Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and Meta-Charity

44 Post author: wdmacaskill 15 November 2012 08:34PM

Disclaimer: I’m somewhat nervous about posting this, for fear of down-voting on my first LW post, given that this post explicitly talks in a positive light about organisations that I have helped to set up. But I think that the topic is of interest to LW-ers, and I’m hoping to start a rational discussion. So here it goes…

Hi all,

Optimal philanthropy is a common discussion topic on LW. It’s also previously been discussed whether ‘meta-charities’ like GiveWell — that is, charities that attempt to move money to other charities, or assess the effectiveness of other charities — might end up themselves being excellent or even optimal giving opportunities.

Partly on the basis of the potentially high cost-effectiveness of meta-charity, I have co-founded two such charities: Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. Both are now open to taking donations (info here for GWWC and here for 80k). In what follows I’ll explain why one might think of Giving What We Can or 80,000 Hours as a good giving opportunity. It’s of course very awkward to talk about the reasons in favour of donating to one’s own organization, and the risk of bias is obvious, so I’ll just briefly describe the basic argument, and then leave the rest for discussion. I hope I manage to give an honest picture, rather than just pitching my own favourite idea: we really want to do the most good that we can with marginal resources, so if LW members think that giving to meta-charity in general, or GWWC or 80k in particular, is a bad idea, that’s important for us to know. So please don’t be shy in raising comments, questions, or criticism. If you find yourself being critical, please try to suggest ways in which GWWC or 80k could either change its activities or provide more information such that your criticisms would be addressed.

What is Giving What We Can?

Giving What We Can encourages people to give more and to give more effectively to causes that fight poverty in the developing world.  It encourages people to become a member of the organisation and pledge to give at least 10% of their income to the charities that best fight extreme poverty, and it provides information on its website about how people can give as cost-effectively as possible.

What is 80,000 Hours?

80,000 Hours provides evidence-based advice on careers aiming to make a difference, through its website and through on-one-one advice sessions. It encourages people to use their careers in an effective way to make the world a significantly better place, and aims to help its members to be more successful in their chosen careers. It provides a community and network for those convinced by its ideas.

What are the main differences between the two?

The primary differences are that 80,000 Hours focuses on how you should spend your time (especially which career you should choose), whereas Giving What We Can focuses on how you should spend your money. Giving What We Can is focused on global poverty, whereas 80,000 Hours is open to any plausibly high-impact cause.

Why should I give to either?

The basic idea is that each of the organisations generates a multiplier on one’s donations. By giving $1 to Giving What We Can to fundraise for the best global poverty charities, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1 to the best global poverty charities.  By giving $1 to 80,000 Hours to improve the effectiveness of students’ career paths, one ultimately moves significantly more than $1’s worth of human and financial resources to a range of high-impact causes, including global poverty, animal welfare improvement, and existential risk mitigation.

How are you testing this?

Last March we did an impact assessment for Giving What We Can. Some more info is available here, and I can provide much more information, including the calculations, upon request. As of last March, we’d invested $170 000’s worth of volunteer time into Giving What We Can, and had moved $1.7 million to GiveWell or GWWC top-recommended development charities, and raised a further $68 million in pledged donations.  Taking into account the facts that some proportion of this would have been given anyway, there will be some member attrition, and not all donations will go to the very best charities (and using data for all these factors when possible), we estimate that we had raised $8 in realised donations and $130 in future donations for every $1’s worth of volunteer time invested in Giving What We Can. We will continue with such impact assessments, most likely on an annual basis.

We have less data available for 80,000 Hours, but things seem if anything more promising. A preliminary investigation (data from 26 members, last May) suggested that the average member was pledging $1mn; 34% of were planning to donate to existential risk mitigation, 61% to global poverty reduction. Member recruitment currently stands at roughly one per day. 25% of our members state that their career has been ‘significantly changed’ by 80,000 Hours. A little more information is available here.

Why might I be unconvinced?

Here are a few considerations that I think are important (and of course that’s not to say there aren’t others).

First, the whole idea of meta-charity is new, and therefore not as robustly tested as other activities. Even if you find the idea of meta-charity compelling, you could plausibly reason that most compelling arguments to new and optimistic conclusions have been false in the past, an so on inductive grounds treat this one with suspicion.

Second, you might have a very high discount rate. Giving $1 to either GWWC or 80k generates benefits in the future. So working out its cost-effectiveness involves an estimate of how one should value future donations versus donations now. That’s a tricky question to answer, and if you have a high enough discount rate, then the investment won’t be worth it.

Third, you might just think that other organisations are better. You might think that other organisations are better at resource-generation (even if that’s not their declared aim). Or you might think that it’s better just to focus on more direct means of making an impact.

Finally, you might just have a prior against the idea that one can get a significant multiplier on one’s donations to top charities. (One might ask: if the idea of meta-charity is so good, why don’t many more meta-charities exist than currently do?) So you might need to see a lot more hard data (perhaps verified by independent sources) before being convinced.

Comments (182)

Comment author: katydee 11 November 2012 04:46:00AM 18 points [-]

I am skeptical of 80,000 hours and the general concept of "earning to give" because I suspect very few people will actually be able to execute this correctly. What tracking programs (if any) do you have to ensure that people actually follow up on their plans?

That being said, your cause seems a noble one and I wish you well.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:20:20PM 10 points [-]

Thanks for this, this is a common response to earning to give. However, we already have a number of success stories: people who have started their EtG jobs and are loving them.

It's rare that someone had their heart set on a particular career, such as charity work, then completely changes their plans and begins EtG. Rather, much more common is that someone is thinking "I really want to do [lucrative career X], but I should do something more ethical" or that they think "I'm undecided between lucrative career X, and other careers Y and Z; all look like good options." It's much easier to convince these people.

We certainly want to track behaviour. We will have an annual survey of members, to find out what they are doing, and how much they are giving, and so on. If someone really isn't complying with the spirit of 80k, or with their stated goals, then we'll ask them to leave.

Comment author: katydee 11 November 2012 07:42:34PM *  8 points [-]

I'm not surprised that people are doing this now, but I will be surprised if most of them are still doing it in five years, much less in the actual long term.

That being said, if the organization can maintain recruitment of new people, a lot of good will still be done even under this assumption.

Comment author: beoShaffer 10 November 2012 06:41:10AM 9 points [-]

(One might ask: if the idea of meta-charity is so good, why don’t many more meta-charities exist than currently do?)

Hansonian answer "Charity is not about helping"(Actually a quote from Gwern but Hansonian in spirit).

Comment author: wdmacaskill 10 November 2012 11:41:06PM 13 points [-]

I wouldn't want to commit to an answer right now, but the Hansonian Hypothesis does make the right prediction in this case. If I'm directly helping, it's very clear that I have altruistic motives. But if I'm doing something much more indirect, then my motives become less clear. (E.g. if I go into finance in order to donate, I no longer look so different from people who go into finance in order to make money for themselves). So you could take the absence of meta-charity as evidence in favour of the Hansonian Hypothesis.

