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A sappy Giving Tuesday post
Try to be a good person
Donate links to organizations and campaigns mentioned in this post: GiveDirectly, GiveWell, Capital Area Food Bank, Greater DC Diaper Bank (items or dollars), our local Title I DCPS Elementary, YIMBY Action, Raphael Warnock, The States Project
I really love The Wirecutter, the NYT-owned product review and recommendation site. It’s my go-to source for information when I want to buy something and I need advice.
And beyond that, I sincerely enjoy reading the site. Sometimes I’ll browse it just because I like gadgets and enjoy thinking about my ideal smart home setup, even though in the real world it feels a bit wasteful and I’m unlikely to invest much in this stuff. But even for something I have no interest in at all like snow gear, I sometimes find myself browsing Wirecutter articles just because I enjoy the writing and the thought process behind it.
That deep admiration is part of the reason why I found their Giving Tuesday recommendations from last year to be so disappointing. An organization like the Truckee Trails Foundation (building bike trails near Lake Tahoe) sounds nice, but it’s not obvious why someone would make that a priority unless they happened to be a cyclist who spends a lot of time in that specific area. On the other side of the country, one author recommended the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) without even attempting to argue that BAGLY is unusually effective compared to similar organizations in other metro areas or that the level of need in the Boston area is especially high. I assume the author has a personal connection to the Boston area and that’s why they’re interested in this particular group. And that’s fair enough. But the group doesn’t say that explicitly or tell us how to go about finding a good organization that supports LGBT youth in our own community.
Worse, if my initial impression is wrong and Truckee Trails really is doing super-important work, it’s a missed opportunity to actually persuade someone who doesn’t particularly care about that part of California that there’s something objectively significant about it.
I always find it interesting that casually tossed-off charity recommendations invariably generate less backlash than the brasher claims of Effective Altruist groups that they have identified the One Most Important Cause to support. And as a realist about human nature, I think that’s something EA needs to assimilate. Part of being effective is minimizing backlash, and framing your own recommendations in a way that smacks of arrogance makes people want to take you down a peg.
At the same time, the contrast between the Wirecutter’s thoughtful and detailed guide to snow shovels and their slapdash charity recommendations reminds me of what I do like about the EA approach — namely a dual insistence that you probably should try harder to be a good person. This means not just someone who meets de minimus standards of acceptable conduct but someone who tries to be of some real use to the world, and someone who also puts some thought into whether your approach to doing good makes sense. So for my Giving Tuesday post, I’m going to urge everyone to both consider giving more and also try to be somewhat analytic about it while also addressing the broad range of things normal people care about, including their local community, political change, and even arts and culture.
A selfish case for doing good
As someone who essentially marinates in the discourse for a living, it often strikes me that a lot of people these days seem really grumpy and unhappy.
Some of that is driven by external events, but most of us have some control over our emotional reactions to things. And whatever tribulations we’ve been living through as a country over the past few years, it’s also the case that most of the people participating in the discourse are middle-class (or richer) residents of the richest countries in human history living through a period of rapidly rising global living standards. What a lot of us face, I think, is a kind of crisis of meaning generated by the waning of religious faith paired with a culture that has come to weirdly valorize victimhood to the extent that people are incentivized to sort of wallow in their miseries and complaints. The culture of victimhood has gotten so bad that the kind of conservatives who used to complain about a culture of victimhood now constantly complain that they themselves are victims of the “woke” “elites.”
It’s healthy both morally and psychologically to recognize that we are, in fact, empowered to make a meaningful difference in the world — even those of us who aren’t billionaires or senators or Supreme Court justices. The amounts of time and money that normal Americans have at our disposal can’t alter the course of history, but they can absolutely alter the trajectory of individual lives.
