"Patient vs urgent longtermism" has little direct bearing on giving now vs later

post by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T14:58:21.548Z · EA · GW · 32 comments

This post is a response to having heard multiple people express something like "I'm persuaded by the case for patient longtermism, so I want to save money rather than give now", or otherwise implicitly assuming that patient longtermism is obviously more in favour of saving money than urgent longtermism (e.g. Ben Todd says "Even the people who are most into patient longtermism still think we should spend some on object-level things today. It’s just maybe they would only give half a percent of the portfolio as opposed to 4%." in his podcast episode on varieties of longtermism).

This view is understandable to me, especially given:

Nonetheless, I think it is mistaken and there is no direct implication that "patient longtermists" should be less willing to spend money now than "urgent longtermists". Rather I think it's an open question which will depend on a lot of messy empirics (about giving opportunities) which position should be more in favour of saving money now. My current guess is to recommend spending rather than saving money at current margins to both patient and urgent longtermists. Neither recommendation feels robust; however, I'm actually a little more pro-saving for "urgent" longtermists than for "patient" ones.

Note that I do think that considering which timescales we want to exert influence over is an extremely fruitful lens (although I'd usually think of a natural timescale as attaching to an activity rather than an overall view), and it has a great deal of relevance for deciding what to fund and hence indirect bearing on whether to give now or later.

[With apologies for a lack of careful scholarship: I suspect these points are largely written up elsewhere, and appreciated in large part already by Trammell and Todd.]


So what's going on? Why doesn't the argument for patient philanthropy apply straightforwardly in the longtermist case?

The argument is in favour of investing (so that you have more resources available later), rather than spending (so that you have less resources available). You might think that giving money away should naturally be considered as spending; and considered from the perspective of an individual donor it probably is. But from the perspective of the longtermist community, most "spending" of money now is actually investment. It pays for research or career development or book-writing or websites or community-building (etc.); and the hope is that resources invested in these things now will return more resources meaningfully aligned with important parts of the longtermist worldview down the line (whether more money, or more people willing to act on the principles, or more broad sympathy to and influence for the ideas).

I think the best of these activities are almost certainly good investments; for instance I think that longtermism (broadly understood) has vastly outperformed the stock market over the last twenty years in terms of the resources it has amassed. I then think that individual decisions about giving now vs later should largely be driven by whether the best identifiable marginal opportunities are still good investments

There's a lot of nuance that can (and should!) modulate that statement, for instance: 

But at the end of it I think whether to give now is going to have to come down to empirical views about how good the opportunities left on the table are. Of course, the patient/urgent question can have a big effect on which types of future resource you value, and hence which opportunities you think are worthwhile.

Are there opportunities that look more exciting under an assumption that there will be critical junctures in the next few decades (~"urgent longtermism")? Absolutely:

But there are also opportunities which look more attractive under an assumption that we won't face critical junctures this century (~"patient longtermism"):


If you put someone who was all-in on the patient longtermist view in charge of the entire EA portfolio, would they reduce current spending? I think probably yes: they'd be likely to cut back to just the best opportunities (in terms of long-term investments) in short-termist areas as well as some of the types of spending urgent longtermists might be keen on. They would probably scale up other spending areas (and look for ways to grow extra capacity for good investment opportunities), but at least on the timescale e.g. of the next three years it would be quite hard for that to get as large as the funding they would cut back on.

Does it follow that marginal money held by someone who's all-in on patient longtermism should be saved rather than given? No: the appropriate comparison for them is not uniformly scaling back EA (or longtermist) giving, but reducing giving to the opportunities that look best on their worldview in favour of saving. It's quite possible for that to look like a bad idea even while they'd prefer if the community as a whole saved more (because they aren't so impressed by some of the things that it does give to).

Overall, what do I think? My judgement is moderately in favour of patient longtermists giving now (and continuing to look for more good giving opportunities). A thought experiment I find a bit helpful is to try to imagine how things might stand in the year 2070 -- half a century from now. I'm fairly optimistic that longtermism will have quite a lot more influence in that world than it does today. If I then ask what proportion of the influence/resources it holds will be in the form of money that has just been invested in financial opportunities since 2020, my guess is that it will be quite a small proportion, and that significantly the more important mechanisms for growth of resources will have involved one or more of these investments which are not purely financial (in not returning money to the person who makes the investment).  And I don't think there's that much effort going into these types of investment, so I suspect there should be more low-hanging fruit available. This makes me bullish on trying to identify and scale up such investment mechanisms, and hence looking to spend rather than save capital that's available to us today.

I'm also in favour of spending at the margins from an urgent-longtermist perspective, but there I'm slightly more sympathetic to the view that we're taking a lot of the best of opportunities right now so we shouldn't scale up faster than we already are -- and also that it's worth holding some capital back for a rainy day.

Some caveats:

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comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-12-09T22:46:34.573Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

When reading this, I was initially confused by a potential objection you don't explicitly address. So I thought I'd quickly write up my thoughts in case others have a similar reaction. My guess is you in principle agree with all this (and I think you've in fact hinted at it in several places), and that it's one of the reasons why you say it's ultimately a messy empirical question.

