Yesterday, there was a Facebook thread discussing arguments against the Giving What We Can (GWWC) pledge, where people promise to donate 10% of all future income to charity (https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/pledge/). The thread didn't seem very productive, but I do think there are strong arguments against the pledge, at least as it exists now. Hence, I thought I'd write up some of the arguments against, and try to have a better discussion here. Of course, I only speak for myself, not any of the thread participants (though I'd welcome their endorsements if they agree). There are also arguments in favor of the pledge, but since many others have already covered them, I won't be including them here.
First, and most obviously, the pledge recommends a flat 10% donation, regardless of a person's income. The general consensus is that utility of money goes as log(income), so giving a fixed percentage is more painful per unit of good done at lower incomes than higher ones (hence, eg., progressive income taxes). Different professions also have dramatically different ratios of direct impact to money generated. Eg., an American congressman's salary is $174,000, but their votes in Congress are so important that even an 0.1% improvement in voting skill outweighs a $17,400 donation; hence, spending even a tiny amount of effort donating the 10% is likely not worth it. On the other extreme, a high-frequency trading job produces lots of money, but almost no direct impact. Therefore, the best donation percentage will vary hugely from person to person. Given the high human capital and low income of the median effective altruist, my guess is that for many people here, the best percentage is <1%; on the flip side, for a typical billionaire, it might be 90% or more. The GWWC pledge encourages most to donate too much, while lowballing a smaller number of large donors.
Second, the GWWC pledge uses the phrase "for the rest of my life or until the day I retire". This is a very long-term commitment; since most EAs are young (IIRC, ~50% of pledge takers were students when they took it), it might often be for fifty years or more. As EA itself is so young (under five years old, depending on exact definitions), so rapidly growing, and so much in flux, it's probably a bad idea to "lock in" fixed strategies, for the same reason that people who take a new job every month shouldn't buy a house. This is especially true for students, or others who will shortly make large career changes (as 80,000 Hours encourages). People in that position have very little information about their life in 2040, and are therefore in a bad position to make binding decisions about it. In response to this argument, pledge taker Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.
Third, the number of GWWC pledge takers is used as a very prominent metric within EA. It's listed in bold, 72-point font on the GWWC homepage, was the very first thing mentioned in Will MacAskill's monthly CEA update, and is found in many other places discussing "the state of EA" or EA's growth rate. This is problematic because, as psychologist Dan Ariely says, "you are what you measure". GWWC pledge count is a bad metric for EA as a whole, because:
- it doesn't account for efficacy of donations; while EA/GWWC encourages donating effectively, an ineffective donor is still included in the total
- it doesn't account for amount of donations, so five small donors count more than one big donor, even though the big donor probably gives more
- it doesn't account for direct work (eg. discovering a cure for cancer as a research scientist) at all
- it creates weird biases regarding timing; possible future donations through ~2060 are totaled on the GWWC homepage, but no adjustment is made for the dramatic differences between 2016 EA/humanity vs. 2060 EA/humanity, creating the illusion of a "perpetual present"
It might be OK to use GWWC pledge count as one metric, measuring one aspect of EA, along with a suite of other metrics that captured what it missed. However, as far as I know, those other metrics more-or-less don't exist right now (I think 80,000 Hours is tracking "number of career changes" internally, but not sure if that's been published anywhere). Quantifying and highlighting this one metric, while not quantifying other things, creates quite a large bias. [EDIT: 80,000 Hours has indeed been publishing this metric, eg. here. However, I still think that it gets much less prominence than the GWWC pledge count. Even within 80K's own post, it's listed below other (IMO much less important) metrics, like web traffic and newsletter subscriber count.)
Fourth, although this isn't explicit in the pledge itself, I think many people taking the pledge intend to donate their 10% to GiveWell-recommended charities. (The GWWC pledge was originally specific to global poverty, and GWWC's charity recommendations largely overlap with GiveWell's.) This seems like a failure to propagate updates. For example, suppose your friend Joe is going camping in Nevada next week; he packs his RV with tents, clothes, food, water, and other equipment. The day before, Joe says he's changed his mind, and is actually camping in the mountains of Alaska. That's all well and good, but now that he's made this change, Joe needs to propagate that change through the other parts of his plan. He can't just buy a new map and drive to a different spot. A change like that will affect what clothes he needs to bring, how he should equip his vehicle, what emergency preparations he should take, what he'll do for fun, and probably even things like who will come with him or what food he carries.
Of course, I don't speak for GiveWell, but my impression is that the initial GiveWell focus was on upper-middle-class people making four-figure donations every holiday season. This has a bunch of implications, but the biggest is that the target audience is mostly busy with work, relatively risk-averse, and is giving away "spare cash" that won't be missed that much (if there's a lean year, they'll just donate less). In that context, the initial GiveWell model (in ~2007-2010) made a lot of sense. However, the GWWC audience is intrinsically different; almost all pledge takers are making a very serious commitment, since it's a substantial fixed fraction of income every year for decades. And since taking the pledge is still relatively "weird", the average pledge taker will be much less risk-averse. Given those assumptions, it makes much more sense to do a lot of research yourself, rather than "outsourcing thinking"; this is especially true given the current deep disagreements in EA on what "the most good" even means. (I also expect it would be much more motivating for the donor.)
