I made a comment on another site a week or two ago, and I just realized that the line of thought is one that LW would appreciate, so here's a somewhat expanded version. 

There's a lot of discussion around here about how to best give to charities, and I'm all for this. Ensuring donations are used well is important, and organizations like GiveWell that figure out how to get the most bang for your buck are doing very good work. An old article on LW (that I found while searching to make sure I wasn't being redundant by posting this) makes the claim that the difference between a decent charity and an optimal one can be two orders of magnitude, and I believe that. But the problem with this is, effective altruism only helps if people are actually giving money. 

People today don't tend to give very much to charity. They'll buy a chocolate bar for the school play or throw a few bucks in at work, but less than 2% of national income is donated even in the US, and the US is incredibly charitable by developed-world standards(the corresponding rate in Germany is about 0.1%, for example). And this isn't something that can be solved with math, because the general public doesn't speak math, it needs to be solved with social pressure. 

The social pressure needs to be chosen well. Folks like Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise giving a massive chunk of their income to charity are of course laudable, but 99%+ of people will regard the thought of doing so with disbelief and a bit of horror - it's simply not going to happen on a large scale, because people put themselves first, and don't think they could possibly part with so much of their income. We need to settle for a goal that is not only attainable by the majority of people, but that the majority of people know in their guts is something they could do if they wanted. Not everyone will follow through, but it should be set at a level that inspires guilt if they don't, not laughter. 

Since we're trying to make it something people can live up to, it has to be proportional giving, not absolute - Bill Gates and Warren Buffett telling each other to donate everything over a billion is wonderful, but doesn't affect many other people. Conversely, telling people that everything over $50k should be donated will get the laugh reaction from ordinary-wealthy folks like doctors and accountants, who are the people we most want to tie into this system. Also, even if it was workable, it creates some terrible disincentives to working extra-hard, which is a bad way to structure a system - we want to maximize donations, not merely ask people to suffer for its own sake. 

Also, the rule needs to be memorable - we can't give out The Income Tax Act 2: Electric Boogaloo as our charitable donation manual, because people won't read it, won't remember it, and certainly won't pressure anyone else into following it. Ideally it should be extremely simple. And it'd be an added bonus if the amount chosen didn't seem arbitrary, if there was already a pre-existing belief that the number is generally appropriate for what part of your income should be given away. 

There's only one system that meets all these criteria - the tithe. Give away 10% of your income to worthy causes(not generally religion, though the religious folk of the world can certainly do so), keep 90% for yourself. It's practical, it's simple, it's guilt-able, it scales to income, it preserves incentives to work hard and thereby increase the total base of donations, and it's got a millennia-long tradition(which means both that it's proven to work and that people will believe it's a reasonable thing to expect).

Encouraging people to give more than that, or to give better than the default, are both worthwhile, but just like saving for retirement, the first thing to do is put enough money in, and only *then* worry about marginal changes in effectiveness. After all, putting Germany on the tithe rule is just as much of an improvement to charitable effectiveness as going from a decent charity to an excellent one, and it scales in a completely different way, so they can be worked on in parallel. 

This is a rule that I try to follow myself, and sometimes encourage others to do while I'm wearing my financial-advisor hat. (And speaking with that hat: If you're a person who will actually follow through on this, avoid chipping in a few dollars here and there when people ask, and save up for bigger donations. That way you get tax receipts, which lower your effective cost of donation, as well as letting you pick better charities). 

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I've heard of them, but I was not familiar with the details of what they asked you to pledge. I'm feeling slightly redundant now...

Dont't feel redundant.

  • Repetition with variation is a good idea. There is value in repetition.

  • Your 10% point is minor in your overall presentation.

You might be interested in "Why 10%".

Yup, same reasoning as mine.
It's good to hear a totally independent view that this seems like a good idea. If you're interested in getting involved in Giving What We Can, we're very interested to hear from you!
I like that it was re-invented on its 5th birthday.

Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise giving a solid majority of their income to charity

I'll just point out that 50% is not a majority.


