Saturday, March 31, 2012

Objections to giving

These are arguments I've heard against giving, or against the type of giving I do.

“I have no obligation to solve other people's problems.”

I don't know exactly what to say to this. I don't think there's a report card in life where someone will eventually grade me and check off the “helped others” box. I don't go around thinking everyone around me is a bad person for not giving all their money away. But I do think that if they gave more, or gave more wisely, the world would be a better place. (If you want to get into philosophy jargon, it's because I'm a consequentialist and not a deontologist. I think it's because I'm a social worker and we focus on solutions, not blame.)

So I guess this is true: I don't consider giving a mandate, but rather an option. A really, really good option that will greatly improve other people's lives at a low cost to you.

“Aid just hurts poor countries.”

This is only partly true. Yes, there has been a lot of bad aid out there – aid that amounted to buying food from Western farmers and shipping it to places where it would put poor farmers out of business. Or tying aid to lots of rules about what countries had to do in exchange. Or as Cold War political leverage, or a way to unload useless goods and get a tax break.

We can obviously do better than that. Rich countries need to reform their aid policies, and individual donors like us can make better choices.

"My tax money is already going to foreign aid."

Well, depends on where you live. If you're Swedish, congratulations - your country tops the charts by donating over 1% of its gross national income. The US is down there with 0.21%. Twenty-one cents for every $100 earned is not my idea of generous.

The way the US allots our foreign aid money is pretty ridiculous. The top receiver of US aid is Afghanistan, which seems legit as the place really could use some development. But the next biggest receivers are Israel ($2.2 billion, highly developed), Pakistan ($1.5 billion, somewhat developed), and Egypt ($1.3 billion, somewhat developed). Israel has half the population of Mali (a desperately poor country) and gets 20 times the aid money. In other words, if you're poor and politically unimportant, you're out of luck.

"So much aid goes to corruption."

This is an undeniable problem. A lot of aid money has gone astray, and some has probably made things worse. It's part of why I look for transparency in a charity. One benefit to relatively small, single-issue charities like the ones GiveWell recommends is that it's clearer what your money is going for.

“Saving lives will lead to environmental destruction from all those extra people.”

The easiest lives to save are in developing countries. For example, Against Malaria Foundation gives out more nets in Malawi than any other country. Your average Malawian produces .7 tons of carbon annually. Your average American produces 28.6 tons annually – that's 40 times the carbon output of a Malawian. Yet I've never heard anyone carry this concern to its logical end and advocate letting Americans die to reduce our carbon footprint.

Almost 10 tons of the American's carbon output is from manufactured goods and transportation. If you want to reduce environmental damage, you could buy less stuff and drive less, and use the money you save to save the lives of people in countries with very low carbon footprints. Win.

“Saving children now will just lead to overpopulation, food shortages, and more suffering later.”

The global trend is that a lower child mortality rate goes hand-in-hand with a lower birthrate. Correlation is not causation, so if the two changes happen at the same time we can't be sure the lower birthrate didn't cause lower child mortality somehow. Or maybe something else caused both of these changes. But there are factors that appear to really decrease birthrates and increase people's ability to feed themselves. Those are things like female literacy, better access to contraception, and better farming methods.

In the end, if you think overpopulation is the greatest problem, there are charities out there doing that work. Funding them would be better than sitting around complaining!

“There's some more pressing problem (climate change, existential risk, etc.)”

Again, if you've done your homework and you think that's the best use of donations, go for it.

I don't think most of these reasons are people's real objections. I think the real objection is usually "it seems hard." And I am here to tell you: it's not that hard.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Economists love to think about tradeoffs (or opportunity costs, as they call them). Any money we spend can't be spent on something else, so if I use $2.50 to buy a strawberry milkshake it means I'm not using that $2.50 to get the chocolate one or the mint chocolate chip one.

That's pretty easy to think about. But it also means I'm not getting a bus fare, a light bulb, or anything else with that $2.50. And if I buy that strawberry milkshake, according to standard economics it means there's nothing else in the world I would rather buy with that money.

