In Flancia there is no privilege

This chapter is in need of editing and rewriting. If you are just getting started with Flancia and would like to read something semi-cogent, stick to chapters 0-2 for now.

I think I can forgive myself for some of the errors (and hopefully you’ll forgive them well) because I’ve never done anything like this before; the fact that I have the resources to do it somehow took me by surprise. First and main among resources being time: the privilege of having the time to write.

Because I am very 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 live in Switzerland, which is insane; honestly a place where you don’t have to worry about anything, because the country prioritizes stability and doing well economically, even if sometimes compromising ethics. I’d like to write about Switzerland sometime, and how crazy it is that this country even exists, but I haven’t gotten round to it. Suffice it for now to say that I come from a developing country, and I’ve gotten to an objectively more privileged place in life by sheer luck. Privilege is a huge topic for me; I enjoy it, but I don’t deserve it. I sincerely hope that everyone will some day be at least as privileged as I am now; only then it will be ethical to enjoy this kind of privilege.

Living as well as I do while other people fare far, far worse is, I believe, unethical. This causes me moral pain, although this pain of mine is not as important as the pain of others. I need to think that I can somehow this way while trying to make life better for others, enjoy a good life with leftover energy and happiness and free time enough (after my day job is done) to then… what? Do charity or something? That’s a style of living I have within reach by virtue of my unique chance to be able to work for a tech company — get hired as an engineer, leave a country where things are harder and move to another when things just work and you can enjoy an amazingly good quality of life. As a privileged person, living where I live, nobody ever bothers you and you get to do precisely what you want day to day; you eat what you want, you go where you want. The state doesn’t bother you; it actually helps you. I have world-class healthcare, education is cheap, the streets are safe.

In my case I got to have this because:

  • I was born into privileged enough starting conditions: my family was not poor (for my country), I went to school, even to university. I had a computer and an internet connection relatively early (for my country). With the internet I could figure out how to install Linux, how to teach myself how to program, and many other things that came in useful and got me to where I am.
  • I was nerdy, so I had the disposition to spend lots of time with my computer. I was a sickly kid; this probably made me be more into books and computers than others.

In a gist: I was lucky. I came into being at the right place, at the right time.

I was privileged back in my country of origin; now even more so. This is because, in addition to the above, I was also willing to leave my friends and family behind. I don’t get to be with them anymore nowadays; not in the physical sense. My grandparents did the same thing about 70 years ago, when they moved from Europe to South America; but back then they didn’t have the internet, so they were significantly more isolated. I could tolerate moving out because I had the internet; I could still chat with the people I love, send them emails, do videocalls — which are awkward, but also valuable. I don’t know if I’d been able to do it without it.

Scratch that: I know I wouldn’t be here without the internet.

A plan

I assert that a person with privilege such as mine has the moral obligation 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. But I believe someone with privilege must think, because people without privilege often can’t. They can’t because they’re tired, they’re stressed and they are not free. They have to worry about losing their jobs, sometimes one of many; they have to worry about falling ill and ending up bankrupt (in the US). In some countries, they have to worry about not starving, and not having their families starve with them. Would you even think about solutions to systemic problems in those conditions? When existential fear is never too far away?

Thinking about solutions to things such as systemic unfairness is the thing of utopians, of people that eventually write manifestos and risk embarrassment. But is it better to not think, and not write, just because the problem is hard and one doesn’t initially have the means to tackle it? I think not: it’s better to try and be embarrassed by the result. Then improve and keep thinking. So I will just go with the label, even though it feels a bit ridiculous, and call myself an utopian.

What is an utopian? It is a person to that thinks about possible worlds, of which hopefully most will be better than ours. It is someone that works to improve our future. I posit that privileged people should be utopians, and risk ridicule like I am by writing down these words. All people should; but the privileged have the time and energy to do this. Starting now.

Improving the world is certainly a difficult problem to tackle. For one, it is very under-specified; it is not made easier by the fact that it requires that you face how you feel about your position in life and ask yourself hard of questions; to really face your ideals, in as detailed and concrete a form they can take as it is possible.

How good, or capable, am I? Do I really want to know? I may be more greedy or self-centered than I thought I was. So of course the temptation to procrastinate forever is strong. Perhaps I thought more highly of my capability for change than I should have; I thought the problem was that I didn’t have the time or the resources, but it turned out that the problem was me.

