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Efficient Charity

31 Post author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 10:27AM

I wrote this article in response to Roko's request for an article about efficient charity. As a disclosure of a possible conflict of interest I'll note that I have served as a volunteer for GiveWell. Last edited 12/06/10.

Charitable giving is widely considered to be virtuous and admirable. If statistical behavior is any guide, most people regard charitable donations to be worthwhile expenditures. In 2001 a full 89% of American households donated money to charity and during 2009 Americans donated $303.75 billion to charity [1]. 

A heart-breaking fact about modern human experience is that there's little connection between such generosity and positive social impact. The reason why humans evolved charitable tendencies is because such tendencies served as marker to nearby humans that a given individual is a dependable ally. Those who expend their resources to help others are more likely than others to care about people in general and are therefore more likely than others to care about their companions. But one can tell that people care based exclusively on their willingness to make sacrifices independently of whether these sacrifices actually help anybody.

Modern human society is very far removed from our ancestral environment. Technological and social innovations have made it possible for us to influence people on the other side of the globe and potentially to have a profound impact on the long term survival of the human race. The current population of New York is ten times the human population of the entire world in our ancestral environment. In view of these radical changes it should be no surprise that the impact of a typical charitable donation falls staggeringly short of the impact of donation optimized to help people as much as possible.

While this may not be a problem for donors who are unconcerned about their donations helping people, it's a huge problem for donors who want their donations to help people as much as possible and it's a huge problem for the people who lose out on assistance because of inefficiency in the philanthropic world. Picking out charities that have high positive impact per dollar is a task no less difficult than picking good financial investments and one that requires heavy use of critical and quantitative reasoning. Donors who wish for their donations to help people as much as possible should engage in such reasoning and/or rely on the recommendations of trusted parties who have done so.

The Overhead Ratio: Not a Good Metric

A commonly used statistic for charity evaluation which has a thin veneer of analytical rigor is a charity's “overhead ratio”: that is, the relative amounts of money spent on programs vs. administration. According to a press release issued in December 2009 by Philanthropy Action, Charity Navigator, GiveWell, Great Nonprofits, Guidestar and Philanthropedia :

For years, people have turned to the overhead ratio—a measure of how much of each donation is spent on “programs” versus administrative and fundraising costs—to guide their choice of charity. But overhead ratios and executive salaries are useless for evaluating a nonprofit’s impact.

While the idea of sending money “straight to the beneficiaries” is tempting, nonprofit experts agree that judging charities by how much of their money goes to “programs” is counterproductive. “Achieving a low overhead ratio drives many charities to behaviors that make them less effective and means more, not less, wasted dollars,” says Paul Brest, President of the Hewlett Foundation, and co-author of Money Well Spent.

The common focus on low overhead ratio has produced perverse incentives; pressuring some charities to skimp on administrative costs that would improve the efficacy of their programs. More importantly, cost-effectiveness of different charities' activities varies so dramatically as to totally eclipse any usefulness that the overhead ratio might have in a world of charities performing homogeneous activities.

A Comparison of Cost-Effectiveness

A well-known and well-funded charity is the Make-A-Wish Foundation, “a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in the United States that grants wishes to children (2.5 years to 18 years old) who have life-threatening medical conditions.” According to the website's Managing Our Funds page:

The Make-A-Wish Foundation® is proud of the way it manages and safeguards the generous contributions it receives from individual donors, corporations and other organizations.

Seventy-six percent of the revenue the Make-A-Wish Foundation receives is allotted to program services. This percentage well exceeds the standard upheld by organizations that monitor the work of charities.

And indeed, the percentage allotted to program services is sufficiently high in juxtaposition with other financial statistics so that Charity Navigator grants the Make-A-Wish Foundation its highest rating. But how cost-effective are the charity's programs?

The Make-A-Wish Foundation 2009 Annual Report states that “A record-breaking 13,471 children had their wishes come true in FY09.” The annual report gives a break down of wishes by type: for example, 40.3% of the wishes were trips to the Walt Disney World Resort, 11.7% of them were shopping sprees, 7.1% of them were celebrity meetings and 5.5% of them were cruises.

The annual report claims that in 2009 the charity's “total program and support services” amounted a figure of $203,865,550. Thus, the Make-A-Wish Foundation implicitly reports to spending an average of $15,134 for each wish that it grants.

A charity that helps children in the United States far more efficiently is Nurse-Family Partnership which provides an approximately three year long program of weekly nurse visits to inexperienced expectant and early mothers for at a cost of $11,200 yielding improved prenatal health, fewer childhood injuries and improved school readiness. A deeper appreciation of how little good per dollar the Make-A-Wish Foundation does relative to what is possible requires a digression.


In November 2010 the United Nations released its 2010 Human Development Report ranking the world's countries according to a "Human Development Index" based on data concerning life expectancy, education and per-capita GDP. One of the lowest ranked countries on this list is Mozambique which has an infant mortality rate around 10%. This contrasts dramatically with the infant mortality rate in the United States which is less than 1%. Every tenth pregnancy in Mozambique is followed by the grief of losing a child within several years. A child in sub-Saharan Africa who survives past the age of five is more likely than not to live a full life extending past the age of 60 [2].

Why is the infant mortality rate in Mozambique so high? A major cause of death is infectious disease. Around a third of infants in Mozambique do not have the opportunity to receive the standard vaccinations for polio, measles, tentanus, tuberculosis, diphtheria and other fatal diseases because of the poverty of their surroundings and some of them will die as a result.

An organization called VillageReach is working to improve Mozambique's health logistics. Between 2002 and 2008 VillageReach ran a pilot program in the Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado designed to improve the province's health logistics. This program was dramatically successful. One tangible indicator of impact is that VillageReach increased the percentage of Cabo Delgado infants who received the third and final dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine from 68.9% to 95.4%, yielding a final percentage higher than that of the average in any sub-Saharan African country. When one looks at the available evidence in juxtaposition with the cost of the program and runs through cost-effectiveness calculations one finds that under conservative assumptions VillageReach saved an infant's life for every $545 donated to VillageReach.

Now VillageReach is in the process of expanding its operations to more provinces of Mozambique, hoping to expand its pilot project into seven more of Mozambique's eleven provinces over the next six years. VillageReach requires an additional ~ $1.5 million [3] to implement its proposal as fast as possible. In light of the fact that VillageReach has so far received only about 20-25% of this funding, it's plausible that additional donations will have a cost-effectiveness similar to that of those used for the pilot project.


Thus we see that while a $15,134 donation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation can be expected to grant an average of one wish to an ill child (a good thing all else being equal), a donation to VillageReach can 27 infants lives! With this framing it becomes clear that the amount of good per dollar that the Make-A-Wish Foundation is doing is negligible relative to that of VillageReach . No parent would prefer to send a child to Disney World over preventing even a single one of his or her children from contracting a life threatening illness!

Nor is this phenomenon of badly suboptimal giving specific to Make-A-Wish Foundation donors. Even if one restricts one's attention to the cause of health in the developing world [4], many donors donate to charities pursuing health interventions in the developing world that do a thousand times less good per dollar than the most cost-effective health interventions.

A hypothetical charity running programs like VillageReach's which embezzled 95% of its budget and had correspondingly greatly reduced cost-effectiveness would still be doing far more good per dollar than the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the least effective developing world charities do. This example makes it clear how profoundly useless the overhead ratio is for assessing the relative quality of a charity.

Holding Charities Accountable

Donors should be aware that charities frequently cite misleading cost-effectiveness figures in their promotional materials. And just because a charity claims to be performing activities of very high value doesn't mean that the charity is performing the activity as reported. William Easterly recently commented on Peter Singer's child in a pond metaphor [5] saying:

In our situation trying to help a poor person, what we're actually doing is we're not physically able to rush in ourselves and save the child. In fact, we are not even able to observe whether the child is saved or not. What we are doing is we're sending money off to someone else on the other side of the world...and we're counting on them to save the child. And so I guess to put the metaphor another way, if your person who was saving a child was in a situation where they were physically unable to help and they knew they had to delegate it to someone else, then it would also be morally reprehensible if they did not find a person who was reliable who they were sure was going to save the child. And it would be morally reprehensible if they did not in fact check up to make sure that the child was saved. That would be just as morally objectionable as your situation of yourself directly failing to rush to the aid of the child.

Of course, for a donor with limited time and energy it is frequently not possible to personally check that a charity is performing its stated function. As such, it is useful to have independent charity evaluators that evaluate charities for impact. The only such organization that I'm familiar with is GiveWell which has reviewed 409 charities working in the areas of equality of opportunity in the United States, health in the developing world, and economic empowerment in the developing world and has highlighted those charities with the strongest evidence of positive impact. VillageReach is currently GiveWell's top ranked charity in the cause of health in the developing world.

There are many causes that GiveWell has not yet covered and there may be charities working in them that absorb donations substantially more cost-effectively than VillageReach does. GiveWell has prepared a Do-it-Yourself Charity Evaluation Guide as an aid to donors who are interested in personally investigating charities working in causes that GiveWell has not yet covered.

Volunteering, Nonprofit Work and Cost-Effectiveness

So far I've restricted my discussion to charitable giving. Giving is not the only philanthropic activity that people engage in;  some people volunteer their time to benefit others and some people choose to forgo income to work at a lower paying nonprofit job that they deem to have greater social value than the job that they would otherwise take. There are many instances in which such philanthropic activities are the best way to help people, but one should consider such activities against the backdrop of there being huge variability in the cost-effectiveness of philanthropic activities. GiveWell's recommended charities have set a concrete minimal standard for optimizing cost-effectiveness of philanthropic activities.

