Category Archives: Charity

Breeding happier livestock: no futuristic tech required

[Edited to remove insensitive framing. Also, the possibility of reducing the misery in factory farming with such technology does not and would not justify factory farming.]

I have spoken with a lot of people who are enthusiastic about the possibility that advanced genetic engineering technologies will improve animal welfare.

But would it really take radical new technologies to produce genetics reducing animal suffering?

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 as such, or to increase their capacity for pleasure, but it has been applied to great effect elsewhere on productivity (with some positive but overall negative effects on welfare).

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 generate increases in farmed animal welfare, potentially 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:


Anderson, who has bred the birds for 26 years, said the key technical advance was artificial insemination, which came into widespread use in the 1960s, right around the time that turkey size starts to skyrocket…

This process, compounded over dozens of generations, has yielded turkeys with genes that make them very big. In one study in the journal Poultry Science, turkeys genetically representative of old birds from 1966 and modern turkeys were each fed the exact same old-school diet. The 2003 birds grew to 39 pounds while the legacy birds only made it to 21 pounds. Other researchers have estimated that 90 percent of the changes in turkey size are genetic.

Moreover, breeders are able to improve complex weighted mixtures of diverse traits:

The bull market (heh) can be reduced to one key statistic, lifetime net merit, though there are many nuances that the single number cannot capture. Net merit denotes the likely additive value of a bull’s genetics. The number is actually denominated in dollars because it is an estimate of how much a bull’s genetic material will likely improve the revenue from a given cow. A very complicated equation weights all of the factors that go into dairy breeding and — voila — you come out with this single number. For example, a bull that could help a cow make an extra 1000 pounds of milk over her lifetime only gets an increase of $1 in net merit while a bull who will help that same cow produce a pound more protein will get $3.41 more in net merit. An increase of a single month of predicted productive life yields $35 more.

No futuristic technologies are needed to make progress, although they would expedite the process: just feed accurate enough measurements of animal welfare into the net merit equation and similar progress could begin on the new trait.

Added December 8th:

Gaverick Matheny reports that some breeds have been selected in part for welfare. However, because breeders have not yet finished optimizing farm animals for productivity, the opportunity cost of not increasing productivity even further instead has been too high, given weak market and other pressures for welfare improvement, for this to take off.

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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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Generous Lust

I've been pondering this 2007 JPSP article, summarized by the Economist:

They divided a bunch of volunteers into two groups. Those in one were put into what the researchers hoped would be a “romantic mindset” by being shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex. … The unlucky members of the other group were shown pictures of buildings …

The participants were then asked … to imagine they had $5,000 in the bank. They could spend part or all of it on various luxury items such as a new car, a dinner party at a restaurant or a holiday in Europe. They were also asked what fraction of a hypothetical 60 hours of leisure time during the course of a month they would devote to volunteer work. …

In the romantically primed group, the men went wild with the Monopoly money. Conversely, the women volunteered their lives away. … Meanwhile, in the other group there was little inclination either to profligate spending or to good works. Based on this result, it looks as though the sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. …

Continue reading "Generous Lust" »

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Another Call to End Aid to Africa

Dambisa Moyo, an African economist, has joined her voice to the other African economists [e.g. James Shikwati] calling for a full halt to Western aid.  Her book is called Dead Aid and it asserts a direct cause-and-effect relationship between $1 trillion of aid and the rise in African poverty rates from 11% to 66%.

Though it's an easy enough signal to fake, I find it noteworthy that Moyo – in this interview at least – repeatedly pleads for some attention to "logic and evidence":

"I think the whole aid model is couched in pity.  I don’t want to cast aspersions as to where that pity comes from.  But I do think it’s based on pity because based on logic and evidence, it is very clear that aid does not work.  And yet if you speak to some of the biggest supporters of aid, whether they are academics or policy makers or celebrities, their whole rationale for giving more aid to Africa is not couched in logic or evidence; it’s based largely on emotion and pity."

I was just trying to think of when was the last time I heard a Western politician – or even a mainstream Western economist in any public venue – draw an outright battle line between logic and pity.  Oh, there are plenty of demagogues who claim the evidence is on their side, but they won't be so outright condemning of emotion – it's not a winning tactic.  Even I avoid drawing a battle line so stark.

Moyo says she's gotten a better reception in Africa than in the West.  Maybe you need to see your whole continent wrecked by emotion and pity before "logic and evidence" start to sound appealing.

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Christmas Signaling

Why don't we give each other cash for Christmas?  Your employer pays you cash instead of grocery carts full of stuff because you know what you want better than they do; why doesn't that go for gifts as well?

The usual answer is your Christmas gift is a signal, not just of your willingness to sacrifice cash for them, but also of how well you know them, to know what they want.  But if so then why do we often make and distribute Christmas wish lists?   Doesn't handing our free answer sheets defeat the purpose of testing them on how well they know us?

One answer might be that the gift receiver is like a teacher leaking answers to students to raise her teacher rating – maybe the gift receiver cares more that third parties think her gift givers know her well, than that they actually know her well.  But in this case wouldn't she be trying to hide the fact that she passed around a wish list?  If everyone who sees her get a gift was shown the wish list, who could she be fooling?

