Steve Omohundro has suggested a folk theorem to the effect that, within the interior of any approximately rational, self-modifying agent, the marginal benefit of investing additional resources in anything ought to be about equal.  Or, to put it a bit more exactly, shifting a unit of resource between any two tasks should produce no increase in expected utility, relative to the agent's utility function and its probabilistic expectations about its own algorithms.

    This resource balance principle implies that—over a very wide range of approximately rational systems, including even the interior of a self-modifying mind—there will exist some common currency of expected utilons, by which everything worth doing can be measured.

    In our society, this common currency of expected utilons is called "money".  It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

    This is a brutal yet obvious point, which many are motivated to deny.

    With this audience, I hope, I can simply state it and move on.  It's not as if you thought "society" was intelligent, benevolent, and sane up until this point, right?

    I say this to make a certain point held in common across many good causes.  Any charitable institution you've ever had a kind word for, certainly wishes you would appreciate this point, whether or not they've ever said anything out loud.  For I have listened to others in the nonprofit world, and I know that I am not speaking only for myself here...

    Many people, when they see something that they think is worth doing, would like to volunteer a few hours of spare time, or maybe mail in a five-year-old laptop and some canned goods, or walk in a march somewhere, but at any rate, not spend money.

    Believe me, I understand the feeling.  Every time I spend money I feel like I'm losing hit points.  That's the problem with having a unified quantity describing your net worth:  Seeing that number go down is not a pleasant feeling, even though it has to fluctuate in the ordinary course of your existence.  There ought to be a fun-theoretic principle against it.

    But, well...

    There is this very, very old puzzle/observation in economics about the lawyer who spends an hour volunteering at the soup kitchen, instead of working an extra hour and donating the money to hire someone to work for five hours at the soup kitchen.

    There's this thing called "Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage".  There's this idea called "professional specialization".  There's this notion of "economies of scale".  There's this concept of "gains from trade".  The whole reason why we have money is to realize the tremendous gains possible from each of us doing what we do best.

    This is what grownups do.  This is what you do when you want something to actually get done.  You use money to employ full-time specialists.

    Yes, people are sometimes limited in their ability to trade time for money (underemployed), so that it is better for them if they can directly donate that which they would usually trade for money.  If the soup kitchen needed a lawyer, and the lawyer donated a large contiguous high-priority block of lawyering, then that sort of volunteering makes sense—that's the same specialized capability the lawyer ordinarily trades for money.  But "volunteering" just one hour of legal work, constantly delayed, spread across three weeks in casual minutes between other jobs?  This is not the way something gets done when anyone actually cares about it, or to state it near-equivalently, when money is involved.

    To the extent that individuals fail to grasp this principle on a gut level, they may think that the use of money is somehow optional in the pursuit of things that merely seem morally desirable—as opposed to tasks like feeding ourselves, whose desirability seems to be treated oddly differently.  This factor may be sufficient by itself to prevent us from pursuing our collective common interest in groups larger than 40 people.

    Economies of trade and professional specialization are not just vaguely good yet unnatural-sounding ideas, they are the only way that anything ever gets done in this world.  Money is not pieces of paper, it is the common currency of caring.

    Hence the old saying:  "Money makes the world go 'round, love barely keeps it from blowing up."

    Now, we do have the problem of akrasia—of not being able to do what we've decided to do—which is a part of the art of rationality that I hope someone else will develop; I specialize more in the impossible questions business.  And yes, spending money is more painful than volunteering, because you can see the bank account number go down, whereas the remaining hours of our span are not visibly numbered.  But when it comes time to feed yourself, do you think, "Hm, maybe I should try raising my own cattle, that's less painful than spending money on beef?"  Not everything can get done without invoking Ricardo's Law; and on the other end of that trade are people who feel just the same pain at the thought of having less money.

    It does seem to me offhand that there ought to be things doable to diminish the pain of losing hit points, and to increase the felt strength of the connection from donating money to "I did a good thing!"  Some of that I am trying to accomplish right now, by emphasizing the true nature and power of money; and by inveighing against the poisonous meme saying that someone who gives mere money must not care enough to get personally involved.  This is a mere reflection of a mind that doesn't understand the post-hunter-gatherer concept of a market economy.  The act of donating money is not the momentary act of writing the check, it is the act of every hour you spent to earn the money to write that check—just as though you worked at the charity itself in your professional capacity, at maximum, grownup efficiency.

    If the lawyer needs to work an hour at the soup kitchen to keep himself motivated and remind himself why he's doing what he's doing, that's fine.  But he should also be donating some of the hours he worked at the office, because that is the power of professional specialization and it is how grownups really get things done.  One might consider the check as buying the right to volunteer at the soup kitchen, or validating the time spent at the soup kitchen.  I may post more about this later.

    To a first approximation, money is the unit of caring up to a positive scalar factor—the unit of relative caring.  Some people are frugal and spend less money on everything; but if you would, in fact, spend $5 on a burrito, then whatever you will not spend $5 on, you care about less than you care about the burrito.  If you don't spend two months salary on a diamond ring, it doesn't mean you don't love your Significant Other.  ("De Beers: It's Just A Rock.")  But conversely, if you're always reluctant to spend any money on your SO, and yet seem to have no emotional problems with spending $1000 on a flat-screen TV, then yes, this does say something about your relative values.

    Yes, frugality is a virtue.  Yes, spending money hurts.  But in the end, if you are never willing to spend any units of caring, it means you don't care.

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    What really makes people uncomfortable is taking this to its logical conclusion and pointing out that enough economic inefficiency is as much of a human tragedy as, say, driving a school bus full of kids off a cliff. Which I absolutely believe.

    I agree if you mean the economic inefficiency from one person. If you mean the entire system, the bus full of kids doesn't even compare.
    Wait, we may not be on the same page here. There's nothing you can do to one person, economically or otherwise, that would be nearly as bad as a school bus full of kids driving off a cliff, right?
    No, but one person can do can be much better than saving a bus full of kids from driving off a cliff. The average person can't do that. You'd have to be around average for a developed country.
    Assuming there are 25 kids in the bus, it would take about 14 months' worth of the US nominal GDP per capita for the AMF to save as many lives (not to mention that the kids saved by the AMF will likely have less QALYs ahead of them than the kids in the school bus). If you only count discretionary income, it'd probably take decades for “one person” “around average for a developed country” to do “much better than saving a bus full of kids”. (And note that the average is a lot larger than the median.)