Have you guys ever been tempted to make it 50.1% so you can say it's a majority? ;) Or do you think it's better not to seem too extreme?

We try to go a little over 50% in case our income is slightly different than we expected (working more hours in late December or something).
50% seems like a nice clean number, and giving 50.1% so we can say "most" seems likely to alternate people because it's picky, technical, and possibly intended to mislead. (Now, as of this year our goal is to donate half of our tax reported income, but it's really hard to figure our what your final income numbers will be until you receive all your 1099s and full out taxes. So we'll probably aim slightly high and it may end up being a literal majority regardless.)
That makes sense - my 50.1% suggestion was tongue in cheek, and giving something like 55% (or a majority due to difficulty of working out income, as you describe) would make more sense. My question would then be whether you think you should say you give "half" or "a majority", given that it sounds like you'll be able to reasonably say either.
My(admittedly brief) Googling mentioned all of your income and roughly 2/3 of his being donated. I'll edit for accuracy.
Link? If someone's passing on inflated numbers we'd like to see if we can sort things out with them.
http://lesswrong.com/lw/jsx/proportional_giving/anqn Upon looking back at it, I clearly misread you - there's a pretty big difference between donating 30-33% and keeping 30-33%. Apologies. (Also, while I suspect you've probably considered this, is that the most tax-efficient way of donating? I can't speak to American tax law, but up here in Canada, one person donating all their income is a waste of possible tax credits, and the goal should be to bring both partners down to a similar post-donations income to minimize tax payable)
Julia and I file as "married filing jointly" which means from the government's perspective we're one financial unit that earned some money and donated some money. With my 30% (pre tax) and Julia's 100% (post tax), last year came to 40.5% overall (pre tax). Talking about having separate numbers for the two of us does tend to confuse people, though, so we've switched to both of using giving 50% (pre tax).

I think spreading this idea to 'secular church' type organizations that have popped up could be useful.


Particularly since it could help such communities with their goals of attracting higher engagement (i.e. no this isn't just some fluffy weekend thing, our community has ideas it is serious about)

Good idea. We've done a fair amount of outreach to various sceptics and atheist groups for Charity Science and various other groups have done that where they're based - including a GWWC group which did a Sunday Assembly. There's a .impact wiki page where people can share such activities.

One data point for you: I'm not convinced.

Tithing is a mix of social cohesion and power enforcement for a single specific in-group (usually a religion). If you don't aspire to be a member of exactly one such group, or if the group doesn't claim exclusivity on your tithe, the 10% schelling point becomes meaningless. There's no awareness among your peers, so there's no social enforcement mechanism.

I also worry that this is straying a bit into dark arts: it's not about you making better decisions, and it's not about helping others make better decisions, it's about convincing others to follow your preferences.

Spending habits are extraordinarily social, though. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is, by all accounts, how humans actually think and act, in terms of competitive goods(e.g., houses in good school districts) status goods(e.g., driving a Cadillac), and personal consumption goods(e.g., trying to have as much fun on your vacation as your friends did on theirs). If you focus competition on only personal spending, and let charity wither away, then even if everyone is actually charitable(and data says that the vast majority are), most won't donate significant sums, because they're too committed to spending competitively on consumption. Also, LW is a pretty in-groupy sort of place. I have no objection to starting small. I think it could in principle be expanded - the fact that charity was all given to the same recipient in church tithes does not seem essential to the process - but even if we make it a social norm among us and try to expand it to our friends, we'd be doing good work.

The below may sound harsh but I hope it is understood from taking a more high level view. I laude your effort and altruism but to make it effective maybe another tithe is not the right way.

So I'd like to put the tithe somewhat into perspective. Originally the tithe was the income tax. My reading is that at all times the collected tithe (together with other taxes) was used partly for charity, largely for functioning of society (infrastructure, defense, education, ...) and partly for presentation/status as well as luxury of the rulers.