To determine whether or not volunteering or taking a nonprofit job is a good way of helping people, one should compare additional positive impact that one would have by switching jobs with the positive impact that one would have by donating all of one's forgone income to the most efficient charity that one can find. For those with low earning potential and skills that are useful and rare in the philanthropic world, the most efficient way of helping people will typically be volunteering and/or non-profit work. For those who have high earning potential and lack skills that are especially rare in the philanthropic world the most efficient way of helping people will typically be taking a high paying job and donating one's income to an efficient charity. [6]

Of course, many people who volunteer or forgo income to work at a non-profit do so not only with a view toward helping people but also because they want to experience the visceral sense of helping people directly or of working directly on a cause that they feel passionate about. This latter factor can be a good reason to engage in such activities. Humans are not automatons capable of persistently adopting the most efficient course possible. Fulfilling our own very substantial personal needs and desires is important to maintaining good health and energy. At the same time, in view of the great variability of cost-effectiveness of various philanthropic activities, if one doesn't devote some resources toward helping people as efficiently as possible, one will probably accomplish very little of one's potential capacity to make the world a better place. [7]

Conclusion

People often have good intentions and frequently fail to direct them to create the substantial positive impact that they could if they thought carefully about how to do as much good as possible. I have already mentioned GiveWell as a useful resource for donors who interested in accomplishing the most good for their dollar. Such donors may also find it useful to visit Giving What We Can which is a society whose members pledge to donate a portion of their income “to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to fight poverty in developing countries” and whose members “share advice on the most effective ways to give.” By thinking critically and making use of available resources, one can reasonably expect to be able to have a much greater positive social impact than one otherwise would be able to.


Footnotes

[1] Figures taken from a survey by Independent Sector and The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2009.

[2] According to calculations by GiveWell using data from the World Health Organization.

[3] See the section of GiveWell's review of VillageReach titled Room For More Funds?

[4] For an indication of the relative cost-effectiveness of health interventions in the U.S. refer to a 1995 academic journal article from titled Five-Hundred Life-Saving Interventions and Their Cost-Effectiveness.

[5] In a December 2009 BloggingHeads Diavlog with Peter Singer. William Easterly is an economist at NYU and author of the Aid Watch blog

[6] Alan Dawrst's essay titled Why Activists Should Consider Making Lots of Money gives more on this topic.

[7] Eliezer Yudkowsky's Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately gives a nice discussion of this theme.

Comments (182)

Comment author: wedrifid 04 December 2010 02:52:50PM 9 points [-]

A hypothetical charity running programs like VillageReach's but which embezzled 95% of its budget at the cost of correspondingly greatly reduced the cost-effectiveness would still be doing far more good per dollar than the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the least effective developing world charities do.

This brings to mind the fate of The Chasers (Australian satirical comedians). Their 'Make a Realistic Wish Foundation' skit effectively scuttled them. It was in poor taste even in my judgement yet the reactions to it made it clear that the very thought of looking closely at just how useful such activities are is unthinkable. Because they are sick children!

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 04:11:32PM 5 points [-]
Comment author: Mass_Driver 04 December 2010 07:48:23PM 6 points [-]

For those who have high earning potential and lack skills that are especially rare in the philanthropic world the most efficient way of helping people will typically be taking a high paying job and donating one's income to an efficient charity. Of course, many people who volunteer or forgo income to work at a non-profit do so not only with a view toward helping people but also because they want to experience the visceral sense of helping people directly or of working directly on a cause that they feel passionate about.

There's also the issue of doing no harm. I work in commercial litigation, at a "some-profit" job. My salary allows me a surplus to donate significant money to charity; I could instead choose to work at a "nonprofit job" and donate very little, or to work at a "for-profit" job and donate much more.

I chose the "some-profit job" over the non-profit job specifically because of the reasoning you cite -- I can probably do more good by donating the extra money than by being more helpful as a lawyer.

Why didn't I go all the way, and work at a for-profit job? Partly because I find the tasks and people associated with those firms obnoxious, but partly because they do a lot of harm and a lot of lying and a lot of cheating. Admittedly, if I were to shut up and multiply, I would still be saving net lives if I switched, at least if you only count the direct impact of what I do. But I don't feel comfortable limiting myself to direct impacts -- I do not know what the long-term, indirect impacts are of helping to perpetuate a system of lies and injustice and subtle economic oppression, nor do I know how to calculate them.

Advice is welcome, but please, tread carefully. Mere exhortations to "shut up and multiply anyway" are unlikely to move me.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 08:17:53PM *  4 points [-]

I do not know what the long-term, indirect impacts are of helping to perpetuate a system of lies and injustice and subtle economic oppression, nor do I know how to calculate them.

Which part of the world do you work in? The USA? Western Europe?

If so, I would caution against assuming that the net impact of commercial lawyers is negative. Sure, lying and cheating. But probably less bad than no commercial law at all. And without commercial law, there would be no companies and no economy. The net impact of the economy, is, it seems, positive ;-0

I suspect that lying, cheating greed has a lot of negative emotional affect associated with it. By the time-honored rules of contamination of emotional affect to adjacent concepts, this must mean that the overall impact of commercial law is negative. But no, clearly it isn't, at least relative to the alternative of no commercial law. One must take care to only use emotions as evidence in domains where we have reason to believe that they are actually useful and accurate.

Also, remember that if you take a job in commercial law, you are not adding another commercial lawyer. You are merely replacing the person who would have got the job if you hadn't.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 10:05:15PM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for your interesting comment.

I agree with Roko that commercial lawyers collectively do some good. Things are less clear at the margin. I know very little about the world of commercial law and you're probably in a better position to judge than I am. Still, two brains are better than one. We should talk in person - I'll be in San Francisco starting December 18th.

I find the tasks and people associated with those firms obnoxious

This seems like a potentially compelling reason for you to eschew a profit maximizing job as a lawyer even from an altruistic point of view. My observation has been that people tend to underestimate the difficulty of sustaining employment at a job that they find unpleasant.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 04 December 2010 10:58:09PM 0 points [-]

We should talk in person - I'll be in San Francisco starting December 18th.

I'd like that.

Comment author: Louie 05 December 2010 01:09:18AM 5 points [-]

Great post!

Your worked examples of Make-A-Wish, Nurse-Family Partnership, and VillageReach were terrifically presented. I think your style also helped you present points I tried to cover in my more broad piece more effectively here. I was aiming for a slightly different objective, so I think these two complement each other well now. I like how you discuss a more focused sub-section of what I cover, but in a more complete way than my quick, fragmented overviews ever could. In fact, your entire piece presents a better discussion of #2 (Identify a cause with lots of leverage) and #3 (Don’t confuse what “feels good” with what actually helps the most) from my piece and I love the discussion in "Volunteering, Nonprofit Work and Cost-Effectiveness" which is superior to my condensed point #7 (Give money).

And since I like your piece so much, I've removed an SIAI-specific link from the #2 heading of my piece to link directly here now. Anyone directed to my post in the future would be well served and more informed by reading your excellent discussion as well.

Comment author: taw 04 December 2010 08:45:50PM 11 points [-]

Are there any really good reasons for this kind of charity (throwing money at some highly specific problem affecting some very poor people without changing anything about the system), as opposed to paying for vastly underfunded highly scalable public goods such as wikileaks, wikipedia, or even GiveWell for that matter?

In the world we currently live in, nearly all "poor" people are reasonably well off by historical standards, with their standards of living extremely rapidly improving anyway. Global inequality is far below historical peak as well.

I like what GiveWell does on the margin, but we'll run out of abjectly poor people outside warzones (like DRC, Afghanistan) or disaster zones (like Haiti) before they get good at what they're doing.

To give you some perspective, take a look at this map. You see those black areas? They still live longer, are better nourished, better educated, and better off in every possible sense than world average just a century ago and very rapidly improving.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 10:02:29PM 5 points [-]

Is GiveWell a "good" charity? Have they assessed themselves?

Comment author: Louie 05 December 2010 12:10:44AM *  6 points [-]

It looks like they have evaluated themselves.

I'm not surprised they would do that. They are the canonical example of a ridiculously transparent organization. For instance, their admission of their own mistakes and shortcomings is heroically vigorous.

Comment author: Document 05 December 2010 08:56:23PM 0 points [-]

I searched for "metafilter" and was disappointed, then looked closer and realized the incident actually was mentioned, under "overaggressive and inappropriate marketing". Huh.

Comment author: shokwave 06 December 2010 02:53:34PM *  1 point [-]

Löb's Theorem! Trust GiveWell because you evaluate it as trustworthy; not because it has evaluated itself!

That reduces self-evaluation to signalling. I suppose you could factor "they costly signal transparency" into your evaluation of GiveWell.

edit: Having read about their disciplinary action, I would like to revise my previous statement to "they extremely costly signal transparency"

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 12:08:27AM 0 points [-]

Is GiveWell a "good" charity? Have they assessed themselves?

If they have would there be much point in having made the assessment public?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 09:41:47PM 4 points [-]

Upvoted.

Recall the purpose of the present article. See JGWeissman's comment. Explicitly citing tangible charities with easily measurable output is useful for discussing of effective philanthropy with people who have not thought about the topic.

I'm not at all committed to a particular cause and could easily imagine the cost-effectiveness of such highly scalable public goods being much greater. As I say above:

There are many causes that GiveWell has not yet covered and there may be charities working in them that absorb donations substantially more cost-effectively than VillageReach does.

My present interest in VillageReach over charities working in other causes is about incentive effects. VillageReach has a strong case for being outstanding at what it does and a strong case for room for more funding. I think that funding such a charity sends a message to the philanthropic world that such charities will be rewarded and produces a good incentive effect. As I said elsewhere

I believe that supporting GiveWell's recommended charities has high expected value because I believe that doing so strengthens a culture of effective philanthropy and that in the long run this will meaningfully lower existential risk.