    I have trouble applying this post's message to the charity I know closely, Wikimedia.

    [I'm a volunteer media contact in the UK, for both WMF and WMUK. This is in no way an official statement.]

    The Wikimedia Foundation is a weird one. There are very few staff for hundreds of thousands of volunteers. This leads to problems trying to put meaningful numbers together for Guidestar ...

    It takes money to run, but for the current funding drive we've deliberately adopted a strategy of getting the greatest number of donors rather than a few big-ticket donors, specifically to ensure our editorial independence. If I recall correctly, the average donation per donor is actually down slightly this year so far compared to last year. The more donors, the more people feel a bond to us.

    If you're enormously rich, your money would be nice (thank you!) but even nicer would be your knowledge. (English Wikipedia is notoriously bad at keeping idiots out of experts' faces, but there are many other Wikimedia projects. Photos are easy and welcome, for example.) This year's drive will include asking people to contribute to the projects.

    So yes, we actually want your time. Your brain. Your soul.

    (My banner suggestio... (read more)


    Voting up specifically for:

    If people are so keen to donate time rather than money to charities, this suggests the creation of charities specifically designed to harness that.

    I think charities already do this.

    Yes, and it's widely regarded as a problem -- for someone with rare skills or knowledge, it is usually far more valuable for them to donate money to buy time from others, rather than to donate their own time. A computer programmer really should not be making and serving soup at a homeless shelter. The same amount of time spent coding could pay for several people capable of doing the same thing.

    Wikipedia can directly harness those with rare knowledge, and can do so piecemeal, in five-minute intervals, rather than by taking days at a time as even extremely short employment would require. For them it doesn't make sense to pay someone to write an article on an obscure topic. It does seem to make sense for them to pay for servers and sysadmins.

    (It's true that their treatment of experts really could be better. They have managed to drive several experts away because dealing with some of the editors is just not worth the time.)

    Are there other areas where it actually makes sense to have volunteered time rather than donating money?

    The expertise problem is one of Wikipedia's perennial headaches. Whereas most actual experts are happy to talk about their field with interested amateurs and even take their ideas seriously, structurally it's just about impossible to keep an indefinitely renewed supply of idiots out of the experts' faces on Wikipedia.

    Just giving experts primacy was tried by Citizendium and failed badly - the token of expertise used was credentials and it turns out that cranks care a lot more about credentials than actual experts do, so the cranks moved in and CZ became known for pseudoscience.

    I don't know of other ideas for how to keep idiots out of experts' faces, and I've been around English Wikipedia for seven years now. Any are welcomed, even if we or someone has likely tried them already.

    No good ideas for Wikipedia, but I've been wondering a bit about this in general. If we could somehow get a largish group of people generally agreed to be experts actively using a large-scale online reputation system where they start out marked as such, we could write an algorithm that gives stuff and people get expert cred when they are upvoted by the established experts. Could the algorithm be designed to set up a perpetuating and non-decaying reputation cluster of actual experts, while not being swamped by populist crap despite some of it getting tons of non-expert votes?
    " we could write an algorithm that gives stuff and people get expert cred when they are upvoted by the established experts" Sounds like StackOverflow ( It is a domain-specific community (everything about software development), in the form of questions and answers. Reputation is earned by upvotes from other community members. Naturally, the established experts emerge as high-reputation members, being those with a long history of giving good answers.
    Stack Overflow is just one (and the original) of a set of sites/communities on the same software, Stack Exchange. Each site has its own reputation scores for users, on the principle that someone who is knowledgeable (and sensible) on a given topic isn't necessarily so on another (though there is a +100 cross-signup bonus, presumably on the “OK, you're not an unknown fresh pseudonym” basis). Avoiding populism problems: Stack Exchange specifically avoids “general interest” in favor of sites with specific topics, and moderation discourages “populist crap” of the “What are your favorite X” / “How do you feel about X” sort. The format draws a sharp distinction between questions and answers and meta-discussion thereof (either in the form of “comments” or the full-scale meta-discussion site) in order to increase signal-to-noise. (In case you haven't noticed, I think they're doing a lot of things right and right things, in terms of creating a valuable resource and community.) (Should there be a top-level post about SO/SE? I don't know that I could write it.)
    Did anyone write this top-level SO/SE post, as a model for charities built around capturing time rather than money?
    StackExchange makes no distinction between up-votes from experts and up-votes from idiots. The way I read Risto's suggestion is that the people get cred only from up-votes from experts. This is why it has to be seeded with experts.
    Stack Overflow and other forums dedicated to a specific topic don't have quite the same populism problem as general interest forums do.
    What about Quora?
    I agree completely. Possibly in other software projects where the donors consider it a hobby.
    Oh, excellent example. Yes, that's what Wikipedia is analogous to: software projects are charities that need applied expertise more than they need money. A project can run on very little money indeed if it has sufficient dev brilliance. (Though a company that pays said brilliant devs to work on the project for a living is nice.)

    One thing that might be going on here is that you can put money in the bank for later. You can't do that with time - if you don't use all your time doing something, you have wasted it, not saved it. When I consider spending money on charity, I'm not usually weighing it against my other expenses - I'm weighing it against the risk that I will be hit by a cement truck and need as much as I can possibly have put away in my savings account. Perhaps this is only because I'm pretty poor.

    Another thing that might also be only me or a group of people similar to me is expense compartmentalization. I'm very reluctant to buy most things. I own exactly one pair of shoes and I'm repairing them with duct tape, but I won't replace them until I have no choice. However, as soon as I enter the grocery store, anything I want goes in the cart, because I consider food purchases to be non-optional. Similarly, I might care more in some very real sense about five dollars' contribution to Charitable Goal X than I do about a burrito. However, if the overpriced burrito is the only dinner available (if for some reason I can't go home and eat leftovers on the cheap), I'll still buy it, because I don't consider going without dinner altogether to be a viable option. Money is only a fungible unit of value in a situation where the opportunities to spend it are distributed in a more or less flat way.

    You can't do that with time - if you don't use all your time doing something, you have wasted it, not saved it.

