Nov 02, 2016

Should we give now or later?

2017-01-30 update: I no longer think the reasoning laid out in this post is correct. I was convinced by this comment on the EA Forum.

Note: See the continuation of this post for further discussion and an updated conclusion.

Around this time of year, GiveWell traditionally spends a lot of time thinking about game theoretic considerations – specifically, what funding recommendation it ought to make to Good Ventures so that Good Ventures spends its resources wisely. (Here are GiveWell's game theoretic posts from 2014 & 2015.)

The main considerations here are:

  1. How should Good Ventures act in an environment where individual donors & other foundations are also giving money?
  2. How should Good Ventures value its current giving opportunities compared to the giving opportunities it will have in the future?

I'm more interested in the second consideration, so that's what I'll engage with here. If present-day opportunities seem better than expected future opportunities, Good Ventures should fully take advantage of its current opportunities, because they are the best giving opportunities it will ever encounter. Conversely, if present-day opportunities seem worse than expected future opportunities, Good Ventures should give sparsely now, preserving its resources for the superior upcoming opportunities.

Personally, I'm bullish on present-day opportunities. Present-day opportunities seem more attractive than future ones for a couple reasons:

  1. The world is improving, so giving opportunities will get worse if current trends continue.
  2. There's a non-negligible chance that a global catastrophic risk occurs within Good Ventures' lifetime (it's a "burn-down" foundation), thus nullifying any future giving opportunities.
  3. Strong AI might emerge sometime in the next 30 years. This could be a global catastrophic risk (GCR), or it could ferry humanity into a post-scarcity environment, wherein philanthropic giving opportunities are either dramatically reduced or entirely absent.

So far, my reasoning has been qualitative, and if it's worth doing, it's worth doing with made-up numbers, so let's assign some subjective probabilities to the different scenarios we could encounter (in the next 30 years):

  • P(current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement stalls out or reverses; no strong AI, no GCRs) = 30%
  • P(current, broad trend of humanitarian improvement continues; no GCRs, if strong AI occurs it doesn't lead to post-scarcity) = 56%
  • P(strong AI leads to a post-scarcity economy) = 5%
  • P(strong AI leads to a global catastrophe) = 2%
  • P(a different GCR occurs) = 7%

Yes, this exercise is ad-hoc and a little silly. But the point it illustrates is important: if you're like me in thinking that, over the next 30 years, things are most likely going to continue slowly improving with some chance of a trend reversal and a tail risk of major societal disruption, then it's quite likely that present-day giving opportunities will beat the opportunities we uncover in the future (70% likely, using my made-up numbers).

The only scenarios in which giving opportunities 30 years from now are better than the giving opportunities we have today are those in which current trends reverse or plateau, there are no GCRs, and strong AI doesn't emerge. I think there's about a 30% chance of the future looking like that. Funding the philanthropic opportunities presently available, therefore, seems like the better bet.

Thanks to Rebecca Raible for feedback on an earlier version of this post. Disclosure: I used to work at GiveWell.

[rereads: 2, edits: prose tightening, cut a section that felt redundant, added disclaimer at top]