A Pledge

My Plan for Charitable Giving in 2020 and Beyond

Comparing people with wildly disparate goals and belief systems reveals something peculiarly admirable about those hold strictly to their ideals. This trait, sometimes called having the courage of your convictions, essentially a firm commitment to some set of values or beliefs, is present in the individuals I most admire. Naturally, when deciding what sorts of goals to pursue and thinking of what sort of person I wish to be, it is this trait that often dominates my mental bandwidth. A new decade has emerged, and for me, a recent bachelor’s degree recipient, an ideal time has come to make commitments that align with my values. Yet instead of picking and choosing seemingly worthwhile commitments at will, I believe I should better understand what I think is most worth committing to. This pledge is an attempt to undergo that process.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that a surface level understanding of the consequences of commitment hides a dark underbelly. Extreme courage to extreme convictions is not without terrible consequence. I have little doubt that Abu Bakr al Bagdhadi maintained a profound and inexorable commitment to the ideology of the Islamic State up to the point that he detonated his suicide vest. Likewise, the historical figures regarded as stereotypically evil were almost unimaginably dedicated to their respective ideologies. If you read much about figures including Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and al Bagdhadi, you find disbelief and a prevented sense of awe at the extent of their ideological commitments. This odd mental exercise is informative for at least a couple reasons. First, it clearly demonstrates how commitment and courage are not proxies for validity or morality. Second, as Aristotle articulated more than two millennia ago, possession of a single virtue does not create a virtuous person and an improperly balanced virtue itself turns to vice. So, not only is the content underlying a commitment to a cause crucially important, the commitment itself should not be such that it blinds one to the world around.

However, one need not be taken in the morally bankrupt ideologies of Fascism, Communism, or Wahhabism to transform their convictions into an actively harmful endeavor. One salient example is the rise and fall of PlayPumps, as described in Will MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better. PlayPumps were designed as a device that simultaneously served as a water pump and merry go round, providing a play space for children and clean drinking water for the community. Garnering global attention, and millions of dollars, the PlayPump manufacturers achieved a significant impact. But, as you might surmise, there is a catch. PlayPump was a misnomer. Most were difficult to push and using them was more of a chore than fun – not your typical merry go round. They were mainly used by women who bore the indignity of pushing a colorful, inefficient, merry go round for their water. To compound these problems, they were expensive, broke down easily, and were difficult to fix. In theory, they could function well, but required large amounts of water extremely close to the surface.

Obviously, the success imagined by the donors to PlayPumps and those working on the project did not bear out. However, even as I sit here criticizing those involved, I must respect most of their values. Those involved in PlayPumps International – the non-profit which installs and maintains these pumps – had a commitment and dedication to provide complete strangers drinking water and a play space. This motivation is not something I can critique. What this example does suggest, however, is that even in a case where your convictions are directed at a what you see to be a certain good, the means by which you act must be empirically persuadable. Otherwise, the amount of good you want to achieve will almost certainly fail to materialize. Before setting out to achieve a goal, then, you should do significant research to reasonably predict the impact of potential actions. And crucially, once the evidence rolls in from your own endeavor, your goals must be reassessed and changed accordingly.

Any worthwhile commitment must try to avoid these pitfalls discussed above: 1. Substituting a high degree of commitment and courage for presumed connection to truth and 2. Failing to properly respond to evidence. Therefore, if I want to do more good with my life, my commitments should be grounded in non-dogmatic thinking. Obviously, though, the mere idea of commitment is amorphous, so now I will proceed by outlining a type of commitment that is best capable of surviving moral scrutiny but remains actionable.

If there is nothing else people should agree upon, it is that needless suffering and death should be avoided. Searching in your memory, it isn’t difficult to recall the plethora of intensely negative experiences present during the last debilitating illness you had (and if it is difficult to do then you are very lucky). If you are human, it should seem apparent that such needless pain serves no real purpose, and the world would be better devoid of such pains.

Yet, while wishing that people avoid suffering and dying from illnesses isn’t controversial, spending time reflecting on such topics seems rare. When I compare what I have experienced to other people, my suffering is obviously just the tip of the iceberg. Purposeless suffering is shockingly widespread if you spend time trying to think about the conditions of 7.8 billion humans. Millions of individuals are born with or develop physical conditions that cause great pain and discomfort over a lifetime. An even greater number have debilitating psychological conditions (from the 264 million suffering from anxiety disorders to the 20 million with schizophrenia) that preclude them from acting in the world as they wish and torment their minds.

Globally, the most common causes of death, including hearth disease, stroke, chronic and infectious lung diseases, include a mix of progressive noncommunicable diseases, communicable diseases, and road injuries.