I think my original objection is mostly flawed, but that it does point to some complications that mean that one needs to be a little more careful when deciding which spending on longtermism is 'actually investment'.

Here it is:

Objection. 

  • The longtermism community can enjoy above-average growth for only a finite window of time. (It can at most control all resources, after which its growth equals average growth.)
  • Thus, spending money on growing the longtermism community now rather than later merely moves a transient window of additional resource growth to an earlier point in time.
  • We should be indifferent about the timing of benefits, so this effect doesn't matter. On the other hand, by waiting one year we can earn positive expected returns by (e.g.) investing into the stock market.
  • To sum up, giving later rather than now has two effects: (1) moving a fixed window of additional growth around in time and (2) leaving us more time to earn positive financial returns. The first effect is neutral, the second is positive. Thus, overall, giving later is always better.

This objection is actually based on an objection to an analogous argument about shorttermist spending (which I was recently reminded of by old posts, one by Paul Christiano and one by you and Ben Todd): 

Just as "longtermism has outperformed the stock market", so have, for instance, recipients of GiveDirectly's unconditional cash transfers. They buy things like iron roofs, and this has much higher investment returns than the stock market

More broadly, you might think that most shorttermist spending is 'actually investment' as well: as Christiano puts it, "When I support the world’s poorest people I’m not just alleviating their suffering, I’m increasing the productivity of their lives. The recipients of aid go on to contribute to the world, and their contributions compound in turn." 

Why doesn't this show that shorttermist spending is better done now rather than later? 

Because of an objection parallel to the above!

The spending will "diffuse throughout the economy" and its investment returns will over time approach the average growth rate. (Again, one way to see this is that, e.g., the poor Ugandan household receiving a cash transfer can't have above-average growth forever: else it would eventually control the whole world economy!)

So by giving now rather than later you only move a fixed window of transient above-average returns to an earlier point in time. After that window, your spending will earn average returns (i.e. ~growth of gross world product). But if you delay the start of this whole process, you gain time in which you can earn above-average returns by e.g. investing into the stock market.

Thus, unless some assumptions of this simple model are wrong or there are other considerations, it's better to give later!

---

Rebuttal of the objection

To be clear, I think the analog objection for to the analog argument for typical examples of shorttermist spending such as donations to GiveDirectly does work. (The objection doesn't settle the debate because there are other considerations; but it does rebut the original argument.)

What is different about the longtermist case?

The key question is whether, after the finite window of above-average growth, the resources "descended" from your spending will still be "controlled by" your goals.

This is the case for a longtermist that now spends money that increases the number of longtermists in the future. In particular, once it's no longer possible to get outsized investment returns from growing longtermism, future longtermists would invest in the stock market rather than engaging in 'average activities' that earn average returns. (Or more likely they'd pursue some other 'investment-like' spending activity that has lower returns than growing longtermism now but higher returns than the stock market then.) So you effectively don't "lose" the opportunity to earn above-average returns on the stock market by first investing into longtermism.

By contrast, the shorttermist giving to GiveDirectly should expect the resources "descended" from her giving to eventually end up with the "average market subject": the cash transfer recipient buys an iron roof, the iron roof vendor buys new tools, the tool manufacturer pays taxes, etc. Thus the resources will be held by average people who engage in average activities that earn average returns - rather than investing everything into the stock market, or pursuing some other activity selected for maximizing the shorttermist's values (e.g. perhaps after finite window of above-average returns from the cash transfer it's still the case that, by the shorttermist's lights, you could get "investment returns" from buying bednets that exceed stock market returns - but the "average person" won't donate to AMF either). So unlike the longtermist, by donating to GiveDirectly now, the shorttermist does "lose" the opportunity to earn above-average returns on e.g. the stock market.

(On the other hand, the objection won't work for shorttermist spending that's mostly "meta". For instance, donations to animal welfare organizations also pay for "research or career development or book-writing or websites or community-building", or even just additional vegans that convince others of veganism without additional effort, etc.)

I think this shows that the availability of stock-market-beating longtermist spending opportunities is a significantly weaker argument than it might seem at first glance.

  • First, the size of the effect is less dramatic. You won't earn higher returns forever, you just optimize the relative timing of higher-return and lower-return periods by frontloading the higher-return period.
  • Second, the target you need to hit is arguably pretty narrow. The objection only applies conclusively to things that basically create cause-agnostic, transferable resources that are allocated at least as well as if allocated by your future self. If resources are tied to a particular cause area, are not transferable, or are more poorly allocated, they count less. For example, all of the following arguably don't count as 'actually investment' (at least not fully), and instead are much more similar to the shorttermist donating now to GiveDirectly:
    • Growing the number of AI safety researchers more quickly than stock market investments, if most of these AI safety researchers wouldn't be willing or able to switch their careers to, say, climate change mitigation if it turned out that was much higher impact.
    • Growing the number of longtermism-relevant research results more quickly than stock market investments, unless these research results generate transferable and cause-agnostic resources such as money held by longtermists.
    • Growing the number of sort-of-longtermists if they have a bias toward spending rather than investing - for instance if they wouldn't be willing to invest all their resources for potentially thousands of years or more into a super-long-term investment fund if that looked like the best option.
    • Growing the number of resources aligned with relatively common-sensical goals like "taking global challenges seriously" or "generally-sensible action", if you believe that the best longtermist spending will eventually be super weird (perhaps "tile the universe with hedonium").
    • Acquiring resources (longtermists, research results, etc.) that 'perish' more quickly than money held by yourself. For instance this would be the case if research gets "forgotten" too quickly or new longtermists have higher rates of value drifts than yourself.

