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Contra the Giving What We Can pledge

Yesterday, there was a Facebook thread discussing arguments against the Giving What We Can (GWWC) pledge, where people promise to donate 10% of all future income to charity (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/pledge/). The thread didn't seem very productive, but I do think there are strong arguments against the pledge, at least as it exists now. Hence, I thought I'd write up some of the arguments against, and try to have a better discussion here. Of course, I only speak for myself, not any of the thread participants (though I'd welcome their endorsements if they agree). There are also arguments in favor of the pledge, but since many others have already covered them, I won't be including them here.

First, and most obviously, the pledge recommends a flat 10% donation, regardless of a person's income. The general consensus is that utility of money goes as log(income), so giving a fixed percentage is more painful per unit of good done at lower incomes than higher ones (hence, eg., progressive income taxes). Different professions also have dramatically different ratios of direct impact to money generated. Eg., an American congressman's salary is $174,000, but their votes in Congress are so important that even an 0.1% improvement in voting skill outweighs a $17,400 donation; hence, spending even a tiny amount of effort donating the 10% is likely not worth it. On the other extreme, a high-frequency trading job produces lots of money, but almost no direct impact. Therefore, the best donation percentage will vary hugely from person to person. Given the high human capital and low income of the median effective altruist, my guess is that for many people here, the best percentage is <1%; on the flip side, for a typical billionaire, it might be 90% or more. The GWWC pledge encourages most to donate too much, while lowballing a smaller number of large donors.

Second, the GWWC pledge uses the phrase "for the rest of my life or until the day I retire". This is a very long-term commitment; since most EAs are young (IIRC, ~50% of pledge takers were students when they took it), it might often be for fifty years or more. As EA itself is so young (under five years old, depending on exact definitions), so rapidly growing, and so much in flux, it's probably a bad idea to "lock in" fixed strategies, for the same reason that people who take a new job every month shouldn't buy a house. This is especially true for students, or others who will shortly make large career changes (as 80,000 Hours encourages). People in that position have very little information about their life in 2040, and are therefore in a bad position to make binding decisions about it. In response to this argument, pledge taker Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.

Third, the number of GWWC pledge takers is used as a very prominent metric within EA. It's listed in bold, 72-point font on the GWWC homepage, was the very first thing mentioned in Will MacAskill's monthly CEA update, and is found in many other places discussing "the state of EA" or EA's growth rate. This is problematic because, as psychologist Dan Ariely says, "you are what you measure". GWWC pledge count is a bad metric for EA as a whole, because:

  • it doesn't account for efficacy of donations; while EA/GWWC encourages donating effectively, an ineffective donor is still included in the total
  • it doesn't account for amount of donations, so five small donors count more than one big donor, even though the big donor probably gives more
  • it doesn't account for direct work (eg. discovering a cure for cancer as a research scientist) at all
  • it creates weird biases regarding timing; possible future donations through ~2060 are totaled on the GWWC homepage, but no adjustment is made for the dramatic differences between 2016 EA/humanity vs. 2060 EA/humanity, creating the illusion of a "perpetual present"

It might be OK to use GWWC pledge count as one metric, measuring one aspect of EA, along with a suite of other metrics that captured what it missed. However, as far as I know, those other metrics more-or-less don't exist right now (I think 80,000 Hours is tracking "number of career changes" internally, but not sure if that's been published anywhere). Quantifying and highlighting this one metric, while not quantifying other things, creates quite a large bias. [EDIT: 80,000 Hours has indeed been publishing this metric, eg. here. However, I still think that it gets much less prominence than the GWWC pledge count. Even within 80K's own post, it's listed below other (IMO much less important) metrics, like web traffic and newsletter subscriber count.)

Fourth, although this isn't explicit in the pledge itself, I think many people taking the pledge intend to donate their 10% to GiveWell-recommended charities. (The GWWC pledge was originally specific to global poverty, and GWWC's charity recommendations largely overlap with GiveWell's.) This seems like a failure to propagate updates. For example, suppose your friend Joe is going camping in Nevada next week; he packs his RV with tents, clothes, food, water, and other equipment. The day before, Joe says he's changed his mind, and is actually camping in the mountains of Alaska. That's all well and good, but now that he's made this change, Joe needs to propagate that change through the other parts of his plan. He can't just buy a new map and drive to a different spot. A change like that will affect what clothes he needs to bring, how he should equip his vehicle, what emergency preparations he should take, what he'll do for fun, and probably even things like who will come with him or what food he carries.

Of course, I don't speak for GiveWell, but my impression is that the initial GiveWell focus was on upper-middle-class people making four-figure donations every holiday season. This has a bunch of implications, but the biggest is that the target audience is mostly busy with work, relatively risk-averse, and is giving away "spare cash" that won't be missed that much (if there's a lean year, they'll just donate less). In that context, the initial GiveWell model (in ~2007-2010) made a lot of sense. However, the GWWC audience is intrinsically different; almost all pledge takers are making a very serious commitment, since it's a substantial fixed fraction of income every year for decades. And since taking the pledge is still relatively "weird", the average pledge taker will be much less risk-averse. Given those assumptions, it makes much more sense to do a lot of research yourself, rather than "outsourcing thinking"; this is especially true given the current deep disagreements in EA on what "the most good" even means. (I also expect it would be much more motivating for the donor.)

Added: Michael Dickens also posted about this last month; I think the arguments largely overlap, but that he fleshes out some of them in more detail. H/T Kit

Comments (80)

Comment author: AGB 04 December 2016 09:52:26PM *  20 points [-]

I can think of ok arguments against the pledge, but many of these arguments seem a bit soft/poorly-informed to me. The biggest weakness, which runs throughout the piece, is the lack of a suggested alternative. Should we have no pledge? A pledge that scales with income? Some modifying to account for other substantive ways of contributing to the world (e.g. time)? Or something else entirely?

In general, without a counterfactual in the background all criticism is meaningless, except insofar as it helps point you in the right direction when you do go searching for alternatives.

Apart from that though, on the content itself:

First, and most obviously, the pledge recommends a flat 10% donation, regardless of a person's income.

This is only half-true. I pledged 20%. Some people, esp. those closer to the core of EA, have taken the further pledge (which mandates donating above some level) instead. 10% is the baseline though, and I certainly grant it's the most-talked-about number.

an American congressman's salary is $174,000, but their votes in Congress are so important that even an 0.1% improvement in voting skill outweighs a $17,400 donation; hence, spending even a tiny amount of effort donating the 10% is likely not worth it.

Citation needed? But if your time really is so incredibly valuable, then you shouldn't spend time doing this yourself, you outsource it to people you trust, like your spouse, close friends, children, or an organisation like Givewell. However, in principle you should still give your money, just not your time. Indeed, as you point out towards the end of your piece, this is basically Givewell's initial model. Once you've made the one-off decision of who to trust (which you can do early in working life when your job is almost certainly not so important, or even while still in education), the marginal effort is roughly 0.

Given the high human capital and low income of the median effective altruist, my guess is that for many people here, the best percentage is <1%...

Very confused by this part. Are we including students here? The 10% doesn't apply to them. If we're not including students, what's your source for thinking effective altruists are 'low income'? Low relative to what?

It might be OK to use GWWC pledge count as one metric, measuring one aspect of EA, along with a suite of other metrics that captured what it missed. However, as far as I know, those other metrics more-or-less don't exist right now

Again, surprised to read this. You used two examples from (a) GWWC's page itself and (b) CEA updates, GWWC's parent organisation, and used this to conclude the other metrics don't exist? What metrics do you think 80k/REG/EAF/FHI/CSER/MIRI/CFAR/Givewell/any-other-EA-org are using? It's very likely not number of GWWC pledges. On the other hand, It seems entirely appropriate for GWWC (or, since the merger, CEA's outreach division), to keep a close eye on the pledge number while being aware of the caveats you gave. And we know that CEA is aware of the possible issues with being too focused on this to the exclusion of all else because they said exactly that here* on the forum.

