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Edit to add (9/1/2023): This post was written quickly and I judged things prematurely. I also regret not reaching out to Effective Ventures before posting it. Regarding my current opinion on the Abbey: I don't have anything really useful to say that isn't mentioned by others. The goal of this post was to ask a question and gather information, mostly because I was very surprised. I don't have a strong opinion on the purchase anymore and the ones I have are with high uncertainty. More thoughts in my case for transparent spending.

Yesterday morning I woke up and saw this tweet by Émile Torres: https://twitter.com/xriskology/status/1599511179738505216

I was shocked, angry and upset at first. Especially since it appears that the estate was for sale last year for 15 million pounds: https://twitter.com/RhiannonDauster/status/1599539148565934086

I'm not a big fan of Émile's writing and how they often misrepresent the EA movement. But that's not what this question is about, because they do raise a good point here: Why did CEA buy this property? My trust in CEA has been a bit shaky lately, and this doesn't help.

Apparently it was already mentioned in the New Yorker piece: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/15/the-reluctant-prophet-of-effective-altruism#:~:text=Last year%2C the Centre for Effective Altruism bought Wytham Abbey%2C a palatial estate near Oxford%2C built in 1480. Money%2C which no longer seemed an object%2C was increasingly being reinvested in the community itself.

"Last year, the Centre for Effective Altruism bought Wytham Abbey, a palatial estate near Oxford, built in 1480. Money, which no longer seemed an object, was increasingly being reinvested in the community itself."

For some reason I glanced over it at the time, or I just didn't realize the seriousness of it.

Upon more research, I came across this comment by Shakeel Hashim: "In April, Effective Ventures purchased Wytham Abbey and some land around it (but <1% of the 2,500 acre estate you're suggesting). Wytham is in the process of being established as a convening centre to run workshops and meetings that bring together people to think seriously about how to address important problems in the world. The vision is modelled on traditional specialist conference centres, e.g. Oberwolfach, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center or the Brocher Foundation.

The purchase was made from a large grant made specifically for this. There was no money from FTX or affiliated individuals or organizations." https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Et7oPMu6czhEd8ExW/why-you-re-not-hearing-as-much-from-ea-orgs-as-you-d-like?commentId=uRDZKw24mYe2NP4eq

I'm very relieved to hear money from individual donors wasn't used. And the <1% suggests 15 million pounds perhaps wasn't spent. Still, I'd love to hear and understand more about this project and why CEA thinks it's cost-effective. What is the EV calculation behind it?

Like the New Yorker piece points out, with more funding there has been a lot of spending within the movement itself. And that's fine, great even. This way more outreach can be done and the movement can grow. But we don't want to be too self-serving, and I'm scared too much of this thinking will lead to rationalizing lavish expenses (and I'm afraid this is already happening). There needs to be more transparency behind big expenses.

Edit to add: If this expense has been made a while back, why not announce it then?

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First I want to explain that I think it's misleading to think of this as a CEA decision (I've edited to be more explicit about this). To explain that I need to disambiguate between:

  1. CEA, the project that runs the EA Forum, EA Global, etc.
    • This is what I think ~everyone usually thinks of when they think of "CEA", as it's the group that's been making public use of that brand
  2. CEA, the former name of a legal entity which hosts lots of projects (including #1)
    • This is a legacy naming issue ... 
      • The name of the legal entity was originally intended as a background brand to house 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can; other projects have been added since, especially in recent years
      • Since then the idea of "effective altruism" has become somewhat popular in its own right! And one of the projects within the entity started making good use of the name "CEA"
    • We’ve now renamed the legal entity to EVF, basically in order to avoid this kind of ambiguity!

Wytham Abbey was bought by #2, and isn’t directly related to #1, except for being housed within the same legal entity. I was the person who owned the early development of the project idea, and fundraised for it. (The funding comes from a grant specifically for this project, and is not FTX-related.) I brought it to the rest of the board of EVF to ask for fiscal sponsorship (i.e. I would direct the funding to EVF and EVF would buy the property and employ staff to work on the project). So EVF made two decisions here: they approved fiscal sponsorship, agreeing to take funds for this new project; and they then followed through and bought the property with the funds that had been earmarked for that. The second of these is technically a decision to buy the building (and was done by a legal entity at the time called CEA), but at that point it was fulfilling an obligation to the donor, so it would have been wild to decide anything else. The first is a real decision, but the decision was to offer sponsorship to a project that would likely otherwise have happened through another vehicle, not to use funds to buy a building rather than for another purpose. Neither of these decisions were made by any staff of the group people generally understand as "CEA". (All of this ambiguity/confusion is on us, not on readers.)

I’d also like to speak briefly to the “why” — i.e. why I thought this was a good idea. The central case was this: 

I’ve personally been very impressed by specialist conference centres. When I was doing my PhD, I think the best workshops I went to were at Oberwolfach, a mathematics research centre funded by the German government. Later I went to an extremely productive workshop on ethical issues in measuring the global burden of disease at the Brocher Foundation. Talking to other researchers, including in other fields, I don’t think my impression was an outlier. Having an immersive environment which was more about exploring new ideas than showing off results was just very good for intellectual progress. In theory this would be possible without specialist venues, but researchers want to spend time thinking about ideas not event logistics. Having a venue which makes itself available to experts hosting events avoids this issue.

In the last few years, I’ve been seeing the rise of what seems to me an extremely important cluster of ideas — around asking what’s most important to do in the world, and taking chains of reasoning from there seriously. I think this can lead to tentative answers like “effective altruism” or “averting existential risk”, but for open-minded intellectual exploration I think it’s better to have the focus on questions than answers. I thought it would be great if we could facilitate more intellectual work of this type, and the specialist-venue model was a promising one to try. We will experiment with a variety of event types. 

We had various calculations about costings, which made it look somewhere between “moderately money-saving” and “mildly money-spending” vs renting venues for events that would happen anyway, depending on various assumptions e.g. about usage that we couldn’t get great data on before running the experiment. The main case for the project was not a cost-saving one, but that if it was a success it could generate many more valuable workshops than would otherwise exist. Note that this is a much less expensive experiment than it may look on face value, since we retain the underlying asset of the building.

We wanted to be close to Oxford for easy access to the intellectual communities there. (Property prices weren’t falling off significantly with distance until travel time from Oxford and London had become significantly higher.) We looked at a lot of properties online, and visited the three properties we found for sale with 20+ bedrooms within about 50 minutes of Oxford. These were all "country houses", which are commonly repurposed as event venues in England. The other two were cheaper (one ~£6M and one ~£9M at the end of a competitive process; compared to a purchase price for Wytham of a bit under £15M) but needed significantly more work before they were usable, which would have added large expense (running into the millions) and delay (likely years). (And renovation expense isn’t obviously recoverable if one sells — it depends on how much the buyers want the same things from the property as you do.)

We thought Wytham had the most long-term potential as a venue because it had multiple large common rooms that could take >40 people. The other properties had one large room each holding perhaps a max of 40, but there would be pressure on this space since it would be wanted as both a dining space and for workshop sessions, and would also reduce flexibility of use for meetings (extra construction might have been able to address this, but it was a big question mark whether you could get planning consent). Wytham also benefited from being somewhat larger (about 27,000 sq ft vs roughly 20,000 sq ft for each of the other two) and a more accessible location. Overall we thought that a combination of factors made it the most appropriate choice.

I did feel a little nervous about the optical effects, but think it’s better to let decisions be guided less by what we think looks good, and more by what we think is good — ultimately this was a decision I felt happy to defend.

On why we hadn’t posted publicly about this before: I'm not a fan of trying to create hype. I thought the natural time to post about the project publicly would be when we were ready to accept public applications to run events, and it felt a bit gauche to post before that. Now that there's a public discussion, of course, it seemed worth explaining some of the thinking.

I hope this is helpful.

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This comment sounds qualitatively reasonable, but it needs a quantitative complement - it could have been made virtually verbatim had the cost been £1.5m or £150m. I would like to hear the case for why it was actually worth £15m.

Also, a lot of people are talking about 'optics', with the implication that the irrational public will misunderstand the +EV of such a decision. But 'bad optics' don't come from nowhere - they come from a very reasonable worry that over time, people who influence a lot of money have some risk of, if not becoming corrupt, at least getting carried away with that influence and rationalising away things like this. 

I think we should always take such possibilities seriously, not to imply anyone has actually done anything wildly irresponsible, but to insure against anyone doing so - and to keep grey areas as thin as possible. And I'm increasingly worried that CEA are seriously undertransparent in ways that suggest they don't think such risks could materialise - which increases my credence that they could. So while I could be convinced this was a reasonable use of funds, I think the decision not to 'hype' it builds a dangerous precedent. 

You can check how many events GPI, FHI, and CEA have run in Oxford, requiring renting hotels, etc., and the associated costs. I know that GPI runs at least a couple such events per year. Given that, I think that over the next 10-20 years, £15m isn't outside the realm of plausible direct costs saved, especially if it's available for other groups to rent in order to help cover costs.

That said, the cost-benefit analysis could be more transparent. On the other hand, I don't think that private donors should be required to justify their decisions, regardless of the vehicle used. But I do think that CEA is the wrong place for this to be done, given that they aren't even likely to be a key user of the space. (Edit: Owen's explanation, that this was done by the parent org of CEA, means I will withdraw the last claim.)

I accept that it's plausibly in the realm, but that's not very helpful for knowing whether it's actually worthwhile - plausibility is a very low bar.

the other hand, I don't think that private donors should be required to justify their decisions

This doesn't seem like a good blanket policy. If private donors can use a charity to buy large luxury goods, it raises worries about that charity becoming a tax haven, or a reward for favours, or any other number of such hard-to-predefine but questionable activities. There are legal implications around charities taking too much of their money from a single donor for exactly that reason.

I don't think we're there yet, but, per above, I would like to see more discussion from CEA of the risks associated with moving in that direction.

But I do think that CEA is the wrong place for this to be done, given that they aren't even likely to be a key user of the space.

Agree. I don't mind the idea of a sort of EA special projects orgs that has relatively high autonomy, but I don't want that org to also be the face of the community - as I understand it, that's basically how we ended up with FTXgate. We'd also probably want them to source funding from a wide range of sources to avoid the unilateralists' curse, which this situation is at least flirting with.

I think we mostly agree, but don't think this was unilateralists' curse, and it isn't even close. Many people were aware of or involved in discussions about this, and having multiple donors doesn't guarantee not falling into unilateralism.
I agree on what we agree and disagree about :) Re unilateralism obviously more donors isn't anything like a guarantee, but is one of hopefully many safeguards. On the other hand, many people approving of it here (assuming they broadly did) doesn't mean it's not a form of unilateralism depending on how those people were included in the discussion - if, for eg, they were all major CEA funders and staff, there's likely to be extreme selection bias in their opinions on the relevant questions.

I'm telling you that, as someone who hasn't ever worked for or with CEA directly, I spoke with a couple people about this months before it happened. Clearly, plenty of people were aware, and discussed this - and I didn't know the price tag, but thought that a center for retreats focused on global priorities and related topics near Oxford sounded like a very good idea. I still think it is, and honestly don't think that it's unreasonable as a potential investment into priorities research. Of course, given the current post-FTX situation, it would obviously not have been considered if the project was being proposed today.

Can you say who funded the dedicated grant? 