Comment author: peter_hurford 12 November 2012 06:30:18AM 7 points [-]

If I were to donate $1K right now, how would GWWC / 80k / etc. plan to use it? I'd also like to request the calculations.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 12 November 2012 04:30:56PM 1 point [-]

Hi - answer to this will be posted along with the responses to other questions on Giles' discussion page. If you e-mail me (will [dot] crouch [at] givingwhatwecan.org) then I can send you the calculations.

Comment author: peter_hurford 12 November 2012 09:57:35PM 2 points [-]

I look forward to it. Email sent!

Comment author: Gedusa 10 November 2012 12:22:36AM *  15 points [-]

Possible consideration: meta-charities like GWWC and 80k cause donations to causes that one might not think are particularly important. E.g. I think x-risk research is the highest value intervention, but most of the money moved by GWWC and 80k goes to global poverty or animal welfare interventions. So if the proportion of money moved to causes I cared about was small enough, or the meta-charity didn't multiply my money much anyway, then I should give directly (or start a new meta-charity in the area I care about).

A bigger possible problem would be if I took considerations like the poor meat eater problem to be true. In that case, donating to e.g. 80k would cause a lot of harm even though it would move a lot of money to animal welfare charities, because it causes so much to go to poverty relief, which I could think was a bad thing. It seems like there are probably a few other situations like this around.

Do you have figures on what the return to donation (or volunteer time) is for 80,000 hours? i.e. is it similar to GWWC's $138 of donations per $1 of time invested? It would be helpful to know so I could calculate how much I would expect to go to the various causes.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 10 November 2012 11:33:13PM 12 points [-]

Hey,

80k members give to a variety of causes. When we surveyed, 34% were intending to give to x-risk, and it seems fairly common for people who start thinking about effective altruism to ultimately think that x-risk mitigation is one of or the most important cause area. As for how this pans out with additional members, we'll have to wait and see. But I'd expect $1 to 80k to generate significantly more than $1's worth of value even for existential risk mitigation alone. It certainly has done so far.

We did a little bit of impact-assessment for 80k (again, with a sample of 26 members). When we did, the estimates were even more optimistic than for GWWC. But we'd like to get firmer data set before going public with any numbers.

Though I was deeply troubled by the poor meater problem for some time, I've come to the conclusion that it isn't that bad (for utilitarians - I think it's much worse for non-consequentialists, though I'm not sure).

The basic idea is as follows. If I save the life of someone in the developing world, almost all the benefit I produce is through compounding effects: I speed up technological progress by a tiny margin, giving us a little bit more time at the end of civilisation, when there are far more people. This benefit dwarfs the benefit to the individual whose life I've saved (as Bostrom argues in the first half of Astronomical Waste). Now, I also increase the amount of animal suffering, because the person whose life I've saved consumes meat, and I speed up development of the country, which means that the country starts factory farming sooner. However, we should expect (or, at least, I expect) factory farming to disappear within the next few centuries, as cheaper and tastier meat substitutes are developed. So the increase in animal suffering doesn't compound in the same way: whereas the benefits of saving a life continue until the humanity race (or its descendants) dies out, the harm of increasing meat consumption ends only after a few centuries (when we move beyond farming).

So let's say the benefit to the person from having their live saved is N. The magnitude of the harm from increasing factory farming might be a bit more than N: maybe -10N. But the benefit from speeding up technological progress is vastly greater than that: 1000N, or something. So it's still a good thing to save someone's life in the developing world. (Though of course, if you take the arguments about x-risk seriously, then alleviating global poverty is dwarfed by existential risk mitigation).

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 11 November 2012 01:53:30AM *  5 points [-]

Is saving someone from malaria really the most cost-effective way to speed technological progress per dollar? Seems like you might well be better off loaning money on kiva.org or some completely different thing. (Edit: Jonah Sinick points me to 1, 2, 3, 4 regarding microfinance.)

Some thoughts from Robin Hanson on how speeding technological progress may affect existential risks: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/12/tiptoe-or-dash-to-future.html. I'd really like to see more analysis of this.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:02:26PM 4 points [-]

It would be good to have more analysis of this.

Is saving someone from malaria really the most cost-effective way to speed technological progress per dollar?

The answer is that I don't know. Perhaps it's better to fund technology directly. But the benefit:cost ratio tends to be incredibly high for the best developing world interventions. So the best developing world health interventions would at least be contenders. In the discussion above, though, preventing malaria doesn't need to be the most cost-effective way of speeding up technological progress. The point was only that that benefit outweighs the harm done by increasing the amount of farming.

Comment author: MTGandP 11 November 2012 12:32:22AM 0 points [-]

The basic idea is as follows. If I save the life of someone in the developing world, almost all the benefit I produce is through compounding effects: I speed up technological progress by a tiny margin, giving us a little bit more time at the end of civilisation, when there are far more people. This benefit dwarfs the benefit to the individual whose life I've saved (as Bostrom argues in the first half of Astronomical Waste). Now, I also increase the amount of animal suffering, because the person whose life I've saved consumes meat, and I speed up development of the country, which means that the country starts factory farming sooner. However, we should expect (or, at least, I expect) factory farming to disappear within the next few centuries, as cheaper and tastier meat substitutes are developed. So the increase in animal suffering doesn't compound in the same way: whereas the benefits of saving a life continue until the humanity race (or its descendants) dies out, the harm of increasing meat consumption ends only after a few centuries (when we move beyond farming).

This is purely speculative. You have not presented any evidence that (a) the compounding effects of donating money to alleviate poverty outweigh the direct effects, or that (b) this does not create enough animal suffering to outweigh the benefits. And it still ignores the fact that animal welfare charities are orders of magnitude more efficient than human charities.

The magnitude of the harm from increasing factory farming might be a bit more than N: maybe -10N.

It's almost certainly more like -10,000N. One can determine this number by looking at the suffering caused by eating different animal products as well as the number of animals eaten in a lifetime (~21000).

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 04:58:48PM 12 points [-]

On (a). The argument for this is based on the first half of Bostrom's Astronomical Waste. In saving someone's life (or some other good economic investment), you move technological progress forward by a tiny amount. The benefit you produce is the difference you make at the end of civilisation, when there's much more at stake than there is now.

It's almost certainly more like -10,000N I'd be cautious about making claims like this. We're dealing with tricky issues, so I wouldn't claim to be almost certain about anything in this area. The numbers I used in the above post were intended to be purely illustrative, and I apologise if they came across as being more definite than that.

Why might I worry about the -10,000N figure? Well, first, the number you reference is the number of animals eaten in a lifetime by an American - the greatest per capita meat consumers in the world. I presume that the number is considerably smaller for those in developing countries, and there is considerably less reliance on factory farming.

