I have a complicated relationship with money. I love making it. There is little in this world as satisfying as turning time and skills into cold hard cash, and almost nothing gets me as excited as the phrase, “You will be paid.”
With that said, my time on this planet is the most finite resource I have. Trading time for money is a losing proposition, and becomes increasingly expensive with each passing year. Money is freedom, and giving away money feels like giving away my life.
This creates a bit of cognitive dissonance when I begin to think of charity. Charity is a fundamental component of a well-examined life, and my disposition is not one of a giver.
I’m a bad person--but you probably are, too.
The older I get, the more I realize that--fundamentally--I might be a bad person. I’m self-centered, aggressively protective of my time, and never make a decision that does not directly benefit myself.
This would stress me out more, but I think the same is true of most of us (whether we want to admit it or not).
The one step I’ve made in the right direction is that I now recognize this shortcoming and I’m unhappy with it. This realization has allowed me to separate my rational mind from my single-sighted, ego-driven self. I don’t want to be a bad person.
You don’t need any more money.
In Walter Isaacon’s Steve Jobs, the author relates an ongoing conversation between Jobs and Oracle co-founder (and close friend) Larry Ellison.
In 1995, Apple, having ousted Jobs, was in a death spiral. Ellison saw an opportunity to buy up enough Apple stock to take over the company--a stroke that would simultaneously return his good friend to power and make them both a boat-load of money.
Jobs, however, rejected the idea, saying he was, “not a hostile takeover kind of guy.”
The next year, when Jobs was invited back into Apple as part of the NeXT acquisition, he was buoyant. Here was a way for him to return to Apple while maintaining the moral high ground. Ellison was happy for his friend, but pointed out that something was missing. “Steve, if we don’t buy the company, how can we make money?”
Jobs leaned in close to Ellison. “Larry,” he said, “this is why it is very important that I’m your friend. You don’t need any more money.”
I know what you’re thinking: It’s easy for them to say. Jobs and Ellison were both Billionaires and sitting at the head of cutting-edge tech companies. Still, there is a lesson to be learned.
Jobs was hurt when he was thrown out of Apple. He was angry, and one imagines he took some pained pleasure in watching the company fail. Still, he was able to divorce himself from his emotions. He critically examined the situation and recognized that returning to Apple as the prodigal son--not as a conqueror--would give him the moral high ground he needed to affect real change. The moral high ground was expensive real estate, but for Jobs it was worth it.
Separating yourself from your ego will free your rational mind to see wide vistas of truth that were previously unexplored.
This separation allows for critical examination.
For example: I teach. My wife is a photographer. Together we make ~100k/year. While this is a serviceable income, it is on the low-end for our financially-driven tribe. As a result, it never feels like all that much.
With that said, we live a life of impossible opulence, and we live it dirt-cheap. We eat fantastic home-cooked meals. We drink tasty wine and expensive, fresh-ground coffee. We have great friends and a busy social life. We spend our leisure time maintaining our bodies, our minds, and our relationship. We travel obsessively. We’ve spent thousands of hours of sweat to build a home that is perfectly suited for our lifestyle. And we do all of this with enough spare cash that we can plow it into investments and other passive money makers. When I look around, I can’t help but say, If this isn’t nice, what is?
And here’s the thing: If we had Job’s Billions, our lives wouldn’t be all that different. We might move beside the water; we might sell our rental properties and sock the cash into truly passive income generators; we might travel nearly full-time; we might, we might, we might. But if it was happiness we were looking for, we wouldn’t need to do any of that. We are content, and in this world that is all we can be. The thing that we have in common with Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison is that we have enough money.
That’s why we give it all away.
The most good you can do.
Reading a Peter Singer book is an undertaking. Not because his books are difficult to read--on the contrary. He is a clear and eloquent writer. His books are challenging because of what they demand from readers.
Singer has a careful and measured way of making an argument. His logical progression leaves little room for discussion. If you agree with his premises, you can be damn sure you’ll agree with his conclusion. This means that if you pick up, say, Animal Liberation, you better do so knowing there is an extremely good chance you are about to become a vegetarian.
This was my experience with The Most Good You Can Do. I read it in a single sitting on an airplane over the summer, and it was--begrudgingly--transformative. In it, he sets forth an argument that goes something like this:
All human life should be valued equally (a premise that is difficult to argue with)
We do not live in an equal world (levels of wealth vary massively between the seven billion of us)
A person living a well-examined life will recognize an ethical obligation to do what he can to equalize this gulf (as human beings who respect the lives of other humans)
The most effective way he can do this is by giving money--a lot of it--to organizations who have proved effective in their altruism--those who can use your money more effectively than you in order to do the most good for the most people.
When followed to logical ends, it is clear that the only appropriate amount to give away is all of it that you don’t need to survive.
I remember an epiphany settling on me somewhere around the first round of complimentary beverages. Fuck. I’m going to have to give away all of my money.
Giving away all of my money.
By being born in a first world country, you have won the ovarian lottery. If you live in the US, you are in a country just shy of $60,000 of GDP/person, and there are seventeen (17!) countries where that number is higher. This is a stupendous amount of wealth on the world scale (Somalia, the poorest country in terms of GDP/Capita is ~$400).
If you accept that:
Human life is created equal, and
Money can alleviate poverty, and
You were born with a distinct advantage in this world
Then the logical conclusion is inescapable. The well-lived life includes doing what you can to fix this. Charity work has it's place*, but the effect of charity work is nil when compared to the long-term good of giving away cold, hard, cash.
But can I wait until I die?
And if you need your fix now, by all means begin your donations. My wife and I donate to scholarship funds and Special Olympics because those are things that are dear to us. While this isn’t world-changing money, and while there are certainly charities with more impact per dollar, we believe that during our lives, we should get pleasure from charitable giving. It isn’t supposed to be a chore; we love seeing the direct results of money we give.
But when you’re dead, you’re dead. The ethical good you do when donating your money is not lessened by waiting until you kick it to give it all away. Singer would argue that there are problems that need to be solved today, and this is undoubtedly true. But here’s the thing: In the grand scheme of things, you’re going to die any day now. When you inevitably do in 10, 20, even 50 years, there will still be lots and lots of problems that will make good use of your end-of-life donation.
And you should make an end-of-life donation. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg have pledged to give away the vast majority of their wealth upon their deaths. I don’t have their Billions, but my wife and I have made similar arrangements to donate to high-impact charities when our day comes.
So make money. Enjoy it. Use it. Buy your freedom and design your life. When you are secure, though--when you inevitably hit your contentment cap; when more money cannot buy more time, or when more money can not prolong the unprolongable, give it all away.
*For the record, I DO still volunteer. When I was younger, I thought that volunteer work kind of sucked. The work I did in my youth was the exact sort of work I was qualified for: bitch work. It was done entirely by high school students and the elderly. Since I am now a thinking, skilled adult, I find that people now are happy to have me volunteer my skills. This is a considerably better use of my time and talents. It is still not as beneficial as giving away all of my money.