Added: Michael Dickens also posted about this last month; I think the arguments largely overlap, but that he fleshes out some of them in more detail. H/T Kit
I can think of ok arguments against the pledge, but many of these arguments seem a bit soft/poorly-informed to me. The biggest weakness, which runs throughout the piece, is the lack of a suggested alternative. Should we have no pledge? A pledge that scales with income? Some modifying to account for other substantive ways of contributing to the world (e.g. time)? Or something else entirely?
In general, without a counterfactual in the background all criticism is meaningless, except insofar as it helps point you in the right direction when you do go searching for alternatives.
Apart from that though, on the content itself:
This is only half-true. I pledged 20%. Some people, esp. those closer to the core of EA, have taken the further pledge (which mandates donating above some level) instead. 10% is the baseline though, and I certainly grant it's the most-talked-about number.... (read more)
Does anyone have specific proposals for what kind of public pledge you would prefer to make, or ask people to make? Including guesses as to who would take or not take such a pledge would be helpful for assessing whether a change would be net positive.
I don't expect CEA to implement changes to the Giving What We Can Pledge any time soon due to the substantial momentum cost but think we should focus on actionable statements to best understand what's going on here.
80,000 Hours does publish their metrics; here's their latest update. The post contains a link to a more thorough explanation of what the metric measures.
A couple of points:
That's not entirely correct. The pledge says "I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn".
I think someone who is a large donor and a GWWC member would realize that he or she easily could (and probably should) give a good bit more than 10%. My perception of GWWC's communication is that their primary target audience are not potential large donors b... (read more)
Strong agree with the third point, weak agree with the second point (the difference between a house and the pledge is that a house costs a fixed amount of money every month, whereas the pledge is a percentage of income), weak disagree with the fourth point (I think the pledge isn't that weird, and that of those who give to GiveWell as a default, that would not be any different if GWWC were not around), and strong disagree with the first point (see below).
TL;DR of the rest: I disagree with the first criticism. I agree that the benefits to cost ratio changes... (read more)
I think your third reason listed above makes a lot of presumptions about why the GWWC pledge is currently used as a key metric of GWWC and CEA. You appear to believe that the number of GWWC pledgers is currently being used as a catch-all proxy for the status of EA and its associated impact, which it isn’t. It makes perfect sense for GWWC (and by extension CEA) to use their own pledge figures as a metric for many purposes, including (but not limited to):
Thanks for moving this post to here rather than FB. I think it's a good discussion, however, I wanted to flag:
None of these criticisms are new to me. I think all of them have been discussed in some depth within CEA.
This makes me wonder if the problem is actually a failure of communication. Unfortunately, issues like this are costly to communicate outside of the organisation, and it often doesn't seem like the best use of time, but maybe that's wrong.
Given this, I think it also makes sense to run critical posts past the organisation concerned before posting... (read more)
I think this topic is confusing because it mashes together four different difficult considerations: doing the most good with your available resources, the opportunity/obligation distinction, the effects of various schemes for spreading ea memes (and which ones get spread more), and the issues with precommitments in a world with a short prediction horizon. Each of these issues has a range of reasonable positions, which means that the total space of positions on the gwwc pledge is large and difficult to enumerate cleanly.
Why I'm hesitant to take the current pledge, and what I want to commit to instead.
I feel that added separation between people improving the world in ways other than donation from the ones focusing on donating is fairly bad, from the point of view of information exchange and movement dynamics (though I think GWWC is likely net-positive, despite this).
I'd love a version of GWWC which allowed people to customize a pledge (or pick from a selection, or switch between them, or something which lets people who want to do good and have reason to think that working ... (read more)
Hi Alyssa - FYI, the FAQ about the pledge says the following:... (read more)
"The general consensus is that utility of money goes as log(income), so giving a fixed percentage is more painful at lower incomes than higher ones"
Seems to me from the math that if it's literally log then giving a fixed percentage of income has exactly the same effect on utility regardless of income level.
I think this is a pretty strong argument. We would expect CEA leaders to be the people who take the pledge the most seriously; it is a very negative sign if they regard it as an artifice that can be discarded for convenience.
Are there specific people who shouldn't take the pledge as-is other than the small minority MichaelDickens highlighted, plus the politicians proposed above?
The pledge is really important to me as a part of my EA life and (I think) as a part of our community infrastructure, and I find your critiques worrying. I'm not sure what to do, but I appreciate you taking the critic's risk to help the community. Thank you!
This post was prompted by some pretty strongly held opinions on a facebook thread. AlyssaVance has posted something here in language I can understand (thank you Alyssa). I would love to see those strongly held opinions from the facebook post shared here