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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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

19

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... Read More
Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 08:25:09PM 7 points [-]

Thanks Owen! Agreed with your writeup. I would donate to MIRI myself this year, but I unfortunately don't really have spare cash right now :P