effective altruism

All posts tagged effective altruism

Book review: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

This book gives an interesting perspective on the obstacles to fixing poverty in the developing world. They criticize both Jeffrey Sach and William Easterly for overstating how easy/hard it is provide useful aid to the poor by attempting simple and sweeping generalizations, where Banerjee and Duflo want us to look carefully at evidence from mostly small-scale interventions which sometimes produce decent results.

They describe a few randomized controlled trials, but apparently there aren’t enough of those to occupy a full book, so they spend more time on less rigorous evidence of counter-intuitive ways that aid programs can fail.

They portray the poor as mostly rational and rarely making choices that are clearly stupid given the information that is readily available to them. But their cognitive abilities are sometimes suboptimal due to mediocre nutrition, disease, and/or stress from financial risks. Relieving any of those problems can sometimes enable them to become more productive workers.

The book advocates mild paternalism in the form of nudging weakly held beliefs about health-related questions where people can’t easily observe the results (e.g. vaccination, iodine supplementation), but probably not birth control (the poor generally choose how many children to have, although there are complex issues influencing those choices). They point out that the main reason people in developed countries make better health choices is due to better defaults, not more intelligence. I wish they’d gone a bit farther and speculated about how many of our current health practices will look pointlessly harmful to more advanced societies.

They give a lukewarm endorsement of microcredit, showing that it needs to be inflexible to avoid high default rates, and only provides small benefits overall. Most of the poor would be better off with a salaried job than borrowing money to run a shaky business.

The book fits in well with Givewell’s approach.

Book review: Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving, by Eric Friedman.

This book will spread the ideas behind effective altruism to a modestly wider set of donors than other efforts I’m aware of. It understates how much the effective altruism movement differs from traditional charity and how hard it is to implement, but given the shortage of books on this subject any addition is valuable. It focuses on how to ask good questions about philanthropy rather than attempting to find good answers.

The author provides a list of objections he’s heard to maximizing the effectiveness of charity, a majority of which seem to boil down to the “diversification of nonprofit goals would be drastically reduced”, leading to many existing benefits being canceled. He tries to argue that people have extremely diverse goals which would result in an extremely diverse set of charities. He later argues that the subjectivity of determining the effectiveness of charities will maintain that diversity. Neither of these arguments seem remotely plausible. When individuals explicitly compare how they value their own pleasure, life expectancy, dignity, freedom, etc., I don’t see more than a handful of different goals. How could it be much different for recipients of charity? There exist charities whose value can’t easily be compared to GiveWell’s recommended ones (stopping nuclear war?), but they seem to get a small fraction of the money that goes to charities that GiveWell has decent reasons for rejecting.

So I conclude that widespread adoption of effective giving would drastically reduce the diversity of charitable goals (limited mostly by the fact that spending large amount on a single goal is subject to diminishing returns). The only plausible explanation I see for peoples’ discomfort with that is that people are attached to beliefs which are inconsistent with treating all potential recipients as equally deserving.

He’s reluctant to criticize “well-intentioned” donors who use traditional emotional reasoning. I prefer to think of them as normally-intentioned (i.e. acting on a mix of selfish and altruistic motives).

I still have some concerns that asking average donors to objectively maximize the impact of their donations would backfire by reducing the emotional benefit they get from giving more than it increases the effectiveness of their giving. But since I don’t expect more than a few percent of the population to be analytical enough to accept the arguments in this book, this doesn’t seem like an important concern.

He tries to argue that effective giving can increase the emotional benefit we get from giving. This mostly seems to depend on getting more warm fuzzy feelings from helping more people. But as far as I can tell, those feelings are very insensitive to the number of people helped. I haven’t noticed any improved feelings as I alter my giving to increase its impact, and the literature on scope insensitivity suggests that’s typical.

He wants donors to treat potentially deserving recipients as equally deserving regardless of how far away they are, but he fails to include people who are distant in time. He might have good reasons for not wanting to donate to people of the distant future, but not analyzing those reasons risks making the same kind of mistake he criticizes donors for making about distant continents.