Even assuming we were talking about American lives, is the suffering that an American causes 10,000 times as great as the happiness of their lives? Let's try a back of the envelope calculation. Let's accept that 21000 figure. I can't access the original source, but some other digging suggests that this breaks down into: 17,000 shellfish, 1700 other fish, 2147 chickens, with the rest constituting a much smaller number. I'm really not sure how to factor in shellfish and other fish: I don't know if they have lives worth living or not, and I presume that most of these are farmed, so wouldn't have existed were it not for farming practices. At any rate, from what I know I suspect that factory farmed chickens are likely to dominate the calculation (but I'm not certain). So let's focus on the chickens. The average factory farmed chicken lives for 6 weeks, so that's 252 factory farmed chicken-years per American lifetime. Assuming the average American lives for 70 years, one American life-year produces 3.6 factory farmed chicken years. What should our tradeoff be between producing factory farmed chicken-years and American human-years? Perhaps the life of the chicken is 10x as bad as the American life is good (that seems a high estimate to me, but I really don't know): in which case we should be willing to shorten an American's life by 10 years in order to prevent one factory-farmed chicken-year. That would mean that, if we call one American life a good of unit 1, the American's meat consumption produces -36 units of value.

In order to get this estimate up to -10 000 units of value, we'd need to multiply that trade-off of 277: we should be indifferent between producing 2770 years of American life and preventing the existence of 1 factory farmed chicken-year (that is, we should be happy letting 4 vegan American children die in order to prevent 1 factory farmed chicken-year). That number seems too high too me; if you agree, perhaps you think that fish or shellfish suffering is the dominant consideration. Or you might bring in non-consequentialist considerations; as I said above, I think that the meat eater problem is likely more troubling for non-consequentialists.

At any rate, this is somewhat of a digression. If one thought that meat eater worries were strong enough that donating to GWWC or 80k was a net harm, I would think that a reasonable view (and one could give further arguments in favour of it, that we haven't discussed), though not my own one for the reasons I've outlined. We knew that something animal welfare focused had been missing from CEA for too long and for that reason set up Effective Animal Activism - currently a sub-project of 80k, but able to accept restricted donations and, as it grows, likely to become an organisation in its own right. So if one thinks that animal welfare charities are likely to be the most cost-effective charities, and one finds the meta-charity argument plausible, then one might consider giving to EAA.

Comment author: MTGandP 11 November 2012 06:43:36PM 7 points [-]

I think that calculation makes sense and the -36 number looks about right. I had actually done a similar calculation a while ago and came up with a similar number. I suppose my guess of -10,000 was too hasty.

It may actually be a good deal higher than 36 depending on how much suffering fish and shellfish go through. This is harder to say because I don't understand the conditions in fish farms nearly as well as chicken farms.

Comment author: bryjnar 11 November 2012 12:38:56AM 2 points [-]

It's almost certainly more like -10,000N. One can determine this number by looking at the suffering caused by eating different animal products as well as the number of animals eaten in a lifetime (~21000).

I think Will is assuming that animal suffering has a fairly low moral weight compared to human suffering. Obviously, considerations like this scale directly depending on how you weight that. But I think most people would agree that animal suffering is worth less than human suffering, it's just a question of whether the multiplier is 1/10, 1/100, 0, or what.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 11 November 2012 05:36:18AM *  3 points [-]

I think Will is assuming that animal suffering has a fairly low moral weight compared to human suffering.

I don't think Will is making any such assumption. His argument does not rely on any moral claim about the relative importance of human versus non-human forms of suffering, but instead rests on an empirical claim about the indirect effects that saving a human life has on present non-human animals, on the one hand, and on future sentient beings, on the other hand. He acknowledges that the benefit to the person whom we save might be outweighed by the harm done to the animals this person will consume. But he adds that saving this life will also speed up technological progress, and as a consequence increase the number of future posthuman life-years to a much greater degree than it increases the expected number of future animal life-years. As he writes, "whereas the benefits of saving a life continue until the humanity race (or its descendants) dies out, the harm of increasing meat consumption ends only after a few centuries (when we move beyond farming)."

Of course, someone like Brian Tomasik might counter that, by increasing present meat consumption, we are contributing to the spread of "speciesist" memes. Such memes, by influencing future decision-makers with the power to do astronomical amounts of evil, might actually have negative effects that last indefinitely.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:03:40PM 4 points [-]

Thanks benthamite, I think everything you said above was accurate.

Comment author: bryjnar 11 November 2012 06:34:31AM 2 points [-]

I was only addressing the point I directly quoted, where MTGandP was questioning the multiplicative factor that Will suggested. I was merely pointing out why that might look low!

I agree that the argument is still pretty much in force even if you put animals pretty much on parity.

Comment author: MTGandP 11 November 2012 03:53:50AM 3 points [-]

I think most people give way too small a multiplier to the weight of animal suffering. A non-human animal may not be able to suffer in all the same ways that a human can, but it is still sufficiently conscious such that its experiences in a factory farm are probably comparable to what a human's experiences would be in the same situation.

Comment author: PeterisP 26 November 2012 11:33:35PM 0 points [-]

What should be objective grounds for such a multiplier? Not all suffering is valued equally. Excluding self-suffering (which is so much subjectively different) from the discussion, I would value the suffering of my child as more important than the suffering of your child. And vice versa.

So, for any valuation that would make sense to me (so that I would actually use that method to make decisions), there should be some difference between multipliers for various beings - if the average homo sapiens would be evaluated with a coefficient of 1, then some people (like your close relatives or friends) would be >1, and some would be <1. Animals (to me) would clearly be <1 as illustrated by a simple dilemma - if I had to choose to kill a cow to save a random man, or to kill a random man to save a cow, I'd favor the man in all cases without much hesitation.

So an important question is, what should be a reasonable basis to quantitatively compare a human life versus (as an example) cow lifes - one-to-ten? one-to-thousand? one-to-all-the-cows-in-the-world? Frankly, I've got no idea. I've given it some thought but I can't imagine a way how to get to an order of magnitude estimate that would feel reasonable to me.

Comment author: MTGandP 27 November 2012 01:08:47AM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't try to estimate the value of a particular species' suffering by intuition. Intuition is, in a lot of situations, a pretty bad moral compass. Instead, I would start from the simple assumption that if two beings suffer equally, their suffering is equally significant. I don't know how to back up this claim other than this: if two beings experience some unpleasant feeling in exactly the same way, it is unfair to say that one of their experiences carries more moral weight than the other.

Then all we have to do is determine how much different beings suffer. We can't know this for certain until we solve the hard problem of consciousness, but we can make some reasonable assumptions. A lot of people assume that a chicken feels less physical pain than a human because it is stupider. But neurologically speaking, there does not appear to be any reason why intelligence would enhance the capacity to feel pain. Hence, the physical pain that a chicken feels is roughly comparable to the pain that a human feels. It should be possible to use neuroscience to provide a more precise comparison, but I don't know enough about that to say more.

Top animal-welfare charities such as The Humane League probably prevent about 100 days of suffering per dollar. The suffering that animals experience in factory farms is probably far worse (by an order of magnitude or more) than the suffering of any group of humans that is targeted by a charity. If you doubt this claim, watch some footage of what goes on in factory farms.

