“Effective Altruism” is a cover for a grift


How hermits live under a vow of poverty

Yes, really. It’s all a LIE. SBF is a liar. MacAskill is a liar. It’s shocking how blatantly they all lie.

As a “filthy rich” public figure, SBF continued to follow the EA handbook — or so it seemed — which encourages its followers to be self-sacrificing, frugal and modest. This is based in marketing and public relations no less than a genuine commitment to the idea that, as privileged members of a rich nation, it’s their moral duty to forego unnecessary comforts for the sake of “doing good better.” But whatever the motive, it pays dividends. When MacAskill appeared on “The Daily Show” last September to promote his recent book, “What We Owe the Future,” his announcement that he gives away 50% of his income drew heavy applause. SBF, too, benefitted from media accounts that overlooked clear red flags at FTX to focus on his story as the humble crypto tycoon, practically a monk, who slept on bean bags in his office, shared an apartment with nine roommates, and drove a beat-up Carola.

A series of revelations since last summer, and especially since the FTX debacle, suggest that this was all, for lack of a better word, a massive grift. In reality, SBF owned a $40 million penthouse in the Bahamas, which he called home, and accrued a “local property portfolio worth an estimated three hundred million dollars.” Many of these “were luxury beachfront homes, including seven condominiums in an expensive resort community called Albany, costing almost $72 million.” SBF flew in private jets and purchased a $16.4 million mansion in the Bahamas under his parent’s name as a “vacation home.” FTX employees received free meals and had access to an “in-house Uber-like” transportation service. This is a far cry from the humble lifestyle that EAs, including MacAskill, consistently presented to the public.

MacAskill, meanwhile, has more money at his fingertips than most of us make in a lifetime. Left unmentioned during his “Daily Show” appearance: he hired several PR firms to promote his book, one of which was paid $12,000 per month, according to someone with direct knowledge of the matter. MacAskill’s team, this person tells me, even floated a total promotional budget ceiling of $10 million — a staggering number — thanks partly to financial support from the tech multibillionaire Dustin Moskovitz, cofounder of Facebook and a major funder of EA.

It’s easy to give away part of your income — and sound saintly announcing this on TV — when you have, say, a mansion in the Bahamas or multimillion-dollar budgets to promote your projects and your brand.

It’s almost as if having a bunch of wealthy, privileged people getting together to tout a story that makes them look saintly ought not to be trusted, automatically.

And yeah, SBF was living the monastic life — nay, like an anchorite on a pillar in the desert — if you’re willing to grant him hundreds of millions of dollars for his Bahama properties, and a private jet, and catered meals, and the attention of ex-presidents and tycoons. The beat-up Toyota Corolla probably has its own gold-plated garage.

Comments

  1. birgerjohansson says

    As the dungeon in the palace probably has a pirhana tank, I know what to do with MacAskill now that he is an embarrassment for his masters at SPECTRE.

  2. Dunc says

    In reality, SBF owned a $40 million penthouse in the Bahamas, which he called home, and accrued a “local property portfolio worth an estimated three hundred million dollars.”

    I’m genuinely surprised by this. No, really.

    The proper way you do this sort of thing is that the property is owned by a series of shell companies with a convoluted ownership trail across multiple jurisdictions with laws that don’t favour transparency, and you just happen to get to make use of it. Many of the very rich don’t personally own very much at all. Technically, anyway. It’s much more advantageous when it comes to filing your tax returns.

    It’s a little like all those late medieval monks who took vows of poverty, whilst living in luxury, and justified it with the argument that they personally didn’t own anything at all – it all belonged to the church. (I believe this remains a popular scam in modern American Christianity.)

  3. says

    @2 Dunc: you are so correct. See all the ‘prosperity gospel’ aholes. J. Osteeeen is one prime example. So many of today’s ‘powerful and successful’ are deceitful and fraudulent in their words and actions.

  4. says

    To elaborate: saudis giving $2,000,000,000 to Jarhead and now a $1,500,000,000 contribution to tRUMP. WTF! So much deceit. So much fraud.

  5. nomaduk says

    Reginald Selkirk@5: By far the best part about the monk story is the reaction of the local townsfolk, who were so very upset that, with all the monks in rehab, they would be unable to continue proper worship — which consists of giving free food and money to the monks. Nice work if you can get it.