Could it all be an elaborate show so that she can honestly tell other folks that she got things she wanted?  But if so wouldn't she be terribly embarrassed if they learned she gave out a wish list?  That just doesn't ring true to me; what else could be going on?

Added: Registering for wedding gifts is a clearer puzzle; all are fully aware of the list, the list is very specific, and recipients don't save on shopping time/trouble, as they had to pick out the gifts. 

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Singularity Summit 2008

FYI all:  The Singularity Summit 2008 is coming up, 9am-5pm October 25th, 2008 in San Jose, CA.  This is run by my host organization, the Singularity Institute.  Speakers this year include Vernor Vinge, Marvin Minsky, the CTO of Intel, and the chair of the X Prize Foundation.

Before anyone posts any angry comments: yes, the registration costs actual money this year.  The Singularity Institute has run free events before, and will run free events in the future.  But while past Singularity Summits have been media successes, they haven’t been fundraising successes up to this point.  So Tyler Emerson et. al. are trying it a little differently.  TANSTAAFL.

Lots of speakers talking for short periods this year.  I’m intrigued by that format.  We’ll see how it goes.

Continue reading "Singularity Summit 2008" »

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Future Altruism, Not

In the laboratory dictator game, you give subjects a pile of money and ask them if they want to give some of it to anonymous other subjects.  In the lab people do give away some money, a lot more than if you had handed money to someone on the street.  People give less if the experiment is double-blind, if there is social distance between the giver and recipient, and according to a new study, if payments are received more than a week after the decision:

We experimentally study the effect of time on altruism. By postponing payments in a standard Dictator game, subjects allocate a future payment between themselves and others. Since both the payoffs of the Dictator and the Receiver are delayed until the same time, standard intertemporal utility maximization would predict that waiting time should not affect the Dictator’s choice. In this respect, we observe that Dictators’ decisions are not affected, as long as the time interval between the decision and payment is not large [2-6 days, median gift 15%]. On the other hand, for large time gaps [10-22 days, median gift 0%], subjects become more self-interested.

I fear this is more bad news about our altruism toward the very distant future. 

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World Welfare State

At at the city, state, or national levels we sometimes "help the poor" via initiatives to "develop" this or that region, but what we mostly have is "welfare" benefits that go directly to individuals.  After all, development funds have a poor track record, and are often diverted by corrupt officials, while direct benefits are the prototype of charity to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  At the international level, however, we mostly have "development aid", even though its track record is just as bad there.  Why don’t we give more benefits directly to the world’s poor? 

We do not need a strong world government to have a world welfare state – we just need those who want to help the poor to form to a common fund with a common system for distributing benefits.  Some minimal requirements, such as a world ID card, would be made on nations who wanted to let their citizens to get world welfare.  And a special level of international disgust could be reserved for nations that refused to let locals to get world welfare.  Yes this wouldn’t be easy, but why does no one even try? 

With a world welfare system donors would have to more directly face their choice between welfare at home and abroad.  Why don’t we first ensure everyone in the world at least gets a dollar a day, before we make sure locals don’t suffer with only basic cable channels? 

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Nephew Versus Nepal Charity

If you had a poor but promising nephew, you might promise to pay his way through college.  You would place some limits on his activities – you probably wouldn’t pay for a semester off to train for Halo championships.  And you might insist he maintain a minimum GPA.  But you probably wouldn’t interfere much in his choice of college or major.  And when you give to your children in your will, you rarely place restrictions on how they can spend what you give them. 

But when we help poor people in far away lands (like Nepal), we almost never just give people money with few strings attached.  We instead fund projects, run mostly by outsiders, to do things for them.  We build them dams, roads, hospitals, bed nets, laptops, irrigation ditches, and so on.  For poor people in our own nation, we act somewhere in between these two extremes.

When we give, why do we interfere so much more with distant poor, and interfere so little with those close to us? 

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The Greatest Gift, The Best Exercise

In this generous season, consider the greatest gift we regularly and personally give (even if we do not intend it as such): sex.  Back in 2005, Tyler Cowen pondered Michael Vassar’s pregnant observation: "there is an inexplicable shortage of sex."  This remains, I think, one of the most neglected questions in social science.  We should devote far more effort to diagnosing and fixing this problem.  To inspire more precious gift-giving, let us review the health benefits of sex [as of 2003]:

Saving yourself" before the big game, the big business deal, the big hoedown or the big bakeoff … there’s no evidence it sharpens your competitive edge. The best that modern science can say for sexual abstinence is that it’s harmless when practiced in moderation.

In one of the most credible studies … tracked the mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged men over the course of a decade. … Its findings, published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were that men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards. … In a 2001 follow-on … by having sex three or more times a week, men reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by half.

Sex, if nothing else, is exercise. A vigorous bout burns some 200 calories–about the same as running 15 minutes on a treadmill or playing a spirited game of squash. … Sex also boosts production of testosterone, which leads to stronger bones and muscles. …

A 2002 study of 293 women … reported that sexually active participants whose male partners did not use condoms were less subject to depression than those whose partners did. One theory of causality: Prostoglandin, a hormone found only in semen, may be absorbed in the female genital tract. …

Continue reading "The Greatest Gift, The Best Exercise" »

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