Suggested norms about financial aid for EAG(x)

by richard_ngo5 min read20th Sep 20217 comments

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Diversity and inclusionEffective Altruism Global
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Since money is a sensitive topic for many people, and also a strong motivator for many people, clear norms related to money are often useful for setting expectations and avoiding conflicts. Since EA moves a lot of money, and also has an unusual relationship to money which makes many standard norms inapplicable, I expect that formulating good norms of our own and making them common knowledge will be valuable for avoiding unhealthy community dynamics. I expect this to become increasingly important as the amount of money moved by EA grows; however, this post focuses only on one small set of norms about which I’ve had some recent discussions.

EA Global (EAG) offers significant voluntary discounts on ticket prices (up to 75% off $400 or $500 tickets), as well as travel funding. Based on some recent conversations, it seems like different people interpret the (implicit) norms around taking this financial aid very differently. Here's what the EAG FAQ says:

We don't want cost to keep anyone away so we provide discount codes on the registration page for anyone who needs them. This is true even if you are not low-income but, for example, are prioritizing donation. Please take financial aid rather than missing an event.

I think this helps a bit to clarify norms around financial aid, but it’s far from ideal. For one thing, "need" is very ambiguous - people interpret it anywhere between "do you have enough money in your bank account?" and "will paying for it inconvenience you?". For another, it suggests that paying for EAG should be in a different financial bucket from donations. And while I think the advice to take financial aid rather than missing an event is probably applicable for most people, it has the strange implication that some people should think of financial aid (and places at EAG) as free - e.g. if I think that attending EAG is only worth $20, then I should still take $380 of financial aid instead of missing the event.

(There's probably other guidance on this elsewhere, but this was the only thing I could quickly find. Please point me to anything I missed.)

Here's what I claim the norms should be (both for EAG and for EAGx events):

  • You should think of paying for your EAG ticket as equivalent to making a donation to EA community-building. If you pay for it yourself, you should treat it as part of your donation budget (or, alternatively, as an action you’re taking in order to improve the world). That’s true even if a significant part of why you’re going is because you expect to have fun - community-building should be fun.
  • When trying to decide whether to attend, I claim that you shouldn't try to judge the value of your attendance at EAG in monetary terms, because it's incredibly hard to evaluate the impact of attending on a per-person basis. It's much easier for CEA to evaluate the impact of the overall event compared with the overall cost, and it’s inefficient for every attendee to try to recreate these calculations. (If you strongly disagree that EAG is a good use of money, skipping EAG seems like an ineffective way to change that - instead, write an EA Forum post about it!) So instead, you should assume that the number of attendees is fixed, and ask whether it'd be more valuable for you to attend than the person who would otherwise get your spot. This is also pretty hard to evaluate, though, so by default you should treat being accepted as a strong signal that you’re above that threshold (unless you have private information that weighs heavily against this, e.g. that you found little value in previous EAGs).
  • The question of taking financial aid is therefore a question of whether you or CEA should pay for this particular community-building expense. CEA already subsidises ticket prices to a significant extent, but they've chosen to ask for attendees to pay for some of the costs of EAG, presumably because they think the benefits of doing so outweigh the harms. Even if you have different priorities to CEA, it seems important that altruists cooperate when choosing who will contribute to which causes (rather than strategically choosing to let others pay for things they both value). So in order to be cooperative, you should by default pay for the cost of the ticket yourself, out of your own donation budget. If your donation budget is less than the cost of going to EAG, that should be considered a good reason to take the financial aid. (In particular, it seems great for people who are not yet very involved in EA to take financial aid if that makes them more likely to attend EA events.)
  • There may be other disadvantages to paying for it yourself - for instance, if you have trouble mentally categorising an expenditure which you also benefit from as an altruistic donation, and so you find the cost demotivating. Or perhaps telling people that a significant amount of your donation budget was spent on attending conferences makes it harder to explain EA to the people around you. (These effects are likely to be more significant the less you donate.) Or perhaps you're in an unusually good position to fund something else valuable which others won’t (e.g. investing in your career). These are all good reasons to take the financial aid.
  • I think the instinct to be careful about spending money on yourself and calling it "altruism" is a useful sanity check. However, it does seem like we're in a world where one of the best ways to spend money is to invest in the careers of EAs - and you’re in a particularly good position to invest in your own career. So if you're not already comfortable spending significant amounts of money doing that, I'd encourage you to try to become more so (especially since EA is much less financially-constrained than it used to be). E.g. imagine if you could invest money in the career of someone just like you - how would you do so?
  • If you’re following the norms above, then your decision about whether or not to attend should be affected very little by the ticket price, which seems correct to me.

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You should think of paying for your EAG ticket as equivalent to making a donation to EA community-building.

If we adopt this line of thought, wouldn't basically no-one end up paying?

