Trading, donating and charter cities: An interview with Ben Gilbert

Ben Gilbert

Ben Gilbert’s an 80,000 Hours member who previously worked as a trader in the City, but now focuses his attention on the effective giving community and the development of charter cities. We met in Oxford to discuss his career, jobs in trading and his plans for making a difference in the future.

Your first job was as a trader in the city, tell us a bit about why you ended up doing that

I was a year in to a PhD about Shakespeare but decided I’d had enough of academic discussions that seemed to me rather unreal. Trading seemed to me as real as could be, having to make judgements where everyone would know very quickly if I was right or wrong, plus I thought it might be like playing poker which I enjoyed.

What did it involve?

I ended up trading interest rates on emerging markets. I don’t have an economics background and so most of what I did involved trying to decide which way everyone else in the market was pushing things – psychology of crowds – and also about identifying assets which were out of line with one another, in order to buy one, sell the other, and expect to profit when they moved back into line.

What that meant day-to-day was sitting in front of two or three computer screens all day, watching and listening out for prices that seemed out of line with where they should be, following which way markets were moving and feeling good or bad depending on whether I had it right.

What were the good sides and bad sides?

Good sides – A lot of autonomy, with a sense of direct responsibility for an end result. Fairly pure attention to performance so less of a feeling that you had to play a role just to impress others or make them like you. I quite enjoyed following the play of numbers though I can imagine it being boring for many people.

Bad sides – The flip-side to the autonomy: an almost total individualism, with each person fighting for themselves rather than being part of something larger. The institution and almost everyone in it ruled by a spirit of 1) wholly self-interested striving and 2) possession by money, working to earn money by playing with money, talking about money, thinking about money, on and on. Socially, quite a lot of wit but also an anti-women, anti-gay etc schoolboy atmosphere (2 female traders out of 150+ total) that I found annoying. A perverse relationship to time – you spend all year waiting for bonus time to arrive, so end up treating time as something to get through in order to end up with more money rather than the substance of your life.

Who do you think it would suit?

I think a genuine interest in how it all works – where prices come from, how they relate to each other – and an ability to be absorbed in a world of moving numbers are important. You can no doubt do it just for the money without any intrinsic interest but I imagine you’ll be quite miserable doing it, given how much of your time and energy it is likely to consume. I read a few books on pricing things before my interviews and I think that isn’t a bad way of finding out how interesting you find it, as well as helping with the interviews. A certain sort of resilience is probably important – if you’re lucky, on 30-40% of the days you go into work, you would have been better off not going as you get it wrong (at least in the sort of work I was doing), and so it helps if you’re able to put that easily behind you. A degree of self-confidence/arrogance is useful, especially if combined with an ability to be self-critical.

After the job in trading, what did you do?

After about 7 years, I found that the bad sides were definitely outweighing the good sides for me (I had a sense of – what’s the good of earning money if you lose yourself in the process) and left. I wonder what it would have been like if there had been an organisation like 80,000 Hours around at the time, which would have helped me to frame what I was doing in a different way and to see it as less totally selfish, perhaps even the opposite. Anyway, there wasn’t. I ended up starting to learn Russian, which led me to live in Kiev for a few years, studying Russian and teaching on English literature.

What advice would you give to someone considering a job in finance?

Find out what you can about specific roles and even specific markets and sectors. People often focus on earning possibilities and other extrinsic reasons to take different roles and, of course, that’s why almost everyone is there. But once you’re doing it, the intrinsics of the job, what it’s like hour by hour actually to be doing it, can often overwhelm the other aspects. If that isn’t right, it can be hard to carry on for long. It’s difficult to know or imagine in advance what it will be like, but digging into something at some depth might give you some idea of how engaging you find it and a hint of what it would be like to spend your working life in that area.

What prompted you to start thinking about how you could make a difference?

