For context, I mostly socialize in upper middle class and tech- and rationalist-leaning circles, and it’s likely that at least some of what I describe are just quirks of my local culture.
I have this pet theory that I’ve shopped around a fair bit, that it’s much harder for financially comfortable people to make deep friendships.
What do I mean by a deep friendship? I mean one where you can trust the other person to come through when you need them to. There’s levels to this as well, of course. You probably ask casual friends to help you move, but not acquaintances. Close friends could be people who will let you crash on their couch for two weeks without prior notice or who will lend you rent money for the month. People who live more marginal, riskier lives might think about this in terms of who is willing to bail them out of jail or smuggle them medicine.
The thing is, money exists, and can solve most of your problems better than your friends can. If you can afford it, it’s much less annoying to hire movers, book an airbnb, contact your doctor, or call your lawyer – get professional problem solvers involved, in other words. 1
So this dynamic emerges where my rich friends never ask each other for help, pay for services using money, and never do anything unpleasant for each other, whereas my poorer friends are always doing stuff for each other out of necessity and becoming closer knit in the process.
[This is a good summary of my thesis, you can stop reading at this point if I linked this to you in a group chat or something.]
Money does stop working in catastrophic circumstances that we will face rarely in life – someone to comfort us when a loved one dies, or trying to mend a relationship that has turned into a horrible soulsucking mess, or your apartment burns down with everything in it and you’re too catatonic to start replacing your documents and things. For those things, you kind of either have close relationships that are already established, or you’re just kind of fucked.[↑]
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.
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.
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.
[Epistemic effort: a dreamy recollection of some events that occurred on April 29th, 2019]
It’s late April. My school term has ended, but I have two weeks before my internship starts in another city, and my dad is driving my back home to hang out for a while in the meantime. As is tradition for I suspect possibly a lot of CBCs like me, the best of Teresa Teng, a 70s Taiwanese superstar, is being blasted at full volume inside the car.
“I think I first heard these songs when I was the age that your brother is now,” he tells me, for the first time. Henry is finishing up 10th grade right now. He’s gone nocturnal in recent years and is just beginning to think about summer jobs and what university he wants to go to. “It was the first time I’ve heard music that wasn’t communist propaganda. I immediately fell in love with her.”
I mull this around in my head, integrating this tidbit into the rest of what I know about his childhood.
Falling in someone without seeing their face, but because of their voice and because of what they were singing sounds. Sounds romantic, sounds pure, sounds like something that isn’t possible now.
“So did every boy I knew who listened to any of her songs,” he continued. He’s in a chatty mood, which I always enjoy. “I would always feel a little guilty listening to her though, because I was committing a crime. Her songs were banned on the mainland; it was illegal to enjoy something so bourgeoisie.”
It’s sad to think about, what it would be like to live in a society where romantic love was considered decadent and sinful. To me, Teresa wasn’t really singing about anything that was like, Rich Kids of Instagram worthy. She was singing about the soft, tender feelings that emerge when you do something like waiting for a boy to return to you. Is my distinction of the two just a sign that I’ve lived too long in the Decadent West?
After a few more songs where I ponder this, I resume the conversation. “Dad, if her songs were illegal, how did you get a hold of them in the first place?”
I admit, I was kind of imagining a literal black market, a nightly enterprise operating from the hours of midnight to 3am, with sketchy vendors in darkened stalls hawking their ill-gotten wares under the moonlight. Even as I generated the image I felt a little silly, and yet-
“I recorded it from a friend,” he told me. I deflated a little bit, but he didn’t notice. “My parents bought me a cassette player for ninety bucks, because English classes began in middle school. We used this tape called ‘900 English phrases’ to practice diction.”
He goes on, already knowing what question I was going to ask next. “Ninety bucks would be what your granddad and grandma makes in a month, combined. But there weren’t a lot of expenses then, either. The apartment we lived in was collectively owned, so rent was five dollars a month.”
I try to think of how much that is in terms that are useful to me, but then realized that that would get depressing real fast and stopped.
“So I would go buy some blank cassettes, and go to a friend who already had some songs, and get them to play it, and record it onto my own tapes to take home.”
“How was, uh, how was the quality?”
“Ha! Utter crap. The chain of recording could have been 20 people deep for all I know. The genuine tapes were rare; you’d need to be a fairly high up bureaucrat to get it across the border.”
I listen to the crystal clear recording that we have on with a newfound appreciation. “When did you finally hear it the way that it was meant to sound?”
“By the time I got to university, there were vendors selling tapes that were advertised as being recorded from an original recording, but the quality was still kind of bad. I don’t think I listened to a genuine recording until after I started working. I would have been older than you are now.”
I try to imagine what it would be like to hear something with crystal clarity for the first time, after 10 years of waiting. The album ends, and loops back to the first song. We drove on, appreciating the music.