|August 8th, 2016
Eight years ago I was working for my first full year after graduating. I was still spending money at student rates, but I now had a programmer's income. This disparity made it clear I was earning more than I needed for myself, and easier to accept the argument that I should be helping others. In December 2008 I committed to giving half of what I earned to charity, and mailed my first donation.
When I first started, I thought the main challenge was frugality: how can I spend as little as possible so I have more to give? And in the first year this did turn out to be a major challenge—in setting a target of 50% I'd budgeted based on nominal pay, neglecting taxes. But as I learned more about effective altruism I realized frugality was not as good a place to focus as earning more.
If I was going to have a conversation with my past self I would bring up the situation of someone earning $70k after taxes and giving away $35k. If they brought their spending down to $15k, they could give away $55k, but if they kept their spending constant while bringing their income to $120k they would be giving away $85k. Lowering spending from $35k to $15k represents substantial sacrifice. It's hard, living on less, giving things up. But altruism isn't about sacrifice, it's about helping others. Even reducing spending all the way to nothing wouldn't allow someone earning $70k to donate as much money as someone earning $120k.
So while I continued trying to stay reasonably frugal, partly because it's far harder to cut your spending than simply not let it increase, I mostly focused on earning more. At the time I was in a research technician role at an academically-focused organization, with salary to match; several years later I'm at a big software company with a reputation for paying well, earning three times as much.
Now, this is an unusual situation to be in! In an industry with a wider salary range than is typical, I moved pretty much from the low end to the high end by changing my mind about what I valued in a job and doing a few interviews. But it's also less unusual than you might think: I grew up in a family that emphasized non-monetary measures of success, went to a school with similar ethos, and many of my classmates who could have gone into traditionally lucrative careers instead chose self actualizing careers in pure mathematics or linguistics.
I don't expect very many people who have already made the decision to go off in one of these directions will make a career switch, but I do think it's important for people at earlier stages of deciding what they want to do to know about earning to give as an option.
So, what's the case for earning to give? At first it seems kind of roundabout: why earn money to pay people to do beneficial things, instead of just doing what needs doing yourself? How can that make sense? Well, first, sometimes it doesn't! There's a strong case for directly doing good things yourself, and for many people that's going to be the best route. But let's look at some advantages of the earning to give setup.
First, sometimes effective interventions are limited by money. Maybe you need to buy malaria nets, or plane flights, or produce radio spots. And I hear unconditional cash transfers require money. In these cases we can take something the economy is already pretty good at creating, and redirect it to more useful ends.
Second, you might be a lot better at earning money than doing more directly useful things. This is going to depend hugely on your individual skills so don't take this example to mean anyone in this position should definitely earn to give, but let's imagine a top lawyer who really thrives in the biglaw world. They're bringing lots of business into their firm, via an extremely valuable network of contacts they've built up over years in the business, and through the firm's compensation structure they're bringing home pay to match. Earning to give is an especially good fit for them, and they should probably keep doing it.
Third, if your good-doing is mediated by money you have a lot of flexibility. Someone who goes into desalination research and then later decides that building the effective altruism movement would be more valuable is in an awkward situation, while switching from funding one thing to funding another is much simpler. Similarly, if you're not sure yet what's the highest priority cause area, you can save money to deploy later.
Fourth, even if you don't think you'll earn to give long term, it can be a good way to start a career, since there are many relatively high earning options like consulting or programming that build generally applicable skills, ones that are often much needed in nonprofits, government, or research. Sometimes this gets called "earning to learn," and if you're looking for a job to build skills and career capital it makes sense to focus somewhat less on compensation and more on how it will let you grow.
Fifth, and finally, earning money to donate doesn't require you to dedicate your career fully to effective altruism. You can give 5%, 20%, 50%, however works. You can give more or less as your financial situation changes. You can decide to give 50% of any raises. You can push yourself to give more over time, or you can handle your scrupulosity impulse by picking something that seems fair and achievable and sticking to that. Maybe you love what you do at your job, enjoy the progress you've made, and would be sad to leave it. Maybe you have kids and a mortgage, and can't risk switching to a higher variance track. Earning to give can let you balance your altruism, where you can do a lot of good without giving up other things you also care about.
At this point I should probably say something about replacability. As effective altruists, we care about the good that comes because of us, not the good that comes through us. This means we're always asking the question, "what will happen otherwise?" If I become a doctor, how much less suffering will there be? Would someone else have been working those same emergency room shifts, treating those same injuries? This is the concept of replacability: would this still happen if I didn't do it.
In the early days of EA there was a lot of thought around replacability that wrote off many potentially beneficial careers as "fully replacable". We argued that the number of doctors was determined by the number of medical school admission slots, or that the number of non-profit workers was determined by available funding. With this view the benefit of you getting a job doing direct work is minimal, because you're just displacing someone else who would have done about as good a job as you. It places earning to give as a very strong option, because the other people in your position would not be donating anywhere near as much as you do, plus the direct work you can fund wouldn't happen otherwise.
This view applies to funding opportunities, however, just as it applies to earning opportunities. Organizations have an amount of funding they can practically use, the best organizations are likely to fill their funding gaps, my donation just displaces someone else's. With lots of EAs trying to give to where their money will do the most good is there anywhere left to give?
The problem with replacability arguments is that they put you in a frame of mind where you tend to overlook important considerations. If I apply to CEA and get the job, what will the applicant they would have hired instead do with their time? A replacability argument generally assumes they wouldn't do much, which implies the value of my taking the job is the difference between how well they would do it and how well I would do it. But since we both applied to work at an EA organization, if they don't get the job they're probably going to do something pretty valuable with their time, and the argument falls apart. Similarly, if you fill an EA organization's funding gap and so I have more money to give elsewhere, we likely have similar ideas about what's important and the difference between what I end up funding and what you would have funded, had the situations been reversed, may not be large.
Additionally, replacability arguments typically assume something is either nearly entirely replacable, or nearly entirely irreplacable. Economists like to talk about elasticity. Say bread starts costing twice as much: what do people do? If it's an elastic good, many people decide it's not worth it to them at that price and switch to pasta instead. But if it's inelastic, then people are really attached to the idea of eating bread and mostly keep buying it at the higher price. Most of the time, however, elasticity somewhere in between. Replacability is a special case of elasticity, so we should expect replacabilities to also rarely be close to 0% or 100%.
I do think counterfactual impact matters, and replacability is valuable when used carefully, but for choosing between typical EA careers I don't think it's very helpful.
One more thing I want to say, and then I'll be done. There's a thing some people do when they hear that Julia and I donate half of what we earn, where they go "wow, it's hard to imagine people being that generous." But many people in EA organizations and elsewhere are earning like a quarter of what they could earn if they were optimizing for money instead of benefit! Passing up income is just as much of a sacrifice as giving it away, but we often don't treat it as such.
So: earning to give is a career path that is well suited to people who are good at earning money, who are still exploring cause areas, who prioritize interventions that are funding-limited, who are early in their careers and want to build their skills, or who want to balance altruism against other things in their lives. I find that it suits me well, but I also can imagine myself doing something else five years from now.