    You assume underemployment.

    Another thing that might also be only me or a group of people similar to me is expense compartmentalization.

    I believe the standard term is "mental accounting", the same force that leads you to drive across town to save $10 on a $30 shirt but not $10 on a $500 laptop.

    Perhaps this is only because I'm pretty poor.

    People who genuinely can't trade their time for substantial money under professional specialization may have legitimate cause to want to walk around handing out pamphlets instead.

    I don't assume underemployment, I assume that employment isn't usually traded on a direct fungible-time-for-fungible-money basis (unless one is employed as some kind of freelancer). Most jobs come with an expectation of a long-term commitment, or at least constraints on when the work is done. It's well and good in theory to toss around the idea that people who are volunteering time to a charity could have just gotten second jobs and donated the money, but the odds that they could have gotten second jobs that would conveniently fill the empty time they had to offer - scattered piecemeal around their schedules - are negligible.

    I don't think the abandon with which I purchase groceries is the same phenomenon as that kind of mental accounting, because I'm very conservative about non-food purchases in a similar price range, not just with major expenses.


    Salaried professionals often cannot do an extra hour of work in order to donate the proceeds to charity. My employer basically prohibits me from moonlighting/consulting/etc. Even many hourly employees can't get extra hours at work as that would be higher-rate overtime that their employer is unwilling to pay. Monetary charitable giving takes away from my current bottom line, but charitable working just eats into my leisure hours.

    Since I cannot do extra paid work without fear of consequences at my primary job, my non-work time may be practically worthless. I can only use it to do things that I might otherwise pay someone else to do. If I can do work around the house, then I can save the cost of paying the plumber. Suppose I make $100/hr (nominally) and the plumber charges $50/hr. Assuming we can do the same job in the same time, I haven't lost $50/hr by doing it myself instead of paying the plumber, I've simply lost the utility of those hours which I may not rate highly if I'd have otherwise laid on the couch watching Simpsons reruns.

    Some units of caring cost more than others. I can donate $100 to charity, or I can do 100 hours of work for that charity using hours that only cost me ... (read more)

    Julian's comment is on point though. I've been involved with any number of charitable organizations where it is expected that people donate significant time for things like bake sales or craft fairs or dinners in order to raise money, where if you took the money raised minus costs divided by the total hours spent, people would have done better taking second jobs at McDonald's and donating the money.

    Plus, we're often providing a product which wouldn't sell for that price on the open market, with custom driven largely by people's affinity for the organization raising the money.

    All in all, fund-raisers that aren't either a good leisure activity for all involved, or relentlessly and professionally focused and profitable (i.e. don't encourage random volunteers -- only those with relevant marketable skills and make sure the venture would at least be break-even if you accounted for fair value of labor) are just a horrendous waste of resources. Just get people to write checks.

    And yes I beat this drum at every socially appropriate opportunity for every charitable organization I'm associated with.

    The charities are being rational - they're raising money in a way which is effective given the irrationality of the givers.

    Yet another thing where raising the rationality waterline would help us all.

    You might be underestimating the value of social involvement in your equation. If new people become involved in the organization as a result of a "fundraiser" then this may lead to a higher expected value than direct donation, all things being equal.

    From direct experience: Most charities encourage volunteer time for one and only one reason: The more someone has volunteered their time, the higher the expected dollar amount they will donate. The main purpose of volunteering is to establish emotional engagement.
    Related to this, people often donate their 'extra' time because taking low wages instead would seem to devalue them - they can imagine they're donating a very high value rather than the $5 the work is worth.

    I tried to make this observation before, but my point doesn't seem to have been addressed in this followup.

    Throwing money in the direction of a problem without checks and balances to ensure that the money is actually spent productively is wrong.

    For example, suppose that Dark Side Charity's message is just like Light Side Charity's message: "give me money to save the world". However, Dark Side Charity doesn't spend the money on saving the world, but on sending out more and more requests. Giving money to Dark Side Charity would be wrong. Because the two charities's requests are identical, giving money to Light Side Charity based only on the request is also wrong.

    You might argue that you just need to estimate the probability that you are talking to the Light Side. However, remember that Dark Side Charity will grow when someone sends it money, changing the frequency that Dark Side Charity requests are encountered. If (as might well be the case) the system is already at equilibrium, then your probability estimate will depend primarily on the force stopped the positive feedback - e.g. the cost of sending the request. Spam is frequent primarily because it is cheap to send.

    My sug... (read more)

    Did you just prove that in the absence of trustworthy auditors believed to be trustworthy, the Dark Side always wins because it invests more resources into future growth?

    wasn't that obvious?
    7Eliezer Yudkowsky
    It is never obvious that the Dark Side wins. If we're talking about replicators versus fun theorists, then in this circumstance the rational fun theorist will grow as fast as possible (since it is possible) up until exponential growth hits a barrier, and only then begin devoting any resources to fun. It still loses to the replicator but not by much. Among humans the Light Side will use generally different tactics and will seek other advantages.

    In this particular case, the Light charity is like a bacteria that you've engineered to produce a desired protein that you want that is not needed for its own survival. When you put these bacteria in a bioreactor, mutations inevitably take some back to the wild type, which don't make that protein but put all their energy into reproduction. They quickly take over the bioreactor and drive the "altruistic" bacteria into extinction. This is not a PD case where some equilibrium arises between exploitation and cooperation. Without some countervailing force not specified here, exploitation wins.

    Auditors are only one of the ways that the Light Side Charity can distinguish itself. I think this is a signalling problem; the Light Side Charity needs to find a visible activity that it can do more cheaply than the Dark Side Charity, and invest sufficient effort into that activity to distinguish itself.
    Using prize donations could help take care of this signaling problem. So far using prizes to reach goals (like the X-Prize) has been a very cost effective way of getting things done and only those that have shown they can be successful receive the money.

    You make a huge unspoken assumptions that people actually care about charities getting their stated work done. There's very little evidence for it, and plenty of evidence against it. As far as we know people donate time and money to charities to signal their moral character to others, and to receive pleasant feelings of contributing in return.

    So you'd be right, if your basic assumption wasn't so completely mistaken. To be honest this assumption is extremely common, so it's not just your mistake, but it doesn't make it any less false.

