Answering some questions about EA
A teacher in Vienna recently wrote to say that they had assigned an article about us as part of a Social Issues class, and asked whether I would be up for answering questions. The students asked me their questions via video snippets, and here are my answers:
Gergo: When was the first time you gave money to other people? Did it start when you were younger, or when you were in college?
The first donation I remember was a pair of political donations leading up to the 2008 election. I gave $50 each to two candidates who were very unlikely to win: Mike Gravel and Ron Paul. I was hoping to expand the range of ideas people were discussing in the primaries.
The next time I donated was $500 two years later, after deciding to give half of what I earned to charity starting in 2009. I think I decided to make my first donation in 2008 instead of 2009 because I misunderstood how income taxes worked and thought it was better to spread donations across years (in the US it’s actually the opposite).
Emilie: How did you get into this to start with and how do you keep up with it? How did you get into the mindset of “we can give so much and that’s what we want to do”, without flaking out?
When I started my first real job and was suddenly making much more money than I’d ever had before, the contrast between what I had and what I really needed weighed on me. Based on my upbringing and temperament I would have continued living simply and saved the money, but after a lot of discussions with Julia I realized that I wasn’t ok having so much while others had so little, and couldn’t keep it.
This contrast hasn’t gone away, and the level of need in the world remains unconscionably high, so I can’t see doing something else.
It also helps that I’ve written a lot about this publicly, and it would be pretty embarrassing to go back and say “you know what, I’m done with this ‘charity’ thing, saving up to buy a yacht is just too important to me.”
Danilla: At 22 you were broke and even though you had no job you still donated all of your savings to the charity. Why you did that and how did you live at that time if you didn’t have any money?
This question is phrased as if it’s intended for Julia, but I can give my perspective. While Julia hadn’t found a job yet I was working full time, and so I think she felt secure enough to donate her savings. In retrospect I probably should have suggested keeping some, in case I lost my job, but I don’t think she would have listened to me anyway.
Danilla: In 2011 I noticed that you didn’t make any donations? Did something happen, or did you change your mind?
It was a combination of two things. Julia had decided to go back to school to become a social worker. She went to school full time in order to finish school sooner, which meant she didn’t have any income to donate. I had joined a startup which meant that part of my compensation was stock options instead of being entirely cash. I decided that if my options ended up being worth something I would donate them, which made sense to me as a way to handle me being risk-averse for myself but risk-neutral for charity. I no longer think this was a good decision, primarily because I overestimated the value of the options.
Jin: Why do you donate only internationally, even though America currently has a lot of problems? For example, something like 9/11 could happen again, or there could be a natural disaster like an earthquake. Why do you donate globally to help people outside of your country?
While the US does have a lot of problems it’s also a very rich country in a strong position to address those problems. Both 9/11 and earthquakes are examples of the kind of thing the US government takes very seriously and has highly-funded agencies to handle. On the other hand, many other countries are much poorer and don’t have the same kind of resources to address their problems. For example, we’ve donated to the Against Malaria Foundation to fund bednet distribution in countries like Malawi, helping people protect themselves from malaria. Malawi is a very poor country, and the US is about 175x richer, per-capita, which means our money is much more able to help there.
This doesn’t mean that Americans don’t have problems or don’t deserve help, but with the current levels of inequality, problems in the US aren’t at the top of my list.
Emelie: How long are you continuing this, and what are you planning for the future now that you have a child?
I’m planning to continue trying to use a substantial portion of my time/money to help others as best as I can at least until I retire. Having children (we now have two, 5y and 3y) has been wonderful, but hasn’t led me to change my goals or values.
Olivia: Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your ultimate goal or what you intend to achieve? In the article that I read it said that as your salary began to increase you began to give away more, but where do you see yourself ultimately reaching? What are your limitations and aspirations as you go into your future years?
If I started making substantially more money I could see trying to donate more than 50%, but for now 50% feels like a good place. I might also, at some point, switch from trying to have a positive impact via donations to something similar via directly doing valuable things. I tried this in 2017 and would do it again for the right opportunity.
Neja: What brings you joy in donating money?
This varies a lot between people, but for me it’s not really about joy. It’s about seeing how wrong things are and trying to make it better. It’s about wanting to do the right thing.
I didn’t used to feel any emotional connection to giving, but that changed when I had kids. As a parent of small children, looking at how malaria nets mean fewer parents have to bury their children makes me choke up. The world is so incredibly unfair right now, and some people have to go through so much pain, but we can all help make things better. So while I wouldn’t call it joy it definitely makes me determined to help.
Aviva: Do you ever have second thoughts about donating? For example, if one month you’re on a tight budget do you think, like, “maybe this month we shouldn’t donate”. Or, does it come naturally for you?
Sofia: Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you could have used the money you gave away to charity, and do you have any regrets about that? Do you have any money saved up for those situations? Do you put money aside for emergency situations or do you try to manage with the money that you have left after donating?
We’re fine financially, mostly because we’re lucky enough to have lucrative skills, and also because we’re reasonably good at living within our means. We’ve been incredibly fortunate, and I’m very happy with our lives.
On the other hand, when I look at the money we’ve donated and think about how our lives would be different if we had saved it instead it does make me a bit sad. We could have gone the FIRE route, in which case I think we would have been retiring around now, in our early 30s, with more time for kids and hobbies. Being able to afford to play music full time or create new musical instruments would be really fun. But then I look at how many people are living in poverty, dealing with sickness, hunger, disasters, war, unemployment, and it’s very clear to me that this would have been the wrong choice.