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Why I Took the Giving What We Can Pledge

Many people ask me how I became involved in effective altruism. It all started with God.

In the fall of 2010, I read Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God and Nicholas Everitt’s The Nonexistence of God. I can’t say that I believed in God prior to reading these books, but I definitely didn’t believe in God after reading these books, and I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about philosophy of religion. In a somewhat related move, I got involved with the community website Less Wrong.

In the fall of 2011, things changed again. I met some friends in real life who were also very serious about philosophy, but they were particular about Peter Singer. Over the summer of 2012, I got involved in Felicifia, a now defunct utilitarian forum, and spoke to many of the people there. Between these two groups, I was introduced to the works of The Life You Can Save, Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and How Are We to Live. For the second time in my life, reading books changed everything.


What are we doing all this for?

In How are We to Live, Singer retells a story from Plato about the Ring of Gyges. In this story, a shepherd was with his flock one day when a storm came. The storm was so strong that it opened a nearby chasm. After the storm died down, the shepherd was curious to explore the chasm and in the chasm the shepherd found a golden ring. The shepherd then found out that if the ring were turned in such a way, it would grant him invisibility. He then used the powers of invisibility to to seduce the queen of the kingdom, conspire to kill the king, and become king himself.

The story was posed to Socrates along with the question of whether the shepherd had any reason to act morally and refrain from murdering the king when there were no clear consequences or punishments and a lot to gain. Why be good?

I never was particularly religious, but I did really care about how to live a moral life. I was bothered, at an emotional level, with the common question of how one can be good without God. I felt like Peter Singer gave me a framework for dealing with that.

My reply to the Ring of Gyges is about who I want to be as a person. I want to be a person who is good. Singer then points out things a good person would do -- refrain from harming others and help out others who need more help than yourself. Also, when you have a chance to help out one person more than another person, you help out more.

After reading these book, I immediately resolved to stop eating meat and donate some of my income to effective non-profits in the third world.


The Pledge

I had been quite charitable from a very young age. When I was around eight, I took my entire life savings of $100 and tried to donate it all to UNICEF. My parents wouldn’t let me.

Now I’m an adult and can donate all the money I want and my parents can’t stop me. But I got off to a slow start, without any significant attempts to donate until my third year of college, when I took the Giving What We Can pledge.

Through a college job I had earned $2270. Thankfully, my college tuition, room, and board were paid for with scholarships and by my parents, so I could pocket the entire sum of this money for myself. Having taken the pledge, I decided to donate $20 of it to the best three organizations I could think of -- $10 to the Against Malaria Foundation, $5 to Obama’s re-election campaign, and $5 to Wikipedia. (I now somewhat regret that last one.) In aggregate, this was 0.8% of my earned income, a little less than the 1% that is suggested by the pledge for students. I resolved to do better next year.

In my fourth and final year of college, I decided to do a little better. I had earned $5900 over the year through my job and again I was luckily able to pocket all of it. I decided to level up to a 5% pledge and give $323 to AMF. At the end of the year, I calculated what I felt like was everything I could afford to give away and spent a lot of time thinking about my decision, after which I parted with $660 to Animal Charity Evaluators, bringing me above 10%.

 

What We Could Accomplish

I guess I’m a good fit for effective altruism because, at my core, I feel very driven by numbers and statistics. It’s challenging to translate these numbers into emotions that can move others, which underlies a lot of problems we have today.


But here’s some numbers I care a lot about.

The 2015 survey found 2352 self-identified EAs. 893 people reported their 2014 income, which totaled $76,190,284. If everyone who earned more than $30K were to donate 10%, the EA movement would donate $7,036,879. This would be enough to fill the entire room for more funding of SCI, deworming over three million kids, and still leave $2.5M left over for AMF, which would distribute one million bed nets.

Even if we did not grow our movement one bit, but just got every EA to take the pledge, we’d be saving thousands of lives. Saving thousands of lives is a statistic, and people gloss over statistics, but that’s not a statistic I want to miss.

