11 August, 2019

Fungibility

Money is a good thing. We all are individually better off when trade is eased, even if it also causes inequality. I approve of money as a concept, despite its long-term drawbacks upon society. Somehow I have a modicum of faith that those issues will eventually be addressed. We're going to figure out how to make the extreme inequalities go away, sooner or later.

But it is another deceptively application of money that gives me pause. It is something so fundamental to the idea of money that I'm not sure how it could be solved without also taking away trade altogether. This idea, considered an unrelenting positive by most, is fungibility.

When I give money to someone else, they can use that money for whatever they want. Money reserved for one purpose can easily be spent on another purpose, simply by virtue of every base unit of currency being the same as any other. If I give you $10 to purchase chips for the party, you can instead spend those individual bills on something else entirely, and then purchase chips using a completely different set of bills. When you donate to a charity, requesting that they money be spent on X, they can just take the money previously allocated to X and reduce it by whatever amount you donated, effectively making your donation pay for something other than X.

Several state in the United States of America have infamously done this with programs like lotteries or gambling establishments. Before a vote to legalize gambling, the promise is made that tax money from gambling will go toward funding schools. But schools are already funded before this vote; once money from gambling comes in, the legislature will reduce the amount that gets allocated to schools from other sources. This results in some states where the amount of money that schools get will actually decrease once they start getting funded by gambling taxes.

This isn't the fault of gambling, or of charities having restricted funding, even though both ideas are poor ones (I think). The fault is that money can be moved from area to area too easily. Sure, this is good for trade, and it makes it easier to plan ahead, and it has all kinds of benefits. But it also causes ethical issues. Often, I've stopped to give cash to someone on the street, and a traveling companion will say something against it, maintaining that the money would be spent on drugs. Don't get me wrong; there are good reasons to instead spend that money on truly poor people in developing countries, and there are solutions available, like giving away gift cards to local eating establishments. And there are good reasons for valuing individual choice, resulting in the idea that if they decide to spend the money on things that are 'bad' for them, it should be their choice to do so -- giving a gift card to a fast food restaurant instead would be like gifting calves in developing countries rather than the cash that is needed for them to replace their thatched roofs.

But it makes things feel weird to me. Boycotts, for example, occupy a strange place in my mind. On the one hand, if a soft drink company does something absolutely terrible, like fund death squads in Columbia, or if a pineapple company violently overthrows the government of Hawaii, we might want to stop (and get others to stop) buying from them, with the end goal being to get these (and other) companies to not do these sorts of things in the future. However, it becomes less clear to me when the problem is with the owner of a company, rather than the company itself. Is there a justification for a boycott there? Or is this unfairly punishing the company for something that the owner is doing that we do not like?

And here it becomes complicated. Because if I pay you to run an errand, and then you use those funds to pay a company which I was boycotting, does that mean I broke from boycotting?

I've been chided before for giving cash as a gift. "It's not memorable", they've said, and they're correct about that. But I always thought that the goal was to maximize the chances of getting something that the recipient would appreciate, and that seems to be maximally possible with cash (and/or btc). "At least buy a gift card", they would say, but that defeats the purpose. Yet, over time I have been worn down, and now I tend to purchase things that say something about the relationship between myself and that person, only supplementing these thoughtful gifts with cash on the side.

Recently I received cash for my birthday. I was told to spend it on something special. Instead, I spent it on repaying a debt. But I still purchased something special, with later funds that otherwise would have been spent on repaying that debt. So did I buy something special with my birthday money?

In The Good Place, characters are in the afterlife, discussing what kinds of purchases are good or bad. They point out that there are so many externalities with even the smallest purchases that any exchange of goods might indirectly be causing extreme suffering. They say "indirectly" here, and I think that's the word most people would use, but if we take fungibility seriously, then isn't it really just directly causing suffering rather than indirectly? An indirect chain implies that the decision on what the last link funds isn't the same as the decision on what the first link funds. Yet if money is truly fungible, then the last link is equivalent to the first link, and any decision made on the first directly carries over to what the last does. You might be ignorant of what your money is funding, but you are directly responsible for it, not indirectly responsible for it.

Of more relevance to me today, however, is my pledge to give between 25% and 33% of my income to effective causes for the rest of my life. I've kept to this pledge even when working directly at an effective charity. But when I work at a charity, I take an extreme pay cut. Should this count as part of my pledge? My last full-time non-charity job paid $105/hour. If I take a job with an effective altruism charity that only pays $52/hour, then am I effectively donating half of my income without even giving away any of my money directly?

