Alms is not about alms experts

In September Robin suggested that there might be an Alms Expert Opening:

Today the three spending categories of medicine, school, and alms make up ~40% of US GDP, a far larger fraction than in 1800. …

Today, two of these three classic charities have very powerful associated “professions”: doctors and teachers. These professions are powerful because they are seen as representing the good in those causes – doctors are our official authorities on what is good for patients, and teachers are our official authorities on what is good for students…

The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc.

Are alms experts punching below their weight, given the large fraction of GDP spent on alms? I think not, because alms spending mostly bypasses the work of alms experts.

Medical spending mostly goes to pay doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, or to provide facilities and equipment that supports their work: there were over 7.5 million technically skilled healthcare workers in 2011. In education elementary schoolhigh school, and post-secondary teachers added up to over 4.4 million people, with other spending going to school buildings, principals, utilities, libraries, and so forth.

But consider the largest alms program in the United States, the Social Security Administration, which makes cash payments to the elderly, the disabled, and surviving family members of certain deceased. Its budget request projects that in 2013 it will pay out some $873 billion to beneficiaries while spending less than $12 billion for operations, with only 80,000 state and federal employees.

The relatively small role for administration recurs elsewhere, e.g. the food voucher program SNAP disbursed $76 billion in 2011 with administrative costs of $6.9 billion and the Earned Income Tax Credit disbursed $59.5 billion with direct administrative costs of less than one percent. Staffing can be higher for programs involving social workers and foreign assistance, but less is spent on these than the large formula-driven programs.

Since alms employees are relatively scarce, they can directly deliver fewer votes or political contributions than teachers or medical workers. And since their role in the provision of alms is so much less central, it is harder for others to see them as “representing the good in those causes.” Instead, organizations of recipients can take on the role of defenders of the alms they receive. For alms influence and status, look to the 38 million members of the AARP, not 80,000 Social Security workers.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Since alms employees are relatively scarce, they can directly deliver fewer votes or political contributions than teachers or medical workers.

    You were responding to:

    The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc. – Robin

    But the response begs the question. If there were a “strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor…,” then Alms employees wouldn’t be “relatively scarce.”

    • Paul Christiano

      Alms go directly to those in need while medical spending goes to those who provide medicine. The recipients of alms are not professionals; the recipients of medical spending are. This accounts for why there are fewer alms workers than medical workers. It’s not clear how it could be construed as begging the question.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        The recipients of alms are not professionals; the recipients of medical spending are.

        The question is precisely

        why

        there are no experts to provide alms services.
        To say there are fewer alms workers because alms recipients receive the money directly isn’t explanatory unless you can offer a reason besides the absence of alms experts why alms go entirely to recipients.. It’s begging the question because it’s trivial that if there are no alms experts, then alms experts won’t be indirect beneficiaries of alms.

        Let me put it differently. Do you really think Robin asked a question that could be answered in so trivial a fashion? If he had, would it be worth a whole posting to point that out?

      • richatd silliker

        Why is a trick question.
        Why is an inappropriate and inaccurate question. Why is designed to provide justification and to assign responsibility or blame. 

      • DonaldWCameron

        Hi Rick, Why is a prayer.
        one cannot “ask themselves a question”. The phrasing is prosaic. “Ask yourself this…” is idiomatic.
        “Then I asked myself this…” is idiomatic.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

        Why is a trick question.
        Why is an inappropriate and inaccurate question. Why is designed to provide justification and to assign responsibility or blame. 

        The easiest way to refute that is to provide an example of what might count as a suitable answer to why there isn’t a profession of alms experts without being inappropriate, inaccurate, or moralistic.

        Here’s one: recipients of alms don’t have a coherent set of needs addressable by alms experts.

        Or there’s Robin’s answer, if I understand him:  there’s no (deep) answer; this is a missed opportunity.

        Or there’s my answer: if “we” really wanted to eliminate poverty (I’m speaking of only the U.S.), “we” could do so more cheaply than providing expertise to people based on the special needs of being poor.

        But one answer that is devoid of insight and explanatory power is that there isn’t a powerful profession of alms givers because there aren’t enough alms givers to constitute a powerful profession–which is the essence of the OP’s thesis.

      • richatd silliker

         Nice try.

  • Siddharth

    Is one your claims that alms disbursal, at least as it currently operated, requires far less expertise compared to medicine and education?

    Do you think that alms disbursal might have potential for similar quantities of expertise as medicine and education? 

  • carey

    The reason that there is no body of professionals who specialise in helping the poor is that – in Eliezer’s terms – there is no efficient market in utilons. People who will recieve benefit from education and health care can sometimes afford it, whereas people who will recieve benefit from financial aid cannot.

