Saturday, March 30, 2013

Talk to each other

At first, I didn't realize I could just talk to anyone in this movement. I knew there were other people interested in effective altruism, and I was really glad about that, but I figured they were too busy and important to talk to me.

A while ago, I read a claim about effective altruism that seemed unrealistic to me. I didn't want to publicly argue with the writer in the comments section, so I did nothing. It literally didn't occur to me that I could just email him and say, “How did you get that number? It doesn't sound right to me.” A year later, I was having a beer with him. That's how small a world it is.

I've seen this reluctance to communicate go pretty wrong in some cases – people making public critiques of organizations without bothering to get good information from the organization in question. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they made the mistake I did, which was to assume that people won't write you back. So let this be an announcement: you really can write to them, and in my experience they really do write back.

Talking to each other isn't just about correcting mistakes. It's also about getting support.

In most of the communities I'm part of, there are elders. In the world of folk dance and music, there are old men who know fiddle tunes you've never dreamed of and gray-haired women who have been organizing dances for decades. If you're a young dancer or musician who wants to learn how to make things happen, there are older people who want to teach you.  I think it's similar in many communities.

But in this circle, we have hardly any elders.  Peter Singer is probably the closest.  In a way, this is kind of cool – the effective altruism movement is growing and changing quickly, and it's mostly made up of young people. That's exciting, but it also means there's not much experience to go on.  A lot of us are isolated and having one-way interactions (reading) rather than back-and-forth conversations.  And a lot of us are probably struggling with problems that others have already dealt with.

Okay, Peter Singer probably really is too busy and important to talk to most of us. But I'm continually surprised by the people who write to me and want to connect.  It makes me very happy.

If you have questions about effective altruism, please ask.  You can ask me – I might not know the answer, but I probably know someone who does. I might know people in your area that you can meet in person.  Write to any of the organizations: GiveWell and Giving What WeCan for charity evaluation, 80,000 Hours for career stuff, The Life You Can Save, Effective Animal Activism, Leverage Research, Center for Applied Rationality.  What is there to lose?

Monday, March 11, 2013

It doesn't have to be hard

I worry that the effective altruism movement scares people off because it seems hard.  As one friend put it, "It sounds very dreary, living on rice and beans and never going out to a movie."

Wait, guys.  That's not it.

I have been guilty of some cheaper-than-thou, more-self-sacrificing-than-thou posting.  But at this point, I don't think that's what we should focus on.  There are easier ways.

If you want to help more people, I would suggest the following order:

1. Give some money.  
Maybe not that much.  $50 a year?  That would treat 63 kids with parasites.

Why money rather than volunteering? Depending on your skills and income, it's probably easier to accomplish good with your money than your time.  $50 is about two hours of my workday.  I would be hard-pressed to volunteer two hours of my time in a way that would accomplish anything close to deworming 63 kids (which doesn't just make them healthier, but increases school attendance as well).

2. Choose carefully where to give. 
Assuming you're giving any money at all, the next thing you can do to increase your impact is not to give more  it's to choose where you give.  Some interventions just work a lot better than others, and picking a good organization will help your money go a lot farther.

I think GiveWell's charity recommendations are a good starting point.  They take a concrete, better-safe-than-sorry approach, but there are more theoretical options out there if you want.

3. Earn more.
If you want to donate more, this might be the easiest way to do it.  There's a lot of "You should become a banker so you can donate a lot" rhetoric going around among some effective altruist types.  I'm not sure this is a good example, because most altruist-identifying people gag when they hear that.

Personally, I considered the higher-earning careers I had any interest in (doctor, entrepreneur, lawyer) and they still made me gag.  So I stuck with social work, which I enjoy.  I do wish I had given more consideration to being something like a nurse practitioner, and maybe I'll change careers at some point.

But I think some idealists lean away from high-earning careers that they would actually enjoy because they feel they should be doing something more hands-on.  I grew up with the hippie teaching that high salaries were suspect and low salaries mean you're doing something virtuous.

But money is a tool that you can use for good.  If you're working in a preschool for low-income kids and you get a great idea for a business, you might do more good by pursuing the business.  Or maybe you're actually interested in law or medicine or computer science.  Go for it!  You might be able to accomplish far more for the world as a computer programmer than you could as an organic grocer.

4. Spend less.
This is the one that seems most radical to some people.  Especially for people who grew up without financial stability, the idea of having less money can be scary.

But you don't have to decrease your current spending.  You can stay at your current spending level even when your income increases.  Most young people can expect their income to rise with time.  Over the five years since Jeff and I finished college, our cost of living has stayed pretty much the same - we haven't moved to a bigger place, haven't bought a car, haven't really changed our spending pattern.  But our incomes have increased, so we're now donating about three times as much as we used to.  That's pretty exciting, and it didn't feel hard because we never had to cut back.


You can push your limits.  You can give until it hurts.  If you have the energy for that, great.

But you don't have to.  You can give where it's comfortable, and that will still be so much better than ducking away from the question of what you can do to help.