Basically the same wit... (read more)

Your argument seems to be roughly equivalent to this: "The term 'tithe' was originally applied to something more like tax than like charity. We pay quite a lot of tax. Some forms of charitable activity turn out to be harmful. Therefore it is not a good idea to give 10% of your income to charitable causes." But that last bit (which is, of course, the point) seems like a total non sequitur. I see only two things in what you've written that come anywhere near arguing for the final inference. I don't think they're good arguments. * "Wouldn't changes to government and taxation be a better service for society?" (My answer: They might be a very good thing, but I don't see how they funge against donation to charities.) * "I fear that adding charity juts skews the existing systems and adds an additional element the effects of which nobody sufficiently understands." (This seems like a universal Argument Against Any Institution. Why is it any more reason to distrust charity than to distrust medical insurance, or banks, or marriage, or armies, or universities?)
Yes. I agree that these are separate points and one does not follow from the other. The are related though. Initially I cosidered writing them separately but writing led to one single piece. I don't see clearly how to split it but I agree that it probably shouldn't have been mixed. Your first point that charities do exist and are kind of orthogonal (and not a new invention) is valid. But I don't see it as the most efficient way to do things. Your second point misses as I didn't meant to apply it against existing structures but against new ones. But then charity isn't new really. Readding a tithe is. Nice summary by the way. Thank you.
I'm thinking more of the Christian tithe from a couple centuries ago than the Jewish tithe of a couple millennia ago. Socially expected, for the benefit of a charitable non-governmental organization(excepting the Papal States), used in principle for good works(albeit, with a much different definition of "good" than a modern effective altruist would use). I'm not referring to extra donations. I'm referring to donations in general. I don't count taxes as donations, because they're pretty different creatures(voluntary vs mandatory, choice of target vs not, possibly effective vs government bureaucracy...). Government does keep a basic safety net in place, albeit not efficiently or well. And yes, I most certainly have given up on improving it to any real extent. Government is a poor way of doing anything, which is why it should always be a backup plan. Anyone who worries about crowding out the government is simply looking at the world backwards.
That's a common explanation. Another is that the US has a culture of giving to churches; Germany for its part has a church tax, which won't show up as charitable giving either.

I think Germany is different because many government programs solve what we leave to Charity here in the US. I think its important to give and incentivizing that behavior is always a good idea.