I feel like this is pretty important. I think this is basically fine if it's a billionaire who thinks CEA needs real estate, and less fine if it is incestuous funding from another EA group.

I think the key question is whether the money would counterfactually have been available for another purpose.  OCB half-implies it wouldn't have been by saying that buying the property fulfiled an obligation to the donor, but then I'm confused by the claim "we retain the underlying asset".  If EVF holds the asset subject to an obligation only to use it as a specialist conference centre, it's unable to realise the value.  On the other hand, it would seem surprising if the donation was made on the condition that it must be used to buy the building, but then EVF could do whatever it liked with it (including immediately reselling it).

If EVF is in fact able to resell the building now, then the argument that it was an ear-marked donation is weak, because EVF is making a decision now to hold the asset rather than sell it to raise funds for other EA causes.

I take the silence as a no :(

It was OpenPhil, see here.


Owen - this sounds totally reasonable to me. 

Max Planck Institutes had a dedicated conference center in the Alps (Schloss Ringberg) that is hugely inspirational, and that promotes intensive collaboration, brain-storming, and discussion very effectively.

Likewise for the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford -- the panoramic views over the San Francisco Bay, the ease of both formal and informal interaction, and the optimal degree of proximity to the main campus (near, but not too near), promote very good high-level thinking and exchange of ideas.

I've been to about 70 conferences in my academic career, and I'm noticed that the aesthetics, antiquity, and uniqueness of the venue can have a significant effect on the seriousness with which people take ideas and conversations, and the creativity of their thinking. And, of course, it's much easier to attract great talent and busy thinkers to attractive venues. Moreover, I suspect that meeting in a building constructed in 1480 might help promote long-termism and multi-century thinking.

It's hard to quantify the effects that an uplifting, distinctive, and beautiful venue can have on the quality and depth of intellectual and moral collaboration. But I think it's a real effect. And Wytham Abbey seems, IMHO, to be an excellent choice to capitalize on that effect.

The problem to me seems to be that "being hard to quantify" in this case very easily enables rationalizing spending money on fancy venues. I'm also not convinced that non-EA institutions spending money on fancy venues is a good argument for also doing so or an argument that fancy venues enable better research. These institutions probably just use fancy venues because it is self serving. As they don't usually promote doing the most good by being effective, I guess that nobody cares much that they do that.

Personally, I think that a certain level of comfort is helpful, e.g. having single / double rooms for everybody so they can sleep well or don't needing to cook etc. However, I'm very skeptical of anything above that being worth the money.

I don't want to be adversarial, but I just have to note how much your comment reads to me and other people I spoke to like motivated reasoning. I think it's very problematic if EA advocates for cost effectiveness on the one hand and then lightly spends a lot of money on fancy stuff which seems self serving.

Agreed. The whole founding insight of the EA movement was the importance of rigorously measuring value for money. The same logic is used to justify every warm and fuzzy but low value charity. And it's entirely reasonable to be very worried when major figures in the EA movement revert to that kind of reasoning when it's in their self interest.

Yes.  It seems very plausible that conferences are good and also that conferences in attractive venues are better, but it seems surprising that this would be the most effective use of the money.

First of all - I'm really glad you wrote this comment. This is exactly the kind of transparency I want to see from EA orgs.

On the other hand, I want to push back against your now last paragraph (on why you didn't write about this before). I strongly think that it's wrong to wait for criticism before you explain big and important decisions (like spending 15 million pounds on a castle). The fact that criticism arose here is basically random, and is a result of outside critics looking in. In a better state of affairs, you want the EA community to know about the things they need to look at and maybe criticise. Otherwise there's a big chance they'll miss things.

In other words, I think it's very important that major EA orgs proactively share the information and reasoning about big decisions.

This sort of comment sounds good in the abstract, but what specific process would you propose that you think would actually achieve this? CEA has to post all project proposals over a certain amount to the EA forum? Are people actually going to read them? What if they only appeal to specific funders? How much of a tax on the time of CEA staff are we willing to pay in order to get this additional transparency?

Personally, I think something like a quarterly report on incoming funds and outgoing expenses, ongoing projects and cost breakdowns, and expected and achieved outcomes would work very well. This is something I'd expect of any chariry or NGO that values effectiveness and empirical backing, and particularly from one that places it at the center of its mission statement, so I struggle to think of it as a "tax" on the time of CEA workers rather than something that should be an accepted and factored in cost of doing business.

The grandparent comment asks for decisions to be explained before criticism appears. Your proposal (which I do think is fairly reasonable) would not have helped in this case: Wytham Abbey would have got a nice explanation in the next quarterly report after it got done, i.e. far too late.

You would instead require ongoing, very proactive transparency on a per-decision basis in order to really pre-empt criticism.

I struggle to think of it as a "tax" on the time of CEA workers rather than something that should be an accepted and factored in cost of doing business.

I put a negative framing on it and you put a positive one, but it's a cost that prevents staff from doing other things with their time and so should be prioritised and not just put onto an unbounded queue of "stuff that should be done".

The grandparent comment asks for decisions to be explained before criticism appears. Your proposal (which I do think is fairly reasonable) would not have helped in this case: Wytham Abbey would have got a nice explanation in the next quarterly report after it got done, i.e. far too late.

I think my broader frame around the issue affected how I read the parent comment. I took it as the problem being a general issue in EA transparency - my general thinking on a lot of the criticisms from within EA was something along the lines of the lack of transparency as a general issue is the larger problem, if EAs knew there would be a report/justification coming, it would not have been such an issue within the community. I do see your point now, although I do think there are some pretty easy ways around it, like determining a reasonably high bar on the basis of CEA's general spending-per-line-item that would necessitate a kind of "this is a big deal" announcement. 

I put a negative framing on it and you put a positive one, but it's a cost that prevents staff from doing other things with their time and so should be prioritised and not just put onto an unbounded queue of "stuff that should be

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I think this is all pretty reasonable, but also I suspect I might think that existing similar organisations were doing too much of this kind of transparency activity.

CEA has to post all project proposals over a certain amount to the EA forum?

Yes, that sounds about it. Although I would add decisions that are not very expensive but are very influential.

What if they only appeal to specific funders?

What do you mean?

How much of a tax on the time of CEA staff are we willing to pay in order to get this additional transparency?

A significant amount. This is well worth it. Although in practice I don't imagine there are that many decisions of this calibre. I would guess about 2-10 per year?

A significant amount. This is well worth it.

That's pretty unclear to me. We are in the position of maximum hindsight bias. An unusual and bad event has happened, that's the classic point at which people overreact about precautions.

I've been writing the same calls for transparency for months. This has nothing to do with FTX.

I disagree with this. The property may well increase in value over time, and be sold at a profit if EAs sell it. I don't think EAs should publicly discuss every investment they make at the $20M level (except insofar as public discussion is useful for all decisions), and if there's a potential direct altruistic benefit to the investment then that makes it less important to publicly debate, not more important. (Analogy: if a person deciding to invest $20 million in a for-profit startup with zero direct altruistic benefit requires no special oversight, then a person deciding to invest $20 million in a for-profit startup that also has potential altruistic benefits suggests even less use for oversight, since we've now added a potentially nice and useful feature to an action that was already fine and acceptable beforehand. Altruistic side-effects shouldn't increase the suspiciousness of an action that already makes sense on its own terms.) See also Oliver's point, "Purchase price - resale price will probably end up in the $1-$3MM range."

I'm not sure about this particular  case, but I don't think the value of the property increasing over time is a generally good argument for why investments need not be publicly discussed. A lot of potential altruistic spending has benefits that accrue over time, where the benefits of money spent earlier outweighs the benefits of money spent later - as has been discussed extensively when comparing giving now vs. giving later.

The whole premise of EA is that resources should be spent in effective ways, and potential altruistic benefits is no excuse for an ineffective spending of money.

Guy Raveh
1. Would you still disagree if this were an outright 15M£ expense? 2. This is a very risky investment. I don't know what Oliver's point is based on, but I saw another (equally baseless) opinion online that since they bought it right before a market crash, chances are they've already lost millions. I'd probably not feel the same way about some diverse investment portfolio, but millions in a single real estate investment? This does require significant oversight. 3. Re: your analogy - I both disagree with the claim and with the fact that this is analogous. CEA is not like a person and should not be treated as one; they're an organisation purporting to represent the entire movement. And when people do something that they hope have a big impact, if it's important to them that it's positive, broad oversight is much more important than if it was an investment with no chance of a big impact.

Would you still disagree if this were an outright 15M£ expense?

E.g., if EAs overpaid 30M£ for a property that resells at 15M£? I'd be a bit surprised they couldn't get a better deal, but I wouldn't feel concerned without knowing more details.

Seems to me that EA tends to underspend on this category of thing far more than they overspend, so I'd expect much more directional bias toward risk aversion than risk-seeking, toward naive virtue signaling over wealth signaling, toward Charity-Navigator-ish overhead-minimizing over inflated salaries, etc. And I naively expect EVF to err in this direction more than a lot of EAs, to over-scrutinize this kind of decision, etc. I would need more information than just "they cared enough about a single property with unusual features to overpay by 15M£" to update much from that prior.

We also have far more money right now than we know how to efficiently spend on lowering the probability that the world is destroyed. We shouldn't waste that money in large quantities, since efficient ways to use it may open up in the future; but I'd again expect EA to be drastically under-spending on weird-looking ways to use money to un-bottleneck us, as opposed to EA b... (read more)

I'm confused why you wouldn't feel concerned about EA potentially wasting 15M pounds (talking about your hypothetical example, not the real purchase). I feel that would mean that EA is not living up to its own standards of using evidence and reasoning to help others in the best possible way. 

Since EA isn't optimizing the goal "flip houses to make a profit", I expect us to often be willing to pay more for properties than we'd expect to sell them for. Paying 2x is surprising, but it doesn't shock me if that sort of thing is worth it for some reason I'm not currently tracking.

MIRI recently spent a year scouring tens of thousands of properties in the US, trying to find a single one that met conditions like "has enough room to fit a few dozen people", "it's legal to modify the buildings or construct a new one on the land if we want to", and "near but not within an urban center". We ultimately failed to find a single property that we were happy with, and gave up.

Things might be easier outside the US, but the whole experience updated me a lot about how hard it is to find properties that are both big and flexible / likely to satisfy more than 2-3 criteria at once.

At a high level, seems to me like EA has spent a lot more than 15M£ on bets that are vastly more uncertain and dependent-on-contested-models than "will we want space to house researchers or host meetings?". Whether discussion and colocation is useful is one of the only things I expect EAs to not disagree about; most other categories of activity depend on much more complicated stories, and are heavily about placing bets on more specific models of how the future is likely to go, what object-level actions to prioritize over other actions, etc.

Can we all just agree that if you’re gonna make some funding decision with horrendous optics, you should be expected to justify the decision with actual numbers and plans?

Would be nice if we actually knew how many conferences/retreats were going to be held at the EA castle.

It might be justifiable (I got a tremendous amount of value being in Berkeley and London offices for 2 month stints), but now we’re here talking about it, and it obviously looks bad to anyone skeptical about EA. Some will take it badly regardless, but come on. Even if other movements/institutions way overspend on bad stuff, let’s not use that as an excuse in EA.

