Tag Archives: Charity

Beware Value Talk

Decisions depend on both values and facts. Values are about us and what we want, while (beliefs about) facts are about everything else, especially the way everything else changes how what we get depends on what we do. Both values and facts are relevant to decisions.

But honestly, facts usually matter far more. Yes, sometimes we err by mistaking our values, and sometimes our values are more complex than we realize. But for the vast majority of our decisions, we have a good rough idea of what we value, and most of our decision problem (on the margin) is to figure out relevant facts. (If you review the last ten decisions you made, I think you’ll see this is obvious.)

Even when learning values is important, talking values with others usually helps less. To learn what we value, we mostly just need to try different things out and see how we feel about them. So compared to thinking about values, talking values seems even less useful for informing decisions. That is, we have better ways to coordinate to discover the world we share than to coordinate to learn our individual values. Yet we seem to spend an awful lot of time discussing values. Especially on grand topics like politics, religion, charity, sex/love, the arts, the future, etc., we seem to spend more time talking values than facts. (We also love to drop names on these topics.) Why?

Such topics tend to put us in a far mental mode, and far modes focus us on basic values relative to practical constraints. Which makes sense if far modes function more to manage our social impressions. That is, value-focused talk makes sense if such talk functions less to advise decisions, and more to help us look good. By talking values we can signal our loyalties and the norms we support, and we can covertly hint about norm violations we might overlook. (Dropping names also lets us covertly signal our loyalties.)

This is what bugs me personally about most discussions of grand topics — they are so full of value affirmations (and name dropping), and so empty of info to improve decisions. The modes that we prefer for such topics, such as stories, music, testimonials, and inspirational speeches, are much better for transmitting values than facts. Worse, people love to revisit the same value topics over and over, even though their values rarely change; it is info about facts that change, and so justify revising topics often. Also, the “experts” we prefer on these grand topics are mostly those whose main celebrated credentials are about their values and their abilities to move values, not about their understanding of facts.

I’m glad to be an academic, since our standard mode of talk is better suited to discerning and sharing facts than values. And I’m especially glad to be an economist, since our using a standard value metric lets us focus most of our disagreement on differing views about facts. Of course even so most academic discussion isn’t very well targeted at improving decisions; we are far more interested in getting better credentialed as being impressive. But at least we mostly talk facts.

If you think you are one of the rare folks who actually cares more about making better decisions than about signaling loyalties, and if you wanted to find other like minded folks to work with, I’d think you’d tend to avoid talking values, as that would be a bad sign about your interests. But in fact most folks who say they are the rare ones who care mainly about better decisions, and who take lots of personal time talk about it, seem in fact to spend most of their time talking values. They even tend to prefer the value focused modes and experts. Why are so few folks willing to even pretend to focus on facts?

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Graeber’s Debt book

About a year ago I finished David Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years. Since he’s an Occupy Wall Street anthropologist, you might expect me to dislike the book. But I enjoyed it, and learned a lot, even though it does ramble, and his economics is weak.

Graeber’s overall mood is anti-debt:

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors – of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destructions of the debt records – tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.” (p.8)

That is sure a dramatic image, and makes one’s opinion on debt seem pretty fundamental. Oddly, Graeber never actually comes out directly against debt. He doesn’t seem to want to forbid it. Instead he seems to just want to set a low bar for forgiving the debts of the poor, mainly because helping the poor is a good thing. The closest thing to an argument I found:

The remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true. A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk. If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable – if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance – the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan? (p.3)

Actually standard economic theory doesn’t say that the results without bankruptcy laws would be disastrous. Yes, the more stuff people can promise as collateral to support loans, or promise to suffer if they fail to pay, the more loans will be made, and the more people there will end up poorer or suffering because they can’t pay loans. But economists can’t say this is bad without adding assumptions about why such poverty is inefficient.

You might say that poverty is economically inefficient because it makes other people feel bad to know it exists, or because it keeps investments from being made in poor folks’ human capital. It could make sense to support general redistribution to deal with such problems. But debt forgiveness is not general redistribution. A policy of forgiving the debts of the especially poor mainly keeps the nearly poor from taking out loans from which they expect to gain overall, and raises the loan interest rates they pay.

Standard economic theory says that such debt forgiveness redistributes to the very poor, but not by taxing the rich. Anticipated future debt forgiveness instead taxes the nearly poor who take out loans and then do well, by raising the interest rates at which they repay their loans.

Yes debts are one of the ways by which people take chances with their wealth level, sometimes rising and sometimes falling. And yes if we stopped the nearly poor from taking such chances we might reduce the numbers of the very poor. But why pick only on loans? There are lots of other ways in which the nearly poor take chances with their wealth level, such as by trying new careers, jobs, neighborhoods, and social groups. Should we try to stop these risky behaviors as well?

