[Attention conservation notice: non-rationalist readers, this is incredibly rationalist inside baseball]
[ETA Disclaimer: I know the Seattle rationalist community exists and is cool. However, if the entire Bay Area rationalist community moved to Seattle, many people would probably wind up working at Amazon, and also moving several hundred people is legitimately very hard. Also, the reason I personally am not moving to Seattle is that it seems like it contains far fewer homeschooling parents.]
I have seen several discussions of the fact that rationalists tend to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which it is pointed out that the Bay Area housing market is one of the worst housing markets in the country. It seems somewhat irrational to live in such an expensive place, particularly since many rationalists are also effective altruists, who intend to donate a high percentage of their income. Why do we keep living here?
Well, as Willie Sutton said about robbing banks, because that’s where the money is.
Rationalists are disproportionately likely to work in tech. If you’re a weird person who likes computers– particularly if your school history is kind of checkered– software engineering is your best chance to make four or six times the US median income. Of the top places to be a software engineer taking into account the cost of living, #2 is San Jose and #5 is San Francisco. Somehow I think “the San Franciscans should move to the South Bay” was not precisely what everyone was thinking of (however personally beneficial it would be for me).
But of course there are other places on the list. We could, for instance, all live in Seattle, Raleigh, or Portland (#1, #3, and #4). Why don’t we?
For some people, the answer is obvious. They’re students at UC Berkeley or Stanford; they’re an App Academy graduate who has to spend the next year in San Francisco by their contract; they work at the Center for Effective Altruism, which is going through Y Combinator; they work at Open AI; they work at MIRI and CFAR, which need to be near prospective collaborators (MIRI) and students (CFAR). You add together those groups and you get a pretty substantial rationalist/effective altruist community already.
I’m going to hold off for a bit on talking about why the software engineers don’t move and instead talk about why I don’t move. After all, I write for a living. My job is extremely portable. I don’t even have to change out of my pajamas.
The first problem is that my husband works for Google. I could, I suppose, move away from my husband. But there would be various inconveniences. I was sort of planning on having him take the kid for a while (once we have one) so I could get some uninterrupted alone time. My husband’s love language is physical touch and he would probably go mad being married to someone he couldn’t cuddle. He can go outside with me when I’m agoraphobic, which wouldn’t be possible if we lived in the same place. The airfare costs would be horrendous. And I can’t imagine we’d actually save that much on rent: we currently share a room, and my husband would probably be quite unreasonable and insist on having his own room instead of acquiring another permanent bedmate.
Why don’t we both move? After all, Google has offices in places that aren’t Mountain View.
Well: since I work from home, incidental conversations with housemates are a majority of my face-to-face interaction. It is very easy for me to find new rationalist housemates when I need one; in a city without a rationalist community, I’m more likely to room with some stranger and lose the opportunity for social interaction. I currently live within two hours of all my partners except for one, and they can be easily visited over the course of a weekend. When the baby comes, I’ll be able to get advice and support from my friends who like kids (I have perhaps half a dozen), including my housemate. I expect that at least one of my children will have a developmental disability, and I don’t want to put a developmentally disabled child in public school; my friends are planning on running a group unschool, which means I neither have to sacrifice my career to homeschooling nor cough up tens of thousands of dollars in private-school fees. Events I enjoy (such as sex parties and rationalist seder) occur on a pleasantly regular basis. If I have a nervous breakdown, I expect that people besides my husband will be there to take care of me, and he won’t have to worry about caregiver burnout. If I divorce my husband, I expect to have a couch to sleep on until I get back on my feet.
And I’m relatively lucky! For instance, I prefer to do online brainstorming; if you prefer face-to-face meetups, you have to be close to people. I’m not founding a new nonprofit, startup, or other project; again, living close to your cofounders is really helpful (not to mention that in a community you’re more likely to meet your cofounders). I don’t need referrals for jobs. I have a supportive husband and will be able to solve many of my parenting problems with money; for poor parents, especially single parents, a supportive community can be the difference between good parenting and neglect. And so on and so forth.
It’s important to note that many of the benefits of community are altruistic. Referrals for high-paying jobs, brainstorming, living near cofounders, support from friends that lets you save money, and even the happiness of living near friends– these concretely improve people’s ability to improve the world.
Of course, most people could probably get the majority of these benefits with only five or ten close friends. (Not all of them though: job referrals depend on having a lot of weak ties, nonfrequent and transitory social relationships, which studies have suggested increase wages and aggregate employment. Weak ties are also useful any time you might like to initiate a relationship, such as with a housemate, cofounder, romantic partner, or coparent.) But my friends– much to my great annoyance– insist on not sharing my set of five or ten close friends, and instead having a set of five or ten close friends of their own, which may or may not overlap with mine. The whole thing grows logarithmically. If we want everyone to have friends– and are not just organizing the whole system for my own personal benefit– it’s going to be a group of a couple hundred people at least.
“Okay,” you might say. “So we move the entire community!”
But let’s examine the typical case: a rationalist who works a job at a non-rationalist company. Let’s say you’re a Googler– as many rationalists are– and you’re looking to move to one of the new rationalist hubs of Raleigh or Portland. As I write this blog post, Portland has one Google job open. Raleigh doesn’t seem to have jobs at all, but Chapel Hill has two jobs open. (Information comes from here.) What happens to the second rationalist Googler who wants to move to Portland?
[ETA: In the comments, Jeff Kaufman points out that Google often is hiring for more than one position from a single ad. This weakens my point; whether rationalist Googlers would swamp the local job market depends on how many positions Google is hiring for in a location, which appears to be unclear.]
Of course, this is a solvable problem. Perhaps the second rationalist Googler can find some equally high-paying job at some other company in Raleigh. But you are going to have to simultaneously solve problems like this for a hundred people, even assuming you have buy-in from all of them. This is really fucking hard.
It is particularly hard for early-career software engineers. A software engineer with more experience has more power: for instance, they can hold out for a job where they work remote. But someone who is relatively early in their career is going to have a significantly harder time getting a job outside of tech hubs.
(Notably, Seattle is enough of a tech hub that it doesn’t necessarily have this problem, as far as I know. However, many of Seattle’s tech jobs are at Amazon, which has a notoriously awful company culture, and it seems to me it is perfectly rational to avoid it.)
Finally, I have to remark that the expensiveness of the Bay Area housing market is somewhat misleading. Of course renting an entire house is quite expensive, but no one rents an entire house. My husband and I pay a little less than the median American household does for housing, because we live in a two-bedroom one-bath house with two roommates. We could probably move to Raleigh and have roommates there, but Raleigh’s lower rents means it has far less of a group house culture, particularly a child-friendly group house culture. Thus I would be unlikely to find such a good setup with such pleasant people.