Why I Donate 10% of My Income (And Why I’m Kind of Embarrassed to Talk About It)

In 2019, I started donating 10% of my income to charity.

I remain very hesitant to discuss this decision publicly. I worry that it sounds like I’m bragging, or that my altruism will seem performative. But I’ve grown convinced that sharing this commitment could have even more of an impact than the donations themselves. Plus, I promised this newsletter would be weekly, and I need topic ideas. So I’m forcing myself to get over my embarrassment. Here we go.


The specific commitment I made is the Giving What We Can pledge, an outgrowth of the effective altruism movement, whose signatories pledge 10% of their lifetime income to “the causes that can do the most good.” So I’m not only on the hook for 10% of all my income going forward, I also have to backfill the 10% that I didn’t donate from 2012 to 2018. (“Luckily,” I made very little money that whole time.)

The paradox of the GWWC pledge is that even though the effective altruism movement heavily emphasizes rationality and data-driven decision-making, the commitment itself—and the 10% number especially—is not really data-driven at all. It’s essentially a reasonable-feeling compromise between the most extreme form of the philosophy behind it—that you should give everything above subsistence level to those who are more in need—and what most people do, which is donate almost nothing. Plus, there’s the historical precedent of 10% as a tithing percentage in various religions, not to mention the fact that ten is a nice, round number. Everyone likes a nice, round number. There’s a reason you never hear about the Seven Commandments, or see frat boys rating women’s looks on a scale of one to sixteen.

Anyway. Peter Singer, the philosopher whose work inspired both the Giving What We Can pledge and the effective altruism movement more generally, illustrates what he considers the ethical imperative to give with the following very annoying thought experiment. You walk by a child drowning in a pond who you could easily save, but you let them drown because you don’t want to ruin your new suit, which you have for some reason decided to wear on a nature walk. Pretty much everyone would consider this behavior monstrous. (Well, except maybe the anti-natalists.) But every time someone buys, say, a second-pair of adult light-up shoes after ruining their previous pair at a concert the very first time they ever wore them (a completely hypothetical example which is obviously not drawn from my own life in any way), instead of using that money to save someone’s life in the developing world, they are essentially making the same choice.

Singer acknowledges that the end-state implications of his belief are impossible for almost anyone to live out fully (though I recommend the excellent book Strangers Drowning, about extreme altruists, to learn about a few remarkable exceptions), but to his credit he does go pretty far towards embodying his philosophy, donating 25–30% of his income each year. (Though he’s also, for what it’s worth, a notorious asshole in real life, as are many philosophers. This remains one of the most enduring paradoxes of moral philosophy.)

I find it hard to dispute the logic of Singer’s argument, especially if I think about it when I’m really high. But the truth is that my own commitment to donating 10% did not come from a particularly rational or thought-through place. I made the decision for essentially the same reason I make most decisions: it just felt right. It seems readily apparent to me that 10% of my income going to people who need it more than I do leaves everyone involved better off. Is making this kind of commitment a moral necessity, something everyone should do? I don’t know—I’m not really comfortable telling everyone else what to do, with the exception of peer-pressuring my friends to get dumb tattoos. But it started to feel very much like something I should do.

I’ve been thinking about writing something like this for almost as long as I’ve been donating, but I’ve always been too nervous. Despite having intentionally cultivated a very public internet presence, the truth is I’ve actually never been the kind of person who reveals much of their true selves to a wider audience. In a certain way, I’m actually quite private. (This newsletter is in part a push to myself to change that.)

And there’s something about public charitability that I just find, I don’t know… so gauche. The last thing I want is to come across as anything like the men (and it is mostly men) who put their names on buildings, all of whom I see as either making a pathetic, fruitless stab at immortality, or essentially just erecting a giant phallus.

But it’s become more and more apparent to me, both through research and through my own experience, that we make our moral decisions based mostly on what the people around us are doing. There’s no question that reading about the moral commitments of other people I admire—Scott Alexander donating his 10%, or Dylan Matthews donating his kidney to a stranger—heavily influenced my own thinking. Eventually, it just started to seem ridiculous that I would readily push my friends to engage in all kinds of foolish hedonism, but wouldn’t put the same energy into promoting something that could actually save lives.

Going public about this is a way to leverage my own donation power: I’m never going to start giving 100% of my income away. But I might be able to convince nine other people to give 10% of theirs.