  6. KG says

    I wonder if MacAskill at least started out genuinely intending to do good. It does indeed make sense to think about where any money you intend to give away might do most good (although “do most good” is by no means easy to define – probably the best most of us can manage is to be careful you’re not giving it to charities run by grifters or fools). But once you move beyond that in the EA direction, to arguing that you should earn as much money as possible in order to give it away, there are obvious flaws setting you up for self-deception. One is that you can fool yourself into thinking that the best thing to do with the money you’ve accumulated so far is to use it to acquire even more, so that when you do give your wealth away, you’ll be giving more. But there’s no obvious endpoint: however rich you’ve become, it’s always possible to tell yourself that you should become even richer before getting to the “give it all away” stage. The second flaw is the assumption that you can spend your time with selfish and dishonest people – as you will have to if you dedicate yourself to becoming as rich as possible – without these qualities rubbing off on you. But it is, at the least, unlikely that you can.

  7. billseymour says

    shermanj @3 reminded me of a time when I was much younger and needed some cash, so I got a Sunday job at a radio station that served a mostly African-American audience.  My job in the morning was mostly about playing tapes of syndicated radio preacher shows.

    One was Reverend Ike whose gig was that, if you believed real hard (and incidentally gave a bit of cash to Reverend Ike), then you too could have monetary success in this life.  He actually had testimonials on his show:  “Oh, Reverend Ike, I prayed real hard, and you know what I found in my driveway the next morning? A Cadillac!”, to which Reverend Ike responded, “A Cadillac?  That’s what rich people drive!”  (I’m not making that up.)

    I only did that for three or four weeks because ripping off poor people in that fashion made me feel dirty.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Billseymour @ 9
    Every prosperity gospel scammer should be chained to a rattlesnake for some compulsory “snake handling” ceremonies.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    OT
    As religion came up, I will just give a heads-up for the latest from God Awful Movies. Rutger Hauer is discount Marilyn Manson in “GAM381 Turbulence 3 Heavy Metal”

  10. chrislawson says

    I feel bad for Peter Singer having his life’s work so badly mangled by these grifters. I have lots of disagreements with his moral philosophy, but I have no doubt that he is genuinely devoted to reducing poverty. Unfortunately, he seems to have thrown away his internal skeptic filter with his reckless promotion of “#CryptoPhilanthropy” and also MacAskill’s book which he calls important despite being full of longtermist bullshit arguments that are actually designed to prevent political change for people today by invoking a maximal possible benefit to a bunch of mythical future people who might benefit from the current exploitation.

    If you look on Singer’s twitter feed, you can see him support some fucking stupid crap from other people who are turning effective altruism into a grift, such as uncritically reposting a study by professional sophist Michael D Plant reporting that psychotherapy is more effective than mosquito nets — good luck managing your malaria with cognitive behavioural therapy! It’s this kind of stupidly simplistic garbage that Singer should have the wit to criticise rather than jump on board because they call themselves “effective altruists”.

    The more I think about it, the more I suspect that Singer was himself taken in by the cryptocurrency scam, his only redeeming feature here being that he seems to have believed that the magic money could be used to alleviate global poverty rather than for his own personal enrichment.

    There’s also an utterly appalling article in which he actively supports the legal arguments used by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He is, of course, personally in favour of right-to-abortion, but his argument is basically that this matter should not be left to the Supreme Court, thereby proving (1) that he has zero understanding of the American political system, and (2) that he would rather write an opinion piece to flaunt his cleverness than support women who have just lost the right to abortion. There is literally nothing in his opinion piece suggesting an actual implementable strategy, just sophomoric contrarian strutting.

  11. says

    @9 billseymour, wow, you couldn’t condone the cons of the ripoff-reverends? Good for you, you are part of a minority: you have a conscience!

    I remember a cartoon of a preacher who took the offering plate full of money, stood in front of the alter facing the congregation and tossed the offerings into the air saying, “god, you grab what ever you want, let the rest fall back down and that is what you are giving to me.”

  12. chrislawson says

    My ghod! The more I read, the more obvoius the grift is. There is a New Yorker puff piece on MacAskill, with a very large supporting appearance by Sam Bankman-Fried (published just over a month before SBF’s crypto implosion!). To be fair, there is a bit of critical appraisal of MacAskill’s EA approach, but it’s mostly offered as a sop to journalistic convention rather than a serious attempt to grapple with EA’s shortcomings (the author lets MacAskill get away with far too much unchallenged bullshit, like the idea that existing charities don’t put much thought into difficult decisions).

