Thursday, November 19, 2015

An embarrassment of riches

People interested in effective altruism come from many different backgrounds. I know people whose families expected them to become lawyers or businesspeople, and others whose families would be appalled if they went into something so "money-grubbing."

This post is primarily aimed at those of us who grew up in cultures that emphasized a certain style of simplicity. In some cases I think it can be an advantage, for example, because it's easier to live below our means. But in other cases I think it leads us into bad decisions that prioritize our personal purity above the well-being of others.


I'll start with an illustration from history. Jane Addams, the founder of social work, spent her life striving to improve the conditions of poor immigrants and particularly working-class women in Chicago. In 1896, she traveled to Russia to meet with author Leo Tolstoy, whose ideas on solidarity with laborers had impressed her. Both Addams and Tolstoy struggled with how to deal with their privileged backgrounds; Tolstoy was a count and Addams had inherited a fortune as a young woman. Tolstoy, who was living on his family's estate dressing like a peasant and participating in the farm work, began the meeting by criticizing Addams' stylish dress. He urged her to follow him in taking up manual labor rather than spending all her time on administration.

When Addams returned to the large settlement house she ran, she was determined to spend part of her workday in the bakery there rather than in her office. (Reminds me of the Undercover Boss reality show in which CEOs work as janitors for two weeks.)

But she grew frustrated with the inefficiency of spending part of her day as baker rather than director. “The half dozen people invariably waiting to see me after breakfast, the piles of letters to be opened and answered, the demand of actual and pressing human wants—were these all to be pushed aside and asked to wait while I saved my soul by two hours’ work at baking bread?” (Twenty Years at Hull House, p. 197) She decided that she could do more for her neighbors by continuing her administrative work than by sharing in their manual labor.

I think Addams gets at an ongoing problem with tendencies to act or appear a certain way rather than accomplishing anything in particular. (Certainly leftists and liberals are not the only ones to fall into this, but I'll focus on us here.)

Tracy Kidder's book about doctor and humanitarian Paul Farmer cites him talking with other Partners in Health staff about "the goofiness of radicals thinking they have to dress in Guatemalan peasant clothes. The poor don't want you to look like them. They want you to dress in a suit and go get them food and water."

I have a friend who gives away much of his income but realized he needed to spend money on a nice suit to meet with people who care about that sort of thing and influence their giving. "Saving" money by not buying a suit would actually have been a loss for the people he intends to help.


Some of us come from religious traditions that emphasize voluntary simplicity and solidarity with the poor. I'm interested in the ways that this can help or hinder us in actually helping others.

I've enjoyed reading some of the thoughts of a Franciscan friar on voluntary poverty. The Franciscan order was founded largely in response to the opulent lifestyle of the 13th-century Italian upper classes, and material simplicity has been an important part of their tradition ever since. But the writer, Brother Casey Cole, questions whether friars should take solidarity so far as to shoulder the difficulties that come with being involuntarily poor, like buying low-quality appliances that break because you can't afford ones that last longer.

I spent 10 years active in Quaker communities, a tradition which emphasizes simplicity. The main text of each regional Quaker group includes "queries," or questions for reflection, on many topics. One group asks:
  • Is your life marked by simplicity?
  • Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions?
  • Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?
2003 Faith and Practice of Northwest Yearly Meeting

I love this approach to simplicity as freedom. Other than my Apartment Therapy habit, I think Jeff and I have been much happier by not letting media dictate our desires too much. Particularly as a parent, I'm wary of the ways we can be led into "needing" things that don't actually improve our quality of life.

But I've also seen the idea of material simplicity extended farther than I think makes sense. At one point Quakers were going around policing the width of each other's hat brims lest somebody have one that was not "plain" enough. And today I think people sometimes slip into policing material possessions, particularly technology, rather than looking at whether these possessions actually improve our lives.

I know people who still look down at smartphones as an unnecessary luxury. As a person who takes public transit, getting a smartphone has changed the way I travel—there's much less getting lost, less rushing to catch a bus only to find it's running late. This material possession makes my life simpler and better. (I notice Brother Cole, quoted above, said his laptop and iPhone are the material possessions most important to him.)