I would welcome any suggestions here. It seems like there might be an issue of the intended signal to the philanthropic world being misinterpreted on account of GiveWell's (brief) history of focus on charities engaged in projects with highly tangible and measurable impact.

Comment author: XiXiDu 05 December 2010 10:04:13AM *  2 points [-]

You see those black areas? They still live longer, are better nourished, better educated, and better off in every possible sense than world average just a century ago and very rapidly improving.

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 11:55:09PM 3 points [-]

I think it's pretty clear that scalable public goods are more effective than per-person interventions like giving a child a pill or a vaccination. But scalable public goods are really hard to analyze; e.g. existential risk mitigation.

We just want a nice simple case to get people started on.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 05 December 2010 12:21:23AM 1 point [-]

I like the argument, but I'm not sure the data you cite adequately supports your claim! The world averages show people's life expectancy a century ago in the mid-to-upper 30's, and the black areas on your map are "40 or less." We don't know from the map exactly what the life expectancy is.

Also, we don't know from the map whether lower life expectancy 100 years ago was the result of sudden, acute fatalities from epidemics, short conventional wars, etc. or if it was the result of generally lower standards of living.

I'd be curious to see data on how global inequality has changed over time. I suspect it matters whether you compare countries or individuals. I also suspect that while there might be a few moments in history (e.g. the height of the Roman and Han empires, the height of the Hapsburg and Aztec empires) when wealth was even more concentrated than it is today, making your claim that global inequality is far below historical peak literally true, it is still likely that global inequality is currently at an above-average level.

Finally, even if you sort all that out, you still need to give some reason why "highly scalable public goods" are more useful than poverty reduction. What is "the system" that you mention? Who benefits when the system changes, and how?

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 12:01:55PM 6 points [-]

and the black areas on your map are "40 or less." We don't know from the map exactly what the life expectancy is.

But we know this. Other than Swaziland with conflicting data, the world's worst few are in 38-42 range depending on source.

Also, we don't know [...]

Stop saying "we don't know" if the answer is 15 seconds of googling or Wikipedia'ing away.

I'd be curious to see data on how global inequality has changed over time.

Here's our best estimates of global inequality (of individuals). Peak inequality was somewhere in mid 20th century. Most estimates of global inequality before Industrial revolution place it around gini 50-ish - with vast majority of people being about as poor.

Finally, even if you sort all that out, you still need to give some reason why "highly scalable public goods" are more useful than poverty reduction.

Charities we're talking about don't do poverty reduction. They alleviate some of the worst consequences of poverty, that's all.

Comment author: JGWeissman 05 December 2010 08:51:31PM 2 points [-]

Stop saying "we don't know" if the answer is 15 seconds of googling or Wikipedia'ing away.

Even when the point you are making happens to be correct, please don't complain that the people your are trying to convince did not do the (possibly trivial) work to gather supporting evidence you did not include in your argument.

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 09:03:55PM *  3 points [-]

This is general background knowledge everybody should have. It was pretty much like saying "we don't know if more people live in China or Japan". Well, except we do, and it's trivial to find.

The very "trying to convince" approach is highly counterproductive, what we should be trying is finding truth.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 09:43:38PM 2 points [-]

I agree with JGWeissman here. You have a lot to offer in the way of knowledge and clear thinking and on the whole I enjoy reading your comments, but I feel that the net value of your contributions to LessWrong would be enhanced if you took to heart the points that Alicorn makes in her article titled A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations in Favor of Niceness.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 08:39:07PM 1 point [-]

I've read it, but I'm not a big fan of niceness in this context. There's a reason why all groups that try to get things done effectively seem to drift towards blunt and rude end of the spectrum. Niceness is an overhead, but it's also a highly asymmetric overhead - some points of view are taxed by niceness requirements far worse than others, so it ends up introducing a pretty drastic bias. For example status quo supporters tend to have least trouble being "nice".

Alicorn might be well-meaning here, but I haven't seen any decent evidence that niceness is appropriate in this context.

Comment author: JGWeissman 05 December 2010 09:30:59PM 1 point [-]

This is general background knowledge everybody should have.

I do not consider regional life expectancies, or historical limiting factors on lifespan, to be general background knowledge that everybody has.

The very "trying to convince" approach is highly counterproductive, what we should be trying is finding truth.

Questioning perceived flaws in an argument is a tool of truth seeking, as is strengthening the argument to address those questions. But complaining that the questioner should have strengthened the argument themselves is a status play that serves to discourage questioning.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 05 December 2010 08:29:07PM 1 point [-]

Charities we're talking about don't do poverty reduction. They alleviate some of the worst consequences of poverty, that's all.

What do you mean?

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 08:58:14PM 2 points [-]

It is fairly well established that there's no meaningful correlation between aid and economic growth.

The best you can claim is that aid alleviated some suffering. I'm willing to accept that, but to be honest I don't really care much about this.

I'll leave it to you to explore all theories on why aid doesn't work, there's plenty and it would be irresponsible to donate without learning a bit about this.

Comment author: Mass_Driver 05 December 2010 10:52:12PM 1 point [-]

I couldn't get anywhere from this latest link -- it's a dead Wikipedia page for me.

Part of why I asked what you mean is that "aid" sometimes encompasses great power military aid and aid from the IMF, World Bank, etc. -- institutions whose primary motivation is often not so much to reduce poverty as it is to promote loyalty to the great power or to the neoliberal economic ideology du jour. I'm not just saying this out of generic leftish peevishness; the tribal part of my brain is quite glad, e.g. that America is donating billions of dollars to the Israeli military, but I wouldn't expect that to have more than a trivial effect on, e.g., increasing the job opportunities for Ethiopian Jews. Likewise, as a holder of Argentinian bonds, I'm pretty happy that the IMF is offering "aid" to support the Argentinian budget, but I can't pretend that this aid will ever reach los gauchos. On the contrary, it'll probably cut their government health benefits.

It's cool if you don't care about suffering per se and you do care about economic growth, but honestly I find it hard to even articulate a hypothesis on which, e.g., de-worming initiatives don't foster economic growth. I wouldn't be starting many local businesses if my brain couldn't get calories out of my gruel because they went to a tapeworm first.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 08:34:33PM 6 points [-]

It's cool if you don't care about suffering per se and you do care about economic growth, but honestly I find it hard to even articulate a hypothesis on which

Let me help you with some hypotheses, all of them take place in the real world to some extent, but I have little idea which are important, and which aren't:

  • Governments have less incentive to run deworming campaigns on their own - they know failure will invite aid, and they can spend money they planned for deworming on shiny military hardware and/or Spanish real estate
  • Poor farmers at first have more money, but governments and their absentee landlords soon notice it, and raise taxes and rents, leaving them as miserable as before, all money ending up buying shiny military hardware and/or Spanish real estate
  • Governments become less accountable to taxpayers - and more corrupt - and more to foreign aid organizations - this aid usually comes with strings attached
  • Large inflow of foreign money makes exchange rates less beneficial to local exporters, and as these are usually struggling businesses barely making it, and also one of main drivers of sustainable economic growth, this disruption can be extremely bad
Comment author: Mass_Driver 07 December 2010 07:42:15AM 2 points [-]

Thanks, that's helpful. Feel free to poke me in 2-3 weeks when I've had time to digest this.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 06 December 2010 08:37:51PM 1 point [-]

Agree that the first two hypotheses are possibilities (but still think that the expected value is positive). The last two hypotheses don't seem relevant to the interventions under discussion.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 08:42:19PM 2 points [-]

The third had some decent support at least for mineral income. Countries with a lot of money from export of oil and similar goods tend to have low taxes and be most corrupt and least democratic, while countries with broad tax base tend to have less corruption and more democracy.

I'd expect similar effect for foreign aid if it became large enough. I don't have these studies bookmarked, in any case this was just a request for hypotheses.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 06 December 2010 08:45:05PM 1 point [-]

Sure, but Mass_Driver was discussing deworming initiatives specifically rather than aid in general!

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 09:54:51PM 1 point [-]

It is fairly well established that there's no meaningful correlation between aid and economic growth.

You seem to be Missing The Trees For the Forest. The statement that on average aid has not contributed to economic growth does not imply that the best foreign aid charities do not contribute to economic growth.

See, e.g. a comment by Unnamed. I agree that there's not an ironclad case that donating to such charities having positive impact on countries' economic growth, but would you bet against it? If so, with what odds and why? At present I judge the expected impact on economic growth to be positive.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 07:59:55PM 2 points [-]

If on average aid has not contributed to economic growth, and the best foreign aid charities positively contribute a lot to economic growth, then as many other foreign aid charities negatively contribute a lot to economic growth, and people cannot tell them apart (if they could, they would definitely shift their contributions).

The result that macro effects are about zero is pretty solid, what terms of the bet are you proposing as I'd take it if it wasn't for difficulty of measurement.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 06 December 2010 08:23:00PM 1 point [-]

If on average aid has not contributed to economic growth, and the best foreign aid charities positively contribute a lot to economic growth, then as many other foreign aid charities negatively contribute a lot to economic growth

My impression is that the situation is closer to a very large majority having small negative impact and a very small minority having a large positive impact.

people cannot tell them apart (if they could, they would definitely shift their contributions).

The reason that people cannot tell them apart is that they're putting essentially no effort into doing so. According to the recent Money for Good study only $4.1 billion of the $300 billion donated mentioned in the above was donated by donors who do research comparing multiple charities when deciding where to give. It's plausible that donors who make an active effort to maximize the positive effects and minimize the negative effects of their donations can do far better than the average donor.

what terms of the bet are you proposing as I'd take it if it wasn't for difficulty of measurement.

