Welcome to Flancia! A 100% sincere place.
It seems natural to start by talking about my memory, as memory is linked to writing, and here I am deciding to start writing.
My memory feels insufficient. It’s not horrible, but not great either. I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about it; I mention it often, as if to explain how I am. Deep down I think that I am like I am precisely because my memory is bad; I believe some people may think of things in a certain way because of the number of items they can keep in mind at a time (perhaps fewer than the average seven). It sounds like a bad thing, but on the other hand perhaps you learn how to make up for it in some other ways. Perhaps I see relationships between things that people thinking more complex thoughts (with more items in memory) don’t? With some luck, this could still be of some value as a writer. So I will just do me and write as well as I can: not particularly well perhaps, but perhaps in a unique way, and that could be good enough sometimes.
Having said that. This feels cringey, but I guess I’m starting with a manifesto. A manifesto about a better way to live a with privilege: how to get out of it, our of this great deal that some of us get, something more than just a life with privilege.
Lately I’d been thinking about what I want to do with my life long term — on a best-case scenario. I’ve now followed that line of thinking far, actually beyond where I could reasonably aspire to go this point; thus this manifesto is (particularly after a certain point) not quite reasonable. But is there ever a reasonable manifesto? Once you’ve decided to write one, you might as well not hold back. Hopefully I’ve still managed to stop in time not to reach crackpot country.
This all amounts to having started drafting a plan — actually putting together one step after the other, in writing, like this was some sort of “project” at work. Taking widely optimistic jumps of logic at times. Some mistimed ones, also, for sure. Even when reading it back as a draft I find a lot of it is very optimistic and some of it is likely misinformed; I won’t note it every time I’m making an optimistic assumption, as that would probably be often enough to be distracting.
I think I can forgive myself for all the errors (and hopefully you’ll forgive me) because I’ve never done anything like this before; the fact that I have the time and resources (yes, resources) to do it somehow took me by surprise. The privilege of having the time to write.
Because I am privileged. Really, I’m in the top 1% of people by privilege already just by virtue of the fact that I am in the position to make any decisions and long term plans at all, in this case specifically the choice to write. The great majority of people in this world don’t have this privilege: they live day to day, or paycheck to paycheck. Even for those (still relatively many) that don’t live at the edge of dispossession, plans rarely extend beyond the next few months. At most one or two years.
I, on the other hand, find myself with a well-compensated job in the right niche (IT) during what is essentially an economic boom sprung by new technologies of a magnitude the world has not seen for centuries (ubiquitous computing and the internet). I was born in a relatively privileged position (for a developing country), but with lots of luck I’m now in a position much more privileged than that (working for a big tech company in a developed country). Most people don’t have my luck. Most, by far.
I think a person with such privilege has to think about what to do with it; a lot of people don’t, and they just settle into a life of comfort and indifference. I don’t blame them; it’s very tempting. But I believe someone with privilege must think, because people without that privilege often can’t do it. They can’t because they’re tired, they’re stressed and they are not free. They have to worry about losing their jobs, sometimes any of many; they worry about falling ill and ending up bankrupt (in the case of the US). In some countries, they worry about not starving, and not having their families starve with them. Would you even think about thinking (the meta, most idle, kind of thinking) in those conditions? Would you ever think of anything else but your fear?
Because of this I assert that people that have the resources to be able to think must do it. The world is unlikely to become fairer if nobody thinks of solutions to this greatest disparity: that of privilege. I have nice things, and other people don’t have them. I have time and resources to pretty much do whatever I want, and most people don’t. How will they get it, ever? By way of revolution? Perhaps. I used to believe that was the most likely way, but now? I’m not sure. It’s been a while since people started a revolution that swept the world off their feet. Communism? I mean, I believe it was a good thing, it was a thing that we had to try, but did it work? So if people at large — everyone — will ever get to experience privilege, somebody has to think about helping them to it. Until, of course, the time everybody has it and it ceases to exist.
If you recognize this as true, you are morally obligated to start making a difference. You have to try somehow; even if it’s just about donating some of your privilege, you need to decide to do it and do it now. But Please consider what else you should do with your life in the long term, on top of what you’re doing. At the very least you can donate, and you can think. Keep thinking until you get an ideaon what else to do.
It’s a difficult thing to do, thinking about how to solve privilege. It’s the thing of utopians, of people that eventually write manifestos and risk embarrassment. Its difficulty lies in the fact that it’s the time to ask yourself lots of questions, to really face who you really are. How good, or capable, are you? Do you really want to know? You may be more greedy or self-centered than you thought you were. So of course you would default into procrastinating that activity, leave it for later, forever. you thought more highly of your capability for change than you should have; you thought the problem was that you didn’t have the time or the resources, but it turned out that the problem was you.