    • carey

      (i.e. the markets for education and health care are more efficient than the market for utilons)

  • Trimegistus

    I think all non-military government employees can be considered “alms workers.” They think of themselves that way, as selfless crusaders helping make a just society (or whatever the buzzwords are this week). So just because you’re doing grant administration for the Department of Energy, you’re still an alms worker because your job depends on giving other people’s money away.

  • http://www.facebook.com/CronoDAS Douglas Scheinberg

    > The missing group here is alms experts: we have no strong profession of those who specialize in helping the poor, crippled, etc.
     
    They’re called “social workers” and you can get a degree in it.

    • Carl Shulman

      Also development specialists, and various religious organizations historically. But as I said they are only associated with a minority of programs, with most of the alms effort going into formulaic cash transfers and vouchers.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

       Perhaps it’s a cynical view, but I don’t think social workers are alms specialists any more than the security guard at a hospital is a health specialist.

      • Kedd

        then you’ve never known real social workers

      • http://cheapsocialworkeradventures.blogspot.com/2012/02/about-social-services-at-hospital.html Cheapsocialworker

        I don’t think you understand what a social worker does.  Social workers EXIST to help the poor and the crippled.  In medical settings, social workers are some of the first people called in when such people are admitted.  Their job is to evaluate the person and provide services to improve their psychosocial well being.  This may include short term counseling, referrals to community agencies to assist with finances, information on food banks, and assistance in adjusting to a new illness.  This is just in a hospital setting.

        Outside of a hospital setting, social workers is a multifaceted profession with the purpose of helping downtrodden individuals overcome the barrier in their lives.  Whether it’s poverty, drug addiction, mental illness, disability, etc., a social worker is there to make sure these individuals don’t fall through the cracks and works with them to improve their standard of life.

        I highly suggest you read into the history of social work.  Social work roots itself in service to the poor.  Sounds like an alms specialist to me.

  • JW Ogden

    This is a little off topic but I put here anyway:  I like the idea of unbundling Government.  I think that it would be better if we elected an alms executive.  He would set the alms tax and run the disabuse agency. The way it is today you elect politicians to run a government that does much more that the government did what it was designed.  You might like one candidate better on alms and the other one better on arms and a third on medical care all huge programs but you have to choose one for all.

  • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

    There are also only a small number of US government employees who manage the medicare or medicaid programs, and the programs that subsidize college loans. When people get money from Social Security and welfare to buy food and housing, that money is eventually spent on many experts in the systems that provide that food and housing. Once we distinguish the experts who administer government programs from the experts who are eventually paid to provide the relevant services, it isn’t clear there are fewer experts in alms than in medicine and school.  

    • Carl Shulman

      The category of all industries that make stuff purchased with alms is very diffuse, encompassing most of the economy, with most production not purchased with alms. Every industry (agriculture, grocery stores, automobiles, TV, electricity, computers, etc) may be able to make a claim to being connected with alms, but few can make a claim to being much more associated with alms than other industries, or more associated with alms than comparatively less admired ordinary market transactions.
      By the same token, we could ask why all these other industries don’t take credit for medicine and education from the teachers and doctors (other industries feed, clothe, house, warm, entertain, equip, and teach those experts).

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        If a housing maker were to specialize in making cheap apartments, or a food maker were to specialize in making cheap food, they would have a hard time earning respect as alms specialists. Suggests something else is going on besides a lack of alms specialization.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

        If a housing maker were to specialize in making cheap apartments, or a food maker were to specialize in making cheap food, they would have a hard time earning respect as alms specialists.

        Calling someone a “specialist” accords high status. But activities associated with the poor are low status, like the poor themselves. So, it’s cognitively dissonant for the public to think of alms specialists–or else the label would be too pejorative to be useful. [For new insight into cognitive dissonance, see my
        Uncomfortable ideas and disfluent expression affect us
        similarly
        http://tinyurl.com/8m65wry ]

  • Drewfus

    When considering the role of experts in any domain, it is surely worthwhile to be aware of what category of ‘expert’ is otherwise implicitly being refered to. There are two categories:

    1. The 10,000 hour expert that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about. This is the category of very high skill, and probably the more traditional meaning of the term ‘expert’. “She is an expert Chess player”, is an example.

    2. The top-of-profession expert. This refers more to the status and prestige of the individual, her academic record and institutional base. The sort of person the media goes to for their opinion on some current affair, the government goes to rationalize their policies, and some members of the public refer to to get their opinion on issue x. The term ‘expert’ is becoming more associated with this notion of expertise.

    What category of expert are we dealing with in this post?