Book Review: Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility by Lant Pritchett.
This book is primarily written for economists and academics in related fields, but most of it can be understood by an average person.
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I suspected it would do little more than reinforce my existing beliefs. There were certainly parts of the book that I would have been better off skipping for that reason.
But one important effect of the book was to convince me that the effects on the poor of migration to wealthier countries is so large compared to things like “foreign aid” and free trade that anyone trying to help the poor by influencing government policies shouldn’t spend any time thinking about how to improve “foreign aid” or trade barriers.
I’ve long been wondering how to respond to remarks such as Jimmy Carter’s ‘We are the stingiest nation of all’ based the U.S.’s low “foreign aid” to GDP ratio. Pointing out that “foreign aid” is mostly wasted or even harmful requires too much analysis of lots of not-too-strong evidence. Pritchett shows that the wealth affects of allowing the poor to work in rich countries should dominate any measure of how those rich countries treat the poor. By that measure, adjusting for country size, the U.S. ranks better than countries in the EU, but is embarrassingly callous compared to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.
The book addresses both moral and selfish arguments for restricting immigration. It treats the selfish arguments (even those based on myths) as problems that can’t be overcome, but which can be reduced via compromises. These pragmatic parts of the book are too ordinary to be worth much.
The sections about moral arguments are more powerful. He clearly demonstrates a large blind spot in the moral vision of those who think they’re opposed to all discrimination but who aren’t offended by discrimination on the basis of the nationality a person was assigned at birth. But he exaggerates when he claims that nationality is the only exception to a widely agreed on outrage at discrimination based on “condition of birth”. Discrimination based on date of birth still gets wide support (e.g. the drinking age). And if you’re born as a conjoined twin, don’t expect much protection from surgery that looks about as moral as brain surgery designed to cure a child’s homosexuality should.
Perhaps this book is one small step toward creating a movement with a slogan such as “Tear down that kinder, gentler Berlin wall!”.

This post is a response to a challenge on Overcoming Bias to spend $10 trillion sensibly.
Here’s my proposed allocation (spending to be spread out over 10-20 years):

  • $5 trillion on drug patent buyouts and prizes for new drugs put in the public domain, with the prizes mostly allocated in proportion to the quality adjusted life years attributable to the drug.
  • $1 trillion on establishing a few dozen separate clusters of seasteads and on facilitating migration of people from poor/oppressive countries by rewarding jurisdictions in proportion to the number of immigrants they accept from poorer / less free regions. (I’m guessing that most of those rewards will go to seasteads, many of which will be created by other people partly in hopes of getting some of these rewards).

    This would also have a side affect of significantly reducing the harm that humans might experience due to global warming or an ice age, since ocean climates have less extreme temperatures, seasteads will probably not depend on rainfall to grow food, and can move somewhat to locations with better temperatures.
  • $1 trillion on improving political systems, mostly through prizes that bear some resemblance to The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (but not limited to democratically elected leaders and not limited to Africa). If the top 100 or so politicians in about 100 countries are eligible, I could set the average reward at about $100 million per person. Of course, nowhere near all of them will qualify, so a fair amount will be left over for those not yet in office.
  • $0.5 trillion on subsidizing trading on prediction markets that are designed to enable futarchy. This level of subsidy is far enough from anything that has been tried that there’s no way to guess whether this is a wasteful level.
  • $1 trillion existential risks
    Some unknown fraction of this would go to persuading people not to work on AGI without providing arguments that they will produce a safe goal system for any AI they create. Once I’m satisfied that the risks associated with AI are under control, much of the remaining money will go toward establishing societies in the asteroid belt and then outside the solar system.
  • $0.5 trillion on communications / computing hardware for everyone who can’t currently afford that.
  • $1 trillion I’d save for ideas I think of later.

I’m not counting a bunch of other projects that would use up less than $100 billion since they’re small enough to fit in the rounding errors of the ones I’ve counted (the Methuselah Mouse prize, desalinization and other water purification technologies, developing nanotech, preparing for the risks of nanotech, uploading, cryonics, nature preserves, etc).