I think that we all know that we are, as the phrase goes, living high and letting die, but that the moment at which you actually start to care about this and want to do something about it is quite personal and perhaps mysterious. For me, it emerged from some reflection on what I had done right and wrong over the previous year, which, for reasons I am not sure I could explain, made me actually want to do something in the area where, it seems to me, we have the most influence on the lives of others, which is in our relations to those generally far away individuals who have far less power and resources than we do.

What did you start doing?

I started reading about development economics and aid. I haven’t stopped yet and so in a sense I can’t say I’ve started doing anything at all. I have, though, found a couple of things that I am dedicating time to and want to encourage other people to think about, because I think that understanding them better could have a big impact. One is the question of what the impact is on other people, especially the poor, of all the different things we can do with money apart from giving it to charity, as I wrote about here. I think different choices could have quite different impacts but it is hard to understand them. The other is Paul Romer’s idea of charter cities, which appeals to me a lot (although I’ve plenty of questions and reservations).

Explain a bit more about charter cities. Why do you think they might be a particularly good area to work on?

So many development problems seem to result from unhelpful governance or bad institutional or behavioural equilibria. The most obvious solution for people in badly governed places who want to live somewhere better governed – just move there – is generally impossible because those better governed places won’t let them in. Charter cities are an idea about how to create an alternative. A charter city would be a territory with its own laws and political system, which people from the surrounding state and perhaps other states are free to move in and out of.

The idea is: take a city-sized piece of uninhabited land; write a charter outlining its laws and politics and recruit people to administer it; see if businesses think the territory has a promising enough future to invest in creating jobs, infrastructure and housing there; then see if people decide it’s a good place to live and move in. If things work well, then people gain a new choice when they think about where they want to live, and millions of them could end up moving there; if they don’t, no-one moves in and no-one loses anything (apart perhaps from businesses who made a bad business decision in trying to get the city started). (Obviously, things aren’t so simple but this is the essence of the idea)

I find that most people don’t like the idea, but they are confused about what they don’t like. Generally they think that it couldn’t happen, or it could happen but the cities would be bad places to live. They might well be right, but neither is a reason to oppose the idea. Even if there is only a small chance of them working, the gains could be huge. And if they happen and turn out to be bad places to live, why would anyone move there? You have to make an argument that a city growing through people’s choices to move there would somehow do more harm than good (such arguments can be made, but I haven’t seen them explored much).

I decided to work on this because I became convinced of the importance of governance issues; don’t know of any idea that addresses these issues so directly and radically; think it’s plausible, because it relies for the most part on the self-interest of different agents; and think that the chances it is tried and how well it works will depend on how the idea is understood by publics, by the politically influential, and by more technical and academic audiences. I was surprised that there was no proper independent source of news and analysis, and I’d like to change that. However, one reason I started working on them was because the government of Honduras was planning to set one up, which made it seem likely that the idea would be implemented (‘can’t happen? It’s already happening!’) and also made it urgent to take a more careful look at how it should be done. A couple of months ago, the Supreme Court there ruled against it, and at about the same time the new leadership in Georgia stopped work on one that was planned there, so the odds of it ever happening seem lower now than they were before.

A more personal reason I’m interested is probably that I’ve spent some time in badly governed places – my gap year in Zimbabwe, 6 years recently in Ukraine. I think it can be hard for people who live in well-enough functioning states to grasp just how bad some governments (more accurately, political, legal and administrative systems) can be, and how much this hurts the people who live there; also, how painful it can be to know that the states across your border which work better are doing everything they can to keep you out.

More generally, do you think one of the most important things to be doing is research into what are the most important things to be doing?
Probably. I think it is probably true that people are not led into where they can have the most impact by some self-organising process, and that research can suggest where they could have more impact; it’s very possible that they are having much less impact than they could, and some simple pointers that research and reflection can uncover could make a big difference. One danger, though, is the mistake of answering the question by asking, 1) what is the most biggest problem/issue/threat, 2) what can I/we do about that. You might be able to do a lot more good by working on smaller problems which you have more influence over. Asking about the big challenges is a good starting point, but this needs to be balanced by ideas about what certain individuals can change in the world, given how the world is.