The data also reveals a global disparity in susceptibility to certain forms of suffering and death. In lower income countries, more than half of deaths are caused by communicable illnesses that have been eradicated or largely diminished in the United States, where I have the privilege of living. Furthermore, these illnesses prey upon a wider range of ages and kill a larger proportion of children than non-communicable diseases. These include: Malaria, with 216 million cases per year leading to >400,000 deaths a year, Tuberculosis with approximately ¼ of the world latently infected leading to >1 million deaths a year, and parasitic intestinal worms which actively harm over a billion individuals.

By mere luck of birth, I have not had to suffer or worry about most of these illnesses and conditions that currently degrade human welfare. While one may infer from the broad descriptions of suffering discussed above that such problems are intractable, a surface level examination of the topic suggests clear ways to make measurable positive impacts. As we have seen, most deaths are caused by non-communicable deaths that rich and middle-income countries are wrestling with. In terms of generally reducing illness and death, however, the most effective donations go internationally to the poorest countries in the world (where money goes the farthest).

Most people have at least some conception of the how the luck of birth plays into their lives, but fewer seem to be swayed to action by a combination of the moral imperative and immense opportunity it provides. The fact that I am relatively wealthy globally speaking, opens up room for Peter Singer’s arguments that have deeply persuaded me since I first encountered them. Singer’s shallow pond, perhaps only behind the Trolley Problem, is one of the most vivid and influential thought experiments in moral philosophy.

Imagine you are walking next to a shallow pond where a young girl appears to be drowning. Is there a moral imperative to save her? Yes. Should the discomfort of having to jump into the water and the fact that you might ruin expensive clothes and shoes weigh into this consideration at all? Almost no one would say yes. But, now replace the shallow pond with a disease in another country and diving to save the child with paying the same value as what would be lost by ruining your clothes or shoes. Is there any moral reason not to pay such a value? Answered succinctly by Singer, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” 

Such arguments have always resonated with me and prompted me to value donating to charity higher. Yet despite being persuaded, they have not driven me to significant action until now. Partially, this is because I was a student and earned little, but it is also because I simply didn’t want to think about it. Much of the credit for the mindset behind this pledge goes to the Effective Altruism movement, and Will MacAskill in particular. I take his career and philosophy as an inspiration on how to best combine a meaningful career with a positive effect on the world. His pledge to donate everything he earns above £24,000 (around $30,000) made me reevaluate what living a successful and fulfilling life looks like.

This leaves open the questions concerning how much and specifically where I should donate to. The best estimates I have seen suggest that averting the death of a child under 5 years old from malaria with bednets costs less than $4000. Rougher estimates suggest that providing positive outcomes, perhaps as good as that of saving the life, such as widespread deworming (removing intestinal worms), can cost as low as $480. This fact does two things for me. It reminds me again of the extent to which terrible suffering that I have never experienced exists in the world and simultaneously shows me an avenue by which I can be part of the solution. Altogether, the process demonstrates more clearly for me how giving needn’t be viewed solely as a moral obligation, but a source of meaning and motivation in it of itself.

So, what exactly am I stating I will do? Simply put, I am making a commitment to donate a portion of my income over the next year to effective charities while maintaining a capacity to improve my life or necessitate living with great discomfort, which I will discuss in greater detail below. Assuming all goes well, I will extend the pledge at the end of this year to include 2021 and see where it goes from there. Right now, I am planning to donate my money to GiveWell’s Grants, which go to the “highest-value funding opportunities“ among their top-rated charities. But this is not set in stone. If I discover strong reasons showing why I should be donating elsewhere, I am open to changing where my money goes.

I admire the work done by Givingwhatwecan.org and hope everyone reading this considers going to the site to pledge to donate 10% of their income to organizations that they think do the most good. It is tremendously useful to clarify the donation process by picking and sticking with a reasonable rate of charitable giving. The mere simplicity of that percentage has an appeal in it of itself (hence its unique name). My first step was to sign this pledge and I have thought of it as a useful benchmark to measure and appreciate my impact. However, in observing my willingness to spend time thinking about my impact, I wanted to develop a more sophisticated donation strategy where the exact percentage of income donated varies depending on income rather than resting at a static rate. Thus, I have spent time developing an individual rate of donation, that is progressively scalable with increases in income.

After examining tax rates at certain income levels for a single filer in Austin, TX, USA, I have decided to make the marginal donation rate a logistic function of disposable/post tax income. This yields an effective rate that begins at 30% of disposable income, rises to ~45% at $50,000 (~$60,000 gross income), ~65% at $100,000 (~$135,000 gross income). before slowing forming an asymptote at 90% at much greater disposable incomes.