The “EA will justify any purchase for the good of humanity” argument will just continue to pop up. I know many EAs who are aware of this and constantly concerned about overspending and rationalizing a purchase. As much as critics act like this is never a consideration and EAs are just naively self-rationalizing any purchase, it’s certainly not the case for most EAs I’ve met. It’s just that an EA castle with very little communication is easy ammo for critics when it comes to rationalizing purchases.

One failed/bad project is mostly bad for the people involved, but reputational risk is bad for the entire movement. We should not take this lightly.

Justify to who? I would like to have an EA that has some individual initiative, where people can make decisions using their resources to try to seek good outcomes. I agree that when actions have negative externalities, external checks would help. But it's not obvious to me that those external checks weren't passed in this case*, and if you want to propose a specific standard we should try to figure out whether or not that standard would actually help with optics. Like, if the purchase of Wytham Abbey had been posted on the EA forum, and some people had said it was a good idea and some people said it was a bad idea, and then the funders went ahead and bought it, would our optics situation look any different now? Is the idea that if anyone posted that it was a bad idea, they shouldn't have bought it? [And we need to then investigate whether or not adding this friction to the process ends up harming it on net; property sales are different in lots of places, but there are some where adding a week to the "should we do this?" decision-making process means implicitly choosing not to buy any reasonably-priced property, since inventory moves too quickly, and only overpriced property stays on the market for more than a week.]   * I don't remember being consulted about Wytham, but I'm friends with the people running it and broadly trust their judgment, and guess that they checked with people as to whether or not they thought it was a good idea. I wasn't consulted about the specific place Irena ended up buying, but I was consulted somewhat on whether or not Irena should buy a venue, and I thought she should, going so far as being willing to support it with some of my charitable giving, which ended up not being necessary.

Thanks for sharing your detailed thought process Owen, and I definitely appreciate the penultimate paragraph. 

Owen Cotton-Barratt
(I edited in a way which changed which paragraph was penultimate. I believe Larks was referring to the content which is now expanded on in paragraphs starting "We wanted ..." and "We thought ...".)

Sounds like a reasonable decision to me, but I do wonder why the reasoning behind such large and not immediately obvious decisions isn't communicated publicly more often.

let decisions be guided less by what we think looks good, and more by what we think is good

Totally agree, as long as you give people the opportunity to figure out why you think it's good.

Anyway, thanks for clarifying!

In general I would agree that it's better to do what is good rather than what looks good. However, when you are the face of a global movement, optics have a meaningful financial implication. Imagine if this bad press made 1 billionaire 0.1% less likely to get involved with EA. That calculation would dominate any potential efficiency savings from insourcing a service provider.

I used to think this and I increasingly don't. Doing good thing is what we're all about. Doing good things even if it looks bad in the tabloid press is good publicity to the people who actually care about doing good, and they're more important to us than the rest.

I think an EA that was weirder and more unapologetic about doing its stuff attracts more of the right kind of people and can generally get on with things more than an EA that frantically tries to massage it's optics to appeal to everyone.

Devon Fritz
I am having a hard time here and speckled throughout the rest of this post with people writing that we are doing the "good thing" and we should do that and not just what looks good with the "good thing" in question being buying a castle and not say, caring about wild animal suffering. 

I guess I've gone off into the abstract argument about whether we should care about optics or not. I don't mean to assert that buying Wytham Abbey was a good thing to do, I just think that we should argue about whether it was a good thing to do, not whether it looks like a good thing to do.

I'm arguing that deciding whether or not it is a good thing should include the PR impact (i.e. a weak consequentialist approach). I don't care if things look bad, unless that perception leads bad outcomes. In this case, I think the perception could lead to bad outcomes that dominate the good outcomes in the expected value calculation
I very much agree with Michael here.

I think this kind of reasoning is difficult to follow in practice, and likely to do more harm than good. Eg, I expect some billionaires are drawn to a movement that says fuck PR and actually tries to do what's important - what if trying to account for PR has a 0.1% chance of putting off those billionaires? Etc.

At the very least, "do what is actually good rather than just what looks good" seems like a valid philosophy to follow if trying to do good, even after accounting for optics - trying to account for optics can easily be misleading, paralysing, etc.

EA is all about uncertain EV calculations - I don’t see why we should exclude optics when calculating EV. We should just embrace the uncertainty and try our best. The only part of EA that doesn’t involve super uncertain EV calculations which can be misleading and paralysing is randomista development.

This is fair, and I don't want to argue that optics don't matter at all or that we shouldn't try to think about them.

My argument is more that actually properly accounting for optics in your EV calculations is really hard, and that most naive attempts to do so can easily do more harm than good. And that I think people can easily underestimate the costs of caring less about truth or effectiveness or integrity, and overestimate the costs of being legibly popular or safe from criticism. Generally, people have a strong desire to be popular and to fit in, and I think this can significantly bias thinking around optics! I particularly think this is the case with naive expected value calculations of the form "if there's even a 0.1% chance of bad outcome X we should not do this, because X would be super bad". Because it's easy to anchor on some particularly salient example of X, and miss out on a bunch of other tail risk considerations.

The "annoying people by showing that we care more about style than substance" was an example of a counter-veiling consideration that argues in the opposite direction and could also be super bad.

This argument is motivated by the same reasoning as the "don't kill people to steal their organs, even if it seems like a really good idea at the time, and you're confident no one will ever find out" argument.

Thanks, Neel. This is a very helpful comment. I now don't think our views are too far apart.
Neel Nanda
Thanks! Glad to hear it. This classic Yudkowsky post is a significant motivator. Key quote:
In general, I agree with you (as I say in my first sentence), but 1. EV’s objectives are the promotion of EA, i.e. PR is it’s raisin d’etre. 2. in this case, the benefit seems like a rounding error (maybe you could argue it would save ~£100k p.a.) compared to the PR potential. Even if it’s hard to assess the PR impact (and I acknowledge it could go either way), it’s negligent not to consider it.

A large portion of your rationale is based on the intellectually stimulating effects of being surrounded by nice things. Do you think the people in the building will feel great when there's such negative media coverage, and they feel the guilt of such an opulent purchase? If I were invited to this place, I'd feel uncomfortable and guilty all the time. There's already a bunch of negative media coverage. It's not going to stop. And it's not going to make the program participants feel inspired.

I did feel a little nervous about the optical effects, but think it’s better to let decisions be guided less by what we think looks good, and more by what we think is good — ultimately this was a decision I felt happy to defend.


While I understand this sentiment, optics can sometimes matter much more than you may at first expect. In this specific case, the kneejerk response of many people on social media of this seeming  incongruity (a seemingly extravagant purchase by a main EA org) can potentially cement negative sentiment. By itself, maybe it's not that bad. But in combination with the other previous bad press we have from the FTX debacle, people will get in their heads that "EA = BAD". I'm literally seeing major philosophers who might otherwise be receptive to EA being completely turned off because of tweets about Wytham Abbey.

This isn't to say that the purchase shouldn't have been made. But you specifically said that you think the general rule should be that we make decisions about what we think is good rather than by what looks good. While technically I agree with this, I think that blindly following such a rule puts us in a state of mind where we are at risk of underestimating just how bad optics can become.

I can see this point, but I'm curious - how would you feel about the reverse? Let's say that CEA chose not to buy it, and instead did conferences the normal way. A few months later, you're talking to someone from CEA, and they say something like:

Yeah, we were thinking of buying a nice place for these retreats, which would have been cheaper in the long run, but we realised that would probably make us look bad. So we decided to eat the extra cost and use conference halls instead, in order to help EA's reputation.

Would you be at all concerned by this statement, or would that be a totally reasonable tradeoff to make?

+1 to Jay's point. I would probably just give up on working with EAs if this sort of reasoning were dominant to that degree? I don't think EA can have much positive effect on the world if we're obsessed with reputation-optimizing to that degree; it's the sort of thing that can sound reasonable to worry about on paper, but in practice tends to cause more harm than good to fixate on in a big way.

(More reputational harm than reputational benefit, of the sort that matters most for EA's ability to do the most good; and also more substantive harm than substantive benefit.

Being optics-obsessed is not a good look! I think this is currently the largest reputational problem EA currently actually faces: we promote too much of a culture of fearing and obsessing over optics and reputational risks.)

Sam Battis
I think a movement is shaped to a rather large degree by its optics/culture, because that is what will determine who joins and to a lesser extent, who stays when things go wrong. It seems plausible to me that a culture of somewhat spartan frugality, which seems (from my relatively uninformed perspective) like it was a larger part of the movement in the past, would have a larger positive impact on EA conferences than the stimulating-ness of the site. There's something poetic about working harder in less onerous conditions than others would, forgoing luxury for extra donations, that I would imagine is at least as animating to the types of people in EA as scenery. Beyond that, preserving core cultural aspects of a movement, even if the cost is substantial, is crucial to the story that the movement aims to tell. Most people who are EAs today were inspired by the story of scrappy people gathering in whatever way is cheapest and most accessible, cheeks flushed with intellectual passion, figuring out how to stretch their dollars for the greater good. I think this aesthetic differs substantially from that of AI researchers in a castle, in terms of both losing the "slumming it out for the world" vibe and focusing on the reduction of an existential risk in a way that only a few people can understand rather than global development in a way that everyone can understand. I'm sure the AI researchers are extremely competent and flushed with intellectual passion for the greatest good too, regardless of where they're working. Maybe even more so in the castles. I am solely critiquing the optics and their potential cultural effect. I have little formal evidence for this except the interest in and occasional resistance to the shift towards longtermism that seems widespread on the forum and a few external articles on EA. But I strongly suspect that "people with a career relating to longtermism" is an attractive archetypal representation of the epitome EA to far fewer people than "p
Closed Limelike Curves
I refuse to believe that renting out a conference hall would actually have cost more. Investing £15,000,000 a year would yield roughly £1,000,000 a year on the stock market. If you are spending a million pounds on the venue alone for a 1,000 person conference, you are not doing it right. A convention hall typically runs in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions. This is a 100x markup.

This comment suggests that renting conference venues in Oxford can be pretty expensive:


Your cost estimates seems to be in the wrong order of magnitude.

Closed Limelike Curves
The calculations there are completely correct under the assumption that the space is being used 365 days a year, which strikes me as wildly implausible. I was working on the assumption the is space used a few days each year. If this space is actually being occupied 100% of the time, I’d gladly retract my criticism.
Jay Bailey
The actual usage of the abbey is very likely to be somewhere between these two numbers. Definitely I would expect it to be used far more than for one major conference per year, but I wouldn't expect 100% usage either. 
It depends. In isolation, that statement does seem concerning to me, like they may have been overestimating the potential negative optics. What matters to me here is whether sufficient thought was put into all the different aspects. Clearly, they thought a lot about the non-optics stuff. I have no way of easily evaluating those kinds of statements, as I have very little experience organizing conferences. But I’m concerned that maybe there wasn’t sufficient thought given to just how bad the optics can get with this sort of thing. My career has been in communications, so I'm used to thinking about PR risks and advocating for thinking about those aspects. Perhaps I'm posting here with a bias from that point of view. If I were in a room with decision-makers, I'd expect my comments here to be balanced by arguments on the other side. Even so, my suspicion is that, if you write something like "do what really is good rather than just what seems good", you're more likely to be underestimating rather than overestimating PR risks.

FWIW, as someone who also works in communications, I strongly disagree here and think EA spends massively too much of its mental energy thinking about optics.