As a side note, you mentioned comparing the value of a cow versus a human. I don't think this is a very useful comparison to make. A better comparison is the suffering of a cow versus a human. A life's value depends on how much happiness and suffering it contains.

Comment author: MugaSofer 27 November 2012 01:23:01AM *  1 point [-]

A life's value depends on how much happiness and suffering it contains.

I personally treat lives as valuable in and of themselves. It's why I don't kill sad people, I try to make them happier.

The suffering that animals experience in factory farms is probably far worse (by an order of magnitude or more) than the suffering of any group of humans that is targeted by a charity. If you doubt this claim, watch some footage of what goes on in factory farms.

Most people would argue that animals are less capable of experiencing suffering and thus the same amount of pain is worth less in an animal than a human.

EDIT:

Then all we have to do is determine how much different beings suffer. We can't know this for certain until we solve the hard problem of consciousness, but we can make some reasonable assumptions. A lot of people assume that a chicken feels less physical pain than a human because it is stupider. But neurologically speaking, there does not appear to be any reason why intelligence would enhance the capacity to feel pain.

Do you also support tiling the universe with orgasmium? Genuinely curious.

Comment author: MTGandP 27 November 2012 03:16:59AM 1 point [-]

I personally treat lives as valuable in and of themselves.

Why? What sort of life has value? Does the life of a bacterium have inherent value? How about a chicken? Does a life have finite inherent value? How do you compare the inherent value of different lives?

It's why I don't kill sad people, I try to make them happier.

Killing people makes them have 0 happiness (in practice, it actually reduces the total happiness in the world by quite a bit because killing someone has a lot of side effects.) Making people happy gives them positive happiness. Positive happiness is better than 0 happiness.

Most people would argue that animals are less capable of experiencing suffering and thus the same amount of pain is worth less in an animal than a human.

I don't care what most people think. The majority is wrong about a lot of things. I believe that non-human animals [1] experience pain in roughly the same way that humans do because that's where the evidence seems to point. What most people think about it does not come into the equation.

Do you also support tiling the universe with orgasmium?

Probably. I'm reluctant to make a change of that magnitude without considering it really, really carefully, no matter how sure I may be right now that it's a good thing. If I found myself with the capacity to do this, I would probably recruit an army of the world's best thinkers to decide if it's worth doing. But right now I'm inclined to say that it is.

[1] Here I'm talking about animals like pigs and chickens, not animals like sea sponges.

Comment author: MugaSofer 27 November 2012 03:35:25AM *  0 points [-]

I personally treat lives as valuable in and of themselves.

Why? What sort of life has value? Does the life of a bacterium have inherent value? How about a chicken? Does a life have finite inherent value? How do you compare the inherent value of different lives?

I must admit I am a tad confused here, but intelligence or whatever seems a good rule of thumb.

It's why I don't kill sad people, I try to make them happier.

Killing people makes them have 0 happiness (in practice, it actually reduces the total happiness in the world by quite a bit because killing someone has a lot of side effects.) Making people happy gives them positive happiness. Positive happiness is better than 0 happiness.

Oh, yes. Nevertheless, even if it would increase net happiness, I don't kill people. Not for the sake of happiness alone and all that.

Most people would argue that animals are less capable of experiencing suffering and thus the same amount of pain is worth less in an animal than a human.

I don't care what most people think. The majority is wrong about a lot of things. I believe that non-human animals [1] experience pain in roughly the same way that humans do because that's where the evidence seems to point. What most people think about it does not come into the equation.

The same way, sure. But introspection suggests I don't value it as much depending on how conscious they are (probably the same as intelligence.)

Do you also support tiling the universe with orgasmium?

Probably. I'm reluctant to make a change of that magnitude without considering it really, really carefully, no matter how sure I may be right now that it's a good thing. If I found myself with the capacity to do this, I would probably recruit an army of the world's best thinkers to decide if it's worth doing. But right now I'm inclined to say that it is.

Have you read "Not for the Sake of Happiness (Alone)"? Human values are complicated.

Comment author: MugaSofer 27 November 2012 12:32:22AM 0 points [-]

I would value the suffering of my child as more important than the suffering of your child. And vice versa.

To be clear, you are arguing that this is a bias to be overcome, yes?

I've given it some thought but I can't imagine a way how to get to an order of magnitude estimate that would feel reasonable to me.

Scope insensitivity?

Comment author: PeterisP 27 November 2012 12:11:05PM *  0 points [-]

No, I'm not arguing that this is a bias to overcome - if I have to choose wether to save my child or your child, the unbiased rational choice is to save my child, as the utility (to me) of this action is far greater.

I'm arguing that this is a strong counterexample to the assumption that all entities may be treated as equals in calculating "value of entity_X's suffering to me". They are clearly not equal, they differ by order(s) of magnitude.

"general value of entity_X's suffering" is a different, not identical measurement - but when making my decisions (such as the original discussion on what charities would be the most rational [for me] to support) I don't want to use the general values, but the values as they apply to me.

Comment author: MugaSofer 27 November 2012 05:25:41PM 0 points [-]

... oh.

That seems ... kind of evil, to be honest.

Comment author: PeterisP 27 November 2012 08:51:10PM 0 points [-]

OK, then I feel confused.

Regarding " if I have to choose wether to save my child or your child, the unbiased rational choice is to save my child, as the utility (to me) of this action is far greater" - I was under impression that this would be a common trait shared by [nearly] all homo sapiens. Is it not so and is generally considered sociopathic/evil ?

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2012 09:45:15AM *  3 points [-]

Even if one assigned exactly zero terminal value to non-sapient beings (as IIRC EY does), it takes a hella more resources to grow 2000 kcal's worth of lamb than to grow 2000 kcal's worth of soy, and if everyone wanted to live on the diet of an average present-day American I don't think the planet could handle that; so until we find a way to cheaply grow meat in a lab/terraform other planets, eating meat amounts to defecting in an N-player Prisoner's Dilemma. (But the conclusion “...and therefore we should let people born from the wrong vagina die from malaria so they won't eat meat” doesn't feel right to me.)

(EDIT: I'm not fully vegetarian myself, though like the author of the linked post I eat less meat than usual and try to throw away as little food as possible.)

(Edited to remove the mention of the Tragedy of Commons -- turns out I was using that term in a non-standard way.)

Comment author: Larks 11 November 2012 05:41:04PM 3 points [-]

It's not the tragedy of the commons because farms are privately owned. There might be some aspects like that (e.g. climate change) but "resources used" is in general a problem whose costs are fully internalised and can thus be dealt with by the price system.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2012 09:02:38PM *  1 point [-]

I don't know much economics so I might be talking through my ass, but doesn't consuming more meat cause the price of meat to increase if the cost of producing meat stays constant, incentivizing farmers to produce more meat? (The extreme example is that if nobody ate meat nobody would produce meat as they would have no-one to sell it to, and if everybody only ate meat nobody would grow grains for human consumption.) And what about government subsidies?

Comment author: Larks 11 November 2012 09:37:00PM 2 points [-]

Yes, the price would go up until no-one else wanted to eat meat. No extra planets required, and no market failure.