I'm not sure how seriously I should take fungibility and fungibility-adjacent ideas when it comes to ethical decisions. I feel like this is something I just need to think about more. Michael Sandel had some interesting thoughts along these lines, though not specifically about what I've written here. And there are some classic texts from Mill and others who explore related ideas. Maybe I need to review the literature a little more to see what others have to say on these topics.

05 August, 2019

A Yearning

I wish I could have back the mother who read to me when I was young. I want the comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged. I would like to be cared for solely due to who I am, separate from the consideration of my choices in life.

I am lucky to have a number of people who care about me. I have friends who, upon hearing I am feeling down, will contact me to see what they can do to cheer me up. I have loved ones who care for my well-being, and always have nice things to say to me. I have my paternal family, who invites me over often, and who will just spend time with me with no expectation beyond that. I have Jasper, who will curl up beside me, snuggling in his fur coat, always ready to comfort me in grey times. I have Katherine, who loves and takes care of me during good times or bad. I have my fiction, which takes me away from the world and allows me to self-modify my feelings for hours at a time upon demand.

But I don't have my grandmother, who died too quickly, and perhaps without knowing how much I appreciated her. And I don't have my mother, who cared once about me for no reason other than that I was her son, but who now cannot speak to me without bringing up horrors of the past. Thirteen years ago, when I last saw her, it was for just a few days. I was planning to move across the country on a Sunday, but on Saturday morning she changed her mind and kicked me out a day early. She called the police, who showed up not knowing the situation, which meant that when I stupidly bent down to put on my shoes when they asked me to go outside, the result was a gun pointed directly at my body, with the safety turned off. I talked my way out of it, as I always have been able to do, but how easily might I have been killed in that moment? Or arrested, with my unique name placed online, so that any who googled me would see it? How differently would my life have turned out had that occurred?

I don't trust my mother to just be loving with me. The last time I gave her my phone number in the hopes of reconciliation was eleven years ago; by the next day that mobile phone had dozens of incoming spam calls each day. I had to turn it off within a week. I don't know why or how she would do such a brazenly strange thing to me, but I learned to never give her my phone number again.

Ten years ago, I received a message from my uncle, who told me that no one in my maternal family cared for me any longer, and that I should never contact them again. I don't know if he said this on his own, or if it came from my mother. I have no reason to doubt either possibility. But it convinced me to leave well enough alone, and I have ever since.

My only contact since then has been my sister, who lives in Alabama still, and sees my mother regularly. I tried desperately to cultivate a relationship with her in good faith, but outside of occasional visits, she does not spend time with me. She does not take calls, or play games, or interact with me at all. I don't know why this is so. She acts as though she cares when I see her in person, for a few days each year. But that is all I get -- and perhaps that is all I deserve from that part of my family.

I am lucky to have so many friends and family here. It is perhaps too much to also ask that I have a relationship with my mother. I am too scared to even try, because it would not be worth it if all my mother had to say to me was harsh words. I don't know how to love as others say they do. I don't grok the idea of 'unconditional love', as though that were a good thing. I'm also unable to identify with the pst the way that others do; to me, my life is the life that here and now, not the life I held when I was young and stupid. Today, I do what I can to be a source for good in the world, and I do not identify as the person who cared not for the world back then. We share memories, but we are not one. So it is not worth it if I gain some small amount of displayed affection when I also have to accept condemnation for a past I no longer even agree with.

I wish at least that I could have memories of the reading my mother did with me. Reading that she must have done. There's no way that I could have learned to read so quickly had she not read to me. But when I look back in my own memories, the memories I share with past selves who did not respect memory, those happy moments which I know must be there are instead obscured. All I can catch in the cloudy mist are snippets of a sharp tongue: beratings for choices that past self made, yelling at me for a lack of subservience, turning her back to show her displeasure. My search for happy memories is successful only in the meta; knowledge that certain things had to have occurred, memories of watching VHS tapes long since lost which showed what was supposedly me, smiling. But actual memories? Direct, non-meta, honest-to-goodness images in my own head are all unreliable at best. I remember events that did not happen. Impossible occurrences that must have only existed in my imagination. I remember childhood friends who may or may not have been imaginary friends. I recall wishing wells that always worked; trips to an aunt's house that never happened. The first real memories I can truly count on are from a time when that relationship with my mother was already broken. Light bulbs removed, so I could not read; breaking confidences that harmed me socially. At best, I find faint praise in small snippets, always of the thing I am sick of: my brain. Or flashes of neutral experiences: sitting, bored, while she did something on a computer in a car lot.