    You mistake my assumptions. I am talking to people who I assume care at least a little about actual impact on the real world, and trying to pry them loose from a charitable world optimized mostly around pleasant feelings.

    I think most of these people (whose actions achieve more in signaling and warm fuzzy feelings than getting the stated work done) do genuinely care, they're just doing it wrong.

    Agreed. The signalling and warm fuzzy feelings provide false feedback about the actual validity of individual volunteering.

    My usual metric of whether I'm wasting my time (I'm not the first to suggest this, to be sure), has long been to value my time at some amount of money, and consciously think either "am I saving more money by doing this than the value of my time" or "am I enjoying this enough that I would spend the value of my time for this entertainment".

    For instance, I don't really bother with most amusement parks because the sum cost of admission, plus the time "cost" of waiting in lines, is more value than I want to spend on the limited enjoyment of the rides.

    If anything, I tend to be more stingy with time than money, because it's harder to convert money back into time than the other way around.

    This sounds like an excellent idea. I personally am quite stingy with money but waste time with reckless abandon. I really ought to attach a dollar value per unit of time. Of course, I haven't done this because I'm worried that if I do this I'll be unable to spend any time on anything (if I had to spend $8 to spend an hour on anything... I can't imagine that at all). I suppose the problem here is that I'm valuing my money too highly and need to lower the attached value per dollar. I could probably start by attaching an unrealistically low value to the time, like $1 an hour perhaps, and then gradually upping it.
    I think you're misapplying the method. "Pay $8 to spend an hour on anything" - you're counting the cost twice: one time spending the money, and the second spending the time. Maybe a better metric would be "I'd rather be paid $8 for spending an hour doing exactly nothing". I may be wrong, though.
    I think they meant it more like "Spending an hour of time on doing X will feel the same as spending $8 on doing X from the inside." I may be wrong, though!
    It makes sense, but I can't entirely convince myself that it's the best way to look at it. A gut feeling that something's wrong - I cannot throw out the time from the equation. Ad absurdum - I look at everything that I can do with my free time and decide nothing is worth paying $8 per hour. So what do I do? Maybe work, so I can get my $8 back. Yeah, that's the idea. I'm not convinced that it's the best way to think about it.

    The Red Cross made this same point in a blog post recently: - I think it's the first time I've seen a charity make the point so explicitly and publicly.

    I wonder how far your observation is generalizable across all people. I would have predicted the opposite effect.

    I tend to be much more willing to donate money to charities than to donate time. And I find this to be a general principle (ie I tend to pay my taxes without grumbling too much, but when some stupid government policy wastes my time, that's when I get angry and write to my congressperson).

    Possible explanations: I grew up in a wealthy family, and/or I don't really actually spend money on anything beyond necessities because the library gives books out for free.

    Informal poll: If asked to donate either one hour of free time, or your hourly wage, to a worthy charity that would receive equal benefit from either, which would you rather do? Disregard taxes being deducted from your wage and that sort of thing.

    As I am job-free and supported by my parents, my hourly wage is approximately zero.

    Surely your hourly wage is infinity? :)

    Heh, yes, that too. My free time is too valuable to me to sell to employers for anything they'd be willing to pay. ;) On the other hand, I am willing to spend time bargain-hunting on the Internet in order to make the most of my finite savings. Am I being inconsistent here? If I simply said that I place an extremely large positive value on freedom from employment, would that make my behavior consistent?
    I tell my employed friends that clearly my time is simply worth a lot more than theirs. :) If this were true, it would, but just saying it doesn't change anything, and it sounds a bit like an ad hoc rationalisation; though having read your comments elsewhere it may well not be.
    That phrasing certainly sounds like ad hoc rationalization. The rational (rationalist?*) way to go about that would be to... recognize that you attach value to some things associated with freedom from employment, try to figure out what exactly that is and quantify it while ignoring what your current actions are, and then determine whether your current actions are consistent with that, and change them if not. If you determine your values based on what your current actions are, there's no point in being rational. I have a vague feeling like "rational" should mean "the way a hypothetical rational actor, such as an AI built for rationality, would act", and "rationalist" would mean "the way a human who recognizes that their brain is not built for rationality and actively tries to overcome thing would act". An AI built to be rational would never need to do this because their behavior would already* follow logically from their values. I don't remember why I put in this note, but it's an interesting thing about this site generally.
    Good point. CronoDAS's other comments suggest a desire to be free from commitments in general. Also, welcome to LessWrong!
    I would prefer to donate the money.
    Depends how cute the other volunteers are.
    Interesting... I'd go with the money immediately (picturing minimum wage, $8 an hour, here). Yet I'm quite sure that I tend to conserve money far, far more effectively than time at that ratio; with the exception of a handful of purchases like my computer (and even that was in the hundreds of dollars, easily worth it given how much time I spend on the internet), I've probably spent maybe a few of hundred dollars on luxuries since I started having significant discretionary spending money, which would have been in middle school when I started my paper route, almost 10 years ago. On the other hand, I regularly waste hours and hours on random internet things that I often don't even remember, day after day. I think the difference is probably between work and enjoyable time, which makes things really hard to calculate. I think that I attach varying degrees of negative value to doing work (depending on factors specific to the work) in addition to the time spent. Of course, that would be assuming I were a rational actor. I suspect I actually have biases in both directions depending on the situation, and that probably many people are like that. There's no reason biases have to be consistent, in fact, that's pretty much the whole point of them. EDIT: Correction, actually: If the hour were spent on the sort of jobs I've done to earn money previously (cashiering in retail or delivering papers, specifically in settings and routines I'm familiar with), then I'd probably go with doing the work. I seem to have assumed that doing an hour working charity involved awkwardly learning new things or figuring things out or working with other people (an example of attaching negative value to specific aspects of doing work). Maybe my emotional estimate was actually more rational than I'd realized; that'd be rather unusual.
    Same here. Same here... Well, not quite the same, but I do tend to be much more frugal than I could afford to.

    Thinking about this, I suspect people treat charity as only a means to the end of self-cultivation (and sometimes also socializing and teamwork). The personal involvement is the payoff. It's this linkage that fouls when they spend money to get more efficient charity but at the expense of a completely impersonal transaction.