Yup, that's a big part of it. The government crowds out private action pretty effectively after a while. It's amazing reading books about what private societies did in the 19th century - private libraries, private legal aid, all sorts of stuff. Don't see much of that now.
It became the realm of the public so that more people could benefit from it and it has been fairly successful in some ways and not in others.
Agreed - I'm not trying to argue for anarchism here. I just find it interesting. There's a fairly frequent belief that certain things won't happen without government, but it's usually a lot more complex than that. That said, I'm a believer in Chesterton's Fence. We changed to governmental libraries for a reason, and we shouldn't be gung-ho about changing back until we can explain why.
I think providing things via society paying for them is generally a better system then a privately funded system.
Be very careful phrasing things like that as general rules. Go look up how societal food distribution worked in communist nations. As an example, whenever a defector left the Soviet bloc, the thing that usually impressed them most was a grocery store that we'd find perfectly ordinary - shelves full of food, good variety, attractive displays, cheap prices. Apparently, quite a lot of them assumed it was a fake just to impress them, because the idea of an A+P was literally not believable to them. I do think some things should be publicly provided - I am not the absolutist libertarian I was at age 17. But capitalism blows communism out of the water in every meaningful way. There's still a big, big role for the private sector in the economy.
We were talking about libraries, roads, and other such things. You are quite right. Food distribution cannot be centrally managed. In that way the natural economy works far better. However, in the whole basis of this discussion that will be (in the near future) handled by machines and certainly that will be done by the private market and I agree with that. I think we need some heavy modifications to capitalism. Things like a flat tax and a strong societal focus on community and the members of that community is what needs to change. Perhaps these new technologies will encourage that. In recent memory we have been too focused on corporate welfare at a great expense to society. It is time that we change that.
Neither the particulars of a tax system, nor the degree of social cohesion (or lack of it) in a community are features of capitalism. You can have capitalism with many different kinds of tax systems and with loose or tight societies. By the way, what does a "strong societal focus on community" imply about asocial people who would tell the community to get lost..?
Truly, capitalism does not feature any of those things which is partly why, thanks to globalization, we don't have them anymore. Of course you can have free markets with many kinds of tax systems and loose or tight societies but what we have found is that countries that protect their industries and protect the flow of capital coming and going have more stable economies and more stable employment than those that don't. Think of the Asian Financial crisis. Malaysia controlled capital and their economy recovered faster. Others took the IMF route with more open markets and less restrictions and look longer. This is the culmination of a pattern in history that simply has to stop. A flat tax of 15% on all incomes with sales and property taxes as necessary is a far better system than the graduated system that we have in most developed countries now. As far as a strong societal focus on community, those asocial people that would not choose to participate do not have to participate. They don't have to be involved although they will benefit. However, that does not mean that we should not have the services available and the economic policies in place to create strong communities economically and culturally. Humans are tribal and we need to support our tribes. The current economic environment has broken that system apart and we are suffering in many ways besides our pocket books. If you want stronger wages then you need to stop in the inflow of cheap labor and the outflow of jobs. In order to do that you have to control trade policy. In the modern environment of globalization those things simply do not exist anymore. Capital can move freely all over the globe and be put to use wherever its managers wish with a complete disregard to the local conditions or how well the community in the area may respond to a project. I think we need to strongly adopt the principle of thinking globally and acting locally. It has fallen out of use and it needs to be brought back. If we think of th
We don't have what any more? Tax systems..? We have found no such thing. That's, ahem, bullshit. You do realize it's going to be HUGELY less progressive than all current Western systems, right? /facepalm
I'm not sure we need classical libraries anymore. Building buildings to house paper books isn't necessary. The real problem is finding good models for society to pay for people who actually write the book. Afterwards the distribution of the books is better done via the internet.
I think we need them as places for community, for information, and many people still prefer to read paper books so I think we need for the time being. It is also a free secular place for people to gather and that is very important. The internet is not the solution for every problem. Paying writers to write books is an ongoing and difficult problem to solve because the price of living is rising and the wages for almost everything is falling. Our society does not value certain things and art is certainly one of those.
What do you think the term "flat tax" means?
A constant tax rate that is applied to all incomes with no deductions.
At risk of getting grossly off-topic, I'll simply say that I disagree with your last point(though much of the rest is unobjectionable), and leave it at that.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Giving_Index Looking at the list of nations by "World Giving index" there does seem to be a decently strong relation between economic freedom and giving. The top countries include the USA, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Denamrk and the Netherlands all of which have rather free economies by world standards. But the relationship seems cannot be that strong. The list also includes Myanmar, Triniad and Tobago, Bhutan, Malaysia and Sri Lanka which are not very free. I cannot however see too much of a relation between government spending and giving. For some reason Norway was removed from the 2014 ranking but it was high on the 2013 ranking. And it along with many other nations with high amounts of spending are ranked highly.
I was thinking domestically within needs of the community that are not met by government programs. But that is important to consider.

Thanks for the article.  I like the idea of an expectation of tithing.  I had two alternatives to your suggestions.

A society that taxes more, and spends those taxes on social services, is less in need of tithing.  In general, I believe we reach social justice better and give those who need it more reliable help through taxation than donations.  So while I agree both are good, I think US needs to seriously reform it's tax system, in particular creating a more extensive and progressive tax system, as a priority.   The fact that US do... (read more)

Two points.

First, the hard part in all of this is to actually persuade people to donate. You're proposing a simple rule, but you're silent on how will you convince the people to accept the rule.

Second, the doctor and the accountant you would like to reach are (at least in the US) most likely Christians. If you do convince them to donate 10%, they will most likely donate it to the church and church-affiliated charities. Mr.Murphy would have a good laugh if your proposal ended up giving massive financial resources (and so, power) to churches in the US.

