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Utilitarian comments on Money: The Unit of Caring - Less Wrong

95 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 March 2009 12:35PM

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Comment author: Utilitarian 04 April 2009 04:43:01AM 7 points [-]

I like Peter Singer's "drowning child" argument in "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" as a way to illustrate the imperative to donate and, by implication, the value of money. As he says, "we ought to give the money [spent on fancy clothes] away, and it is wrong not to do so."

I do think there's a danger, though, in focusing on the wrongness of frivolous spending, which is relatively easy to criticize. It's harder to make people think about the wrongness of failing to make money that they could have donated. Opportunity costs are always harder to feel viscerally.

Comment author: JohnH 23 April 2011 03:19:36PM *  5 points [-]

The evidence is that giving money in the form of aid to countries is almost useless in helping the average person in that country become better off. However, getting rid of trade restrictions and showing the people in a country what things they can produce has been very effective in lifting people and countries out of poverty. This means that buying fancy chocolate for instance will likely have a greater effect on helping poor people in Africa than donating an equal amount of money in aid.

To continue this example people in Africa are unable to vote in US (or Europe) the two places that have high tariffs that if reduced would greatly change the welfare of most of the developing world. In the US HFCS is used instead of sugar due to high sugar tariffs, ethanol is made from corn instead of importing it from Brazil, and tropical fruits are restricted to favored trading partners. This is highly beneficial if one grows sugar in Florida and moderately beneficial if one grows corn but poverty inducing if one lives in a country where the main export is Sugar.

Therefore if we really did care about the welfare of people in the rest of the world then we should be donating to a PAC that has the purpose of repealing such tariffs as this would be the most cost effective way of reducing world wide poverty. Instead we donate shoes and clothes that drive the local textile industries out of business, we donate money for food that creates artificial famines as local farmers have no reason to plant crops, and we condition a lot of donations on things such as "green" technology that is more expensive and less useful for development then the alternative (as well as non-producible in Africa meaning most of the money gets sent back to the western countries that are "helping"). Then we wonder why one of the prevailing views in Africa is that the west wants Africa to remain poor.

Comment author: Vaniver 23 April 2011 03:24:24PM 4 points [-]

This is highly beneficial if one grows sugar in Florida and moderately beneficial if one grows corn but poverty inducing if one lives in a country where the main export is Sugar.

There are also many places that grow coffee or chocolate that would switch to sugar if we would import it, and they'd be able to make more profit- that is, the real fair trade coffee is sugar.

Comment author: homunq 09 December 2011 03:20:06PM 1 point [-]

I've harvested both coffee and sugar, and I'd prefer doing coffee any day of the week.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 09 December 2011 04:46:23PM *  0 points [-]

Why? (I'm not doubting you; I'm interested in the details.)

I'm also curious why China has so many coffee plantations, but so few coffee drinkers.

Comment author: homunq 10 December 2011 03:29:12PM *  3 points [-]

Let me first clarify that I've only spent about a half-day at each, so I don't pretend to be an expert.

Harvesting coffee is picking beans in the shade. You have to carry the beans you've picked, and that is getting heavier, but really it's not disagreeable work.

Harvesting sugar cane is swinging a heavy machete in the hot sun. If the field was burned first, you're breathing ashes; if it wasn't (I hear) the leaves are sharp-edged. It's really worse in every way.

Ecologically, coffee is also much superior; it's a perennial plant which grows in a more-diverse ecosystem with less need for chemical inputs.

By the way, while coffee-exporting countries are often sugar-exporters as well, good-quality coffee grows at a higher elevation than sugar cane, so they're not actually direct substitute crops.