What I want, maybe, is selfish. New memories, where it can just be a mother and a son, with what I imagine is a pulsing emotive feeling shared. No information need even be exchanged; just a hug would be sufficient.  But (1) that can't happen, not without also bringing discord into my life that I've long since pushed past, and (2) it is extraordinarily selfish of me. No thought here is given to what she may want. I honestly have no idea what that might even be. It has been too long since I've communicated with her at all, let alone communicated in a way that wasn't her being accusatory to me. A mere thirteen years since we spoke last, compared to maybe 19 or 20 years since I last remember her saying something actually positive to me, without an undertone of accusation. And (3): just because a relationship could be repaired does not mean that it should be repaired. It would be wrong for me to attempt reconciliation with many of my past relationships that did not end well. Perhaps it is the same with my mother. I may yearn for that comfort of feeling loved, without the baggage of feeling attacked or judged, but if it causes stress or discomfort to her, then it is not worth it. I no longer wish for anyone to feel pain at my expense. Not to the extent that I believe it would cause her.

If I were to die soon, at least let it be known that I cared enough to not cause even more undue suffering. I am not that person who once was; I am me, and I do my best to atone for those ancestors.

23 July, 2019

Grief Methods

What really sucks about my experience of my grandmother's passing is that I have no one I can talk to about her. All I can do is think in my own head, or write on this blog, or speak with people who never knew her.

A starcraft celebrity I watched once each week for the past 10+ years passed this weekend. Unlike my grandmother, he had a lot of friends who then spoke about and grieved for him over Twitch, YouTube, Reddit, TeamLiquid etc. Listening to others talk about his passing just reinforces how alone I feel about grieving for my grandmother. No one has posted anything online. No one has shared any news.

It would be inappropriate for me to reach out. The people closest to a person hurt the most; for me to go to them would be a burden. Instead, I should go to someone less close. Except there is no one in my community that knew her and simultaneously someone that I could talk to about it.

The maternal side of my family wants nothing to do with me. I received a facebook message 13 years ago from a family member there telling me that they all hated me, and that I should never contact them again. The last time I spoke with my mother, she decided to kick me out 24 hours earlier than the day we had planned for me to leave; she notified me of this by sending police into the house. I don't know what she told the police, but the first thing they did after announcing their presence was to pull a gun on me. I no longer feel comfortable around my mother. I'm afraid of her. I don't want to risk ruining my life by interacting with her. None of my other family there would be appropriate to speak to either, for various reasons.

I want to hear stories of my grandmother. But the only person I could talk to is my sister, and she doesn't like to play games with me online anymore. I'm not entirely sure why. I enjoy spending time with her, speaking with her, and playing games with her. But friendship is a series of mutual decisions to spend time with each other, and apparently it is not mutual for us any longer.

I don't mean to complain here. Especially not having to do with my sister. Whereas I was close to my grandmother decades ago, she was close to our grandmother for the past few decades. It certainly has hit her harder than it has hit me. And so it is inappropriate for me to reach out. Instead, I continue to watch people grieve about Geoff Robinson, and I continue to wonder what it would be like if I had the ability to consume content like that about my grandmother.

)c:

20 July, 2019

Opulence and Giving

To some people, this post will seem like boasting. To others, it will seem that I am not doing quite enough. Either way, I want to be more open about these things which society has otherwise deemed as "inappropriate to share" with an audience like this. I don't believe sharing things like salary or donation amounts should be inappropriate, and the only way I know to combat it is to share more openly myself. If, after sharing, you feel uncomfortable with what I've said, I invite you to think about why that discomfort exists and to consider opening a dialogue with me about it.

In 2011, I first encountered the Effective Altruism movement. It wasn't called that at the time; I was a part of the initial discussions about choosing the name, which, to be honest, we never thought would become the public face of the movement. (Others in my same position have called themselves a "founder" of the movement; I'm not sure I'd go that far, even though there was certainly very, very few people talking about things in the forums back in those days.)

In 2012, I quit my job at a large national nonprofit, frustrated that I had no ability to help it become more effective in the ways that really mattered. I wanted to focus on more EA centric work. By 2013 I had found my new focus: Animal Charity Evaluators.

