may be a better fit (because the donation would happen upon a successful exit, rather than year by year).
  • Someone who is currently a student (and thus only committing to donate 1% of their spending money if they pledge) should consider whether they will soon be paying off student loans. Depending on repayment policies in their country, people may find money is tighter after finishing their studies, and it may be a challenging time to give 10%.


People with health situations that require resources, time away from work, uncertainty about future expenses, etc. may not find that a consistent pledge works well for them. Perhaps it makes sense to make a conditional plan: an intention to donate a given percent in years when one’s medical situation is better, and to give less or not at all in harder times.

Investing in future ability to help

In some cases, spending now will let you help more later by increasing your eventual skills or earnings.

  • Saving money in order to afford further study, unpaid internships, and the like may decrease your ability to pledge now but increase your long-run career capital.
  • In addition to the value of your physical and mental health for its own sake, prioritising your health now may also allow you to do more good in the future.

While there are situations like these in which a full Pledge might not be suitable, people from many walks of life have also found it to be a good way to commit to building the kind of world they want to see. Many of us, when realizing how rich we are compared to the world average, have welcomed the Pledge as a tool for giving back and for encouraging others to do the same.

So all those things people bring up as reasons not to sign the pledge?  The FAQs agree with them.  I would feel much better if, when people brought these up, GWWC’s response was “yup, this is not for you.”  It also feels very different to me if it’s expected to be taken by adults with established careers, versus college students still planning their life.

An employee of 80,000 Hours (which is a child organization of Centre for Effective Altruism, the organization that promotes the GWWC pledge)

For me it’s a statement of my ideals, which I expect to be quite stable. But it’s not a commitment that forces me to act against my better judgement at any future time. Nor would I want it to have that effect on others.

I found him generally uncooperative in that thread, using words like “That’s the only sensible way to act”, “plainly dominates”, “obviously”,  and implying that a more literal interpretation of the pledge was autistic .  He has since apologized for the implied ableism and stated he was attempting to understand other people’s viewpoints.  I think as a CEA employee he should choose his words better, but these are exactly the kind misunderstandings that can come from people speaking off the cuff.

[Author’s note: I gave the post author the opportunity to respond to this description before publishing, he directed me towards that comment.  I would not have found it otherwise.]

There’s considerable disagreement over what 10% even means.  Gross pay?  Net pay after taxes and health insurance?  What if your country has a high tax rate?  Can you count some of your taxes as charitable giving?  How do you count job benefits?  What if your country has a generous welfare program?   What about money you put in retirement savings? The answer I’ve seen has always been “whatever makes sense for you”, which I consider tantamount to picking your own number.

In general  I think there’s a lot of disagreement over the purpose of the pledge, and whether it’s an instrumental or terminal goal.  I mean obviously it’s not a terminal goal, the terminal goal is…. well, it used to be that the goal was to end poverty, but now that it describes giving to any charity you consider the best, not just anti-global-poverty, I’m not sure I know what the terminal goal is.  It’s “do good”, but it only covers one way to do good.  Which is one of my problems with it- reinforcing the narratives that money is the only thing that counts, and that the good you do is measured by what you give up.

I’ve heard multiple people describe it as creating a culture of giving and openings for them to talk to people about giving.  You can’t really take a pledge to do that directly.  But if people are signing for that purpose and don’t consider themselves bound to actually donate 10%, that feels dishonest to me.  At that point the pledge is something more like “We agree that bad things are bad and we are going to do something about them.”- which I think is a perfectly good pledge, but a substantially different one.

One close friend of mine thinks that there is intrinsic good in suffering to make donations, even if the donations aren’t very large, because it’s a reminder that you’re still unimaginably wealthy to the bottom billion.  I… see the beauty in that if it’s done voluntarily.  I also see beauty and also a lot of practical value in finding something so valuable to do with your time and talent that taking care of yourself becomes virtuous.  Looking at our families of origin: my dad really could have used a nice cup of tea and the message that being a good person is compatible with stopping to take care of yourself sometimes.  My friend’s dad could have used a thwack with a ruler and the message that being in the bottom third of income in the richest county in the country is not the same as being poor.  So it’s possible we’re fighting different wars.

I think everyone agrees that it would be good for people to plan around giving, rather than doing it as an afterthought.  10% barely does that for me and other programmers, because we’re paid so much already.  I have had my income double and then halve over the course of three years.  Meanwhile I have friends for whom 10% is either an unimaginable burden, or for whom it’s plausible at the moment, but they not only have no safety net but are the safety net for several other people, and they need a larger cushion.  I worry that anchoring at 10% will lead to less giving while increasing suffering among donors.  And my friend that mocks the whole concept of charity?  Still not giving anything.

My friend would say that obviously the programmers should give more than 10%.  Which is correct, but I think it’s extremely debatable whether or not that’s accomplished by the pledge.  For people using it as a treatment for scrupulosity, the whole point is that there’s one number.  I find it plausible that “10% for life” is a better way to get people to integrate than “I will think super hard about this every year.”  It’s even possible that it does this without dipping into the commons of the words “for life”, which would address my biggest objection.  But then the objection to “but what if circumstances preclude this for me?” should be “don’t sign it” (which is what the FAQs say, but is not the messaging I’ve seen anywhere else).

An interpretation I find satisfying is that taking The Pledge is like giving an asset to the world.  If at any point you and the world mutually agree to change the arrangement (e.g. receiving less money in exchange for you doing direct work, or a smaller percentage now in exchange for more total money later), you can make that trade. This is complicated by the fact that the world is not a negotiating entity so this probably boils down to your own judgement, which is notoriously biased in favor of you. I see a purpose of a pledge as binding yourself against changes in your judgement.  It prevents you from lying to yourself that you getting takeout is good for the world, at the cost of not getting takeout even when it’s good for the world.