More specifically:

I tend to criticize virtue ethics and deontology a lot more than I praise them -- IMO these are approaches that often go badly wrong. But I think PR (for a community like EA) is an area where deontology-like adherence to "behave honestly and with integrity" and virtue-ethics-like focus on "be the sort of person internally who you would find most admirable and virtuous" tends to have far better consequences than "select the action that naively looks as though it will make others like you the most".

If you're an EA and you want to improve EA's reputation, my main advice to you is going to look very virtue-ethics-flavored: be brave, be thoughtful, be discerning, be honest, be honorable, be fair, be compassionate, be trustworthy; and insofar as you're not those things, be honest about it (because honesty is on the list, and is paramount to trusting everything else about your apparent virtues); and let your reputation organically follow from the visible signs of those internal traits of yours, rather than being a t... (read more)

My take is about 90% in agreement with this. 

The other 10% is something like: "But sometimes adding time and care to how, when, and whether you say something can be a big deal. It could have real effects on the first impressions you, and the ideas and communities and memes you care about, make on people who (a) could have a lot to contribute on goals you care about; (b) are the sort of folks for whom first impressions matter."

10% is maybe an average. I think it should be lower (5%?) for an early-career person who's prioritizing exploration, experimentation and learning. I think it should be higher (20%?) for someone who's in a high-stakes position, has a lot of people scrutinizing what they say, and would lose the opportunity to do a lot of valuable things if they substantially increased the time they spent clearing up misunderstandings.

I wish it could be 0% instead of 5-20%, and this emphatically includes what I wish for myself. I deeply wish I could constantly express myself in exploratory, incautious ways - including saying things colorfully and vividly, saying things I'm not even sure I believe, and generally 'trying on' all kinds of ideas and messages. This is my natural way of being; but I feel like I’ve got pretty unambiguous reasons to think it’s a bad idea.

If you want to defend 0%, can you give me something here beyond your intuition? The stakes are high (and I think "Heuristics are almost never >90% right" is a pretty good prior).

Frankly I would think that there was finally someone with a modicum of sense and understanding of basic PR working in the area. And upgrade my views of the competency of the organisation accordingly. Also I'd not that "this will save money in the long run" is a fairly big claim that has not been justified. There are literally hundreds of conference venues within a reasonable distance of Oxford, all of which are run by professional event managers who are able to take advantage of specialisation and economies of scale. Making it difficult to believe
Max Pietsch
Optics is real. We live in the real world. Optics factor into QUALYs or any other metric. Why would the reverse be true, that we ignore reputation-related effects, even if they are fully real? I feel a bit awkward quoting the Bible, but there's one part that's super relevant to this discussion from a secular perspective. It's Corinthians 8:6 to 8:13, and is basically like, "hey, we know doing X isn't bad, but anyone seeing us doing X they'd think we're casting away our principles, which would cause them to do wrong, so we're not going to do X." Here's the quote, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Here's an explanation of some of the reasons it's often harmful for a community to fixate on optics, even though optics is real: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Js34Ez9nrDeJCTYQL/politics-is-way-too-meta 

It also comes off as quite manipulative and dishonest, which puts people off. There are many people who'll respect you if you disagree with them but state your opinion plainly and clearly, without trying to hide the weird or objectionable parts of your view. There are relatively few who will respect you if they find out you tried to manipulate their opinion of you, prioritizing optics over substance.

And this seems especially harmful for EA, whose central selling point is "we're the people who try to actually do the most good, not just signal goodness or go through the motions". Most public conversations about EA optics are extremely naive on this point, treating it as a free action for EAs to spend half their time publicly hand-wringing about their reputations.

What sort of message do you think that sends to people who come to the EA Forum for the first time, interested in EA, and find the conversations dominated by reputation obsession, panicky glances at the news cycle, complicated strategies to toss first-order utility out the window for the sake of massaging outsiders' views of EA, etc.? Is that the best possible public face you could pick for EA?

In fact, I don't think that we should adopt the stance "be so terrified of PR risks that you refuse to talk about PR". I think EA should blurt far more than it currently does, and this will inevitably mean talking at least a little about people's emotional fears re looking weird to others, being embarrassed to do something, etc. But recognizing the deep PR costs of EA's long-standing public obsession with reputation management is at least a first step in the direction of unraveling the obsession for some people, I'd hope.
Max Pietsch
Let's say we had one charitable person who has a reputation for being charitable, and another charitable person who has a reputation for hurting others. Someone needing charity avoid the latter, even though the latter is also beneficial. There's a big difference between trying to represent yourself in an accurate or an inaccurate way. In either case you're caring about what people think about you, but if we assume the perceiver is acting in their self interest, then the accurate representation will benefit them, and the inaccurate representation may harm them. I'm not disagreeing with what you wrote. I'm adding to it that "caring about optics" can actually be more honest. It's possible to care about optics so that you're represented honestly, too. SBF caused damage not because he virtue signaled with his cheap car and lack of style, but because he was misrepresenting himself and being a dick. It makes sense for people to talk about not wanting to be misrepresented, and if I were a new visitor to the forum and I saw people upset about being misrepresented, I'd probably be sympathetic to them. I also might think they were cry babies and too obsessed with their image, which is what you're saying could be the case, and I agree with that. Also just by the way, I guess the ideal would be to care what other people think but be strong enough to do what one thinks is right. I think there's a psychological element to all this. I've lived in some places where I was looked down on, even though I was working hard for their benefit, and it did suck psychologically. It would've been better for everyone if people had known how much I cared about them, but yeah it can be important to not worry too much about what other people think, as you wrote.
Some related stuff I've said: And:
Max Pietsch
Yeah I totally agree. I'd agree with the statement "it's helpful to take optics into account, but not let it dominate our decision making process". My original comment was in response to the idea that 'actually doing good is more important than looking like doing good' which I would argue is an oversimplification of the real world and not a good principle. I don't think that it's helpful to care entirely about optics or never care about optics. It's more nuanced. I also think it could help to break down the term "optics" a bit. I think the purchase is bad for first impressions, which is one particular type of optics. Anyways this whole discussion about optics is kind of a red herring. People will be shocked by the purchase because it was by a charity and was pretty exorbitant, and in fact it was (by that one guy's admission... I'm on a phone and don't want to look up his name in the comment above) purchased for to make conference participants feel inspired and was not made as a cost savings mechanism. Appearance (not being frugal) reflects reality in this case, at least based on that comment I read by that one guy (and if I'm wrong just let me be wrong at this point, I have work to do and don't care to debate this further). But yeah I agree about let's not wholly concentrate on optics. Of course.

The main problem with lavishness, IMHO, is not optics per se, but rather that it's extremely easy for people to trick themselves into believing that spending money on their own comfort/lifestyle/accommodations is net-good-despite-looking-bad (for productivity reasons or whatever). This generalizes to the community level.

(To be clear, this is not to say that we should never follow such reasoning. It's just a serious pitfall. This is also not original—others have certainly brought this up.)

Also, I imagine having communicated the reasoning behind the purchase publicly before the criticisms would have gone some way in  reducing the bad optics, especially for onlookers who were inclined to spend a little bit of time to understand both perspectives. So thinking more about the optics doesn't necessarily lead you to not do the thing.

"I did feel a little nervous about the optical effects"

Was there no less-extravagant-looking conference space for sale?

Bob Jacobs
Or at least a cheaper one? With better access to public transport? This seems overbudget and public transport is not only better for the environment, it's also more egalitarian. It would allow people from more impoverished backgrounds to more easily join our community, which - given our demographics - might be something we want to encourage. EDIT: Yes I'm aware that you could reach the estate via public transport, the connection is just very bad (on the weekend you have to do a 26 minute walk), that's why I said "better acces" not "at all accessible".

This is not a comment on the cheapness point, but in case this feels relevant, private vehicles are not necessary to access this venue― from the Oxford rail station you can catch public buses that drop you off about a 2-minute walk from the venue. It's a 20 minute bus ride, and the buses don't come super often (every 60 minutes, I think?) but I just wanted to be clear that you can access this space via public transport.

Presumably it would be easy to arrange a conference minibus to shuttle attendees to and from the station.  This seems like the least of the project's problems.

(However, it is very difficult to hire taxis to go to and come back from there, which often takes 30 min). Edit: people can wait up to 1h30 to get a taxi from Wytham, which isn't super practical.
Neel Nanda
I would be surprised if public transport links were important for accessibility to lower-income demographics, in this specific context. Covering transport costs is common for events, and the last time I went there a train ticket from London to Oxford is pricier than a taxi ride from the station to Wytham.
My understanding is the retreats will be mostly for academics working in the relevant fields, not the EA community, so I’m not sure this applies.

A typical researcher might make £100,000 a year. £15,000,000 is roughly £1,000,000 a year if invested in the stock market. So you could hire 5 researchers to work full-time, in perpetuity.

Conferences are cool, but do you really think they generate as much research as 5 full time researchers would? As a researcher, I can tell you flat-out the answer is no. I could do much more with 5 people working for me than I could by going to even a thousand conferences.

Ben Millwood
You can't always turn more money into more researchers. You need people who can mentor and direct them, and you need to find people who are good fits for the position, and most of the people who are most interesting to you are also interesting to other employers. In general, I don't think finding salaries for such people was the bottleneck.
Investing money into the stock market and investing money into real estate are similar. In both cases, the value of your capital can rise or fall over time. 
Closed Limelike Curves
The value of both can both rise or fall, but real estate is only an investment when rented out. Otherwise, it's a durable consumption good.  In particular, the EMH* implies the expected value of buying real estate and renting it out must be equal to the expected return on stocks. Otherwise, people would stop sell stocks (driving their price down, and therefore the rate of return up) and then buy real estate to lease it out. *While it's entirely plausible the EMH doesn't hold, no analysis arguing this is presented, and I don't think that placing bets on certain sectors of the economy is a particularly good idea for a charity. Notably, arguments against the EMH almost all fall on the side of suggesting the housing market is currently overvalued because of structural deficiencies (like the inability to short housing) and subsidies that make buying cheaper for individual homeowners (but not charities) .
There's plenty of real estate investment that does not depend on the real estate being rented out. That's why laws get passed that require some real estate to be rented out. One of the attributes of real estate is that it's a lot less liquid than stocks and economic theory suggests that market participants should pay a premium for liquidity.  Finally, it's wrong to say that anything with less expected returns than stocks is no investment. People all the time invest money in treasury bonds that have less expected returns.
What do you think about MSRI (https://www.msri.org/web/cms) and Simons Institute (https://simons.berkeley.edu/), btw?
Closed Limelike Curves
Not sure, I don’t know all that much about them, unfortunately.

Thanks, this is indeed helpful. I would also like to know though, what made this property “the most appropriate” out of the three in a bit greater detail if possible. How did its cost compare to the others? Its amenities? I think many people in this thread agree that it might have been worth it to buy some center like this, but still question whether this particular property was the most cost effective one.

Owen Cotton-Barratt
I've edited my reply to add a bit more detail on this point.

Thanks, I appreciate the added information! I'm not sure I'm convinced that this was worthwhile, but I feel like I now have a much better understanding of the case for it.

Thanks for explaining!

I did feel a little nervous about the optical effects, but think it’s better to let decisions be guided less by what we think looks good, and more by what we think is good — ultimately this was a decision I felt happy to defend.