    A lot of charities try to personalize the money donation, but that feels like a dirty hack to me. I think in the end we'd be better off cutting the linkage and trying to persuade people that self-cultivation is a worthy but distinct goal. (I think it's seen as a bit unworthy if not sugared with good deeds; consider people's attitude to meditation.)

    I was at a music festival a few years ago and spoke with a grassroots activist about this very issue. I told him I thought it was more effective for me to give his cause money than time, and he enthusiastically agreed: the leverage that we get from supporting the cause, together, with my money and their activist smarts, is far greater than the dilettante effort that I could myself muster.

    Since then donated a few $K to the cause via monthly deduction, and they've had several major wins in that period.

    People who want to give time when they could better spend the money aren't really (or only) trying help the cause: they're trying to buy themselves absolution.

    when you volunteer your own time and energy to a cause, and experience the ''charity process'' firsthand, you increase your emotional investment and thus future commitment to it. sending a cheque is easy to forget; spending an afternoon with like-minded Cause Enthusiasts doing whatever it is volunteers do is not so easily forgotten, and the feel-good, warm fuzzy memories may even be conflated with the cause itself. you want supporters who will stick around and proselytize. you will not succeed by having them just give money. you will succeed by having them invest an -experience - directly in the cause and the institution supporting it. everything in the post is true but could easily lead unthinking activists to a long-term losing strategy. -you must combat ''care decay'' and foster commitment or you will lose-.
    On the other hand, the goal (to the charity) of acquiring Cause Enthusiasts is to acquire money.

    taw saw it. Volunteering gets things done, but not the "stated thing." Charities with effective volunteering systems seldom state that what they are trying to get done may be... (what follows is a grab bag of unstated goals, feel free to add your own):

    challenge the specialized professional identity of potential volunteers and encourage them to think of themselves in another light: as citizens, neighbors, people who could under less lucky circumstances be poor/at risk of natural disaster/in need of instruction... etc. increase happiness through fa... (read more)

    I like Peter Singer's "drowning child" argument in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" as a way to illustrate the imperative to donate and, by implication, the value of money. As he says, "we ought to give the money [spent on fancy clothes] away, and it is wrong not to do so."

    I do think there's a danger, though, in focusing on the wrongness of frivolous spending, which is relatively easy to criticize. It's harder to make people think about the wrongness of failing to make money that they could have donated. Opportunity costs are always harder to feel viscerally.

    The evidence is that giving money in the form of aid to countries is almost useless in helping the average person in that country become better off. However, getting rid of trade restrictions and showing the people in a country what things they can produce has been very effective in lifting people and countries out of poverty. This means that buying fancy chocolate for instance will likely have a greater effect on helping poor people in Africa than donating an equal amount of money in aid. To continue this example people in Africa are unable to vote in US (or Europe) the two places that have high tariffs that if reduced would greatly change the welfare of most of the developing world. In the US HFCS is used instead of sugar due to high sugar tariffs, ethanol is made from corn instead of importing it from Brazil, and tropical fruits are restricted to favored trading partners. This is highly beneficial if one grows sugar in Florida and moderately beneficial if one grows corn but poverty inducing if one lives in a country where the main export is Sugar. Therefore if we really did care about the welfare of people in the rest of the world then we should be donating to a PAC that has the purpose of repealing such tariffs as this would be the most cost effective way of reducing world wide poverty. Instead we donate shoes and clothes that drive the local textile industries out of business, we donate money for food that creates artificial famines as local farmers have no reason to plant crops, and we condition a lot of donations on things such as "green" technology that is more expensive and less useful for development then the alternative (as well as non-producible in Africa meaning most of the money gets sent back to the western countries that are "helping"). Then we wonder why one of the prevailing views in Africa is that the west wants Africa to remain poor.
    There are also many places that grow coffee or chocolate that would switch to sugar if we would import it, and they'd be able to make more profit- that is, the real fair trade coffee is sugar.
    I've harvested both coffee and sugar, and I'd prefer doing coffee any day of the week.
    Why? (I'm not doubting you; I'm interested in the details.) I'm also curious why China has so many coffee plantations, but so few coffee drinkers.
    Let me first clarify that I've only spent about a half-day at each, so I don't pretend to be an expert. Harvesting coffee is picking beans in the shade. You have to carry the beans you've picked, and that is getting heavier, but really it's not disagreeable work. Harvesting sugar cane is swinging a heavy machete in the hot sun. If the field was burned first, you're breathing ashes; if it wasn't (I hear) the leaves are sharp-edged. It's really worse in every way. Ecologically, coffee is also much superior; it's a perennial plant which grows in a more-diverse ecosystem with less need for chemical inputs. By the way, while coffee-exporting countries are often sugar-exporters as well, good-quality coffee grows at a higher elevation than sugar cane, so they're not actually direct substitute crops.

    Every time I spend money I feel like I'm losing hit points. 


    I would like to thank the LessWrong community for substantially curing me of this. I am not totally over it and rationality is not the only reason I made progress, but it did substantially contribute to the idea that money is a resource with which I can solve problems and the main reason not to is it might be better spent on different problems later. 

    That said, if people want to mail in good 5 year old apple laptops, or 3 year old laptops in good working condition, the cause that cannot be named will probably benefit from them and the donors can benefit, I suspect, from the exceptional tax benefits associated with donating electronic goods.
    Old but still fully functional cars are would also be appreciated.

    Umm - who are these people that would rather donate their time than their money?

    I guess, I have never been one of those people - unless someone needs work in my realm of expertise (in my case, tweaking computers to do what you want it to do, fairly cheaply, or training people to use them), I don't volunteer for very much at all.

    I do love modern web banking - I can set my bank account to send $5 a month to my local NPR/PBS affiliate, 2nd week of the month, the Monday after my payday (So I can turn it off if I'm unexpectedly tight). The ACLU get it's $5 on ... (read more)

    Have you ever noticed that wealthy people often leave money to charity in their wills? It would make sense from a utility standpoint to donate while alive because you can be more involved in the use of your money and ultimately gain the appreciation/satisfaction/utils from the result. You gain no utils when dead and I'm assuming that the prospect of future utility is less valuable than the act of donation in the present. Therefore, why do so many people donate to charity in their wills? A big reason is time. They often don't have time (as perceived by them... (read more)

    You don't get fuzzies, but you do get utils. Utils are not about how you feel, but about what happens in reality. You don't need to know that a good thing happened, you don't need to be there, you don't even need to have ever existed in order for something to be right.
    Leaving money in your will is an advanced form of having your cake and eating it too. You get the warm fuzzy feeling of the money going to a good cause, without, you know, actually having to lose any of it. And the cheap hack charities use that's related to this is pledge drives. You get to donate without actually spending money, then when the bill comes around it's framed as an obligation.
    It's great that Buffet gave money to the Gates foundation. He is, after all, one of the world's most validated rationalists, but I don't see others rushing to do so.