So yeah, I think you're just arguing for the status quo here.

http://effective-altruism.com/ea/12s/cea_updates_august_update/

*

Our current core metric is number of new GWWC members. We’re in the process of developing a broader set of metrics that can represent the work of the Community and Outreach Division as a whole, allowing us to monitor both the new people we get interested in the movement and the ways in which we support current EAs to do more. Once these are finalised we’ll add them to these updates.

Of course, I don't speak for GiveWell, but my impression is that the initial GiveWell focus was on upper-middle-class people making four-figure donations every holiday season. This has a bunch of implications...However, the GWWC audience is intrinsically different...

An upper-middle class person might earn 75k USD and donate 1.5k USD. An upper-middle class person who has taken the GWWC pledge might donate 7.5k instead. I don't see how that difference is going to be on a par with your Nevada/Alaska comparison; the best place to donate 1.5k is very likely the best place to donate 7.5k.

Given those assumptions, it makes much more sense to do a lot of research yourself, rather than "outsourcing thinking"

As you pointed out yourself, this is very dependent on the individual. I suggested earlier that someone like a congressman doing directly important work with comparatively little to donate should probably outsource thinking or at least not think too much, because their time is valuable and their money is not. And someone with a lot of money might still want to outsource thinking in the sense of bringing in other people's expertise to make decisions; this is basically what Good Ventures and the Gates Foundation are doing. There is some middle ground where you have a decent amount of money (but not enough to employ people to decide how to spend it) and yet you have spare time to work out how to donate it. I'm in that middle-ground position, but I suspect it's smaller than you are implying.

And since taking the pledge is still relatively "weird", the average pledge taker will be much less risk-averse.

I don't necessarily disagree with this point, but I don't necessarily agree either. I didn't really follow the argument being made here; how does the second point follow from the first?

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 05 December 2016 03:59:59PM *  4 points [-]

Tip: If you put a greater-than symbol ">" before a text block, it will turn into a quote. That's much easier to read than using quotation marks for long quotes.

> this is quoted text

turns into

this is quoted text

Comment author: AGB 05 December 2016 07:00:16PM 1 point [-]

Edited. Thanks

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 10:57:57PM 2 points [-]

"In general, without a counterfactual in the background all criticism is meaningless"

This seems like a kind of crazy assertion to me. Eg., in 1945, as part of the war against Japan, the US firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. (The bombs were intentionally designed to set cities on fire.) Not being a general or historian, I don't have an exact plan in mind for an alternative way for the past US to have spent its military resources. Maybe, if you researched all the options in enough detail, there really was no better alternative. But it seems entirely reasonable to say that the firebombing was bad, and to argue that (if you were around back then) people should maybe think about not doing that. (The firebombing is obviously not comparable to the pledge, I'm just arguing the general principle here.)

"This is only half-true. I pledged 20%."

The statement was that the pledge recommended 10%, which is true. Of course other people can choose to do other things, but that seems irrelevant.

"Citation needed?"

The exact numbers aren't important here, but the US federal budget is $3.8 trillion, and the US also has a great deal of influence over both private money and foreign money (through regulations, treaties, precedent, diplomatic pressure, etc.). There are three branches of government, of which Congress is one; Congress has two houses, and there are then 435 representatives in the lower house. Much of the money flow was committed a long time ago (eg. Social Security), and would be very hard to change; on the other hand, a law you pass may keep operating and directing money decades into the future. Averaged over everything, I think you get ~$1 billion a year of total influence, order-of-magnitude; 0.1% of that is $1 million, or 57x the $17,400 personal donation. This is fairly conservative, as it basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options.

"But if your time really is so incredibly valuable, then you shouldn't spend time doing this yourself, you outsource it to people you trust"

The orders of magnitude here aren't even comparable. This might reduce the net cost to your effectiveness from 5% to 2%, or something like that; it's not going to reduce it to 0.0001%, or whatever the number would have to be for the math to work out.

"However, in principle you should still give your money, just not your time."

In practice, there is always some trade-off between money and time (eg. here discusses this, along with lots of other sites). The rate varies depending on who you are, what you're doing, the type of time you're trading off against, etc. But again, it's not going to vary by the orders of magnitude you seem to implicitly assume.

"Indeed, as you point out towards the end of your piece, this is basically Givewell's initial model."

The initial GiveWell audience was mostly trading off against personal leisure time; that obviously isn't the case here.

"the marginal effort is roughly 0"

It seems extremely implausible that someone making a middle-class salary, or someone making an upper-middle-class salary but under very high time pressure and with high expenses, could give away 10% of their income for life and literally never think about it again.

"If we're not including students, what's your source for thinking effective altruists are 'low income'? Low relative to what?"

Relative to their overall expected career paths. In upper-middle-class and upper-class career tracks (finance, law, business management, entrepreneurship, etc.), income is very back-weighted, with the large majority of expected income coming during the later years of the career.

"You used two examples from (a) GWWC's page itself and (b) CEA updates, GWWC's parent organisation, and used this to conclude the other metrics don't exist?"

I can't prove a negative. If they do exist, where are they? If you link to some, I'll happily add them to the post, as I did for 80K's metrics.

"What metrics do you think 80k/REG/EAF/FHI/CSER/MIRI/CFAR/Givewell/any-other-EA-org are using?"

The GWWC pledge count is used as a metric for EA as a whole, rather than for any specific org like MIRI, CFAR, etc. (Also, AFAIK, many of the orgs mentioned don't really even have internal metrics, except things like "total annual budget" that aren't really measures of efficacy.)

"And we know that CEA is aware of the possible issues with being too focused on this to the exclusion of all else because they said exactly that here* on the forum."

That's cool, but as far as I know, these metrics don't yet exist. If they do exist, great, I'll link them here.

"I don't see how that difference is going to be on a par with your Nevada/Alaska comparison"

The important difference isn't the donation amounts (at least for that example). The important differences are a) this is a public commitment, while most GiveWell-influenced donations are private; b) the commitment is made all at once, rather than year-by-year; c) the commitment is the same income fraction for every year, rather than being adjustable on-the-fly; d) the standard deviation of income for pledgers is almost certainly much higher than for GiveWell's initial audience; e) the standard deviation of human capital is higher; f) the standard deviation of amount-of-free-time is higher; g) pledgers now have very different, and much higher-variance, ideas about "the most good" than a typical GiveWell donor in 2009 (though this is somewhat of an "accident of sociology" rather than intrinsic to the pledge itself).

"I didn't really follow the argument being made here; how does the second point follow from the first?"

There's a selection effect where pledge-takers are much less likely to be the type of people who'd be turned off by donating to a "weird" charity, taking a "weird" career, etc., since people like that would probably not pledge in the first place.

Comment author: Paul_Crowley 05 December 2016 12:09:50AM 5 points [-]

You have a philosopher's instinct to reach for the most extreme example, but in general I recommend against that.

There's a pretty simple counterfactual: don't take or promote the pledge.

Comment author: Kit 05 December 2016 09:05:51AM 2 points [-]

Haven't you just chosen precisely the most extreme counterfactual? Now you have to defend the view that Giving What We Can, run by very smart people who test what they're doing, is causing net harm in expectation.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 05 December 2016 10:18:00PM 2 points [-]

Re. firebombing, I think that the force of the argument there rests on the idea that everyone agrees that there were lots of reasonable alternatives that were better - - that it was unusually bad.

I don't think you think that's true in the case of the GWWC pledge?

Comment author: AGB 05 December 2016 07:37:16PM *  2 points [-]

This seems like a kind of crazy assertion to me. Eg., in 1945, as part of the war against Japan, the US firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. (The bombs were intentionally designed to set cities on fire.) Not being a general or historian, I don't have an exact plan in mind for an alternative way for the past US to have spent its military resources. Maybe, if you researched all the options in enough detail, there really was no better alternative. But it seems entirely reasonable to say that the firebombing was bad, and to argue that (if you were around back then) people should maybe think about not doing that. (The firebombing is obviously not comparable to the pledge, I'm just arguing the general principle here.)

We may have an intractable disagreement here and it's pretty tangential to the point at hand, but for posterity I'll state my general position below anyway*.

