Last updated 2021-10-20.
People who talk about talent/funding/capacity constraints mostly talk about what’s the biggest constraint right now. But it also matters what the constraints will be later.
Right now, the EA community holds a lot of wealth—more wealth than it can productively spend in the next few years, at least on smaller cause areas such as AI safety, cause prioritization research, and wild animal welfare. Those newer fields need time to scale up so they can absorb more funding.
That doesn’t mean EAs should stop earning to give. Maybe most EAs could do more good this year with their direct efforts than with their donations. But perhaps 10 years from now, the smaller causes will have scaled up a lot, and they’ll be able to deploy much more money. Earners-to-give can invest their money for a while, and then deploy it once top causes develop enough spending capacity.
Even if top cause areas don’t currently have the capacity to spend more money, earning-to-give still looks valuable if three conditions all hold:
- The capacity:funding ratio will greatly increase in the future.
- The money spent in high-capacity organizations will still produce a lot of utility per dollar.
- The discount rate isn’t too much higher than the investment rate of return.
In general, I believe it should be easier to grow capacity than to grow funding. By comparison, it’s not uncommon for startups to double the number of employees year over year. Charitable organizations usually can’t grow like startups, but they can at least get within the same ballpark.
Over the past few years, funding has grown faster than capacity, not the other way around. So I could be wrong.
Once capacity grows, will orgs still be able to do a lot of good per dollar? They will use up the best giving opportunities first, so by the time capacity expands, the remaining opportunities won’t be as good. How much difference does that make? It depends on how much it costs to solve the world’s most important problems. If it cost a lot, we will still need lots of money. If it doesn’t cost much (relatively speaking), then future dollars will be worth much less than dollars today.
Is the discount rate high enough that we should care substantially less about future funding? I don’t think so. (What we actually care about is the discount rate minus the investment rate, because the investment rate determines how much money we will have in the future if we invest it now.) The altruistic discount rate minus the investment rate might be around 5% on the high end (it’s probably less than that, and it could be negative). I would be surprised if we couldn’t grow capacity much more quickly than 5% per year. So this factor is unlikely to be decisive.
My personal predictions on the three conditions:
- The capacity:funding ratio will indeed greatly increase in the future. Confidence: Likely.
- I don’t know how quickly the value of money will decrease over time. My best guess is that all current EA funds combined are not enough to solve the world’s biggest problems, so we will need as much additional funding as we can get. Confidence: Possible.
- The discount rate is low enough that it doesn’t affect the outcome of this question. Confidence: Highly likely.
Ultimately, this argument doesn’t tell us much about whether any particular person should go into direct work or earning to give. And even if earning to give looks valuable, it might still be true that, in general, more people should be doing direct work.
Appendix: Some related but distinct arguments
The first argument:
- Altruists have a low discount rate.
- [some other premises]
- Therefore, they should give later rather than now.
- Therefore, earning to give is good.
(Phil Trammell presents an argument like this here)
This is a related argument in the sense that it considers the value of marginal dollars now vs. later. But the argument I presented does not require altruists to have a low discount rate.
The second argument:
- There is an optimal percentage of resources for the community to spend vs. invest in a given year.
- The community may end up spending above this level in the future.
- If that happens, having people switch to earning to save may be one of the best ways to deal with it.
(source: Ben Todd, An argument for keeping open the option of earning to save)
Like my argument, this argument also considers present vs. future constraints. But it’s talking about the tradeoff between spending and investing for people who are already earning to give, not about the choice to earn money vs. do direct work.