I have a few classes of response:
My personal experience was that living on $46k was fairly difficult. You can chalk this up to “I was bad at budgeting”, but...
I think it’s actually somewhat bad to emphasize frugality as the way new EAs approach financial problems. It incentives an approach to finance that amounts to penny-pinching over amounts that don’t matter, and not investing in things that give you additional time or multiply your power. (This is less a point against “try to save 20%” and more a point against immediately jumping to “donate 10%”). Cognitive bandwidth that you spend on “how to I make sure to meet this budget” is probably better spent on “how do I boost my income by 20k?” (or “how do I solve this problem at the high-impact org that I work at now”)
Meanwhile, the point here is not to find something “reasonably achievable”, but something that basically anyone can do as soon as they get involved with EA. Some people are making $26k instead of $50k. Some people have a lot of student debt. Some people should be taking some time off to think, or recover from burnout, or have a lot of health care costs. Some people have housemates that randomly move out without warning and their rent suddenly doubles.
I still think the GWWC pledge is a good thing for many EAs to adopt, and I think “saving 10%, donate 10%” is also a pretty good default for anyone for whom it’s practical (this is basically what I did when I got a higher paying job). I just don’t think it works as a default.
55K is, rather surprisingly, more than the median household income in NYC. 46K is 9K less than 55K. And the hypothetical person making 55K was only donating + saving 11K a year. Though I still think if you are making 46K you could afford to donate and save substantially more than 10% / 1% of discretionary.
The bigger crux is I want to pushback on the idea that the average individual making more than the local median household, and living in one of the richest societies on the planet, cannot afford to be generous.
I want to pushback on the idea that the average individual making more than the local median household, and living in one of the richest societies on the planet, cannot afford to be generous.
I don’t think that’s a good or charitable reading of what Ray’s saying. I think the core idea is that EAs have often prioritized giving 10% and living frugally *too* heavily, to the point where it interferes with their long-term potential. This seems like a case where the law of equal and opposite advice is coming into play—while it’s true that most people in wealthy countries could easily afford to donate more, enthusiastic new EAs (probably especially younger ones) are more likely to try to be more generous than they can actually afford, so it’s probably good to tell them to tone it down.
For example, I’ve heard from some of the early Australian EAs that when EA was just starting out they all lived illegally in a hallway and ate out of the garbage. That was probably not good for their productivity or their physical or mental health. Similarly, when I first started doing direct work I was hesitant to even spend money on food, which made me worse off in a lot of ways. Living with a constant scarcity mindset is stressful, which leaves people with less brain space to think critically, be good at their job, and figure out what needs to be done.
Bottom line, obviously Ray’s advice does not apply equally to everyone, but if you’re living in an expensive city and making $10k (like I was last year), it seems quite bad to also feel pressured to donate 10% (which I did).
I feel like you are generalizing from a small sample of very dedicated EAs. In my opinion the data does not support ‘EAs have often prioritized giving 10% and living frugally *too* heavily’. See data here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/S2ypk8fsHFrQopvyo/ea-survey-2017-series-donation-data.
The median donation percentage among EAs who reported 10K+ income was only 4.28%. The following example you give is not typical ‘For example, I’ve heard from some of the early Australian EAs that when EA was just starting out they all lived illegally in a hallway and ate out of the garbage. That was probably not good for their productivity or their physical or mental health.’.
My posts invovled a specific salary number for NYC. And the claim you quote gives a specific condition ‘make at least as much as median local household income’. Conversely Ray’s post has no numbers in it at all. You will also notice in the concrete budget I posted I included 200 dollars/week in consumption. My stated advice does not support living off garbage.
I can support more nuanced advice that tells young or very dedicated EAs not to harm themselves in order to donate 10%. But I think most EAs should actually donate more. So I am pretty skeptical of advice that suggests donating less unless it comes with appropriate concrete caveats. And I really do think the caveats need to be concrete. Its very easy to implicitly treat luxuries as nescessary. Several people I talked to seemed skeptical it was possible to find rent in NYC for 1K (I was able to quickly point out places).
Hmm. This feels like it’s reading more or different things into the post than I intended to convey.
I feel like your post would be harder to misunderstand if it included some hard numbers. In particular hard numbers on income.
I do think the post would be much improved if it went into details with more numbers and cases (I definitely did a low effort version of the post).
But my core point was actually subtly different from mingyuan’s, and I think the numbers that would support my point are a different sort than “how much money can people afford to donate?” (not sure which type of numbers you meant to imply)
Mingyuan’s case is one of the things I was trying to solve for. But the more important underlying claim was “it’s more important to have at least a year of runway in the bank than it is to get started donating heavily.”