I've seen articles explaining why so many refugees carry smart phones—far from being a luxury, they are a vital source of information and connection to loved ones. Cell phone ownership even among the very poor in Africa has made it possible for them to do everything from transferring money without access to a brick-and-mortar bank, to tracking cattle gestation periods, to verifying that anti-malarial drugs are real and not counterfeit. The way that technology enriches lives from Syria to San Francisco is something I'd like to embrace, not scorn.


John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, gave his sermon "The Use of Money" many times throughout the 18th century. In it, he advises followers not to reject money, but to use it wisely. "The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not? But it may likewise be used well. . . . By it we may supply. . . a defence for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain."

Wesley urges followers to "gain all you can" without sacrificing their health or engaging in immoral action, "save all you can" by living simply, and then "give all you can." The sermon is the first known proposal of "earning to give."


But those of us who came from traditions emphasizing simplicity (whether via religion or general hippie culture) were often taught to distrust money. "Money is the root of all evil," we heard, rather than the full quotation "The love of money is the root of all evil."

My mother spoke proudly of the low-paying professions her family tended toward: "Farmers, ministers, teachers, musicians—if it pays badly, we've done it!"

When I started to consider earning to give (earning more in order to donate more), I kept noticing a reaction of disgust to the idea of having a high-paid job. I couldn't get away from my vision of "rich people" as bad and greedy people. The idea of being associated with them, for example by going into law and then donating most of my earnings, turned my stomach. That attitude isn't helpful, and I don't want to pass it on to my children.

I think some of this comes from embarrassment about the privilege I have. I grew up in a rich country with parents who could give me everything I needed. I have a college education, I'm healthy, and I'm able to do many things I set my mind to. I got lucky in a lot of ways, and I'm sad that not everyone has these things.

But squandering this privilege by pretending I don't have it would not help anyone except me. It might make me feel better, but me feeling better about my privilege is not the point. I could be a good hippie and spend my days volunteering at the local library and my evenings making pottery in my basement. No one could accuse me of making things worse, but I would hardly be making things better for people in extreme need. I think we should be less like the ascetic Tolstoy barefoot in the woods, and more like Jane Addams using her wealth, connections, education, and skills for the benefit of others.

If we want to make a better and fairer world for everyone, we should use every tool we have—including money—to do so.


  1. While your attitude is factually correct, I worry that having it makes it easier to lie to myself. e.g.:

    "I need this BMW in order to be maximally effective at impressing my lawyer buddies so that I'll be more likely to make partner."

    "I need to dress to the nines all the time because I can't predict when I'll meet someone I need to make a good impression on."

    1. The suit example was someone who was literally meeting with politicians - I think it was pretty clear-cut.

      As you say, other examples can get more nebulous. That's where I think that query about "Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?" comes in handy.

  2. On your last section, I reckon the issue with wealth is that it can become a controlling influence in one's life, rather than a means to an end ("you cannot serve God and Mammon", etc.). I think though that this tends to happen when one earns all one can, and perhaps even saves all one can (like the Rich Fool), but doesn't give.

    1. This is one of the concerns about earning to give - that people will go into it intending to give but then not follow through (because of pressure to maintain a high-flying lifestyle like the other bankers or whatever).

      This seems to be less of a concern in some fields than others - for example, my husband works in tech and feels no pressure to go out to expensive drinks and meals, buy fancy clothes and cars, etc. That might be quite different in something like big law.

      Thus the hope that through communities like Giving What We Can, people doing earning to give even in fields with a lot of conspicuous consumption will feel supported in resisting that.

  3. Well stated, and the history is appreciated :).

    That said, I think it's worth mentioning that there are times when it's meaningful and valuable to reject stuff. I'm thinking of Gandhi and his homemade clothes, and Mother Teresa and the attention garnered by her voluntary poverty (not that I know a whole lot about either). I think people are attracted to people who're passionate enough about their beliefs, and the meanings of their actions, that they will do inconvenient things. Conforming can be useful, but being different can also be meaningful!

