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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Aug 22, 2018

Effective altruism (“EA”) is a movement dedicated to redirecting charity-related resources to the most important and successful charities. In practice this involves a lot of research into how important various problems are, and how well various charities work. Some of this research is done by well-funded official institutions. Other research, maybe exploring more unlikely scenarios or starting from weirder assumptions, is done as individual labors of love. These smaller-scale efforts might be self-funded, or supported by a few small donors. For example, Wild Animal Suffering Research, which investigates ways to improve the lives of animals in the wild, has yet to catch the attention of any hedge fund managers.

Like everything else, effective altruism is centered around San Francisco. San Francisco is the most expensive city in the world, so this isn’t very efficient; most of the relevant research can be done online from anywhere in the world. The official institutional charities eat the expense in exchange for the extra access to funders and other resources, but it’s a problem for small independent organizations. There’s been lots of research into possible solutions, but only if “let’s see how many people we can cram into one house in Berkeley” counts as “research”.

Blackpool is a beach resort in northern England. “Beach resort in northern England” is exactly as fun as it sounds, so nobody goes there. Everything is really cheap, and you can buy a whole hotel for the cost of a parking spot in San Francisco. Enter Greg Colbourn, an effective altruist and successful cryptocurrency investor. He bought the 17-bedroom Hotel Athena and wants to offer free room and board to researchers working on effective altruist projects 

Colbourn writes::

Do you long to be free from material needs and be able to focus on the real work you want to do? I know I’ve certainly been in that situation a few times in the past, but instead have lost time doing unimportant and menial jobs in order to be able to get by financially. Talented effective altruists losing time like this is especially tragic given that a lot of cause areas are currently constrained by the amount of quality direct work being done in them.

Buildings in the run-down seaside holiday resort of Blackpool (UK) are really cheap. I’ve bought a 17 bedroom hotel with dining room, lounge and bar for £130k. Assuming a 7% rental yield (which is reasonably high), this works out at about £45 per person per month rent. Factoring in bills, catering, and a modest stipend/entertainment budget, living costs could be as low as £5700/person/year (or lower for people sharing rooms, see budget). This is amazing value for hotel living with all basic services provided.

The idea is to invite people to live there, with all their expenses covered by donors, for up to two years. Funding is already in place (via me) for the first year of operations. The project will be managed by someone who lives on site and deals with all the admin/finances, shopping/cooking/cleaning/laundry, socials/events and morale – they will also have free living expenses, and be paid a modest salary. Note that this should be considered as a potential high impact, high prestige supporting role, for those excited to be involved in such a capacity on an EA mission. Guests will be free from concerns of material survival, and be able to have prolonged and uninterrupted focus on whatever projects they are working on. Obviously these will be largely limited to purely desk-based, or remote work.