Just as it’s unlikely that someone passing you on the street is the person who can make the best use of the money in your wallet, we should typically think that the moment in which we find ourselves is not the moment at which we can have the most impact…

Phil Trammell

To do good, most of us look to use our time and money to affect the world around us today. But perhaps that’s all wrong.

If you took $1,000 you were going to donate and instead put it in the stock market — where it grew on average 5% a year — in 100 years you’d have $125,000 to give away instead. And in 200 years you’d have $17 million.

This astonishing fact has driven today’s guest, economics researcher Philip Trammell at Oxford’s Global Priorities Institute, to investigate the case for and against so-called ‘patient philanthropy’ in depth. If the case for patient philanthropy is as strong as Phil believes, many of us should be trying to improve the world in a very different way than we are now.

He points out that on top of being able to dispense vastly more, whenever your trustees decide to use your gift to improve the world, they’ll also be able to rely on the much broader knowledge available to future generations. A donor two hundred years ago couldn’t have known distributing anti-malarial bed nets was a good idea. Not only did bed nets not exist — we didn’t even know about germs, and almost nothing in medicine was justified by science.

What similar leaps will our descendants have made in 200 years, allowing your now vast foundation to benefit more people in even greater ways?

And there’s a third reason to wait as well. What are the odds that we today live at the most critical point in history, when resources happen to have the greatest ability to do good? It’s possible. But the future may be very long, so there has to be a good chance that some moment in the future will be both more pivotal and more malleable than our own.

Of course, there are many objections to this proposal. If you start a foundation you hope will wait around for centuries, might it not be destroyed in a war, revolution, or financial collapse?

Or might it not drift from its original goals, eventually just serving the interest of its distant future trustees, rather than the noble pursuits you originally intended?

Or perhaps it could fail for the reverse reason, by staying true to your original vision — if that vision turns out to be as deeply morally mistaken as the Rhodes’ Scholarships initial charter, which limited it to ‘white Christian men’.

Alternatively, maybe the world will change in the meantime, making your gift useless. At one end, humanity might destroy itself before your trust tries to do anything with the money. Or perhaps everyone in the future will be so fabulously wealthy, or the problems of the world already so overcome, that your philanthropy will no longer be able to do much good.

Are these concerns, all of them legitimate, enough to overcome the case in favour of patient philanthropy? In today’s conversation with researcher Phil Trammell and my 80,000 Hours colleague Howie Lempel, we try to answer that, and also discuss:

  • Real attempts at patient philanthropy in history and how they worked out
  • Should we have a mixed strategy, where some altruists are patient and others impatient?
  • Which causes are most likely to need money now, and which later?
  • What is the research frontier in this issue of global prioritisation?
  • What does this all mean for what listeners should do differently?

COVID-19

Finally, note that we recorded this podcast before the appearance of COVID-19. And as we discuss, Phil makes the case that patient philanthropists should wait for moments in history when patient philanthropic resources can do the most good. Could the coronavirus crisis be one of those important historical episodes during which Phil would argue that even patient philanthropists should ramp up their spending?

We’ve spoken with him more recently, and he says that this strikes him as unlikely. The virus is certainly doing widespread damage, but most of this damage is expected to accrue in the next few years at most. As a result, this is the sort of crisis that governments and impatient philanthropists are happy to spend on (to the extent that spending can help at all).

On Phil’s view, therefore, patient philanthropists are still best advised to wait i) until they’re rich enough to better address, or fund more substantial preparation for, similar future crises, or, ii) until we face crises with unusually long-lasting impacts, not just unusually severe impacts.

If this is right, COVID-19 just serves as an example of the many temptations to spend in the present that patient philanthropists will have to resist, in order to reap the benefits that can come from waiting to do good.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.

Highlights

Patient philanthropy

If we’re trying to figure out what the best use of a unit of resources is, there’s this huge space of possible options, right? A lot of causes we can give to, a lot of interventions within the causes. And, if we try narrowing down that space, there are a lot of questions we’ll have to ask and answer before we come anywhere close to an answer. But it just seems to me like there’s a more natural and a high information value way to divide up the space, which is to first ask whether we should be giving now or giving later or working now or working later? Second, I think a priori, there are pretty strong reasons to think that most of the time, one ought to be building up resources to use later. An analogy I like to use is that just as you would expect that the person in need you happen to be passing on the street is unlikely to be the person who can make the best use of the money in your wallet and you should try to find another location, another person to wire the money to.