I don't think we're usually that rational.

For one thing, it's unpleasant to think about negatives. We like to think about what our money does get us, rather than the infinite variety of things it doesn't get. Also, there are so many alternatives that we can't really consider them all every time we spend money.

I once saw a flippant proposal that we draw people's attention to this in a gruesome way by labeling all prices in Dead Child Currency. If it costs $800 to save a child's life, each $800 spent on anything else . . . you get the idea.

I used to make myself think that way. Before I parted with any money, I'd ask myself what it could do for a woman in Africa. (It doesn't have to be her, but that's who I always imagined.) Did I value my new jeans more than her month's groceries? More than her children's vaccinations or school fees? Could I make that tradeoff?

Sometimes I made it and felt awful afterwards. After spending $2 on a caramel apple in the fall of 2008, I had one such episode of weepy regret that was the last straw for Jeff. That's when we started having a spending allowance for us both which could not be given to charity. For several years now this is where our mandolin strings, birthday presents, clothes, vacations, and milkshakes have come from. It's also the source of non-optimal donations we make to public radio, etc. It's not a large budget by American standards, but it's made for a lot less angst.

I recently met a young man who was seriously thinking these things over. “But isn't it right to think about the tradeoffs?” he asked. I think it's good to go through a period of thinking that way. Just like when you live in another country for a while you start being able to understand prices without converting back to your own currency, when you start thinking about all your spending in Vaccination Currency or Mosquito Net Currency it becomes habitual. Your spending habits can't help but be affected.

I also think there's only so much grief we can carry. I cannot go the next 70 years counting dead children on every receipt. I would break.

So my advice is to spend a while really noticing that tradeoff. Notice whether you really do value the milkshake more than a child's vaccination. And then, after a time, make yourself a budget that reflects those values. Set aside money for unnecessary things that make you happy. Do what you think will nurture you to age 100 as a generous and strategic giver. Because that, in the end, is what will help the most people.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Where are the women?

Women donate more than men. They are more likely to give, and they give more money. So why is the smart giving/effective philanthropy/whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement so skewed male?

About a quarter of the members of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours are women. At any kind of discussion on efficient giving, I'm usually either the only woman or one of two women there. This doesn't bother me in itself, but it means we're missing people who could have a lot to give to the conversation. I don't believe women are more selfish than men or that they want to help people less than men do. So where are they?

Some of my guesses:

A lot of this movement came out of university philosophy departments. At least in the US, only 1/3 of philosophy PhD students are female - that's more skewed than math or almost any of the sciences. Apparently not that many women want to sign up for five years of having their ideas ripped apart.

There's a good bit of finance and math involved in finding the best charities. I have very little math background, and while I think posts like this are very important, I can't get through them. A lot of women also didn't do much with math or economics. Until recently, there was never anything I wanted to understand that required me to know much about math or money, and I was disheartened to realize I was going to have to learn some.

Lately, there's also an increased emphasis in this movement on careers and choosing a career that will let you do the most good (usually through high pay). I think boys get the message early on that they should optimize for high pay because this is what will impress other men, attract mates, and support their families. As a girl, I never got the message that I needed money to do these things. The emphasis was more on personality, beauty, and accommodating other people. Unfortunately, these things are not especially helpful to me now in reducing child mortality.

As a child I, at least, was told that my interest in helping strangers was somehow unnatural if it wasn't preceded by being extra nice to people around me. Ordinary childhood squabbles with my sister often brought on the question from my mother, “How can you care so much about strangers and so little about your family?” I think I was about as selfish in my everyday activities as other children and teenagers I knew, but to this day if I hurt someone's feelings I get the hypocrisy accusation from my mother. If I were a boy, I'm not sure if this would have happened. I think there's less pressure on boys to make nice, and it's considered more normal for them to care about the big picture more than household emotional politics. Girls get stronger approval if they focus their energy on being nice to those near them.

(To be fair, my parents also tell me they're proud of my giving. But they seem to regard writing a check and refraining from snarky comments as the same skill, and in fact I'm better at the former than the latter. Working on it, though.)