More to the point at hand though, if you could actually spell out what you think should be done instead of the GWWC pledge, that'd really help direct the discussion. 'Maybe there should be no pledge at all' is a completely fine response, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm being completely not-sarcastic there.

The exact numbers aren't important here, but the US federal budget is $3.8 trillion, and the US also has a great deal of influence over both private money and foreign money (through regulations, treaties, precedent, diplomatic pressure, etc.). There are three branches of government, of which Congress is one; Congress has two houses, and there are then 435 representatives in the lower house. Much of the money flow was committed a long time ago (eg. Social Security), and would be very hard to change; on the other hand, a law you pass may keep operating and directing money decades into the future. Averaged over everything, I think you get ~$1 billion a year of total influence, order-of-magnitude; 0.1% of that is $1 million, or 57x the $17,400 personal donation. This is fairly conservative, as it basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options.

The orders of magnitude here aren't even comparable. This might reduce the net cost to your effectiveness from 5% to 2%, or something like that; it's not going to reduce it to 0.0001%, or whatever the number would have to be for the math to work out.

I did do the fermi myself. 0.1% improvement seemed crazy high to me for the time someone might spend deciding their annual donation, so I wouldn't exactly call your calculation 'conservative', but I certainly concede its not crazy.

Re. outsourcing, your own calculation suggested a x57 difference. I had a x2 difference. rohinmshah elsewhere had a x3 difference. Given that I don't see why I need to cover more than a couple of orders of magnitude with outsourcing, and we both seem to think that outsourcing can credibly do that. I wouldn't expect outsourcing to help once we're above x50-ish and didn't mean to imply otherwise. So I think we basically agree on the limits of what outsourcing can do, you just seem to have a implied multiplier well in excess of x1000 (otherwise I don't know where 0.0001% and the 'orders of magnitude' comment come from), which I wasn't at all anticipating. Taking that for granted though, your position seems reasonable.

Let's compromise by not promoting the GWWC pledge to congresspeople or anyone else who can credibly influence billions of dollars?

I think the average federal dollar you can influence is quite a bit worse than Give Directly FWIW, though in my fermi I assumed they were equivalent as well.

It seems extremely implausible that someone making a middle-class salary, or someone making an upper-middle-class salary but under very high time pressure and with high expenses, could give away 10% of their income for life and literally never think about it again.

Why not? Seriously. It's not uncommon for people to move countries in the developed world and incur a 10% higher tax rate in the process. I really doubt most people in that situation ever think about that again after the first couple of years.

I can't prove a negative. If they do exist, where are they? If you link to some, I'll happily add them to the post, as I did for 80K's metrics.

Ok, sure. Givewell, money moved: http://www.givewell.org/about/impact REG, money moved: https://reg-charity.org/reg-second-semi-annual-report-on-money-moved-2015/

There's also a whole bunch of metrics in the EA Survey that people often reference: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/zw/the_2015_survey_of_effective_altruists_results/

The GWWC pledge count is used as a metric for EA as a whole, rather than for any specific org like MIRI, CFAR, etc.

Ah, this is interesting. Can you clarify what you mean by 'a metric for EA as a whole'? Do you not think that, e.g., Givewell's money moved numbers fill a similar function? If not, why not?

There's a selection effect where pledge-takers are much less likely to be the type of people who'd be turned off by donating to a "weird" charity, taking a "weird" career, etc., since people like that would probably not pledge in the first place.

I sort of get this argument, it was when you said 'risk-averse' that I got stuck. To clarify, is this specific to the GWWC pledge or would any "weird" behaviour do? To take a slightly silly example, would you expect people who shower very irregularly (a 'weird' behaviour) to be more risk-seeking on similar grounds?

*

  1. For firebombing to even happen, someone had to think it was the best of the available options. In fact, probably lots of someones had to think that. Those someones probably know lots more about the US military options than you or I. So to argue that firebombing is bad in the face of that probably-superior expertise, providing a concrete alternative (or set of alternatives) seems like the bare minimum you need to do.

  2. Note that I said you need a counterfactual in the background. That caveat was there precisely to pre-empt cases like the one you gave, where the counterfactual is clearly and directly implied by the criticism. But as soon as you make multiple criticisms implicitly suggesting different counterfactuals, as you have here, it's worth spelling out exactly what alternative you are suggesting. Discussions get terribly confusing otherwise.

  3. The above points are practical rather than technical. But on a technical level, criticism is clearly meaningless in cases where there is no choice. Nobody criticizes gravity for pulling you to your death if you step off a cliff. So to criticize something you need to establish that it is not like gravity; it can be fixed/improved/eliminated. Put another way, meaningful criticism is not 'this is not perfect', rather it is 'this is not optimal'. Which in turns requires a counterfactual, albeit potentially an implicit one.

So yeah, in short I'm generally pretty comfortable with the 'all unconstructive criticism is meaningless' approach. I consider it both technically true and practically useful.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 05 December 2016 12:04:12AM 2 points [-]

I disagree with your calculation, I independently made the same calculation below (before seeing yours), and mine comes out with $40,000, which is less than 3x the $17,400, and my confidence interval certainly would include $17,400. (It first came out with $10,000, but your calculation made me realize that I neglected an important factor.)

In addition, it seems like a big assumption that you could improve voting skill by 0.1% with a "tiny amount of effort", I disagree pretty strongly there (again, more details in the other comment thread).

"It basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options."

Say what? If I'm understanding you right, it would be better to donate to the US government than to donate to GiveDirectly?

Comment author: Kit 05 December 2016 09:32:57AM 1 point [-]

GWWC is not firebombing anything, happily. War crimes are obviously bad and need no counterfactual spelled out. The principle you outline does not apply to the pledge because many people (citation) don't think the pledge is obviously bad. To engage these people in productive discourse you need to suggest at least one strategy which could be better.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 05 December 2016 05:25:32PM *  1 point [-]

The principle you outline does not apply to the pledge because many people (citation) don't think the pledge is obviously bad.

AlyssaVance isn't outlining a principle. AGB made a general claim about criticism being useless without a counterfactual. AlyssaVance's mention of firebombing was meant as a counterexample to that generalization.

Comment author: JoshYou 05 December 2016 02:25:48AM 1 point [-]

I'm still pretty confused about why you think donating 10% has to be time-confusing. People who outsource their donation decisions to, say, Givewell might only spend a few hours a year (or a few minutes, depending on how literally we interpret "outsourcing) deciding where to donate.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 20 December 2016 03:11:03AM *  5 points [-]

I think that donor lotteries are a considerably stronger argument than GiveWell for the claim "donating 10% doesn't have to be time-consuming."

Your argument (with GiveWell in place of a lottery) requires that either (a) you think that GiveWell charities are clearly the best use of funds, or (b) by "doesn't have to be time-consuming" you mean "if you don't necessarily want to do the most good." I don't think you should be confused about why someone would disagree with (a), nor about why someone would think that (b) is a silly usage.

If there were low-friction donor lotteries, I suspect that most small GiveWell donors would be better-served by gambling up to perhaps $1M and then thinking about it at considerably greater length. I expect a significant fraction of them would end up funding something other than GiveWell top charities.

(I was originally supportive but kind of lukewarm about donor lotteries, but I think I've now come around to Carl's level of enthusiasm.)

Comment author: Julia_Wise 05 December 2016 11:48:57AM 5 points [-]

One reason would be if you think the people should spend the money on saving themselves time.

Comment author: BenHoffman 14 December 2016 10:36:54PM 3 points [-]

Look out in the world and you'll see lots of people excited about things that don't work or don't do what they say they'll do. Anyone can say they're evidence-backed etc. On outside view, if you only spend a few minutes on your donations each year, how much of the optimization pressure influencing your donations should you expect was marketing skill on the part of the recipient or their patron, vs selecting for actual impact?

Comment author: Kit 04 December 2016 09:27:36PM 5 points [-]

Does anyone have specific proposals for what kind of public pledge you would prefer to make, or ask people to make? Including guesses as to who would take or not take such a pledge would be helpful for assessing whether a change would be net positive.

