Giving money to people and places

Subtitle: I’ve probably explained all this already but money has such an effect on our world that I feel compelled to get my thoughts down again.

My relationship to money has changed over the last 5 years. I used to think “I should save money, because you never know. But I ideally want to get to a point where I’m donating about half my after-expenses money, because as a Richman in a Richcountry, we can do so much good just by tossing some money somewhere.”

Now I’ve got a family (of two, currently, but growing at some point) so my priorities have changed: I got more selfish. I’m also in the most insane expensive city in the world.

Philosophy interlude:

I think everyone should have the opportunity to get at least 4/5 of the Maslow pyramid. Maybe all 5. Maybe all 5 plus the bonus 1! (from wikipedia I learn that there’s a 6th stage, “self-transcendent needs.") For a life to be neutral, you’ve got to get all 5; for a life to be beneficial to the world, you’ve got to get self-transcendent needs too. (… or something? I don’t know, but it feels about right for now.)

Anyway, so it feels immoral to bring kids in the world if I can’t give them a fair chance to get to at least 4, 5, or 6 Maslow needs. In the US, that seems to mean college. (Not that it’s impossible for anyone to satisfy all their needs without college, but N% of people can’t satisfy all their needs without college. And N here is increasing.) So, ok, say we have 2 kids, that’s $250k each = $500k. (Right now this’ll just barely still pay for any school; in 20 years maybe only state schools. But it at least gives them a chance.)
End philosophy interlude! Back to practical things, like:

Owning a home

It seems financially smart, at some point. Like say a genie told me “Here’s $1 million, but you must give me $1 million after you die.” Great! We buy a house, and that gives me so much free money, in terms of rent we don’t have to pay over the years. Say we were renting a 2br for $5k/month - that’s $60k/year. If we have this magic house, it’s $6k for property taxes, plus maybe another $10k for repairs and stuff and $9k for insurance - saving $35k/year, or $1.05M over 30 years. Just because we happen to have a (temporary) magic genie bag of money!
Plus, seems a good way to get fixed costs down so I can someday decide I’m going to travel for a year or something.
(Now, owning for owning’s sake is another story; in that case, it’s worth it if you can get all the variables right. But owning if you had a magic genie money bag, that seems smart.)

Anyway, so:
$500k for 2 kids' college
$200k for other costs of raising 2 kids (I have no idea how much this costs)
$1.3M for a house (to make numbers add up nice):
We kinda need to make $2M (if we want to live in SF/Oakland long term).

My relationship to money now:

Is more complicated? I still want to help abstract people with malaria bed nets, but not at the cost of me, Tati, or our own (eventual) kids. And, given the long-term windfall that buying a house would get us, it seems like there’ll be more return, even, if I were to sell a house when I get old and donate the profits.

And life is uncertain enough, especially in the US, that having a guaranteed house seems worthwhile, so we don’t get super poor and dead when we get cancer or hit by a car.

So instead of “I’ll throw half my money at anything” (which I never did end up doing, anyway), now it’s “I will save most of my money. But I have disposable income, and I want to donate some of it to vague good things, so I guess I’ve got to choose a reasonable amount and spend it kind of wisely.” It seems good to have a plan?

What I mean by “giving money”, and my current plan

I guess I think about this as “giving money to places without expecting a concrete thing in return.” Here’s what I’m thinking for a provisional split:
Bed nets/GiveWell: 20%
Patreon: 20%
Local orgs like SF Bike Coalition, SF YIMBY, SF HAC: 4%
Democrat campaigns nationwide (like the Great Slate): 8%
Friends' things: 20% (the social benefit of “you’re raising money for ____! here’s $x!” feels really good, and their thing probably does some good as well.)
Planned Parenthood: 4%
ACLU: 4%
News (currently Economist and NYT): 4%
TBD: 16% (for whatever comes up during the year; I can always dump it into bed nets in December if nothing new arises)

Shouldn’t I be doing all Givewell?

Maybe! They are just trying to do the most good in the world. $2000 saves a life, vs becomes 0.01% of some democrat’s war chest or like one meal for a bunch of artists I like (who will probably survive anyway).

However, there’s one unknowable huge variable: maybe a 0.01% chance of electing one rando democrat is actually better than saving a life. Like, if you could buy a 0.001% chance of ICE not manhunting 100000 immigrants… well, that nets EV=1 life not ruined. Or the increased chance of building more housing leads to 3 fewer homeless people which leads to 1 life saved. I guess I’m just diversifying my portfolio of possible benefits.

Should I split out the arts and friends' things?

Maybe. Like, I give to Patreon selfishly. I do want to live in a world where a lot of artists make a living, but I especially want the ones I support to make a living. That feels more like “me buying things I like” than “me giving away money.”

Also, the social benefit of friends' things is pretty selfish. Not that it’s bad: helps me build social capital, and maybe spending $20 on a meaningful relationship is worth more than $20 to ACLU. Again, we’ve all got to get our Maslow levels.

Arguably the news things should go in the “arts” category, but… well, I just want to support having a real press, I don’t actually read them that much.

Really, all of these lie on a spectrum. From most selfish to most altruistic:
1. General stuff I buy
2. Patreon
3. Friends' things

4. News

5. Local orgs

6. Democrat campaigns, ACLU, PP

7. Bed nets/Givewell

Anything that’s in the “general stuff I buy” camp is easy to evaluate: if I want it more than I want to lose that money, I buy it.

So I guess this post should actually be called:

“how I’m thinking about spending money on stuff that’s not 100% selfish.”

How do I implement this?

I think, do it for a year, and try to see how it goes. If I find myself wanting to give other money that’s not 100% selfish, I should still do it, and then record it, and recalibrate after a year. But, actually tracking that (like tracking anything) is tricky, and I’d be interested if any of you have any input.

(Also, if you have another way you’ve thought about this whole concept.)

Edit: this post by Holden Karnofsky at Open Phil is relevant and says what I want to say in fewer words; I’m trying to diversify among different world views.


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