Why tech bros are trying to give away all their money (kind of)
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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MARY CHILDS, HOST:
Wailin, why did you get into journalism?
WAILIN WONG, HOST:
Well, Mary, I guess I like to help people understand the world around them.
CHILDS: I love that. But how do you know that you're helping people?
WONG: Well, every once in a while, I do get a nice email.
CHILDS: Oh. So how many people would you estimate you're helping?
WONG: (Laughter) Judging by the number of emails, like, not that many.
CHILDS: OK, OK. I'm just trying to figure out if you've calculated a range for how much you're helping, like, per episode and per listener in terms of units of happiness and or satisfaction.
WONG: You know, what's not helping, Mary, is all of these questions 'cause now I'm just getting really anxious and stressed out.
CHILDS: I know, right? I'm so sorry. But there is a relatively small, but buzzy philanthropic movement that has opted into this stress. It's called effective altruism. It's basically a philosophical lens that uses the language of economics with a goal of maximizing everyone's overall well-being.
WONG: Ah, yes - effective altruism. I know that Sam Bankman-Fried, lately of FTX, is a big proponent of this movement.
CHILDS: Yes, that's correct. It is big among tech and crypto people. SBF even used it as a justification for why he went into crypto and why crypto is good.
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SAM BANKMAN-FRIED: The industry has the potential to improve a lot of people's lives.
CHILDS: That's him testifying before Congress before the collapse of his exchange, FTX.
WONG: Man, with hindsight, those words just ring a little different.
CHILDS: They hit different, yeah.
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WONG: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.
CHILDS: And I'm Mary Childs.
Today on the show, we learn what it means to be more effective in your altruism, how it borrows from economics and why tech bros are so into it.
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CHILDS: So after FTX collapsed, I got a little bit obsessed with effective altruism, and I found myself turning to this one person who is very well versed in this stuff and also happens to be an old friend of mine. Amy Berg is an assistant professor of philosophy at Oberlin College.
AMY BERG: Effective altruism has its roots in the moral philosophy called utilitarianism. And utilitarians thought happiness is what matters. So the early utilitarians especially were like, it's not fair that some children get to live like Little Lord Fauntleroy and wear, like, frilly breeches and others work in the coal mines, and they die of the black lung when they're 7. Everyone's happiness matters equally.
CHILDS: I don't think I can come up with objections to that statement.
WONG: Me neither. Especially the part about the frilly breeches. But isn't this the basis for a lot of philanthropy - not just EA?
CHILDS: Yes, but, basically, effective altruists say that other philanthropy is ineffective because it's emotional - it's random. It's not rigorous or scientific.
BERG: And so effective altruists thought, we could do this better. Let's go out and do the kinds of things economists do. And if we do that enough, over and over - we go out and gather enough evidence about the good that our charitable donations are actually having - we can use that to figure out what charities are actually doing the most good, and then people can use that evidence to guide their own decision-making.
CHILDS: We can't all be Bill Gates, but we can all figure out how to make our little piles of money have the maximum possible impact.
BERG: The pitch is really you can do a tremendous amount of good - like, you can save a life. So if there's a slogan for effective altruism, it's let's use evidence and reason to figure out how we can do the most good, and then let's go out and do it.
CHILDS: There are a few effective altruist organizations that gather empirical data on what interventions help the most. Classically, this is in the area of global health.
BERG: If you look at GiveWell, which is one of the big effective altruist organizations, the third-ranked charity is a charity that is devoted to making sure that kids get vitamin A supplements because vitamin A is really important for preventing blindness.
CHILDS: So that is the effective part.
WONG: OK. But then, for example, I am really into the arts. And I see a lot of value in the arts, but I'm not sure how I would go about making an empirical argument for it. Like, would an effective altruist tell me not to give to the arts?
CHILDS: Basically, yes.
BERG: They use a three-part framework for figuring out what causes are the most effective. So how important is it? How neglected is it? And how tractable is it? So how important - how many lives am I going to save? How neglected are other people working on it? And how tractable - how much can my individual donation change things? Art stuff - not super neglected.