I'm not literally proposing a bet; I'm just saying that while it could be that donating to charities like Deworm the World and VillageReach doesn't have a positive impact on economic growth, I judge the expected value to be moderately positive and I don't see any reason to think otherwise.This is in line with MassDriver's comment

honestly I find it hard to even articulate a hypothesis on which, e.g., de-worming initiatives don't foster economic growth. I wouldn't be starting many local businesses if my brain couldn't get calories out of my gruel because they went to a tapeworm first.

There are plausible explanations for why the net effect of aid has been trivial that don't preclude the hypothesis that the interventions under discussion are effective.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 08:48:23PM 3 points [-]

According to the recent Money for Good study only $4.1 billion of the $300 billion donated mentioned in the above was donated by donors who do research comparing multiple charities when deciding where to give.

This implies that GiveWell is much better charitable cause than Village Reach.

In any case, all of my charitable budget goes towards provision of public goods - this has clear large net positive effect, while alleviating suffering would only have positive effect under some rather strong assumption about how well informed I am.

I haven't donated anything to CPC yet (other than a few throwaway comments about how remarkable their performance has been, I tend to do that for things I like and it's hardly much of "charity"). I consider this a very interesting idea, but I'd like someone else to verify that it makes sense.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 06 December 2010 10:34:49PM *  2 points [-]

Upvoted.

Actually, the situation is probably quite a bit worse than the $4.1 billion figure that I cited suggests: "doing research comparing multiple charities" probably entails visiting several charities websites and/or referring to charity watchdog organizations which rate charities on financials rather than impact.

This implies that GiveWell is much better charitable cause than Village Reach.

If one ignores signaling/incentive effects then I agree.

Up until this point, GiveWell has been focusing on attracting donations for its recommended charities rather than soliciting money for itself. The more money GiveWell moves the more influence it will have subsequently. Whether or not donating to GiveWell's recommended charities is genuinely a good way to support GiveWell is unclear to me; but what I've done so far on their recommendation.

I think that their thinking has been that they want to prove that they're doing something tangibly useful by directing more money to their recommended charities before fundraising for themselves. Presumably this comes from their emphasis on proven programs.

I personally would like to see them shift toward evaluating charities like Wikipedia, etc. for which it's more difficult to assess the impact but which have potentially very high expected value.

In any case, all of my charitable budget goes towards provision of public goods - this has clear large net positive effect, while alleviating suffering would only have positive effect under some rather strong assumption about how well informed I am.

Sure, makes sense. If you're interested I'd encourage you to fill out GiveWell's survey - this could influence what causes they look into next and help you optimize your public goods donations. They've been going where the interest is, presumably in an effort to gain broader traction (e.g. they started looking into disaster relief as a cause in response to receiving a number of queries from prospective donors).

I haven't donated anything to CPC yet (other than a few throwaway comments about how remarkable their performance has been, I tend to do that for things I like and it's hardly much of "charity"). I consider this a very interesting idea, but I'd like someone else to verify that it makes sense.

Interesting :-). Is the CPC accepting donations?

Maybe better still would be to fund a (hypothetical) advocacy group that offers the CPC money in exchange for greater openness / freedom of speech in China (potentially leading to simultaneous progress on two fronts at once)? (This idea presupposes that straightforwardly increased civil rights in China would not indirectly reduce its economic growth; an assumption which admittedly may not be valid.)

Comment author: CarlShulman 09 December 2010 10:59:03AM *  1 point [-]

people cannot tell them apart (if they could, they would definitely shift their contributions).

Also, we know much of the aid has been done with knowledge that it would cause harm, and designed to be stolen/abused, because it was being used as bribes for nasty regimes in geopolitical contests. That can provide a sizable chunk of the "negative" effect to balance out positives.

Comment author: jsalvatier 05 December 2010 12:43:02AM *  4 points [-]

Thank you for contributing towards this! Some hopefully constructive criticism:

  • The idea of comparing two charities together to see how different the good done by them is a good one.
  • Your Comparison ... section seems a bit long and I think it could be condensed substantially. The description of MakeAWish seems a bit lengthy. The Nurse Family Partnership comparison doesn't seem that compelling. Your citation of a paper that there's a 1000:1 effectiveness difference between many charities is dramatic; put that near the beginning!
  • I think you can move many sentences describing where your data came from to footnotes. Short articles are good! Wordy articles scare people away.
  • I'd say that picking out a good charity is substantially more difficult than picking a good investment. In finance, there's good reason to believe that an arbitrary asset will not be a terrible investment (efficient markets) while in charity there is currently no corresponding reason to think that an arbitrary charity will not be terrible.
Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 05 December 2010 12:48:26AM 6 points [-]

The lack of the efficient market assumption is very important.

Another implication of "no efficient markets in charity" is that you should look for absolute advantage rather than comparative advantage. E.g. even if you have a lot of experience with, say, looking after children, you should not get involved with childrens' charities, you should go make money and give it to the most efficient charity (probably existential risks).

Comment author: multifoliaterose 10 December 2010 06:00:00PM 0 points [-]

Your Comparison ... section seems a bit long and I think it could be condensed substantially. The description of MakeAWish seems a bit lengthy.

What in particular would you suggest cutting out?

The Nurse Family Partnership comparison doesn't seem that compelling

Well, it was added to address Roko's suggestion. I personally think that it should be compelling; the tradeoff is between a single good experience and something of potentially lifelong value. In any case, I don't have a better U.S. example :-).

Your citation of a paper that there's a 1000:1 effectiveness difference between many charities is dramatic; put that near the beginning!

I thought about this and couldn't think of how to do it without disrupting the flow of the essay.

I think you can move many sentences describing where your data came from to footnotes.

Did some of this above in response to your suggestion.

Short articles are good! Wordy articles scare people away.

Yes, this is my impression as well. My natural style pushes in the direction of lengthy articles; there are people who are better suited than I am to writing shorter articles.

One way to shorten the present article would be to delete the section about volunteering and nonprofit work which is independent of the rest of the article and makes it more complex/less digestable. I included it to meet the guidelines that Roko had set but for a short article maybe it's best to focus on charitable giving proper.

I'd say that picking out a good charity is substantially more difficult than picking a good investment. In finance, there's good reason to believe that an arbitrary asset will not be a terrible investment (efficient markets) while in charity there is currently no corresponding reason to think that an arbitrary charity will not be terrible.

Agree, but in view of the fact that the audience may be unfamiliar with economics could not think of how to address this explicitly with enough context so that the audience finds the point compelling without further lengthening the article and diluting the main intended messages.

Comment author: jsalvatier 10 December 2010 06:42:22PM 0 points [-]

If you send me a word document of this post I could edit it how I would edit it (to some extent) or if you are familiar with a text diff program, I can send you an original /edited file

Comment author: multifoliaterose 11 December 2010 02:24:27AM 0 points [-]

Sent a .odt file to your email. More detail feedback welcome but feel no obligation.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 01:11:28AM 0 points [-]

Thank you for contributing towards this! Some hopefully constructive criticism:

Thanks; I will consider these and revise accordingly.

Comment author: Axel 04 December 2010 10:25:36PM 4 points [-]

Thanks for this post. I never thought about the overhead ratio like that before, it looks like I'll be reevaluating the charities I support.

Comment author: shokwave 04 December 2010 02:32:54PM 7 points [-]

A hypothetical charity running programs like VillageReach's but which embezzled 95% of its budget at the cost of correspondingly greatly reduced the cost-effectiveness would still be doing far more good per dollar than the Make-A-Wish Foundation or the least effective developing world charities do.

This is a good sentence (and would make a fine conclusion - I think generalised conclusions don't play on availability bias nearly enough) but there's a bit of a problem in the middle there.

Also: you have caused me to update my beliefs about how to evaluate charities, and also you have caused me to desire to donate more and more often.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 05:10:57PM *  2 points [-]

This is a good sentence (and would make a fine conclusion - I think generalised conclusions don't play on availability bias nearly enough) but there's a bit of a problem in the middle there.

Thanks for the catch. [Edit: Fixed]

Also: you have caused me to update my beliefs about how to evaluate charities, and also you have caused me to desire to donate more and more often.

Interesting; good to know.

Comment author: simplicio 11 December 2010 11:56:02PM 2 points [-]

So if Charity Navigator was one of the groups that issued that joint press release about the uselessness of Overhead Ratio, why in Sam Blazes do they award the Make-A-Wish Foundation their highest rating based on that ratio?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 12 December 2010 12:08:53AM *  1 point [-]

Good question; I wondered the same thing the first time that I saw the linked press release.

Their FAQ says:

At this time, evaluating the effectiveness of a charity's programs is out of our scope. We hope over time to expand the information we provide donors, and that includes developing a methodology for measuring an organization's output. For now we're still seeking a methodology that would allow us to apply a uniform standard to all charities and thus allow us to continue to provide donors unbiased, trustworthy ratings.

According to a recent blog post at Tactical Philanthropy, they're planning on adopting new rating system.

Comment author: taw 04 December 2010 09:09:15PM 4 points [-]

Let's see how rationalist people are here...

Without anything coming remotely close, the single most amazing success story in sustainable reduction of abject poverty for largest number of people, most rapidly in history of humanity is - without any doubt - People's Republic of China. They're as effective now as they've been over the last four decades, and they still have plenty of work to do - coastal provinces are pretty well off, but Western parts of China are still spectacularly poor.