(There are also a number of other ways in which the objection can fail, which admittedly at first glance seem more likely for longtermist spending than for donations to GiveDirectly: e.g. if the timing of your spending influences the length of the period of above-average returns or the future average growth rate. 

E.g. suppose it was the case that if you start to grow longtermism now, eventually 10% of the world's population will be longtermist, but if you start to grow longtermism only in  50 years then growth will max out at 5% of the world population; this would push toward spending now. On the other hand, the effect could also turn out to work the other way around and favor spending later!)

Replies from: abergal, Owen_Cotton-Barratt, ESRogs
comment by abergal · 2020-12-10T01:33:05.892Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(These are more additional considerations, not intended to be counterarguments given that your post itself was mostly pointing at additional considerations.)

Objection. 

  • The longtermism community can enjoy above-average growth for only a finite window of time. (It can at most control all resources, after which its growth equals average growth.)
  • Thus, spending money on growing the longtermism community now rather than later merely moves a transient window of additional resource growth to an earlier point in time.
  • We should be indifferent about the timing of benefits, so this effect doesn't matter. On the other hand, by waiting one year we can earn positive expected returns by (e.g.) investing into the stock market.
  • To sum up, giving later rather than now has two effects: (1) moving a fixed window of additional growth around in time and (2) leaving us more time to earn positive financial returns. The first effect is neutral, the second is positive. Thus, overall, giving later is always better.


Given that longtermists are generally concerned with trajectory changes, controlling all resources seems like we've largely 'won', and having more financial returns on top of this seems fairly negligible by comparison. In many cases I'd gladly trade absolute financial returns for controlling a greater fraction of the world's resources sooner.

Second, the target you need to hit is arguably pretty narrow. The objection only applies conclusively to things that basically create cause-agnostic, transferable resources that are allocated at least as well as if allocated by your future self. If resources are tied to a particular cause area, are not transferable, or are more poorly allocated, they count less.

Speaking to movement-building as an alternative to financial investment in particular:

It feels to me like quality-adjusted longtermists are more readily transferable and cause-agnostic than money on short time-scales, in the sense that they can either earn money or do direct work, and at least right now, we seem to be having trouble effectively turning money into direct work. 

It's definitely a lot less clear whether there's a compounding effect to longtermists and how readily they can be transferred into the longer-term future. For what it's worth, I'd guess there is such a compounding effect, and they can be transferred, especially given historical evidence of transfer of values between generations. Whether this is true / consistent / competitive with stock market returns is definitely debateable and a matter of 'messy empirics', though.

Replies from: Denkenberger
comment by Denkenberger · 2020-12-13T19:11:09.950Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, with how under invested [EA(p) · GW(p)] in GCR mitigation is now, I think it is better to have many resources for longtermism sooner.

comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T23:06:57.614Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, I think this is really useful to unpack.

I do agree with all of this, but one important point wasn't salient to me at the time of writing the post: that you want the resources returned to be under direction as sophisticated as your future self or they should get discounted, and that this might constitute a narrow target. I'm uncertain how narrow a target it is, but I think that getting clarity on that seems quite important as it could affect judgements about which opportunities are good investments.

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-12-09T23:42:33.537Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, though to be fair financial investments (and generally everything that won't have most of its total effect soon) need to hit the same narrow target. But perhaps for those the mechanisms by which we might miss the target have been more prominent in recent discussions (value drift, expropriation, etc.).

Replies from: MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2020-12-10T03:49:35.154Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Relevantly to this comment thread, Trammell says during his 80k interview:

Philip Trammell: [...] in this write-up, I do try to make it clear that by investment, I really am explicitly including things like fundraising and at least certain kinds of movement building which have the same effect of turning resources now, not into good done now, but into more resources next year with which good will be done. I would be just a little careful to note that this has to be the sort of movement building advocacy work that really does look like fundraising in the sense that you’re not just putting more resources toward the cause next year, but toward the whole mindset of either giving to the cause or investing to give more in two years’ time to the cause. You might spend all your money and get all these recruits who are passionate about the cause that you’re trying to fund, but then they just do it all next year.

Robert Wiblin: The fools!

Philip Trammell: Right. And I don’t know exactly how high fidelity in this respect movement building tends to be or EA movement building in particular has been. So that’s one caveat. I guess another one is that when you’re actually investing, you’re generally creating new resources. You’re actually building the factories or whatever. Whereas when you’re just doing fundraising, you’re movement building, you’re just diverting resources from where they otherwise would have gone.

Robert Wiblin: You’re redistributing from some efforts to others.

