“Patient vs urgent longtermism” has little direct bearing on giving now vs later

This post is a response to having heard multiple people express something like “I’m persuaded by the case for patient longtermism, so I want to save money rather than give now”, or otherwise implicitly assuming that patient longtermism is obviously more in favour of saving money than urgent longtermism (e.g. Ben Todd says “Even the people who are most into patient longtermism still think we should spend some on object-level things today. It’s just maybe they would only give half a percent of the portfolio as opposed to 4%.” in his podcast episode on varieties of longtermism).

This view is understandable to me, especially given:

  • Trammell’s paper arguing that “patient philanthropists” should invest rather than spend down their capital (note that I tentatively agree with this in the context of global poverty, to which he applies the framework in the paper);

  • The commonsense meanings of “urgent” and “patient”, and of “spend” and “invest”.

Nonetheless, I think it is mistaken and there is no direct implication that “patient longtermists” should be less willing to spend money now than “urgent longtermists”. Rather I think it’s an open question which will depend on a lot of messy empirics (about giving opportunities) which position should be more in favour of saving money now. My current guess is to recommend spending rather than saving money at current margins to both patient and urgent longtermists. Neither recommendation feels robust; however, I’m actually a little more pro-saving for “urgent” longtermists than for “patient” ones.

Note that I do think that considering which timescales we want to exert influence over is an extremely fruitful lens (although I’d usually think of a natural timescale as attaching to an activity rather than an overall view), and it has a great deal of relevance for deciding what to fund and hence indirect bearing on whether to give now or later.

[With apologies for a lack of careful scholarship: I suspect these points are largely written up elsewhere, and appreciated in large part already by Trammell and Todd.]

So what’s going on? Why doesn’t the argument for patient philanthropy apply straightforwardly in the longtermist case?

The argument is in favour of investing (so that you have more resources available later), rather than spending (so that you have less resources available). You might think that giving money away should naturally be considered as spending; and considered from the perspective of an individual donor it probably is. But from the perspective of the longtermist community, most “spending” of money now is actually investment. It pays for research or career development or book-writing or websites or community-building (etc.); and the hope is that resources invested in these things now will return more resources meaningfully aligned with important parts of the longtermist worldview down the line (whether more money, or more people willing to act on the principles, or more broad sympathy to and influence for the ideas).

I think the best of these activities are almost certainly good investments; for instance I think that longtermism (broadly understood) has vastly outperformed the stock market over the last twenty years in terms of the resources it has amassed. I then think that individual decisions about giving now vs later should largely be driven by whether the best identifiable marginal opportunities are still good investments.

There’s a lot of nuance that can (and should!) modulate that statement, for instance:

  • If an individual is still increasing their understanding of what good opportunities look like fast enough, they could be better waiting

    • But deferring to more-informed others or entering a donor lottery in order to defer to your more-informed possible future self often look better than waiting to me

  • If there’s an irregular stream of giving opportunities expected for an individual donor, they might want to hold enough capital to be able to take exceptional opportunities when they find them

  • Some investments hope to create better future investment opportunities rather than more resources directly

    • (Actually I think the Research Scholars Programme, which I’m involved in running, is mostly of this type)

But at the end of it I think whether to give now is going to have to come down to empirical views about how good the opportunities left on the table are. Of course, the patient/​urgent question can have a big effect on which types of future resource you value, and hence which opportunities you think are worthwhile.

Are there opportunities that look more exciting under an assumption that there will be critical junctures in the next few decades (~”urgent longtermism”)? Absolutely:

  • Most work targeted at getting resources in place to deal with a particular anticipated risk (e.g. biosecurity) will have some more limited effects feeding back on long timescales into a community of people taking global challenges seriously

    • This means that only the best such opportunities will represent good investments from the “patient” perspective

      • If we’re collectively taking opportunities slightly beyond those then they look like a form of impact investment, where we’re forgoing the best returns available in order to do something valuable in the shorter run

      • If we’re taking opportunities with little expected return for long-run ~longtermist resources, this looks more like “spending”

  • If there are levers in the world which seem important to move for some urgent reasons, then attempting to move those directly in a way that doesn’t generate more interest and motivation towards generally-sensible action could look like pure spending

    • e.g. as a slightly cartoon example, suppose you thought that it was good to have less of a competitive AI race, so you decided to give money to the leading AI company in order to increase their lead