Is anybody convinced by this that one of the best kinds of charity would be donating dollars directly to the Communist Party of China which is responsible for this spectacular dead, or falling that to poorest provincial governments, or is anyone at least convinced enough to change their purchasing habits to buy more goods from China (and other rapidly developing countries like India), even if they are of inferior quality (price is usually not a problem)?

I understand that it's possible to rationalize it all away, but if you do, do you really care about people in abject poverty?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 December 2010 09:34:56PM 6 points [-]

You'd still have the question of whether the Chinese Communist party would do more good if it had more money.

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 11:37:28AM 0 points [-]

Average vs marginal distinction affects every charity, but I'd argue CPC passes this amazingly well. They have really good track record of scaling their operations from a handful of special economic zones to provinces covering larger and larger portions of Chinese population, and even better track record leveraging their previous successes into support for their continuing operations.

They're not infinitely scalable, but they're not even halfway through China. I'd expect them to be near the top of the list of most marginally effective charities for at least another decade or two.

Even the best single problem charities like Village Reach have nothing close to this kind of scalability.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2010 11:50:01AM *  2 points [-]

However, this doesn't address whether the CPC would benefit from being given more money. Perhaps the special genius of the Party includes not making changes faster than they can be made.

What do you think the CPC sould be doing differently if it had more money? Does it make a difference if the money comes in as charity rather than as trade?

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 12:18:38PM 1 point [-]

I'm no expert in poverty reduction by economic development, they are.

My guess is that changing one's purchasing preferences towards buying larger amounts of cheaper lower-quality lower-social-status goods and services from developing countries like China and India might be a very effective form of charity.

The next time your crappy Chinese phone breaks, or you have trouble understanding accent of Indian tech support person you're talking to - treat it as your charitable contribution towards solving the problem of world poverty.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 06:28:13PM *  1 point [-]

You don't address Nancy's questions :-).

I'm no expert in poverty reduction by economic development, they are.

By design or by contingent circumstantial factors which they may not understand very well?

My guess is that changing one's purchasing preferences towards buying larger amounts of cheaper lower-quality lower-social-status goods and services from developing countries like China and India might be a very effective form of charity.

I could imagine this being so.

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 07:51:34PM 2 points [-]

I initially took your questions to be rhetorical/trolling in nature but your subsequent comments point toward sincerity. I'd suggest writing up your thoughts more systematically in a top level post. I'd be interested in seeing a more detailed argument.

By design or by contingent circumstantial factors which they may not understand very well?

Their track record is so much more amazing than anybody else's that it seems like a good idea to support them even if nobody in the world knows why.

I doubt we'll know why CPC is so good at it. We still haven't figured out why Industrial Revolution happened by more or less sudden take-off, or why demographic transition happened, or why Flynn Effect happened, or why Neolithic transition happened nearly simultaneously in so many places after such a long time of not happening, or why language and intelligence took so long to evolve. Yes, there's plenty of theories for all of these, but as far as I can tell they're all total garbage with no predictive power. Our knowledge of causes of such processes that happened only once or a few times is nearly non-existent.

My idea is - why not just follow the track record, wherever it takes us? And right now, there's a very clear winner. Does it matter that we don't know why?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 11:21:53PM 2 points [-]

I like and upvoted this comment, and agree with most of the points that you make therein but feel that it does not support your (implicit) suggestion that donating to the CPC is one of the best uses of charitable funds.

Again, you have not address NancyLebovitz's questions. If we don't have a model for how the CPC is promoting poverty reduction by economic development then we can't conclude that donating to the CPC is likely to promote economic development.

Now, it could be that according to a reasonable Bayesian prior the expected value of donating to the CPC is sufficiently high so that it would be a good charitable investment, but my knowledge of the situation is too poor for me to be convinced; I'd need to hear more about your implicit reasoning (your thinking about unintended negative consequences, unintended positive consequences, counterfactuals) to understand where you're coming from.

Comment author: gwern 05 December 2010 08:14:57PM *  1 point [-]

Does it matter that we don't know why?

Yes. "I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging the future but by the past." Presumably we are not discussing the CPC in a charity context solely out of a historical interest, but to guide our future actions.

Paul Krugman writes:

"The leaders of those [frighteningly fast growing] nations did not share our faith in free markets or unlimited civil liberties. They asserted with increasing self confidence that their system was superior: societies that accepted strong, even authoritarian governments and were willing to limit individual liberties in the interest of the common good, take charge of their economics, and sacrifice short-run consumer interests for the sake of long-run growth would eventually outperform the increasingly chaotic societies of the West. And a growing minority of Western intellectuals agreed."

He is speaking of Russia, of course. Krugman then goes on to say that the growth was perfectly explicable by normal industrialization and not by any special governing factors (no 'your legal kung fu is best'):

"Communist growth rates were certainly impressive, but not magical. The rapid growth in output could be fully explained by rapid growth in inputs: expansion of employment, increases in education levels, and, above all, massive investment in physical capital. Once those inputs were taken into account, the growth in output was unsurprising--or, to put it differently, the big surprise about Soviet growth was that when closely examined it posed no mystery."

So. I think no one here would suggest that donating to the CCCP (rather than CPC) would have been very effective, nor did the CCCP government offer much worth imitating.

If the CCCP didn't, the Outside View asks, what makes the CPC different?

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 08:53:55PM 2 points [-]

I have extremely low opinion of Krugman's writings so I won't address his vague claims. If he has some numbers or some actual predictions, I might take a second look.

"Communist" countries on average did about as well as world average, so Soviet Union is no counterargument to anything. The big failures were definitely non-Communist countries of Latin America, Africa, India, Indonesia etc. The paper uses 1937 baseline, which is about the most unfriendly baseline towards "Communist" countries possible.

Outside view says country being "Communist" or not is pretty much irrelevant.

Comment author: gwern 09 December 2010 09:32:10PM 0 points [-]

Outside view says country being "Communist" or not is pretty much irrelevant.

OK, in that case - why are we assuming the CPC has anything to do with the success and so donating to it could have any effect to begin with?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2010 02:07:04AM 5 points [-]

It's possible that the best thing for the world would be praising the current Chinese Communist party, especially if there are other countries which would benefit from a similar change.

Comment author: Kevin 05 December 2010 06:16:10AM 3 points [-]

Upvoted. I think a well-written article called "In praise of the Chinese Communist Party" would do well as a Less Wrong article. I am hesitant to write it because it would come off as an enormous troll action, because I would expect such an article to generate a lot of controversial comments and quickly lead to mind-killing.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 December 2010 10:58:32AM 4 points [-]

Such an article would take a lot of specific knowledge I haven't got, and some which I suspect was never even written down. I would love to know how the leaders who made Communist governments more pragmatic and less destructive, who presumably waited quietly thinking about what to do while managing to retain power, thought about what they were doing.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 06:37:54PM 0 points [-]

Me too!

Comment author: Mercy 05 December 2010 09:30:08PM 3 points [-]

Your prescriptions don't follow from your descriptions, for donations to improve a governments development plans, it would have to be shown that they are pursuing wealth in order to promote development, rather than the other way around. And that their policies are constrained by wealth. Similarly, that a society has an effective economic system does not support donating money to that societies upper classes (ie: the Communist Party) unless that economic system's effectiveness stems from the dominance of the upper classes.

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 09:39:25PM 0 points [-]

The full chain is:

  • donor -> organization -> results

For CPC the first link's evidence is weak just as you say, but second's is extremely robust. For everyone else, both links' evidence are weak.

Due to fungibility of money, most donations end up being donations to people in power. If you make someone poor richer, they might be forced to pay higher taxes, rents, prices for goods, or receive less support from their government and local charities than they'd otherwise. This effect totally destroys chain of evidence for pretty much every charity.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 10:01:30PM 1 point [-]

For everyone else, both links' evidence are weak.

Do you literally mean everyone else?? There's something to the points that you're making in this comment but your framing seems too strong to the point of being distortionary.

Comment author: taw 06 December 2010 07:57:08PM 1 point [-]

Yes, literally everyone else. There's good evidence that net effect of charity is about zero. If you have good evidence that some charities have high positive effect, it is automatically about as good evidence that some other charities have high negative effect, and that people cannot tell them apart.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 06 December 2010 08:30:06PM *  1 point [-]

Refer to my response to your other comment. You seem to be assuming that the efficient market hypothesis holds in the philanthropic world; an assumption which is very far from holding for intelligible reasons (pervasive lack of vigilance on the part of donors)!

Comment author: shokwave 05 December 2010 02:48:40AM *  3 points [-]

donating dollars directly to the Communist Party of China

Diminishing returns; they already have billions of dollars.

to poorest provincial governments

Conditional on how much support they receive from the national government, this sounds like a good idea. Is there a process for donating to these governments?

convinced enough to change their purchasing habits to buy more goods from China (and other rapidly developing countries like India)

This is good, but I am not convinced I should spend my charity dollars on buying goods and products of Chinese or Indian make. That feels too much like a rationalisation. It is a charitable move to alter your spending habits, though, which I will do. That said, I live in Australia, where nearly everything is sourced from China already, so I can easily commit to this because it won't significantly alter my habits.

Comment author: Kevin 05 December 2010 02:25:50AM 2 points [-]

Donating money to the CCP wouldn't improve the lives of Chinese rural denizens. The CCP spends exactly the amount of money needed to sustain their power. Any donated money would go to rich Chinese, not poor Chinese.

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 11:42:06AM 0 points [-]

The CCP spends exactly the amount of money needed to sustain their power.

Why not "Village Reach spends exactly the amount of money needed to keep donations flowing". It's exactly the same logic, and equally wrong.

The facts are - CPC has amazing track record of lifting rural poor of China out of poverty, mostly by providing them with jobs in rapidly developing cities.

