Donations, The First Year

2021 was my first year with a full-time, steady source of employment, and money that accumulates instead of going right back into tuition and living expenses.

Having identified as an Effective Altruist (EA)1 for the better part of a decade, one thing I was looking to the most from this was the ability to finally make a substantial difference through the unit of caring.

For someone who’s identified as an Effective Altruist for the better part of a decade though, it was embarrassingly easy for sentiment to get my goat.

😓😓😓

Where We Gave

My girlfriend and I donated ~10% of our combined post-tax income, as stipulated by the Giving What We Can pledge. However, we failed to donate it all to effective charities, so it can’t really be said that we uh actually fulfilled the terms of the pledge. Thankfully I am very neurotic about not breaking any oaths so I have prepared for this moment by never actually officially signing up for the pledge, despite having identified as an effective altruist for zzzzzzz.

Here is where it went:

40% to global health initiatives via the RCForward Global Health Fund.2

15% to environmental advocacy via the RCForward Climate Change Fund.

15% to Spectrum, Kitchener-Waterloo’s queer community space. They do a lot of cool stuff and maintain a very active calendar of events.

15% to A Better Tent City, a cheap, no-barrier alternative to shelters in Kitchener. Instead of doing the shelter model where they turn everyone out during the day and then accept them back at night using a first-come-first serve basis (which is bad since demand outnumbers supply so there’s no sense of security for any shelter users), ABTC serves a more permanent community by giving them tiny homes to live in.

15% to the KWCF Immigration Partnership Fund for Immigrant and Refugee Initiatives, to support programs and initiatives for Afghan refugees starting their new life in Waterloo Region.

On Donating Locally

To be honest, I’m still not really sure if doing what was basically a 50/50 split between effective and local charities was the right move. It’s definitely something I want to think through in more detail before this year’s donations.

What we donated to local charities combined would be enough to save the lives of like two children if we donated it to a Givewell recommended global health charity, and I wouldn’t expect it to have that sort of impact here – although I think the value to local donations might be higher than you’d expect. I might write a post about this later.

I think you can definitely argue that donating to local charities could be put in the same bucket as, like, signing up for local pottery classes (some fun, some stimulation of the local economy), or heck maybe even home decor (beautifying your immediate area entirely for your own benefit) – something you do for warm fuzzies more than you do because it’s the right thing to do.

On the other hand, I do think that having a sense of rootedness in where you live is virtuous (and a pretty big force multiplier in doing stuff that’s good), and I genuinely do think that local charities are neglected and can be very powerful.

Getting My Goat

Stuff about local/effective donations aside, I think my local charities were honestly pretty terribly chosen and motivated entirely by my lame monkey emotions. Spectrum because I’m gay and I attended some events that they hosted, and I had a really good time. ABTC because I work with people who are on the project and it seems cool. The refugee fund because I was following their story in local papers and they did a good job tugging on my heartstrings.

I mean look I did look into everyone’s annual reports and make sure that they’re legit, and in the case of the refugees I ended up donating to my second choice since the first was literally in the middle of a money laundering scandal, but I basically made up the categories out of whole cloth since I didn’t have a super rigorous idea of what I wanted to do.

I also didn’t donate to what I think is equivocally the best and also most neglected charity in the region, because I thought it would be awkward since I work there (I work there because I researched nonprofits in the region to apply to jobs at and this seemed like very obviously the best one), which is honestly a pretty terrible reason. Especially since it’s actually very easy to donate anonymously, but to be fair I only realized this after we did all our donations.

I will state though for the record that the donor wall didn’t actually factor into my decision making process at all. That was just a joke I swear.

Tentative Plan for 2022

Aggressive/Risky: Donate 10% of income to effective charities in global health and environmental advocacy, in something like a 70/30 split. Definitely pay attention to new environmental projects. Treat local donations as a separate budget category that pulls from our spending money, and donate only to the one I like. Executing this means risking not doing any local donations.

Moderate/Safe: Donate 10% of income in a 70/20/10 split for global health, environmental advocacy, and local organizations respectively. I think this is what I actually want to do, rationally, monkey emotions aside. Peter Singer still wouldn’t Officially Recognize Me As A Good Person if I go this route, but I think about this in terms of harm reduction – the more I enjoy the giving process, the more likely I am going to do continue to do it in following years. Ensuring that the experience of donating remains pleasant for me is how I ensure that the world gets donations from me for the rest of my life, and if that means local charities get a cut, it’s still better than if my monkey emotions start rioting and I stop donating in 5 years when my earning power is higher.

  1. If you’ve never heard of Effective Altruism before, I recommend this introduction.[]
  2. As a Canadian, RCForward is the only solution I’ve found to donate to many Givewell approved charities and still get tax receipts.[]

Notes from the Salon: Social Class

[Editor’s note: this piece was ported over from Less Wrong on March 13, 2020, and backdated to the original publication date. Minor edits were made for clarity.]

This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at a tea party “literary” salon I held on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the “STEM” class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church’s ladder. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in the room belonged to the same economic class – there is a much broader distribution of economic classes in attendance.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. To a first approximation, a blazer is more middle-class-y than a hoodie. But a clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal is a much better signal than a polyester blend leopard-print blazer.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is “Middle-Class”

The middle class is the only virtuous class – both “lower class” and “upper class” are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton’s instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it’s more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort, and salt-of-the-earth sorts here in Canada drink Tim’s instead of Starbucks.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn’t realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott’s cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what the Yale piece adds is that performing poorness gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That “STEM Class” Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don’t interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don’t care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that’s responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture (e.g. could a similar tumblr post be made for “the lawyer class”?)
  • if “STEM folk” is a real and useful category

Diversifying

People generally don’t deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it’s usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a  comic con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you’re doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It still won’t be the entire range of social classes, it’s just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared experience of being at a con/being queer/trying to date/etc can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. So they think, “as long as we’re not doing fancy dress codes and caviar and country clubs, we’re inclusive”. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well — things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can’t be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.

Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

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