Philip Trammell: Yeah. And so you have to think that what people otherwise would have done with the resources in question is of negligible value compared to what they’ll do after the funds had been put in your pot. And you might think that if you just look at what people are spending their money on, the world as a whole… I mean you might not, but you might. And if you do, it might seem like this is a safe assumption to make, but the sorts of people you’re most likely to recruit are the ones who probably were most inclined to do the sort of thing that you wanted anyway on their own. My intuition is that it’s easy to overestimate the real real returns to advocacy and movement building in this respect. But I haven’t actually looked through any detailed numbers on this. It’s just a caveat I would raise.

I also collected some relevant discussion under the heading "Which “direct” actions might have compounding positive impacts?" [EA · GW] in a post on Crucial questions about optimal timing of work and donations [EA · GW].

---

With regards to the "mechanisms by which we might miss the target", in that post on crucial questions, I highlighted and collected sources relevant to the following questions:

  • How effectively can we “punt to the future”? [EA · GW]
    • What would be the long-term growth rate of financial investments?
    • What would be the long-term rate of expropriation of financial investments? How does this vary as investments grow larger?
    • What would be the long-term “growth rate” from other punting activities?
    • Would the people we’d be punting to act in ways we’d endorse?
comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-13T06:12:15.422Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But if you delay the start of this whole process, you gain time in which you can earn above-average returns by e.g. investing into the stock market.

Shouldn't investing into the stock market be considered a source of average returns, by default? In the long run, the stock market grows at the same rate as GDP

If you think you have some edge, that might be a reason to pick particular stocks (as I sometimes do [LW(p) · GW(p)]) and expect returns above GDP growth.

But generically I don't think the stock market should be considered a source of above-average returns. Am I missing something?

Replies from: MichaelDickens, Max_Daniel
comment by MichaelDickens · 2021-01-12T18:55:04.075Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The stock market should grow faster than GDP in the long run. Three different simple arguments for this:

  1. This falls out of the commonly-used Ramsey model. Specifically, because people discount the future, they will demand that their investments give better return than the general economy.
  2. Corporate earnings should grow at the same rate as GDP, and stock price should grow at the same rate as earnings. But stock investors also earn dividends, so your total return should exceed GDP in the long run. (The reason this works is because in aggregate, investors spend the dividends rather than re-investing them.)
  3. Stock returns are more volatile than economic growth, so they should pay a risk premium even if they don't have a higher risk-adjusted return.
comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-12-13T16:31:06.268Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Low confidence as I don't really understand anything about finance.]

It sounds right to me that the stock market can't grow more quickly than GDP forever. However, it seems like it has been doing so for decades, and that there is no indication that this will stop very soon - say, within 10 years.

(My superficial impression is that this phenomenon it somewhat surprising a priori, but that there isn't really a consensus for what explains it.)

Therefore, in particular, for the window of time made available by moving spending from now to, say, in 1 year, it seems you can earn returns on the stock market that exceed world economic growth.

If we know that this can't continue forever, it seems to me this would be more relevant for the part where I say "future longtermists would invest in the stock market rather than engaging in 'average activities' that earn average returns"  etc. 

More precisely, the key question we need to ask about any longtermist investment-like spending opportunity seems to be: After the finite window of above-average growth from that opportunities, will there still be other opportunities that, from a longtermist perspective, have returns that exceed average economic growth? If yes, then it is important whether the distant returns from investment-like longtermist spending end up with longtermists; if no, then it's not important.

Replies from: ESRogs
comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-13T20:44:23.651Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My superficial impression is that this phenomenon it somewhat surprising a priori, but that there isn't really a consensus for what explains it.

Hmm, my understanding is that the equity premium is the difference between equity returns and bond (treasury bill) returns. Does that tell us about the difference between equity returns and GDP growth?

A priori, would you expect both equities and treasuries to have returns that match GDP growth?

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-12-13T22:38:07.787Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, my understanding is that the equity premium is the difference between equity returns and bond (treasury bill) returns.

Yes, that's my understanding as well.

Does that tell us about the difference between equity returns and GDP growth?

I don't know, my sense is not directly but I could be wrong. I think I was gesturing at this because I took it as evidence that we don't understand why equities have such high return. (But then it is an additional contingent fact that these returns don't just exceed bond returns but also GDP growth.)

A priori, would you expect both equities and treasuries to have returns that match GDP growth?

I don't think I'd expect this, at least not with high confidence - but overall I just feel like I don't know how to think about this because I understand too little finance and economics. (In particular, it's plausible to me that there are strong a priori arguments about the relationships between GDP growth, bond returns, and equity returns - I just don't know what they are.)

Replies from: ESRogs
comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-14T18:36:32.348Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I just feel like I don't know how to think about this because I understand too little finance and economics

Okay, sounds like we're pretty much in the same boat here. If anyone else is able to chime in and enlighten us, please do so!

Replies from: Max_Daniel
comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-12-15T17:11:50.797Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought about this for another minute, and realized one thing that hadn't been salient to me previously. (Though quite possibly it was clear to you, as the point is extremely basic. - It also doesn't directly answer the question about whether we should expect stock returns to exceed GDP growth indefinitely.)

