80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#73 - Phil Trammell on patient philanthropy and waiting to do good

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

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.

ADDED: Does the COVID-19 emergency mean we should actually use resources right now? See Phil's first thoughts on this question here.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

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 most need money now, and which later?
• What is the research frontier here?
• What does this all mean for what listeners should do differently?

Get this episode by subscribing: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript linked above.

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

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