I don't expect CEA to implement changes to the Giving What We Can Pledge any time soon due to the substantial momentum cost but think we should focus on actionable statements to best understand what's going on here.

Comment author: Elizabeth 05 December 2016 04:01:16PM 4 points [-]

"I pledge to spend N hours/year evaluating how I could do the most good in the world and what the personal cost to me would be, and publish my results."

The N hours is still a cost rather than a result, which I dislike. I think the ultimate goal would be a moral aesthetic sense on when you've researched "enough", and pledge to satisfy that. But this gets you one of the main advantages of the GWWC pledge, that it prompts you to donate and to think about your donation, without the cost of locking you in to a numbers. Yes, the pledge is fine with you donating more, but there is no mechanism for deciding when you should do so.

Comment author: Eric_Bruylant 06 December 2016 11:01:40PM 0 points [-]

I like this! Especially if combined with a Schelling day for doing the thinking (possibly one winter and one summer?).

Comment author: Elizabeth 09 December 2016 10:01:42PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: Eric_Bruylant 05 December 2016 02:13:49PM 3 points [-]

I have one in mind, though it's far from finished. I asked about how the GWWC pledge interacted with my current plans, and was told (by PM) by someone from GWWC that it was within the spirit of the pledge. But, I'd rather pledge something I can follow the letter of, so have been thinking about what I actually want to commit to.

I'd like to give myself a north star of something close to: Put all available resources (both time and money), other than those required to maintain myself and those close to me as healthy, productive, and stable, humans, towards things I expect to have a large positive impact on the world.

I expect I will end up doing much more good with this as my focus, rather than some fixed % income. I also expect this is true of many of the most consequentially important people, the ones who may start new projects and open up new cause areas.

Comment author: Benito 04 December 2016 08:54:49PM 5 points [-]

80,000 Hours does publish their metrics; here's their latest update. The post contains a link to a more thorough explanation of what the metric measures.

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 08:56:02PM 4 points [-]

Thanks! I'll add that to the post

Comment author: Ben_Todd 05 December 2016 02:16:14AM 5 points [-]

Hi Alyssa,

Just to add:

Significant plan are our key metric, even though they're listed below the others in that document. (I listed them in order of the conversion funnel rather than importance.)

We publish updates about every 2 weeks here: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/80k_updates

Also, we rate the plan changes on "counterfactual impact", and track the quality adjusted total. This is very rough, but much better than just tracking the simple number.

Comment author: Marcus_Aurelius 04 December 2016 11:04:46PM 4 points [-]

A couple of points:

First, and most obviously, the pledge recommends a flat 10% donation

That's not entirely correct. The pledge says "I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn".

The GWWC pledge encourages most to donate too much, while lowballing a smaller number of large donors.

I think someone who is a large donor and a GWWC member would realize that he or she easily could (and probably should) give a good bit more than 10%. My perception of GWWC's communication is that their primary target audience are not potential large donors but more or less everyone. The question whether 10% is too much for most people is something that can be debated. I think there's a clear trade-off at stake: A lower percentage figure gets you more members but doesn't quite sound as impressive when trying to get GWWC or EA featured in the press ("GWWC members have pledged to donate 0.5% of their income!"). It could however result in more total donations if a lower percentage figure induces, say, millions of people to join. I'm not sure how GWWC settled on the 10% figure but I'm pretty sure that some thought went into this (cf. their FAQ answer to Why 10?: "We chose 10% because it strikes a good balance.").

it's probably a bad idea to "lock in" fixed strategies, for the same reason that people who take a new job every month shouldn't buy a house.

I would agree with you here but it's not like the pledge is in any way legally binding or there's actually a fixed, unchangeable lock-in effect of any kind. You quote Rob Wiblin as saying that "if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge." Where is the harm if someone becomes a GWWC member with the sincere intention of giving 10% for the rest of their life but after, say, three years of giving 10% realizes that they could do more good in the long-term by giving nothing for the next few years because they want to buy a home and build a longer personal runway before switching back to giving mode? Or because they want to save as much as possible to bootstrap a startup that they think could do a great deal of good? And five years after that they rejoin? I don't see the problem here.

However, this [the option to un-take the pledge] is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.

Yes, maybe GWWC could add an entry in their FAQ section but I fail to see why this should be mentioned explicitly in the pledge itself. To me, it's absolutely clear that's this isn't some kind of binding "in sickness and in health" / "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution"-kind of pledge that comes with (severe) penalties should you break it. This is about your own personal life and your desire to do a good deal of good by giving away some money. If at some point you'd rather stop giving altogether and instead move to Barbados to open up a bar there, there's nothing that GWWC can do to prevent that. There is no sanction mechanism.

Fourth, although this isn't explicit in the pledge itself, I think many people taking the pledge intend to donate their 10% to GiveWell-recommended charities.

As you say, nowhere in the pledge does it say anything about where the donations should go. In fact, it's very broad in saying "to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come." I think that's sensible because, as you say, there are currently deep disagreements about which organizations would best fulfil this criteria. But these mainly are disagreements with regards to the big EA cause areas (say, poverty vs. animal welfare vs. x-risk vs. meta), not disagreements about the traditional kind of charity – build this orphanage in Africa! help save this dog shelter! – vs. the EA approach. And I think GWWC plays an important role here in getting more people to think about giving effectively and by encouraging members of the global, say, top 10% to give a good deal more than they currently do.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 04 December 2016 11:36:56PM *  11 points [-]

"Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving."

Hi Alyssa - FYI, the FAQ about the pledge says the following:

"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 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."

https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/#42-how-does-it-work-is-it-legally-binding

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 09 December 2016 02:49:40PM *  5 points [-]

Huh, that’s not what “pledge” means to me.

One important purpose of the pledge that I saw was as insurance against an evil future me. If I thought that working in some high-earning career might corrupt me, then I could take the pledge in order to force future me to comply with current me’s will.

Since I learned of the pledge in 2014, I’ve been fully intent on donating at least 10% of my income throughout my life, but since my impression has always been that current me was smarter and cooler than past me, I only took the Try Giving pledge with a timeframe such that if I changed my mind about the pledge, I could pay off the remaining years from savings alone. If I take a pledge and call it a pledge, then it doesn’t matter if it ends up going contrary to my moral goals; I still have to follow through.

So a pledge that you can un-take is incompatible with my understanding of what a pledge is, and I’m not sure if the FAQ can change that since it’s not part of the pledge text. I would feel iffy about taking it and calling it a pledge, since that would diminish the value of my word.

A term like “statement of intent” may be more appropriate, right?

If it turns out to be bad, I will no longer do it, because there's no point having a commitment device to prompt you to follow through on something you don't think you should do. That's the only sensible way to act. [From another thread, currently below.]

I don’t think that’s sensible. Think of Parfit’s hitchhiker and suppose it’s not someone good at reading facial expressions but someone how see’s your T-shirt that says “Hi, I’m a consequentialist EA and GWWC pledge taker.” And you say “I pledge to give you $100 once we reach a town.” The driver is will be like “I know you EA folks: You’d much rather donate those $100 and produce much more utility than I ever would with them. And your pledge means nothing to me since you’ll just un-take it when we’re in town.”

Un-taking pledges commits one to only ever cooperating with agents that are so highly value-aligned that there is no conceivable way you could defect against them.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 09 December 2016 10:47:22PM 2 points [-]

Firstly: I think we should use the interpretation of the pledge that produces the best outcome. The use GWWC and I apply is completely mainstream use of the term pledge (e.g. you 'pledge' to stay with the person you marry, but people nonetheless get divorced if they think the marriage is too harmful to continue).

A looser interpretation is better because more people will be willing to participate, and each person gain from a smaller and more reasonable push towards moral behaviour. We certainly don't want people to be compelled to do things they think are morally wrong - that doesn't achieve an EA goal. That would be bad. Indeed it's the original complaint here.

Secondly: An "evil future you" who didn't care about the good you can do through donations probably wouldn't care much about keeping promises made by a different kind of person in the past either, I wouldn't think.