When thinking about whether X can earn returns that exceed economic growth, a key question is what share of those returns is reinvested into X. For example, suppose I now buy stocks that have fantastic returns, but I spend all those returns to buy chocolate. Then those stocks won't make up an increasing share of my wealth. This would only happen if I used the returns to buy more stocks, and they kept earning higher returns than other stuff I own.

In particular, the simple argument that returns can't exceed GDP growth forever only follows if returns are reinvested and 'producing' more of X doesn't have too steeply diminishing returns.

For example, two basic 'accounting identities' from macroeconomics are:

Here,  is the savings rate (i.e. fraction of total income that is saved, which in equilibrium equals investments into capital),  is the rate of economic growth, and  is the rate of return on capital. These equations are essentially definitions, but it's easy to see that (in a simple macroeconomic model with one final good, two factors of production, etc.)  can be viewed as the capital-to-income ratio and  as capital's share of income.

Note that from equations 1 and 2 it follows that . Thus we see that r exceeds g in equilibrium/'forever' if and only if  - in other words, if and only if (on average across the whole economy) not all of the returns from capital are re-invested into capital.

(Why would that ever happen? Because individual actors maximize their own welfare, not aggregate growth. So e.g. they might prefer to spend some share of capital returns on consumption.)

Analog remarks apply to other situations where a basic model of this type is applicable.

Replies from: ESRogs
comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-16T06:07:21.196Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ah, good point! This was not already clear to me. (Though I do remember thinking about these things a bit back when Piketty's book came out.)

comment by Benjamin_Todd · 2020-12-11T20:13:23.973Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi Owen,

Thanks for writing this up! I agree it's really important to clarify that a lot of 'spending' is also investing. I think I should have been clearer about this in the podcast, and I worry that if patient longtermism becomes more popular without this being appreciated, it might be negative.

When I think about it to myself, I divide ways to use resources into three categories:

  1. Object-level spending with the aim of impact.
  2. Meta spending that increases the resources and knowledge of aligned people
  3. Investments in financial assets or career capital.

These terms are not ideal because "meta" sounds like I only mean spending on activities that are explicitly aimed at increasing resources (e.g. EA community building or GPR), when many things that look like object level work are also 'meta' on this category – for instance, publishing research papers on a new topic might look like directly trying to solve the problem, but often also helps to get more researchers working on the area.

When I was saying 0.5% to 4%, I was only talking about the object-level component. I completely agree that a patient longtermist would likely 'spend' more on the meta category.

PS One smaller thing is that it sounds like I might be a bit more skeptical than you of the typical movement building benefits of general object level work. I agree they exist, but I think they are typically smaller than explicit meta work, unless someone is pretty strategic (e.g. the paper Concrete Problems in AI Safety), or in especially good cases. This is partly due to a prior of 'directly focusing on X leads to more of X'. So, I could image a purely patient longtermist portfolio still being pretty different (though I agree much less different than it first looks).

Replies from: Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-14T15:05:24.011Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that these categories make some sense to gesture with, and describe reasonable paradigm cases, but actually the lines between the categories are super blurry, such that it's hard to use them too much as the basis for subsequent analysis.

For instance, as you point out some things that "look like object level work are also 'meta'". But some other weird cases:

  • Some things that sound like "meta" might not be justifiable as long-term investments. For instance running an early-career programme for people to get into field X that seems undersupplied, if the people entering field X won't do so with a good understanding and motivation that linked to the reasons for it being a priority in the first place.
  • Since a lot of work will have both object-level and meta-level effects it seems hard to draw a line between them such that we could even start counting "0.5%"
    • I basically don't know how to do this for current spending
    • You're talking about it in terms of "aims", which I think is getting at something real, but also gives a lot of weird cases:
      • I think it could mean that the same activity counts as "object" or "meta" depending on who's funding it, and what their aims are in doing so
      • I think lots of time people won't have a clean idea that one of these is "the aim"; they'll have a sense that the activity is good (which will connect to impressions about its various effects)
      • I think "aim of impact" is kind of a weird way of putting it, since almost all activities in the longtermist space only hope to have impact quite indirectly factored through other people's actions, so it's hard even in principle to know where the line should be
  • If Alice uses her savings to do a PhD for career capital reasons, that counts as investment, but if I give her a scholarship for the same reasons, does that count as meta rather than investment?

Overall I think I'd prefer to think about "how good are various opportunities as investments in the longtermist community?", as well as "how good are various opportunities at making progress towards other proxies-for-good that we've identified?". Activities can score well on either, both, or neither of these, rather than being classed as one type or the other.

Replies from: Benjamin_Todd
comment by Benjamin_Todd · 2020-12-14T22:08:05.379Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Overall I think I'd prefer to think about "how good are various opportunities as investments in the longtermist community?", as well as "how good are various opportunities at making progress towards other proxies-for-good that we've identified?". Activities can score well on either, both, or neither of these, rather than being classed as one type or the other.

That seems like a good way of putting it, and I think I was mainly thinking of it this way (e.g. I was imagining that an opportunity could further all three categories), though I didn't make that clear (e.g. should call them 'goals' rather than 'categories').

comment by trammell · 2020-12-09T15:18:20.694Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I was going to write an EA Forum post at some point also trying to clarify the relationship between the debate over "patient vs urgent longtermism" and the debate over giving now vs later, and I agree that it's not as straightforward as people sometimes think.