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Why Think Of The Children?

When a cause seems good, a variation focused on children seems better. For example, if volunteering at a hospital is good, volunteering at a children’s hospital is better. If helping Africa is good, helping African kids is better. If teaching people to paint is good, teaching children to paint is better. If promoting healthy diets is good, promoting healthy diets in kids is better. If protecting people from war is good, protecting kids from war is better. If comforting lonely people is good, comforting lonely kids is better.

Why do most idealistic causes seem better when directed at kids? One explanation is that kids count a lot more in our moral calculus, just as humans count more than horses. But most would deny this I think. Another explanation is that kids just consistently need more of everything. But this just seems wrong. Kids are at the healthiest ages, for example, and so need health help the least. Even so, children health is considered a very noble cause.

For our foragers ancestors, child rearing was mostly a communal activity, at least after the first few years. So while helping to raise kids was good for the band overall, each individual might want to shirk on their help, and let others do the work. So forager bands would try to use moral praise and criticism to get each individual to do their kid-raising share. This predicts that doing stuff for kids would seem especially moral for foragers. And maybe we’ve retained such habits.

My favored explanation, however, is that people today typically do good in order to seem kind, in order to attract mates. If potential mates are considering raising kids with you, then they care more about your kindness toward kids than about your kindness toward others. So to show off the sort of kindness that your audience cares about, you put a higher priority on kindness to kids.

Of course if you happened to be one of those exceptions really trying to just to make the world a better place, why you’d want to correct for this overemphasis on kids by avoiding them. You’d want to help anyone but kids. And now that you all know this, I’ll wait to hear that massive rumbling from the vast stampeed of folks switching their charity away from kids. … All clear, go ahead. … Don’t be shy …

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On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)

Me:

As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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Talkative Sell, Silent Buy

Me six years ago:

Every transaction has both a buyer and a seller. Yet we hear much more about salesmen, and how to sell, than we do about buyermen and how to buy. … Why? [Since] buyers are usually more uncertain about their value than sellers are about their cost, … whether a sale happens is more clearly a signal of seller ability than of buyer ability. … We like to see and affiliate with people who have impressive abilities associated with sales. (more)

Katja and I did another podcast recently, this time on advertising, and we talked a bit about how people seem to pay more attention to selling than to buying. Katja noted that we seem to give more attention to the signals we send, vs. interpreting the signals of others. For example, we think more about what we will wear than about the judgements we form based on what other people wear. We think a lot more what our charity says about us than about what we think about others based on their charity.

Someone at the talk last Thursday argued that they can’t be donating to look good, since they don’t tell anyone. And that reminded me of how terrified people are to speak in public. And that brought a unifying explanation to mind: we more often need to verbally justify the signals we send than how we interpret the signals of others. Let me explain.

For our distant forager ancestors, their most important public speaking probably happened in situations where they were being accused, and needed to defend themselves. Since the generic accusation behind any specific accusation was that one wasn’t doing enough overall for the band, and maybe should be exiled or killed, our ancestors should have been eager to collect examples of the help they have given, especially unheralded help. So we may have inherited a habit of doing helpful things, and not calling attention to them, but remembering them so we could mention them later if called on to defend ourselves.

More generally, our ancestors probably acquired the habit of consciously thinking about actions that others were likely to challenge or criticize. They’d continually come up with explanations of what they did and why, and be ready to tell those stories, even if they didn’t actually have to explain or justify most of them. And because they were rarely asked to justify or explain the judgements they made about others, they didn’t get into as much of a habit of explaining those.

This theory predicts that we in fact give just as much mental attention to buying as to selling, and just as much to interpreting signals as to sending signals, because these are in fact on average equally as important to us. But we give a lot more conscious attention to the side that needs to be explained, because that is what consciousness is about – consciousness helps much less to make decisions than to explain and justify them.

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If More Now, Less Later

On Thursday I talked, together with Elie Hassenfeld of GiveWell, at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club on Effective Altruism (audio here). Scott Alexander wrote a thoughtful report, which Tyler blogged. One claim I made that I’ve before (here, here, here) is that because real interest rates (i.e., average investment rates of return) tend to be positive, it is more effective to wait, investing now and then donating later. Since many continue to question that claim, I thought I’d elaborate a bit.

In the past I’ve used Ben Franklin as an example of the possibility of using trusts to save for a very long time. But I think that distracted from my basic point, which can be made just by suggesting that you wait until the end of your life to donate. Waiting longer might in fact be better, but it has more tax and agency issues; you can’t as easily ensure your money is spent the way you want.