Yours in performative altruism,

Max

P.S. I’m considering writing a sequel to this that would dive into how I decide where to donate (spoiler alert: somewhat haphazardly!) and some of the strategies I’ve developed for sticking with my commitment. If that’s the kind of thing you’d be interested in reading, reply to this and let me know, or tweet at me @maxnuss.


Read of the week: I am all about this Palladium Magazine piece on how competitive hormone supplementation is shaping America’s business titans, especially this bit (which I’d previously seen theorized in Matt Levine’s excellent Money Stuff newsletter) about the dopaminergic theory of financial bubbles—a.k.a, how they’re connected to bankers’ use of illegal drugs:

There are two bubbles that we can attribute pretty directly to the availability of exciting new dopaminergic drugs. In the 1980s, the U.S. was flooded with cocaine. The 1980s were also the era of the hostile takeover: find some sleepy old company, borrow 95% of the value of the company’s assets, buy it up, shut it down, liquidate the pension, and walk away with a big chunk. This is total cokehead behavior.

Two decades later, there was another hot net drug: Adderall. Adderall is the drug of choice for rote, repetitive tasks that still require some brainpower. And in the 2000s, the big boom wasn’t in swashbuckling buyouts: it was in complex credit derivatives.

Adderall helps people power through boring tasks, but it doesn’t help you work on the right thing. The credit bubble was predicated on the [now obviously incorrect] idea that real estate, while volatile at the level of individual houses and even individual cities, was stable at a national level.

Coinbase, Company Focus, and What Counts as Politics

Reading that Coinbase post made me super glad that I’m not still a CEO right now.

Founders, if you’re stressing out about the prospect of your company failing, trust me, it’s not all bad! Reading about the stressful issues facing other CEOs—and then thinking about how you don’t have to deal with them—is a truly great feeling.

For those of my readers who (blessedly) don’t follow the ins and outs of the startup world, here’s what I’m talking about: a few weeks ago, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong announced a new company policy about engagement with social and political issues.

The post is the kind of thing that’s hard to summarize succinctly without unintentionally adding your own interpretation, but essentially, he said that Coinbase would focus primarily on achieving its mission, and not on societal issues or political causes. He also offered substantial severance packages to any employee who disagrees with this approach. (Recent reporting suggests that around 5% of them took it.)

Despite a few high-profile exceptions, it’s clear that most tech CEOs, even the ones who haven’t said so publicly, agree with Armstrong’s approach. The tell? Normally, when a startup announces layoffs, there’s a rush of other startups making public overtures to hire those newly laid-off employees. But I haven’t seen a single company go out of its way to recruit the employees who left Coinbase over this.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this post and the corresponding issues for a couple weeks. At first I thought it was a pretty reasonable policy, perhaps even a model for my next company. The more I turn it over in my head, though, the more doubts I have.

It’s all well and good to say that your company won’t engage with divisive political issues. But that approach elides the fact that the question of what’s considered a “political issue” is itself inherently political. Politics is often the process by which certain things stop being considered politics.

Two hundred years ago, slavery was the defining political issue in this country. If you advocated for slavery, no one would say you were discussing “politics”—you would just be an insane racist. The political process (and, of course, the Civil War—I’m not going to get into the issue of whether or not war is a part of politics) eventually settled this issue so thoroughly that it’s now seen as outside the realm of politics entirely.

Similarly, I suspect the United States will—if we don’t totally collapse before then—one day be riveted by debates about the legal rights of artificially intelligent beings. But right now, that’s just wild theorizing. To reach the status of being a political issue, that will first have to be considered a legitimate topic of debate by a critical mass of people (even, and perhaps especially, those who oppose it).

Calling Black Lives Matter—internal debate over which was reportedly the inspiration for the Coinbase post—a divisive political issue is pretty clearly a statement of objective reality. But the fact that valuing Black lives is still a source of division in this country instead of, you know, an obvious truth, is what the BLM movement is fighting.

In the post, Armstrong also mentions that Coinbase will engage with political issues that affect the company’s ability to achieve its mission, like cryptocurrency-related policies. But as politics in the U.S. get more and more incoherent, those boundaries become much harder to define. You can make a pretty compelling argument that the Trump administration’s disregard for the rule of law and, potentially, threat to democracy itself could dramatically affect every American company’s ability to achieve its mission. It’s going to be hard for any of us to achieve anything for a while if Trump foments massive post-election riots.