    I was disappointed. I thought that Buffett's time, used to pick good charities, could be far more valuable than his money. I think Buffett would be much better at this than Gates. Gates should be leaving all his money to Buffett, not the other way around.

    I am not sure about this one. Buffett's skillset in picking very good investments, might not transfer to picking good charities. Or at the very least, he might need to spend some time practicing before getting good? Not to mention validation cycle time on charities vary(am not sure how much more than investments) and Buffett considered his time better spent investing, and not acquiring skill at charity picking?
    Surely people who give money to charity in their wills are giving to specific charities, so they have already decided who gets the money. They could have given the money to the same charity instead of writing "When I die, $X goes to charity Y" in their wills. I'd have thought more obvious explanations for the fact that people give money to charity in their wills are (1) that they want the money available as long as they're alive and might need it, so they don't give it up until it's demonstrably not going to help them, and (2) that they want to demonstrate how generous they are without being seen to boast. (#1 may not make much sense in the case of the very rich. #2 doesn't make much sense for anyone since reputation isn't much use once you're dead. But that doesn't stop them being motivations, human nature being the overgeneralizing thing it is.)
    2) as stated demonstrates a persistent problem i see here and elsewhere: just because a behavior signals something to observers does not mean the behavior was chosen because it signals something to observers. we use the same evaluative criteria to assess ourselves as we use to determine the relative value of our peers. for example, if i evaluate the relative worth of members of my peer group within the context of ''athletics'' using a criterion like their vertical leap, i will likely apply the same evaluative criterion to myself when assessing -my- value. when i spend hours alone at the gym doing plyometric training to improve my vertical leap i am not signalling, or improving myself with the intention of signalling something later on: i am just doing something that will let me score higher on the metric i use to evaluate my worth. it will make me more estimable in my own eyes and i will get a kick from internal self-approval.
    Er, I didn't say that the behaviour was chosen because it signals something. I offered that as one possible explanation. In this instance, signalling-to-self seems like about as good an explanation as signalling-to-others for the fact that people give to charities at all (though I'm sure these are nothing like the whole explanation). But it doesn't work for explaining why someone would do it in their will rather than earlier, whereas signalling-to-others does. For what it's worth, I think my #1 is likely more important than my #2. I would hazard a guess that, e.g., Robin Hanson might disagree. But I'm not sure what your objection is: do you think "signalling" explanations are never an interesting part of the story?

    Governments set up a couple of hacks to counter this effect : taxes, and tax deductions for donations.

    There are probably better solutions, and we'll probably be reading about them here :)

    Is there a more detailed psychological evaluation of the "spending money is like losing hitpoints" side of things? What bugs us the most? I don't think it's losing money as much as "spending money on something on which other people don't", with the associated mental image of being a sucker. It's some kind of reverse "keeping up with the Joneses&quo... (read more)

    With donating money, there's also a disconnect between donating the money and the resulting action. If you fly to Haiti yourself and build houses, you immediately see the results and get to signal to all of your friends that you are the type of person that donates your college spring break to helping the less fortunate. If you instead donated $1500 to Direct Relief International, your friends would pat you on the back but you would likely gain more status by doing it yourself. So I think there are significant issues of status here -- a lawyer volunteering at the soup kitchen gets to signal that they have compassion for the poor. A lawyer donating $1000 to issues of local poverty really does have compassion for the poor, but isn't signalling it as strongly as doing the work themselves.

    What does it mean if you have no units of money to spend? It seems rational to accept that, if I do not have enough money to pay for my own food, then society has deemed me too worthless to survive; and if I do not have enough money to spend on influencing the future, then society has deemed my desires not worth considering.

    This is clearly true, but how is a human self supposed to survive that realization, and maintain the self-esteem necessary to go out and attempt to acquire money?

    Nice one! Well, as a straight answer, 1) the present society is just plain indifferent/irrational/banally-evil, so its collective distribution of money does not map to its collective distribution of utility, and 2) one's values are always selfish in a tautological sense, and so one should attempt to impose them on the world - even in the face of apparent conflict with everyone whose revealed preferences do not include your values. In other words, we should be Nietzchean egoists on the meta-level of conflicting values, even if altruism/compromise/collectivism/etc are among those values that we would want to implement on the object level.
    But that never worked in the ancestral environment! Seriously - how am I supposed to overcome the akrasia generated by my instincts screaming at me to walk out into the desert, because all the social signals around me are telling me that I'm no longer useful to the tribe?
    Have you ever tried writing software? Like they say: "a programmer is a machine that turns coffee into money," or something like that.
    I wrote software professionally for almost 20 years, from age 14 to age 33. Then I had a mental breakdown due to nearly 20 years of abusive employee/employer relationships, coupled with a rapid series of devastating life changes. I'm afraid I'm virtually unemployable now, and can't really manage to do any kind of quality work even if someone wanted to pay me for it.
    This sounds unhelpful, but I'll try anyway: did you try working without the abusive relationships? I'm pretty sure most programmer work isn't like that.
    You're right, it isn't - but often, in the corporate environment, you wind up in a situation where your previous employer's reputation taints your resume, and thus the only kinds of jobs you can get are ones with equally abusive relationships. Also, sometimes you can flip a coin 10 times and come up 9 heads. It may not mean that the coin is stacked, but try convincing the amygdala of that.
    Yeah, the corporate environment should be avoided at all cost. Startups FTW.
    There aren't very many viable startups in Oildale, CA, and the Bay Area was always too expensive to break into. Most of the startups I participated in in Arizona were run by egomaniac scam-artists, and my own ego issues prevented me from just taking my paycheck and going home when there was actual work to be done. So, yeah. Fully disillusioned.