We should typically think that the moment we find ourselves in is not the moment at which we can have the most impact and there’s going to be some more pivotal moment in the future for which we should wait. So it’s just very decision relevant. I think there are a lot of reasons to take the possibility of waiting to have impact more seriously.

The stakes are high

The US stock market has averaged over 7% annual returns over the past hundred years and maybe that won’t continue, but maybe it will or maybe it will be even higher. If those sorts of interest rates persist for another century, money invested now will roughly double in value every decade, which means it’ll multiply by a factor of two to the 10 after a hundred years. And obviously you might also expect it to get more expensive to do good over time, but whatever reasons there are to spend rather than invest for a hundred years, I have to overcome this like two to the 10 factor in favor of waiting. And that’s just after one century. So the stakes really are high.

Hundred year leases

Robert Wiblin: An example that I found quite neat from the paper was the example of the hundred year lease, which I think gives you a sense of how easy it is to increase the fraction of influence that you have over the future. So just to explain the general concept here, it’s possible to buy a piece of land and then lease it out to someone else for the next hundred years. So basically then what you’re doing is buying the right to that land from a hundred years onwards. Can you just explain how the price of that is effectively very different than buying the land right now?

*Philip Trammell: Sure. I mean it’s about 10% of the price. The effective price ends up being about 10%. So the hundred year lease costs about 90% of what the freehold costs. Yeah. I don’t think that land is necessarily the best long term investment or anything, but it’s a good visualization for the ways in which the patient can just bide their time and let the impatient do what they like with the near term and just come to have more say over what happens in the longer term. Obviously this reasoning compounds too, so at a 99% discount if this relationship persists and you can buy what happens to a patch of land from 200 years onward till you know, till the sun burns it up.

Should we be concerned about one group taking control of the world?

I think that is a possibility and it’s a risk from the perspective of someone not sharing the idiosyncratic values in question. And that’s why I think this is an important line of reasoning to think through whoever you are. Whatever your values are. Whatever you care about. Whatever your vision for how society should be. If you don’t think through the timing question right, then you’re just leaving the future on the table and whatever causes you care about or whatever moral theory you endorse says about how the world should be as long as it doesn’t incorporate some pure time preference. As long as you don’t explicitly reject the idea that you should care about what happens in a long time. You do have to contend with the fact that if you don’t contribute to saving up resources to do what you want in a long time, then other people will. So, I think there’s just no escaping this question and people of all kinds should just collaboratively think about how to spend their philanthropic resources over the course of the future.

Finding better interventions in the future

When we look back over the last thousand years or whatever, and we wonder whether resources would be better put to philanthropic use by those lives at the time or invested for use by ourselves or other seemingly relatively thoughtful philanthropists today, we tend to think that the latter would do more good. So just by raw induction, by a sort of outside view, we should defer to our inheritors’ decisions on this front. We should expect that they have more information or have just reflected more on what is good. Also, we have been learning more about how to do good empirically in a variety of domains, right? So the whole field of development economics is relatively new, you know, just sort of a few decades old and it’s already undergone a number of revolutions of thinking of how much to prioritize randomized controlled trials and other methods and I think we’re still improving our ideas on that front. The whole idea of improving the welfare of farmed animals is a relatively new philanthropic concern and we’re still learning a lot there. And when it comes to how to influence the long-term, that’s also a field about which until recently, people hadn’t given a lot of attention to and we still seem to be learning a lot and there still seem to be a lot of open questions about very long run growth and long-term trajectories and population and moral values and risks to civilization and so on. So yeah, both my inside view of the state of the research and the evidence and the outside induction based view point me in the direction of thinking that people in a while, maybe not a million years, but people in a while should pretty robustly be expected to do more good with resources than we can today.

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Phil’s work

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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