Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Foxes and field mice

(obligatory picture)

The soundtrack to this blogpost is this song

I read a book recently, it's called The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer, and it inspired me to do (and write) this.

Reading this book didn't so much change my mind as it showed me the way further down a path I am walking. My views on personal relationships (<< future linked post coming) are, one could suggest, somewhat radical. I want to extend this so as to make everything personal. Allow me to explain.


I recently read another book (bear with me here) called Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe, which I also very highly recommend. It's all about how to talk about complicated things with simple words (I'll complete this part in this style). But the small piece of smart thinking that I saw that made me go, "ah", was a little thing in this books about the "shape checker" (a padlock).

Bear with me for this part, and if you find it boring or stupid, just skip to the next "--". I will try to say what Randall said with different words, since I don't have his book with me now: The thing that's most interesting about shape checkers is not how they work, but what they mean.

This kind of machine, which include number checkers, other kinds of shape checkers, body-part checkers and talking checkers, try to tell whether a person is part of a group or not. These might be groups like group-that-has-the-right-metal-shape, group-that-knows-the-number, group-whose-body-part-or-talking-sound-the-checker-knows, and so on, and then it allows the person to open it depending on whether they are in the right group. This is something that is very normal for us everyday, but it's only because we got comfortable to the deeper idea of what it means to use a shape checker: if you are not in the group, we don't trust you. Of course, if we did, there would be no reason to have any kind of checker at all. And I don't like this.

As difficult as it sounds (and probably is) I would like to live in a world where there was no need for shape checkers. Where nobody would steal your hand computer or car or food-heating-radio-box, and where there would be no things that are so (valuable) or so (dangerous) that they must be kept away from people by using checkers.

I think the biggest problem that stops this from happening is that some people have a lot of stuff and some people have very little stuff, and they got into groups where the first (small) group is trying to get more stuff while keeping all their stuff, and the other (really big) group is saying "help! we don't have enough stuff." As if that weren't enough injustice, at the same time, all this getting of stuff is making a kind of air that makes our world very hot, which is very bad if we want to live here for a long time, and it's also making a lot of heavy metal and other bad things go to places they are not from (usually where the people that don't have enough stuff live), and making things get sick and die. This happens because we are either: only thinking of a our own small groups, so we can't or don't want to see big problems, or don't think it's our job to fix them, OR (in the case of people with no stuff) we have too many "now" problems to think about the problems of the world.

Sometimes, people teach wrong things to people in their group or the other group to try to make things stay the way they are (which is not good).

I am very lucky that I was born into the group of people with stuff. I have more stuff than I will ever need, and I went to good schools and met good people and did a lot of things that taught me how to be smart, and I will probably continue to make and have more stuff than I can use. So I want to spread the love around a little bit, to make things better for the other group, and also to try to make the world we live on not get very hot and kill us. What I really mean, is that I don't want to think or act like I am in another group. Until the group I am in looks like the group I am not in, I want how I treat people to be the same no matter what group they are or are not in.

It will mean I have less stuff, but I do really believe that I, and most people, can be just as happy with much less stuff than they have now. Peter Singer says something like this in his book, but he says it much better than I do. I found out that it's possible and even easy for me to do this because I know to be happy and in my situation, it's not that hard, at the heart of it. It's not always easy for a lot of people to be happy, but if they learn how, they can do more good and feel more good at the same time.


To get back to the doing good part, I won't try to explain or summarise the contents of The Most Good, since Peter Singer is a far better writer than I am, but I will refer to it as necessary while I talk about the steps that I will plan and take. If you disagree with or are confused by anything, good job, your brain is working! This should probably happen since I am trying to condense 211 pages of occasionally complicated and unintuitive reasoning into a single blog post. Feel free to write me, or I also encourage you to get the book and read it yourself!

The first thing I want to do is a declaration. After that, I will write a more detailed specification.

I am going to:

1. Tell you how much money people pay or give me
2. Say how much of it I am going to spend on people-that-are-not-me
3. Talk about who is going to get this money (and what they will do with it)
4. Describe how I will implement everything, and,
5. what is my plan for the future


1. Here is all the money flows that point towards me. I have to focus on the recent times, since I don't have all the data from the past and I also have not been completely financially self-sufficient for very long.