Thirdly: The coordination thing doesn't really matter here because you are only 'cooperating' with your future self, who can't really reject you because they don't exist yet (unlike another person who is deciding whether to help you).

One thing I suspect is going on here is that people on the autism spectrum interpret all kinds of promises to be more binding than neurotypical people do (e.g. https://www.reddit.com/r/aspergers/comments/46zo2s/promises/). I don't know if that applies to any individual here specifically, but I think it explains how some of us have very different intuitions. But I expect we will be able to do more good if we apply the neurotypical intuitions that most people share.

Of course if you want to make it fully binding for yourself, then nobody can really stop you.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 18 January 2017 05:24:05AM 6 points [-]

Looking back at this, I see how this could come across as minimizing people viewpoints that are different from mine, and I regret that. I was trying to make sense of how people see this topic so differently, and I'm sorry that I came off as medicalizing people who see it differently than I do. That wasn't my intent at all.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 20 December 2016 02:47:51AM 6 points [-]

Secondly: An "evil future you" who didn't care about the good you can do through donations probably wouldn't care much about keeping promises made by a different kind of person in the past either, I wouldn't think.

[...] there's no point having a commitment device to prompt you to follow through on something you don't think you should do

Usually we promise to do something that we would not have done otherwise, i.e. which may not be in line with our future self's interests. The promise "I will do X if my future self wants to" is gratuitous.

When I promise to do something I will try to do it, even if my preferences change. Perhaps you are reading "evil" as meaning "lacks integrity" rather than "is not altruistic," but in context that doesn't make much sense.

It seems reasonable for GWWC to say that the GWWC pledge is intended more as a statement of intent than as a commitment; it would be interesting to understand whether this is how most people who come into contact with GWWC perceive the pledge. If there is systematic misperception, it seems like the appropriate response is "oops, sorry" and to fix the misperception.

Thirdly: The coordination thing doesn't really matter here because you are only 'cooperating' with your future self, who can't really reject you because they don't exist yet (unlike another person who is deciding whether to help you).

It does not seem to me that the main purpose of taking the GWWC pledge, nor its main effect, is to influence the pledger's behavior.

Comment author: espertus 24 December 2016 05:01:06PM *  1 point [-]

I totally agree with Paul_Christiano and Telofy: "a pledge that you can un-take is incompatible with my understanding of what a pledge is." I feel as bound by my word as I would be by a legal contract (or perhaps even more). I'm troubled by the people who say you can just untake the pledge later if you change your mind.

I've applied this principle throughout my life. I did not promise my husband that I would love him forever and remain married always; I made promises I knew I could keep (and we're happily married 18 years later). I was unable to join a college honor society because I refused to make a vow that was sprung on us in the initiation ceremony.

While I'd be happy to state an intention to continue giving at least 10% of my income to helping the very poor, I will not make a pledge because, if circumstances dramatically change, I will have to either break it or go against my future best judgment.

Robert Wilbin, whose work I've long admired, writes:

I expect we will be able to do more good if we apply the neurotypical intuitions that most people share.

He may be right, although that excludes some of us. It's good that the EA community is large enough to accommodate different types of people. I hope it is useful to Rob to know why more (generous, principled) people don't take the GWWC pledge and that he can respect our position, even as he focuses on other types of people who benefit from his approach.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 10 December 2016 07:45:16AM 2 points [-]

One thing I suspect is going on here is that people on the autism spectrum interpret all kinds of promises to be more binding than neurotypical people do.

Fascinating! I’m not formally diagnosed with Asperger’s, but intuitions associated with Asperger’s have often felt reassuringly familiar to me.

We certainly don’t want people to be compelled to do things they think are morally wrong – that doesn’t achieve an EA goal.

Indeed, hence why I would be more comfortable with something like “statement of intent.” I would rather abandon the term than diminish the meaning it has for me. Then again the term probably serves its intended function for at least 99.5% of the population. Pretty good by 80/20 standards.

Asperger’s may have a higher incidence among EAs, so maybe it’s worth setting up a slightly reworded aspie pledge page. The EAS/EAF pledge page (that perhaps aspie friends of mine have helped set up) goes in that direction: “In certain exceptional situations, not following through with donating can be a pragmatic decision in accordance with the goals of the pledge. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you think you are in such a situation.” It’s still a bit iffy since it makes EAF the pledge arbiter, and I don’t think people pledge to EAF, but it does help signal a limit to its irreversibility.

An “evil future you” who didn’t care about the good you can do through donations probably wouldn't care much about keeping promises made by a different kind of person in the past either, I wouldn’t think.

Possible, but these types of moral motivations feel very separate to me so my surprise if both of them changed would be close to the product of my surprise if one of them changed.

The coordination thing doesn’t really matter here because you are only “cooperating” with your future self, who can’t really reject you because they don't exist yet (unlike another person who is deciding whether to help you).

I should’ve made clear that I was thinking of cooperation with people who observe my taking and possibly un-taking the pledge – e.g., because we’re in a GWWC Facebook group together that only members get invited to or because I tell them – and form an opinion of me based on those observations.

Comment author: Elizabeth 16 December 2016 02:22:39AM 1 point [-]

" I think we should use the interpretation of the pledge that produces the best outcome. "

Why not write the pledge that has the best outcome? If pledging the behavior for life produces better outcomes, I think it's worth thinking about why.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 19 December 2016 10:11:29PM 2 points [-]

The question is under what conditions you can break a pledge, as it's ambiguous.

I think 'this pledge no longer accomplishes the underlying goal which motivated my past self to take it' is a generally acceptable reason, and rightly so. Your past self would have wanted to write in such an exit clause if they had anticipated it (or had the flexibility), so there's no breakdown in cooperation.

Comment author: Elizabeth 19 December 2016 11:41:17PM 2 points [-]

I think I have a model where this makes sense: if you made a promise to another person, that's essentially an asset they have, and you could trade something they wanted more in exchange for being released from the promise. You view the GWWC pledge as making a promise to your past self and/or the world at large, so if something comes along that is a better trade for the world, you feel free to take it.

Does that sound right?

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 21 December 2016 12:41:45AM 0 points [-]

Well yes - something that benefits all relevant parties (present self, past self, and the world as a whole your past self cared about) plainly dominates, so a pledge that forces you to do something they all disprefer should be abandoned.

Comment author: atucker 06 December 2016 03:21:41AM *  2 points [-]

I think that people shouldn't donate at least 10% of their income if they think that doing so interferes with the best way for them to do good, but I don't think that the current pledge or FAQ supports breaking it for that reason.

Coming to the conclusion that donating >=10% of one's income is not the best way to do good does not seem like a normal interpretation of "serious unforeseen circumstances".

A version of the pledge that I would be more interested in would be one that's largely the same, but has a clause to the effect that I can stop donating if I stop thinking that it's the best way to do good, and have engaged with people in good faith in coming to that decision.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 December 2016 04:33:37AM 2 points [-]

I'm sympathetic to this, and didn't fulfill the pledge for several years early in CEA when we paid ourselves very little (initially only £15k pa!). However, I'm now fulfilling it and intend to make up the years when I didn't.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 04 December 2016 10:54:56PM 3 points [-]

Strong agree with the third point, weak agree with the second point (the difference between a house and the pledge is that a house costs a fixed amount of money every month, whereas the pledge is a percentage of income), weak disagree with the fourth point (I think the pledge isn't that weird, and that of those who give to GiveWell as a default, that would not be any different if GWWC were not around), and strong disagree with the first point (see below).

TL;DR of the rest: I disagree with the first criticism. I agree that the benefits to cost ratio changes, but the actual cost doesn't, and for each individual person I think it makes sense to focus on an "acceptable cost", and the easiest way to do that is a flat percentage. I don't think the pledge encourages most donors to give too much, and I don't think there are any professions where the value of their time outweighs the benefits of donation. Fermi estimates for Congressmen below.

"Different professions also have dramatically different ratios of direct impact to money generated. Eg., an American congressman's salary is $174,000, but their votes in Congress are so important that even an 0.1% improvement in voting skill outweighs a $17,400 donation; hence, spending even a tiny amount of effort donating the 10% is likely not worth it."