Er, Christians are already pressured pretty heavily by their churches to tithe, and churches have come up with numerous ways to make it easy and fun. I don't think atheists starting to also tithe maybe will change their incentives much.

I grew up Catholic and go to church occasionally, sometimes on vacations(thus not only my church), and I only know about tithing academically. I have never been asked to tithe let alone been "pressured pretty heavily"to do so, in a systematic way.

Now I drop into the collection plate, but nowhere close to ten percent. I have also worked with the total, and less than five percent of checks are over twenty dollars.

Just a data point.


Another couple of data points:

I spent decades as a pretty serious Christian (Church of England, in the UK; the CoE encompasses multiple styles of Christianity, and I was towards the evangelical end). There were from time to time sermons etc. encouraging us to give money to the church, but tithing as such was seldom mentioned and never regarded as an obligation.

My wife is still Christian and active in a church (also Church of England, also in the UK, kinda middle-of-the-road in theology, style of worship, etc.) and I'm pretty sure its donations are far less than 10% of the congregation's total income.

The Church of England gets about £400M in donations per year. Average weekly attendance at CoE services is about 1M. If we guess that 80% of those are regular attenders, and that all donations come from regular attenders, that in line with national statistics 64% are of an age to be employed and 80% of those actually are employed at an average annual salary of £26500, then that suggests a total income from possible givers of about £14B/year, hence donations at about 3%.

Most of the figures in the previous paragraph are guesses or poor approximations, so don't take this too seriously. The... (read more)

Normal Christians are pressured to give, not to tithe 10%, and most give less than 10%. Well, the goal is to make it socially unacceptable to donate less than 10%. If it succeeds, presumably it will succeed for Christians just as well as for atheists.
This is because the road to 10% starts at 1%, and the road to 1% starts at donating every week, and the road to donating every week starts at donating once. Social acceptability is local.
I don't see your point. The road to taking the vow of poverty and donating everything to the church starts in the same place. Certainly true. Do you think the OP's proposal could lead to pockets of socially-forced tithing and these pockets wouldn't really intersect with the highly-religious communities?
Churches tend to be gradualist organizations, because they want to contain a broad selection of society and they're in it for the long haul. If you don't donate now, that's okay; maybe you'll donate some tomorrow. If you donate some now, that's good; maybe you'll donate more tomorrow. If you donate more now, that's great; maybe you'll donate even more tomorrow. Habits have power and are hard to shift, and many churches deliberately target the meta-habit of improving your habits slowly for the better. It is not clear to me, especially because I like definitions of "religious" that focus on practice rather than philosophy (leaving open the possibility of non-theist religions). A humanist organization that, say, meets regularly and has shared values and considers tithing a condition for being a full core member sounds a lot to me like a highly religious community.
So, given that the churches have been doing all this for a long time, I read it as an argument that the current rate of giving is the asymptotic limit for the social technology the churches have been using. Sure, but in this context we're talking about the social structure of the US (and, in general, Western) society and I'm using the word "religion" in a very conventional meaning.
Agreed. I read the initial suggestion as basically 'get atheists up to the levels of religious charitable giving,' which is why I thought it was silly that a response was 'but that might make the religious give more.' Sure. I don't think it's that unconventional to refer to, say, UUs as religious, and I expect there to be more secular communities who act like UUs even if they don't self-identify like UUs.
1) Social pressure. Tell people "You ought to do X if you want to be a good person" actually works pretty well, if it comes at them from enough directions. Clearly, I cannot singlehandedly change the culture of a nation, but I can help. 2) Those are not professions associated with high levels of religiosity. And even in the US, less than a third of charitable donations are religious. http://www.nptrust.org/philanthropic-resources/charitable-giving-statistics/
I'm strongly opposed to any scheme that is based on guilt. Social pressure maybe though it has connotations of force. Coaxing maybe though it has connotations of trickery. There are milder forms of pressure and more authentic forms of coaxing I think.
I'm not referring to the social pressure against, say, being gay in 1950. I'm thinking more along the lines of the social pressure against smoking in 1980. It's a clear preference, and everyone know it's a good idea, but you're not shunned for disobeying. (Admittedly, social pressure is really, really hard to calibrate. There's not enough in favour of charity right now, except in the occasional microcosm like LW, but overshooting is possible, and there's several real examples to point to).
Yes, but there's already a crowded marketplace of preachers and institutions doing just that, for different values of X. What is especially persuasive or effective about your message or methodology? Why should we expect it to be more successful than, say, PETA, or the People's Temple?
It's already got presence in mindspace, the basic principles are ones almost everybody agrees with, and unlike other advocacy groups it's non-sectarian - I'd never consider doing what PETA wants because I find them to be loathsome fools, but donating to charity carries no such stigma.
That actually depends on a lot of factors and I would be wary of sweeping generalizations. Attempts to "change the culture" sometimes work, but sometimes backfire. In any case, it's a very slow process. Also, "social pressure" has a chicken-and-egg problem -- it only works if enough people do it. So you are comfortable with 1/3 of the "atheist's tithe" going straight to churches (and some additional percentage going to church-affiliated charities)? Note also that "religion" is by far the largest category of charity recipients, twice as large as the next one (which is "education", aka schools and universities).
1) Agreed. I don't imagine this one backfiring, though it is of course hard to actually do. Still, most of the thing LW sets its mind to are equally hard, so I don't see this as a particular barrier. 2) I suspect it'll be less than that - the religious donate more(which is a big part of why the US is the most generous developed nation), and a lot of them actually do tithe as-is, which means this proposal won't result in them giving any more. But even if it is 1/3, yeah, I'm fine with that. A lot of religious money these days is spent on good works that even an atheist like myself will give props for, and even if it was all wasted, 2/3 of donations will be doing good things.