Comment author: [deleted] 11 November 2012 09:50:05PM *  1 point [-]

Still trying to wrap my head around this... [Off to read Introduction to Economic Analysis by R. Preston McAfee. Be back later.]

Comment author: Larks 11 November 2012 10:13:50PM 0 points [-]

Tragedies of the commons only occur when the costs of your decisions are bourne by you. But that's not the case here; buying more meat means you have to pay more, compensating the farmer for the increased use of his resources.

Yes, you slightly increase the cost of meat to everyone else. You also slightly reduce the price of the other things you would otherwise have spent your money on. But it is precisely this price-raising effect that prevents us from accidentally needing three earths: long before that, the price would have risen sufficiently high that no-one else would want to eat meat. This is the market system working exactly as it should.

If it were the case that meat farming caused unusually large amounts of pollution, there might be a tragedy of the commons scenario. But it would have nothing to do with the amount of resources required to make the meat.

Comment author: Giles 11 November 2012 04:43:28PM 4 points [-]

I think the poor meat eater problem is a legitimate concern, and it's something that would benefit from research - we may not be able to establish the relative value of human/nonhuman life to everyone's satisfaction, but in principle we can do empirical research to find out the size of the effect that poverty reduction has on factory farming.

To me this would be a point in favour of "meta" in general, but not necessarily GWWC/80K in particular, as they don't seem currently focused on this kind of research.

A good concrete step you could take would be to get in touch with Effective Animal Activism (an 80K spinoff) and see if you can get the poor meat eater problem onto their research agenda. If there's already research in this area (I haven't looked), they may be able to point you towards it.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:07:45PM 1 point [-]

That's right. If there's a lot of concern, we can write up what we already know, and look into it further - we're very happy to respond to demand. This would naturally go under EAA research.

Comment author: Giles 11 November 2012 06:28:53PM 1 point [-]

There are some related concerns that need to be factored into the multipliers for extending lifespans and reducing poverty, but which don't fall naturally under EAA's research:

  • Impact of extra population/animal population/consumption on environmental and other resources
  • Effect of extending a life or reducing poverty on global economic growth
  • Positive impact of increased economic growth
  • Negative impact of increased economic growth - existential risk and possibly other considerations?
  • How much of the weights in the Disability-Adjusted Life Year calculation come from valuing quality of life factors for their own sake, and how much is a fudge factor associated with reduced expected income/employability/social involvement associated with disability or disease? Toby Ord makes sort of this point here

Do you know which organisation's remit these kinds of question would fall into? Do any of these questions already receive mainstream attention (and if so are they likely to miss something important out of their calculations?)

Comment author: wdmacaskill 12 November 2012 01:10:36AM 4 points [-]

These are all good questions! Interestingly, they are all relevant to the empirical aspect of a research grant proposal I'm writing. Anyway, our research team is shared between 80,000 Hours and GWWC. They would certainly be interested in addressing all these questions (I think it would officially come under GWWC). I know that those at GiveWell are very interested in at least some of the above questions as well; hopefully they'll write on them soon.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 11 November 2012 05:40:57PM 8 points [-]

This probably sounds horrible, but "saving human lives" in some contexts is an applause light. We should be able to think beyond that.

As a textbook example, saving Hitler's life in a specific moment of history of the alternate universe would create more harm than good. Regardless of how much or little money it would cost.

Even if we value all human lifes as intrinsically equal, we can still ask what will be the expected consequences of saving this specific human. Is he or she more likely to help other people, or perhaps to harm them? Because that is a multiplier of my intervention, and consequences of consequences of my actions are consequences of my actions, even when I am not aware of them.

Don't just tell me that I saved a hypothetical person from malaria. Tell me whether that person is likely to live a happy life and contribute to happy lives of their neighbors, or whether I have most likely provided another soldier for the next genocide.

Even in areas with frequent wars and human rights violations, curing malaria does more good than harm. (To prevent the status quo bias: Imagine healthy people suffering from the war or genocide. Would sending tons of malaria-infected mosquitoes make the situation better or worse?) But perhaps something else, like education or government change that could reduce war, would be better in long term, even if in the short term there are less "lives per dollar saved".

Of course, as is the usual problem with consequentialism, it is pretty difficult to predict the consequences of our actions.

Comment author: MTGandP 11 November 2012 12:25:33AM 6 points [-]

GWWC in particular does not recommend any animal welfare charities, which makes me especially reluctant to donate to them or even support them at all. It seems much too specifically focused on global poverty. From the GWWC homepage:

Extreme poverty causes much of the world’s worst suffering, but when armed with the right information you can make an enormous difference.

This seems excessively limiting given that good animal welfare charities are orders of magnitude more efficient than even the best human charities; and it becomes especially concerning when we consider the poor meat-eater problem.

Effective Animal Activism is a meta-charity that evaluates animal welfare charities. They do not accept donations and instead recommend that you give directly to their top charities.

Comment author: bryjnar 11 November 2012 12:42:16AM 4 points [-]

Just to be clear: EAA is an 80k project at the moment, but at some point it may become a fully-fledged sub-organization of CEA, like GWWC and 80k.

The segmentation by target area is deliberate: GWWC in particular is in many ways a much more conservative organization, but that correspondingly broadens its appeal to people who aren't necessarily on board with full-on consequentialism and wouldn't be much concerned about animal rights.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 11 November 2012 05:17:19AM 0 points [-]

The segmentation by target area is deliberate: GWWC in particular is in many ways a much more conservative organization, but that correspondingly broadens its appeal to people who aren't necessarily on board with full-on consequentialism and wouldn't be much concerned about animal rights.

I agree that hard-core consequentialism and a utilitarian approach to animal welfare are alien to most people. However, I don't think this supports GWWC's emphasis on human suffering. Currently, members are asked to sign a pledge "to donate 10% of their income to the charities that they believe will most effectively help people living in poverty." The pledge could instead require members "to donate 10% of their income to the charities that they believe will do good most effectively." Such a reformulation would allow people that don't think alleviating human suffering is the most effective way of doing good to take the pledge, without discouraging those who are willing to take the pledge in its current formulation.

Comment author: EricHerboso 12 November 2012 12:50:15AM -1 points [-]

It might be slightly deceptive (and thus not worth doing), but what about changing "people" to "persons"? Those who think about animal welfare more liberally would recognize "persons" as referring to both humans and non-humans, while those who are more conservative that GWWC is trying to reach will just automatically assume it means "people".

I would prefer this to your reformulation of "do good" because it explicitly takes other types of "doing good" out of the equation. (Unless possibly there's some reason why being more inclusive of "doing good" is worthwhile to use in such a pledge? It seems at first glance to me that specificity is important in pledges of this kind.)

Comment author: tog 12 November 2012 05:23:04PM 3 points [-]

It might be slightly deceptive (and thus not worth doing), but what about changing "people" to "persons"? Those who think about animal welfare more liberally would recognize "persons" as referring to both humans and non-humans, while those who are more conservative that GWWC is trying to reach will just automatically assume it means "people".