So what is good ethically? Is it bad for me to also care (honestly) about what is most interesting to me? I want to be happy and to have a good life; I want not to have to care about money all the time. If I were to donate all my money right away I would be a saint. Do I need to be a saint?
I have to acknowledge I don’t. A saint would give away all their money and end up with nothing — then what? Preach? I’m an atheist. So I guess I’d end up a philosopher? I’d make a crappy philosopher. I’d probably live stressed and unhappy, and I honestly don’t want that. So if I’m going to be myself, I have to acknowledge I want the comfort of my existence, which makes me happy. I love not having to care about money, about ever being homeless. That is always a risk with current day capitalist society in many countries. But my risk of that, now, is zero. So there I have a direction that I’d like to contribute to: making it so that nobody, no human being, needs to be scared of starving or being exposed to the elements. To the worst ever people out there.
Even if I were of the saint type, what does a saint do after donating all their money? That’s a good moment, a very dramatic one, but then what? What do you do with your life after then to keep making a difference? If we’re honest, after you donate your whole savings away your capacity for change is greatly reduced, because money is really important in this world. You can do things with money.
And the thing is… you can also just postpone the donating and still do good when you decide to do it. I hear a popular move is to donate most or all of your money away when you’re dead. You usually can’t give away the whole thing if you have children, because you don’t want them to have too hard a life. But I don’t have kids. If we still have most of the money when both me, and then my wife (much later, if she agrees to this telling of the story) die, it would probably still do a whole lot of good then — it would still be enough to make a lot of people that really need it relatively (but hopefully significantly) better off. That sounds good, but is this a mistake? A temptation? From whom? Again, I’m an atheist. If I can enjoy it (you know, at least part of it), enjoy being stress free for years, live happily — and then still do good, more good than most people by utilitarian terms (because, remember, I am more privileged than most people), is it very bad of me if I do it?
To live happily. My life is what I wish everybody could have. Very few worries, and a partner than I love and that loves me. Some free time to do whatever I want. Potentially, perhaps, a lot more free time (or free will power, at least) if I “retire” early. Is it not a good thing to live such a life? And knowing that I will still help people after it. Does it make a difference if I do it while I’m conscious? Is it worse ethically to postpone it, and let people in the present suffer? The person that donates in life gets enjoy (morally, at least) the having done it after the fact. I won’t get that.
Perhaps this is what temptation feels like? This is what multi-millionaires tell themselves when they hold on to yet another million? How much is enough?
I think enough is enough, so I’ve set a threshold. After I hit it, I won’t feel the need to better than threshold. I’ll have enough for feeling safe and as comfortable as I want to be. My threshold is what I need to be able to stop working forever and still enable us to maintain a good lifestyle; one with a similar level of comfort to what we enjoy now. We don’t need more than this if we’re happy this way, how we live and where we live. Whatever is enough to be able to live off interest and investments under reasonable economic conditions. The conditions might get worse than planned for, and then the plan would be thwarted, but that doesn’t make it a bad plan. If I keep saving for the apocalypse I could end up a Bond villain, in a secluded private island somewhere. Or at least buying a second summer house because “it’s just good investment”.
It is for a good reason that doing good for others is the socially accepted way of spending your privilege — because privilege is the greatest currency, or is at least the thing that people want to buy the most with their currency, be it earned hard or easily. Thanks to the work of people like William MacAskill, nowadays it is easier than ever to convert money into other’s well-being for others.Donate well and efficiently. So after reaching that threshold, I plan to start donating monthly whatever we would up to then have saved. I calculate I can get there in six years, perhaps five. Before getting there, I donate some, but not a significant fraction. Say, five percent a year? I hate to say a number. It feels low, but I want to get there. If I liked my job, if I loved it, I would choose to donate twenty-five percent to start, fifty a few years later, keep adjusting the ratio so I hit a further off retirement age just as I hit my desired savings. But it takes luck to stay where I am (living well, earning and saving well); what if I run out of luck? I’d like to not mess it up and have enough to retire by then, because I hate having to work.
I do hate work. I hate that I have to do it. Does it sound childish? It’s true. I love parts of my work, but I hate others. Some of the ones I hate are needed, but some aren’t. I’d rather keep the good parts and discard the rest. Then it’d be something else, not work. People will read this and think I mean just play, or laziness, but come on — there’s a spectrum. I think there’s something between work and play that many programmers can imagine, and I’m sure plenty of other professions have it too. Call it super-work. Not only the fun, but also often the most useful, part of work. Some needed toil, but just enough. And for a good reason.
