EA needs money more than ever

tl;dr: Compared to the early GiveWell days, EA’s moral circle has grown faster than its resources. This implies that despite the highly publicized growth in longtermist funding, money is more useful in absolute terms now than it was in the past. Waste, complacency, and apathy are more important to avoid than ever before. This says nothing on its own about if the EA community is also talent constrained, or whether one should choose earning-to-give as a career, but gives reinforcement to the importance of our present-day financial decisions.

Popular recent EA Forum posts have focused on the optics of EA spending. Below I totally ignore optics and argue a stronger case: that even ignoring optics, spending present-day dollars well (and having more of them) is more valuable to EA than it has ever been.


My argument is simple:

  1. Take as given whatever position EA was in before longtermism grew in popularity. The main cause areas are global poverty and animal welfare, and you are an individual saving part of their paycheck to donate and save individual lives. Efficiency is the name of the game, and there are plenty of problems that need to be solved, with your limited dollars

  2. Add longtermist cause areas and funding

  3. Assume no change in non-longtermist cause effectiveness from past to present[1]

If you believe the above 3 points, and you also believe that all current longtermist funding is insufficient to solve all longtermist problems (money could be dumped into scaling climate change solutions if nothing else, for instance, and there still would not be enough to solve that problem), then you are left with the conclusion that EA’s obligations have grown faster than its pool of resources. As a result, money is more important (in absolute terms) than ever. Donations could go to the older causes just as before, or to longtermism, which purports higher expected value. And if you are unsure, you could always save the money and invest in compound interest for patient longtermism.

Imagine cost-effective cause areas are particularly efficient engines for converting dollars to well-being. Longtermism is a massive engine that needs a lot of fuel. Funding is just one type of fuel for those engines. The growth of longtermism has added more engines than fuel.

It’s important to note that the above argument says nothing arguing for or against talent (or any other) kinds of constraints. There are multiple kinds of fuel that are needed to run the engines of different cause areas. My current (uninformed) view: EA’s cause areas have grown the fastest, funding has grown 2nd fastest, talent 3rd fastest, and orgs the slowest. All are necessary.


What changes from this argument? If you are a moral saint who is already maximizing impact with zero waste, nothing changes. But if you are a normal human who has come to believe money is less valuable than it used to be in EA, and are trading off with your personal decisions in a non-moral context, I think this framing is important. However lax with spending towards unproductive ends one would have been in the early days of EA, it seems like we should be behaving equally or less lax than from that position, even if that conflicts with our intuitions.

The current view I hold is: “Wow, we need to help current people, current animals, and future people and future animals, all with a subset of present-day resources. What a tremendous task.” I think maintaining this framing is important in keeping EA from becoming wasteful and complacent with the growing resources in the community, and in keeping personal integrity. If you agree with my line of thinking, the value of all resources in our community, even funding, seems to be higher than it ever was before.

  1. ^

    This is untrue, but in a way that does not seem to dramatically change the line of thinking in my thought experiment. For example, in 2016 the Against Malaria Foundation was judged by GiveWell to cost $3,461 to save a life, and in 2020 that estimate was $4,500 to save a life.