To see more details, I have compiled most of the calculations and charts on a Google spreadsheet.  

I certainly believe that there is a large amount of naïveté present in this pledge. To start, I am only 22 years old, do not pay for my health insurance, and live at home. These facts might make it difficult for individuals with more life experience to take this pledge seriously. But I don’t feel they should discourage my efforts here. Rather, these facts encourage me to acknowledge and account for as many of the barriers to continuing this pledge in the future as possible. I see my current circumstance as giving me the freedom to plan for a future where financial requirements are increased, and open-mindedness is reduced. Finally, whether or not this pledge fails, I feel my life will be better for having tried.

To avoid failure though, requires an understanding that life comes with numerous competing interests and is by no means static. Questions of financial independence, children, medical emergency, divergent personal motivations, and countless other factors have the capacity to dent or destroy even the most foolproof plans. Considering this, I think it is fair to stipulate that the financial elements of this pledge will make exceptions for medical issues and other life emergencies, should they arise. That is, this pledge waives any one year’s donation requirement if a medical, family, or other emergency occurs.

Additionally, the notion of growing financial independence will make it difficult, both psychologically and practically, to maintain this charitable endeavor as I grow older. Thus, alongside these stipulations, I shall try to account for the psychological barriers to donation that will be created by future costs including rental, health care, and other necessities. To do this, it is important to make a rough prediction about what such necessities might look like in the near future. For an individual like myself living in Austin, TX, it is perhaps reasonable to plan to pay between $600 and $1,000 per month on rent (based on information from apartments.com, trulia.com, and peers) in the next few years. Likewise, if I am unable to find a job with employee sponsored health care plan or employee subsidized health insurance options, I will have to buy out of the health insurance market for healthcare after I turn 26 (as I am currently blessed with access to my parents health insurance). This could cost over $400/month in the Austin healthcare market before possible government subsidies (which might drop it by $200 depending on my income level). Other costs include food, transportation (car, bike, gas, bus etc.), automobile insurance, cell/internet service. These have a wider range in variability but could be estimated as costing at least an additional few hundred dollars a month.

To smooth the transition to increased financial independence, I shall employ the following measure. I will calculate every dollar I save by relying on my parents and formulate a plan to reasonably reduce that number to 0 over time, gaining financial independence. Until that time, at least 80% of my post-donation, discretionary income will be saved as well. These will go to my retirement savings account (my Roth IRA and/or a traditional IRA) and other savings accounts and investments I have.

All in all, this process will require me to think about how to balance competing interests that might get in the way of future charitable giving. This will allow me to gain budgeting experience and force stricter limits on personal expenses. Additionally, savings provide more leeway to meet financial requirements in the future. However, even with savings as a backup, my goal is to limit the extent that I will need to draw from savings and instead use my budgeting skills to establish sustainability over time.

While obviously impossible to account for every factor, it is still crucially important to attempt to think ahead. At the very least this will show me how accurate my assumptions about what is personally or financially feasible turn out to be. This year will be a learning experience and I hope to be able to report in December 2020 not simply a statement that I stuck to my pledge, but a set of experiences, problems, and solutions to living a more charitable life.

No matter whether this project fails miserably or serves as a successful model for how I (and perhaps others) go about donating money for the rest of my life I want this document to get out into the world. Something clicked in the past few months and forced me to fuse together thoughts that had been festering for years in my mind. A certain portion of it is becoming more familiar with the Effective Altruism movement, but there is a deeper psychology to it as well. For most of my life I have wondered how (not if), to make it cliché, I was going to do something special. In the past, thoughts racing through my mind have always returned to the notion that if I was unable to make a great discovery, found or lead a historically prominent organization, or otherwise conjure some profound influence on the shape of humanity in my lifetime, I will have failed myself and life itself. No matter how many times I would tell myself this was unreasonable, and despite rejecting cosmic notions of fate or divine guidance early in my life, this feeling persisted.

Somewhere along the line, the distractions of life (particularly as an adolescent and young adult in the age of smartphones and the internet) forced me away from having such thoughts at all, at the expense from thinking much about my future at all. But life constantly poses questions, and this year more than ever before, I ran out of default answers and had to find a more reasonable conception of what to do with my time on earth and how to evaluate it. Today, I would not characterize myself as having an inextricable belief in the binary of grandeur or failure; historical significance or miserable existence. What remains in my mind is the deep desire to do great amounts of good in this odd world in which I find myself. This, I believe, starts by following my conviction to spend what I can to most reduce the suffering and death that plagues this world.

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