Effective Altruism, spending habits, and Burning Man

I still remember what it was like to first learn, back when I was a kid, the statistics on the number of people living on $1 or $2 a day. Suddenly, I felt very guilty about spending 50¢ on a snack –that’s half of someone’s daily income! (Yes, 50¢, because remember these were 1990s prices.)

Family vacations to Florida seemed obscene–a hundred dollars per night per room, plus hundreds of dollars per person on plane tickets, plus everything else! And needing to wear a $200 off-the-rack JC Penny suit to school events just seemed dumb. (Now I look and think haha, you thought $200 was expensive for a suit?)

Of course, I’ve loosened up in my early adulthood. As a software engineer in the Bay Area, I don’t want to be penny-wise and pound foolish. Luckily Bay Area job interviews don’t require suits, but if they did I’d wear one. I keep trying to kick my energy drink addiction, but worry about saving money on energy drinks coming at the expense of my work productivity.

And I’ve done a fair amount of traveling since I was a kid, though I stay in hostels whenever possible and I still flinch at the thought of spending more than $30/night on accommodation. (In my ideal world, I spend $10/night.)

I say all this as context for talking about a post I made on Facebook that provoked way, way, more discussion than I was expecting it to:

For years now, I’ve vaguely wanted to go to Burning Man, keep thinking, “maybe this is the year I go,” and then not bothering when it comes time to actually purchase a ticket.

Thing is, I basically agree with critiques of Burning Man as just a big party for the rich. Not only do the tickets cost hundreds of dollars, the minimum supplies to survive in the desert for a week will run you higher than that. That, plus the week of vacation time.

But I can’t decide if the fact that it *is* just a big party for the rich is a reason not to go. I mean, networking with rich people is valuable! On the other hand, as an Effective Altruist I think maybe the EA movement should have norms against going to such events, even if you think you can justify it in terms of networking or whatever.

Thoughts?

Cost estimates I’ve seen for Burning Man range from $1,300 to $1,500. Infamously, some tech billionaires spend vastly more, though I’m going to assume that if you’re in the target audience for this article you’re not one of them. On the other hand, going through the numbers I can see spending somewhat less, but not less than $1,000 if you’re a first-time Burner who needs to buy all-new gear.

This isn’t any more than many Americans spend on a one-week vacation, but as I hope I’ve already made clear, I’m also uncomfortable with the standard middle-class American vacation.

Anyway, what I thought was an innocuous post seems to have pushed some buttons. Many replies suggested that even considering EA norms against expensive parties was harmful to the image of EA. One comment suggested a norm against expensive parties would raise the danger of EA being “morally coercive.”

So let me provide another bit of context: I got my current job through a contact in the CFAR alumni network. From a certain point of view, that fact alone made my CFAR workshop worth it: even though CFAR workshops are hella expensive (the sticker price is $3,900), at software engineer payscales, it only had to help me get a job a bit faster, or find one a bit better paying than what I would have gotten otherwise, to pay off financially from that fact alone.

That fact was at the front of my mind when I mentioned the possibility that Burning Man could be worth it for the networking. And yes, these days in Silicon Valley, people go to Burning Man for the networking. Supposedly Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet (a.k.a. The Company Formerly Known as Google) got the job in large part because he went to Burning Man.

At the same time, when I look at the future of the EA movement, a future where there’s a strong tendency for self-identified “Effective Altruists” to spend lots of money on expensive parties that they go to to network with fellow affluent techies seems like a future where something has gone wrong. And there may be a coordination issue here: if everyone’s doing it, you may as well do like the Romans, but it might still be worth trying to avoid winding up in the place where everyone’s doing it.

And remember: in many parts of the world, $1,000 could literally be someone’s entire earnings for the year. It’s money that could literally put a roof over someone’s head. Imagine if you heard about a party for the ultra-rich where the ticket price is equivalent to what you make in a year, or what you’d expect to pay for a house. What would you think of people spending their money that way?

On the other other hand, if non-EA tech executives want to hire fellow Burners, there may not much the EA movement can do about it. Social movements can do wonderful things, but “abolish conspicuous consumption” may be too ambitious a goal. Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be showing up at Burning Man telling everyone, “I’m here to cynically betray my principles in the name of personal ambition!”

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3 thoughts on “Effective Altruism, spending habits, and Burning Man

  1. I had a pretty good poke around the EA survey results when writing this interface for them. Two of the big takeaways for me are:

    – the median member of the EA community, broadly defined, doesn’t donate much;
    – Giving What We Can is a glorious community where most people do donate 10% of their income.

    With that in mind, I am not terribly optimistic for the hard-core style of EA characterised by frugality and 80k’s definition of earning to give (i.e., finding a super-high-paying job and donating lots of the money you earn, as opposed to the looser definition of donating 10% of a typical income GWWC-style). That core of the EA community is small, and I think that there are much better prospects for growth in GWWC-style EA (and, in practice, much of the broader EA community will continue to not even hit a 10% target).

    I’m happy if EA’s are donating 10%. That leaves 90% for people to do what they like with, and I would justify taking an occasional holiday on those grounds, rather than (what looks to me like) trying to rationalise everything on networking grounds, etc.

    (I do understand the reluctance to throw away money so frivolously — since I started full-time work in 2009, I’ve only flown if work covered the flight costs, because that money would otherwise go to charity. But I’m not going to judge others for taking a different attitude, especially since I pay much more in rent than I would if I went into share accommodation. No-one’s perfect.)

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    • We have empirical evidence that 10% tithes can effectively scale to millions of people. Establishing cultural norms of excessive thrift seems like a really bad way to scale EA. As Barry says, once you pay your 10% you can do what you want. Maybe once the whole world is paying their 10% we can think about getting it to 20%, but for now go to burning man. Who cares how it looks? You are allowed to have fun. A world were the rich pay their tithes and enjoy some excess is better than one when they don’t pay tithes at all. Assuming the rich become so partially to enjoy this excess it may be better than one where rich folks are expected to live like hermits and give the rest to charity.

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  2. Isn’t living in the Bay Area at all basically conspicuous consumption? I have no hard data, but my wife has been getting overtures from a Google X micro-radar program and we’re reluctant to even consider it with COLA comparison websites telling us she’d need to earn as much as 250% of what she currently earns just to maintain our current quality of life, not even accounting for me (we currently live in Dallas).

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