Demandingness and Time/​Money Tradeoffs are Orthogonal

Recently there has been a spate of discussion on the EA Forum and elsewhere about increased spending in EA and its potential negative consequences.

There are various potential concerns one might have about this, and addressing all of them would require a much longer discussion. But it seems like one common worry is something like:

  • Having a frugal EA movement has positive selection effects.

    • Living frugally is a costly signal.

    • This ensures people will only want to join if they’re very altruistically motivated.

  • Conversely, spending more on community building, EA salaries, etc has negative selection effects.

    • It will attract people who are primarily motivated by money rather than altruism.

I think this argument conflates two separate questions:

  • How demanding should EA be?

  • How should we value EA time compared to money?

These two questions seem totally separable to me. For instance, say A works at an EA org.

  • His work produces $500/​hour of value.

  • He gets paid $50/​hour by his employer.

  • He has a fraudulent charge of $100 on a card that he could dispute.

    • This requires him to spend 1 hour on the phone with customer service.

    • He is indifferent between this and spending an hour doing a relatively unpleasant work task.

As things currently stand, he might spend the hour to recover the $100. But I think it would clearly be better if someone paid him $100 to spend an hour doing the unpleasant work task for his organization rather than trying to recover the money. It would keep his utility (and thus demandingness) constant, while resulting in $400 of surplus value created.

I think in the current EA movement:

  • I feel unsure about whether it would be better to increase or decrease demandingness.

    • It seems like a tough tradeoff.

    • Increasing demandingness pushes people to do and sacrifice more, as well as selecting for altruistically motivated people.

    • On the other hand, it may exclude people who could make valuable contributions but aren’t as dedicated, as well as leading to demotivation and burnout.

  • I do think it would be better to increase the monetary value we assign to the time of people doing EA work on average.

    • Given the current stock of funding vs human capital in EA, I think the time of the highest performing EAs is worth a lot.

    • I suspect the current artificially low salaries in EA often lead to people making inefficient time/​money tradeoffs.

I think many people have an intuitive worry that paying EAs more will cause EA to lose its edge. Initially EA was a scrappy movement of people who really cared, and they worry that giving people more money will make it soft and cushy.

I’m sympathetic to that, but I think there are a lot of ways EA can be demanding that don’t rely on frugality. We could expect EAs to:

  • work 7 days a week

  • prioritize work over socializing or hobbies

  • work long hours and be constantly available/​responsive outside work hours

  • leave a fun and/​or high-status job for an unpleasant and/​or low-status one

  • do job tasks that are valuable even if they’re ones they don’t enjoy

  • move to a location they don’t like for work

  • prioritize their impact over relationships with family, friends, romantic partners, or children

  • admit when they were wrong even if it’s painful

  • train skills they think are valuable even if it feels unnatural and hard

  • act in a way that represents EA well, even if they’d rather be petty and uncharitable

  • practice the virtue of silence

There are probably many other things I’m not thinking of here that are both demanding and potentially quite valuable. Many of the most effective EAs I know have done and continue to do a bunch of these things, and I think they’re pretty awesome and hardcore for doing so.

I think these are all more efficient costly signals than frugality, but my impression is that they tend to be regarded by people (both inside and outside EA) as worse signals of altruism, and I’m wondering why that is.