The first charity I ever really got interested in was GiveDirectly, which started out leveraging the existence of mobile banking networks in Eastern Africa to deliver direct cash assistance to some of the poorest people on Earth. GiveDirectly has incredibly low overhead, and global income differentials are so high that $40 per month can lift a person out of poverty. The evidence is quite strong that this kind of assistance is more than just a band-aid and does some real long-term good for the recipients. GiveDirectly has moved into other areas and is piloting programs that use direct cash support as a form of refugee assistance and as an anti-poverty policy in rich countries and other places. I’m not sure how solid the efficacy evidence is on that stuff, but we won’t find out unless we fund it.
Most of all, what I like about GiveDirectly is that it’s so simple and available. My seven-year-old chooses to give part of his allowance to GiveDirectly in part because it’s a compelling and easy-to-explain idea. My best guess is the similarly-named-but-different GiveWell does more good on a per-dollar basis — with their Top Charities Fund, they support public health work that they estimate is 10 times the efficacy of direct cash transfers, and their All Grants Fund also supports pilot programs and research that can discover more such high-leverage activities. At the end of the day, though, I’m less interested in debating the exact merits of these programs than simply in reminding everyone that they exist. Lots of people around the world are much, much, much worse off than you, and there are things you can do to help them. And you should! Even though you also probably want to support some stuff that you have a more personal connection to.
Act locally, think rationally
The main thing I want say about locally- or community-oriented giving is that it’s worth maintaining a sense of the distinction between having a non-profit legal form and fulfilling the spirit of other-directed charity.
Living here in D.C., I have the opportunity to take advantage of a lot of free museums and the National Zoo. I sometimes give to these programs and/or buy memberships whose value doesn’t really pencil out with the understanding that membership is a way to support the institution. But the main reason I do that stuff is because I like these institutions. One of the things I like about them is that they don’t charge admission, so visitors can check them out on a whim and people who couldn’t afford tickets can still enjoy them. But I would not personally struggle to pay an admissions fee to these institutions if they charged one, and I do benefit from their ongoing existence, so I like to pitch in. I do think of this as part of an ethic of trying to be a not-awful person, but it’s really just about being a cooperative member of society — someone who doesn’t free ride — rather than being a truly other-directed gesture.
Another thing we do locally is give money to a food bank.
I think more people are aware of this now than the first time I wrote about it over a decade ago, but while food banks will generally accept your leftover canned goods, it is much better to eat your food and give the food banks money. They can purchase food cost-effectively, have other operating expenses, and generally speaking appreciate the flexibility of cash. Of course if you have food that you genuinely are never in a million years going to eat, you may as well give it away. But the only really good case for in-kind donations I know is diapers, because when you have a baby, it’s common to end up with stockpiles of unopened diapers your kid has outgrown. May as well get them out of the house and into the hands of someone who needs them.
The other thing we (but really Kate) do is support our school’s Parent Teacher Organization.
This is obviously a little like the zoo in that our kid attends the school and benefits from a strong PTO. But we’re a majority-minority, high-poverty Title I school with a lot of families who have acute needs and a lot of teachers who have very difficult jobs. A big part of Kate’s work for the PTO has been to try to shift yuppie parents out of the mentality of low-value volunteering (though of course volunteers are needed!) and into giving cash, which can be used to help families who need it and to support school staff’s needs. Obviously, every community is different. But I think the main point here is that wanting to be involved in your local community shouldn’t mean turning the rational, analytic side of your brain off. And wanting to be rational and analytic shouldn’t mean turning your back on your community. Particularly for people who live in urban areas where school systems face a lot of challenges, engaging directly rather than fleeing to the suburbs or to private schools can be a form of enlightened self-interest that helps needier families and also helps build functioning community institutions.
And speaking of community institutions, anyone who is sufficiently engaged with issues and ideas to be reading this newsletter probably has a lot of leverage in terms of paying attention to local politics.
Your attention budget
I spent some time this past week watching and rooting for the USMNT in the World Cup. It’s a fun thing to do, and I hope you’ve also had some fun doing it.