Now imagine we could scale that up to the United States. If we were to convince 1 out of every 500 people in the US earning more than $30K to sign up for the GWWC pledge and donate 10%, we’d have $420M a year in philanthropic capital to allocate[1]. Imagine if we could do that.

We could send $394M to GiveWell top charities, fully funding everything -- sending out 40M bednets, deworming 23M children, and transferring $100M in wealth to the world’s poorest[2].

We could send $11M to Animal Charity Evaluators top charities and standout charities, fully funding everything -- sending out over 1.5M leaflets and 1.3M online ads, mounting over 200 corporate campaigns and over 10 undercover investigations with full media coverage, while also plowing over $1M into meat replacement R&D[3].  And while we’re doing that, why not throw in $5M to create a dedicated animal advocacy research pipeline with dedicated staff and scientific rigor, plus $200K for Animal Charity Evaluators to expand their communications.

After that, put in $1.5M to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute to make them meet their stretch target and grow as fast as possible. And why not $1.5M to the Future of Humanity Institute too? ...And after all that, we’d still end with over $5M to plow into something else. Any takers?

As Beth Barnes says, if the richest 10% of everyone in the world pledged 10%, we could fix poverty, provide secondary education for everyone; give malaria nets for everyone at risk; vaccinate everyone for everything; cure everyone of parasite infections, AIDS, TB, and diabetes; triple medical research; solve climate change; protect the entire rainforest; and do two mars missions[4]! The possibilities are amazing!

 

But why pledge?

While donations are cool, why make a pledge about it? A pledge of 10% for life could cause you to give up flexibility or warp your incentives from the overjustification effect; it also may be an unideal use of time and not capture the value of direct work.

Despite these objections, I still think it’s valuable for everyone in EA to take the pledge.

Flexibility

Some people worry that the pledge hamstrings people from choosing start-up jobs with irregular income, taking time off, having children, or other things. I agree this is an issue -- you may not want to pledge your entire life without knowing what you’re getting into and I do think I was a bit too hasty about joining as a college student.

However, there are some built-in safeguards. The 10% pledge only applies to people earning a “regular income” and is 1% otherwise. I’d think this applies in start-up jobs or other risky scenarios, though it does not apply for having children. Ultimately, I think it’s your personal choice whether you think you’d be able and willing to afford 10% at all times. Julia Wise thinks she could afford to donate 22% even on the median US salary. Personally, while this comes from a place of privilege, I don’t think it would be too difficult to have children and donate 10%, even on a salary significantly lower than what I currently live[5], though I would have to be comfortable making more sacrifices.

If this remains an issue for you, I also recommend you join Try Giving, which is a scaled-down version of the GWWC pledge that lets you customize the pledge percentage amount and how long the pledge lasts. So you could, for example, pledge 5% for the next two years instead of 10% for life.

Psychology

 

The overjustification effect may make you think you are donating because of a pledge and not because donating is awesome. However, the pledge itself adjusts for several important biases.

Firstly, the pledge makes it plain that it is everyone’s responsibility -- including you -- to give and

you can’t give into the bystander effect where you think someone else will solve the world’s problems. Pre-commitment (especially public pre-commitment) is also a very valuable technique to get you to do something, such as give 10%.

Secondly, the pledge creates a strong norm toward 10% that dramatically increases the baseline for giving. People give more when they know their friends and family around them are giving more and the GWWC pledge makes that publicly clear in a credible way. The GWWC pledge provides moral, social, and institutional pressure which is necessary to build a community around giving. This basically represents peer pressure for the common good.

Using Your Time

Some people worry that thinking about where to donate is not worth the time.  I agree that your time is definitely your most important asset and I agree that many people -- not just senators -- should not be spending that much time figuring out where to donate. Luckily it isn’t hard. It takes about 20 minutes a year to become familiar with GiveWell’s top charities and to donate according to their recommendation. If you don’t want to be stuck in global health and want to make a fully informed decision only if it matters, it takes a similar amount of time to understand and enter into a donor lottery where you would trade a $5K donation for a 4.95% chance of allocating a $100K donation.

