Historian and bestselling author Rutger Bregman explains why he took the pledge

by Pepijn9 min read26th Nov 20213 comments

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Hi! I'm an Amsterdam-based writer interested in EA. While I was researching EA initiatives in The Netherlands for a longform article I found out that Dutch popular historian and bestselling author Rutger Bregman (author of Utopia for Realists and HumanKind) had taken the Giving What We Can pledge to donate >10% of his income. I asked Rutger for an interview to find out why he took the pledge. This is a translated crosspost from my newsletter on underrated ideas and progress, De Optimist (Dutch only).

🗓️  Please note that Giving What We Can hosts several "Effective Giving" day events next Tuesday!

Inequality

“Inequality has always interested me. While I was researching my book Utopia for Realists I discovered the “How Rich Am I” calculator. You can enter your income and see how rich you are compared to the rest of the world. Back then Occupy Wallstreet and the slogan “we are the 99%” were gaining traction. Yet when I got back the results from the calculator I said to myself: whoa, Rutger, you don’t belong to the 99%! You belong to the 1%. An average income in the Netherlands puts you in the 3.5% richest in the world. Even if you have homeless benefits in the Netherlands, you already belong to the richest 15% of the world. By the way, I don't mean to say that the homeless benefits in The Netherlands are so generous. It mainly says how terribly poor the rest of the world still is. The average global citizen earns only about $16 a day per person.”

Royalties

“We were taught at home that it is important to give away a substantial part of your income. So the idea was always to arrange that properly. I just kept postponing the moment. “That will come some day,” I kept telling myself. But in hindsight it was an excuse to do nothing. And the need of the world is now. The people who benefit from my money don't care about the motivation that I kept postponing my donations. Once the royalties on my books started rolling in, more and more money piled up in my bank account. Only then did I seriously start to wonder what responsibility that money entailed. That is how I ended up at Giving What We Can.”

A serious percentage

“There are two ways to do a better job of donating than most Dutch people do now. First, if you don't live in poverty yourself, you can probably donate more than you do now. Dutch households give an average of 0.4% of their income to charities. I find this percentage rather low. I wondered: what would be a serious percentage? Then I arrived at 10% of my gross income, it’s also an elegant number. That is twenty times what the average Dutch person gives. I don't think that donating ten percent will be a tremendous sacrifice for the readers of your newsletter. Sure, you will have to sacrifice something for it. In most cases, a slightly less fancy holiday. Maybe a slightly less fancy car. But if you earn well it will not really have a big impact on your happiness in life. I'm not afraid to give a sermon here. I think that everyone who earns well in The Netherlands should seriously think about giving more. That, in my view, is a moral obligation.”

Get going

“Second, it's better to give intentionally than impulsively - for instance, when someone knocks on your door. You have to get started yourself. I do my annual donations righter after my tax return, then I know what my aggregate income is and I take 10% of that. Then I have a conversation with my wife what charities we are going to select. I'm so glad I've finally taken these matters into my own hands.

I don’t like the way mainstream charities recruit, like someone ringing my doorbell who starts talking out of the blue. Or being approached at Utrecht Central Station to become a member of the Dutch Cancer Society or something. People are taken by surprise and may say yes to not feel guilty. Or there's a natural disaster or a refugee crisis and you donate impulsively. I'm not saying you shouldn't do all of these things. On the contrary, it's better than nothing. But if you really want to make a difference it's too limited - there are so many more effective ways to donate. In addition, active recruitment easily costs a hundred euros per new donor, so you are paying back your own recruitment fees in the first year. Because I've done my own research, I can say in good conscience that I've already thought about it.”

Excuses

“A lot of people don't give because they're convinced it's all a big scam. They've read in the papers about bad charities, or a director that has raided the treasury - and unfortunately there are plenty of examples of that. The problem is that people start to mistrust all charities. So you have to be careful that your cynicism does not become an excuse for doing nothing. That you start to think: oh, that’s convenient, none of these charities work anyway, so I don't have to give anything.”

Giving what we can

“What I really like about Giving What We Can is that there’s an online environment where I can see my donations at work. I can see where my donations went last year, and what return they have had. I now look at my gifts the way I would look at my investments. My money has been put to work in the world, it is paying off. The only difference is that it's not making the difference for me but for other people or animals. It's fascinating to discover how donating has changed my psyche. It has now become a form of consumption for myself. It is almost comparable to booking a nice holiday.”

Opportunities

“I prefer to give to charities that are ignored by the masses. This is where you can make the highest return per euro. That's why I give most of my money through Effective Altruism Funds, which basically works like an actively managed philanthropic mutual fund. There are very smart people working there who think about the question “how are we going to save as many lives as possible per euro?” Effective Altruism Funds puts the donations into dozens of carefully selected initiatives with the greatest chance of impact. And yes, there may also be some mistakes. But there are also some huge hits.