(This is essentially what 80k is already recommending as Ben Todd notes elsewhere in thread. Their current post argues to donate 1% until you have 6-12 months of runway, and runway includes moving in with parents. I’d argue for a stronger claim that recommends 12-36 months and living with parents doesn’t count, but the basic principle is the same)
This obviously only makes sense as EA advice if there’s a part 2, where you actually do something with the money (be it donate, or actually use the runway to switch jobs or move cities or retrain skills).
My suggested numbers of Earning to Save weren’t an attempt to rigorously determine the optimal financial advice, they were mostly starting from the point of “we currently encourage people to donate 10%. and instead I basically think the upfront advice should switch that 10% to focus on savings until they have enough runway.”
The numbers that’d support this don’t have much to do with how much you can easily live on, and instead have more to do with “how strong are the benefits to switching careers, how likely are people to run into financial hardship, how long does it typically take to get a new job, how valuable is it to try and launch a major project or contribute to EA with direct work.”
I admittedly don’t have a clear set of numbers backing that up, but it is my pretty strong impression both from:
Personal experience and anecdotes from friends (when I quit my job with about 6 months runway it turned out I needed 18 months and I ended up homeless for awhile, and meanwhile the rationalist houses in NYC that made good community centers only worked because someone had 50k in the bank that could absorbed roommates randomly leaving, paying upfront costs for deposits etc)
80k and other EA orgs changing their direction a bit. I realize we’re currently a bit in a pendulum swing back away from the talent-constraint language, but I think a core concept is still pretty important – that much of the good you can do has to do with things other than donating, and this requires more flexible messaging.
Experience in the nonprofit landscape. My time at Agora for Good, where I was much more exposed to the broader nonprofit landscape, radically changed what I thought was important about philanthropy. AMF is basically the leftovers of the malaria landscape – the stuff that Gates Foundation doesn’t get around to. (See this comment for specifics). This has led me to think that most of the value in EA is in discovering or creating new giving opportunities that the major funders don’t believe in yet. (this is a somewhat different take on why I think EA is more talent constrained than funding constrained, and that much of the value an EA can generate has more to do with gaining skills and switching careers rather than donating)
I feel like this post illustrates large inferential gaps. In my experience trying to work in EA works for a rather small number of people. I certainly don’t recommend it. Let me quote something I posted on the 80K hours thread:
80K Hour’s advice seems aimed, perhaps implicitly, at extremely talented people. I >would roughly describe the level of success/talent as ‘top half of Oxford’. If you do >not have that level of ability, then the recommend career paths are going to be long >shots at best. Most people are not realistically capable of getting a job at Jane Street > (I am certainly not). It is also very hard to get a job at a well regarded EA organization.
Unless someone has a very good track record of success I would advise them not to > follow 80K style advice. Trying to get a ‘high impact job’ has lead to failure for every > rationalist I know who was not ‘top half of Oxford’ talented. In some cases they made > it to ‘work sample’ got an internship, but they still failed to land a job. Many of these > rationalists are well regarded and considered quite intelligent. These people are fairly > talented and in many cases make low six figures.
80K is very depressing to read. Making ‘only’ 200K and donating 60K a year is implicitly treated like a failure. We at least need advise for people who are ‘only’ Google-programmer levels of talented. And ideally we need advice for EAs of all skill levels. But the fact that our standard advice is not even applicable to ‘normal Google programmer’ levels of talent is extremely depressing.
Maybe there are talent constraints but they don’t seem to me like talent constraints that are satisfied by pushing more EAs into trying to work in EA. I think that mostly works if you are unusually talented or extremely dedicated and ‘agenty’. I do think you can probably find a way to work on an EA cause if you are willing to accept low wages and hustle.
EA is really not set up to handle an influx of people trying to work in the field. Maybe this is a crux?
For completeness sake, responding more in depth to your 80k comment. (It’s plausible this should go in the other 80k post-thread but it seemed just as much part of this conversation. shrug)
Disclaimer Re: 80k
I haven’t read 80k very thoroughly and am not sure whether I endorse their advice or if my picture of their overall advice is accurate. But what advice I’ve seen does seem like it’s aiming to fill a fairly narrow set of top-vacancies. And that it does seem pretty alienating if you’re not part of their demographic.
This doesn’t necessarily mean 80k should change focus – the top career paths are still highly important to fill and they have limited time. But I do think it probably means 80k style advice shouldn’t be the only/primary place we direct newcomer’s attention.
My own take on what kind of direct work is advisable is still a probably a bit depressing – I don’t think there are easy answers on how to help, and it’d be hard to scale across 10,000s of people.
[It’s possible 80k actually shares these views, or even that they’re listed on the website, I haven’t checked]
[edit: updated because I didn’t quite address deluks917′s points as worded]
I think the issues getting into EA Direct Work has less do with how skilled you need to be, and more to do with limitations in network bandwidth.
