NB: I think EA spending is probably a very good thing overall and I’m not confident my concerns necessarily warrant changing much. But I think it's important to be aware of the specific ways this can go wrong and hopefully identify mitigations. Thanks to Marka Ellertson, Joe Benton, Andrew Garber, Dewi Erwan, Joshua Monrad and Jake Mendel for their input.
- The influx of EA funding is brilliant news, but it has also left many EAs feeling uncomfortable. I share this feeling of discomfort and propose two concrete concerns which I have recently come across.
- Optics: EA spending is often perceived as wasteful and self-serving, creating a problematic image which could lead to external criticism, outreach issues and selection effects.
- Epistemics: Generous funding has provided extrinsic incentives for being EA/longtermist which are exciting but also significantly increase the risks of motivated reasoning and make the movement more reliant on the judgement of a small number of grantmakers.
- I don’t really know what to do about this (especially since it’s overall very positive), so I give a few uncertain suggestions but mainly hope that others will have ideas and that this will at least serve as a call to vigilance in the midst of funding excitement.
In recent years, the EA movement has received an influx of funding. Most notably, Dustin Moskovitz, Cari Tuna and Sam Bankman-Fried have each pledged billions of dollars, such that funding is more widely available and deployed.
This influx of funding has completely changed the game. First and foremost, it is wonderful news for those of us who care deeply about doing the most good and tackling the huge problems which we have been discussing for years. It should accelerate our progress significantly and I am very grateful that this is the case. But it has also had a drastic effect on the culture of the movement which may have unfortunate consequences.
A few years ago, I remember EA meet-ups where we’d be united by our discomfort towards spending money in fancy restaurants because of the difference it could make if donated to effective charities. Now, EA chapters will pay for weekly restaurant dinners to incentivise discussion and engagement. Many of my early EA friends also found it difficult to spend money on holidays. Now, we are told that one of the most impactful things university groups can do is host an all-expenses-paid retreat for their students.
I should emphasise here that I think these expenditures are probably good ideas which can be justified by the counterfactual engagement which they facilitate. These should probably continue to happen, however uncomfortable they make us feel.
But the fact that these decisions can be justified on one level doesn’t mean that they don’t also cause concrete problems which we should think about and mitigate.
Big Spending as an Optics Issue
Over the past few months, I’ve heard critical comments about a range of spending decisions. Several people asked me whether it was really a good use of EA money to pay for my transatlantic flights for EAG. Others challenged whether EAs seriously claim that the most effective way to spend money is to send privileged university students to an AirBNB for the weekend. And that’s before they hear about the Bahamas visitor programme…
In fact, I have recently found myself responding to spending objections more often than the standard substantive ones (e.g. what about my favourite charity?, can you really compare charities with each other?, what about systemic issues?).
I am not contesting here whether these programmes are worth the money. My own view is that most of them probably are and I try to lay this out to those who ask. But it is the perceptions which I find most concerning: many people see the current state of the movement and intuitively conclude that lots of EA spending is not only wasteful but also self-serving, straying far from what you’d expect the principles of an ‘effective altruism’ movement to be. Given the optics issues which have hindered the progress of EA in the past, we should be wary of this dynamic.
Importantly, I’ve heard this claim not only from critics of EA, but also from committed group members and an aligned student who might otherwise be more involved. This suggests that aside from opening us up to external criticism from people who don’t like EA anyway, spending optics may also hinder outreach and lead to selection effects, whereby proto-EAs who are uncomfortable with how money is spent are put off the movement and less likely to get involved. (I am grateful to Marka Ellertson and Joshua Monrad, who both raised versions of this valuable point.)
Longtermism vs Neartermism
One especially problematic framing concerns the apparent discrepancy between longtermist and neartermist funding. Many people find it understandably confusing to hear that ‘EA currently has more money than it can spend effectively’ whilst also noticing that problems like malaria and extreme poverty still exist, especially given how much EA focuses on how cheap it is to save a life and how important it is to practise what we preach.
I don’t claim that more money should necessarily go to neartermist areas, but I fear that excellent people who initially come to EA through a global health or animal welfare route may be put off by this dynamic and leave the movement entirely, especially if it isn’t explained with nuance and sensitivity. This is a comment which I have heard repeatedly over recent months and I am concerned that it could become a significant obstacle to EA movement-building, including for future longtermists.
Coordination and the Unilateralist’s Curse
Longtermists often mention the unilateralist’s curse as a problem associated with various x-risks. Even if the vast majority of altruistic actors behave sensibly, it only takes one reaching a different decision to the group to cause the catastrophe. It seems to me that similar dynamics exist with EA spending. Even if most funders are careful with regard to the optics, it only takes one misstep to attract headlines and stick in people’s heads. Given past experience with ‘earning to give’, this should be especially concerning for the movement.
Financial Incentives as an Epistemics Issue
Several years ago before the increase in funding, it didn’t pay to be EA. In fact, it was rather costly: financially costly because it usually involved a commitment to give away a lot of one’s resources, and socially costly because most people have an intuitive aversion to EA principles. As a result, most people around EA were probably there because they had thought hard and were really convinced that it was morally right.
In 2022, this is no longer necessarily the case. Suddenly, being an EA is exciting for a bunch of extrinsic reasons. College-age EAs have the chance to be flown around the world to conferences, invited to all-expenses-paid retreats and offered free dinners as an incentive for engaging with the community and the content.
As stated before, this is very exciting and a great thing. Generous funding gives us the chance to set ambitious visions to make EA huge on campuses around the world and get the best talent working on the biggest problems. Moreover, it can improve our diversity by making careers such as community-building accessible to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But it also risks clouding our judgement as individuals and as a movement.
