Value drift & commitment accounts

One weapon against value drift is putting money away in an ac­count that keeps it safe from fu­ture-you’s lack of al­ign­ment. I think it’s worth think­ing con­cretely about about what that might look like. Through­out, con­crete fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions (in the UK) are bolded, so you have some­where to start in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Note: I haven’t done this, nor am I cur­rently plan­ning to, but this is what I came up with when I looked into it.

DAFs

First, Joey Savoie men­tions that you can put your cash in a donor-ad­vised fund. This is a pretty good op­tion: it means the money get­ting in­ter­est while you figure out what to do with it, and it’s locked in to go­ing to a char­ity.

I think this is a pretty solid op­tion, if you have enough money to in­vest. The places I found in the UK (NPT UK and Char­i­ties Aid Foun­da­tion) re­quired a min­i­mum of 50k and 10k re­spec­tively. That said, there are some high-fly­ers in the EA com­mu­nity, and maybe some of them are wor­ried about value drift. In that case, some­thing like this could work. Note that I’m not en­dors­ing ei­ther of these (or any other in­sti­tu­tions I men­tion) as a good op­tion, I just hope it low­ers the bar­rier to tak­ing ac­tion.

Another prob­lem with donor-ad­vised funds is the lack of flex­i­bil­ity—by en­sur­ing you have to give the money to char­ity, you end up stuck only with those al­tru­is­tic op­por­tu­ni­ties that are ver­ifi­ably char­i­ta­ble. I think many op­por­tu­ni­ties at the right scale for a small donor aren’t offi­cially char­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, fund­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als (pos­si­bly your­self) to do un­com­pen­sated al­tru­is­tic work or re­train­ing.

(Speak­ing of scale, it’s not clear to me if you would be able to en­ter a donor lot­tery from a DAF. Partly that will de­pend on how the lot­tery is set up (can you trans­fer money to the or­ganis­ing in­sti­tu­tion di­rectly?) and partly on the le­gal­ities of DAFs.)

But sup­pose we’re in­ter­ested in the case of fund­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als or un­offi­cial char­i­ta­ble work. Is my sug­ges­tion for com­bat­ing value drift sav­ing up money in a nor­mal ac­count to spend on your­self at a fu­ture date? For­tu­nately not.

Joint accounts

One solu­tion is to find an­other way to check your abil­ity to spend the money. I looked into joint bank ac­counts where both par­ties are needed to re­lease funds. For ex­am­ple, Na­tion­wide offers this kind of ac­count (though both open­ing the ac­count and with­draw­ing money must be done in-branch).

If you can find an­other party that you trust to model your al­tru­is­tic goals, you can force your­self to go through them when­ever you ac­cess the saved money.

Were I go­ing to do this, here are some things I’d want from the ac­count holder:

  1. Models me accurately

  2. I’m com­fortable with them know­ing a lot about my finances

  3. They’re com­fortable say­ing no to me

  4. Our re­la­tion­ship is ro­bust to ten­sion and pos­si­bly re­fus­ing to re­lease funds

  5. Limited stake in how I spend the money

I don’t par­tic­u­larly imag­ine 3 be­ing tested in prac­tice, but if it wasn’t pre­sent, I might be will­ing to ask for funds with­out much jus­tifi­ca­tion.

For me, and per­haps for oth­ers, this would sug­gest a fam­ily mem­ber. If that’s not true for you, con­sider who might fulfil all these crite­ria or which ones you might be will­ing to drop.

Other things I’d want to get clear in the setup:

  1. Can I use per­sonal funds in emer­gen­cies?

  2. What ex­actly is the pro­ce­dure for re­leas­ing funds (writ­ten case for what­ever I want to spend it on? sit-down meet­ing? trial by com­bat?)

  3. What re­lease sched­ules would be pos­si­ble for self-fund­ing? (for ex­am­ple, can I get all the money if I want to do a high-im­pact startup?)

Though I think the ideal an­swer for 1 is no, I don’t know any­one who would en­force (par­tic­u­larly be­cause they might end up pay­ing to help me if it were re­ally des­per­ate), so it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to ac­cept re­al­ity and say it’s al­lowed. 2 & 3 I think would be more idiosyn­cratic.

In­vest­ment ac­count plus joint account

This gives you flex­i­bil­ity vs the DAF ap­proach and tries to hold on to some of the al­ign­ment-keep­ing bite (at the cost of weird ten­sion with some­one you know). But it does lose the abil­ity to get gains from sav­ings—all the dou­ble-sig­na­ture ac­counts I could find were cur­rent ac­counts.

Some in­vest­ment ac­counts—like Har­g­reaves Lans­down—have a nom­i­nated bank ac­count that all with­drawals must go to. Pair this with the dou­ble sig­na­ture ac­count, and it looks like we’ve made our­selves a more flex­ible DAF!

Not quite. First, I imag­ine there are some tax differ­ences (though I haven’t checked). More rele­vantly, this might have com­pletely un­der­mined the en­tire pro­ject of pro­tect­ing against value drift: at least at Har­g­reaves Lans­down, ei­ther ac­count holder can unilat­er­ally change the nom­i­nated bank ac­count (not an anti-en­dorse­ment!). So if your joint holder won’t let you squan­der your al­tru­is­tic sav­ings, you can just redi­rect to your nor­mal ac­count. This is a pretty big loop­hole!

Per­haps I wouldn’t abuse this loop­hole—a com­bi­na­tion of the de­lay in the ac­count-switch­ing tak­ing effect and the cross­ing-the-Ru­bi­con na­ture of hit­ting the es­cape but­ton feels like it would be enough to keep me from do­ing so. I’m not very con­fi­dent about that with­out ev­i­dence though; it seems like a pretty con­ve­nient story for me to tell my­self. I’d want to re­flect a lot more be­fore go­ing this route.

Conclusion

If you don’t want to give now (per­haps be­cause you haven’t figured out where it would be mot valuable to give), you can make it harder for your fu­ture self to defect against your cur­rent val­ues. Flex­i­bil­ity, fi­nan­cial effi­ciency & strength of bind­ing trade off against each other. I’ve pointed to some par­tic­u­lar places in the space of op­tions.

All this said, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing why you don’t want to give now, and if you can avoid your con­cerns with­out hav­ing to hold onto money for awhile.

For ex­am­ple, maybe you don’t see how you can make a rea­soned choice with­out a level of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and de­liber­a­tion your scale of dona­tion can’t jus­tify. A good choice in this case (and, in my opinion, bet­ter than us­ing one of these sys­tems) is the donor lot­tery that CEA some­times runs. There should be one this year. Among its benefits, it al­lows you to move all the de­liber­a­tion work to wor­lds in which you are dis­burs­ing enough to jus­tify a lot of eval­u­a­tive work.