    I like thinking about this in terms of transmission losses. When you donate money, you convert from your time -> money -> charitable work at maximum efficiency. When you donate time and work on something you don't specialize in, you are incurring substantial losses.

    Of course, you are also having fun, and that value should go into the equation. It doesn't make any sense for people to only value impact on the world...and not value their own enjoyment. Right? Excluding your own utility from the optimization would be absurd.

    Hi! Long time lurker first time poster here. I linked to this from a recent article of Scott's, so I'm a little late to the party.

    A couple of things struck me about this: one, people who support an organization's work or 'want to help' may be (in many cases justifiably) suspicious about the way money is spent. Giving labour gives them some control over how that labour will be used; if it's used in a way that is obviously counter to the stated aims of the organization/what the individual volunteering actually cares about, they can leave.

    Secondly, people m... (read more)

    Interesting post. Reminds me of one of the things my parents think is odd about me. It causes me a pang of emotional pain to buy lunch at the cafeteria ("I should have planned better and packed enough food and saved $2") but I have no problem donating large amounts to charity. I think it has to do with the guilt factor of spending money on myself, which is replaced by the I'm-a-good-person glow of giving to charity. I probably donate nearly 5% to 10% of my total income, which is still much less than I could donate, but I'm going to wait until I have a steady 'adult' job rather than an $11/hour lifeguarding job to really push that.

    Thanks, Eliezer!

    That's good stuff. I really relate to " ... the poisonous meme saying that someone who gives mere money must not care enough to get personally involved." That one runs on automatic in my head. It's just one of many ways my brain lies to me.

    “Every time I spend money I feel like I'm losing hit points. ” Now, I don’t know your personal situation, and I can certainly relate. My mother is a child of the Great Depression and lived her life out of a fear of poverty. She taught me to worship Bargain and Sale and to abhor “unnecessar... (read more)

    In our society, this common currency of expected utilons is called "money". It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

    What is this 'society' of which you speak?

    And why should we expect a common currency of utilions? Money can buy you lots of things, but not anything. Plenty of people give up lucrative careers for more satisfying ones. That doesn't negate your overall argument, but I think you're wrong on that particular point.

    My view is that charity has less to do with actually helping the needy than with signaling compass... (read more)

    Plenty of people give up lucrative careers for more satisfying ones.

    That's the whole point EY is making - in this very example money is the fungible currency of utilons. How much more satisfying? Satisfying enough to give up $X/year.

    At least that much more satisfying, because at least that much money was given up. This doesn't provide us with a way to establish a conversion between caring and money, because if someone was willing to turn down an arbitrarily-large salary at doing X to do Y instead, we can't calculate a ratio.
    I didn't read EY as making that point. The 'hit points' analogy suggests that he's giving money priority over other things. Am I wrong? In any case, there are some things that don't seem measurable in dollar terms: how much money would I accept to drop X% in social status or Y fewer friends? I have no idea. I'm not suggesting that people don't trade these things off, just that money is not a neutral currency with which we can compare the value of any two things. It allows for a imperfect but useful comparison of the subjective value of things for which a market exists. I know how much I'm willing to pay for a tomato or a computer because I'm accustomed to trading money for tomatoes, and thus I know that a marginal computer is worth more to me than a marginal tomato. I have no idea how much I would pay for a friend, in terms of money or tomatoes, because I have no experience trading these things off against each other.
    Like Ciphergoth, I think EY's point is that you can determine how much someone cares about some cause by seeing how much money they're willing to give up for that cause. So money has no inherent value in itself. It's only value is in giving it away to get something else in return; a sentiment I think most rational people agree and accept with. You're looking at it in the reverse direction. It's not about receiving money. It's about giving up money. How much money would you be willing to spend for an increase in social status, or having more friends? Would you be willing to spend money to buy better clothes, an expensive watch, a nice car, a nice home, etc. for an increase in status? Would you be willing to pay for membership to some club, or for internet access, or at a social bar, for the opportunity to make more friends? If my best friend had cancer, and needed money for treatment, I'd probably contribute up until the thousands. It may sound harsh, cold and calculating, but when we get into the tens of thousands, it simply becomes too much for me to contribute. I care that my friend lives comfortably, but not infinitely so. The amount of money I'm willing to give up is an indication of the magnitude of how much I care.
    Just noticed that taw makes the same signaling point below.

    I feel the reasons you cite are all weaker than the real reason: we give work instead of money because we want to know the cause is sincere. Analogously, it's better to give a hobo bread than money, because he'd just buy booze.

    Also, moralizing with an ulterior motive is bad in my metric. Didn't think I would ever downvote you, but here goes.

    This "real reason" of which you speak does not sound like the real reason to me. This is the best possible gloss you could put on it, not the most plausible one.

    Having an open ulterior motive is fine in my book. Don't trust me? Think that makes the net expected utility too low? Fine, go donate to the Methuselah Foundation or Foresight Institute instead. But don't think you can get away with just donating time. Find someone you trust enough to donate money.

    (more stupidity scratched) You're right. Sorry.
    Gotta become friends with Eliezer. :)
    To a certain extent, I agree with cousin's point. When I volunteer time directly for a charity, I know that my services are going 100% to the cause. When I give money, there is always some doubt in my mind. I don't know about you, but there are very few people I trust on that point. I do give money to charity, but I'm a bit skeptical about it at the same time.
    I recommend Population Services International. I once donated $650 to it using my debit card. Unfortunately, my checking account didn't have $650 in it at the time, and I had to pay an overdraft fee. (I transferred money from another account to cover the negative balance.) My parents were very angry with me for giving away the money, saying that I was going to need my savings for myself. :P
    5Mike Bishop
    I've donated to them as well, on the basis of the evaluation by That said, OB and LW may have convinced me that all future donations should go elsewhere e.g. towards existential risks.
    No, that fails trivially. Loads of charitable activity takes the form "do activity X, convert it to money, and give it to charity Y".

    Believe me, I understand the feeling. Every time I spend money I feel like I'm losing hit points. That's the problem with having a unified quantity describing your net worth: Seeing that number go down is not a pleasant feeling, even though it has to fluctuate in the ordinary course of your existence.

    In the movie In Time, time is their Unit of Caring.