I like this point.

I think this was a terrible idea

I think you've overestimated the value of a dedicated conference centre. The important ideas in EA so far haven't come from conversations over tea and scones at conference centres but are either common sense ("do the most good", "the future matters") or have come from dedicated field trials and RCTs.

I also think you've underestimated the damage this will do to the EA brand. The hummus and baguettes signal an earnestness. Abbey signals scam.

I'm confident that this will be remembered as one of CEA's worst decisions.

Danny Donabedi
It’s sad you’re getting downvoted. A manor and 25 acres of nothingness adds nearly nothing to EA when some other space, for instance the hall of a large parish or church, even abandoned ones, could have been (on an as needed basis) rented out / purchased instead— for a fraction of the cost — when conferences or workshops are needed. Imagine the extent of scrutiny the manor's purchase would face in early EA. It wouldn’t be pretty.

How much are electricity, maintenance and property tax for this venue? Historic building may require expensive restoration and are subject to complex regulation. 

I think it’s plausible that this purchase saves money, but I strongly disagree with your view of optics.

“think it’s better to let decisions be guided less by what we think looks good, and more by what we think is good”

What looks good has important effects on EA community building, the diffusion of EA ideas and on the ability to promote EA ideas in politics, especially over the longer term.

Whether a decision looks good, i.e, the indirect, long term effects of the decision on EA’s reputation, is a very important factor on determining on whether a decision is... (read more)

I’m not qualified to comment on the calculations but did you hire a real estate consultant and venue manager to advise?

Just to set some context: 15 million pounds may sound like a lot of money to young academics and researchers, or to buyers of residential real estate (e.g. typical single family homes). It may look like 'lavish spending'. 

But it's really not a lot compared to typical buildings for academic departments on and around university campuses. 

I've worked in a dozen universities over the last 35+ years, and we frequently see announcements of new buildings being constructed for 10-50 million dollars -- even in state universities with relatively limited budgets.

This 2016 review of building costs in higher education is slightly outdated now (given high inflation rates since then), but it reports a typical cost of $800/square feet for new academic buildings. 

Consider a modest building for a medium-sized department like mine (e.g. 25 faculty, 70 grad students, 15 staff, etc.). The building (Logan Hall, UNM) is 55,000 gross square feet, so its build cost new would be about $44 million. 

Costs for new building in the Oxford area are probably even higher, and greatly complicated by British zoning and building regulations within the Oxford Green Belt

Long story short, 15 million pounds might sound like a lot for Wytham Abbey, but it's not out of line for an academic research/conference center, and it's arguably fairly cheap, given the extremely high complexity and cost of building in south-east England.

I appreciate the context, thank you. However, two points came to mind:

  1. It seems like the purpose is quite different from the medium-sized university department you described, running workshops and retreats vs what standard academic departments do (offices, lecture halls, labs). So I'm not sure how good the comparison is
  2. You point out that in the context of university buildings, it's not a lot of money. But in the context of CEA's other spending, it does seem like a lot. CEA received $14 million in funding from FTX[1], which has been discussed a lot. So it's understandable that spending a supposedly similar amount of money on a single venue without much public explanation will raise some eyebrows.

Either way, I don't think anyone can really judge whether the investment was a good decision based on the currently availabe information. Which is why I'd appreciate a more detailed explanation from CEA.

  1. ^

    number taken from the wiki entry on CEA. I chose to use this comparison because I couldn't immediately find recent numbers for how much money CEA is spending in total, but I assume that 15 million is a significant portion of it.

CEA received $14 million in funding from FTX, which has been discussed a lot.

Discussed because it was received from FTX, or discussed because $14 million is a ton of money for EA and EA-writ-large should always debate spending and investments at that scale?

I see forty-four Open Phil grants at the $10+ million level on https://www.openphilanthropy.org/grants/?sort=high-to-low#categories. How many of these were extensively debated on the EA Forum before the grant was made, or ought to have been?

Given that purchase price minus resale price would probably be more like $1 million for a property like this, though, a fairer comparison might be to look at every time EA has spent at least $1 million on something. (As a start, Open Phil has made 399 grants at the $1+ million level.)

I really don't think those should all receive extensive public debate.

Jeroen Willems🔸
Open Phil at least publishes decent explanations on their grants. CEA/EV should do this as well.
Agree. The absolute value seems much less important than the relative value to CEA, since it gives us some evidence of how they might spend a scaled-up budget.
Geoffrey Miller
joko - these are fair points.  I'm not sure how to compare Wytham Abbey, in terms of building size, form, functions, square footage, renovation costs, grounds, upkeep, etc to a standard university building.  But of course, a standard university building at a regional state university in the US is quite different from a Grade 1 listed manor house built in 1480. 

It's not just about the money. The money calculations can make complete sense and everyone still feel uncomfortable going there and people are turned off from EA. 

It's the fact that it's a mansion which has had a bunch of rich people live in it.

If it were a modern conference center which cost 30 million pounds, it wouldn't get as much bad headlines. Consider these two headlines:

"EA group buys a big conference center"

"EA group buys a mansion, the previous residents have included Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I, etc."

which looks worse?

edited: I replaced "castle" with "mansion" and replaced "owners" with "residents".


Just for clarity's sake: it is not a castle and it was never owned by Oliver Cromwell or Elizabeth I.

On the first point, castles and manor houses are quite different things.

On the second point, Cromwell and Elizabeth were both visitors to the building. They never owned it.

Relatedly, there's a common joke told in UK manor houses: "And this, this is the one bed in England that Elizabeth I never slept in". The point is that Elizabeth did yearly tours where she would travel the country and stay in lots of manor houses (it meant she didn't have to pay for her own upkeep but could instead make the lords host her). For this reason, quite a lot of manor houses have a room that Elizabeth I slept in. I'm not claiming it's not a big deal at all, but I am noting that I think without context it's easy to misstate how big a deal it is.

Max Pietsch
edit: I spoke with my American friends and they also referred to it as "a castle or whatever", so I guess it's normal for Americans to think in those words. The average person reading this news in the US on Twitter or a newspaper isn't going to think, "oh well, it's only a manor house, not a castle". Your point could be totally accurate but I don't think you're addressing the point of how the public will perceive it, which is what I am concerned about. And yeah it's totally unfair that people will form knee jerk reactions and everyone should really investigate claims that they read, but that's not the reality we live in. (Will Bradshaw made a good point about how perception of this purchase could be different in the UK vs the US. In the US we don't know what a manor house is, but y'all might in the UK or Europe in general.) Do you think that the perception will be, "meh, no big deal, that's just a manor house," and that people will differentiate between a manor house and a castle, or that they will consider the difference between a resident and owner in a significant way? If so, then yeah there may just be a cultural divide here.

To be clear, the distinction isn't between resident and owner. It's between owner and guest. I do not believe Elizabeth I resided at Wytham except in the sense that she stayed as a guest. So unless people in the US use "reside" to mean "stayed in the house once as a guest" then I do not think Elizabeth ever resided at Wytham Abbey.

On the more general point, I agree that my comment didn't address your central claims. It wasn't intended to. I think the central claim is worth making and discussing, I also just think it's worth discussing it in accurate terms. My comment was intended to address this issue of accuracy.

It may be true that people won't generally investigate the claims they make, but I believe that we should care about what the truth actually is in forum discussions. I think as much as possible, forum posts and comments should not misrepresent. Of course, it will happen sometimes and is no big deal, but in such cases I think it is a good thing if someone corrects a misrepresentation.

Will Bradshaw
To the extent that any media backlash is the result of Americans making assumptions about other countries they don't know much about, I'm a lot less sympathetic to the claim that CEA (a UK-based charity buying a venue in the UK!) should make otherwise-suboptimal purchasing decisions in order to avoid it. (EDITed to tone down unnecessarily hurtful language.)
As someone who is neither American nor from the UK I think manor vs castle is a distinction without difference. It's an extremely ostentatious purchase in any case and claiming that not being well versed in the nuances of palatial UK buildings is ignorant or offensive is at best severely off putting.
Max Pietsch
My point isn't really whether it's a castle or not. Sometimes I use words interchangeably, like calling a turkey a chicken. I think my point was about media perception or something... yeah sorry if I'm not super smart. It's not really nice to call people ignorant and presumptuous, and doesn't lead to super great dialogue. I don't think it really becomes EA to look down on other people, call them ignorant and presumptuous because they didn't use the right words. A lot of people upvoted your comment, which makes me question whether I want to engage with EA more. Yeah I might be ignorant. The people who hear about this manor house and are turned off from EA might be ignorant. So *** them right? They suck! But then EA is just sort of doomed to be this irrelevant movement that nobody wants to be part of because it is critical of other people and doesn't care about what anybody else thinks or feels.

I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. I wrote my comment quickly before leaving my computer and didn't put enough thought into my phrasing.

I do think there's something real I'm gesturing at here -- something like "Americans should be more humble in judging the offensiveness of things done in other cultures". But I also think you're probably pointing at a real dynamic affecting the conversation around this purchase, that is useful to have in our models, and I'm grateful that you did that.

Max Pietsch
It's not just you. Before I wrote a reply sort of calling out the insults, your post had way more upvotes than any of my comments. I think there's something systemic about the EA forum which doesn't encourage good dialogue (I'm suspicious of the numbers at the top of comments, for starters). I totally agreed with you when you pointed out that Americans and people from the UK might have different perspectives on this topic. So yeah, there's something real you're gesturing at. It's a cultural difference. People from different economic backgrounds probably also look at this purchase differently. That said, I don't think this purchase was particularly frugal in any cultural context. Even Owen Cotton-Barratt, who played a big role in getting the manor house purchased, said (in the comment above) he thought the beautiful surroundings would be inspiring and it wasn't done as a cost saving sort of thing. And yeah, I know I was making a useful point about the real dynamic affecting the conversation! What I wrote wasn't written perfectly, but the fact remains it's a big fancy mansion.  I made the comment that the average person reading a headline isn't going to think "hey it was actually only $10 million, not $15 million," they're just going to think "hey that's a big fancy mansion where a bunch of rich people stayed, purchased by a charity" - and we've already seen this in headlines (so yeah, of course it's a valid point, however poorly worded) and the fact that my comment was corrected in some ways which largely ignored the main thing I was arguing, and then the comment correcting me was upvoted 27 times compared to my upvote of 7, really says a lot about the lack of this platform for good dialogue and listening to others. I am just saying, it's not you, you don't need to feel bad, but I'm kind of venting that this platform isn't great for dialogue and I wonder who thought that copying reddit (with the upvote, downvote thing) would lead to a good format for intellectual

Your comment made false claims, and these false claims substantially exaggerated the issue (which isn't to say there isn't a serious issue left worth addressing after the claims are corrected and the exaggerated removed). I assumed (and still assume) this was just a well-intentioned mistake on your end. 

I pointed out that these claims were false. This wasn't intended as an attack on you (people can go back and look at the comment and judge for themselves whether it was appropriate). Because I assumed (and still assume) you are interested in the truth, my assumption was that you would reply with something like, "Oh, that's my bad. I've edited accordingly", before turning back to discuss the substantive issue.

Had you done that, I think that people would have moved on to discussing the substance of your concern (I doubt that anyone much cares about this discussion of clarifications, in and of itself).