I feel that if I can retire, then I’ll do just that. Now, the question is, could I do some more good on top then? If I make my work as good as possible, whatever that means, I could then get lucky again eventually and chance upon something actually good, in the sense perhaps that it somehow helps other people. It doesn’t need to be in a direct way — in my day job, it could mean inventing a process or a product that makes people’s lives better in some small way. Sometimes that just means making people more productive, or something initially boring than that, but then some other people can do everything more efficiently, including charity (say). There’s ways of getting a lot of motivation this way, and motivation is needed for this fanciful super-work. I could pick a research area where I think I can add value. Something that interests me, hopefully. Right now I’m betting that Machine Learning can be just this, but I might switch to something more promising if it comes up.
I would also just want to write — I’ll write badly at first, and probably always be at best mediocre, but what if someone, somewhere, ever gets to enjoy some of what I write? That sounds like something I’d like in my life, even if it’s just in the shape of a dream. It’s the most self-serving part of my plan, perhaps, but I feel like it’s part of me. I’ve always wanted to write. Why? I’m not sure, honestly. I’m not sure I would say I have the compulsion. Other have it, for sure; I know I like the idea, but I wonder if I have what it takes in me. I want to figure out if it’s really for me or I’ve been just deluding myself all these years. If not now, when? Perhaps the ethical thing would be to just work as much as possible, forever, to maximize what I donate. But I’m not that kind of saint either.
So, to recap: the first step in my plan, which I’m currently working at, is to save up “enough” assets. I have a specific savings threshold that is “enough” according to my definition: I can then retire and support myself and my wife in the country of our choosing with a lifestyle we think we’ll both like. My wife can keep working if she wants (and she thinks she’ll want to do that), but I’m done.
As I get closer to my threshold, perhaps I’ll choose to work fewer hours on my day job to redirect that time to my personal projects. Whether I retire fully, and when, probably depends on how many of my personal objectives can be reached while working for a company or other kind of organization that I can identify with.
In any case, I’ll eventually be in principle reasonably free to do exactly what I want, perhaps for the rest of my life (unless there’s some economic downturn that affects us, or the world heats up too much, of course). We try to stay thrifty. I estimate I can get to this point, even if I need to fully quit my job, in six years (as always, in an optimistic, stable scenario). But already I can set aside time for non-work; my privilege again, as I don’t have to work two shifts, and we don’t have kids. So whatever I think I want to do with my time long term, I should probably start on it now.
My current plan is to study, write about, and research whatever I find interesting and promising for my purposes. ML is currently at the top of my interest list; philosophy and AI follow. Whatever of interest I do find, I try to write down (it’s work, and I’m lazy, but I guess I have to if I’m to get anywhere interesting: my memory is not great, and I think about stuff all the time. It’s the way I am; most of it is dumb, let me tell you. I know other people probably have a much higher hit rate. But this is what I am, I don’t think can’t change it. So I’ve started writing most of it that shows any promise at all: I already have about 70 A4 pages with notes about possible projects (some essays, short stories). I know fully well that most of what I will produce will be, well, crap — think of me as Sturgeon’s law incarnated. But perhaps some of what I write will be read by someone, sometime, and change them in some way. Also, I will likely keep improving, no matter how little, in at least some skill areas if I keep at it long enough. I’d be happy with that — some potential impact, albeit unlikely; some slight progress, once in a while.
I’ve also always loved reading fiction and surfing Wikipedia, though, and I might be able to do just that forever and not tire of it. But I feel that would be a slightly worse life, a use of my privilege not as good as I could get. If I’m not going to do my best, I might as well stop trying and just give my money all away, right now.
I need to try hard for this to make sense. This is why this place is sincere; I don’t believe in irony that much anymore. Irony, I’ve come to believe, is a cop out; sometimes a needed escape valve. But irony likely won’t fix the world.
Anyway: if I ever do tire of the fully independent lifestyle, or my wife just lets me know that I haven’t gotten out in months and I look too vampiric, I can always go back to work and adopt principles close to that of Effective Altruism fully. This may change over time, but freelancing in IT currently looks like it may remain profitable in the face of automation, and working on diverse projects and then donating my salary would probably be a great way to live my life for a long time.
