Category Archives: Charity

“Can’t Say No” Spending

The remarkable observation that medical spending has zero net marginal effect is shocking, but not completely unprecedented.

According to Spiegel in "Too Much of a Good Thing: Choking on Aid Money in Africa", the Washington Center for Global Development calculated that it would require $3,521 of marginal development aid invested, per person, in order to increase per capita yearly income by $3.65 (one penny per day).

The Kenyan economist James Shikwati is even more pessimistic in "For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!":  The net effect of Western aid to Africa is actively destructive (even when it isn’t stolen to prop up corrupt regimes), a chaotic flux of money and goods that destroys local industry.

What does aid to Africa have in common with healthcare spending? Besides, of course, that it’s heartbreaking to just say no –

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Food Vs. Sex Charity

Added May 7, 2018: Scott Aaronson wishes me to state that he now, and for the past decade, completely renounces and disclaims any comparison between inequalities of wealth and inequalities of romantic and sexual fulfillment, even in the context of a thought experiment.  He regards having once briefly entertained such a comparison, during an episode
of suicidal depression, as one of his greatest regrets in life.  He apologizes to anybody who was hurt or offended by the comparison, and has offered to make partial restitution to them, either by fielding their questions about quantum computing or any other subject, or by donating to a mutually agreed-upon charity.  For more, please see his
recent blog post The Zeroth CommandmentEnd Added

Scott Aaronson asks a great question:

Consider two men, A and B. Man A steals food because he’s starving to death, while Man B commits a rape because no woman will agree to have sex with him.  From a Darwinian perspective, the two cases seem exactly analogous. In both we have a man on the brink of genetic oblivion, who commandeers something that isn’t his in order to give his genes a chance of survival. And yet the two men strike just about everyone — including me — as inhabiting completely different moral universes. The first man earns only our pity. We ask: what was wrong with the society this poor fellow inhabited, such that he had no choice but to steal? The second man earns our withering contempt.

One problem with the question is that in our society giving enough sex to satisfy is expensive, while giving enough food to satisfy is cheap.  So it might help to imagine a society where the person who lost the food was also in some, though less, danger of starving.

But even then food and sex seem to be treated differently.  When we give food aid we don’t just give rice and beans to keep folks from starving; we give them enough to have a moderately tasty diet.   We do nothing remotely similar for sex.

To me the obvious answer is that our concern about inequality is not very general – compared to inequality in access to food, humans are just not that concerned about sexual inequality, especially for men.  Presumably for our ancestors, the gene pool of a tribe could benefit from equalizing food in ways that it could not benefit by equalizing sex.

Added: Riffing off this post, Scott rewords his question:  Why do we, as a society, provide food stamps for the hungry but not sex stamps for the celibate?

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T.S. Eliot Quote

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.   T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, (1974), p. 111   

Well put.  Found here. 

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Take Our Survey

Grad student Jason Briggeman and I would love for you to take our overcoming-bias related survey, and perhaps win a $100 Visa gift card.  I wish I could say more about it here, but we don’t want to bias your answers.  After we get enough answers and analyze them, we’ll tell you what we found.  Please don’t read the comments until you’ve taken the survey. 

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Fair Landowner Coffee

Many people feel proud of buying "fair trade" coffee, because it is supposed to help the poor people who grow the coffee.   But it turns out that the benefits go to landowners, not laborers: 

In Costa Rica, less than 2% of the coffee produced is certified and sold as Fair Trade. In Guatemala, farmers report the meager benefits promised by Fair Trade, if they materialize, are not worth the costs which must be borne. … Certification, for the producer cooperative, costs between US$2,000 and US$4,000. …  A coffee farm is not eligible for Fair Trade certification if it employs even one person as a permanent full-time employee.  Most family farms, while not enormous, can be tended during the 7-8 months of the growing season quite easily by an average size family. However, during the harvest (November to March) large numbers of seasonal employees are needed . …  immigrants flood into Costa Rica from Nicaragua, Colombia, and to a lesser extent, Panama. These individuals are too poor to own land, but supply the much needed labor for the harvest period. While Fair Trade notes that any seasonal labor should be paid at least the country’s minimum wage, no records are required of the individual landowner-farmers. The wages paid are never verified as part of the certification or annual inspection processes.

Now admittedly these landowners are a lot poor than the average American who drinks Fair Trade coffee.  But it is still curious that coffee landowners elicit more of our sympathy than coffee field workers.   Human altruism is a complex beast

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Scope Insensitivity

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88 [1]. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved – the scope of the altruistic action – had little effect on willingness to pay.