There is some agentiness needed to get involved, but a) I think agency is a learnable skill, b) the amount required is less than you might think.
If you can successfully get yourself into the EA network, then you can be aware of early stage projects forming. Early stage projects need a variety of skills, and just being median-competent is often enough to get them off the ground. Basically every project needs a website and an ops person (or, better – a programmer who uses their power to automate ops). They often need board members and people to sit in boring meetings, handle taxes and bureaucracy.
I think this is quite achievable for the median EA.
Early stage orgs often have neither money, or time for an extensive hiring project – people just start working together with people they know. The bottleneck is more on people knowing each other than particular skills.
But, new projects and orgs also increase the surface area of EA, adding more places for newcomers to plug into. So if you can help a budding project grow into an institution, you’re not just doing direct work, you’re helping the overall community scale.
These jobs are lower pay, sure. But that’s precisely why I think Earn-to-Save is important.
This is still a bit rate limited, and couldn’t handle an influx of 10,000s of thousands. But I think it can handle more than it currently does. And it’s definitely not because people aren’t top-half-of-oxford talented.
Meanwhile, although “being agenty enough to found a project yourself” is fairly hard, it’s learnable. The path to learning it is a bit circuitous and doesn’t necessarily fit directly into EA. But I think most EAs would benefit from taking on a complex project that forces them to grow, learning “hustle” and “networking”, etc. This works best when it’s a project you already are excited about (doesn’t matter much if it’s EA related), so it doesn’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice so much as just exploring something new and cool.
I don’t think people know if they can be agenty until they try, and I currently think it’s a better default-path for aspiring EAs to go something like:
Start donating a bit as a credible signal
Build up runway
Do some projects in your spare time, practice thinking seriously about EA, and try a few things to see if some of the direct work stuff is a good fit for you.
Depending on how the previous bit goes, do one of:
try a low-medium risk plan that could move you into a higher impact path, but fails gracefully (i.e. move to an EA hub for a regular job you’ll enjoy, but then explore the network there and see if you can transition)
try a high risk plan if you’re feeling ambitious
or, just try to move into the most lucrative version of whatever your default career was going to be anyway, if the above 2 options don’t make sense for you.
All three of which benefit from having enough runway to quit your current job.
Great Comment. Thanks for the detailed explanation. This was especially useful for me to understand your model:
Early stage projects need a variety of skills, and just being median-competent is often enough to get them off the ground. Basically every project needs a website and an ops person (or, better – a programmer who uses their power to automate ops). They often need board members and people to sit in boring meetings, handle taxes and bureaucracy.
(initial version of the above comment wasn’t quite replying to what deluks was saying – I accidentally started writing and then got tunnel vision and forgot the points about agentiness. Reworded a bit to address that)
So I have a mixture of agreements and disagreements with your quoted comment (minor meta point: I recommend formatting it such that it’s a blockquote to make it easier to see which section is which)
I’ll summarize my own version of that comment in a bit (the tldr of which is “it’s not as bad as you describe it, but yeah, it’s still pretty bad”).
But I don’t think the applicability hinges on the specifics of your comment. Instead, I’d argue:
Earn-to-save is relevant to a much broader swath of people. Even if you’re just trying to Earn-to-Give ultimately, it’s still much more important to seek out higher paying jobs than to donate when you’re at at a low-to-mid-paying job. This is relevant even if you’re “just” moving from $50k to $80k.
My biggest crux here is that having 2 years of runway is important even for switching jobs at that level, and I think this should dominate even within your framework (at least by my understanding of your position).
Meanwhile, I’d make a more speculative claim which is that while yes, most people probably won’t end up getting a Direct Impact career, the people that do still have enough expected value that that early EAs should at least be seriously considering that possibility. (I very much don’t think you need to be top-half of oxford to for direct work to be better than earning to give)
That all said, to be clear, I do also find the survey data you linked in the other comment pretty disappointing. I do think it’s often quite possible to be donating 10% and saving 10% (or more). I think this should be encouraged for people who have gotten financially situated and have a rough idea of their longterm plans.
One last bit, that I realized I didn’t emphasize very hard in the OP: I’m also imagining this being pushed harder than Earning to Give is currently pushed.
The status quo is that if you ask “what do you need to do to be an Effective Altruist?” you get a murky answer, where “donate 10%” is one thing a bunch of people agree qualify, but so does working at an EA org, and maybe taking time off to learn does, and if you’re a student or poor it’s a bit ambiguous.
I would definitely oppose putting uniform pressure on everyone at an EA meetup group to donate 10% – there’s too many situations where the blunt instrument of social pressure would do the wrong thing. But I would be pretty comfortable putting uniform pressure on any EA with income to Earn to Save.