Book review: Poverty and Discrimination by Kevin Lang.
This book is designed to make you feel less sure of your knowledge, and it succeeds in that goal. That’s a worthy accomplishment, although it provides much less satisfaction than a book that provides a grand vision for solving problems would. At some abstract intellectual level I liked the book, but my gut feelings often told me that reading the book was unrewarding work that I shouldn’t do unless it was assigned reading for a course I needed.
The book will dissatisfy anyone who wants to view politics as a fight between good and evil. For many issues such as the minimum wage, he provides strong arguments that the effects are small enough that we should doubt whether the issue is worth fighting about.
He gives good explanations of why it’s hard to even have clear concepts of poverty and discrimination by providing examples of how seemingly trivial or unobservable differences can create results that our intuitions say are important to our moral rules.
He provides clear evidence that some discrimination still exists, and then thoroughly explains why there’s large uncertainty about how harmful it is. He presents one moderately unrealistic model in which discrimination is common but doesn’t affect wages. Then he presents a somewhat more realistic model in which a tiny bit of discrimination produces large wage differences. But those wage differences may overstate the harm done, because they’re partly due to minorities spending less on education and to women pursuing careers in lower risk occupations or careers which allow more flexibility to take time off.
There are only a handful of places where I doubted his objectivity.
He reports one study showing evidence of racial discrimination in home loans, but fails to mention any of the contrary evidence such as the Anderson and Vanderhoff paper showing higher marginal default rates for blacks.
The final few pages on policy implications seem poorly thought out compared to the rest of the book (he says that’s the least important chapter of the book). He claims that income taxes on the bottom quintile can be reduced to zero by a 10% increase on the top quintile, but that claim depends on assumptions about how reported income changes in response to tax increases. He doesn’t indicate what assumptions his claim depends on.
He claims “The high rate of incarceration in the United States and the high level of inequality are related.” He gives a plausible theory about why inequality causes the wealthy in some countries to spend a lot protecting their wealth from the poor, but provides no evidence connecting that theory to U.S. incarceration rates.

Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill to replace patent monopoly protection for drugs with awards based in part on Quality Adjusted Life Years added by the drugs.
This would eliminate the harm due to monopoly pricing. It might also cause some research to be redirected from “me-too” drugs to more innovative drugs. But I suspect that it’s common enough for what initially looks like a “me-too” drug to end up having valuable advantages that such an effect will be minor.
It would probably be a bigger help to people in developing nations than all the government spending misleadingly labeled as foreign aid.
Because politics will ensure that the idea is implemented suboptimally, I would prefer that something similar (e.g. patent buyouts) be implemented by a more responsible institution such as the Gates Foundation. But the patent system has enough problems that even this imperfectly written bill might improve on the status quo.
One strange effect of political reality is that the rewards are apportioned according to either benefits to U.S. patients or world patients, and the bill provides an awfully vague description of which rule will apply to which drug.
The bill allocates 10% of the rewards to orphan drugs, presumably because the lives of people with those diseases are worth more than those with common diseases.
The bill claims generics cost 85% less than patented drugs, but gets that figure from comparing overall generic prices with overall patented prices. If the cost of manufacturing drugs differs for old and new drugs, that will be misleading. The estimates I’ve found for same-drug price declines after generic competition starts suggest the price decline is more like 30% to 50%. So the bill’s claim that it can be financed by the reduced Federal government drug spending appear to be fiction.
Besides, if it were self-financing that way, wouldn’t it indicate a big reduction in the rewards to drug development? I want to see a good analysis of why $80 billion a year is adequate to substitute for patent exclusivity. My crude attempts at analyzing it suggests it’s too low, but not by a large amount.
(HT Alex Tabarrok)