    Anyway, the article talks at great length about MacAskill’s utilitarian plan to give away most of his money because it will do the most good that way, even if it means becoming a high-ranking executive at a petrochemical company (yes, the actual example given!). Then the article moves to his relationship with Bankman-Fried, the cryptobro who at that time was thought to be the 25th richest person in America. Bankman-Friedman offered MacAskill a job working out the most utilitarian way to spend his billions…and here’s the money quote…

    …Bankman-Fried enlisted him as a Future Fund adviser. (He offered MacAskill a “generous” six-figure salary, but MacAskill replied that he was just going to redistribute the money anyway.)

    So he was offered a huge salary from a cryptobro, which he could have easily distributed to charitable causes…and he turned down the huge salary because he would only have distributed it to charitable causes!

    The whole thing is a scam.

    I won’t go into any more detail here, except to say that it’s worth reading that New Yorker article to see just how badly a star-struck journalist can fail to see the difference between what he’s describing (entitled contrarian narcissism) with what he thinks he’s describing (rigorous moral philosophy). The piece is full to the brim of cognitive dissonance. There are several times MacAskill’s behaviour directly contradicts the philosophy he claims to be following (and I don’t mean in the “can’t always be perfect” sense, I mean in the “this thing you say you’re doing for the common good is completely at odds with what you yourself say is the way to increase the common good”). And the journalist doesn’t even realise. It’s amazing.

  13. says

    The whole basic concept of “Effective Altruism” is, in itself, a scam, independent of the behavior of any of its specific zillionaire practitioners. The idea of encouraging zillionaires to make and keep as much money as they can, and just “trust master” to give it away in the most sensible and beneficial manner, is just “trickle-down economical and fiscal policy 2.0,” and it’s already been proven to be a scam.

    TRULY effective altruism is what GOVERNMENT is supposed to do: the people elect a government, which then collects as much tax revenue as is reasonable, and then spends that tax revenue on beneficial projects from police protection to roadbuilding to public healthcare-provision to financial and other aid to the poorest of its people, etc. etc. etc. And sensible people entrust these tasks to governments (preferably the elected kind) because it’s a well-known fact that unregulated plutocrats simply cannot be trusted to do any of those things at the required scale, consistency and reliability. This is no less true of today’s techbro whiz-kid entrepreneurs or the Kochs as it was for the old-time Robber-Barons and all the feudal lords who preceded them.

  14. billseymour says

    shermanj @13:  thanks for saying so, but I really wasn’t looking for a compliment.  It seems to me that having a conscience is a minimum requirement for exhibiting basic human decency.

    robro @16:  this is good news, but I worry about right-wingers with guns, especially if prosecutors go after Trump himself.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t wind up in a bloodbath…

  15. says

    @9: Richard Pryor took this down — on network TV, no less† — 45 years ago. Somehow, I suspect that the Prosperity Gospel Mannonites (that is, after all, whose gospel they’re actually preaching) have never since this ten minutes. Mannonites, not Mennonites.

    † Rumor, that mangy cur, has it that this sketch (or, rather, the mass of evangelical protests about this sketch) was the deciding factor in not renewing The Richard Pryor Show.

  16. DLC says

    I have a simpler idea for them. If you’re worth a billion dollars, pick 10 people at random and give each of them 10 million dollars, with the stipulation that they each give 100,000 to 10 people. The billionaire will make back the 100 mil in no time and won’t even notice the loss. The guy with 10 mil will make back the 1 mil and not even notice the loss. Do this every year for 10 years. At the end, you will have made 100 people a millionaire and 1000 people 100k richer. Or we could just re-instate the 91% marginal tax rate like they had under Republican Eisenhower.

  17. lotharloo says

    I have a more effective altruism: tax the fuck out of the fucking billionaires.

    @14:

    So he was offered a huge salary from a cryptobro, which he could have easily distributed to charitable causes…and he turned down the huge salary because he would only have distributed it to charitable causes!

    Funny because he apparently advocates for people to get into “finance” instead of “volunteering” and donating the income. So according to his own philosophy, he should have taken the salary and distributed it. This whole thing is such an obvious scam, whoever wrote that article should be immediately shamed and fired for utter incompetence at journalism.