In any case, I would call all these scenarios retirement, in the sense that I am in the position to freely rent out my work capacity when and if I want it, to whomever I want to (including myself), instead of being forced to do it because of the rung at which I was born in the ladder that is capitalist society. This is the lifestyle that I would like everyone to have in my own version of an utopia, so it seems fair. The rest of my plan, however imperfect and problematic, is about getting more people to this positive state of affairs.
In parallel, all the while, I try to do some good. You can save a life with around 3000 USD nowadays; I did not know that until recently. This is a mind boggling amount in a lot of the world, but not an overly significant sum for a lot of privileged people (like me) in a lot of developed countries. It’s the price of about six iPhones (on the cheaper side), and in 2018 Apple sold about 65 million of them overall. If you think it’s offensive that smartphones and human lives can even be discussed on the same basis in any dimension, I’m with you. But the numbers are there, and we don’t talk about them enough. So I start on Effective Altruism.
I keep at this until I die, hopefully pursuing some singular line of thinking, or form of art, or human activity, as far as I can personally go. Or just living my life day to day, like most people. But knowing all the way that I have the choice to do what I want to do. No excuses.
My own death is where things get even more privileged: I still need to figure out the right legal framework, but at some point, my assets should probably become property of a foundation of sorts. Foundation sounds fancy, but I picture something thrifty — nothing that takes up a too significant fraction of the overall resources available for this project for maintenance.
When I die, and when my wife dies, someone gets a monthly stipend out of the foundation’s assets and returns on investments. This is to function as a “basic income” of sorts, and it goes to someone that wants to do the same thing I did; retire according to my definition above. I wouldn’t be offended if what they choose to do with their time somehow related to what I’ve done. If I wrote some novels, the person can be someone interested in writing their own fiction. If I researched AI as an amateur (and very likely got nowhere), the person gets to do research in that field, or perhaps something equally “out-there” in the future. But this is not a hard condition or anything. Perhaps I was wrong, or inconsequential, at everything, and in that case whatever I did should be discarded and a better action should be chosen.
If I find someone (younger? healthier?) that clearly seems like the right person, ahead of time, I may designate that person as the beneficiary of this “grant”. If not, the person in question could be chosen by a third party — if no-one else wants to do it, some freelancers from the Mechanical Turk of the future might do the job. Or a smart cryptocurrency contract, if that even works somehow. More ideally, it should be a decision taken by someone related to the field in which I worked; if I wrote novels, a writer; if I researched ML, in the best case, some Ian Goodfellow types — or, more likely, just whoever is in the field that doesn’t mind doing work for some former human. No matter the mechanism, it’s about choosing someone for a “job” in the foundation — although it’s more like a grant, or tenure.
I would prefer it if that the person is, in some way, underprivileged or underrepresented. There’ll always be better people out there, people with great potential, that lack the right opportunities (some of which I did have). I’d love it for any new system to give people opportunities they don’t have in the current system.
Just to be safe, this person shouldn’t be able use the money to buy a Lamborghini or pursue undue luxury: luxury that is not yet affordable by the 99.9%. Too many luxuries would in some way break the contract, and another person would be chosen/hired. This means the foundation would need to live on in some form, and apply some degree (hopefully light) of oversight.
If this still sounds like too good a deal overall (free money to do nothing in particular!), here comes what many people would consider the catch: the person may have kids (my wife and I don’t, which makes this whole thought experiment at least theoretically feasible), but they may not leave to their offspring any part of the assets of the foundation, or the wealth they amassed while under “employment” by the foundation. Inheritance as it works now preserves wealth along a genetic line — I think it is the root of a lot of undue privilege. I don’t believe in it. It’s fine if you do — both ways of thinking can coexist in this world. But the job may be easier for people that don’t want kids, or at least don’t believe that their main purpose in life is to make the world better just for their offspring.
When one grant beneficiary dies, the whole process is repeated.
Grant beneficiaries may contribute to the wealth of the fund, if they want. Nobody has to work by definition, if things work out well, but everyone may work if they so choose. They just can’t work for their own personal gain, or that of their offspring or relatives or close friends. Charity is, of course, OK. If a beneficiary produces wealth while holding the grant (a discovery, winning the lottery, or just steady well-compensated work as seems to be my case), the wealth should go to the foundation.
If the sum of the foundation’s assets become enough (compound interest and luck over long periods of time could add up) more than one person could get a grant. Whatever they need to do what they consider their life’s work: different people need different sums. They’d all become part of the foundation regardless; once enough people join, it could become self-governing to a certain extent. The foundation keeps its overhead low and gives grants to as many people as is reasonable. There’s a moral quandary here about which kinds of lifestyles you support; some should surely be worse (and cheaper) than mine, so more people can benefit. Perhaps none should be much better. But they should be good enough to enable people to live comfortably and relatively anxiety-free.