I admit that a good reason to donate now is if you believe that we are quickly running out of worthy recipients of charity, either because the world is getting richer and nicer, the charity world is getting more effective, or we happen to live in an unusual time of great need or danger. People who think that global warming and ecological collapse will soon make the world a hell can’t believe this, nor can those who fear great disruption in an em transition. But others may.

I also agree that tax considerations will change the rate of return you can expect, and that by giving over a period of time you may learn from your early gifts to better pick later gifts. But it should be enough to start this learning process when you are older; your life experience will help you learn faster then.

The issue I want to focus on in this post is: how high do interest rates have to be to justify saving to donate later? I’ve sometimes said that interest rates need to be higher than growth rates, and some have questioned if interest rates are in fact higher than growth rates. Others, like my co-speaker Ellie Hassenfeld and his college Holden Karnofsky at Givewell, argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But now I think I was mistaken – if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need are positive interest rates. Let me explain.

When a person chooses to save financially, they choose to spend a bit less in their usual ways, in order to give money to someone else, in the expectation of getting money back from that someone else at a later date. If they had instead not saved, and spent the money instead, that spending may well have also indirectly benefited them in the future. They might buy some medicine, get more exercise, get more sleep, try out some new products, make some new friends, or learn some new skills, any of which might help their future self.

But at the margin, a person who saves another dollar, or chooses not to borrow another dollar, must typically expect the financial returns from their investments will help them more in the future than will such indirect effects of spending today. In fact, they should expect this savings will benefit their future self more than any of these other ways of spending today. After all, why give up money today if that both gives you less to spend today, and gives you less in the future? So there wouldn’t be any savings, or less than maximal borrowing, if people didn’t expect more gains later from saving than from spending today.

This implies that unless charity recipients are saving nothing and borrowing as much as they possibly can, they must expect that you would benefit them more in the future by saving and giving them the returns of your savings later, than if you had given them the money today, even after taking into account all of the ways in which their spending today might help them in the future. So there really must be a tradeoff between helping today and helping later; if you help more today, you help less in the future. At least if you help them in a way they could have helped themselves, if only they had the money.

Of course you might not care as much about future suffering, or future folks might suffer less. But if you do care as much, and there is as much future need to help, then if interest rates are positive you can obtain more real resources with which to give more real help if you will save now, and donate later.

You might wonder: what if a deserving charity recipient is borrowing, and at a higher interest rate than you can get from by investing? This implies that you might benefit them and yourself by loaning them money, if you could overcome the barriers that have prevented others from doing so. It also implies that if you were going to help them, you might want to do it now rather than later. But this doesn’t change the fact that there is a tradeoff between helping today vs. tomorrow. And if there will be people later in a similar situation of need, you can do more good by waiting to help them later.

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Bay Area Events

April 4,5, I’ll be at three public events in the Bay Area, CA:

  • Noon April 4, free food, talk on Em Econ at Quixey, 278 Castro St. (enter via Bryant St) Mountain View, CA. Please RSVP. Added: video.
  • 5pm April 4, free pizza, talk on Effective Altruism with GiveWell’s Elie Hassenfeld, at UCB Faculty Club, Howard Room. Added: audio.
  • Noon, April 5, OB picnic at UCB entrance grass, 2099 Oxford St, Berkeley, CA. 37.871565, -122.265751.

Btw, I was quoted in a 11Mar NPR show on Intrade closing.

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Breeding happier livestock: no futuristic tech required

I talk to a lot of people who are enthusiastic about the possibility that advanced technologies will provide more humane sources of meat. Some have focused on in vitro meat, a technology which investor Peter Thiel has backed. Others worry that in vitro meat would reduce the animal population, and hope to use futuristic genetic engineering to produce animals that feel more pleasure and less pain.

But would it really take radical new technologies to produce happy livestock? I suspect that some of these enthusiasts have been distracted by a shiny Far sci-fi solution of genetic engineering, to the point of missing the presence of a powerful, long-used mundane agricultural version: animal breeding.

Modern animal breeding is able to shape almost any quantitative trait with significant heritable variation in a population. One carefully measures the trait in different animals, and selects sperm for the next generation on that basis. So far this has not been done to reduce animals’ capacity for pain, or to increase their capacity for pleasure, but it has been applied to great effect elsewhere.

One could test varied behavioral measures of fear response, and physiological measures like cortisol levels, and select for them. As long as the measurements in aggregate tracked one’s conception of animal welfare closely enough, breeders could easily generate immense increases in livestock welfare, many standard deviations, initially at low marginal cost in other traits.

Just how powerful are ordinary animal breeding techniques? Consider cattle:

In 1942, when my father was born, the average dairy cow produced less than 5,000 pounds of milk in its lifetime. Now, the average cow produces over 21,000 pounds of milk. At the same time, the number of dairy cows has decreased from a high of 25 million around the end of World War II to fewer than nine million today. This is an indisputable environmental win as fewer cows create less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and require less land.