I suspect much of the turmoil over these issues in the workplace comes from the general sense of helplessness many of us feel about the current state of affairs. We feel powerless to change the direction of the country, so we turn to the organizations we think we can impact, even if those organizations are grossly imperfect vehicles for the pursuit of justice.

Not to mention the fact that tech companies brought this on themselves by spending decades painting themselves as the idealistic good guys, emphasizing their non-traditional corporate cultures and encouraging employees to bring their “whole selves” to work. Turns out most people’s whole selves involve a lot more than just getting a nose ring or bringing their dog to the office on Fridays.

Still, it’s easy to criticize a rule, not so easy to say what should go in its place. Being a founder involves making a series of impossible choices that always leave someone unhappy. If I were running a company today, I’d probably implement at least some lightened version of the Coinbase policy. I don’t think it’s healthy, for example, for the company Slack to be a place where every last political issue is debated or where horse-race gossip is traded.

Or maybe I’d go the Palantir route and build a company full of people who are explicitly ideologically aligned. That’s sort of uncouth to say, especially if your ideology is like Palantir’s, but I think it’s worth considering, especially for smaller organizations.

Most people want a workplace—and a world—where they don’t have to constantly battle over divisive issues. But the problem right now seems to me to be one with the state of American society, and I’m not sure how easily such an issue can be resolved at the level of company policy.

Until next week,

Max


Read of the week: this piece from Discourse Magazineon how what ails America today is not tribalism, as you’ll hear from so many pundits, but actually the absence of tribalism:

We have enormous political challenges because we no longer value or know how to live like tribes: to make rules together, to develop consensus, to work out difficult problems without calling for outside help. In fact, tribes—real tribes—provide a great deal of meaning, community, and connection. If American society were to adopt some “tribal” characteristics, we would all be a lot better off.”

Recommended.

Introducing My Super Secret Diary

This newsletter exists so I can stop feeling like a hypocrite.

I recently started a new job as the Program Director for the On Deck Writer Fellowship, which is sort of like a startup accelerator for bloggers and newsletter authors.

But my dirty little secret is that I myself haven’t been writing publicly for years. I’ve long ago fallen off the wagon of my Medium essays. The last time I “wrote publicly” was when I won the New Yorker cartoon caption contest in February 2019—and that was only one sentence.

I was starting to feel like a huge fraud running a program to help people do something I wasn’t even doing myself. Hence, this newsletter.

Hi. It’s good to be here.


So what’s this newsletter about? It’s about whatever I want it to be about.

I would advise anyone trying to grow a significant audience to define their subject matter a little more precisely than “whatever I want.” But I’m not trying to grow a significant audience. All I care about is reaching what I call “Minimum Viable Audience”: just enough people reading this that I don’t feel like I’m shouting into the void—and that I feel obligated to keep writing it each week.

But if pressed—and since Substack requires a one-line description of what you’re writing about—I’d say this newsletter will be about startups, literature, philosophy, American history, sex & drugs, and how to be alive. (Sorry, mom.)

Along those lines, here are some of things you can expect to read about in the coming weeks (or not—I make no promises):

  • Why JFK was a bad President

  • My experience at a ten-day silent meditation retreat

  • Why I donate 10% of my income to charity (and why I find talking about that publicly embarrassing)

  • How Trump ruined acid

  • In defense of half-assing most things

Updates will come once a week, probably on weekends, hopefully on schedule. Thanks for coming along for this ride with me. It’s going to be entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and probably a little embarrassing.

Anxiously yours,

Max


Read of the week: I really enjoyed this Smithsonian Magazine piece re-examining the Roman emperor Nero’s reputation, especially this bit positing that even if the story about him fiddling while Rome burned is true, we’ve been interpreting it the wrong way. It’s not the Roman version of George W. Bush continuing to read My Pet Goat after finding out about 9/11—it’s an emotional response to tragedy, coming from someone with an artist’s soul:

“We have a contemporaneous account by a witness to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 who speaks of its ‘great beauty,’” says Anthony Barrett, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. “J. Robert Oppenheimer recited the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first explosion of the atom bomb. Scipio Africanus quoted Homer on seeing the destruction of Carthage. These are very human reactions to tragedy. Only in Nero is it seen as evil.”

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