On the one hand, as you point out, one could be a "patient longtermist" but still think that there are capacity-building sorts of spending opportunities worth funding now.

But I'd also argue that, if urgent longtermism is defined roughly as the view that there will be critical junctures in the next few decades, as you put it, then an urgent longtermist could still think it's worth investing now, so that more money will be spent near those junctures in a few decades. Investing to give in, say, thirty years is still pretty unusual behavior, at least for small donors, but totally compatible with "urgent longtermism" / "hinge of history"-type views as they're usually defined.

Replies from: MichaelA, Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by MichaelA · 2020-12-10T02:03:54.275Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was going to write an EA Forum post at some point also trying to clarify the relationship between the debate over "patient vs urgent longtermism" and the debate over giving now vs later, and I agree that it's not as straightforward as people sometimes think.

It seems to me that there are roughly three relevant confusions/sources of confusion in discussions around patient philanthropy, patient longtermism, and investing to give. I'll try to briefly describe them, and I'd be interested to hear if you or others think this is accurate.

1. "Patient philanthropy" has been confused with "philanthropists should invest to give later"

People - including me, sometimes, and 80k in the podcast description here - have used the term "patient philanthropy" to refer to the position that we should "invest" resources for future altruistic "spending" (rather than "spending" now). Or people have said things like "the arguments for patient philanthropy" when meaning the arguments for that position. 

But in your write-up, you actually used the term "patient philanthropy" as something like a starting assumption, saying:

We will call someone “patient” if he has low (including zero) pure time preference with respect to the welfare he creates by providing a good.

You did argue that a patient philanthropist should "invest [resources] for use on future philanthropic projects", but that wasn't what patient philanthropy meant, and one could contest those arguments. (I'm not saying I do contest them; I think I remember mostly being in agreement.)

2. "Patient longtermism" wasn't clearly defined, and one thing it might mean is quite distinct even from what people think patient philanthropy means

(See also this comment exchange [EA(p) · GW(p)].)

Ben Todd [EA · GW] then introduced term "patient longtermism", seeming to mean either:

  • "what people think Trammell meant by patient philanthropy, but now for longtermism": i.e., longtermists should invest resources for use on future philanthropic projects
  • Something quite distinct: i.e., that now is not an especially "hingy" [EA · GW]/"high-leverage" [EA · GW] time.
    • I think Owen's post is primarily arguing that this view is distinct from the idea that longtermists should invest resources for use on future philanthropic projects. I definitely agree. I think this view can potentially be a factor in whether longtermists should "invest" vs "spending" now, but there are various other factors as well [EA · GW].

Todd's post on the topic seems to initially mean the second, then switch to the first, then switch to both:

One of the parts of effective altruism I've found most intellectually interesting recently is ‘patient longtermism’.

This is a school of thinking that takes longtermism seriously, but combines that with the idea that we’re not facing an unusually urgent threat to the future, or another urgent opportunity to have a long-term impact. (We may still be facing threats to the future, but the idea is that they’re not more pressing today than the threats we’ll face down the line.)

Broadly, patient longtermists argue that instead of focusing on reducing specific existential risks or working on AI alignment and so on today, we should expect that the crucial moment for longtermists to act lies in the future, and our main task today should be to prepare for that time.

It’s not a new idea –- Benjamin Franklin was arguably a patient longtermist, and Robin Hanson was writing about it by 2011 — but there has been some interesting recent research.

3. "Investing" has sometimes been interpreted as only "financial investments"

(See this comment [EA(p) · GW(p)] and this post [EA · GW] for more discussion.)

You explicitly stated in your write-up and your 80k interview that "investment" in this context doesn't have to mean just financial investments. But it's sometimes been interpreted as if it does just mean that.

Personally, I like to use one of the following framings:

  • Should we financially invest in order to give later, or give now?
  • Should we "punt to the future" or support "direct work now/soon"?
    • (See this post [EA · GW] for discussion of those terms.)
    • And if punting to the future, should we do this via financially investing in order to give later, or in other ways (e.g., movement-building)?

Either framing gets at the same ideas.

But I think sometimes people try to condense that all into one question, which I think creates confusions.

Replies from: Benjamin_Todd
comment by Benjamin_Todd · 2020-12-11T22:28:49.874Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I meant to define patient longtermism in terms of when you think the hinges are.

This will usually correspond to where you think the balance of object-level spending vs. investing/meta should be, but can come apart (e.g. uncertainty arguments could favour investing even if you think hinginess is going down).

I don't think it should be defined in terms of not having a pure rate of time preference, since the urgent longtermists don't have a pure rate of time preference either.

But overall all these definitions are pretty up in the air. It would be great if someone would like to take a more rigorous look.

Replies from: MichaelA, MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2020-12-12T00:48:41.271Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But overall all these definitions are pretty up in the air. It would be great if someone would like to take a more rigorous look.

Agreed. When writing my post on these matters, I found it surprisingly hard to even just describe what I was talking about and what claims I was making/summarising. It'd be handy to have settled, consistent, clearly defined terms.