  18. lotharloo says

    Also, I am not too much into Peter Singer but he’s also a fucking idiot. You can’t tell me there is anything intelligent in this article:

    https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/has-ftx-collapse-discredited-effective-altruism-by-peter-singer-2022-11

    In the wake of the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, and amid reports that FTX’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, diverted billions of dollars of clients’ funds, some observers have linked the alleged financial malpractice to ideas widely held within the “effective altruism” movement, which Bankman-Fried says inspired him. More specifically, they point to the ethical view that the end justifies the means.

    Effective altruism holds that one of our aims should be to do as much good as we can. In pursuing this goal, effective altruists believe, we should use reason and evidence to guide us. We should draw on research to find which charities do the most good, per dollar received.

    Many people seek to earn to give, but, until last month, Bankman-Fried seemed to be by far the most successful. In October 2021 a Forbes cover story reported that he had amassed $22.5 billion before turning 30 …
    The Vox journalist Sigal Samuel has speculated about Bankman-Fried’s thinking: “Did he reason that the ends justify the means – and that the ends of his plan to give away his fortune would be so benevolent that the risk of wiping out customers’ savings was okay?” The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sets out (though without endorsing) a possible “purely negative reading” of these events. Effective altruism “is corrupted at root by its connection to a utilitarianism that, whatever protestations it may make, will always end up justifying wicked means for the sake of noble-seeming ends.” Douthat connects this corrupting form of utilitarianism to my own work by linking to a hostile review, now more than 20 years old, of two of my books. The problem with pointing to “the end justifies the means” as the flaw that brought down Bankman-Fried is that, even for non-utilitarians, it is implausible to deny that sometimes the end does justify the means. The non-utilitarian Immanuel Kant disagreed, writing that if a would-be murderer comes to your door pursuing someone who has taken refuge in your house, you must not lie to him. Today, we honor those who had the courage to hide Jews from the Nazis and lie when the Gestapo came to their door. If you must lie to save an innocent life, the end justifies the means.

    In contrast, the deception in which Bankman-Fried is alleged to have engaged was unnecessary and unjustified. The many examples of successful financiers who have been ruined by unethical and illegal business practices should have been sufficient warning. Kant was wrong to claim that telling the truth is an absolute requirement, but wise effective altruists and utilitarians know that honesty is the best policy, and dishonesty is inherently risky. In Bankman-Fried’s case, the risk was not only to his wealth, his reputation, and possibly his freedom. It was also to the causes that would have benefited from his support, and to the effective altruism movement itself.

    What a fucking dumbass. At the end, when he witnesses the collapse of his shallow understanding, he makes up an adhoc reasoning that “nah, the risk was not justified, he should have amassed the billions of dollars in a few years through ethical ways”. You fucking dumbass Peter fucking Singer, there’s no ethical way to amass that much money that fast.

  19. gjm11 says

    @Raging Bee #15:

    The concept of effective altruism isn’t a scam. There’s nothing wrong with (1) recognizing that you have finite resources to do good with, and (2) trying to figure out what things improve the world most per unit dollar (or hour, or whatever) you put into them. Most people trying to do “effective altruism” are not zillionaires.

    It’s absolutely true that sensible people should elect a sensible government that will do sensible things including levying higher taxes on richer people than on poorer people and using tax revenue for public benefit. Sensible people, having voted for the least-rubbish politicians available, will notice that the government they’ve got falls some way short of solving all the world’s problems, and it’s not unreasonable for them to look and see whether there are other things they can do.

    And no, EA organizations don’t encourage zillionaires to make and keep as much money as they can. They encourage zillionaires to give away a lot of money. The zillionaires they tend to say the nicest things about are ones like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who have pledged to give away approximately all their money. (They may or may not be telling the truth. They may or may not do actually-good things with the money. They may or may not be good people. But they are demonstrably not “keeping as much money as they can”; so far Buffett has given away approximately half of his fortune, for instance; I’m not sure of the corresponding figure for Gates but it’s in the tens of billions.)