Yet it wasn't until 2014 that I took the Giving What We Can pledge and started donating what I consider a large percentage of my income. Between 2014 and today, I have donated between 25% and 33% of my annual income to EA organizations/causes. At first, this was not much; as a startup, ACE did not pay nearly as well as the larger nonprofit I'd quit the year before. But I quickly decided to work only part-time at ACE so that I could get a job elsewhere. My hourly wage outside of ACE during these years was between $60–$110/hour.

The key phrase I want to focus on above is "quickly decided". Here I was, an eager advocate of EA who had quit their job in frustration, starting work as the second paid employee of what was then a small three-person organization, and yet one of the first things that crossed my mind was: I need to make more money than this. 

To me, donating between a quarter and a third of my income is a big deal, though it certainly isn't that impressive compared to many of my peers in the movement. I know several other EAs who regularly donate in the 50% (or more!) range, some who have more money than I do, and some who make less. They sometimes write about how easy it is to live on less, and I am constantly amazed by it. But, for some reason, I enjoy my comforts too much. I enjoy money too much.

As I type this, the heat outside reaches 100 degrees fahrenheit. Yet I sit in a house cooled to 68°. I know this is bad for the environment, bad for my finances, and so many others would be quick to point out that increasing the thermostat to something closer to 72° would be only a minor temperature difference that would translate into a major power difference. Yet I can't help it: I require comfort. I can't not have thermostat at 68°, and, if I'm being honest, I actually consider it a compromise because I'd prefer 65°.

I own a Nintendo Switch with about 200 games. I haven't bought these games at auctions or deal sites; they're all digital, purchased via Nintendo's eshop. I own somewhere around 250 board games, at least 90% of which were purchased brand new. I collect desk toys, plushies from franchises I enjoy, and I own nearly every amiibo ever created. I subscribe to netflix, hulu (the no commercials version), amazon prime video, hbonow, cinemax, cbs all access, dc universe, youtube premium, and I fully expect to pay for disney's streaming service when it comes out. The amount of money I spend on wasted trivialities is immense, especially for an effective altruist.

I'm embarrassed of this opulence when I speak to fellow EAs. I play online games with a few people in the movement. One plays Switch, but always buys physical so they can resell after playing and get their money back. Another literally only owns the five or so games that they regularly play. Yet another doesn't play online with me anymore because they're still on the previous generation of systems. Why? Because spending less on frivolities means accomplishing more good in the world. Do I really need to own yet another game when the money for that purchase could instead have gone to help save the life of a real person in need?

I've talked before about the idea of visualizing what my donations accomplish. I look at $7k and think to myself: this is equivalent to me running inside of a burning building and saving a stranger from certain death. I am a hero for this. This really and truly matters.

But then the latest video game comes out, and I purchase it.

For the last few months, I've been mostly just freelancing, taking jobs here and there, but not working much at all. I'm surviving mostly on savings and the help of others. Eventually, I would like to get a job at an EA organization, but I'm not rushed about doing so. Much of my free time is spent on writing a book which may or may not be published. I couldn't do this if I didn't have money. What would my life be like if I couldn't quit a job because of frustration with their mission? Would I have become as entrenched in the EA movement if I had had to keep working there for monetary reasons? And what about today, where I'm taking a hiatus between jobs of multiple months, waiting until I find the perfect opportunity for me? How could I do such a thing without the social safety net I have from my social position in life?

We need a universal basic income so that others can have the same types of opportunities to do good as I have had. We need a society where people can choose to do the type of work they want to do, rather than be forced to work at whatever job they have to.

I believe all this, and yet simultaneously I feel shame at my opulence. I can't work effectively without having downtime filled with the games and temperature that I love. I can't do good for others without what seems like abject waste for myself. Am I broken in this way? Or is this just how I am, blamelessly? I don't know. I'm not even trying to fix it right now. Instead, I'm focusing on writing a book, while spending time on rather expensive hobbies, and just coasting until I find the perfect EA position for me on the EA job board. This is embarrassing to me, and I would not feel comfortable typing any of this into the effective altruism forum, despite it being true. So it gets posted here instead, to be lost in a sea of journal entries that no one ever reads, while I continue to figure out how to grieve for my grandmother's death.