Book review: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier
This very eloquent and mostly thoughtful book about the world’s poorest countries will offend ideologues of all stripes. Collier’s four different explanations for poverty traps (war, presence of natural resources, bad neighbors blocking trade routes, and corruption) clearly place him as a fox rather than a hedgehog without being complex enough that they can rationalize any result (although they can probably rationalize more results than an ideal set of explanations would). He blames both villains in poor countries and thoughtless voters in wealthy countries.
Collier sees that globalization has benefited most nations, but provides plausible mechanisms by which globalization can harm some (e.g. through enabling capital flight).
Collier mostly thinks like a good economist, but his prior work for the World Bank biases him to be overly optimistic about improving such institutions. He recognizes the incentives that cause bureaucrats to be too risk averse, but then makes a cryptic claim that the British government understands the problem and is spending money to fix it. He vaguely implies that this is a venture capital-like fund, but fails to say whether they replicated the key venture capital feature of providing unusually large rewards to employees who produce unusually good results. His silence on this subject leads me to suspect that he’s asking us to blindly trust institutions that have a long track record of avoiding results-oriented incentives.
He also shows misplaced faith in authority when he tries to calculate the value to the world of rescuing a failed state by using George Bush’s calculation that the benefits of installing a good government in Iraq exceeded the expected $100 billion cost. That might be a good argument if Bush had been spending his own money to help Iraq, but his willingness to spend other peoples’ money doesn’t say much.
Collier says it is “surely irresponsible” to leave Somalia with no government. Yet most evidence I’ve seen says Somalia improved by most standard criteria such as life expectancy when it had no government. I don’t know how reliable that evidence is, but Collier’s apparent assumption that we don’t need to look at the evidence makes his opinion suspect.
The book’s biggest shortcoming is the absence of anything resembling footnotes. Collier implies this is too make the book more readable, but he could have put a section of notes at the end referencing individual pages without altering the main text in any way. Instead he only gives a fairly large list of papers he’s written. But I can’t tell without tracking down and reading a large fraction of them which of them if any support his controversial claims (e.g. that giving money to the poorest countries helps them a bit but that doubling it would reach a limit beyond which further money would be wasted).
But his advice is good enough that its value doesn’t depend much on those controversial claims being right. Following his advice to condition aid on results (e.g. sending money to countries when they stop wars, cutting it off if they have a coup or resume war) would provide incentives that would make aid beneficial.
I had previously suspected that large countries have tended to escape poverty more easily in the past few decades because “aid” organizations had enough money to prop up small corrupt governments but not enough to affect a government such as India’s. Collier presents a good alternative theory: being a large country pretty much guarantees access to the sea, and by increasing the number of neighbors, increases the chance of having a neighbor which is open to trade.
Another good tidbit is this point on Fair Trade: farmers “get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty.”

Nick Bostrom has a good paper on Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development, which argues that under most reasonable ethical systems that aren’t completely selfish or very parochial, our philanthropic activities ought to be devoted primarily toward preventing disasters that would cause the extinction of intelligent life.
Some people who haven’t thought about the Fermi Paradox carefully may overestimate the probability that most of the universe is already occupied by intelligent life. Very high estimates for that probability would invalidate Bostrom’s conclusion, but I haven’t found any plausible arguments that would justify that high a probability.
I don’t want to completely dismiss Malthusian objections that life in the distant future will be barely worth living, but the risk of a Malthusian future would need to be well above 50 percent to substantially alter the optimal focus of philanthropy, and the strongest Malthusian arguments that I can imagine leave much more uncertainty than that. (If I thought I could alter the probability of a Malthusian future, maybe I should devote effort to that. But I don’t currently know where to start).
Thus the conclusion seems like it ought to be too obvious to need repeating, but it’s far enough from our normal experiences that most of us tend to pay inadequate attention to it. So I’m mentioning it in order to remind people (including myself) of the need to devote more of our time to thinking about risks such as those associated with AI or asteroid impacts.

Book review: How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, edited by Bjorn Lomborg.
This book makes plausible and somewhat thought-provoking claims about how an altruist ought to spend money to provide the most benefit to the needy. It concludes that high priorities should include control of HIV, malaria, malnutrition, and trade barriers.
It appears to come close to being a good book. It addresses fairly good questions about important issues. Unfortunately, it has been simplified for readability to such an extent as to prevent it from accomplishing much. Its arguments aren’t sufficiently detailed or backed by references for me to evaluate them. So they were probably intended to be accepted as a result of the authors’ authority. But their credentials leave plenty of room for doubt about how much deference their authority deserves.
So I’m left unsatisfied, and highly uncertain whether I ought to read the more detailed version of this book (Global Crises, Global Solutions).

Marginal Revolution summarizes an idea of Robin Hanson about how to overcome the problem of poor information regarding who is worthy of what charity (which I agree is a serious problem).

Unfortunately, I doubt it will work, because it suffers from very similar information problems as direct charity does. It requires donors to have good information about what a prototypical worthy recipient looks like (but having this information seems like a large part of the problem we are trying to solve), or else be able to hire someone who has better information about that than the donor (but Robin provides some strong reasons to doubt that is possible in his more recent paper He Who Pays The Piper Must Know The Tune).

I can imagine (but am unconvinced) that donors can describe the appropriate criteria for worthiness, and that the main information problem is distinguishing honest claims of meeting those criteria from dishonest claims. But the charity angels scheme rewards people for failing to distinguish honest claims, which makes me doubt that the giving that this scheme would encourage has much to do with truly worthy causes.

The “Tell Off A Jerk” variant on this theme seems closer to a workable idea, but it risks producing flame wars where people polarize into groups each of which uses charitable donations to encourage retaliation for the other group’s rude attempts at deterring jerkdom.