Instead, your response  felt to me fairly dismissive. It did not feel to me like you truly acknowledged that you'd made a mistake here. I think this choice on your end was well intentioned, and I can see where you were coming from: I think you were just trying to drag people's a... (read more)

Max Pietsch
Thanks for your perspective. You could be right that people argued against my point because I wrote "castle" instead of "manor house" and "owned" instead of "stayed at". To me, those felt like details that are kind of incidental to the main point, even if they did exaggerate the point, and so correcting them was this way to undermine my argument without really engaging with me. I think we definitely had different opinions. On the whole yeah of course we're both acting in our best faith haha. I'm just a guy who doesn't keep track of details as much as long as the meaning is the same (like mixing up "chicken" with "turkey") and you're someone who places a high value on factual correctness, even when the facts don't change the underlying argument. Are you someone who corrects friends when they're talking? Everyone has a different personality, and yeah we're definitely all acting in good faith. Kind of regardless of all this I do think that people on the internet upvote what they already believe in, regardless of misuse of words. You haven't totally convinced me there, but you're right I think that misuse of words played some part. It's just that if people (such as you) wanted to engage me in a good faith manner I'd hope they say "hey I understand your point here and here, but you used the terms here and here incorrectly", but instead you corrected me (without addressing my point) and another guy called me pompous and ignorant. Last thing I do just want to say we both have good intentions and we both felt each other's comments were dismissive. Perhaps we would both rewrite things if we could go back in time. We're not writing books here, we probably aren't proofreading, and we probably just have different ways of looking at the world. I disagree that people are neutral in what they upvote and write online, and I still think that people upvote what they agree with, without giving things substantive thought. You haven't changed my mind on that. But yeah you're right i
Max Pietsch
It's a little disappointing that one of the main things you got out of my response was a potential personal attack. Definitely wasn't meant that way. Yeah this conversation isn't really helping either of us. Take care.
I think you're the first native(?) English speaker I've met who uses "turkey" and "chicken" interchangeably fwiw.
Max Pietsch
Yeah my point was that I personally mix up words sometimes. Did I not write that clearly? I didn't mean that everyone does it.
'Castle' has definitions that don’t require military fortification, and could often be used less formally that way (maybe more so in North America?): "a massive or imposing house" https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/castle "a large magnificent house, esp when the present or former home of a nobleman or prince" https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/castle https://www.dictionary.com/browse/castle "a large building or group of buildings fortified with thick walls, battlements, and often a moat; castles were the strongholds of noblemen in the Middle Ages 2. any massive dwelling somewhat like this" "a large and stately residence, esp. one, with high walls and towers, that imitates the form of a medieval castle" https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/castle You need to scroll a bit for some of these alternate definitions, though. 'Mansion' and 'estate house' are listed as synonyms here, too: https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/castle Personally, and as a Canadian who mostly learned about castles in French, I probably wouldn't use castle (or chateau) even informally to describe Wyntham Abbey, since it's not as big (especially as tall) as how I imagine castles to be. My images of 'manor' and 'mansion' are also smaller and more compact than Wytham Abbey, too, though. 'Estate' seems about right.
At the point you are having to debate the definition of a castle you've lost the optics argument even if you're technically correct.

There's no debate over the definition of a castle: Wytham Abbey is not a castle (it is not a form of military fortification). Roughly, Wytham Abbey is a castle in the way that an underground eco-house is a nuclear bunker. Which is to say: not at all (it's not some mere technicality that makes it not a castle; it is radically not a castle). There is no debate about definition to be had here.

So I'm not having a debate about definition; I'm noting a misrepresentation. I agree that the optics issue is already lost.  I also think that we should not be misrepresenting things on the forum, and I think this misrepresentation is not totally irrelevant.

To give a comparison: I think calling Wytham Abbey a castle it's roughly as big a misrepresentation as claiming that Wytham Abbey cost £80 million rather than £15 million. A castle is a much more expensive, much rarer structure than a mansion (which is basically what Wytham Abbey would be accurately described as: a mansion).

As noted, I agree that the optics battle is lost, but I find it a little odd that people seem to think it's totally irrelevant that a comment misrepresented things in a way that radically overstates the case (a castle ... (read more)

2[comment deleted]
It's entirely reasonable to say, as a normative claim, that people should be accurate in reporting. But when you are thinking about reputational impact of a choice you should be examining not just what the reaction would be to strictly accurate reporting, but how people operating in bad faith could easily represent it, or how good faith people could misinterpret it. Whether they should or not is irrelevant to the predictable consequences.

I want to downvote this comment more strongly than any other comment I've downvoted on the EA Forum.

On the EA Forum, we should care about what's actually true. "Haha, you lose for having to clarify your point!" may be the rule of the game in soundbite politics, but it can't become the rule of the game in EA's internal decision-making or in conversations on the EA Forum, or we have little hope of actually doing the most good (as opposed to "doing the thing that's safest and plays the best, in adversarial soundbite form, to a random consumer of mass media with no context or interest in the topic").

Truth matters, and the hearts and minds we want to win should heavily skew toward those who care about truth, and not just on what things look like to hypothetical third parties.

See also: 

I agree much more with Rob's principles than with my guess at projectionconfusion's principles. But looking just at PC's literal statements: yeah, it is stupid anyone thought manor house vs castle was a relevant argument. The question is whether you think it's a good idea to spend lots of money on a large building at all (I think it can be but obviously depends on specifics), and if so, does it matter if it's a nice building whose previous owners were rich. I think it's obvious the latter doesn't matter, but for people for whom it does matter I don't think it matters exactly what kind of large old rich person building it is. So I do  view people arguing manor house vs castle as conceding that a castle would be bad optics, and that this is dumb because none of the differences between manor houses and castles are relevant to the question. I just don't care about the optics of buying large old rich people buildings.
What's the second strongest time you wanted to downvote a comment on the EA Forum?
I agree that people shouldn't think that way, but observably they do. And acknowledging human irrationality and working around it was the founding insight or rationalism and EA. I honestly can't really respond to most of your first two paragraphs since it seems to be based on the idea we shouldn't even be considering the question. I'm not saying truth doesn't matter (if it came across that way I apologise) but that reputational effects are real and also matter. Which is very different from the strawman position of "we shouldn't do anything at all odd or unpopular". I disagree with this fundamentally. Its short sighted to narrow down the people we want to persuade to being only a certain set of people. The donations and other contributions of everyone are equally valuable. And the general perception of EA effects people's likelihood to learn more to begin with. These are not hypothetical people either. This and FTX are the main stories people are discussing online in relation to EA, and therefore what comes up when people initially do searches looking into it. And if someone's first impression is negative they are less likely to find out more and more likely to dismiss the movement. To narrow down our disagreement a bit. Is your position a) this won't have reputational effects on EA b) there will be reputational effects but they won't decrease recruitment and donations or c) even if it does decrease recruitment and donations we shouldn't care about that.

Cool, thanks for clarifying your view! To clarify, here's a version of your comment that I wouldn't have objected to at all (filling in details where I left things in square brackets):

'You're right that the building is a manor house rather than a castle, and I'm generally in favor of EAs being accurate and precise in our language. That said, I think [demographic D] will mostly not be convinced of EA's virtue by this argument, because people still think of manor houses as quite fancy. And I think it's important for EA to convince [demographic D] of our virtue, because [two-sentence summary of why I think we should prioritize appealing to demographic D].'

The main things I found objectionable about "At the point you are having to debate the definition of a castle you've lost the optics argument even if you're technically correct." were:

  • The response is snarky, in a way that slightly nudges EA toward a norm of "it's cringey and low-status to get into nit-picky arguments about what's true, when what really matters is public perception". I want to pump hard against moves in that direction, even small ones. I'm already wary of how much EA focuses on public perception; propagating the meme
... (read more)

I wonder to what degree there's an America/Europe divide (or at least a UK/non-UK divide) here.

From my perspective as an (admittedly fairly well-off) Brit, the English countryside is littered with these kinds of manor houses. Seriously, they're everywhere. Turning them into conference centres is honestly a better use for them than most common alternatives.

(Not making a claim about whether the Wytham purchase was a good idea all-things-considered -- I currently lean weakly towards "no" -- just commenting on this specific aspect.)

For calibration, I'd guess that there are probably 20+ properties (90% CI roughly 10-200) within a 90-minute drive of where I grew up that fall into roughly the same reference class as Wytham Abbey. Including several actual castles, though very few of those would be for sale.

Max Pietsch
I live in America so that theory checks out in my case at least.

The question here isn’t whether building a new castle from scratch would cost £15,000,000, or whether the real estate is properly valued; I assume it is. The question is whether you need to buy a castle to host yearly or monthly conferences—to which the answer is clearly not.

Investing £15,000,000 would yield roughly £1,000,000 a year on the stock market. If you are spending a million pounds on the venue for a conference, you are not doing it right. A convention hall runs in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the millions. This is a 10-100x markup.

£15,000,000 sounds like a lot to a researcher because it is.

Edward Kmett
In my experience from actually renting  spaces to run tech conferences and events, a convention hall in a reasonably dense city runs in the tens of thousands for a single <5 day long event. Consider just 3 breakout rooms, typically ~$90-$180/room/hour, 8 hours a day, 5 days takes you into the $20-$40k range, that gets you no food, no lodging for attendees, once you add that stuff in and the all-in cost for a fully-paid for typical 30-40 person event can easily land just inside $80-100k, with costs growing slightly sublinearly per person for a while before they balloon again once you rise above the size where there are multiple competing venues in your area. If the convention center you are using isn't a hotel now you have to move your attendees back and forth.  For tech conferences you can charge a few hundred $ per person, and have them book with your hotel out of a bloc, incurring obligations from your org to a hotel about occupancy, and then you can generally come up with a way to make your event break even. Conferences are expensive for a reason.  Locating an event in the middle of nowhere? Maybe that room becomes maybe a fixed rate $350 space at a cheaper hotel, $1000/day for 3 becomes so $5k for a 5 day event, but now its harder to get folks to the venue. At the end of the day, in either of these scenarios you are subsidizing the hotel and event space industry rather than focusing in on your events. On the other hand, using the model of a typical CFAR event, using a venue that is already owned, you are dealing with some cleanup, a couple of members of the team providing operations support, catering costs, but the venue itself remains relatively customized to purpose. People can sleep on site, enabling folks to drift in and out of conversations, the event can run all night with people talking in smaller more intimate groups long past when a hotel would have kicked you out of the space. If your goal is to built a community and have folks come together, this

While those are reasonable comparisons it rather raises the question of why you are buying a venue in one of the most expensive areas of the UK to begin with.

Were there any business cases made comparing this to other cheaper venues in different locations? That's the kind of basic due diligence I'd expect at most organizations I work with in my professional life, and I'm concerned if it's not the case here.

Well Wytham Abbey is only a 10 minute Uber ride from Oxford rail station, which is only 1 hour from London Paddington Station; and it's reasonably convenient by rail from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

The key features of a good conference venue are (1) easy access to international flights and domestic rail connections, and (2) an enticing location that can attract busy, choosy intellectuals who have many other options of places to go and people to see. 

Those features generally involve being located in places that many other people value -- i.e. that, given supply & demand, tend to involve high real estate prices.

edited numbers

I think if you run a lot of conferences it can make sense to own a conference centre.

Let's say it replaces 50 days of 30-person conferences a year, which normally cost $1000 a head in terms of the venue. That's $1.5mn. (Staff and food costs are on top in both cases).