Comment author: Kevin 05 December 2010 10:04:09PM *  1 point [-]

I don't see the connection. If Village Reach had millions of extra dollars, they would spend it on developing world poverty. If CCP had millions of extra dollars, it would benefit wealthy Chinese.

You made the comparison by saying it would be like if Village Reach did that, but that is not what counterfactual Village Reach would do the extra money where it is what counterfactual CCP would do with the money. Do you dispute the ability of Village Reach to not spend extra money corruptedly?

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 11:31:50PM *  1 point [-]

Giving dollars to China is precisely what we are already doing. China has bazillions of $ lying in their soveriegn wealth funds and foriegn currency reserves.

But some people have argued that the most important thing we give to china is not dollar notes, but a market for their goods.

So maybe the answer is to just go out and spend money on consumer goods.

Or, to put it another way, that the global economy is a self-organizing system which solves these problems automatically as long as the rule of law and enforcement of contracts is upheld.

Perhaps western countries should consider re-colonizing Africa in order to get those institutions working stably and then let the economy do the rest?

Comment author: taw 05 December 2010 11:48:07AM *  5 points [-]

Unlike between botched decolonization and about 1995, Africa has been doing really well for the last 15 years (except for AIDS epidemics), precisely once the West and Soviets stopped their attempts at recolonizing by proxy.

Not China levels of well, but really well.

The  conventional  wisdom  that  Africa  is  not  reducing  poverty  is  wrong.  Using  the methodology of Pinkovskiy and Sala‐iMartin (2009), we estimate income distributions, poverty rates,  and  inequality  and  welfare  indices  for  African  countries  for  the  period  1970‐2006. We show that:

  • (1) African poverty is falling and is falling rapidly.
  • (2) If present trends continue, the poverty  Millennium  Development  Goal  of  halving  the  proportion  of  people  with  incomes  less than  one  dollar  a  day  will  be  achieved  on  time.
  • (3)  The  growth  spurt  that  began  in  1995 decreased  African  income  inequality  instead  of  increasing  it.
  • (4)  African  poverty  reduction  is remarkably  general:  it  cannot  be  explained  by  a  large  country,  or  even  by  a  single  set  of countries  possessing  some  beneficial  geographical  or  historical  characteristic.  All  classes  of countries,  including  those  with  disadvantageous  geography  and  history,  experience  reductions in  poverty. In  particular,  poverty  fell  for  both  landlocked  as  well  as coastal countries; for mineral‐rich as well as mineral‐poor countries; for countries with favorable or with unfavorable agriculture;  for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below‐ or above-median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade 
Comment author: jimrandomh 05 December 2010 01:27:13AM 1 point [-]

But some people have argued that the most important thing we give to china is not dollar notes, but a market for their goods.

I think this is much less important than the other thing we give them: manufacturing specifications for all the goods we want them to make for us. If it was a market they wanted, the Chinese government could just allocate more money to the lower classes, and they'd have one.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 06:40:31PM 0 points [-]

I initially took your questions to be rhetorical/trolling in nature but your subsequent comments point toward sincerity. I'd suggest writing up your thoughts more systematically in a top level post. I'd be interested in seeing a more detailed argument.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 12:13:37AM 0 points [-]

Is anybody convinced by this that one of the best kinds of charity would be donating dollars directly to the Communist Party of China which is responsible for this spectacular dead, or falling that to poorest provincial governments, or is anyone at least convinced enough to change their purchasing habits to buy more goods from China (and other rapidly developing countries like India), even if they are of inferior quality (price is usually not a problem)?

No. I don't have good reason to believe that donating money to the communist party would provide a net benefit.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 08:10:04PM *  2 points [-]

No parent would prefer to send a child to Disney World over preventing even a single one of his or her children from contracting a life threatening illness!

This kind of criticism seems inappropriate to me. It is so utterly obvious that foreign lives could be saved for less money than a trip to Disney World, that it should be an automatic conclusion that people who donate to Make-A-Wish are deliberately purchasing fuzzies, not attempting to purchase utilons. In other words, I highly doubt that people who donate to Make-a-Wish are doing so because they think saving a foreign infant's life would be more expensive; rather, they're most likely doing so because they actually want a domestic sick child to go to Disney World.

Your argument is not an argument against donating to Make-a-Wish; it's an argument against going to Disney World.

This is why I tend to be impatient with discussions of optimal philanthropy; most of it seems to consist of attempts to get people to feel bad about doing things that make them feel good. Of course I realize that this post, despite appearing on LW, isn't actually targeted at a LW audience, so maybe it will have some effect just in terms of getting people to think about utilons when they might not have otherwise. But for me at least, the case is pretty much closed at once: when you're actually trying to be efficient with your money, as measured by utility, you should spend your marginal dollars (or whatever currency) on existential-risk-reduction/long-term-species-improvement. The utilities (positive and negative) involved in these domains are so large that, until you actually think existing institutions are having a satisfactory impact on these problems, nothing else even comes close.

Hence I don't myself see a lot of need for arguments about whether saving lives in third-world countries is "better" than going to Disney World -- or sending a sick child there.

Comment author: JGWeissman 04 December 2010 08:43:09PM 7 points [-]

It is so utterly obvious that foreign lives could be saved for less money than a trip to Disney World, that it should be an automatic conclusion that people who donate to Make-A-Wish are deliberately purchasing fuzzies, not attempting to purchase utilons.

I doubt that most people even ask the question whether they want to purchase fuzzies or utilons, so it doesn't make sense to conclude that they are deliberately choosing one over the other. It also is not clear that people consider and discard the option of donating to life saving charities, rather than just not thinking about the possibility. Getting people to actually deliberately consider these options is valuable.

But for me at least, the case is pretty much closed: when you're actually trying to be efficient with your money, as measured by utility, you should spend your marginal dollars (or whatever currency) on existential-risk-reduction/long-term-species-improvement.

I agree, but if you are targeting people who not familiar with concepts of optimizing charity and x-risk/transhumanism, there are large inferential distances, and this is a good start in breaking of a manageable piece of it. To get to promoting x-risks, additional prerequisites include problems with time discounting, and expected utility optimizing under large uncertainty.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 08:49:20PM 0 points [-]

I understand and agree. I think I would just prefer not to have it framed as "Make-A-Wish is less efficient than VillageReach". Their goals are different. I do think getting people to consider VillageReach as a source of fuzzies is all well and good.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 09:22:07PM *  1 point [-]

I agree with JGWeissman's comment here. The key point is that the article is written for donors who have not thought about who not familiar with concepts of optimizing charity and x-risk/transhumanism.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 10:21:40PM *  0 points [-]

I responded to JGWeissman here, acknowledging that but standing by my criticism of the framing.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 10:28:25PM 0 points [-]

What framing would you prefer?

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 10:39:28PM *  0 points [-]

I would suggest comparing the cost of saving a life with the cost of something more mundane and dispensable, like movie tickets, rather than the sorts of activities that are likely to be seen as integral to one's identity and values (like bringing happiness or other help to people in bad situations).

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 11:01:24PM *  2 points [-]

I see. I suspect that your objection arises from you having thought more about effective philanthropy than the intended audience but I may be wrong. If people in the intended audience have a similar objection I'll consider revising the article.

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 11:11:41PM *  3 points [-]

Basically, I feel that "effective philanthropy" is a "wrong topic". The topic should be effective use of money. VillageReach vs. Make-A-Wish is a false choice. If we are going to channel more money into VillageReach, I feel that that there are much better places to take it out of than something like Make-A-Wish.

Think about it: imagine you're a regular Make-A-Wish donor who has suddenly found out about VillageReach, and would like to offer support. Why should your Disney-World-trips-for-cancer-patients fund be the first jar you raid?

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 12:05:40AM 6 points [-]

Think about it: imagine you're a regular Make-A-Wish donor who has suddenly found out about VillageReach, and would like to offer support. Why should your Disney-World-trips-for-cancer-patients fund be the first jar you raid?

Because people are the way they are. They have intuitive budgets for different classes of expenditure and trying to take money from their shoes budget instead of their charity budget just would not work.

Comment author: komponisto 05 December 2010 01:12:40AM 2 points [-]

Was it not clear that I was attacking the notion that there ought to be a "charity budget"?

This is the inferential gap that we ought to be trying to bridge. Famine relief and Make-A-Wish shouldn't be in the same budget!

trying to take money from their shoes budget instead of their charity budget just would not work.

How do you know this? In fact I beg to differ. People aren't born with a charity budget; they have to take it out of somewhere when they start giving in the first place.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 04:13:43AM *  8 points [-]

Was it not clear that I was attacking the notion that there ought to be a "charity budget"?

I am attacking the notion that effecive philanthropy is a 'wrong topic' just because in a perfect world people would be different to they are now. Effective philanthropy is an important topic because people do care about their shoes. A lot.

How do you know this? In fact I beg to differ. People aren't born with a charity budget; they have to take it out of somewhere when they start giving in the first place.

I disagree on the fundamentals. People do allocate their resources and attention according to inbuilt instincts. People do have an impulse to balance signalling conspicuous consumption and signalling altruism. People do not act as perfect utility maximisers who will be persuaded to redirect their resources so fluidly. We know that these individuals are not rational because they are donating to the flipping Make A Wish Foundation!

Not a wrong topic.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 11:21:56PM 0 points [-]

Interesting thought. I'll have to think about this. Again, the ultimate question is how the intended audience responds. Neither you nor I are representative of the intended audience. It would be good to have some data on people's subjective reactions to the article. A couple of points:

  1. See the GiveWell blog entry titled Denying the choice.

  2. It's plausible to me that Make-A-Wish donors could get more fuzzies out of donating to VillageReach than they do now (after initial discomfort coming from a readjustment of worldview).