That'd be too deceptive - people would rightly feel you'd tricked them if they got the impression all money was going to alleviate human suffering. If GWWC were to go down this route (which I don't think it should - better for CEA to leave that to EAA), then the word 'others' would be more appropriate, though still a little deceptive.

Comment author: EricHerboso 12 November 2012 07:36:41PM *  0 points [-]

Remember that the pledge is not to give money to GWWC; it's a pledge to give to effective charities in general. So those who want to focus on just human will be giving only to human-based charities, while those who give to animal welfare charities will have their money spent on animal welfare.

Although I agree the pledge wording would be perhaps too deceptive, I do not agree that anyone would ever feel tricked, since they still individually choose where to send their money. Conservatives would probably give to the human welfare orgs GWWC recommends, while others would give to the animal welfare orgs EAA recommends.

Comment author: tog 12 November 2012 09:06:31PM 3 points [-]

Remember that the pledge is not to give money to GWWC; it's a pledge to give to effective charities in general.

It's not; the whole message of GWWC is about the strong reasons we in the relatively wealthy west have to give significant portions of our income to cost-effective global poverty charities. I completely respect those who think we have even stronger reasons to donate to cost-effective charities focused on causes like animal welfare or x-risk, but GWWC is focused on global poverty (which does earn it more mainstream credibility than, say, EAA or SingInst).

Comment author: EricHerboso 12 November 2012 09:43:11PM 2 points [-]

You're correct; I was confusing the 80k pledge with the GWWC pledge. I retract all previous comments made in this thread on this point. Sorry for being stubborn earlier without rechecking the source.

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2012 12:57:59AM 0 points [-]

It might be slightly deceptive (and thus not worth doing), but what about changing "people" to "persons"? Those who think about animal welfare more liberally would recognize "persons" as referring to both humans and non-humans, while those who are more conservative that GWWC is trying to reach will just automatically assume it means "people".

The usage of "people" in the context seems to be referring to actors with the means and inclination to take significant altruistic action through economic leverage. If you can find some horses or dogs who have such capabilities and interests then the change may become useful.

Comment author: EricHerboso 12 November 2012 01:33:06AM 0 points [-]

To clarify I meant changing the pledge from:

"to donate 10% of their income to the charities that they believe will most effectively help people living in poverty"

to:

"to donate 10% of their income to the charities that they believe will most effectively help persons living in poverty".

I don't think the usage in this context is referring to the actors with the means and inclination to take altruistic action; the context instead is on those acted upon. (Of course, this is not a very good way of saying it, especially as there is ample evidence that money given directly to the poor in developing countries might be better than developed countries giving what they incorrectly think the poor need, but this is beside the point.)

When conservative people read "persons in poverty", they will automatically think "humans living in poverty", whereas those more familiar with the use of "person" being inclusive with non-humans might instead interpret "persons living in poverty" much more liberally. (I realize this is nonstandard usage of the term, but my intent here is to allow a liberal interpretation while maintaining specificity.)

Comment author: wedrifid 12 November 2012 01:55:45AM *  0 points [-]

That being the case I agree with your previous comment. (The proposal is clever but a little on the deceptive side!)

Comment author: juliawise 10 November 2012 04:08:25PM 2 points [-]

Will, I remember you saying that new 80K members tend to be interested in x-risk, so that expanding 80K could be a good way to increase x-risk funding. Is that right?

Comment author: wdmacaskill 10 November 2012 11:33:34PM *  1 point [-]

That's the hope! See below.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 10 November 2012 11:56:39PM 5 points [-]

By the way, thanks for the comments! Seeing as the post is getting positive feedback, I'm going to promote it to the main blog.

Comment author: Giles 11 November 2012 04:20:40PM 4 points [-]

I've emailed Will a bunch of questions about 80K/GWWC and their need for funding - I'll post the answers in the Discussion section. (I have his permission to do this, and he seemed pretty enthusiastic about making the information public)

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:21:39PM 5 points [-]

Feel free to post the questions just now, Giles, in case that there are others that people want to add.

Comment author: Giles 11 November 2012 06:55:21PM 4 points [-]
Comment author: anholt 11 November 2012 07:45:34AM 4 points [-]

I recently sent in my membership for GWWC, and just got confirmation for the larger of my two donations for the year, and this article got me thinking:

The membership form asked me (iirc) what I expected to be donating before learning about GWWC and what I expect after joining GWWC. I filled in the "before" field based on historical behavior (~2% of income). But I think that was a wrong answer on my part -- the main thing that GWWC changed for me was the idea of 10% of income as the focal point. But since I decided to join a year ago, I've encountered the 10% idea elsewhere, in only slightly less persuasive ways, so I probably would have committed to 10% pretty soon anyway. We may be overcounting the impact of GWWC because people whose donation patterns would have gone up over time anyway are not accounting for that (unless you already do in your analysis).

Comment author: wdmacaskill 11 November 2012 05:14:03PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for this. Asking people "how much would you have pledged?" is of course only a semi-reliable method of ascertaining how much someone actually would have pledged. Some people - like yourself - might neglect that fact that they would have been convinced by the same arguments from other sources; others might be overoptimistic about how their future self would live up to their youthful ideals. We try to be as conservative as reasonable with our assumptions in this area: we take the data and then err on the side of caution. We assumed that 54% of the pledged donations would have happened anyway, that 25% of donations would have gone to comparably good charities, and that we have a dropout rate amortized over time equivalent to 50% of people dropping out immediately. It's possible that these assumptions still aren't conservative enough.

Comment author: Strange7 11 November 2012 07:46:20PM 3 points [-]

Perhaps it would also be useful to work backwards? That is, figure out exactly how conservative the assumptions need to be to put the value of a donation below the break-even point.

Comment author: anholt 13 November 2012 03:04:39AM 0 points [-]

Excellent. That sounds pretty reasonable, and that's pretty impressive leveraging given those assumptions.

Comment author: Giles 10 November 2012 04:33:05AM 3 points [-]

(One might ask: if the idea of meta-charity is so good, why don’t many more meta-charities exist than currently do?) So you might need to see a lot more hard data (perhaps verified by independent sources) before being convinced.

This is a really interesting issue, and it applies to any exceptional giving candidate, not just to meta-charities. In order to get exceptional value for money you need to (correctly) believe that you are smarter than the big donors - otherwise they'd already have funded whatever you're planning on funding to the point where the returns diminish to the same level as everything else.

This relates to the issue of collecting lots of hard data because rationality is partly about the ability to make the right decision given a relatively small amount of data.

My tentative conclusion is that if you have no good reason to believe you're more rational than the big money then the best thing is to invest your resources in improving your own rationality.

Comment author: CarlShulman 10 November 2012 09:05:49PM 13 points [-]

because rationality is partly about the ability to make the right decision given a relatively small amount of data.

And sensibly collecting obtainable data that could make a big difference for a decision. Making correct decisions with less data is harder, and so more taxing of epistemic rationality, but that difficulty means it's often instrumentally rational to avoid such difficulty.