I doubt there are any professions where the "tiny amount of effort" to donate 10% of income is actually not worth it because of the direct impact of the job. For example, for Congressmen:

I'm going to operationalize voting skill in the following way -- Suppose that a Congressman votes on N propositions, and currently X of them are "correct" (best for the world). Then, a 0.1% increase in voting skill means that 1.001X of the votes are now "correct". If we assume that currently X = N/2, then a 0.1% increase in voting skill means an increase of 0.05 percentage points in the percentage of "correct" votes. (Choosing X = N/2 is the most generous possible choice for the Congressman in terms of the amount of marginal impact (s)he has.)

  1. I'm not sure that a 0.1% improvement in voting skill would be worth more than a $17,400 donation.

Here's a quick, stupid Fermi estimate -- the budget each year is $4 trillion to the US people. Most of that is likely committed and can't be changed, so let's say Congress controls $1 trillion. Each Congressman is one of ~500, so each one should expect to control ~$2 billion (this will be higher for those in the Senate and lower for those in the House). A 0.1% improvement in voting skill would mean that 0.05% of the budget is better allocated (see above), which is an improvement of ~$1 million. But this is to the US people, whereas GWWC donations usually go to the global poor. I'd say that $50 to the US people is about the same as $1 to the global poor (the ratio of the poverty lines in the US vs. the world is 20:1, but most of the money in the budget goes to the average American who makes 100 times more than the global poor, so let's call it 50:1 total), so this is about the same as controlling $20,000 to the global poor. However, counterfactually if you didn't vote, the money would still have been used for the American people, so let's say it did half the good in that case (note that this means good voting doubles the good on average, which I think is generous). So really it's more like giving $10,000 to the global poor.

This is so close to $17,400 that I'm basically split 50-50 on whether a 0.1% improvement in voting skill is actually worth more than a $17,400 donation to the global poor. On the one hand, Congress controls other things besides the budget (such as Presidential appointments), though I would guess that the effects are smaller than that of things in the budget, on the other hand, they don't control the entire budget, and I think I was generous in several assumptions (such as what the counterfactual is, and how much funding Congress actually controls). Perhaps Congress can affect the global poor immensely (whether or not to go to war, what to do with foreign aid spending), but I suspect that's still too small a part of the budget to significantly change the calculation.

  1. I really doubt that a "tiny amount of effort" would lead to a 0.1% improvement in voting skill.

I'm interpreting "tiny amount of effort" as approximately two hours, which is about how long my parents take to make their annual donations. Then, if you do this 700 times, you'll have double the voting skill, which comes out to about 35 work weeks. And this is only counting the Congressman's time -- if you include all the aides and others, you'd probably get that much time in under a month. (Of course, you probably shouldn't count their time just as much as the Congressman's time, but it should be counted somewhat.)

This seems really implausible -- based on how I operationalized voting skill, this would suggest that in a single year, Congressmen would be able to double the number of votes they make that are "correct". That seems very unlikely.

In addition, an increase of 0.1% voting skill seems like a very high-value thing that Congressmen can do -- it doesn't seem like the marginal use of their time. I'm pretty sure that there would be less important uses of their time (even within their job, not including personal time) that they could cut out in order to make time to donate.

My guess is that for most EAs who have an income, the target donation rate should be higher than 10% (certainly not <1%), though I think a flat 10% is the right number because it's a good Schelling point. The exceptions would be people with a lot of student debt, people who don't make a large enough income to afford the loss of 10% of their income, and people who plan to use their money for good in a way that is not "donating" (for example, saving up to start a nonprofit or something like that). I think the GWWC pledge was explicitly not aimed at the first two groups. The last group is more of a problem and I think that is a legitimate criticism of the pledge, but I think it's a fairly small group and it's reasonable for the pledge to sacrifice that group in order to have a simpler, more viral pledge.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 04 December 2016 11:56:45PM 1 point [-]

Reading the estimate in a different thread, it turns out I forgot one factor -- the laws passed by Congressmen can last decades into the future, and so have an impact there. This will in general tend to cancel out the effect where "most of the budget is already committed and can't be changed", so I should undo that, which was a multiplier of 4x, getting you to an estimate of $40,000, which is still at the point where my uncertainty includes $17,400. So like maybe 70% belief that 0.1% improvement in voting skill is better than $17,400 donated to the global poor.

I still stand by my second claim that a "tiny amount of effort" would definitely not increase voting skill by 0.1%.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 December 2016 12:35:08AM 5 points [-]

Thanks for moving this post to here rather than FB. I think it's a good discussion, however, I wanted to flag:

None of these criticisms are new to me. I think all of them have been discussed in some depth within CEA.

This makes me wonder if the problem is actually a failure of communication. Unfortunately, issues like this are costly to communicate outside of the organisation, and it often doesn't seem like the best use of time, but maybe that's wrong.

Given this, I think it also makes sense to run critical posts past the organisation concerned before posting. They might have already dealt with the issue, or have plans to do so, in which posting the criticism is significantly less valuable (because it incurs similar costs to the org but with fewer benefits). It also helps the community avoid re-treading the same ground.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 20 December 2016 03:00:02AM *  2 points [-]

I assume this discussion is mostly aimed at people outside of CEA who are considering whether to take and help promote the pledge. I think there are many basic points which those people should probably understand but which CEA (understandably) isn't keen to talk about, and it is reasonable for people outside of CEA to talk about them instead.

I expect this discussion wasn't worth the time at any rate, but it seems like sharing it with CEA isn't really going to save time on net.

Comment author: mmKALLL 06 December 2016 01:13:20AM 2 points [-]

Why are issues like these costly to communicate outside of CEA, and why don't they seem like the best use of time? I'm not sure about what amount of interest is there for something like that, but I would imagine that this could sharply reduce the amount of investigating people outside of these organizations need to do, allowing them to use their time better as well.

Do you know whether there have there been any serious efforts to gauge the usefulness and cost of better communication?

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 December 2016 04:42:28AM *  4 points [-]

Topics like this are sensitive and complex, so it can take a long time to write them up well. It's easy to get misunderstood or make the organisation look bad.

At the same time, the benefits might be slight, because (i) it doesn't directly contribute to growth (if users have common questions, then add them to the FAQ and other intro materials) or (ii) fundraising (if donors have questions, speak to them directly).

Remember that GWWC is getting almost 100 pledges per month atm, and very few come from places like this forum. More broadly, there's a huge number of pressing priorities. There's lots of other issues GWWC could write about but hasn't had time to as well.

If you're wondering whether GWWC has thought about these kinds of questions, you can also just ask them. They'll probably respond, and if they get a lot of requests to answer the same thing, they'll probably write about it publicly.

With figuring out strategy (e.g. whether to spend more time on communication with the EA community or something else) GWWC writes fairly lengthy public reviews every 6-12 months.

Comment author: Benquo 15 December 2016 12:28:53AM 2 points [-]

Ben_Todd, it seems to me like you're saying both these things:

  • GWWC is very busy and can’t reasonably be expected to write up all or most of the important considerations around things like whether or not to take the GWWC Pledge.

  • Considerations around the pledge are in GWWC's domain, & sensitive, so people should check in with GWWC privately before discussing them publicly, and failing to do so is harmful in expectation.

I'm having a hard time reconciling these. In particular, it seems like if you make both these claims, you're basically saying that EAs shouldn't publicly criticize the pledge without GWWC's permission because that undercuts GWWC's goals. That seems very surprising to me. Am I misunderstanding you?

Comment author: Ben_Todd 24 December 2016 05:10:00PM 2 points [-]

I feel like you're straw manning my position.

For instance, this:

If you're wondering whether GWWC has thought about these kinds of questions, you can also just ask them. They'll probably respond, and if they get a lot of requests to answer the same thing, they'll probably write about it publicly.

Does not mean:

EAs shouldn't publicly criticize the pledge without GWWC's permission

Comment author: BenHoffman 11 January 2017 06:07:06AM *  0 points [-]

Do you disagree with the first bullet point? Or do you disagree with the second? Or do you disagree that they jointly imply something like the bit you quoted?