Assuming you just have $3K to give, you’d have to be generating over $9K/hr in value for it to not be worth setting aside the twenty minutes to give as effectively as you can. The given example of the US Senator currently earns $174K and would be set to donate $17.4K -- focusing on legislation instead of donating that would have to be worth $52.2K/hr for it to be the right call to not focus the twenty minutes it takes to donate.

Valuing Direct Work

I definitely think there are many things that matter other than donating as much as possible. Your money is certainly only one axis on which you can optimize and your time may be far more valuable. However, money is the unit of caring. While comparing is not easy, money is still the easiest thing to compare across everyone for all situations.

For those who do something directly valuable with their time -- as opposed to my day job working to make advertising better, which is probably not valuable and may even be somewhat harmful -- I thank you. If you take a salary significantly less than your market rate to directly do something that you think is the most good in the world, in my opinion, you should be able to count that toward your pledge. If your salary is high enough, you should still donate what you can, since doing so is even better than not doing so.

 

Conclusion

The kind of person I want to be would put giving first and would not be daunted by making a 10% pledge for life. This amount, while significant, is very small relative to what I’m capable of giving and what I would be capable of giving even if my income dramatically dropped. Making other people’s lives better just matters that much more.

I joined the Giving What We Can pledge freely, openly, and without regret. I enjoy giving 10% and now currently give a lot more than that. I’m really excited by everything that could be achieved, knowing that my donations alone have already saved multiple lives. I feel like a hero.

I certainly would not be giving nearly as much without the strong community underlying the pledge. I think people who skip out on the pledge miss out on this motivation, and miss out on the benefits of being public and making our giving community one person bigger.

Not coincidentally, this month is the GWWC Pledge Drive. 126 148 154 people already took the GWWC pledge this December. That’s a number I care about a lot, because it puts us so much closer to making the world the way we want it to be. Each pledge is another step forward to a world free of disease and poverty, where each person and each animal can live free. Please strongly consider joining the 118 people who took the pledge this month and make our giving community strong.

 

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Update 27 Dec: Corrected the donor lottery figure -- it is a 4.95% chance, not 4.5%.

 

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[1]: According to the Tax Foundation, sourcing data from the IRS, there are 24,009,141 people earning $37,650 to $91,150, 4,603,602 people earning $91,150 to $190,150, 1,768,562 people earning $190,150 to $413,350, 176,838 people earning $413,350 to $415,050 and 892,420 people earning above $415,050. If we conservatively assume that everyone in each bracket earns the minimum of the bracket, that would be a total income of $2.1T. A 10% pledge would thus produce $210B. 1 out of 500 of people pledging would thus produce $420M.

[2]: These are rough estimates, but $200M to fully fund AMF through 2019, $22M to fully fund SCI, $22M to fully fund END, $15M to fully fund DTW, $10M to fully fund Sightsavers, and $125M to fully fund GiveDirectly. Assumes that the cost per bednet holds at roughly $5 even with scale and that the cost per deworming treatment is less than $3 (currently about $1.10-$1.50).

[3]: These are even rougher estimates, taking the Animal Charity Evaluators estimates literally with no adjusting for diminishing marginal returns. (Hey, it’s already a fanciful scenario, right?) ACE suggests that…

In total, this sums to $10.33M, with roughly $4.4M on individual outreach (both online and offline), $870K on undercover investigations, $2.3M on corporate outreach, and $1.2M on meat replacement tech. Assuming individual outreach breaks 70-30 for leaflets over online ads, and assuming a $2 cost per leaflet and a $1 cost per online ad. Also assumes each corporate campaign costs $10K and that an undercover investigation and associated promotion costs $84K.

[4]: Beth Barnes’s sources here, not vetted.

[5]: Closely mirroring Julia’s example, take the US median personal income of $30K, pay $2.3K in income tax, save 10% ($3K), spend $750/mo in rent ($9K), $300/mo on groceries ($3.6K), $200/mo on miscellaneous ($2.4K), $300/mo on healthcare ($3.6K), $250/mo on childcare ($3K), and you still have $3.1K/yr left over to donate which makes a 10% pledge.

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