16 July, 2019

Memories of my Grandmother

Greenville Advocate, January 2, 1941
Mattie & Margaret w/ perfect grades.
"Manual for Baptist Young People
on Organization, Programs, and Methods"
Ercil's wife, Bertha Belle, is Mattie's half-cousin.
(Ercil is misspelled in the newspaper.)
When I was three years old, I returned from a trip to Miami, Florida. I have no memory of what happened there, no memory of the drive to or from there, no memory of how I felt about any of it, and no memory of anything even slightly related to it. But I nevertheless know that I went there, because, afterward, my grandmother, Mattie Jo, asked me about it. She told me that she would write down whatever I said and it could be turned into a book. So I recited a story about the trip, which she wrote onto loose leaf pages, and she gave them to me to illustrate. Afterward, the pages were stapled together, bound into a book. It was my first journal entry.

The prose is terrible. By the time I get to the second sentence, I've lost the narrative about Miami, and I seem to just babble. Of course, I was three years old at the time, so I suppose that's understandable.

Evergreen Courant, March 27, 1947
Mattie was 19 years old.
More importantly, this event really shows how my grandmother interacted with me when I was a child. I was at her house all of the time. I don't recall any memories prior to age seven, but my understanding is that I must have come by often. Once I turned seven, we built a house on the same street as her home, and I ended up staying over constantly.

She made the best sweet tea, although her sandwiches were not as good as my great aunt Margaret's (her sister). I loved sitting in the big recliner next to her, which was almost always available, since my grandfather stayed in bed most of the time. I used to roll her cylinder shaped ottoman to the other side of the living room to help build structures out of pillows. She would sing songs to me that I can no longer recall. As a small child, I used to run and play in her house while just wearing underwear. I would set up army men on her glass living room table, and play teenage mutant ninja turtles in the alcove of the foyer, all while she would watch television just behind me.

Advertiser-Gleam, April 2, 1952
"List of people who can vote in elections."
She made a manicotti dish that I apparently loved as a child, though in my actual memory I can't recall ever tasting it. She hosted all the family events like Christmas, where presents and wrapping paper were always quickly separated. I played my NES there, hooked up to her television: super mario bros. + duck hunt, and later all kinds of games rented from the local blockbuster. She loved to cheer me on whenever I played games -- until ten minutes passed and she realized it was just the same thing over and over, at which point she'd start crocheting.

When I crashed my bicycle outside her front door, she was the one who bandaged me. My knuckles have been scarred ever since. That day, my grandfather went to the toolshed in the back and came out an hour later to give me an award for bravery. It was a wooden plaque shaped like a shield, commemorating that bicycle crash. If it was supposed to make me feel proud, it failed; I never touched a bicycle again to this day, partly out of fear, and now out of habit.

Greenville Advocate, December 26, 1963
The three children are Patty, Billy, and my mother, Joanne.
One day, she spent what felt like hours teaching me how to crochet. I proceeded to fail to make anything at all. I loved hearing stories from her about all kinds of things. How, for example, she was not allowed to marry her husband until her soon-to-be mother-in-law successfully taught her how to make several Italian recipes. There was apparently a test, which she passed, and which gave her permission to marry their son. And stories of my uncle Billy. And what my uncle Michael was like at my age.

I can remember going through the phone book with my grandmother, learning how to use it. And browsing the Sears catalog, filled with mostly boring items, but a smattering of toys interspersed within. My grandmother played few games with me, but would always bring out the building blocks when I was young. The blocks were made of wood and painted bright red. My grandfather made them for me, and I loved building towers with them.

There are so many memories I have with my grandmother. She was very important to me. I don't like that she died. Death is the true enemy. I must always remember this.

Greenville Advocate, December 19, 1940
Forest Home Elementary Perfect Attendance
At the same time, I feel numb. I don't know if this is a defect. I don't know what I should be feeling, or even if the word "should" applies here. I do know that I've enjoyed finding an old newspaper that lists her as having perfect attendance at school one year. It reminds me that there is so much of her beyond what memories I have of her. Mattie Jo was a person, filled with hopes and dreams, having lived a full life of travel and family. She experienced the loss of a teenage son, and the terror of her husband being permanently disabled in a car crash the same month that I was born. She grew up in the tiniest of towns, and near the end stayed consecutively with two of her daughters. She became especially close to my sister, living with her multiple times over the past decade or so. I'd love to hear stories of our grandmother from her, to learn what Mattie was like during the years I wasn't there.

I regret not learning more of these stories directly from my grandmother. I miss her voice.