Comment author: Ben_Todd 11 January 2017 12:43:20PM 0 points [-]

I disagree with several parts. Most importantly, I don't think criticising GWWC publicly is harmful in expectation, just that it has costs, so is sometimes harmful.

Second, I think a policy of discussing criticisms with GWWC before making them public reduces these harms, so is a reasonable policy for people to consider. But, I'm not saying you need GWWC's permission to post criticism.

Comment author: BenHoffman 11 January 2017 08:22:39PM *  0 points [-]

That's good to hear. But I didn't think you were saying that criticism is generally harmful - I thought you were saying that failing to check in with GWWC first is harmful in expectation. If so, I'm curious what the most important scenarios are in which it could cause harm to start this sort of conversation in public rather than in private. If not, when do you think this advice does help?

It additionally seemed like you thought that this advice should be applied, not just to criticism of GWWC's own conduct, but to criticism of the idea of the pledge itself - which is already public, and not entirely specific to GWWC, as organizations like The Life You Can Save and REG promote similar pledges. I got this impression because Alyssa's post is limited to discussion of the public pledge itself.

Comment author: Linch 11 January 2017 09:48:12PM *  2 points [-]

EDIT: Ben H's comment below convincingly illustrated that I misunderstood him. I apologize for contributing to any misinformation.

EDIT 2: Looking upwards of the comment chain, I think this is a very reasonable reading of Benquo's comment:

"I'm having a hard time reconciling these. In particular, it seems like if you make both these claims, you're basically saying that EAs shouldn't publicly criticize the pledge without GWWC's permission because that undercuts GWWC's goals. That seems very surprising to me. Am I misunderstanding you?"

I think my mistake is that in haste, I confused the different Bens with similar (but far from identical) opinions and formed an inaccurate model.

Original post:

Reposted from FB, I apologize if the language here is less polished than desired.

1) It's a common courtesy for journalists (and GiveWell) to message the organizations they're writing about for a response.

2) Sometimes said organizations are too busy, etc. to respond to said criticisms.

3) Ben Todd suggested that we have this norm in EA as well.

4) My interpretation of 1)+2) means you give people a chance to respond/comment to your criticism before airing it, especially if there are contexts that are missing.

5) Most others have taken 1), 2) and 3) to necessarily imply that orgs should have the right to waive criticism before they appear on air.

I believe 5) is incorrect because it is very different from the base cases I am aware of (GiveWell asks charities to comment before publishing their charity reports, journalists asking for a comment from people they write about).

Why are people taking 5) as the default interpretation here?

Comment author: BenHoffman 12 January 2017 06:58:34AM *  1 point [-]

I don't think that Ben Todd is proposing (5). I think he's proposing (4), and that this proposed norm would effectively be a tax on criticism. Taxes aren't as costly as bans, and can be good if they pay for something good enough, but in this case I don't think it's worth it.

In particular, applying journalistic standards to criticism of, but not praise of, EA orgs' behavior seems like a weird position to take if what you're interested in is improving the quality of public information.

Comment author: BenHoffman 12 January 2017 09:44:05AM *  0 points [-]

For what it's worth, your comment helped me clarify my position, and I wish I'd been able to express myself that clearly earlier.

Also, somewhat embarrassingly, I am also Benquo (I think I accidentally signed up once via mobile, forgot, and signed up again via desktop.) Hopefully I'll remember to just use this login going forward.

Comment author: mmKALLL 06 January 2017 05:45:39AM *  0 points [-]

Upon revisiting this post and the comments it has garnered, I found myself wondering about another thing I'd like to ask from you:

How would one go about getting involved with the work of CEA or, say, 80,000 Hours? What kinds of skill sets would be essential for having a high impact while doing such meta work? Do you consider the potential impact for doing meta work to be higher than when earning to give?

Also, thanks for the detailed responses so far! I can see why it's not reasonable to place writing on topics like these on high priority, but it doesn't exactly give a sense of transparency either. Not that I would know how important or effective giving a sense of transparency would be, though.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 06 December 2016 01:40:38AM 1 point [-]

Do you mean it would save them time deciding whether to take the pledge given the pros and cons, or deciding what they think of Giving What We Can or CEA's strategy?

Comment author: nysia 06 December 2016 03:00:15PM 2 points [-]

I think your third reason listed above makes a lot of presumptions about why the GWWC pledge is currently used as a key metric of GWWC and CEA. You appear to believe that the number of GWWC pledgers is currently being used as a catch-all proxy for the status of EA and its associated impact, which it isn’t. It makes perfect sense for GWWC (and by extension CEA) to use their own pledge figures as a metric for many purposes, including (but not limited to):

  • To generate interest in prospective new members of GWWC, or those who want to find out more, as a publicly displayed signal that GWWC is a growing community of real people who have made this commitment (e.g. on the GWWC site)
  • To current members of GWWC, who want to know about how the community is growing (e.g. on the GWWC site)
  • As an indicator of GWWC’s influence and visibility (e.g. in Will’s update)

Contrast this with the list in your third objection:

It does not account for the efficiency of donations

The GWWC membership figures make no pretense to account for the efficiency of donations. The actual efficiency of GWWC members’ donations is a topic that’s probably worth discussing in its own right.

it doesn’t account for amount of donations

GWWC separately lists the collective amount of donations that its members have made. Also, your assertion that “five small donors count more than one big donor” doesn’t make sense when you acknowledge that the number of GWWC members is an indication of community size/growth, and not a hard measure of impact. It seems uncomfortable to think of certain members ‘counting more’ than others in this context.

It doesn’t account for direct work

Again, irrelevant, as the pledge is about donations and not direct work. Potentially another discussion to be taken offline here though.

it creates a weird bias regarding timing

GWWC list both donations that have actually been made, and those that have only been pledged on their site. In this sense there is no confusion about what is being claimed in terms of impact, as a ‘pledged’ donation should only be interpreted as such. GWWC have also written in their past updates and reviews about how best to interpret their member retention and expected donations.

The number of GWWC members can be a useful metric for EA, but only when interpreted in the context of all the other activity taking place in the community. I don’t see a good case against the idea of the pledge because of this though.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 05 December 2016 06:16:07PM 2 points [-]

I think this topic is confusing because it mashes together four different difficult considerations: doing the most good with your available resources, the opportunity/obligation distinction, the effects of various schemes for spreading ea memes (and which ones get spread more), and the issues with precommitments in a world with a short prediction horizon. Each of these issues has a range of reasonable positions, which means that the total space of positions on the gwwc pledge is large and difficult to enumerate cleanly.

Comment author: vipulnaik 04 December 2016 08:57:02PM 2 points [-]

"The general consensus is that utility of money goes as log(income), so giving a fixed percentage is more painful at lower incomes than higher ones"

Seems to me from the math that if it's literally log then giving a fixed percentage of income has exactly the same effect on utility regardless of income level.

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 09:02:04PM *  2 points [-]

The personal utility cost of giving 10% is approximately constant, but the benefit/cost ratio definitely isn't, since benefit (the numerator) increases linearly with income. I've edited this sentence to make it clearer.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 04 December 2016 09:21:15PM 1 point [-]

I think you mean benefit increases linearly with income?

Alternatively, perhaps you meant that benefit increases exponentially with cost (since cost is log income)?

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 09:23:43PM 0 points [-]

Yup, you're right, thanks

Comment author: Larks 04 December 2016 11:22:22PM 1 point [-]

In response to this argument, pledge taker Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.

I think this is a pretty strong argument. We would expect CEA leaders to be the people who take the pledge the most seriously; it is a very negative sign if they regard it as an artifice that can be discarded for convenience.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 04 December 2016 11:47:32PM *  6 points [-]

I've taken the pledge because I think it's a morally good thing to do and it's useful to have commitment strategies to help you live up to what you think is right. I expect to follow through, because I expect to believe that keeping the pledge is the right thing for me to do.

If it turns out to be bad, I will no longer do it, because there's no point having a commitment device to prompt you to follow through on something you don't think you should do. That's the only sensible way to act.

