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Matt Wage’s Speech on Effective Altruism – Earning to Give in Practice

This is the speech Matt Wage gave at Princeton University:

My name is Matt and I’m a recent Princeton grad, I graduated in 2012.

I actually took this class, and when I took this class there was no lecture on how to choose a career, so I even went into Professor Singer’s office and asked “hey do you have any thoughts on how to choose a career?” So I’m glad to see Will’s here, making it easier on future versons of me.

When I took the class, the part that really blew my mind, was the part about GiveWell. Givewell evaluates charities, and for their top recommended charity, they have an estimate for how much it costs to save a life through that charity. And the current estimate is something like $2,300.

So, you can calculate out, “if I think I’m going to make this much money over my career and give this much of it away, how many lives can I expect to save?”

So it turns out, that if you have sort of a normal salary and you’re giving away 10% of your income, you can save about 100 lives over the course of your career.

When I did this calculation it sort of blew my mind, because if you image just saving one person’s life. Imagine after class today you go out and somehow save someone’s life. That would be a pretty big deal and probably stay with you for a while, right?

And then if you imagine saving 100 people’s lives. Imagine there’s a burning building, and you run through the flames and you kick a door open, and all these people pour out. That would be the greatest moment in your like, you know?

It’s sort of cool or surprising to imagine that you can do something equally as good as that, just by doing the boring thing of giving 10% of your income away to the most effective charities.

So, after I took the class I was like, “yeah I’m going to do something about poverty, I’m going to try and save a punch of lives.”

And I realised, “shit, I don’t actually have any money, what am I going to do?”

So what I ended up doing was starting a chapter of this organisation called Giving What We Can, so shoutout to anyone who’s currently in Giving What We Can. And through Giving What We Can, I met Will, and he gave me all these arguments. And I found the arguements pretty convincing.

So, I decided to go into finance and give away half of whatever I made. And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year.

One thing that Will pointed out to me that I think is really crucial, is that some charities are 100s of times more effective than other charities. If you think about it, it’s pretty surprising.

You never really see this in the for-profit world. You would never see two pizza places that serve the same pizza, but one costs 100 times more. But this sort of thing does happen in the non-profit world. There’ll be two charities where one is 100 times more effective and they are right next to each other, asking for money.

I think a large part of the reason why it happens, is some charities choose really effective ways of helping the world, like malaria bed nets, and some choose not so effective ways, like play pumps. and so one corollary of this is that sometimes, where you give is a lot more important than how much you give.

So, to make that more concrete: You can imagine you have a person who’s giving 1% of their income away, and they’re giving it to a median effectivenes charity. And you have the option of either bumping them up to giving 10% of their money, or you can give the option of redirecting their donation to the most effective charity, but you can only do one of these, which do you prefer to do? I think you actually prefer to redirect their donation to the most effective charity. So that’s what I mean when I say “it’s more important where you give than how much you give.”

I also want to touch on one thing that Will brought up, which is burnout and corruption. So these are separate worries. The burnout worry is that I’ll be some idealistic kid surrounded by a bunch of cut-throat bankers. And I just won’t be able to handle the pressure and I’ll end up quitting. And the corruption worry is the worry that I’ll be around a bunch of cut-throat bankers who all have Ferraris and then one day I’ll be like “hey you know what, screw these charities, I want a Ferrari.”

So I’ll talk about those in my case. In my case, I don’t think burnout is really that big of a worry. I really like the people I work with, I don’t think they’re cut-throat bankers. I actually look forward to going to work every day, which I think is rare. So, I’m not so worried about that.

I am more worried about corruption. I could sort of see myself slowly giving less and less, and rationalising it. One thing I do to try and prevent that, is I have made a public pledge to donate 50% of my income, and I try and say that a lot so that you know, it’ll be really embarrassing if I ever go back on it. And you guys all have permission to make fun of me, if I ever do.

Also, I try to spend a lot of time talking to people like Will, because presumably that’ll help prevent me from getting corrupted. So yeah, those are my thoughts on burnout and corruption, and that’s actually all I have to say.

I guess the summary is that I did the thing that Will’s suggesting, and it didn’t go horribly wrong for me, so that’s one data point.

That’s the speech, hope you enjoyed it. If you would like to know more about Matt Wage, we have the ,full article here.

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