- At my last job, I made €3200 before, equal to €2012.59 after tax, health insurance and social security contributions. This happened for a few months, before immigration issues dictated I stop work. I will probably have another job soon that will pay me a similar amount of money. While it may not seem like a lot, to put this in perspective, that's a few euros ahead of the yearly per-person average (PPP-adjusted) economic productivity of Cambodia.
- I used to make €800 before, equal to €642.38 after, and I will also make donations for this time period
- Every year, there's a little money-swapping ritual in my culture around Chinese New Year. I think I pocket about €1500 each time this happens but I will count it properly next time
- Every time I get a new income stream, I will add it to this list. For example, one day someone might pay me to play my wooden box with six metal lines and make sounds out of my mouth that make people move their body and feel happy (or sad) (or both).

Why did I just do this, since normally people do everything they can not to talk about these sorts of things? Well, simply put, I this we keep this more secret than we have to-- I don't really care or think it should be important, and if it makes someone uncomfortable to talk about it, they're probably doing something of no merit (or even unethical) and getting paid unreasonably much to do it, OR they're a a victim of such people, and doing something really difficult and getting paid unreasonably little to do it.

Also, the reason I am writing this at all is that I want to make it public knowledge, and maybe make you think about considering doing something like this too. Telling you stuff like this lets you know I'm serious.

2. I'm starting small, but plan to increase in the future. I think it's easier to go forward than backward with things like these, and keeping the momentum in one direction is important.

- I am going to donate enough money to get down to 90% of my after-tax income.

Because I might not stay forever in Germany (where I currently am), I am going to write off the health insurance and social security contributions-- that is, not to consider I will ever get any of them back. In the unlikely even that I stay long enough to, I will readjust my numbers to reflect this. In any case, I expect my donation fraction to increase in the future, so this is not a big issue to me.

This means I will keep €578.14 of my low income times and €1811.33 of my higher income times, and give the rest away. While it may not seem like a lot, to put this in perspective, my monthly keep is just a few euros behind the yearly per-person average (PPP-adjusted) economic productivity of Nepal. That's just bananas (bad!). Anyway, what I will implement is effectively a 10% gift, but with a few details:

I'm going to make as much tax-deductible donation (so long as the tax-deductibility does not affect the effectiveness of the donation) as possible to get my after-tax income to the desired level.
Tax systems are basically black boxes, and I am many-parts untrusting of the German government to spend enough on the right or important things, and I am some-parts disapproving of the spending distribution of my taxes paid.

At first, I wrote a very lengthy paragraph here, but let me just cut it down to spending I don't approve of. In principle, I don't believe in regressive spending. This includes infrastructure that disproportionately benefits  higher income people or special interests. Munich, for example, spends a lot on roads and allocates a lot of on-street parking, which are mostly used by car-owners. Public transportation is also too expensive, and does not, I believe, have the social benefits of energy efficiency, air quality, and traffic easing build into the price. I approve of none of this. Also, I don't support any military spending.

I'm basically saying I don't want to give the Germany government more of tax euros than I have to. I want to decide to the furthest extent possible where my tax dollars go. I do use infrastructure, and I think if I work within the tax-deductibility structure, my cost on society will not go unpaid, but really, I don't trust The Man any more with my first single euro cent as I do with my last.

- I am going to donate half of the Chinese New Year money, probably all of it in the near future.

3. The Most Good You Can Do talks a lot about what makes an effective donation. This can be a very difficult question. Let's start with what is good?. I'll go a little fast here if you don't mind.

I think a pretty good answer is, "what increases happiness and what decreases suffering" can be considered to be good. Quite often, these things go together, which I think is very fortunate. The next question is, where can we make the most happiness and get rid of the most suffering? The surprising (or unsurprising) answer is, "it's probably not in a developed country." This begs the clarification, how do I know how much good I'm doing? and the answer to that is that's very difficult to know.

How much happiness to I get from going to a concert? How about to a museum? What if the museum was nicer? How does that compare to how much happiness I get from eating? What if the food is better? What if I'm hungrier? What if the food was really cheap? What if I was blind or had malaria every year?

There are two things at work here. One is that high up the list of needs (where I am) that it becomes very difficult to measure marginal utility. Our options are also much more expensive and complex in their use cases. On the other hand, when we deal with things like life expectancy or health, it's often much more (but not completely) straightforward to measure efficiency. Unfortunately, the problems that you usually fix in these cases exist where healthcare is really, really bad. It is also, as a feature, really really cheap.