How did you find 80,000 Hours?

The first time I came across it was in a written debate Ben Todd and Sebastian Farquhar had with a critic in the Oxford Left Review, which I found by chance as I searched for articles relevant to what I’m working on. I thought that they won the debate, and they put their ideas in a direct, open-minded, undogmatic way which made me want to find out more.

What attracts you to the project?

First, the idea is in a sense so simple – wanting to do good, and wanting to learn how you can do it best (though actually working out an answer isn’t simple at all). I think that beginning with the personal decisions that each person faces is the right place to start, and trying to think the issues through carefully is the right way to move forward. Second, I think the project rightly emphasises the importance of community – since there is a sort of largely unspoken consensus at large that just serving yourself and the people closest to you is the way to live, it’s important to have a counter-community developing a different view. Third, from what I can work out, there are some really smart people with a lot of integrity who are involved. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out – whether sceptics who think that most people’s ideals won’t survive 5 years of contact with ‘the real world’ will turn out to be right, or if it will grow into something really powerful as numbers increase and all the people who participate gain experience and influence.

What are your plans now for the next couple of years?

I want to read and write more on the consequences of different ways of using and investing money, and on charter cities. I’d like to create a couple of websites with high-quality work on both topics, so that there is some sort of independent and informative source for people to turn to – I don’t think that exists at the moment in either case. It would be great to find people with relevant expertise who could give their ideas and perspectives. For example, on the question of what to do with money, that might mean economists who can help trace the causal chains from particular investment or savings decisions to their welfare consequences, especially for the (global) poor. The next task would be trying to find ways of making that information more influential on how people and institutions actually behave.

How did you come up with these plans and why do you think this is good option for you to be working on? What are the biggest uncertainties in your career?

I started with becoming confident that the two ideas I’m most interested in are important and that work which affected how they are implemented could have a lot of impact. When I was trying to understand and explore them, I found that there isn’t much to read, and many questions are unasked. I think that some answers could make a lot of difference, if they end up guiding action (eg if certain ways of investing money have much more positive welfare consequences than others). Few people seem to be working on or even thinking about these things. If I’m right about their importance, then this seems to be a space in which my work could have a large impact.

I’m not sure that I have the skills for doing it effectively. I think that just asking the questions is an asset, if I’m right that they matter and are underexplored (the alternative is that I’m missing something which explains why people aren’t working on them), and I can analyse and think the ideas through well enough. On the other hand, I don’t have much economics, which is a drawback, and don’t know how effectively I can persuade other people. I’d say I’m more confident in the importance of the questions than my approach to helping to develop influential answers to them. I see what I’m working on now as a first step which should help me to be clearer about what I think and, I hope, build links with other people thinking along similar lines, but might well lead me to something different, eg working in an organisation within which I could have more influence over more resources.

Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?

You could have asked me what I in fact do with any income / savings I have. It is a little ambition of mine – though one which I don’t have much hope of realizing – to ask all sorts of people who profess to care about ethical issues (moral philosophers, activists, some economists, etc) what they do with their money – give to charity (which one?), spend it (on what?), invest it (where?), and so on. With actual figures, if only percentages! Not in order to catch them out in some sort of hypocrisy, but because I’m really interested in how other people decide these things. If it turns out that people don’t bring their moral ideas to bear at all on what they do with money, that’s interesting and reveals something about what governs people’s actions, making you wonder whether this might change or is something that we just have to work with. And if they do, I’m interested in how they do it – in the answer they give to a moral question which is embodied in how they live.


Further Reading

If anyone wants to read more: onchartercities.org has an introduction and some thoughts about charter cities. And in response to an 80000 Hours discussion post about investment, I put up some work at moralmoney.tumblr.com/. Both are very much works-in-progress – I’d love to hear any comments and criticism that people have.