I used to think that earning to save is mainly of interest to the most ‘patient’ longtermists, but I’ve realised that there’s a broader argument for keeping it open as an option, which would mean placing a somewhat higher value on career capital relevant to high earning roles.
Earning to save is like earning to give, but involves investing the money and then donating later. A moderate version would involve donating in 30 years near the end of your career, and is a pretty mainstream practice. A more extreme version would involve trying to invest the money for as long as possible.
What follows is a simple argument for keeping open the option of earning to save.
I should clarify, my overall view on earning to save is unsettled. Here I just want to present an argument I hadn’t considered before, but which is only one consideration among many. This post is also not an official position from 80,000 Hours, but rather aims to spark discussion.
- There is an optimal percentage of resources for the community to spend vs. invest in a given year.
- The community may end up spending above this level in the future.
- If that happens, having people switch to earning to save may be one of the best ways to deal with it.
I take (1) to be obvious, though there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the percentage should be. At the EA Leaders Forum 2020, the interquartile range of estimates was that the movement should currently be spending 3-8% of its assets per year, and it’s even harder to know what this means for labour compared to money. For the purposes of this post, we don’t need to know what the ideal percentage is – just that there is an optimal level we might plausibly exceed.
The more into patient longtermism you are, the lower you will think the optimal level is, and the easier it will be to exceed. However, the EALF respondents were mainly not patient longtermists, and the level they gave of 3-8% still seems possible to exceed.
Why might we end up spending above the optimal level in the future?
Here are some reasons:
- Large donors often donate on a schedule determined by other factors (e.g. wanting to spend everything before they die).
- Open Philanthropy intends to increase spending significantly.
- The EA survey shows that the community is ageing by about one year per year. This will stop at some point, but I think it will carry on for a while, which will mean the community is significantly older ten years from today. As people get older, they have fewer opportunities to build career capital, so more of the community will switch to ‘giving now’. (Though if the community is older, it would also be optimal to give a larger percentage.)
- If you’re more convinced by patient longtermism than average, you’ll probably think the community should invest more than the typical community member currently does.
I don’t think any of these factors are convincing by themselves, and I’m not predicting we will spend above the optimal rate in the future. Rather, my intention is just to show it’s a possibility.
(You might also respond to these arguments by thinking we should spend more now.)
Why might earning to save be a good option for saving more?
If we want to increase the proportion of its resources the community invests for the future, there are three options:
- Donors reduce how much they donate now and invest instead.
- People switch towards positions that build career capital.
- People switch toward working on ‘meta’ problems like global priorities research and building the EA community, which can be thought of as a type of investment that pays off with future work.
- More people earn to save.
The first two might not be possible for the same reasons mentioned above, which would leave us with meta (which can absorb a limited number of people) and earning to save.
Some other challenges of earning to save
- It doesn’t look good. Rather than making concrete progress on real problems, and demonstrating moral seriousness by making real commitments, it’ll look like the community just wants to enrich itself.
- People might not follow through – they might save and never give. This could be offset by using DAFs, but that restricts how the funds can be used.
- It’s probably less motivating.
- If we remain more constrained by specific skill bottlenecks than funding, earning to save seems less useful.
Overall, I’m pretty unsure earning to save is a good idea, and even more unsure about what fraction of people would ideally do it in the future, but it seems worth considering as a potential option. All else equal, this makes gaining career capital that opens up high-earning options more attractive.
Thank you to Howie Lempel for comments.