    Sam Bank-Fraud’s “effective altruism” sure looks like it was a sham (it’s not so clear whether it always was). William MacAskill’s looks genuine to me, even if some of his opinions about what constitutes effective altruism are horribly wrong (I’m not sure whether they are, but I’m far from sure they aren’t and I certainly understand why you might think they are). The TruthDig quote at the top seems to me actively dishonest, though; it tries to insinuate that MacAskill’s talk of donating half his income is a fraud and he’s leading a life of luxury, but it does that by (1) pointing out that Sam Bank-Fraud has been leading a life of luxury (yup, true) and that there were people willing to spend a lot of money promoting MacAskill’s book (also true), and then hoping the reader will emerge with some sort of vague association between MacAskill and large sums of money. There’s nothing there suggesting that his lifestyle is luxurious at all.

  20. gjm11 says

    @chrislawson #14:

    I don’t understand your criticism of “the money quote”. MacAskill was offered a large salary; he would just have given it away; the organization offering him a large salary was itself in the giving-money-away business; so he didn’t see the point. That all seems perfectly reasonable to me; what am I missing? Are you maybe assuming that the salary would have come out of SBF’s pocket rather than out of the FTX Future Fund’s budget? That seems unlikely.

    (Of course the organization in question was getting its money from FTX and imploded when FTX did, but you were complaining that MacAskill was inconsistent or dishonest or something, not that he failed to foresee the future, right?)

    PZ says that “Will MacAskill is a liar”, citing the TruthDig article, but I don’t see anything in that article that shows that MacAskill is a liar. As I said in #22, I think the TruthDig article is downright dishonest in its attempts to tar MacAskill with Bank-Fraud’s brush. I could be wrong: maybe in fact MacAskill is living in luxury. But if so, let’s see some evidence of that, rather than (what the article actually does) waving around Bank-Fraud’s dishonestly-luxurious life, then throwing in a mention of MacAskill for no particular reason, mentioning that some rich people spent a lot of money promoting MacAskill’s book, and hoping that we come away with the impression that MacAskill is living like Bank-Fraud did. Again, maybe in fact he is, in which case I agree he’s being dishonest, but in that case let’s see the evidence. I think that if there were good evidence the TruthDig article would have presented it, rather than doing the smoke-and-mirrors trick it actually did.

  21. consciousness razor says

    It certainly looks like the same old noblesse oblige bullshit, merely dressed up to seem more sciencey…. How can anyone really take it seriously as some kind of newfangled “movement” with legitimate moral goals, instead of a bunch of reactionaries trying to make themselves feel better?

  22. John Morales says

    cr, good to see you back.

    But, nitpicking, noblesse oblige literally means “obligation of nobility”, which is not the case with “effective altruism” — no obligation there.

    (Also, another apologetic analogy might be “white man’s burden”)

    lotharloo @21, I definitely don’t fully agree with Singer, but to label him as “a fucking dumbass” reflects more on your acumen than on his.

    (Also, your allusive vitriol lacks substance at best, and is a misrepresentation at least)

  23. gjm11 says

    I think there is something noblesse-oblige-y about EA: a sense that we (i.e., at-least-reasonably-well-off people in the affluent West, which most EA folks are) are in a fortunate position, with the power to do a lot of good, and that that brings with it some sort of responsibility to do a lot of good. Which is pretty much exactly the idea behind “noblesse oblige” too. Neither is any sort of legal obligation, but in both cases the feeling is something like “it would be indecent not to”.

    (Neither of them seems very bullshitty to me, though you could make an argument that both of them allow the privileged people involved to feel that they’re Doing What They Need To when they should actually be working to blow up the unfair socioeconomic system that gives them their advantages. The “White Man’s Burden” is another matter entirely, since a big part of what Kipling meant by that was the oh-so-heavy responsibility of the superior white race to conquer and rule the inferior not-white races for their own good. There was probably an element of that in “noblesse oblige” too; I don’t think there’s much of it in the sense of obligation that EA people feel. But I could be wrong; I am neither a mediaeval noble nor an EA in any sense stronger than “person who tries to give money effectively”, and don’t claim any magical insight into the motivations of People Who Are Not Me.)

  24. says

    MacKenzie Scott is the real deal, but I suppose that is beyond the imagining of the cynical fools here who swallowed hook like and sinker a misleading propagandistic YouTube hit piece on Yvon Chouinard. As a socialist I don’t favor a system that allows people to accumulate such wealth, but given that system those two have acted honorably.

Leave a Reply