less than 2% of national income is donated even in the US, and the US is incredibly charitable by developed-world standards(the corresponding rate in Germany is about 0.1%, for example).

It's worth noting that nations like Germany handle far more of their social problems through tax-funded state programs, and thus have commensurately higher income taxes (and other taxes). A German who donates 0.1% to charity may have done more good with their tax money than Americans do with their 2% to charity, thanks to the coordination and centralization advantages of state action.

Or perhaps they've done less good, thanks to the bureaucratic, informational and incentive disadvantages of state action. Government programmes tend to crowd out charitable activity. Taxes tend to crowd out charitable giving, because discretionary income is lower than otherwise. We can't conclude merely from that whether the social effect is positive or negative. That would require an actual comparison of the effectiveness of the measures.
Perhaps, but quite frankly, I don't like the culture of dependency that "The government will take care of everything" fosters. Individuals should be expected to step up, and the government should be there as a safety net if they fall down. The government simply isn't effective enough to be the optimal front-line service provider for most things, and government has to worry about things like deadweight loss that the private sector doesn't.
Can you unpack and justify this statement? Have you looked? I mean, for one thing, which government, of which country, under which system? This statement is either tautological (ethical proprietarianism) or simply wrong.
People are generally content to sit back and do nothing if they can get away with it. Getting people to be active - in the work force, in the government, in the culture, whatever - requires the people to see a need. Otherwise, they'll sit at home and drink/screw/watch TV/play video games/whatever, because it's more fun. Creating a system where people are told not to worry about their fellow man, because someone else is, means that they mostly won't. If that system actually does take care of other people, it can trundle along well enough, but if it fails to do so in ways that the public doesn't pick up on, those holes won't be filled, because people will think "Oh, there can't be a hole there, the government would have fixed it if there was". If the system ever gets disrupted, people who have lost the habit of looking after themselves will be in real trouble. I'm not saying "Throw everyone to the wolves and let the strong survive!", but I am saying that independence is a muscle that needs to be exercised once in a while. Yes, and all of them. The incentives just aren't right for any government, full stop. It's neither. It's a claim of economics, not ethics or logic. (There are non-taxation causes of deadweight loss, but they're fairly rare outside of taxation). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadweight_loss
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