      • Properly to get the example to work I should add extra conditions: e.g. you shouldn’t think that them becoming a more influential actor will be either culturally good or bad

        • The presence of cultural spillover effects in many cases is a complicating factor which means that “pure spending” is probably rare; but when the cultural effects seem small (or negative) it seems right to round things off as spending

But there are also opportunities which look more attractive under an assumption that we won’t face critical junctures this century (~”patient longtermism”):

  • Mostly anything where resources are locked up for too long a period before being returned to longtermist-direction

    • As a toy example, suppose there were a form of financial investment which expected to pay out 100,000x the investment in one century’s time (12% p.a. annualised)

    • I think there a number of types of intervention which plausibly have a structure similar to the toy example (perhaps getting 10x resources in 20 years, 100x in 40 years, or 1,000x in 60 years), e.g.:

      • Work on improving voting systems, or other broad improvements to societal governance

      • Work on improving education on dimensions that are predictive of people having sensible views and taking long-term welfare seriously

      • Work to change and improve political discourse

      • Spreading the principles of effective altruism and longtermism as commensense

      • Reducing corruption and strengthening social norms against corruption

  • Having resources locked away for a long time is more costly if you think there will—or might well—be moments in the coming century when there are fantastic opportunities which need cash quickly (that won’t all be taken anyway)

If you put someone who was all-in on the patient longtermist view in charge of the entire EA portfolio, would they reduce current spending? I think probably yes: they’d be likely to cut back to just the best opportunities (in terms of long-term investments) in short-termist areas as well as some of the types of spending urgent longtermists might be keen on. They would probably scale up other spending areas (and look for ways to grow extra capacity for good investment opportunities), but at least on the timescale e.g. of the next three years it would be quite hard for that to get as large as the funding they would cut back on.

Does it follow that marginal money held by someone who’s all-in on patient longtermism should be saved rather than given? No: the appropriate comparison for them is not uniformly scaling back EA (or longtermist) giving, but reducing giving to the opportunities that look best on their worldview in favour of saving. It’s quite possible for that to look like a bad idea even while they’d prefer if the community as a whole saved more (because they aren’t so impressed by some of the things that it does give to).

Overall, what do I think? My judgement is moderately in favour of patient longtermists giving now (and continuing to look for more good giving opportunities). A thought experiment I find a bit helpful is to try to imagine how things might stand in the year 2070 -- half a century from now. I’m fairly optimistic that longtermism will have quite a lot more influence in that world than it does today. If I then ask what proportion of the influence/​resources it holds will be in the form of money that has just been invested in financial opportunities since 2020, my guess is that it will be quite a small proportion, and that significantly the more important mechanisms for growth of resources will have involved one or more of these investments which are not purely financial (in not returning money to the person who makes the investment). And I don’t think there’s that much effort going into these types of investment, so I suspect there should be more low-hanging fruit available. This makes me bullish on trying to identify and scale up such investment mechanisms, and hence looking to spend rather than save capital that’s available to us today.

I’m also in favour of spending at the margins from an urgent-longtermist perspective, but there I’m slightly more sympathetic to the view that we’re taking a lot of the best of opportunities right now so we shouldn’t scale up faster than we already are—and also that it’s worth holding some capital back for a rainy day.

Some caveats:

  • I think both of those views (in favour of giving now under a patient longtermist worldview, and in favour of giving now under an urgent longtermist worldview) are making judgement calls that aren’t all that robust

    • I think there’s space for reasonable disagreement

      • But that this disagreement should be based primarily on assessment of the opportunities available, with the patient/​urgent question being just one lens that may help in assessment of opportunities

  • I certainly wouldn’t want all longtermist capital given in the next year, because:

    • I think diminishing returns mean the available opportunities will get much worse before that point

    • Even good investments will often take some years to realise their fruit, so it’s important to retain enough capital that (together with future expected capital flow /​ income) we can cover the best opportunities that arise in the intervening years

  • Since I think finding good opportunities that aren’t taken by others is a bottleneck, I think actors should be particularly excited to give to the extent that they think they might be able to find such opportunities

    • But note that donor lotteries present a mechanism for many donors to set aside enough time (in worlds where they need to make the decisions) that it’s more likely they’ll be able to find such opportunities