  4. >The poor don't want you to look like them. They want you to dress in a suit and go get them food and water.

    Agreed with your whole article. How will you apply this philosophy to how you invest in your child's education? Which of the following 3 options will you choose? (Our family chose option #2):

    #1: Put your child into a low-income, low-performing, public school, in order to promote integration.

    #2: Put your child into a higher-income, little-minority, higher-performing public school, so your child can grow up to be more successful and give back more to society.

    #3: Put your child into the highest-income, most privileged, private school, so your child can grow up in high society, make the most income, and give back most to society.

    #4: Ideal but rarely exists so not a real option: middle-income, racially integrated, high-performing public school.

    1. Our neighborhood school basically matches #2.
      That said, we don't think of our daughter's education primarily as an investment to her "giving back to society." We expect that she might contribute about as much as her peers, but not be a little clone of us and our ideals. Counting investments in her as investments in altruistic causes - given that we don't yet know whether she'll be particularly interested in altruism or effective altruism - seems overly optimistic.

  5. And I, of course, see it rather differently...

    If the objective is to feel good about yourself by giving stuff away...

    But it isn't. You want to make other people's lives better. (Yes?)

    If you give a man a fish he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish...

    (Oh! His father was a fisherman. His family used to have a boat and make a good living at fishing. And then something bad happened. Overfishing? The government limited who could fish? The bank lent him some money for a fancy motor...)

    Hmmm, if I buy him a neighbor's farm, then his neighbor won't have a farm. :-(

    If I buy some land from Mister Big...

    (Wait! How did Mister Big get all that land? Oh! His father stole it (legally, of course) from our friend's Uncle. And as soon as he gets a chance, he'll steal it right back. (Legally, of course.)

    So, while focusing on helping individuals, it's all for naught if we can't change the system that pushed them into poverty in the first place. (So I'm out screaming about Big Banks and getting Bernie into the White House.)

    and I could be full of it. But I'm open to your thoughts.

    1. We seem to be talking about different topics here. The question of whether to pursue systemic change, and on what scale, is separate from what lifestyle will help one pursue change.

      I disagree with the implication that most human suffering is because of unjust systems that screwed up a previously-functional system. If you look at the history of the US, we were recently struggling with many of the same problems (poverty, malaria, hookworm, high child mortality, etc) that still plague poorer parts of the world. The existence of parasites in the soil is not the fault of a particular political system, and can be addressed without a revolution.

  6. One trick ponies may help, but they are not sufficient in the scale of aggregation and societies. You acknowledge that public health was not the only factor. This is one of the central flaws of effective altruism. The single-mindedness can work at the margins, but in aggregation one trick ponies can not achieve as much as large-scale reforms or a more diverse array of reforms.

    As great economists like Acemoglu and Deaton have argued, effective altruists neglect political contributors to instability. Acemoglu and colleagues showed a robust relationship between state capacity and development.

    Moreover, foreign aid is not correlated with crucial markers of development.

    In the year, 1970, average life expectancy in China was 43 years compared to 68 in Japan. In 2015, it's 75 in China compared to 84 in Japan. Healthy, regulated capitalism and state capacity trumps aid and attests to the limitations of one-trick ponies. As Acemoglu states, "A large body of research shows that economic development is the best way to lift millions out of poverty and improve their health, education, and access to public amenities."

    On the other hand, the idea that one-trick ponies pave the way for lasting change is not borne out by a robust body of theoretical and empirical work. They can help at the margins, but they are not sufficient for lasting change.

    1. I agree that much aid has been poorly handled. However, as GiveWell points out, the people criticizing aid in general generally don't actually criticize the specific kinds of interventions they recommend (

      I read the article you sent me on how Tanzanians would rather have the government spend gas revenues on public services than cash transfers (, but given that I can't make the Tanzanian government do either, I'm guessing the people in question would rather have a cash transfer from a third party than nothing.