But I also hope you understand that rooting for Team USA is not the same thing as doing anything concrete to help your country. It’s entertainment. And I worry sometimes that people pay attention to national politics mostly because it’s fun (Eitan Hirsh’s political hobbyism) while telling themselves they are paying attention for high-minded reasons like the fate of the country. I’m not going to tell you to stop following national politics (I’m trying to make a living here), but it really is worth considering that to the extent you follow politics for high-minded reasons, you ought to prioritize your local politics.
Your state and local elected officials are relatively likely to respond to you if you write to them. What’s more, the bar to becoming the best-informed person in your social circle or among your coworkers is probably relatively low. By consistently paying attention to local politics and engaging with local elected officials, you can become a local politics influencer who is telling other people who to vote for and which local pols are hardworking and effective and which are lazy time-servers. I’m not saying everyone is obligated to become a local politics obsessive, but I really do think it’s a good idea to recognize that time spent doomscrolling or getting mad about things being done by the governor of a state you don’t live in are relatively low-value uses of your time. By reallocating your attention budget, you can have a positive impact.
Schools aside, this would not be a Slow Boring post if I didn’t mention the growing national network of YIMBY groups — see if there’s one in your area and consider giving them some money. YIMBYs are increasingly on the ground in at least small ways in all kinds of places, and small amounts of money go a long way when it comes to local politics.
Supporting candidates intelligently
Political contributions aren’t charitable donations according to the U.S. tax code. But they are absolutely a way that a person with some extra money can try to make the world better.
Giving hard money to candidates is a particularly potent strategy for most people because U.S. law requires television stations to give campaigns favorable ad rates but has no such bonus for Super PACs and other outside groups. That means a candidate who has a large group of small donors can punch far above his weight in the air war. Back in the Wisconsin Senate race, for example, Ron Johnson and his allies had a lot more money than Mandela Barnes and his allies. But thanks to Barnes’ advantage in direct campaign contributions (including one from me), he was able to nearly match Johnson in terms of the number of ads served.
Right now the only game in town is really Raphael Warnock, so it’s easy to know who to donate to. Alternatively, if you think banning abortion and slicing federal health programs is so important that you’re willing to overlook Herschel Walker’s manifest personal flaws, then he could use your money instead. But I would not recommend that course of action!
But once we’re into a new cycle, I always recommend paying attention to the States Project’s GiveSmart list. They try to identify the swing races in chambers that are near tipping points — mostly near the majority control tipping point, but also important supermajority points related to veto overrides and institutional amendments — and identify high-leverage races.
I always want to promote thinking at the margin here. If everyone reads this post and decides to go all-in on donating to state legislature races in the 2024 cycle, then House races and even the presidency could theoretically become underrated. But relative to the actual existing behavior of American political junkies, the highest-value move for most people is to shift into hard money contributions to state-level candidates.
If you’ve imbibed the Gospel According to Slow Boring, it also can’t hurt to let candidates you support know that you’d really like them to win their races and give them your blessing to adopt moderate rhetoric or issue-positions in order to do so. Contemporary politicians have an exaggerated fear of base backlash and anything you can do to alleviate that helps.
Try to do some good in the world
I started by looking askance at some of the more slapdash Wirecutter recommendations, and I absolutely do recommend trying to think harder about where to give.
But I also do think it’s important not to let maximization become an excuse or a trap.
I used to walk past panhandlers every day, not give them any money, and tell myself “giving cash to random panhandlers is not a very good way to help people.” And it’s true, it’s not a very good way to help people. But if I did an honest inventory, it’s not like I was doing some other thing to help people instead of giving cash to the panhandlers — I just wasn’t giving anyone any money.
It’s good to cultivate a habit of giving, of feeling grateful for what you have in life, and for feeling good about being a person who contributes affirmatively to doing good. Part of that should be thinking over time about what you are giving to and why. But trying to do something rather than nothing is a big step, and in some ways the most important one.