Comment author: Giles 11 November 2012 05:00:42PM *  2 points [-]

Yep, totally agree - see this comment and this post.

I'd treat the graph of GiveWell's money moved as evidence in favour of meta (and in particular CEA) being promising, under three assumptions:

  • GW's top charities really are significantly more effective than what people would otherwise be giving to (otherwise that graph would just show the amount of money uselessly moved from one place to another)
  • CEA is doing something orthogonal to what GW are doing (otherwise they might just be needlessly competing with each other)
  • CEA is part of the same "effective altruism" growth sector that GW is part of.

In a way you could regard any charity fundraising as "meta" in some sense, but the market there is already saturated in a way that I don't think "effective giving" is. So I wouldn't expect people to be getting such huge returns from fundraising (even if they're trying a somewhat novel approach), but I wouldn't count this as strong evidence against meta.

Definitely curious about what other kinds of evidence I should be on the lookout for, or for reasons why I shouldn't take GW's big takeoff so seriously.

Comment author: CarlShulman 11 November 2012 08:13:31PM 3 points [-]

I'd treat the graph of GiveWell's money moved as evidence in favour of meta (and in particular CEA) being promising, under three assumptions:

Yes, that and the stats for Giving What We Can/CEA look pretty good.

CEA is doing something orthogonal to what GW are doing (otherwise they might just be needlessly competing with each other)

I think competition tends to be good! It keeps people on their toes, and provides a check on problems. Consider your other point:

GW's top charities really are significantly more effective than what people would otherwise be giving to (otherwise that graph would just show the amount of money uselessly moved from one place to another)

With competitors you could check the rate of concordance, when they disagree, or look to see which organizations identify problems with data first, that sort of thing.

Comment author: lukeprog 11 November 2012 11:34:25AM 1 point [-]

Cannot upvote this enough. Neglected Virtue of Scholarship and all that.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 10 November 2012 11:49:58PM 5 points [-]

In order to get exceptional value for money you need to (correctly) believe that you are smarter than the big donors - >otherwise they'd already have funded whatever you're planning on funding to the point where the returns diminish to the >same level as everything else.

That's if you think that the big funders are rational and have similar goals as you. I think assuming they are rational is pretty close to the truth (though I'm not sure: charity doesn't have the same feedback mechanisms as business, because if you get punished you don't get punished in the same way). beoShaffer suggests that they just have different goals - they are aiming to make themselves look good, rather than do good. I think that could explain a lot of cases, but not all - e.g. it just doesn't seem plausible to me for the Gates Foundation.

So I ask myself: why doesn't Gates spend much more money on increasing revenue to good causes, through advertising etc? One answer is that he does spend such money: the Giving Pledge must be the most successful meta-charity ever. Another is that charities are restricted in how they can act by cultural norms. E.g. if they spent loads of money on advertising, then their reputation would take a big enough hit to outweigh the benefits through increased revenue.

Comment author: beoShaffer 11 November 2012 12:32:26AM 2 points [-]

beoShaffer suggests that they just have different goals - they are aiming to make themselves look good, rather than do good.

Agree with the part before the dash, have a subtle but important correction to the second part. While the explicit desire to look good certainly can play a role, I think it is as or more common for giving to have a different proximate cause, but to still approximate efficient signaling (rather than efficient helping) because the underlying intuitions evolved for signaling purposes.

Comment author: Strange7 11 November 2012 07:40:58PM 0 points [-]

The best way to look good to, say, exceptionally smart people and distant-future historians, is to act in almost exactly the way a genuinely good person would act.

Comment author: wdmacaskill 20 November 2012 10:42:42PM 1 point [-]

My response was too long to be a comment so I've posted it here. Thanks all!

Comment author: Jade 18 November 2012 11:04:40AM *  0 points [-]
Comment author: someonewrongonthenet 12 November 2012 02:08:30AM *  0 points [-]

I'd be shocked if this were downvoted, as Lesswrong's affiliation with your charities is probably the best part of this website from a utilitarian standpoint.

So, I see that you use various sources to determine the optimal charity. Via GWWC, I found links to GiveWell's review via the site, and I notice that they post the results of their analysis next to each charity. Is your meta-analysis posted somewhere on your site as well?

If not, it should be, and more prominently featured! Your target audience are the type of people who would seek out a meta-charity, they would need to see those papers. It's important that a given viewer can, with relatively little effort, be relatively assured that the claims of the meta charity are accurate.

As a user of the web-page, I'd like an accessible, concise summary of how you know that your top recommended charities do in fact have the best QALYs/dollar ratio, as well as a resource for more thorough investigation. (And apologies if this information is on the site and I just didn't find it - but if I didn't find it then it's likely others are having the same issue!)

Comment author: TrickBlack 20 November 2012 09:28:11AM -2 points [-]

I'm interested to hear what you think is more important in terms of making a difference - the money or the job. Some jobs (teacher, social worker) which can have quite an impact can also have low salaries - teaching in particular is under political attack in the United States. Such jobs don't allow for as much donation to charity. On the other hand, there are jobs with high salaries (say, in the business and corporate world) which make a low or potentially negative impact, but have a larger salary which they could donate to charity.

There are of course jobs which fall under both categories - the medical profession in particular can be quite well-paying while making a very positive impact. Unfortunately, not everyone who wants to make a difference can be (or wants to be) a doctor (I believe that enjoying your job is very important for various reasons, but that's a matter for another day).

So what's better - more teachers dedicated to helping their students towards the future, or more Warren Buffetts? If you had to ask each of a million people to donate to only one of your charities, which would you advocate for?

Comment author: Konkvistador 20 November 2012 05:12:30PM *  4 points [-]

A Warren Buffet donating a small fraction to efficient charity has a positive impact several orders of magnitude above a teacher. It would be awesome win if we could take thousands of teachers and turn them into Buffets. The reality however is that most teachers aren't capable of this. To build a good case I suggest you sit down and do the math of the measured life gains students get from good teachers vs the gains of mediocre white collar professionals giving the extra money they earn beyond the teacher salary to efficient charity.

Comment author: mytyde 20 November 2012 10:37:09PM -3 points [-]

Wealth doesn't appear out of nowhere. The decreasing wages of professionals doesn't mean there's less wealth in the system, it means that wealth goes is distributed differently, mostly towards creating more Warren Buffets. The donation of a small sum of an accumulated fortune cannot create an impact equivalent to if that fortune in its entirety had been distributed in fairly paid labor. A charity by definition requires an additional, socially superfluous level of bureaucracy which is paid out of donations. The charities that billionaires tend to support also don't necessarily apply their spending in any semblance of efficiency, if they even affect good policy decisions with the impact they do have. Charities cannot achieve economies of scale, nor do they have a secular source of funding (their continued existence is dependent on appeasing potential donors, not on efficient performance). Teachers are not slaves.

Comment author: Konkvistador 21 November 2012 02:07:19PM *  6 points [-]

Wealth doesn't appear out of nowhere.

