Giving What We Can

On May 4, four years ago, 20-year-old me had a fantastically one-sided conversation with Ben Todd after attending a career advice lecture hosted by a friend’s student club.

I thought I was hot stuff asking brilliant, impossible questions about capitalism and the meaning of life. But not only did Ben give unhesitating and straightforward answers, in fact there were several instances when he pulled out his laptop and replied by quoting passages from research articles—many written by him.

More than any of my professors at MIT, this random dude seemed to have all the answers, starting from first principles. It was like Mike Sipser explaining the halting problem. It was educational and uncannily elegant. But I wasn’t really paying attention.

Our hour-long chat ended with Ben handing me a complimentary copy of Doing Good Better. I polished off the book and passed it along to a kind-hearted family friend, who recommended it to her son. He promptly transformed from bacon sausage pizza-eating Jew to full-on vegan! The book is pretty convincing, but again I wasn’t paying attention.

More than a year later, my sister’s friend recommended a podcast to me. I told him I don’t do podcasts. He said, you’ve got to try at least a few minutes of these interviews on the case against education and how we lie to ourselves. So I tuned in.

The recommended episodes were wonderful, and I binged the rest. It turned out the podcast was from 80,000 Hours, Ben Todd’s nonprofit. This time I paid attention, and I’ve been listening ever since. You, dear reader, should definitely check out episodes #25 and #32 at the very least.

Which brings us to 2020 and The Virus. Compared with most of the population, I’ve been relatively unsurprised by the state of things. Which is really weird.

While everyone is saying “oh my gosh this is so surprising wow I’ve never seen anything like it,” I’m sitting here like “well, this is kinda just how the world works and you too could have been listening for the past couple years to experts who opine at length on the underappreciated dangers of artificial general intelligence, nuclear war, and pandemics.”

My step towards fandom, believing in Ben Todd and the effective altruism crowd, has granted me some minor superpowers. I’m a bit less surprised when the world gets thrown into chaos, and therefore able to make better decisions. I have more nuanced perspectives and tend to see counterfactuals more readily. I have a bank of interesting observations and experiences to draw upon, from incredibly dense podcasts replete with insights.

But this is all rather passive and selfish. What have I gained or contributed beyond clarity of thought?

Writing this blog for more than a year now, and during that time transforming into a professional, I’ve come to appreciate cause and effect more deeply. How values and thoughts and plans turn into actions then outcomes then history. How taking tiny productive steps in the right direction—or any direction, quickly—is the best way to bend the arc of the universe. Or write a hundred blog posts.

April 2020 was perhaps the most impactful month of my life. I made a decision to act in a certain way, to realize certain values. To take the opportunity that fell into my lap four years ago, and instead of waiting any longer to magically become a rich philanthropist one day and think through the meaty questions all at once, to go ahead and decide I have enough right now.

It looks like I’m number 4661 to do so. I’ve pledged to give at least 10% of my income to the organizations that I think can do the most good with it. Here’s the breakdown for now…

36% to GiveWell grants. This is the most direct way I can find to save lives and do good, Bill and Melinda-style. I think it’s better to give the money to GiveWell than the charities directly as GiveWell will probably shepard it to the best place possible.

25% to the Long-Term Future Fund. This is an area of donation that is chronically neglected by givers, and it’s my contribution to the alleviation of future covid-esque shocks (or potentially much larger). I’m willing to give the more tin-foily aspects of the EA approach the benefit of the doubt for now. They’ve certainly earned a good chunk of my trust.

25% to 80,000 Hours. Thanks Ben and Rob and team for being my sherpas on this journey. I especially love the podcast and heavily recommend it to others. I hope supporting this organization in the EA meta category can create “April 2020” moments for others as it has for me.

14% to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. This seems to be the best way to spend on carbon reduction at less than $1 per metric ton. I conservatively estimate my total carbon emissions to be less than 100 tonnes per year, and from various internet sources it seems $20 per tonne is the rough expectation for offsetting. So I wanted to spend at least $2k per year on this area, and hopefully I can contribute more than a pure neutral offset by selecting an effective charity. I would love to know if anyone has a better suggestion here, as nobody seems to have a great answer and Cool Earth appears to not actually be the best.

Conspicuously absent from this list are groups or institutions like my alma mater (MIT) that claim lots of conventional donations. I don’t feel these are worth supporting financially. It’s hard to see direct impacts of each dollar playing out as meaningfully in shaping an objectively better world, when compared with the above list.

It’s amusing how I started this year with the intention to gain $10k through a side project. Now I’ve decided to give that and more away.

I want to thank Arden and Rob for sparking the final synapse on a random lazy April weekend, but I also want to thank the many people and circumstances that led me here, primed and ready. And a microscopic dose of gratitude is probably due to myself for finally deciding to be un-confused. I’m greatly looking forward to the joy this will bring moving forward.

P.S. I also wrote my first professional blog post this month, for ReadMe!

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