  • Most people do not donate to community-building.
  • Personally attending doesn't significantly increase the cost-effectiveness of community-building from an impartial point of view.
  • Even if you were donating to EA community building anyway, you were probably donating more than the ticket price, so you are already 'covered'.
  • If you are going to donate, you should do so directly, because of the tax advantages. For higher income people this could effectively almost double the cost of buying the ticket directly.

It might actually make sense that the outcome would be that no one would end up paying. E.g, there could be enough money in community building so that it'd actually be better if people give to causes with more room for funding and have the entire thing subsidized. 

I don't expect that to be the case, but this doesn't feel like a reductio ad absurdum.

The tax point is particularly relevant. I felt obliged to pay for a ticket previously as a high earner, but it felt odd and somewhat performative to do so when the net effect of donating directly to movement building instead seemed clearly better because the donation could be increased by doing so.

In hindsight I should have elaborated on the "cooperativeness" part more; I've edited the post to do so. The key point is made in this post about how donating only to what seems like the most neglected priority to you is partially a form of free-riding, because it means that others who have different values need to spend their resources on things that you both care about. So in order to have healthier relationships with other altruists, you should agree to both partially cover shared priorities, even when that is a less effective use of money in the short term.

Now, you might have stronger or weaker intuitions about how important this type of cooperation is. I think my intuition is that we should aim for cooperative norms that are strong enough that we can cooperate even across large value differences. But cooperative norms which are this strong will then weigh heavily in favour of cooperation between altruists with much smaller value differences, like CEA and EAG attendees (especially because CEA and/or big EA funders have thought about this and decided that the benefits of having people pay for their own tickets by default are more important, from their perspective, than downsides like tax inefficiency).

It also seems reasonable to disagree with this; it's something of a judgement call. But I claim that this is the right judgement call to be making.

Thanks for raising this! We've adjusted the wording over time but still haven't hit on something that ideally conveys the different things we'd suggest to people in different circumstances.

Here's what I think we'd suggest to people in different situations:

  • student or professional with low income who wants to come - yes, take the financial aid and come
  • professional with significant income but who's committed to giving significantly to effective charities, or who has other significant expenses (health, family, student debt) that make money tight, and who wants to come - yes, take the financial aid and come
  • person of any income who thinks it wouldn't be that good for them to come (doesn't think they would enjoy it much, doesn't think it would improve their career or donation decisions, doesn't think it would strengthen their motivation / commitment, doesn't think they'd be able to help other people at the conference) - no, leave the spot for someone else, even if you can easily afford it
  • person who wants to come and the price doesn't give them serious pause - come and buy your own ticket

Would adding something like that to the FAQ address some of your concerns?

I think this would be better than the current FAQ, but it seems like what you've said above mostly rephrases the ambiguities I highlighted without doing much to resolve them. E.g. the ambiguity of "for anyone who needs them" isn't much alleviated by using phrasing like "money is tight" and "doesn't give them serious pause". I'd take a wild guess that maybe the bottom 40% of westerners (by income) would say that "money is tight" for them, and that the top 10% would say that "spending $400+ doesn't give them serious pause". But it's not clear how the remaining 50% should think about it. (And that category is probably even more than 50% for people from poorer countries.) Hence my proposal in the post that you should pay full price iff you're already donating enough that you're comfortable for EAG to take up $400+ of your donation budget (I'll edit to make this more explicit).

Similarly, it also seems pretty hard to evaluate  where the bar should be for "it wouldn't be that good for them to come", since almost everyone will have improved decisions/strengthened motivations/etc from EAG to some degree. Should it be twice as good as a typical weekend in order for people to feel justified in taking a spot? Four times? Ten times? The highlight of the year? This seems very hard to judge. Hence my proposal in the post that the bar you should use is the marginal next person who would be accepted to EAG (while weighing your own acceptance as significant evidence that you should go).

Lastly, your proposal doesn't tell people whether they should think of EAG as "personal" or "altruistic" spending. For people who categorise these differently, their bars for marginal spending on personal versus altruistic things might be very different.

One thing that you might already know, but could be helpful to spell out: CEA already subsidizes much of the cost of the conference. The main reason we don’t just subsidize it all is that having some cost for attendees means they have personal investment in coming. At some past events like EAGx where ticket costs were very low, a lot of slots got wasted because people claimed the free or low-cost tickets and then didn’t show up. But we don’t want to keep people away because higher prices are difficult for them, which is why we do offer financial aid.  


On how to compare yourself to other attendees: We haven’t asked this lately, but in the past we’ve asked attendees how good a use of time the event was for them. (I realize this doesn’t fully answer the question of how to compare yourself to others, but it might help.) Here are the responses from the last time we asked this:
 


It’s hard for us to say whether EAG tickets should count as “personal” or “altruistic” spending. The overall goal of the event is to have a positive impact for the world — that’s why we host it. On the other hand, it would be kind of suspect for us to tell people “You should pay for your ticket out of your donation budget!” because the event is also enjoyable for attendees (we hope!), and it’s hard to make donation decisions clearly when you also personally benefit from the donation.