Does this place cost more than that in terms of mortgage payments and upkeep costs I dunno, seems comparable.. So it seems plausible that it's a good spend. I'd guess 70% that if I knew more I'd probably think it was reasonable.

Additionally I would add that it is not a depreciative asset and can be sold again at a later date, returning the money spent. Of course you have to deduct the counterfactual returns of investing that money, but my intuition is generally that owning land is a fine investment if it saves you from paying rent.

Agreed.  And from perspective of the EA portfolio, the investment has some diversification benefits. YTD Oxford property prices are up +8% , whereas the rest of the EA portfolio (Meta/Asana/crypto) has dropped >50%.


side point on a pet peeve. Raw house price increases don't account for the cost of improvements and renovations and the effect they might have on the value of property. eg Some houses might have gained in value because the owners added a bedroom


Also I’m sure it’s said a million times in this thread but upkeep may be high for this property.

Hasn't actually been said that much and is a really important point
In the case of individuals, owning land is commonly better than renting for tax reasons (because you aren't taxed on the counterfactual rent).  Since EVF is a charity, it is tax exempt, so the same logic wouldn't apply. It is true of course that this isn't a flat cost of £15m, but you have to take into account the cost of converting the property (to the extent that the conversions aren't valuable to a prospective purchaser), the transaction costs (although these are lower than you might think because EVF should benefit from an SLDT exemption) and the maintenance costs (which will be large for a property of that character), in addition to the counterfactual income forgone. Considered as an investment it suffers from the usual problem of property investment, which is that it's very lumpy.  The exposure is specifically this particular manor house in Oxfordshire, which makes it riskier than a balanced commercial property portfolio.

I also think people likely significantly underestimate the costs of running conferences. From what I understand, $2000 per person is a pretty standard number even for a 3-day conference, if hosted in a standard hotel convention center. I'm not claiming that EA should host many conferences which are that expensive - just that buying a property to host them could relatively quickly become cost-effective.

Others have commented that you could get a much cheaper venue. I'm skeptical, though. For external-facing events you want a hotel-quality venue, and I don't expect that getting one with 30 rooms anywhere near a major city is going to be much cheaper.

Most of the costs of running conferences don't come from the cost of the (pure real estate) costs of the property. (You'd still incur lots of the $2,000 if you run an event at Wytham Abbey, the only bits that you aren't paying for are the pure capital costs for the property, part of the profit margin and costs for times the venue is otherwise empty.)

I'm not sure how I even feel about the price tag mattering considering it is an investment we can sell later but very quick research shows that  there is a 13,000 square foot hotel (12 rooms) in the heart of Chicago for 300,000 a room. So conservatively we could guess that a similar building in downtown chicago would go for about 9 mil. And that is in pretty much the most expensive area in the city - If we are willing to go within an hour of the city center I think you could get something of comparable quality for ~5 million or maybe even less.  Not saying Chicago would be the right place but I would call it a major city (totally biased though). 

Reasonable criticism from Keith 

I really like that you found a counter argument to your own post and posted it. Go you :-)

Adding to this, there is the substantial staff time of identifying and setting up each venue that can be saved by owning a single venue and using that single venue for storage (which also means likely savings on supplies that can more easily be reused).

There's still, however, a larger question about the cost-effectiveness of EAs organizing conferences and retreats at scale.

Do people think it's plausible that CEA (and affiliates) will run 100 x 30-person events per year in Oxford alone? Doing one every 3.5 days seems unlikely and I expect the real number to be much closer to 50 or less.

Edit: I actually realise it will have to be 50 x 30-person retreats, assuming  each workshop/event/retreat lasts 2 days. So it would be 2 days per week for basically all 52 weeks, which I still think is on the high side.

Yeah, I think something around that number is pretty likely. As an example, we have a much smaller house that we rent near Berkeley that is useful for 10-15 person retreats, and we've had pretty close to 75% utilization with stuff that I think would have otherwise required renting an AirBnB (I think some fraction of those would have been fine with a smaller AirBnB, but would have required then setting up that space and dealing with a bunch of overhead). 

Nathan Young
100 days worth seems pretty plausible, yeah. After all, you would basically push any UK conference here, right?

So you think something roughly like a 2-day workshop every week of the year? I think that's possible yeah but still not very likely (like 20% likelihood). Also you're saying conference but these events are max 30 people so seem much more like workshops / events / retreats than a conference? 

Do you have a sense for how many of these happen in the UK right now? I still think this is <50 per year and closer to 30. I also think it wouldn't be worth it for groups north of (approx.) Newcastle due to travel times etc.

Judging from similar estates in the area, the Abbey must've cost at least $10,000,000 [EDIT: from other comments it cost 15,000,000 pounds (~$21 million at time of purchase)]. A 30 person conference could easily be held in an office. Regardless, no way CEA hosts 100 of them near Oxford every year. I'm guessing the upkeep costs of the Abbey alone cost more than rent for a generous office.

Besides, if they did want to buy a venue, they could have found one for much cheaper.

This is a luxury purchase. It's made to make visitors feel important and prestigious. It is rightly being criticized and mocked by those outside CEA. WTF were they thinking?

A 30 person office could not house the people attending, so you'd need to add costs of a hotel/AirBnB/renting nearby houses if going down that option. Even taking into account that commercial rest estate is usually more expensive than residential, I'd expect the attendee accommodation cost to be greater than the office rental simply because people need more living space than they do conference space.

Additionally in my experience retreats tend to go much better if everyone is on-site in one location: it encourages more spontaneous interaction outside of the scheduled time. There are also benefits to being outside a city center (too easy for people to get distracted and wander off otherwise).

Was Wytham a wise investment? I'm not sure, I'd love to see a calculation on it, and it probably comes down to things like the eventual utilization rate. But I think a fairer reference class would be "renting a conference center plus hotel" than "renting a 30-person office".

I agree with Adam here about the fact that it's better to host all attendees in one place during retreats. However, I am not sure of the number of bedrooms that Wytham has. It could be that a lot of attendees have to rent bedrooms outside of Wytham anyways, which makes the deal worse.

I am really torn on this purchase, but just to add some info/one data point - OFTW ran its first conference in a while this year in Philadelphia and I was genuinely shocked at the costs. Hotel plus professional conference venue plus locking you in to caterers that charge a premium... It came out at $1000/head for 1.25 days (although this also included travel, which was average $500/head). And I really truly think we couldn't have held that conference in a cleared out office space.

That said, it is possible that something equally functional was available for cheaper, and with better optics.


Can much larger conferences be held there, like EAG or EAGx? Use each individual room as a meeting room, and a few big halls for large gatherings, possibly adding to the building if necessary.

[comment deleted]1

$1000 per person per day just for the place seems pretty expensive for a 30 person conference... 

[note: I don't work for CEA, but I did recently invest in a house to live in and do events in.] I wrote a piece on my blog about why. Here's what I wrote:

Real estate purchases can make sense for financial planning reasons in some cases. This money should not be considered to trade off against, e.g., donations to effective charities. Instead it should trade off against short-term rental budgets for retreats, conferences, etc. And because banks are willing to loan against real estate at very good rates, it is surprisingly cheap to invest in real estate, requiring little cash upfront and low ongoing interest costs. And you can make use of it while you own it. So if you can either use your real estate effectively, or rent it out when not in use, you should be approaching cost-competitiveness with short term rentals.

One risk to making effective use of the real estate is that you can’t just pay for what you need at every moment, you have to buy the whole thing and then waste any unused bits. This risk is compensated by commensurate upside - that of making the whole thing relatively cheaper. So if you have knowledge of how much utilization you’re expecting to get from some real estate (and that utilization is higher than whatever the market / existing owners get) then you’re likely to be beating the market by buying the property.

All the above analysis is all else being equal. But realistically, the venue you choose for an event has a major effect on everything that happens at the event. Some venues will be conducive to smaller conversations; some will force everyone into one room. Some venues will attract fancy people; others will attract nerds, or frugal types, or creative types, or whatever.

One venue isn’t right for every type of event. But I’ve done enough event planning at rented venues to know that sometimes the event will go fine at whatever venues are easily available on the market, and other times I am making substantial tradeoffs.

Occasionally my event has requirements that won’t work for an available hotel or airbnb. An example of this I can think of was wanting attendees to be able to relax in the evenings somewhere that was private, quiet and had no time pressure/social demands. The hotel rentable rooms felt very stuffy, the hotel bar was too public, and there were no available airbnbs that were big enough. In general, the short term rental market is not that liquid and doesn’t have huge amounts of inventory; if you don’t see what you want you might just be out of luck. Whereas if you buy, you can guarantee availability, and customize things to your liking. Such customizations, if done well, pay off event after event. If you believe (as I do) that facilities have a big impact on the quality of an experience, then it’s easy to see how such an investment would pay off, even if it is more expensive than whatever you would be able to get in the rental market.

I haven’t spoken to the CEA folks involved in the Wytham Abbey decision, but I assume they were thinking along similar lines when they pulled the trigger on this. To me, the critique in this thread is quite overblown - I think most of the shock is coming from over indexing on how things look (fancy estates, large numbers) rather than the economic and practical realities.

There are some good arguments for buying this thing, but why were these things below not done? I struggle to find arguments against these important actions which seem like basic due diligence. I would appreciate people giving reasons why these things might not have happened as I haven't seen it no the thread.

  1. Publish publicly information about big spends when they happen 
  2. Clearly state the reasons for the purchase including positives, potential negatives and counterfactuals in laymans terms.
  3. Publish the math on this vs. running conferences elsewhere. If Givewell can do it, surely CEA can publish their math. 
  4. Acknowledge publicly that although on balance the purchase was judged t be worthwhile, the optics are likely to look terrible to most people, who (whether right or wrong) are likely to see it as supposed do gooders buying themselves a mansion.

I'm not against this purchase (uncertain), but  confused why these steps weren't taken when it was bought, and haven't been done yet (although this can be rectified). I'm not asking for democracy, only asking for both the core principles of EA to be published and a bare minimum of transparency.  

And one extra point, I think after the SBF scandal, a higher degree of transparency than before  will be needed to turn this negative PR tide. 

I'm not going to comment on the emotional/anger/PR side, but here are some numbers for the discussion to be somewhat connected with Oxford conference accommodation reality; speaking just in my personal capacity as someone who did run events in Oxford.

According to the first public price list in my google results, conference accommodation in a college in Oxford in 2020 was >£70 (standard room) + >$45 on meals + >~$1000 for 4 lecture rooms, per day. With a 30 person event, it's >£4500 per day. With 40 ppl and more lecture rooms, it would be more like >£6k/day, just for space and food. 

Multiplying it with days per year, it's >£2.2M/y. To get realistic comparisons, you would need to adjust for many other factors sometimes of order 0.3-3x, like occupancy, costs of adjusting venues to your needs, costs of the staff,... In impact calculation, you would also need to adjust for counterfactual loses such as "not able to run an event because everything good is either booked a year in advance, or even more expensive than the college price list" where having a friendly venue can cause the event to counterfactually happen at all.

As someone who has experience with this, what do you (or others doing coet calculations in this thread) think about the cost/benefit of having this type of dedicated venue in a less expensive location and moving these types of events out of Oxford, which seems to be a particularly expensive area? Your calculation seems to imply that the events would be frequent enough that the staff would be working on them full time, and room and board being a major factor implies that the expectation is that most people would be traveling for them anyway. In this case, why is Oxford the basis for cost calculations?