Consider the case of a college freshman. You read your free copy of Doing Good Better and become intrigued. You explore how you can get involved. You find out that if you build a longtermist group in your university, EA orgs will pay you for your time, fly you to conferences and hubs around the world and give you all the resources you could possibly make use of. This is basically the best deal that any student society can currently offer. Given this, how much time are you going to spend critically evaluating the core claims of longtermism? And how likely are you to walk away if you’re not quite sure? Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to several organisers who aren’t convinced of longtermism but default to following the money nevertheless. I’ve even heard (joking?) conversations about whether it’s worth 'pretending' to be EA for the free trip.
When my friends in finance (not earning to give) tell me they’re working at Goldman to improve the world, I am normally sceptical. Psychology literature on motivated reasoning and confirmation bias suggests that we are excellent at finding views which justify whatever is in our interests. For example, one study shows that our moral judgements can be significantly altered by financial incentives; another shows that we naturally strengthen our existing views by holding confirming and disconfirming evidence to different standards.
Fortunately, unlike with finance careers, I think that longtermist careers are likely to be among the most impactful available to us. But given the financial incentives, I would expect it to be very difficult to notice if either longtermism as a whole or specific spending decisions turned out to be wrong. Research suggests that when a lot of money is on the line, our judgement becomes less clear. It really matters that the judgement of EAs is clear, so having a lot of money on the line should be cause for concern.
This is especially problematic given the nature of longtermism, simultaneously the best-funded area of EA and also the area with the most complex philosophy and weakest feedback loops for interventions.
Maybe this risk is mitigated by the fact that grantmakers in EA set these incentives by deciding where the money goes, and their judgements are careful and well-calibrated from years of experience, evaluation and excellent in-house research. This seems plausible to me. But if strong incentives are shifting our epistemic confidence from the movement as a whole to a small number of grantmakers, this is something we should at least notice.
What can we do differently?
I’m really not sure what the answer to this is, especially because I think most of these funding opportunities seem very good, so we shouldn’t stop them. I’m mainly putting this out there to start a conversation because I’m not sure how aware we are of these dynamics (I wasn’t until recently and others seem to think it is a concern which isn’t discussed enough, perhaps for some of the reasons stated above).
A few initial thoughts, not proposed with particular confidence:
- Can we create better resources for how to talk about the spending when it comes up, just like we have for substantive objections to EA? For example, accessible posts on why retreats / conferences / free dinners are considered good value for money under rigorous evaluative frameworks.
- (From Andrew) Along these lines, it could be valuable for university groups to conduct and publish some rough cost-benefit analyses on major programs (e.g. running a retreat, budgeting for socials, book and cookie giveaways, deciding whether to get an office). This is probably a good exercise for general EA thinking, but it might also help reduce some wastefulness by making EA groups think more about how they use money.
- A counter would be that this process takes time which could be spent on directly valuable activities - though for the reasons stated above, we should perhaps be sceptical of arguments which justify spending without thinking.
- It would be helpful to lay out clearly what money is available to which parts of the EA movement and what it can and can’t do. This would help clarify questions such as: “if EA has more money than it can spend effectively, why isn’t it giving more to AMF / why is it still encouraging people to donate to AMF / why can’t it just solve biorisk through brute financial force”. This post is a great start.
- We should be careful with how we advertise EA funding. For example, we should avoid the framing of ‘people with money want to pay for you to do X’ and replace this with an explanation of why X matters a lot and why we don’t want anyone to be deterred from doing X if the costs are prohibitive.
- Given the unilateralist’s curse, perhaps there should be some central forum for EA funders to coordinate / agree upon policies with an optics perspective in mind. Maybe this is already happening - I am certainly not well-placed to assess the ecosystem.
- (From Joe) Where appropriate, it should be made clear that grants aren’t conditional on agreement with the community. Funding criticism is a great start, but many people receiving grants (e.g. for travel) may still feel that there’s an implicit expectation for them to agree with the funder’s view, and we should make it clearer to people when this is not the case.
- Note, for example, that people who receive EA funding may find it more difficult to publish a critical piece like this, given the benefits which they derive from the status quo, perceptions of hypocrisy and feelings of betrayal towards the people funding them. As more EAs come to benefit from EA funding, this problem may grow.
- In this vein and if we think this is a big enough concern, perhaps we should encourage more criticism specifically relating to how funding is deployed?
- Should we re-emphasise the norm of significant giving? Money donated to top global health / animal welfare charities can still do a huge amount of good and taking this seriously as a community would help us avoid the mindset whereby the most impactful things we can do involve taking money rather than giving.
- A counter is that this may distract from other longtermist priorities which are much more valuable, but it might help with both optics and epistemics.
- (From Joe) At the very least, we should make the opportunity cost of funding more salient. EA was predicated on recognising the trade-offs inherent to altruistic decisions, and we shouldn’t forget that every ~$5,000 spent on speculative longtermist initiatives statistically costs a life in the short term. This is a significant responsibility which we shouldn't take lightly, yet current free-spending norms point the other way.
- Although we should often be willing to accept time-money trade-offs, there are some cases where norm shifts could go along way, such as putting students up in cheaper hotels, booking flights further in advance, or selecting cheaper flights where inconvenience is minimal (rather than treating money as no object).
- While this wouldn’t necessarily change our actions significantly, having a culture where this is collectively acknowledged would reduce the problematic impression that we’ve stopped appreciating the value of money.
Do you agree with the problems I've raised? If so, how do you think we can mitigate them?