CHILDS: They're also not tractable - can't solve art, annoyingly.
BERG: That's right. That's right. That's right. Where like, I can really - if I'm a billionaire, and I give money to lead paint eradication in the United States, I could potentially wipe out lead paint in the United States if I have enough money to give away.
CHILDS: I kind of wish someone would just do that, right?
WONG: Yes, yes. I can get behind lead paint eradication. This movement does seem to attract billionaires. Like, at times, Elon Musk has expressed interest in this. Is he still a billionaire?
CHILDS: That's a really good question, and it reminds me of another question I had for Amy.
A lot of the logic feels right, feels intuitive, but the logic can also lead to really goofy outcomes. And I think one of them that I recall was buying Twitter.
CHILDS: That - I just didn't see that coming in my logic chain.
BERG: If you convince yourself that you've run the numbers just right, you can convince yourself that just about anything is the way to maximize utility. There's a lot of room for self-deceit.
CHILDS: One EA school of thought encourages becoming as rich as possible specifically to use that money to go wipe out big problems. It's not as widely promoted now as it was, but it's called earn to give - as in earn all of the money possible in order to give more money away. This is what SBF said he was doing with FTX.
WONG: But that just sounds like it gets so messy. Like, even setting aside the FTX example, it's like, should I go work for a fossil fuel company to make a ton of money so I can give it away to causes that fight climate change?
CHILDS: Amy Berg says...
BERG: Yeah. Literally, yes. Like, literally, that is what you could say if you're an EA because, if you don't work for a fossil fuel company, it's not like they're going to say, oh, you know, Wailin didn't come work for us, so I guess we have to shut down now, and climate change is fixed forever. They're going to hire somebody else. And if you run the numbers just right, maybe that's even more effective than if you stopped flying, ate only local produce, you know, bought an electric car or did whatever else normal people do to fight climate change.
WONG: It just really seems to reinforce the status quo.
CHILDS: Yeah, this is not a movement about overthrowing global capitalism. And in part, that comes down to EAs' insistence on achievable outcomes. Like, say your No. 1 cause was chicken welfare, which, by the way, is a real top-ranked cause because effective altruists extend their philosophy to all living beings, and there are a lot of chickens to help.
WONG: Got it - so just up the good vibes generally, whether they be human or chicken.
CHILDS: Yes, exactly.
BERG: But what if the right answer to chicken suffering is not rescue a few chickens, but pass a law that says no more factory farming? We don't really have any evidence about what's going to create systemic change because you can't do a randomized, controlled trial on the U.S. with no factory farming versus the U.S. with factory farming and see how the chickens do.
CHILDS: California actually did pass a law a little while back saying that all eggs sold in the state must come from cage-free chickens. So there's an opportunity to get some empirical data.
WONG: But it does seem like, generally speaking, political action is kind of a struggle to pitch to EAs.
CHILDS: Yeah, I think, for a lot of EAs, it comes down to this modern political nihilism - this idea that our government is just too inept or polarized or whatever to get much of anything done.
I think a lot about how this ideology rose with the number of billionaires in the world. It seems like, yes, it gives you kind of a useful mechanism to shovel money faster, but is there - is it doing other things for billionaires? Is it, like, a useful ideology for billionaires in a way?
BERG: Yeah. Because if you can run the numbers and justify trusting yourself to give away your money, then you don't have to worry about whether you could give your money away more effectively through taxation, and then you wind up maybe even advocating for not raising taxes on the ultrawealthy because you think this is the most effective way for me to give away my money.
CHILDS: Well, Wailin, I personally have to go have a real think on how I'm going to shovel all my money out the door fast enough.
WONG: You could buy a castle. Didn't some EAs just do that?
CHILDS: Oh, yes. And that's a great idea. I will.
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CHILDS: This episode was produced by Audrey Dilling, with engineering by Katherine Silva. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Viet Le is our senior producer, and Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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