Thursday 7 November 2013

Convincing the Extremely Rich

The world now has 1,426 billionaires with a collective $5.4 trillion. Among these are many of the biggest philanthropists in the world – but their donations aren’t always optimally cost-effective.

Among Carlos Slim Helu’s donations is a $250 million investment into Mexican sports programs, for example. Ted Turner has given $1 billion to the United Nations. T. Boone Pickens has given $500 million to Oklahoma State University. $424 million from the Reader’s Digest fortune went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

These are all admirable decisions but their positive impacts pale in comparison to what the same amounts of money could have done for the world’s poorest places and people. Since the world’s money is so unevenly distributed, it probably makes more sense for effective altruist campaigns to target those privileged few that hold the majority of the world’s money, rather than focusing on the masses, who have many orders of magnitude less to give, even if there are far more of them.

The difference between the world’s average people and the world’s wealthiest people is vast beyond imagination. Influencing a single billionaire might be more effective than influencing 100,000 middle class people. Even the massive donations named above are only a tiny fraction of what Warren Buffett ($31 billion) and Bill Gates ($28 billion) have pledged to charities. With more and more billionaires signing Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, there should be increased concern in how these billions of dollars are to be spent.

I don't know of any meta-effective altruist work appealing specifically to the world’s extremely rich. There’s a vastly higher expected utility in appealing to these people, especially since most of them are already prepared to donate large sums of money away, just not necessarily to cost-effective causes.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting idea!

    The Giving Pledge seems like an amazing achievement -- the amount of donations it created compared against the effort it took is staggering. Of course, the signatories probably would have donated a fair amount anyway, but I assume the pledge created tens of billions of new donations.

    Seeking to influence billionaires could be an important undertaking. My main hesitation is, What would I even do with a billion dollars? Most of the high-leverage EA research has sharply diminishing marginal returns in the millions of dollars, until we can scale out to a much bigger size. It's more important to make sure this research is funded than to make a long-shot gamble for a tiny chance of a billion dollars, even if the expected wealth is several times lower when recruiting from smaller donors.

    A billion dollars could fund poverty/disease reduction in a scalable way, but the far-future side effects of this aren't entirely clear, even though we obviously care about it for the people affected in the short run.

    It may be that the best we can do is (a) further research and (b) expanding the EA movement in general, so that it can seep into wider culture and influence billionaire donations later on. That said, if there are opportunities to influence billionaires, it could be worth a few EAs trying that out.