I don't think it should be defined in terms of not having a pure rate of time preference, since the urgent longtermists don't have a pure rate of time preference either.

Yeah, I agree with this too. I was just pointing out that, when introducing the term that "patient longtermism" seems to deliberately mirror, Trammell defined it as being about having no pure time preference. So if a term deliberately mirrors that one but then uses a different meaning, I think that can create confusion.

That said, I think how people have interpreted Trammell's term - as about having the bottom-line belief that one should invest for future altruistic projects rather than spending now - is arguably more intuitive than how he defined it.[1] I say this because it seems to me more intuitive that "patient" should be a matter of waiting and doing something later (so a low overall discount rate, not just a low pure time discount rate). But someone with zero pure time preference could, under certain conditions, still want to spend on direct work now rather than waiting. (Not sure if I've explained that well.) 

And it does seem good to have a term for the bottom-line belief that one should invest for future altruistic projects rather than spending now. So maybe we should just accept that "patient altruism" has evolved to mean that. (Though there is the issue that it implies the opposite is "impatient", which sounds rude/dismissive.)

But then believing hinginess will be higher in future is a separate (though related) matter again. And I don't think it's as intuitive to call that "patience", for the same reason I don't think it's super intuitive to call zero pure time preference "patience"; someone who believes hinginess will be higher in future could still want to spend on direct work now. I might want to say that believing hinginess will be higher in future will tend to push towards more "patience", but that it isn't itself "patience".

It could perhaps be good to have a separate shorthand term for believing hinginess will be higher in future. (And btw, I do think it's valuable that you/80k have highlighted the matter of how hinginess will change over time as a key uncertainty, and highlighted that not all longtermists believe the hingiest period is now/soon.)

[1] Maybe "patience" is an established term with a meaning similar to Trammell's in philosophy/econ? I'm not sure.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-12-12T00:35:17.646Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This will usually correspond to where you think the balance of object-level spending vs. investing/meta should be

Do you mean you think beliefs about how hinginess* is changing over time should be, or in practice is, the primary factor driving how much someone thinks we should allocate to object-level spending relative to meta/investing?

If so, that doesn't seem obviously true to me. As I mentioned above and explore further in this post [EA · GW], I think there are a bunch of other important factors.(These factors have been prominently considered in prior work on this topic, so it's not a new thing I'm throwing into the picture; e.g., Michael Dickens' post [EA · GW] on what the philanthropic discount rate should be included some hinginess-related-things as factors, but also had other major factors.)

In brief (for explanation of terms, see the post [EA · GW]):

  • How effectively can we “punt to the future”?
    • What would be the long-term growth rate of financial investments?
    • What would be the long-term rate of expropriation of financial investments? How does this vary as investments grow larger?
    • What would be the long-term “growth rate” from other punting activities?
    • Would the people we’d be punting to act in ways we’d endorse?
  • Which “direct” actions might have compounding positive impacts?
  • Do marginal returns to “direct work” done within a given time period diminish? If so, how steeply?

It seems to me like it could be totally reasonable to think that hinginess is going to decrease somewhat over time in expectation, but that it's still worth pushing more towards meta/investing because:

  • One thinks we can get such a good "interest rate" on financial or movement-building-ish investments, and/or
  • One thinks because marginal returns to more direct work within a time period diminish steeply, and we've already hit that point for the upcoming time periods (the low-hanging fruit will be taken), but longtermism might fizzle out later so some people should do investing/meta so we can still take the low-hanging fruit then if that happens

And conversely, it seems to me like it could be totally reasonable to think that hinginess is going to increase somewhat over time in expectation, but that it's still worth pushing more towards object-level spending because:

  • One thinks the "interest rate" would be too bad, perhaps because one thinks value drift will be too high, or our movement-building investments would be too tied to specific areas and we're too unsure if those are the right areas to focus on
  • One thinks object-level spending is both good for the relatively low level of near-term hinginess (e.g., reducing x-risk in the next 10 years) and has substantial meta/investment-like benefits
    • I don't think this would be best described like "They're doing something that looks like object-level work, but they're doing it for meta purposes" (though I definitely think that could sometimes happen), because the person is doing it for both purposes.

(This would perhaps be somewhat analogous to people who agree that there will or could be far more events/experiences that are morally relevant in the long-term future than in the present/near-term future, but still think we should focus on improving the present/near-term future, because predictably improving the long-term future is too hard.)

It also seems worth noting that a lot of people's beliefs about hinginess might be very uncertain or not very action-relevant; they might expect hinginess to slightly increase, expect it to slightly decrease, expect it to go up and down in ways that are hard to predict or notice, or have no real expectations about it. That'd make it easier for other factors to play the dominant role.

I definitely do think how hinginess will change over time is one of the key factors. And it's plausible to me that it's the primary one. But it's not obvious to me that it's the primary one, and I imagine how important each factor is will vary between people.

*Personally, I prefer "leverage over the future", or in second place "pivotality".

comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T18:00:04.719Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

But I'd also argue that, if urgent longtermism is defined roughly as the view that there will be critical junctures in the next few decades, as you put it, then an urgent longtermist could still think it's worth investing now, so that more money will be spent near those junctures in a few decades.