Again: people that have the resources to live a comfortable life and have leisure to think must do it. The world is unlikely to become fairer on its own accord; somebody has to think of ways of making it better. And there’s a lot of bad to be found and fixed right here, in the fact that 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. I didn’t do much for what I have. I certainly did less than many people that have far less. Why did I get my privilege and they didn’t?

I used to believe that the only possible resolution to systemic unfairness was a call to arms, a violent revolution. I used to believe that was the most likely way, but now, again, I’m not so sure. If that was going to work, why didn’t it yet? I don’t have an answer for that, and in any case I’m not a violent person, so while other people think that one out I’ll focus on non-violent venues for change. That seems to mean, by necessity, a way of evolving our very unfair capitalist society into something a bit fairer. Incremental change. Redistribution of wealth.

In the present day: paying your taxes, which is the bare minimum, plus donations. Donations are the accepted way for individuals to contribute more than the standard tax rate for the improvement of the conditions of others. Money is privilege, and privilege is money. Reader, if you are also privileged, this applies to you: you need to consider doing this. Donate something now, efficiently, using the great work that people in the Effective Altruism movement have done. They choose charities that are efficient and proven so you don’t have to.

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. So: donate well and efficiently.

On sainthood

But let’s not stop there, if you may. Not yet. I want to consider what else I could do with my life in the long term, on top of what we agreed on so far (donating money to good causes). It’s fine if we don’t come up with something novel right away. The thinking counts.

If I consider all the assets I’ve saved, what should I do with the whole thing — and when? What is good ethically? How bad it is for me to also care about what makes for the most interesting life while I live it? I recognize I want to be happy and care free if at all possible; in the present world that does seem to be helped by not having to think about money all the time. Contrast this with the world in which I do the likely most ethical thing possible: donating all my money to charity right away. Can I be a saint? Do I want to be one?

I have to acknowledge I can’t. A saint would give away all their money and end up with nothing — then what? The donation is a good moment, a very dramatic one, but then what? What do you do with your life after then to keep making a difference? I couldn’t preach, I’m an atheist. 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.

If I’m going to be true to myself, I have to acknowledge I want a comfortable existence — and, though I want others to also have it more than most things, I’m not ready to just give it all away. Luckily, you can postpone donating and still likely do plenty 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, so let’s explore that.

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?

I 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 follow up with my plan to “retire” early. Is it not a good thing to live such a life? To feel fortunate? And knowing that I can still help people after I live it fully. Does it make a difference if most of the good I do I do while no longer alive? Is it awful ethically to postpone it, knowing that I let people in the present suffer? The person that donates in life gets to enjoy (morally, at least) the fact. I won’t get that. Does it make a difference?

On the other hand, is 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 amass more wealth: I’ll have enough for feeling safe and as comfortable as I want to be. It should be enough to be able to stop working forever and still let us 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.

Specifically, this means whatever is enough to be able to live off interest and investments under reasonable economic conditions — something like the 25x rule, pending further research. 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 save for the worst case I could end up a Bond villain, in a secluded private island somewhere. And, perhaps, buying a second (summer?) private island because “it’s just good investment”.

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 a bit, but not a significant fraction. Say, five percent a year? I hate to say a number. It feels low, but I want to get to retirement quickly — just in case. If I was sure 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? What if suddenly my work life is a source of great pain? I’d like to not mess it up and have enough to retire by then, because I hate having to work.

In praise of idleness

There, I said it — I hate having to work. I hate that I have to do it. Does it sound childish? I prefer to think of it as honest. It’s also just 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 I don’t think so — there’s a spectrum. I think there’s something between work and play that many programmers can imagine, and I’m sure most 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 only 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 like that, but that enables someone else to do things more efficiently, including charity (say). There’s ways of getting a lot of motivation this way, and motivation is needed for this fancy super-work. I also intend to pick a research area that interests me greatly, because I love learning new things. Right now I’m betting that Machine Learning can remain an interesting field for some while now, even for amateurs like me, 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, like now, 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, as I said earlier, I’m not a saint.

Objections

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 3002 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’m showing you my 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 there interests me. I intend to make this just the beginning.

In Flancia we will one day meet.