Comment author: komponisto 05 December 2010 01:32:42AM *  0 points [-]

See the GiveWell blog entry titled Denying the choice.

I would suggest that the author of that entry see the grandparent comment. No one denies that there must ultimately be some tradeoff. That doesn't mean that a particular proposed tradeoff is necessarily optimal.

It's plausible to me that Make-A-Wish donors could get more fuzzies out of donating to VillageReach than they do now

It sounds like you're once again assuming the very thing I'm disputing, which is that donating to VillageReach implies "switching" from being a "Make-A-Wish donor". Either that, or you've perhaps forgotten what I wrote earlier:

I do think getting people to consider VillageReach as a source of fuzzies is all well and good.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 03:59:44AM 1 point [-]

I feel like we're engaged in a semantic dispute and/or hairsplitting which has proceeded beyond the point of diminishing returns at least for me personally. Though I've read everything you've said, I don't have a clear intuitive sense for where you're coming from and why this topic is important to you. If you feel that you have a substantive point to make on this subject maybe you can make a discussion board post detailing your position.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 09:16:24PM *  1 point [-]

Looking at all the charitable resources expended on signalling virtue, perhaps one of the more effective ways to help would be to try and help create a social environment where charitable signalling better is better correlated with positive outcomes for the people the donations are purporting to help.

Naming and shaming dud charities, and attempting to identify virtuous ones would be part of that. Other needed elements include raising awareness of the whole issue, so visibly supporting the dud-charities becomes more of a social faux pas - and people are forced to find better ways to signal.

I am pretty sure that attempting to usefully direct charitable resources expended for signalling purposes so they also actually do some good is one of the best ways of actually helping charitable good to happen. However, surely that would need to explicitly be an aim. If charitable signalling is seen to be just an irritating distraction, surely the biggest part of the pie is being ignored.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 09:43:59PM *  1 point [-]

I am pretty sure that attempting to usefully direct charitable resources expended for signalling purposes so they also actually do some good is one of the best ways of actually helping charitable good to happen.

Yes, this was my purpose in writing the article.

However, surely that would need to explicitly be an aim.

Was I insufficiently explicit?

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 10:00:18PM *  2 points [-]

Yours is obviously a good article. However, perhaps because of the audience, it assumes that readers are already on board with consciously wanting to give in a manner that maximally benefits some group of others.

It seems quite posssible to me that that is a tiny fraction of current charitable donations - and that most donations take place through more "traditional" motivations.

Such people behave as though they aren't really interested in helping others. So: direct advice about how to do that would not be of much interest to them. Rather they act so as to best be seen as caring, kind, helpful, rich, etc. I am pretty sure that there are ways of working on capturing their donations - and putting them to better use.

Comment author: Jordan 06 December 2010 02:01:59AM 0 points [-]

Rather they act so as to best be seen as caring, kind, helpful, rich, etc. I am pretty sure that there are ways of working on capturing their donations - and putting them to better use.

I can't see many ways of doing this besides changing the social atmosphere, such that people who donate to ineffective charities aren't seen as doing as much good as people donating to effective charities.

Perhaps the place to start in shaping public opinion is with people who don't donate. They have little to gain either way, so might be more willing to change their perceptions. Moreover, many contrarians will jump on board just for the sake of being able to devalue the status quo. Once non-donaters have been publicly convinced (and they are a large majority in the total population) then charitable people will be forced to change their donation strategies in order to maintain status.

Comment author: utilitymonster 04 December 2010 08:06:16PM 1 point [-]

I thought this was really, really good.

Comment author: Unnamed 05 December 2010 01:39:32AM 1 point [-]

Typo: footnote 1 cuts off the title "Why Activists Should Consider Making Lots of Money"

Comment author: multifoliaterose 05 December 2010 03:52:10AM 0 points [-]

Thanks; fixed.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 04:13:57PM 1 point [-]

Also this artile really needs to finish on a practical, "what to do next" sentence. Provide links to the relevant LW articles, to GWWC and to GiveWell, right at the end. Maybe even to the existential risks career network.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 05:09:35PM *  5 points [-]

Thanks, will do. [Edit: Done.]

Maybe even to the existential risks career network.

There's very little on the website. Somebody should write an essay making a case for the uninitiated for existential risk reduction charity as a (potentially) highly cost-effective charitable activity.

This could include

  1. A summary of the points made in Astronomical Waste.

  2. Some of the points made in Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global catastrophic risk.

  3. Reference to and brief discussion of some existential risks.

  4. A link to a list of charities working on reducing global catastrophic risk.

  5. A link to a Do-It-Yourself charity evaluation tailored to charities focused on some sort of global catastrophic risk reduction.

Here I'll note that Nick Beckstead is doing his thesis on tangible charity vs. existential risk reduction charity.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 11:09:42PM *  3 points [-]

I am pretty sure that - if your aim is to try and ensure our descendants colonise the galaxy successfully - then helping the needy in Mozambique is not going to be the best way to do that.

What is the supposed aim of this "good quality" charitable giving? Presumably there is no generally agreed-on one - and different participants pull in somewhat different directions.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 11:37:14PM *  5 points [-]

I agree. But getting people to accept optimal philanthropy in uncontroversial domains is a neccessary precursor to getting them to accept x-risk. In fact I have had conversations with people high-up in organizations like Givewell and GWWC who used this explicit argument: get reputational capital from succeeding at 3rd world poverty, then expend it on x-risk.

Comment author: Jordan 06 December 2010 02:52:39AM *  1 point [-]

Exactly. Even if a LWer is convinced giving to existential risk charities is optimal, they should still be in favor of persuading people to become better philanthropists in uncontroversial domains whenever it's not possible to directly persuade people to be proponents of existential risk reduction.

Comment author: wedrifid 05 December 2010 12:16:26AM 1 point [-]

I have to know... why 'Formally'? It's distracting me while I read the new comments thread. :)

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 11:29:15PM 0 points [-]

I am pretty sure that - if your aim is to try and ensure our descendants colonise the galaxy successfully - then helping the needy in Mozambique is not going to be the best way to do that.

I myself do have this aim :-). See my response to a comment by taw.

What is the supposed aim of this "good quality" charitable giving? Presumably there is no generally agreed-on one - and different participants pull in somewhat different directions.

Could be. I think that many/most people have some utilitarian impulse in them and this is what I was appealing to in my article.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 05:18:54PM 2 points [-]

Somebody should write an essay making a case for the uninitiated for existential risk reduction charity as a (potentially) highly cost-effective charitable.

Yes, this is a good idea.

Comment author: utilitymonster 04 December 2010 08:05:04PM 1 point [-]

Yep, good idea.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 04:05:22PM 1 point [-]

Excellent article. One slight qualm I have is that I have encountered people who object to saving the lives of foriegners (because they think it unpatriotic and they think it causes moral hazard and rent-seeking). For such people, VillageReach might not be acceptable. Is there some charity in the USA that is more efficient than make-a-wish? Presumably yes.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 04 December 2010 04:56:29PM *  1 point [-]

One slight qualm I have encountered people who object to saving the lives of foriegners (because they think it unpatriotic and they think it causes moral hazard and rent-seeking).

Yes, I have come across this before too. I think that such objections are ultimately dissolvable but there may be too much inferential distance for such readers to see this on first reading.

The article by throwawayaccount1 does a better job of maintaining genericity though at the cost of maintaining some distance from the real world.

Is there some charity in the USA that is more efficient than make-a-wish? Presumably yes.

Sure, here though the difference in cost-effectiveness is less staggering/readily visible. I suppose that I could alter the article so as to talk about one or more of the more efficient USA charities for a while and then talk VillageReach; this would come at the cost of making the article longer; would welcome thoughts as to whether such a change would be worth it.

Comment author: FormallyknownasRoko 04 December 2010 05:14:23PM 0 points [-]

I would just add a US efficient charity as a footnote.

Comment author: 3p1cd3m0n 26 August 2014 09:47:22PM *  0 points [-]

For many utility functions, I think donating to an organisation working on decreasing existential risk would be incredibly efficient, as:

Even if we use the most conservative of [estimates of the utility of decreasing existential risk], which entirely ignores the possibility of space colonisation and software minds, we find that the expected loss of an existential catastrophe is greater than the value of 10^16 human lives. This implies that the expected value of reducing existential risk by a mere one millionth of one percentage point is at least a hundred times the value of a million human lives. (Bostrom, Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority)

Comment author: Jiro 27 August 2014 02:41:33PM 0 points [-]

Doesn't that fall prey to Pascal's Mugging?

Comment author: 3p1cd3m0n 27 August 2014 05:54:17PM 0 points [-]

I don't think decreasing existential risk falls into it, because the probability of an existential catastrophe isn't extremely small. One survey taken at Oxford predicted that there was a ~19% chance of human extinction prior to 2100. Determining the probability of existential catastrophe is very challenging and the aforementioned statistic should be viewed skeptically, but a probability anywhere near 19% would still (as far as I can tell) prevent to from falling prey to Pascal's mugging.

Comment author: Jiro 27 August 2014 06:03:57PM *  0 points [-]

But your earlier quote says that it makes sense to reduce risk by a millionth of a percentage point because the expected value of lives saved is still large. It doesn't propose reducing the risk from 19% to nothing; it proposes reducing the risk by a tiny amount. Only in the unlikely event that that tiny change happens to be the tipping point that prevents extinction would this reduction be beneficial; the expected value is derived by multiplying this unlikelihood by the large number of lives saved were it to be true. That sounds like Pascal's Mugging. I agree that it wouldn't be Pascal's Mugging to reduce the 19% to 0, but I think that reducing it to 18.999999% is.

