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James_Miller comments on Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others... - Less Wrong

130 Post author: Yvain 24 December 2010 09:26PM

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Comment author: James_Miller 25 December 2010 01:12:37AM 40 points [-]

I'm going to assign this to my introductory microeconomics students to help them understand opportunity costs.

Comment author: Yvain 25 December 2010 03:12:21AM *  41 points [-]

That sort of terrifies me, but in a good way.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, this essay only incidentally addresses opportunity costs, but I wrote another essay a few years ago in a different style that addresses them more directly: A Modest Proposal

Comment author: James_Miller 01 October 2011 04:54:27PM 14 points [-]

I discussed the ideas in this essay with my students. I first ask my students how much an iPad costs. They give me some dollar amount, but then I say something like "I don't want the answer in dollars but rather in dead African children." Since we have just been discussing opportunity costs they catch on quickly to what I'm getting at.

Comment author: XiXiDu 25 December 2010 05:34:16PM 13 points [-]

Have you considered submitting your essay to LW? It might not fit the general objective perfectly well, but I believe it should be promoted and that many people would enjoy reading it.

That said, I have to thank you for all your great posts. It is a pleasure to read them. Being clear and concise you provide valuable insights while dissolvig important topics.

Comment author: gwern 25 December 2010 06:49:08PM 23 points [-]

I'd certainly upvote any such submission. I mean:

"Not like I am any saint myself. The past two years, I've spent about two dead puppies on books from Amazon.com alone. I am probably going to spend very close to a whole dead child to fly home for my two week winter break, and I spent ten dead children on my trip around the world this summer. I spent four infected wounds on fantasy map-making software. But at least in the back of my mind I realize I'm doing it. Can the people who spend a dead kid plus a dead puppy on the world's most expensive sundae say the same? What about the Japanese guy spending 1050 dead kids on a mobile phone strap?"

Come on!

Comment author: XiXiDu 25 December 2010 09:20:47PM 3 points [-]

I can't follow, are you being sarcastic about my suggestion? I guess it's a matter of taste. I thought the essay shows how our utility calculations are easily influenced by highlighting the potential of the fuel that is money. Most people just use their money to feed a fire for its warmth and the beautiful sparks. They do not realize that every banknote is worth more than the printed paper it is made up of. People do not see that a banknote can be used much more effectively. Renaming money is simple yet changes its perceived potential dramatically. As such the essay is a metaphor to caution against the burning of books that is fueling the fire of ignorance. Do not burn books if not absolutely necessary, use the potential effectively, read them!

Comment author: gwern 25 December 2010 11:34:19PM 13 points [-]

I wasn't being sarcastic. The implied expansion of my last comment is 'Come on [, how can you not like or appreciate that paragraph among others?]!'

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 25 December 2010 01:59:17PM 7 points [-]

You know... that actually seems like potentially a good idea. Not just a tongue in cheek style good idea, but I'm thinking that this could be an actually for real good idea, and not just as a way to make "those other people" see what they're doing. I'd want this implemented as a way to make it easier for me to keep such things in mind!

(The "infected wounds" link is broken, though, so mind explaining the concept re that?)

The only real difficulty that I see is that as things change (tech, economic conditions, etc), the actual cost of saving a child and the relative costs of saving a child vs saving puppies, etc might shift around. So you'd need some way to dynamically rename chunks of the currency. For instance, if improving tech and such leads to the equivalent of 400$ being sufficient to save a child, then what was called a DC would have to be renamed 2 DC.

This would be confusing.

Comment author: Yvain 25 December 2010 08:19:56PM *  4 points [-]

The "infected wound" originally linked to some organization that donated first aid kits to those who couldn't afford them. I'll try to fix that next time I update the site.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 25 December 2010 11:32:17PM 2 points [-]

Ah, okie, thanks.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 28 December 2010 02:17:51PM 2 points [-]

Some seastead somehting should try this I think.

Comment author: shokwave 25 December 2010 02:19:04PM 2 points [-]

Float "dead children" as a currency and regulate that all prices must be expressed in US dollars and time-of-pricing equivalent value of dead children. Determine the exchange rate not through any normal currency concerns but strictly through the change in how many lives US dollars save.

Passing a law that does something like this seems almost feasible.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 25 December 2010 06:57:56PM 6 points [-]

Hrm... That might work

For all shops that don't yet use electronic price tag type things, there'd obviously have to be a grace period along the lines of having a week/month/whatever to update the equivalences (due to changes in the exchange rate)

Of course, a rather uglier problem would be: "How do we manage to protect the equivalences calculation from extreme politicization and such?"

Even worse: How do we avoid businesses getting together to try to sabotage the efforts of efficient charities, that way leading to a higher dollar per child amount. ie, the less dead children per item, the more willing someone would be to purchase it, so there's a bit of a perverse incentive there.

Finally, if we solved all this: how do we push to make it a reality?

Comment author: shokwave 26 December 2010 08:17:13AM 6 points [-]

there'd obviously have to be a grace period along the lines of having a week/month/whatever to update the equivalences (due to changes in the exchange rate)

It doesn't even need that, just whenever a price is printed out, it needs the equivalent in dead children, at the time of printing. This is an incentive to change or reprint prices when the value of dead children rises and leave old labels alone when the value of dead children has dipped, but as long as the value of dead children doesn't fluctuate wildly (ie it doesn't respond to speculation about a new dirt cheap cure, only to extensive statistics on the current cost to save a child) then it should be mostly right.

The perverse incentives, political influence, and potential for Goodhart's Law and lost purposes to come into play are all serious concerns - all the more terrifying because these surely play a part in current aid schemes.


You would need some kind of X-Rationalist Reserve Bank of Dead Children who recite the Litany of Tarski ("If this change is to the truthful value of dead children, I desire to make this change. If this change is not to the truthful value of dead children, I desire not to make this change") every morning, and have an investigative group empowered to seek out and punish interference in charitable work, preferably in the form of huge fines payable to the affected charities (the Perverse Incentive Disincentives Task Force).

Finally, if we solved all this: how do we push to make it a reality?

Yvain for President?

Comment author: juliawise 23 March 2012 08:21:28PM 4 points [-]

I wrote a post with your Modest Proposal as a jumping-off point.

Comment author: Yvain 24 March 2012 12:30:00AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the link, and I agree with pretty much all of what you said.