Suggested norms about financial aid for EAG(x)

Since money is a sensitive topic for many people, and also a strong motivator for many people, clear norms related to money are often useful for setting expectations and avoiding conflicts. Since EA moves a lot of money, and also has an unusual relationship to money which makes many standard norms inapplicable, I expect that formulating good norms of our own and making them common knowledge will be valuable for avoiding unhealthy community dynamics. I expect this to become increasingly important as the amount of money moved by EA grows; however, this post focuses only on one small set of norms about which I’ve had some recent discussions.

EA Global (EAG) offers significant voluntary discounts on ticket prices (up to 75% off $400 or $500 tickets), as well as travel funding. Based on some recent conversations, it seems like different people interpret the (implicit) norms around taking this financial aid very differently. Here’s what the EAG FAQ says:

We don’t want cost to keep anyone away so we provide discount codes on the registration page for anyone who needs them. This is true even if you are not low-income but, for example, are prioritizing donation. Please take financial aid rather than missing an event.

I think this helps a bit to clarify norms around financial aid, but it’s far from ideal. For one thing, “need” is very ambiguous—people interpret it anywhere between “do you have enough money in your bank account?” and “will paying for it inconvenience you?”. For another, it suggests that paying for EAG should be in a different financial bucket from donations. And while I think the advice to take financial aid rather than missing an event is probably applicable for most people, it has the strange implication that some people should think of financial aid (and places at EAG) as free—e.g. if I think that attending EAG is only worth $20, then I should still take $380 of financial aid instead of missing the event.

(There’s probably other guidance on this elsewhere, but this was the only thing I could quickly find. Please point me to anything I missed.)

Here’s what I claim the norms should be (both for EAG and for EAGx events):

  • You should think of paying for your EAG ticket as equivalent to making a donation to EA community-building. If you pay for it yourself, you should treat it as part of your donation budget (or, alternatively, as an action you’re taking in order to improve the world). That’s true even if a significant part of why you’re going is because you expect to have fun—community-building should be fun.

  • When trying to decide whether to attend, I claim that you shouldn’t try to judge the value of your attendance at EAG in monetary terms, because it’s incredibly hard to evaluate the impact of attending on a per-person basis. It’s much easier for CEA to evaluate the impact of the overall event compared with the overall cost, and it’s inefficient for every attendee to try to recreate these calculations. (If you strongly disagree that EAG is a good use of money, skipping EAG seems like an ineffective way to change that—instead, write an EA Forum post about it!) So instead, you should assume that the number of attendees is fixed, and ask whether it’d be more valuable for you to attend than the person who would otherwise get your spot. This is also pretty hard to evaluate, though, so by default you should treat being accepted as a strong signal that you’re above that threshold (unless you have private information that weighs heavily against this, e.g. that you found little value in previous EAGs).

  • The question of taking financial aid is therefore a question of whether you or CEA should pay for this particular community-building expense. CEA already subsidises ticket prices to a significant extent, but they’ve chosen to ask for attendees to pay for some of the costs of EAG, presumably because they think the benefits of doing so outweigh the harms. Even if you have different priorities to CEA, it seems important that altruists cooperate when choosing who will contribute to which causes (rather than strategically choosing to let others pay for things they both value). So in order to be cooperative, you should by default pay for the cost of the ticket yourself, out of your own donation budget. If your donation budget is less than the cost of going to EAG, that should be considered a good reason to take the financial aid. (In particular, it seems great for people who are not yet very involved in EA to take financial aid if that makes them more likely to attend EA events.)

  • There may be other disadvantages to paying for it yourself—for instance, if you have trouble mentally categorising an expenditure which you also benefit from as an altruistic donation, and so you find the cost demotivating. Or perhaps telling people that a significant amount of your donation budget was spent on attending conferences makes it harder to explain EA to the people around you. (These effects are likely to be more significant the less you donate.) Or perhaps you’re in an unusually good position to fund something else valuable which others won’t (e.g. investing in your career). These are all good reasons to take the financial aid.

  • I think the instinct to be careful about spending money on yourself and calling it “altruism” is a useful sanity check. However, it does seem like we’re in a world where one of the best ways to spend money is to invest in the careers of EAs—and you’re in a particularly good position to invest in your own career. So if you’re not already comfortable spending significant amounts of money doing that, I’d encourage you to try to become more so (especially since EA is much less financially-constrained than it used to be). E.g. imagine if you could invest money in the career of someone just like you—how would you do so?

  • If you’re following the norms above, then your decision about whether or not to attend should be affected very little by the ticket price, which seems correct to me.