Comment author: Elizabeth 05 December 2016 04:08:50PM 8 points [-]

What is the situation where:

  1. Giving is the correct thing to do
  2. You wouldn't give (or would give less) if you hadn't signed the pledge
  3. You will would give (more) because you have signed the pledge.

I think a disconnect here is that for many people, including myself, saying "I will do this for life" literally means "I will do this for life", with the compromise position being "I will do this unless it will end my life." It's not a commitment device, it's a commitment, and if you take it giving less than 10% becomes morally wrong, even if absent the pledge giving 10% would be a bad idea.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 05 December 2016 07:11:13PM 1 point [-]

Easy - if some year I feel like spending the money on myself; or I'm just too lazy to figure out where to give and do it; or maybe I even forget about giving. Then the pledge reminds me that I thought in the past - and probably also on reflection think now - that I ought to donate the money, and makes me more likely to follow through. Just as if I'd agreed to go to the gym with a friend, etc.

For me, being highly involved in the EA community, this commitment device is probably redundant, but it also doesn't do any harm.

It's clear people have different attitudes to how bad it is to break a promise, and how strongly they take the pledge to bind them. 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.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 06 December 2016 03:05:49AM 5 points [-]

I disagree with this reasoning. The point of a commitment device is to, you know, commit you. If you can break a pledge whenever you want, it's not actually a pledge. If you commit yourself to something, it's because you think there's a possibility that you will change your mind in the future and you want to prevent that from happening. So the commitment serves no purpose if it doesn't actually prevent you from changing your mind.

Perhaps there's value in publicly registering "I plan on donating 10%" without explicitly committing to it, in which case it shouldn't be framed as a commitment.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 06 December 2016 10:28:02PM 0 points [-]

There are different levels and types of commitment devices. One could use a pledge to bind oneself to continue giving even if in future you think it's the wrong thing to do - but I'm more skeptical that that is a good idea, for the reasons people have given. And I don't think most pledgers see themselves as binding their future behaviour this way.

It's also not how I'm using it, and it is still useful to me as a more gentle reminder of what I think is morally desirable behaviour. Just as agreeing to go to meet your friends at the gym is helpful even though it won't (and isn't designed to) force you to go to the gym even if you are e.g. injured or decide that gymming actually harms your health.

Comment author: Benito 10 December 2016 04:11:11PM 2 points [-]

I think I'd be quite happy to have a public thing of the sort that Rob describes, but I don't feel that's what the GWWC pledge is.

Comment author: Eric_Bruylant 05 December 2016 02:18:43PM *  1 point [-]

Why I'm hesitant to take the current pledge, and what I want to commit to instead.

I feel that added separation between people improving the world in ways other than donation from the ones focusing on donating is fairly bad, from the point of view of information exchange and movement dynamics (though I think GWWC is likely net-positive, despite this).

I'd love a version of GWWC which allowed people to customize a pledge (or pick from a selection, or switch between them, or something which lets people who want to do good and have reason to think that working directly / investing in themselves is more high-impact), because I would like to be part of this community dedicated to improving the world.

Comment author: Kit 04 December 2016 09:27:45PM 1 point [-]

Are there specific people who shouldn't take the pledge as-is other than the small minority MichaelDickens highlighted, plus the politicians proposed above?

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 09:34:01PM 0 points [-]

I don't think it's at all clear that the people Michael highlighted are a small minority as a percentage of deeply committed EAs. A small minority among all Westerners, sure, but that's not the relevant reference class.

(Thanks for the link BTW, have added to the post)

Comment author: Kit 04 December 2016 10:47:42PM *  7 points [-]

Strongly movement-affiliated EAs are not dominant in the pledge reference class.

Evidence:

  • 2,294 people have taken the pledge already. (See current here.)

  • GWWC donations appear dominated by a handful of multi-millionaires who were drawn to the community by a meaningful pledge rather than first getting involved in the movement.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 05 December 2016 04:04:37PM 0 points [-]

If you take the reference class as people reading the EA Forum rather than people who've taken the GWWC pledge, Alyssa could be right. So it depends on whether the question is "should people who are reading this take the pledge" or "should the pledge exist/should we try really hard to promote it".

Comment author: Kit 05 December 2016 10:24:13PM 0 points [-]

Indeed. Knowing what the proposal is would help here.

Comment author: Ajeya 04 December 2016 10:47:23PM *  2 points [-]

It seems like "deeply committed" is doing a lot of work there. In the last EA survey, it seemed like the median donation from a person who identified as "EA", listed "earning to give" as their career, was not a student, and believed they should give now rather than give later was $1933. At typical starting software engineer salaries (which I would guess is a typical career for a median "earning to give" EA), this represents a 1-5% donation. This suggests the pledge would increase the donations of over 50% of EAs who list their primary career path as earning to give (so the argument that the mental effort needed to keep the pledge would distract from their careers doesn't apply). Link to analysis here: https://www.facebook.com/bshlgrs/posts/10208520740630756?match=YnVjayBzaGxlZ2VyaXMsc2hsZWdlcmlzLHN1cnZleSxidWNr

Edit: Speaking for myself only, not my employer.

Comment author: Dan_Keys 05 December 2016 01:14:55AM 7 points [-]

It appears that this analysis did not account for when people became EAs. It looked at donations in 2014, among people who in November 2015 were nonstudent EAs on an earning to give path. But less than half of those people were nonstudent EAs on an earning to give path at the start of 2014.

In fact, less than half of the people who took the Nov 2015 survey were EAs at the start of 2014. I've taken a look at the dataset, and among the 1171 EAs who answered the question about 2014 donations:
40% first got involved in EA in 2013 or earlier
21% first got involved in EA in 2014
28% first got involved in EA in 2015
11% did not answer the question about when they got involved in EA

This makes all of the analyses of median 2014 donation extremely misleading, unless they're limited to pre-2014 EAs (which they generally have not been).

I'm hoping that the next EA survey will do better with this issue. I believe the plan is to wait until January in order to ask about 2016 donations, which is a good start. Hopefully they will also focus on pre-2016 EAs when looking at typical donation size, since the survey will include a bunch of new EAs who we wouldn't necessarily expect to see donating within their first few months as an EA.

(Also speaking for myself only, not my employer.)

Comment author: Ajeya 05 December 2016 07:16:03PM 0 points [-]

Thanks Dan! I didn't know this, I'll look more closely at the data when I get the chance.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 January 2017 04:08:31PM 0 points [-]

The pledge is really important to me as a part of my EA life and (I think) as a part of our community infrastructure, and I find your critiques worrying. I'm not sure what to do, but I appreciate you taking the critic's risk to help the community. Thank you!

Comment author: Sanjay 17 December 2016 01:11:06AM 0 points [-]

This post was prompted by some pretty strongly held opinions on a facebook thread. AlyssaVance has posted something here in language I can understand (thank you Alyssa). I would love to see those strongly held opinions from the facebook post shared here

Comment author: kbog  (EA Profile) 05 December 2016 10:09:28AM 0 points [-]

Second, the GWWC pledge uses the phrase "for the rest of my life or until the day I retire". This is a very long-term commitment; since most EAs are young (IIRC, ~50% of pledge takers were students when they took it), it might often be for fifty years or more. As EA itself is so young (under five years old, depending on exact definitions), so rapidly growing, and so much in flux, it's probably a bad idea to "lock in" fixed strategies, for the same reason that people who take a new job every month shouldn't buy a house. This is especially true for students, or others who will shortly make large career changes (as 80,000 Hours encourages). People in that position have very little information about their life in 2040, and are therefore in a bad position to make binding decisions about it. In response to this argument, pledge taker Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.

EA is new, but charity and altruism have been around for a while and will continue to be important. Besides, if someone really needs or wants money they will break the pledge. It's not legally binding. The wording is just to make it a stronger, better commitment.

Comment author: BenHoffman 14 December 2016 10:14:42AM *  1 point [-]

The wording is just to make it a stronger, better commitment.

How does it do that? Is that effect stable under conditions where people don't see the pledge as a binding promise?