For people not familiar with the UK, the London metropolitan area houses 20% of the UK's population, and a disproportionate share of the economic and research activity. The London-Cambridge-Oxford triangle in particular is by far the research powerhouse of the country, although there are of course some good universities elsewhere (e.g. Durham, St Andrews in the north). Unfortunately, anywhere within an hour's travel of London is going to be expensive. Although I'm sure you can find somewhat cheaper options than Oxford, I expect the cost savings will be modest (noting Oxford is already cheaper than central London), and you'll likely lose something else (e.g. location is harder to get to, or is some grungy commuter town).

I would like to hear if CEA considered non-Oxford locations (as there's an obvious natural bias given CEA is headquartered in Oxford), but it wouldn't surprise me if the benefit of CEA staff (who will often be running the events) having easy access to the venue genuinely outweighed any likely modest cost savings from locating elsewhere.

You can get to Luton, Milton Keynes, Stevenage or a number of other small London satellite towns in less than 2 hours from Oxford, and less than 1 from central London. These are all pretty banal collections of concrete buildings, but would allow you to buy a venue for a fraction of the cost. It seems hard to escape the conclusion that this decision was mainly made based on a Manor house in Oxford being more aesthetically appealing than a concrete office building on an industrial estate or small town centre.

The lack of a 2 hour commute is nothing to sneeze at though. CFAR has (had? I haven't checked in on it lately) a venue a couple of hours away from Berkeley that they've used for organizing workshops and events, and the tribulations of organizing getting everyone to and from the venue pretty much ensured it was only used for running 4-5 day events. It made it significantly more difficult for folks at CFAR or MIRI to pop up to make "guest appearances" at workshops and the like significantly reducing value to participants. 

Speaking from personal experience, that distance rather complicated the value proposition for me, for whether it was worth showing up for a day at the end of an event to get to know some of the participants.

At the end of the day, the optics seem poor, but the actual cost for the space seems to be what I'd expect for a space that can sleep that many people, zoned so you can use them as actual bedrooms and have people stay on site. By the time it is kitted out in proper group-house density with beds in every nook and cranny you can find, you'd be able to fit a rather large number of attendees into the space.

You can go grab some concrete office space in an industr... (read more)

Thank you, this is a good part of what I wanted to know.

Is Wytham Abbey being used 365 days a year, though? A couple thousand a day is a perfectly reasonable cost for a conference. But why would you need to own a space that large permanently? I’d be just as shocked at the idea of renting out Oxford College’s conference hall 365 days a year. Nobody is having that many conferences.

I noted the same in the following sentence: To get realistic comparisons, you would need to adjust for many other factors sometimes of order 0.3-3x, like occupancy, costs of adjusting venues to your needs, costs of the staff,... For example, if you use your venue 65% of time, you should multiply the mentioned figure by 0.65. What's pushing in the opposite direction is for example this: if you use a rented venue, and often spend 1-2 days before and 1 day after the event on setting it up according to your needs / returning to original state, you need to account for that. For e.g. 5 days event, it can increase the rented venue cost by 20-40%.  How various considerations add up is hard to say in the abstract.   

While I do think there is some merit in the argument that the purchase ultimately yields a net positive, I'm a bit more skeptical than most of the benefits of specialist venues, if you consider all the possible alternatives:

  • A lot of intellectual work can be done remotely (the EA and rationalist forums being a good example of this)
  • Ordinary intellectual work which needs in person collaboration can happen in an office
  • Freer types of intellectual work which need in person collaboration can sometimes be successfully accomplished by just picking a convenient place for people to meet, such as a particular person's house, a café, or, if you're lucky enough, a park
  • And if you need more space and quiet, you can more cheaply rent access to a large house somewhere in the country, in a way that more than offsets the additional costs of transportation, as many companies do for their yearly retreats. (This assumes a rich country such as the UK). In France, for example, it is 15 times more expensive to rent a few square feet of Parisian real state than a whole manor deep in the country.
  • Unless you need specific equipment, of course, in which case ou definitely require some kind of "lab".

With that being said, I have a sense that the same purchasing decision would have raised no eyebrows had it been made by the University of Oxford itself. Such decisions are made by the University of Oxford all the time.  (Well, perhaps student activists would have found something to protest about it, but it would have been linked to some symbolic matter about the history of the place rather than the financials). 

To the extent that the Centre of Effective Altruism is pursuing a long term intellectual project that seeks to study how to do the most good with the same rigor the University of Oxford brings to other endeavours, either you should not be shocked by this, or you should be shocked by the fact that the University of Oxford owns so much real estate. (I am generally more puzzled than shocked about things, so I'll leave it up to you to determine which angry emotion this evokes.)

This however does not seem to be the case. I am not too familiar with EA institutions, but it seems to me that the Centre of Effective Altruism is more akin to the seat of a movement of people trying to be altruistic in a particular way. As a result, it becomes an organization which - whether inadvertently or not - advertises its own goodness. "We are good, and you should be good like us too". For a number of complex reasons, people have a mental model that members of a movement of this kind should live in relative frugality and that if they don't, they are hypocrites. (Perhaps they should live like monks...  say, in a religious building made of stone surrounded by lush greenery. But also... it shouldn't be called an abbey, and they should be poor. Funny creatures aren't we.)

Not sure what to make of this, but it would seem to have implications for the proper delineation of "intellectual" and "movement" wings of EA, as well as the consideration of optics whenever switching from "is"to "ought" modes.

Perhaps they should live like monks...  say, in a religious building made of stone surrounded by lush greenery. But also... it shouldn't be called an abbey, and they should be poor.

I'm nitpicking, but I think that's what an abbey is.

Oxford English Dictionary:

abbey: the building or buildings occupied by a community of monks or nuns.

Just wanted to answer this edited question:

Edit to add: If this expense has been made a while back, why not announce it then?

They did mention it on August 2nd:

What is Wytham Abbey?

The project is under development. In time, all being well, it will function as a workshop venue in Oxford.

Although I would like to point out that it was going to be revealed in the New Yorker a few days later.

Last year, the Centre for Effective Altruism bought Wytham Abbey, a palatial estate near Oxford, built in 1480.

It is possible that they were allowed to preview the article and were trying to get ahead of it.

I’ve see many comments about how many days of a year the Abbey can be reasonably used for EA events.

On the days that EA are not hosting events, the venue could also be rented out for conferences for other organizations , so we should take those into account as well.

A related, important consideration when Lightcone arranged to buy the Rose Garden Inn (for similar reasons as Wytham Abbey), is that the Inn can also be resold if it turns out not to be as valuable. So thinking of this as "15 million spent" isn't really right here.

The Rose Garden Inn is even something at a comparable price point to pressure test against. As in it is the same ballpark general distance to most of the potential users, roughly the same price, within a factor of 2 in room count, etc. but way more run down, and as recent breakins have shown, though perhaps way more vulnerable to people just walking on premises and stealing construction materials as they work to fix it up.

I do think the Lightcone example is a large part of why I'm not up in arms about this. They've demonstrated in their existing somewhat smaller spaces that with the spaces they have they get ridiculously high utilization: ~75% utilization of a house they use for events, packed guest spaces, overflowing the office, etc.

At the end of the day there's a reason why real estate is considered an investment. None of the uses folks are going to put it to as a venue are going to appreciably damage that investment, and from an annual operating expense perspective, it is likely significantly cheaper than renting office/retreat space, and putting folks up in hotels.

There's something to be said for going somewhere and staying immersed in what you are doing, especially when its most likely cheaper than the more disruptive alternative.

To communicate the rough fermi here, we were paying around $1.5MM per year for 14,000 sq. ft. of WeWork office space in Berkeley (including upkeep, utilities, etc.)[1]. We ended up getting a loan for the Rose Garden Inn for $20MM ($16.5MM for cost plus $3.5MM for renovations) at 5% annual interest rate, so we are paying $1MM in interest a year (and will likely pay around $500k or so in utilities, upkeep, etc.), for the same total of $1.5MM/yr.

The Rose Garden Inn has about 21,000 sq. ft. of usable indoor space, has zoning that allows us substantially more flexibility (since it's a hotel we can run retreats there, which of course we can't really do in an office, at least without making someone in the city angry as Twitter has recently demonstrated), and also has about 15,000 sq. ft. of usable outdoor space, most of which actually gets used quite regularly since Berkeley weather is pretty great. So the overall available and usable space is around 2x for about the same basic price (while I think also being much better for suited for what we want to do with it in many other ways). 

I think the math checks out less super obviously for Wytham Abbey, but it seems pretty plausible to me... (read more)

Edward Kmett
On the flip side, it seems the Abbey is likely to require less in the way of upfront renovations, which seem to me to be the significant at-risk part of the Inn, because the sorts of changes you're likely to want to make it a good venue for running workshops probably make it an objectively worse 'hotel', which is what almost anyone else would be buying the space to get. It seems the two are within a factor of 2 of each other for long term cost, most likely in your favor, while they may have you beat a bit in terms of non-recoverable conversion expense. In the end it is surprisingly close, all things considered, given quite how different Oxford and Berkeley are.
I've very vaguely heard that the renovation costs might end up on the same order of magnitude as well, I think partially because CEA hired an external design firm to do things, whereas Lightcone is doing things in our usual in-house, highly-incremental and local way (we are working extremely closely with a small team of contractors that we hand-picked, and don't have any kind of design-firm middleman). Though I also don't think they started construction yet, so this might still change. I think this will look better on paper for us because Lightcone doesn't pay market rate for its employees, but will probably overall end up worse for us if you take into account counterfactual earning rate. I still think it's the right call because it allows us to be more adaptive while we are doing it, and hopefully produce a better result. 
Rose Garden cost on the order of $10-20 million?
$16.5MM, plus probably around $3.5MM in renovations.

For comparison's sake: https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/2824-Scott-St-San-Francisco-CA-94123/80753377_zpid/

I don't think this is a particularly meaningful comparison - you can find real estate listings like this one with more rooms for much cheaper: https://www.rightmove.co.uk/properties/109200122#/?channel=RES_BUY . This isn't to argue that this property would have been a better than the Abbey (although I'm still not convinced that the Abbey was a good purchase), but you can probably pull up numerous listing that are cheaper or more expensive, particularly from places like San Francisco that have notoriously high housing prices

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Hey, I wanted to clarify that Open Phil gave most of the funding for the purchase of Wytham Abbey (a small part of the costs were also committed by Owen and his wife, as a signal of “skin in the game”). I run the Longtermist EA Community Growth program at Open Phil (we recently launched a parallel program for EA community growth for global health and wellbeing, which I don’t run) and I was the grant investigator for this grant, so I probably have the most context on it from the side of the donor. I’m also on the board of the Effective Ventures Foundation (EVF).

Why did we make the grant? There are two things I’d like to discuss about this, the process we used/context we were in, and our take on the case for the grant. I’ll start with the former. 


Process and context: At the time we committed the funding (November 2021, though the purchase wasn’t completed until April 2022), there was a lot more apparent funding available than there is today, both from Open Phil and from the Future Fund. Existential risk reduction and related efforts seemed to us to have a funding overhang, and we were actively looking for more ways to spend money to support more good work, e... (read more)