Comment author: 3p1cd3m0n 28 August 2014 05:00:18PM 0 points [-]

I see what you mean. I don't really know enough about Pascal's mugging to determine whether decreasing existential risk be 1 millionth of a percent is worth it, but it's a moot point, as it seems reasonable that existential risk could be reduced by far more than 1 millionth of one percent.

Comment author: aletheianink 30 November 2013 04:06:08AM *  0 points [-]

Minor nitpick: I find it rather silly when people say "a full x percent" (as in, a full 89%) of something - either you're being correct and specific, and you mean 89% exactly, or you're being fairly specific and mean 89.124535% or something. You wouldn't use it to mean "around 89%" or "just under but close to 89%" - you'd round down to 88% or, again, be specific.

This was an excellent article, though - something I have thought about fleetingly before but never really considered. My personal area of interest is animal rights, which is a lot harder to evaluate (also, I'm not in America, so GIveWell probably hasn't evaluated any charities which I would donate to) - however, it's given me a lot to think about, and a new way to approach charity.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 29 August 2013 03:07:12AM 0 points [-]

By coincidence I read this post today and, a few hours later, this news just in: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/the-benefits-of-cash-without-conditions/?_r=0

Comment author: aausch 07 January 2013 04:49:31PM 0 points [-]

Is anyone doing charitable work which covers reducing the incidence of iodine deficiency in third world countries?

Comment author: polymathwannabe 29 August 2013 04:19:19AM 3 points [-]

Table salt produced in my native Colombia carries iodine by law. I suppose similar laws could be implemented elsewhere, like the addition of fluorine to U.S. tap water.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 09:08:40PM -3 points [-]

I checked with http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us/our-members.php

Of 64 members, 18 listed themselves as philosophers - or budding philosophers.

I think this further supports the "signalling" theory of charitable giving. For one thing, pledge makers are listed publicly. Those individuals are among those most likely to benefit through having a reputation for being a goody-two-shoes. The pledge appears to be totally non-binding. That would appeal to those wanting to signal generosity - rather than actually wanting to commit themselves to it.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 08:54:48PM *  -2 points [-]

The reason why humans evolved charitable tendencies is because such tendencies served as marker to nearby humans that a given individual is a dependable ally. Those who expend their resources to help others are more likely than others to care about people in general and are therefore more likely than others to care about their companions.

Yes, exactly. So: why write a guide on how to give so as to help people - rather than a guide about how to appear to be caring and generous?

Presumably there is an audience interested in that topic - but what are their motivations? Are they in historically-unusual social circumstances where really helping others the most sends the most reliable signal to others that they care? Are they trying to distance themselves from base motives for good deeds as much as possible? Would that be to avoid having their motives exposed? - or to help placate their own consciences? In short: what gives?

Comment author: Perplexed 04 December 2010 09:11:10PM *  9 points [-]

The (evo psych) reason why humans evolved sexual tendencies presumably has something to do with reproduction. So why write guides on how to give and get sexual pleasure, rather than guides to fertility?

Presumably there is an audience sincerely interested in giving and getting sexual pleasure for its own sake. I doubt that this fact surprises you. So why do you pretend to be surprised that there are people who want to help the world for the sake of actually helping the world?

Comment author: komponisto 04 December 2010 09:15:23PM 1 point [-]

The analogy seems backwards: people who want to help for the sake of helping, as opposed to just feeling good, would be analogous to be people consciously interested in fertility, as opposed to just sexual pleasure.

(Since people of the latter type do exist, your point still holds, of course.)

Comment author: Perplexed 05 December 2010 12:34:10AM *  5 points [-]

Evolution gives us the "wet and tinglies" when we engage in sex because evolution wants us to reproduce. Some rational folks retarget the terminal value to simply having sex.

Evolution gives us the "warm and fuzzies" when we do good because evolution wants us to be seen as doing good. Some rational folks retarget the terminal value to simply doing good (whether seen or not).

There is nothing irrational about this retargeting. We are free agents. We can chose any terminal values that we can rationalize to ourselves. Retargetings like the two suggested here are the easiest, because they are minimally in conflict with our evolutionary programming.

Comment author: timtyler 05 December 2010 11:00:46AM *  0 points [-]

Surely, "retargetting" their values is a deeply irrational act for almost any agent to perform - at least if we are talking about instrumental rationality. The reason being that your original goals are typically blatted by the retargetting - so rational agents should normally seek to avoid such an event happening to themselves - and should certainly not initiate it. Omohundro discusses the issue here:

We then show that self-improving systems will be driven to clarify their goals and represent them as economic utility functions. They will also strive for their actions to approximate rational economic behavior. This will lead almost all systems to protect their utility functions from modification and their utility measurement systems from corruption.

Comment author: Perplexed 05 December 2010 05:10:09PM 1 point [-]

As for retargeting in general, the argument against it has always reminded me of the advice, "Never admit a mistake. It doesn't really count as a mistake until you admit it."

As for Omohundro's paper, my reaction was negative from the first reading. His reasoning was so unconvincing that I found myself losing confidence in my judgements regarding things for which I had started out in agreement with him.

Comment author: timtyler 05 December 2010 05:53:58PM 0 points [-]

What would it mean for values to be mistaken, though? Who would be the judge of that?

Normally, values are not right or wrong. Rather, "right" and "wrong" are value judgements.

Comment author: Perplexed 05 December 2010 07:08:43PM 0 points [-]

What would it mean for values to be mistaken, though? Who would be the judge of that?

The person who used to claim that he held a certain set of (not reflectively consistent) values, but who now understands that those values, which he used to hold, were a mistake.

I understand that there are ways of programming an AI so that its values will never change. But that does not mean that an AI must be programmed in that way, or even that it should be programmed in that way. And it definitely does not mean that rational humans cannot change their minds on their ultimate values.

Comment author: timtyler 05 December 2010 08:19:13PM *  0 points [-]

I note that your example appears to generalise poorly. Yes, values can have bugs in them that need working out - but the idea that values are likely to be preserved by rational agents kicks in most seriously after that has happened.

Also, we had best be careful about making later agents the judges of their earlier selves. For each enlightenment, I expect we can find a corresponding conversion to a satanic cult.

FWIW, whether there are ways of making a powerful machine so that its values will never change is a still point of debate. Nobody has ever really proved that you can make a powerful self-improving system value anything other than its own measure of utility in the long term. Omohundro and Yudkowsky make hand-waving arguments about this - but they are not very convincing, IMHO. It would be delightful if we could demonstrate something useful about this question - but so far, nobody has.

Comment author: Perplexed 05 December 2010 08:57:50PM 0 points [-]

Yes, values can have bugs in them that need working out - but the idea that values are likely to be preserved by rational agents kicks in most seriously after that has happened.

Please let me know when it happens.

To my mind, coming up with a set of terminal values which are reflectively consistent and satisfactory in every other way is at least as difficult and controversy-laden as coming up with a satisfactory axiomatization of set theory.

What do you think of the Axiom of Determinacy? I fully expect that my human values will be different from my trans-human values. 1 Corinthians 13:11

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 09:40:50PM *  2 points [-]

Perplexed is drawing the analogy between the behaviours that are adaptive to DNA genes - vs those that are not - which seems pretty reasonable.

Comment author: timtyler 04 December 2010 09:38:15PM *  -2 points [-]

Your answer seems to suggest that the modern environment is not like the ancestral one - due to the effects of human culture - and that causes people to malfunction and behave maladaptively.

That is certainly one hypothesis to explain this type of behaviour. However, I can't help notice that some indivduals have become famous moral philosophers by advocating this type of behaviour.

Weakening the analogy rather, more charity still seems to be for signalling purposes than sex is for reproductive purposes - making a guide to sexual pleasure less surprising. Also, I think "most" sex is supposed to support human pair bonding and signalling purposes - rather than reproduction directly - even in the ancestral environment - i.e. humans are rather like bonobos.

I expect that many who profess to actually helping the world do so at the expense of their own fitness. However, I doubt this is a simple case of brains being hijacked by deleterious memes through an inadequate memetic immune system. For instance, I figure some individuals are benefitting by spreading such memes around. So, I am interested in the details, to better understand what is happening.

You claimed I was "pretending to be surprised" - while what I was actually doing was asking questions. Your interpretation seems to presume dubious motives :-|

Comment author: Perplexed 04 December 2010 11:57:56PM 2 points [-]

You claimed I was "pretending to be surprised" - while what I was actually doing was asking questions. Your interpretation seems to presume dubious motives :-|

Not dubious at all. I assumed you purpose was rhetorical. By feigning incomprehension of something carrying a stench of irrationality, you signal that you are pure in your rationalism. Surely you don't believe that there is something dubious about signaling.

Comment author: timtyler 06 December 2010 10:41:56PM *  0 points [-]

The other thing to say about this is: I don't think helping strangers, or explaining to others how to help strangers - without any thought to what it might signal - is at all irrational.

I understand perfectly well, that for people with certain kinds of utilitarian goal systems, this kind of thing all makes perfect sense - and is absolutely the rational thing to do.

It is pretty strange that any such utilitarian people exist in the first place - but if we accept that axiomatically, things like the discussion on this thread follow - without any need for invoking irrationality.

Comment author: timtyler 05 December 2010 10:37:30AM *  0 points [-]

It is more that I don't think I was pretending at all. I did ask questions - but that doesn't mean I was surprised by existence of an audience for the presentation.

I have some hypotheses about that (some of which I listed) - but I am not so certain of their relative merit that I don't welcome input from others on the topic. Some of those involved clearly have quite a different perspective from me, and I am curious about what they think is happening.