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.

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