In all seriousness: I wonder how much of the benefits of the pledge you could get by making it solely a commitment to report income and donations every year, with optional shorter term goal setting.  So essentially Try Giving, but with a lifelong commitment to report donations.  Food diaries improve diet without conscious rules.  Spending diaries improve saving without conscious rules.   This could easily generate all the benefits of making people incorporate giving into their planning, is a strictly better conversation starter (since you have a new thing to discuss every year), and has the universality of the pledge with much more flexibility.  In fact you might not even need the “lifelong” part, just a commitment to write up why you are leaving, if you choose to do so.

What do people think about this alternate pledge?  Is there something I’m missing?  A further improvement?

[Author’s note: I ran a much earlier version of this by Julia Wise at CEA]

Protecting the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem, arising when multiple individuals can unilaterally access a shared resource (in economic terms, it’s rival but nonexcludable).  It comes from when medieval farmers would graze their animals on common fields.  Every individual benefits from grazing just one more animal, but eventually the fields are overgrazed and everyone starves.  Tragedy of the commons can also refer to goods with a high up front cost but zero marginal cost (so they’re nonrival as well).  No, you pirating Game of Thrones doesn’t cost HBO anything, but if everyone pirates Game of Thrones then HBO won’t make it, and judging by the number of people that pirate it, that would make many people very sad.

You may notice that medieval farmers did not all starve and therefor must have found a way to avoid overgrazing, and that Game of Thrones exists.  Some of this is survivorship bias- we don’t know what shows would have been made if they were easier to monetize.  But some of this is that humans have devoted a lot of brain space to solving social problems and we have tools Homo economicus doesn’t.  We deride benefiting from something without contributing as free riding, and we punish people for it.

I think one reason some people react so poorly to the idea that it is more moral to help the third world than their own first world community is that it feels like freeriding.   They benefit a lot from being in their community and it is fair that when they are prosperous, they return the benefits.  If everybody moved their giving from local charities to global poverty charities then the first world would collapse and everyone would be worse off.  I think this is true, and it would be bad if it happened.  Maintaining the first world norms that let us be so wealthy and cooperative (seriously guys, we do an insane amount of cooperating with total strangers in one-off interactions) before saving Africa is the equivalent of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. I think our oxygen mask is on right now and has more than enough money from others, so I give globally- which is kind of the equivalent of “I’d contribute to the kickstarter for that book if it were going to fail, but it’s got plenty of money so I’ll just pirate it.”

I struggle with this some, because I think the commons are sacred.  If too many people loot them, even for extremely good causes, even for causes better than what the commons are currently doing, they will disappear.  For example, let’s take, a website for posting and answering technical questions.  I ask way more questions on stackoverflow than I answer.  You could view this as free riding, but I view it as an inherent part of stack overflow: the knowledge is going to flow from the people who know the most who know the least.  The people who know the most are getting the joy of sharing and improving technical knowledge in the world.  So even though it’s an unequal exchange, I view it as morally pure.

But if someone used the traffic at stack overflow to funnel attention to their website, that would not be okay.  People gave their attention in the expectation it would be used for sharing technical knowledge.  If they keep getting tricked into viewing a different website they will stop coming and no one will tell me how the hell to get google compute engine instances to change templates.*  This is true whether the website is porn, knitting, or the Against Malaria Foundation, even if it raises money for AMF, even if the amount raised for AMF outweighs the value of stackoverflow.  It’s not just freeriding, it’s looting.

This is why it bothers me tremendously when, for example, someone continually advertises their own projects on a forum that has made it clear they don’t find it valuable.  They are hijacking something someone gave freely (their attention) to give it to something they didn’t consent to, and in doing so make people more guarded and less open.

Take the bagel man, who delivers bagels to offices on the honor system.  Some types of offices have a much higher payment rate than others (don’t bother feeding lawyers).  It is probably true that an AMF staffer getting an extra bagel when their blood sugar is low is more important than this guy getting an extra dollar; but if too many AMF staffers do that they will lose bagel deliveries entirely. This is why I think it is important to avoid freeriding, even if by utilitarian calculus it is morally better.

*I’m not kidding about this one, if you know the answer please email me at elizabeth @ this domain name

My stock donation to Tostan has finally gone through.  With the stock price the day it went through, my total donation is $19701.26, $49 less than I pledged.  I blame Morgan Stanley for taking 5 weeks to process the donation.  I will fix this, but for tax reasons it will probably need to wait until next year.

Tracking donations

Tostan has told me the total donations by people who listed my post as an inspiration, and wow that is a fun number to hear.  I have moved more money through writing than I did through donating directly, even counting my employer matching.  But it is also an underestimate, because I know some people have donated without telling Tostan why.  These people include my parents (who are generally pro-saying-nice-things-about-me) and a couple that wrote me personally to tell me they were donating who I know didn’t list me on the donation form because the size of their donation exceeds the last total Tostan gave me.  This number also excludes any employer matching.

This lets me fantasize about an almost unlimited amount of donations that might be due to me.   In the interests of getting a more accurate number, would people who donated to Tostan because of me please fill out this poll?  Obviously this is not a perfect measure, since not everyone who read my post reads my blog, and of those who do not all will fill out the form.  But this will provide me with both happiness and a better estimate of how much time I should invest in this kind of work in the future.

Update on my personal donation: Morgan Stanley still hasn’t finished giving my stock to Tostan, but as of Friday they swore it was in progress.  I took a best guess at what the stock was worth at time of transfer and donated the remainder by credit card.