I was recently looking at where my money has been going over the past year and then I discovered Vegans of Shanghai was one of the recipients. This is an organisation that wants to make veganism mainstream in China. I had never heard of that. And the reasoning behind it was that veganism hardly exists in China, so you have to nurture that one seedling that grows there. If a vegan movement arises in the largest economy in the world, it could have a huge impact in the long term. I would never have come up with that idea myself.

In recent years I have become increasingly involved with animal rights. I really hope we can accelerate the protein revolution. And there are some clubs like Proveg that I really love. They are very goal-oriented to get animals out of the food chain. So I have those kinds of organisations in my ‘portfolio'."

Transforming someone's life

“My guilty pleasure is donating to GiveDirectly. That organization simply transfers your money directly to the poorest people in the world. That might not be strictly the most effective way out there, because it might be more effective to buy malaria nets or something, but I just like the idea of ​​simply giving money and letting people make their own choices. With a thousand euros you can completely transform someone's life. When I transfer such an amount, I realize that this might be one of the most important things I do in my life.”

Only the results count

“When we think about charities, we usually think too much about ourselves. For example, how we soothe our own conscience. Or we think about whether a good cause suits us. Or we fixate on the lowest possible overhead costs because we think that's important. Stop it! Donating is not about you and your feelings, but about the wellbeing of others. The most important thing is that your donations are successful. Especially when it's about someone in Sub-Saharan Africa whose child has just died from an infectious disease that can be easily prevented with cheap medicine. It really has absolutely nothing to do with your intentions or feelings.”

Just start

“Behavior is contagious. Donating to effective charities is no exception. However, there’s a fine line between inspiring people and flirting with your own goodness. I hope that I’m able to change the norms around donating just a little bit with this interview. That people think: ha, what Rutger says sounds logical and fun. 

Look, ten percent is just a number, isn't it? Even if you say: I'm going to give two percent of my income you already give five times as much as the average Dutch person. The important thing is that you just start. That you agree on a percentage for yourself and get a certain rhythm in donating. And every year you sit down with your partner and ask the question: where will we make the difference this year? And how can we do that as effectively as possible? Then I think you'll start to like it more and more over time. At least that's how it worked for me.”

Time is scarce

“Effective altruism has made me think about how I can best use my scarce time. I now have a platform, a podium. Where do I want to put the spotlight? Where can I make the difference, give the decisive push? What should I not write about? To give an example: there has been a debate about cancel culture for some time now. I'm not saying it's not a problem, but so many articles have already been written about it. It's just not that important compared to the amount of attention it gets. But the risks of synthetic biology are given very little attention, even though it is probably an extremely important topic. Or the fact that more than five million children under the age of five die each year from easily preventable diseases such as malaria, measles and diarrhea.”

The good side of history

“A blot in our history is slavery. Sometimes I wonder: what are our blind spots, which historians of later look back on the way we now look back at slavery today? Can you  look at the present and ask yourself: what heinous crimes do we commit today?

Those are valuable questions to ask. I automatically come to a number of themes: the suffering of animals in factory farming; the insane poverty that still exists today; and a number of existential dangers that could spell the end of humanity, but which we hardly think about. And I know of no movement that takes all these issues as seriously as effective altruism.

Most Dutch people in the Netherlands live in a comfortable situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Historically and globally, we live in an absurd, exceptional position. In my view, that entails an enormous responsibility.

I constantly wonder if I'm too easy on myself. I don't want to make the mistake of accepting the status quo because it is the status quo. I'm thinking about writing a progressive self-help book. Most self-help books are about living an easier life. I would like to write a book about living a life that is more difficult, but in line with the ideals and beliefs people have.”

Special thanks to Jan-Willem Putten, former director of Effectief Altruïsme Nederland and co-founder of Training for Good, my wife Renée Frissen, founder of OpenEmbassy and Habiba Islam, advisor for 80,000 hours, for helping me out with finetuning/preparing the interview.
 

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:40 AM
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Thanks a bunch for doing this interview! I just connected the dots as I recall a Dutch historian wrote a piece in the Danish Magazine Zetland.  This gave us a load of traffic for a month afterwards, and was an extremely good pitch/intro into EA. Turns out that was Rutger. 

So good job to Rutger, he's clearly doing well at making  a bit of a splash.

This is great, thank you for talking with him and translating this for us. 

Bregman is a great example of someone who I think embodies a lot of EA ideas in his work and can reach more left-wing people. I remember him getting a lot of kudos from left twitter when he called out hypocrisy at Davos and criticized Tucker Carlson on his show (so effectively that Carlson's blowup prevented the segment from airing). 

Obviously, there are some tensions between Bregman's shtick and EA's dependence on billionaire philanthropy, but I think it would be smart to keep trying to reach people like him (who can subsequently reach other people EA has historically struggled to reach). 

That's a really great interview, thanks for doing this and writing it up for us!

And cool to hear that Rutger found GWWC, took the pledge and now also considers various other near- and long-term causes in his work! I've seen a few appearances of Rutger and I liked his way of communicating these ideas in a way that makes it seem like common sense to a wide audience.

I would recommend the interview at Trevor Noah & his unaired interview with Tucker Carlsen from Fox news, btw.