Here's a couple of examples:

Against Malaria Foundation

The staple of calculating the efficiency of a donation is the Quality-Adjusted-Life-Year (QALY). This is the monetary value of the burden of some kind of condition that affects both quality and length of life, and by that definition also the cost of an intervention that solves the problem. One QALY is equivalent to one year of healthy life.

Now, it starts to get fuzzy when we talk about non-health interventions, since we'll be stabbing at vague and small numbers (how much would I benefit from a free subscription to a magazine? 0.01 QALY per year? you see how it gets weird). But what about education? That's a legitimately effectual but also very difficult to calculate intervention.

I think it's best to start with health and life expectancy. The most efficient work produces 34 QALYs (about the length of healthy adult life in most developing countries-- it should shock you how little that is), for about $3000. If your impact is important to you, and you're looking at less than this, it's probably worth a good long think about.

Now you are probably thinking, but what about the arts? but who will pay for the museums?. Here's what I think.

While there are people suffering in the world, the least fortunate are always the most deserving of help, and I will not donate to any cause that does not help the most of them the most efficiently. I have my after-donation income that completely belongs to me, and I will go to museums and concerts, but I fix my priorities for the amount that I have set aside for the purpose of creating positive change for those who are unable to effect it themselves.

But what about the environment? I think most climate initiatives are fundamentally broken. I like a few of them, but I think the biggest thing they miss is that to fix the atmosphere, the cost of everything MUST INCREASE. Energy is way too cheap and this is the single reason why we use so much of it. Renewables cost more for the moment, and it doesn't work to force divestment from coal and oil while keeping electricity and gasoline prices the same, driving the same amount, traveling as far, etc. Everybody wants the world to be saved but very few people are willing to change their behaviour for it.

I think that by improving life outcomes for the lowest income, least educated, most fertile part of the world, hopefully, we'll have fewer people around and more people making more sensible demands for fixing the planet. Because we'll all be in the same group (see group theory above). For the moment, I'll try to fly as little as I can (I'm already a car-sharing, bike riding hippie so I don't know how much further I can push this other edge of the envelope)

Why isn't this my job? Well it used to be! But here's the rub:

I wasn't very effective. I could have been-- if I'd studied more relevant things, got more relevant degrees, and so on. Coming in inexperienced and unqualified meant that I was kept to the shallow end of tasks I could take on. While I could be quite effective in the right job, the overhead to reach it was big, my chances slim, and I also burned out living in Ghana.

On the other hand, I am reasonably financially productive where I am now, and for the present arrangement of things, I produce much greater impact donating a fraction of my earnings than working in the industry of making impact.

4. I have decided to use Givewell to help me find the most effective initiative to donate to. I really want to get the most good for my euro, so I am going to give to the Against Malaria Foundation. I believe this represents as good as the highest efficiency for lives saved per $/€/£/¢, worldwide.

Each year, I will tally my donation amounts and send them off in the 1st week of January. Taxes happen in April, so I'll have all my receipts by then. After that, I will write a report to this blog.

5. I realise that 10% doesn't sound like a lot, and it's not my final goal. There are of course people who donate much more than that. My number will go up, and here are some considerations:

- I need to know how much I can stably handle. I've been a little bit iterant for the last years of my life, and it's nice to have a little bit of a safety net when moving jobs and countries.
- It's just as important to give as to enjoy it. Making a sacrifice is not the point, and suffering to give is unsustainable and an unrealistic plan to do any kind of good. I'll probe this boundary slowly.

I used 10% as a suggestion from the book, which does a few little income-breakdown exercises. I chose to use the model for someone earning roughly the same amount of money living in the Boston area, and adjust it a little bit, considering that my expenditures and tax rate and welfare allocation are a little different. I will reevaluate this on a regular basis, perhaps at each donation period, and with luck get to a higher number soon.

I realise that 10% doesn't sound like a lot, but so few people in this world are doing even close to this, and so little of this money is actually going to somewhere it will make a difference. Hopefully, by doing what I reason to be effective, and talking about it, I can both do something and convince some people to do something to.

(talk to me, talk to people about this!)

Well, that's all for now, gentle readers! I'll see you again in the future!

all photos: Laura Stupin