    If you don't spend two months salary on a diamond ring, it doesn't mean you don't love your Significant Other. ("De Beers: It's Just A Rock.") But conversely, if you're always reluctant to spend any money on your SO, and yet seem to have no emotional problems with spending $1000 on a flat-screen TV, then yes, this does say something about your relative values.

    I disagree, or at least the way it's phrased is misleading. The obvious completion of the pattern is that you care more about a flat screen TV than your SO. But that's not a valid com... (read more)

    "It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

    This is a brutal yet obvious point, which many are motivated to deny.

    With this audience, I hope, I can simply state it and move on.  It's not as if you thought "society" was intelligent, benevolent, and sane up until this point, right?" - saying that a non-intelligent object can "care" about something is strange.

    Also, your position of no one using the logic for feeding is clearly distorted - I hear from time to time from not-so-stupid people that it is merely an... (read more)

    very, very old puzzle/observation in economics about the lawyer who spends an hour volunteering at the soup kitchen, instead of working an extra hour and donating the money to hire someone to work for five hours at the soup kitchen.

    Where else can I read discussions of this idea? If it's old I'd expect to find something before at least 2006.

    Sorry, I'm a bit confused. Not being fully versed in the terminology of utilitarians, I may be somewhat in the dark...

    ... but, is the point of this piece "Money should be the unit of caring" or "Money is the unit of caring"? I expected it to be the latter, but it reads to me like the former, with examples as to why it currently isn't. That is, if money were actually the unit of caring—if people thought of how much money they spend on something as synonymous with how much they care about something—then a lawyer would hire someone to work... (read more)

    I think his point was a fairly critical "money is the unit of actually caring". Donating your clothes or some soup kitchen time is the thing you do if you want to feel good about yourself. But if you actually care about getting shit done, money is the unit of how much of that you did. This may or may not be fair, and may or may not be a useful framing to consider whether it's fair or not.
    Ah! This puts everything into a sensible context—thank you. I'd like to have a conversation on said fairness sometime; maybe I'll make a thread about it.

    If the slaves have no money, but the slave owners are wealthy, does that mean that the slaves who try to use their time and energy to revolt don't care, because they have no money? And the wealthy owners, who free a slave every 20 years because they own so many one more or less makes little difference to them, they somehow care more?

    No, that's a ridiculous theory.

    This site is so much fun, because I find all the ideas that I've always liked, and some more besides that are just as good.

    I'll disagree on one point. Time is a much more common utilon of giving, and I believe in fact was used in some utopian communes as a unit of contribution and extraction from a common pot. I think people often depreciate giving money for a couple of reasons. First, because of the orders of magnitude difference in ability to pay. Gates and Buffet can give more than the accumulated net worth of a number of towns, and not even notice the ... (read more)

    She might also have had the more benign motivation of wanting to learn more about the world, so that she can help more effectively for the rest of her life. It occurs to me that the help people give to their friends and family isn't counted as charity, and it seems to me that it ought to count for something, even if it's less formalized and less apt to help people outside a particular social network than official charity. In the same spirit, I think that what people do for themselves should be part of the GDP.
    Sort of like a capital investment in knowledge for the sake of improved performance down the road? That would have been perfectly rational. That could have been her motivation, but I don't think it was. Given the story, doesn't that sound like a rationalization to you? You mean helping the people you actually care about "ought to count for something"? What a strange idea. Your own happiness should count for something too? Who knew? As for counting what you do for yourself as part of GDP, maybe we should just stop mistaking GDP for an indicator of gross production of value? Governments like GDP, because it records transactions that they are interested in - what they might tax, and what they spend. And it counts every dollar they spend of other people's money, or money they create out of thin air, the same as a dollar that people earn and spend for themselves. That's a cute little sleight of thought.

    Unfortunately, money is not and cannot be a universal system for representing value. There are some things whose value cannot be summed up by any such system.

    Integrity, for example, is proverbially a thing which can be sold but never bought. Its utility comes from its inability to be exchanged for something else and retain its value.

    The idea that everything of value can be converted into a generic and interchangeable medium is incompatible with the concept of value itself.

    If you never make decisions that involve choosing a over b you don't value a over b. In your schema integrity is just something that you have never encountered a good opportunity to trade away.
    If you can seriously consider exchanging your integrity for an amount of money, you don't possess integrity in the first place. It's not that we don't choose a over b. It's that a and b belong to completely different categories that can't be exchanged or even compared. The Morgans fear what may not be purchased, for a trader cannot comprehend a thing that is priceless. - Sister Miriam Godwinson, "The Collected Sermons", Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri I'm not a great fan of Godwinson, but even a blind squirrel will find a nut, and she's found a great big one. As I recall, you don't understand why the Morganite and Gaian factions hate each other so much, either.
    So you and Eliezer actually agree, then.
    Sort of. If we're going to break some of our rules in order to acquire some benefit, there must be some other rules by which we've abiding that permit us to evaluate conditions and choose to break the lesser law. The ultimate rules guiding our behavior must not be broken. But really, they can't be broken at all. Thus, when I speak of "selling out" or violating your own integrity, I'm not talking about those ultimate rules, I'm talking about the proximate ones, the ones that can be broken. E. and I agree, but to a limited degree.
    Integrity is a virtue. It is defined with respect to a value. Virtues cannot be maximized - they are a mean between extremes. If you have two goods and think you can't compare them, consider the situation where you have to choose between them.

    "Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens." —John Ralston Saul

    And in contrast to this generalizing quote, we can contrast the lengthy & famous passages in de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (written during his visit in a period where presumably 'the concepts of democracy and citizenship are [not] weakening') where he marvels at how ordinary Americans are always volunteering, always starting new charities, always participating in citizen-staffed organizations, for every possible problem and cause, in considerable contrast to his native France, and claims this is a cause of the success of democracy in America.
    Quote three.
    The entirety of chapter V, "OF THE USE WHICH THE AMERICANS MAKE OF PUBLIC ASSOCIATIONS IN CIVIL LIFE" comes to mind, as do parts from chapter VI ("OF THE RELATION BETWEEN PUBLIC ASSOCIATIONS AND THE NEWSPAPERS") and chapter VII ("RELATION OF CIVIL TO POLITICAL ASSOCIATIONS"). de Tocqueville is far from a concise quotable author.