In adulthood, women are still primarily responsible for the emotional wellbeing of the household. In most families I know, the mother is more financially permissive with the children than the father is. Women understand that they will be in charge of distributing family money and time to keep everyone happy. It may be emotionally harder for them to not buy the kids all 17 of the Christmas presents they asked for, or to decide to have fewer kids in the first place, or to work long hours and serve frozen dinners. A man who chooses not to have children, or to raise his children on a voluntarily low budget, probably won't get the same flak a woman would. So the choice to give more may be harder for women.

Non-efficient charity (the food drive, the house of worship, the Girl Scout cookies, the solicitations from the children's hospital and the animal shelter, the cousin who needs a loan) is largely about community connections. Women are often in charge of maintaining these connections on behalf of a family. I think this is why you see higher donations from women. It's true of woman-headed households and not just women acting on behalf of a joint household, but I expect that's because we continue in the patterns we were socialized to even if our later home life doesn't match the conditions we were expecting.

My message to my female readers (there are some? Right?) is: you can do this. You can have a happy family life. You can be analytical and argumentative. You can learn statistics. You can do what you know is the right thing rather than what will make you seem most normal.

Your mother might be annoyed with you, but that's pretty much inevitable.

Friday, March 9, 2012

To Life

I just finished reading Ruth Minsky Sender's memoir To Life. She's a Polish Jew who describes how she and her comrades pieced together new lives after they'd lost almost everything in the Holocaust.

A post-Holocaust memoir was an unusual book choice for me. Reading things like that, I worry I'll get depressed. But even though Sender's book described the aftermath of hell, much of the book is about hope. After being liberated from the camps, she and her fellow survivors were completely focused on rebuilding their families. They spent years traveling around Europe trying to find lost relatives, grieving each time they learned of a loved one who did not make it out of the camps alive and rejoicing when they found those who had survived.

The young survivors were also determined to build new families as they searched for pieces of their past. Soon after liberation, Sender met and married another survivor. She describes the joy of bearing children even in a refugee camp, of bringing new life into a shattered world. As they are trying to leave Germany, her husband tells her:

“We must not give up hope. The place where our children are born does not matter. What does matter is that we are alive. We are a family. We have each other. We are rebuilding.” He holds me close. “Riva, our children are the future. We must live with hope for a bright future.”

The book made me think about empathy. I work in a psychiatric hospital, and in such work you hear about staff who get so worn down they just don't care about helping patients any more. There are always more patients who need our help, and we will never be done helping them. They call it “compassion fatigue.”

There are times when trying to save the world creates this kind of exhaustion in me. In the face of so much suffering out there, some of which I can help but most of which I can't, there have been times when I've written the whole endeavor off as useless. Maybe, I reasoned, people living in horrible circumstances get used to it somehow. Maybe once you've experienced starvation or genocide or a broken society, it destroys your psyche enough that you're barely human anymore. You probably don't have much capacity for happiness. So my help wouldn't really even mean much to those people - I might as well just take care of myself.”

Ruth Minsky Sender and family in Lodz ghetto

Sender's book heartily refutes this kind of thinking. Surviving trauma does not disqualify you as human. Sender writes about the struggles of everyone she knew to rebuild relationships, to create new life, and to give their children a stable and happy life. In short, they were real people with normal human desires despite the extraordinary suffering they had endured. Sender describes arriving in yet another camp, pregnant and exhausted, and meeting the strangers with whom she must share a room.

[Esther Kop] puts her arms around me. “We are alive. I feel you are my family....Now you rest a little. You are an expectant mother. I will take care of dinner. You'll get organized later. Right now, rest.”

My eyes fill with tears. I just met this woman and her husband, and already I feel at home with them, like a family reunited again. I stretch out on the bed, thinking of the Kops, their warmth, their gentleness, their caring. Each time I see these qualities in the survivors of horror, degradation, death, I am awed.

If these people didn't lose their caring and generosity, surely I can manage to keep mine too.