Similar experiments showed that Toronto residents would pay little more to clean up all polluted lakes in Ontario than polluted lakes in a particular region of Ontario [2], or that residents of four western US states would pay only 28% more to protect all 57 wilderness areas in those states than to protect a single area [3].

Continue reading "Scope Insensitivity" »

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Against Admirable Activities

Christians often say, "Love the sinner but hate the sin."  I say, "Love the signaler but hate the signal."  We all want to be respected, by ourselves and others, or at least not despised or ignored.  So we fill our lives with activities that could get us more admired, such as pursuing our career, practicing our art or sport, tending our beauty, developing our style, being loyal to our friends and family, caring for the downtrodden, becoming more informed about current events, and so on.

These admirable activities help us to develop and show our admirable qualities.  But since admiration is in part relative, my looking more admirable comes in part at the expense of others looking less admirable.  So there is in part an arms race quality to admirable activities, which suggests we do too much of them from a global point of view.

Unfortunately, our minds were not built from a global point of view.  We are instead built to admire admirable activities, in addition to admiring the people who do them.  We admire drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on, and we support policies that encourage these activities.  We like our families, churches, clubs, companies, cities, and nations to subsidize such activities.  Parents push their kids toward more admirable activities, such as music over video games.  And nations subsidize science, sport, and arts that will impress other nations. 

This support urge can make evolutionary sense.   A group that coordinates to help its most noticed members look more admirable may be more admired as a group, to the benefit of all group members.  But at a global level we all suffer from admiring admirable activities, much like trees suffer by working to grow tall enough to see the sun past other trees. 

Yes, the optimal level of admirable activities may usually be above zero, and yes other considerations may suggest we do too little of some activities.  But we are too eager to believe such considerations exist.  For example, many will tell you that we should subsidize art because it promotes peace or innovation.  Overall, we try too hard at admirable activities, relative to just enjoying the less-admirable pleasures of life, and we are biased to neglect this problem.  For humanity’s sake, please, take five, and chill.

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Resolving Your Hypocrisy

Self love is more cunning than the most cunning man in the world.  … Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.    La Rochefoucauld.

Humans are hypocrites.  That is, we present ourselves and our groups as pursuing high motives, when more often low motives better explain our behavior.   We say we invade nations to help them build democracy, rather than for revenge or security.  We say we marry to help our partner, rather than to gain sex or security.  We say we choose our profession to help others, and not for prestige or income.  And so on.

Comedians live by ridiculing such hypocrisy, but "cynics" who complain without such wit and style are despised.  In contrast, we are attracted to the innocent who naively believe our hypocrisies.

Noticing the hypocrisy in others usually makes us feel morally superior.  After all, we are know we are not hypocrites; "I can look inside myself and and see my sincerity."  But eventually experience and intelligence force some of us to face the likelihood that we are no different.   At this point we can resolve our hypocrisy two ways: we can start really living up to our high ideals, or we can admit we don’t care as much as we thought about those ideals .   

Continue reading "Resolving Your Hypocrisy" »

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Gifts Hurt

Two weeks ago Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution called me a Scrooge for pointing out that "helping" professions don’t help more.  So this Christmas day, let me Scrooge again by pointing out the dark side of gifts.   It is not just that gifts can be worth less than they cost; the problem goes deeper.  In Friday’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer explained:

The roundsman is the guy who, with the class huddled at the bed of a patient who has developed a rash after taking penicillin, raises his hand to ask … whether this might not instead be a case of Schmendrick’s Syndrome … The point is for the prof to remember this hyper-motivated stiff who stays up nights reading journals … the roundsman, let’s call him Oswald, ignores at his peril, is that this apple polishing does not endear him to his colleagues, … The general feeling among the rest of us is that we should have Oswald killed. … There’s always an Oswald.  There’s always the husband who takes his wife to Paris for Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day? The rest of us schlubs can barely remember to come home with a single long-stem rose. What does he think he’s doing? And love is no defense. We don’t care how much you love her — you don’t do Paris. It’s bad for the team.

Gift-giving is in part a contest, to show how much more you know and care about someone, relative to others.  And what that someone gets, in part, is having everyone see how loved they are, relative to others.  If you succeed and make yourself look good, you make other givers look worse by comparison.  And if your recipient looks loved, other recipients look less loved by comparison. 

"All is fair in love and war" they say, and this sort of love is a lot like war; when you gain, others lose.  But while we usually feel at least a little bad about the harm we cause in ordinary war, we are smugly proud of the harm we cause in this war of love that is gifts.   

The world may gain some benefits from people feeling they can trust their associates.   But even so, I’d guess most gifts produce a net harm.   

Enjoy your spoils of war this Christmas day.  🙂

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