Yes, I totally agree with this. Indeed a large part of what I was trying to say was that I'm more sympathetic to this strategy right now for "urgent longtermists" than "patient longtermists" (although it happens that I mostly still think it's beaten by non-financial investment opportunities which will pay off soon enough).

[LMK if you found something I wrote confusing; I could consider editing to improve clarity.]

Replies from: jackmalde, trammell
comment by jackmalde · 2020-12-09T18:54:53.647Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Indeed a large part of what I was trying to say was that I'm more sympathetic to this strategy right now for "urgent longtermists" than "patient longtermists"

For what it's worth, as someone who read this post fairly quickly, I thought this point only came across as a minor aside in the grand scheme of your post (I think you only mention it in the last paragraph before your "some caveats"?). 

I think you make the point here as well but I'm not sure if it came across as clearly as it could:

My current guess is to recommend spending rather than saving money at current margins to both patient and urgent longtermists; neither recommendation feels robust, but I'm actually a little more pro-spending for patient longtermists.

By the way I have strongly upvoted this post! I was aware of your overall point already but it was definitely useful to read your explanation and some of the more specific points. I agree that people have been too quick to jump to giving later if they identify as patient longtermists.

Replies from: Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T21:45:07.347Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I guess "large part of what I was trying to say" was an overstatement; it's an illustrative facet of the large thing (which is that there isn't the obvious coupling).

Anyhow thanks for the pointer, I made some small language tweaks to the second part quoted (which hopefully help).

comment by trammell · 2020-12-09T18:31:51.940Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, no, that's clear! I should have noted that you say that too.

The point I wanted to make is that your reason for saving as an urgent longtermist isn't necessarily something like "we're already making use of all these urgent opportunities now, so might as well build up a buffer in case the money is gone later". You could just think that now isn't a particularly promising time to spend, period, but that there will be promising opportunities later this century, and still be classified as an urgent longtermist.

That is, an urgent longtermist could have stereotypically "patient longtermist" beliefs about the quality of direct-impact spending opportunities available in December 2020.

Replies from: Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T22:12:49.843Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In the abstract I agree that you could think that. But I'd make some of the same claims for the urgent longtermist as the patient longtermist: that some of the best investment opportunities are probably non-financial, and we should be trying to make use of those before going on to financial investments. (There's a question about whether at current margins we're already using them up.)

I think there are some principled reasons to be unsurprised if the best available non-financial investment opportunities are better than the best available financial investment opportunities. Financial investment is a competitive market; there are lots of people who have money and want more money, and so for a given risk tolerance (and without lots of work) you can't expect to massively outperform what others are making.

There are also markets (broadly understood) competing for buy-in to worldviews. At first glance these might look less attractive to enter into, since they seem to be (roughly) zero-sum. But unlike the financial case, capital is not fungible across worldviews, so we shouldn't assume that market forces mean that the returns from the best opportunities can't get too good (or they'd be taken by others). And I'm not concerned about the zero-sum point, because I don't think that the longtermist worldview is just an arbitrary set of beliefs; I think that it has ~truth on its side, and providing people with arguments plus encouraging them to reflect will on average be quite good for its market share (and to the extent that it isn't, maybe that's a sign that it's getting something wrong). This is a pretty major advantage and makes it plausible that there are some really excellent opportunities available. Then I think growth over the last few years is evidence that at least some of the activities people engage in have really good returns; the crucial question is how much there are really good ones being left on the table.

comment by abergal · 2020-12-09T19:43:27.543Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this all up, Owen, I bet I'll link to this post many times in the future. I'll also selfishly link my previous post on movement-building as a longtermist investment [EA · GW].

Replies from: Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-09T22:21:19.510Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link! (I think it's self-promotional but clearly not selfish; it's just helpful to connect this with previous discussion, and I hadn't seen it before.)

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2020-12-09T22:19:51.840Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing the post I wanted to have written

comment by Andy_Schultz · 2020-12-14T04:38:24.233Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What do you think of waiting to give for now (investing in the stock market instead) and reassessing in a few years whether to donate, in the hope that we will have a better collective understanding of the relevant considerations by that time?

Replies from: Owen_Cotton-Barratt
comment by Owen_Cotton-Barratt · 2020-12-14T15:50:10.747Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I definitely think it's relevant that we can get a better sense of the considerations, and that this will affect our future decisions.

To a first order approximation, waiting a few years means passing on the immediate (non-financial) investment opportunities. There may have analogues later, but there could be low-hanging fruit which will remain forever unpicked if we pass now, and this is what drives the impetus to invest even given the rate of improving knowledge. Whether those are ultimately good enough to invest in now comes back to being a matter of messy empirics.

As a meta-consideration, I'm particularly excited about investments which will help us in the future to assess which investments are worthwhile. This could mean early experiments with different types of thing, or putting work into measuring the effects of different investments.

Overall I still feel in favour of a bit more spending at current margins, but far from wanting longtermists to spend down all of our capital this year. But I'm super interested to have discussion about which funded/unfunded things actually do or don't represent stock-market--beating investments for the community.