It isn't zero sum either. I'm fairly certain Warren Buffet creates quite a lot of it. I'm also sure the marginal value of yet another school teacher pales in comparison to it.

The donation of a small sum of an accumulated fortune cannot create an impact equivalent to if that fortune in its entirety had been distributed in fairly paid labor.

My inner anthropologist from Jupiter is confused by this sentence, what is this "fair pay" thing. Please elaborate on it.

The donation of a small sum of an accumulated fortune cannot create an impact equivalent to if that fortune in its entirety had been distributed in fairly paid labor.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Warren Buffet is a vampire squid on the face of the world ... why not? You have humans routinely buying liquor and cigarettes instead of malaria nets for their own children, or wasting dollars on negative sum games like jostling for positional goods.

And to be avoid misunderstandings I do think you can make a good case that some people & institutions probably are vampire squids in the sense I used here.

The charities that billionaires tend to support also don't necessarily apply their spending in any semblance of efficiency, if they even affect good policy decisions with the impact they do have.

We aren't talking about what billionaires tend to support. We are using a thought experiment of primary school teacher vs. efficient charity donating rich dude to help you decide whether you where on the curve you want to go.

I'm pretty sure that being a pirate in Somalia and donating to efficient charity is probably justified by utilitarian calculations. If you can't possibly imagine this being the case, pause to consider that a criminal is just a start up government, a local bandit who ideally would want to have the monopoly on violence that a real state has but just isn't good enough for now. The best approach for the pirate would be to just stay in port and have passing ships pay him protection money. We accept some taxation of the trade routes can produce better results than not taxing it at all. I think it clear most government spending is much worse in its impact per dollar than efficient charity. If you disagree why in the world aren't you donating money to say the US government or writing up an argument for it? Model piracy by me and my merry armed band in Somalia as a tax on the trade route, then judge them as you would a government program with the same bang for buck.

To give another controversial example, I find it plausible that selling Marijuana and several other kinds of drugs (but not all) full time and donating the money to efficient charity beats out being a primary school teacher or working in kindergarten on utilitarian grounds.

Comment author: mytyde 04 December 2012 09:29:56PM *  0 points [-]

What is the mechanism by which Warren Buffet creates wealth by himself? If you're talking about investing, couldn't a good supercomputer hypothetically do the same job for free? Anyways, Buffet doesn't do all of his own investments: most capitalists don't. They engage in joint ventures and mutual funds. Their only "contribution" to these is being the owner of investment funds (an arbitrary title when removed from historical context). Buffet does contribute to society but not (through some divine justice) proportionate to the compensation he is allotted.

Consider if Warren Buffet's teachers had not taught him to do math and he hadn't had the opportunity to do anything he did. What if his local librarian wasn't able to help him find books on investment, if he hadn't happened upon mentors who could teach him business, if he had been born poor and had to work minimum wage from a young age. Now consider if there are other potential Warren Buffets who would thrive as much as him given the opportunity but actually DO experience such setbacks.

Anyways, to assume that private investment is a social imperative is not friendly to reality. China right now has a totalitarian government which controls investments (including closely regulating foreign investment), and its economy has been exploding for decades as a result of infrastructure investment. There are plenty of models in-between China and the US which also function fine.

In the United States, we consistently overestimate the contribution of private industry in developing our infrastructure. Cars are only possible because of roads, telephones were only possible because of telephone wires, the internet & technology revolution were only possible because of massive Cold War defense department spending (the ARPANET was the prototype for the internet). It is not an exaggeration to say that the public has a far greater stake in private business than it realizes. In some cases, the privatization of public research can justifiably be seen as a transfer of wealth from taxpayers towards the fortunes of big business investors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET

Comment author: Larks 21 November 2012 03:59:40PM 0 points [-]

We accept some taxation of the trade routes can produce better results than not taxing it at all.

Unless you're using "can" in a very weak sense - as in "if the revenue was donates to efficient charity", I don't think that's true, because they cause additional wasteful substitution to intra-national trade. Taxes should fall on income (or negative externalities).

Comment author: Konkvistador 21 November 2012 04:02:57PM *  2 points [-]

You are taking the quote in a too narrow context. Replace pirates preying on internal or international shipping with a bunch of thugs that show up in the market and take every tenth apple for themselves. Or robbing local farmer and craftsman and taking some of their stuff. Or road warriors enacting an environmentally friendly carbon tax on fuel.

Comment author: Larks 21 November 2012 04:07:31PM 0 points [-]

I don't understand what you mean. Is your point that taxes can be justified, and that sufficiently advanced piracy is indistinguishable from taxes? Or that taxes are better than pirates? Or that taxes on trade routes are better than other taxes? I agree with the first two, and was objecting to the last one.

Comment author: Konkvistador 21 November 2012 04:22:50PM *  2 points [-]

I don't understand what you mean. Is your point that taxes can be justified, and that sufficiently advanced piracy is indistinguishable from taxes?

Yep.

Or that taxes are better than pirates?

Generally they are because taxes tend towards efficient banditry at the Laffer maximum. A pirate spending a fraction of their income on efficient charity probably beats out taxes. Naturally a better utilitarian solution is to give that pirate more and more power so he can better and better approximate taxation and spend more on efficient charity, until the marginal gain of efficient charity drops to that of other government spending. Now of course maybe taxes are already too high and do more harm than good, in which case the pirate should stop earlier.

Or that taxes on trade routes are better than other taxes?

I didn't mean to claim this.

Comment author: Athrelon 21 November 2012 02:58:02PM *  3 points [-]

glances at thread

Econ is the mind-killer.

Comment author: Konkvistador 21 November 2012 03:52:53PM *  3 points [-]

GLaDOS already complained about our community being more easily mind killed about it than it once was. This i why I requested a sequence on economics and especially prediction markets recently.

Comment author: mytyde 15 January 2013 04:17:13AM 0 points [-]

Poorly informed anything is a mind-killer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JroogX7zBek

Comment author: Larks 21 November 2012 04:03:19PM 1 point [-]

If you didn't become a teacher someone else would. If you didn't donate to charity there's no-one who would fill in your place. Hence, you should donate to charity and not become a teacher.

As an aside, I'd like to see evidence that teachers or social workers have much impact, even ignoring replacability concerns.

Comment author: michaeljohnston0 25 November 2012 07:04:14AM 0 points [-]

I'd also like to see evidence that Buffets don't have a significant social impact through the work they do. Successful companies create valued products, jobs, etc. and depend on investment. On the other hand, they may also make income inequality different and hence lead to less efficient allocations of resources in terms of quality of life. Anyone know a good starting point for reading about this?

Comment author: JaySwartz 20 November 2012 01:28:19AM -2 points [-]

I am compelled to point to a fundamental supply chain issue; intermediary drag. Simply stated, the greater the number of steps, the greater the overhead expense. While aggregators have some advantage on the purchasing side, they are an added expense on the distribution side in the vast majority of cases. If they enable some form of extended access, intermediaries may have a value, but the limited nature of charitable donations would make intermediaries an unlikely advantage.