 Wired has an impressive chart of turkey weight over time:
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Marginal Charity

People often ask: where can I get the best bang for my buck in charity? The above diagram shows where.

We make many choices, both as individuals and as organizations; we choose prices, qualities, locations, etc. We often make such choices to maximize some sort of private gain, shown in red. Such private choices also usually have effects on the gain of the rest of the world, shown in black. In general the social gain curve peaks at a different point than the private gain curve, because there are usually many market failures associated with our choices. (As the absolute curve heights are irrelevant, I’ve arbitrarily let them intersect where private gain peaks.)

At the choice that maximizes private value, a small change in the direction of raising social gain, as shown by the yellow arrow, comes at only a tiny loss in private gain. In fact, in the limit of going to the exact private gain maximizing choice, the ratio of the rates of change of social gain and private loss approaches infinity!

The lesson: if you aren’t already doing it, by far the most cost-effective way to help the world is to shade your selfish choices just a little in the direction of making the world a better place. If you have market power when you sell a product, lower your price just a tad. If you have market power when you sell your labor, lower your wage a bit. Instead of choosing the profit-maximizing quality for your product or labor, increase that quality a little. If twenty floors would be the most profitable height for your apartment complex, add one more floor. And so on. (And maybe learn some econ, so you can better see which direction is good.)

Yes, you usually aren’t sure what is your best selfish choice; your choice might already be accidentally helping the world at a bigger personal cost than you intended. But you might also be accidentally hurting both you and the world. If you are now doing your best guess way to help yourself, shift just a bit toward helping the world; on average that will cost you very little and give the world a lot.

Yes it is harder to pay others to take this approach. If you tried to pay an apartment builder to add one floor beyond the twenty they’d otherwise build, they’ll probably quickly learn to lie and say that nineteen floors is what maximizes their profits. So this approach tends to be limited to choices where you are the insider who knows the internal best estimates, or where you trust an insider not to lie to you. Still, most of us make selfish choices all the time, so we should all have lots of opportunities to apply this method.

If this is such an easy way to help the world, why haven’t you heard about it before? Why isn’t this a standard part of everyone’s education? I’d guess it is because it is hard to show that you are helping the world via this method. And people care a lot more about seeming to help, than about actually helping. Also, even if this could be made visible, we are usually much more eager to show we’ve paid a high cost than to show we’ve achieved a big social gain; it is the cost that makes for a credible costly signal of our virtue. Finally, this can’t be the basis of an inspiring hero story; it is something that many folks can each do a little, not something that one person can do a lot.

(I doubt I’m original here; this point seems pretty obvious given basic optimization theory. But I didn’t see anywhere else I could link to that makes this point.)

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Young Idealist Reply

I wrote:

Humans … slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. … When people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. … They want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. … Young folks … should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years.

Alex Waller disagrees:

When I’m 50 I don’t really want the world to be the way it is now. I don’t want to bide my time and merely learn and network idly for another decade or two while someone else is responsible for enacting positive change in the world.

News flash: you are just one of seven billion, so you aren’t going to personally make much difference. The world will have nearly as many problems worth solving then as now, with or without your help.

Let’s say I was the CEO of a small corporation that developed medical devices. … A sustainable revenue stream requires projects with a variety of timelines. Similarly, I shouldn’t only invest my company’s resources in a project with a huge payout that will take 15 years.

The world already has a big portfolio of idealistic projects. If you want your life to be one of those projects, you should accept that it has a natural timescale. There’s a best time to invest, and a best time to reap returns.

Hanson elicits skepticism in the idea that social changes enacted now will positively impact the future, without justification.

I’m not skeptical of future impacts, just of their typically growing in impact faster than financial investments.

However, I’d counter-argue that his position is just as weak: name someone who is making better-than-inflation on their investments in the last 11 years?

The last few years have been quite unusual in finance. Feasible long term financial rates of return are higher than economic growth rates.

If I am to put off charity for 20 years to compound interest, why not put it off 40 years to compound even more? Why not put it off for 100 years?

Why not indeed? If you think that your personal monitoring adds much value, you might want to spend before you die, so you can personally monitor your charities. Else you might instruct your charity fund to grow until it seems that worthy causes are about to run out, or that investments no longer grow.

Hanson totally misguides when he suggests that Young Idealism is sexually motivated.

I said “signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates.” I didn’t mention sex.

Then what explains extra altruism in the old?

I said “people tend more to form associations when young.” This implies only that old folks have a weaker need to signal, not that they have no need to signal.

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