Perhaps after some time some fraction of the accrued wealth does go to the people participating, in full, and they are free to do whatever they want with it even after they “quit”. It could be risky for the foundation in the long term, but it could also be the right kind of freedom to allow future generations within this system. They could use the money to set up their own foundations, if they want. Alternatively, self-governance could become more flexible over time: members get to decide on greater reforms. Some principles are considered a permanent part of the charter though, and ought not be changed lightly. No Lamborghini-buying club should come out of this, ever.
If people participating ever want to switch lifestyles, they can leave. If no more people are interested in this deal, or the money runs out, the game is over. The foundation closes and its remaining assets go to a variety of reasonable charities. The last beneficiary, if they can, turns off the light. Perhaps seeds a torrent of the complete digital output of the foundation.
You could say that this whole plan sounds like a kind of sick preservation of the ego; but is it really worse in any major way than just having kids and leaving them an inheritance? This system, when compared to regular (“genetic line”) inheritance, could potentially work to reduce inherited privilege and reduce social disparity to some extent. Any qualified interested person could in many ways deserve my inheritance more than any kids I might have. But, critically, the position need not even go to the best qualified person available according to objective metrics (such as past studies or quality of work). Perhaps it can and should more often go to a person that is potentially good but unproven — less privileged than others. Someone that didn’t inherit their way to a good school in a first world country, or that wasn’t able to attend school for some reason. This would be partly about leveling the playing field. This way, no matter what this is prompted by at some unconscious level, I believe it has the potential for positive impact on the world over time (if it works at all, clearly).
You could say that this is evil because, as I mentioned before, you can save a life with 3000 USD. Why not donate it all when I die and save as many lives as possible? Heck, why not give away my savings now and save hundreds tomorrow? Well, this is a solid objection, and doing this was part of my previous plan (the easy way, honestly: donating most when I die). Perhaps that is the superior plan after all, and I think I am morally bound to keep considering this possibility even as part of my plan (under the “do good” item). But I do intend on giving away part of the money to charity in any case (as I mentioned earlier, only the bulk of the money would go to the foundation when I die). I believe this hedged approach could be the better decision in the long term: if I go through with this and the idea ever catches on (the probability of which is astronomically and comically low, but probably non zero after I post this and future experiences on the internet and it gets crawled by archive.org), there’s potential for lots of people effectively donating a fraction of their wealth to charity in the same way. Also, some percentage of them would be living in some hopefully constructive way. They may focus on ethical, technological or cultural advances that in the long term reduce the need for charity further. Hopefully eventually eliminate the need for it altogether. Enacting my plan would then be a way of preserving an idea that is potentially useful in the (granted, optimistic) limit.
Of course other people doing this could set up their own rules. Foundations and co-ops already exist; I haven’t invented them. But this particular kind of foundation, which in some way preserves and furthers personal goals, could end up being something new. People may tinker with the core idea a bit. But as long as they keep the essentials of the idea (no undue luxury, pursue life with curiosity, try to do something with your privilege and freedom, do it while helping people), I believe such a system could be a force of good in the world, and is worth discussing — if nothing else.
Finally, you might observe that I’ve set up this system in opposition to capitalism, but capitalism both enables the setup (by allowing me to accumulate wealth) and props up the whole plan: setting up a stipend that is long lasting only seems possible in current-day capitalist society by depending on a market that always grows in the long term. I have no retort to this. I can only hope that we can settle on something better than capitalism eventually, and comment that if a system ever replaces capitalism it will likely also build on it.
I’ve shown a path of fancy from the present day to a system in which a series of people, bound only by ideas, could reach financial independence across time by way of cooperation, bound by ideas rather than family ties. I am attracted to this idea because I believe in a future world where everybody could dedicate themselves to exploring ideas and realizing their full potential in their ample free time. It doesn’t exist now, but it could someday, and thinking about ways of getting more people there interests me.
But wait, what is Flancia?
Flancia is what I do with my privilege: mostly writing. I like to think about other worlds, and write about them. Not all of them are good, in essence or in execution; but some of them are hopefully possible. Taken as a whole, those define a particular kind of place; I refer to that place, even if it only exists in my mind, as Flancia too. As a writer, regardless of how far I get into it, I will dream of other people exploring it further.
I hope it becomes in time a real place without scarcity. But in any case, I know what it will be rid of: