GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 2

In my prior post on this topic, I laid out seven distinct arguments for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. In this post, I explore the first of these:

Good Ventures can find better opportunities to do good than other GiveWell donors can, because it is willing to accept more unconventional recommendations from the Open Philanthropy Project.

I'll start by breaking this up into two claims (disjunctions inside disjunctions!): a bold-sounding claim that the Open Philanthropy Project's impact will be world-historically big, and a milder-sounding claim that it can merely do better than other GiveWell donors.

The bold claim seems largely inconsistent with GiveWell's and the Open Philanthropy Project's public statements, but their behavior sometimes seems consistent with believing it. However, if the bold claim is true, it suggests that the correct allocation from Good Ventures to the GiveWell top charities is zero. In addition, as a bold claim, the burden of evidence ought to be fairly high. As things currently stand, the Open Philanthropy Project is not even claiming that this is true, much less providing us with reason to believe it.

The mild claim sounds much less arrogant, is plausibly consistent with GiveWell's public statements, and is consistent with partial funding of the GiveWell top charities. However, the mild claim, when used as a justification for partial funding of the GiveWell top charities, implies some combination of the following undesirable properties.

  • Other GiveWell donors' next-best options are worthless.
  • Good Ventures and other GiveWell donors have an adversarial relationship, and GiveWell is taking Good Ventures's side.

Continue reading

It is not a scandal that Donald Trump sexually assaulted a child onstage.

Sorry to write about Donald Trump again, but he’s such a good foil for talking about justice. I'll keep this short.

People have been talking about an incident in which he publicly tried to kiss a child without her consent.

This is wrong behavior, and it is also normal adult behavior.

It is a scandal that Donald J. Trump, who is probably a serial rapist, and has obviously committed multiple sexual assaults and bragged about them, is not in prison. The scandal is not that some exceptionally bad thing occurred, but that this is apparently the expected, normal outcome. That the women assaulted by Trump apparently believed that they had no legal recourse, that they did not think that this was unacceptable behavior that would be punished as such if they spoke up.

It is not additionally a scandal, given the apparent absence of rule of law in this country, that the Republican party has nominated this criminal for the Presidency of the United States. (The scandal there is that he seems totally uninterested in actually doing the job, and therefore likely to cause an unusually large amount of damage to the current world order, to no purpose. I'll try to write about this before election day.)

It is separately a scandal that it is normal adult behavior to kiss a child who clearly does not want to be kissed by you.

It is not additionally a scandal that the Republican presidential nominee engages in normal adult behavior in public.

If you think that this ought to be scandalous, the place to start is by objecting to it in the cases where you have the social power to change behavior - when you personally witness it. That’s the beginning of the process. The end of the process is that it’s actually scandalous when anyone - bad person or not - sexually assaults a child in public.

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 1

Direct critiques of effective altruism have tended to take a form ill-suited to persuade the sort of person who is excited about it. One critique points somewhat vaguely at the virtues of intuition and first-hand knowledge, and implies that thinking is not a good way to make decisions. Others have criticized effective altruism's tendency in practice towards centralization and top-down decisionmaking, and implied that making comparisons across different programs is immoral. What's missing is a critique by someone sympathetic to the things that make effective altruism appealing: a desire to follow the evidence wherever it leads, use explicit methods of evaluation whenever possible, and be sensitive to considerations of scope.

I am going to try to begin that sympathetic critique here by looking at GiveWell, a nonprofit that tries to recommend the best giving opportunities. GiveWell is a good test case because it is now fairly central to the effective altruist movement, and it has been unusually honest and open about its decisionmaking processes. As it has developed and grown, it has had to deal with some of the tensions inherent in the effective altruist project in practice.

In the course of implementing effective altruist ideals, GiveWell has accumulated massive conflicts of interest, along with ever-larger amounts of money, power, and influence. When I hear this discussed, people generally justify it by saying that it is in the service of a higher impact on the world. Such a standard allows for a lot of moral flexibility in practice. If GiveWell wishes to be held to that standard, then we need to actually hold it to that standard - the standard of maximizing expected value - and see how it measures up.

That’s an extremely high standard to meet. GiveWell’s written that you shouldn’t take expected-value calculations literally. Maybe any attempt to maximize impact by explicitly evaluating options should be scope-limited, and moderated by common sense. But if you accept that defense, then the normal rules apply, and we should be skeptical of any organization whose conduct is justified by the fully general mandate to do the most good.

We can’t have it both ways.

GiveWell has recently written about coordination between donors. GiveWell wrote that up to explain why it recently recommended that a major funder commit, in some circumstances, to not fully funding the charities GiveWell recommends to the public, based on concerns of crowding out other donors. My post is largely a response to this. Continue reading

Locker room talk

Locker room dystopias

Recently, presidential candidate Donald Trump made the news because he was caught on tape bragging about how women let him get away with sexually assaulting them because he is a star. He and his supporters have defended him on the basis of this being ordinary locker room banter. Part of what I think is important to me about this is that I perceive Trump and his supporters are making a threat-of-isolation power play. The implied threat is:

If you complain about this sort of behavior, you will be alone. There are no allies to be found. Any group of men you appeal to will back up your abuser. Every woman you know has already accepted her place in this game.

This helps explain why there has been such strong pushback against Trump's comments (e.g. professional athletes saying they've never heard anything like this in their locker rooms), and why this is important. In an interview with Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani, journalist Jake Tapper responds with incredulity at Giuliani's claim that this is a normal way for a man to talk: Continue reading

Six principles of a truth-friendly discourse

Plato’s Gorgias explores the question of whether rhetoric is a “true art,” that when practiced properly leads to true opinions, or whether it is a mere “knack” for persuading people to assent to any arbitrary proposition. Socrates advances the claim that there exists or ought to exist some true art of persuasion that is specifically about teaching people true things, and doesn’t work on arbitrary claims.

(Interestingly, the phrase I found appealing to use in the title of this post, "truth-friendly," is pretty similar to the literal meaning of the Greek word philosophy, "friendliness towards wisdom.)

Six principles of the knack of rhetoric

Robert Cialdini’s Influence is about the science of the “knack” of rhetoric - empirically validated methods of persuading people to agree to arbitrary things, independent of whether or not they are true beliefs or genuinely advantageous actions. He outlines six principles of persuasion:

  1. Reciprocity - People tend to want to return favors. An example of this with respect to actions is the practice of Hari Krishna giving people “gifts” like a book or a flower, and then asking for a donation. A special case of this is “reciprocal concessions” - if I make a request and you turn it down, and then I make a smaller request, you’re likely to feel some desire to meet me halfway and agree to the small request.
  2. Commitment and consistency - People use past behavior and commitments as a guide to present behavior. If you persuade someone that they’re already seen as having some attribute, they’re more likely to want to “live up to” it. If you get people to argue for a point, even without any commitment to believing their argument, they’re more likely to say they believe it in the future. If you get someone to agree in principle to do a thing, they’re more likely to agree to specific requests to do the thing.
  3. Social proof - People use others’ behavior as a proxy for what’s reasonable. Advertisements exploit this by showing people using a product.
  4. Authority - People tend to accept the judgment of people who seem respectable and high-status whether or not they are an expert in the field in question.
  5. Liking - people are more likely to buy things from people they like.
  6. Scarcity - People are more eager to buy things that appear scarce. “Limited time offers” exploit this.

Six principles of the art of rhetoric

Making it easier for people to avoid these traps seems like a desirable attribute of a discourse, if we want to move more efficiently towards truth. Therefore, a rational rhetoric will have the following six principles, each one countering one of Cialdini's principles of the knack of influence: Continue reading

Frank Loesser and corruption in America

The movie musicals of Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls) are a straightforward celebration of a certain sort of peculiarly American form of corruption and adulteration. Both are about people dressing up formally and obeying elaborate forms of etiquette while optimizing for nothing but scamming one another. Highly recommended if you haven't already seen them - Frank Loesser is also a gifted lyricist and the choreography is great, so they're fun to watch.

Guys and Dolls is about how the occasional infusion of a person of integrity leads to the corruption of other people of integrity. Almost all the characters are gamblers, except for people who literally work as Salvation Army missionaries or police officers, and one stage performer. The gambling is made to seem charming since it resembles a children's game (all these grown up children just want to play with cards and dice and watch horses run fast and argue over who’s going to win), but it's clearly compulsive and antisocial behavior. The gamblers all dress up smartly and speak with elaborately formal diction, and in general it's a lot like The Godfather as an extreme romanticization of gangster culture (h/t Cracked) which plays up the honor ethic and sense of style. However, at one point a big out-of-town gambler who's lost a lot of money at a crap game pulls out a gun and a set of blank dice, claiming he remembers which side is which, in order to "win" his money back from the game organizer at gunpoint. So the honor is clearly sort of fake, but there’s some pressure to preserve appearances.

Marlon Brando's male lead character falls in love with a woman working for the Salvation Army, but in the process of being reformed by her, manipulates her into leaving town one night, leaving her mission unstaffed so that some gamblers can use it as a venue, and then lying to the police to protect them. The other male lead, played by Frank Sinatra, finally agrees to get married to throw police off his trail, and in the process gives an engagement speech in front of his fiancée about how happy he is that she's trusting him even though she knows he's scamming her.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is based on a satirical business handbook with the same title, and it's about how to use sociopathic Machiavellian manipulation to advance in a corporation. It's explicitly about clubbiness among graduates of the same college - at one point the young talented protagonist following the book's advice pretends to have gone to the same college as the CEO to curry favor with him. More generally, it is about coordination between people of a privileged class who want to continue extracting monopoly rents together instead of facing real competition - there's a scene where the other executives are meeting in the executive washroom to try and coordinate against the upstart. Near the climax there's a song called "Brotherhood of Man" about how top executives and board members should show solidarity with the rest of privileged middle and upper management and keep employing them them even if they don't add value. The protagonist becomes chairman of the board, and at the very end decides that he'd rather be President of the United States, so he shows up at the White House to implement the exact same strategy.

Increase bottleneck throughput by shortening queues?

I've been reading Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett, and I'm confused about a queueing problem mentioned in it. He gives an example from Kip Hawley's book Permanent Emergency, which I'll quote here:

The Powder River Basin was the single biggest leverage point for increasing profitability in Union Pacific territory [...] one of the most important coal-producing areas in the United States - a place where our trains always seemed to get bottlenecked at a single line of rail leading to the coal fields while transporting coal to many of the nation's electric power plants.

Because on-time performance from this particular spot was so important - a serious delay in delivery could endanger the supply of electricity to the entire city of Atlanta - Union Pacific spent enormous energies trying to improve efficiency. We rushed high-priority coal cars to a continuous queue just outside the single-point entry to the basin. We advanced new, empty cars right after the previous train moved out loaded with coal. But instead of maximizing efficiency, we were overdoing it. One of the consequences of focusing so much operational and tactical energy on wringing every last second out of the process is that we left ourselves precious little slack when something did go wrong. [...]

It is simply the nature of large, heterogeneous systems like a railroad network to have things go wrong all the time. And as soon as something went wrong with one train, the other trains we'd stacked up behind it were stuck. Lining up all the trains in a row, we realized, had effectively squeezed all room for error out of the system and was slowing down our delivery schedule.

After letting that conundrum soak in, one of our brainstorming teams proposed a solution that directly contradicted the time-maximization mode we'd been toiling in. What if, rather than rushing the empties to the gridlock point, we staged the coal cars far away from the troublesome intersection and then flowed them in, so they arrived when the intersection was clear? Rather than trying to cram in as many priority trains as possible, we dispatched the cars to a collection of holding points dispersed across the railroad, making sure that the Powder River Basin's access point wasn't idle for very long. It worked. Not only did it clear up the gridlock, it also increased the number of daily coal trains by 30 percent. [...]

Another way of thinking about that solution was that railroad dispatchers were building resilience into the process. Previously, we'd put all our eggs in one perfect basket, leaving us no viable secondary options if the basket filled up. It was true that our new system of flowing in trains was not technically as time-efficient as the first system, but by accounting for the time eaten up by unpredictable problems that plague any complex network, it was ultimately more successful.

I don't understand how this can possibly be true.

I understand how this could improve average on-time performance. Keeping all available coal trains queued at the Powder River Basin means that they are not available elsewhere, so if there's a delay at that single bottleneck, it will cascade throughout the network. The first queueing train probably increases utilization of the one coal field line, but the tenth improves performance much less in expectation there, while it could easily improve performance in emptier areas of the network by quite a lot.

What I don't understand is how this could possibly improve throughput at the intersection, unless there's some key factor I'm missing. It's conceivable that the bottleneck could have been overutilized, or that there wasn't just the one line and there was an alternate route that farther-away trains could have gotten to, or that the section of track trains were queueing on was also sometimes needed as an exit, but nothing like that gets mentioned by Hawley as far as I can tell. The claim seems to be, simply, that shorter queues caused higher throughput.

What am I missing?

Puppy love and cattachment theory.

Secure attachment and the limbic system

A couple of friends recently asked me for my take on this article by Nora Samaran on secure attachment and autonomy. The article focuses on the sense of security that comes from someone consistently responding positively to requests for comfort. The key point is that it's not just a quantitative thing, where you accumulate enough units of comfort and feel good. It's about really believing on a gut level that someone is willing to be there for you, and wants to do so: Continue reading

Minimum viable impact purchases

Several months ago I did some work on a trial basis for AI Impacts. It went well enough, but the process of agreeing in advance on what work needs to be done felt cumbersome. It's not uncommon that midway through a project, it turns out that it makes sense to do a different thing than what you'd originally envisioned - and because I was doing this for someone else, I had to check in at each such point. This didn't just slow down the process, but made the whole thing less motivating for me.

Later, I did my own research project. When natural pivot points came up, this didn't trigger a formal check-in - I just continued to do the thing that made the most sense. I think that I did better work this way, and steered more quickly towards the highest-value aspect of my research. Part of this is because, since I wasn't accountable to anyone else for the work, I could follow my own inner sense of what needed to be done.

I was talking with Katja about my work, and she mentioned that AI Impacts might potentially be interested in funding some of this work. I explained the motivation problem mentioned in the prior paragraphs, and wondered out loud whether AI Impacts might be interested in funding projects retrospectively, after I'd already completed them. Katja responded that in principle this sounded like a much better deal than funding projects prospectively, in large part because it would take less management effort on her part. This also felt like a much better deal to me than being funded prospectively, again because I wouldn't have to worry so much about checking in and fulfilling promises.

I've talked with friends about this consideration, and a few mentioned the fact that sometimes people are hired as researchers with a fairly vague or flexible research mandate, or prefunded to do more like their prior work, in the hope that they'll produce similarly valuable work in the future. But making promises like that, even if very abstract, also makes it difficult for me to proceed in a spirit of play, discovery, and curiosity, which is how I do some of my best work.

It also offends my sense of integrity to accept money for the promise to do one thing, or even one class of thing, when my real plan is to adopt a flexible stance - my best judgment might tell me to radically change course, and at this stage I fully intend to listen to it. For instance, I might decide that I should switch from research to writing and advocacy (what I'm doing now). I might even learn something that persuades me to make a bigger commitment to another course of action, starting or join some organization with a better-defined role.}

What doesn't offend my sense of integrity is to accept money explicitly for past work, with no promises about the future.

Then it clicked - this is the logic behind impact certificates. Continue reading

Some excerpts from Catistotle's Kittycatean Ethics

Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and pounce, seems to aim at some red dot, and hence it has been beautifully said that the red dot is that at which all cats aim. But a certain difference is apparent among ends, since some are ways of being at play, while others are certain kinds of works produced, over and above the being-at-play.
If, then, there is some end of the things we do that we want on account of itself, and the rest on account of this one, and we do not choose everything on account of something else (for in that way the pounces would go beyond all bounds, so that desire would be empty and pointless), it is clear that this would be the red dot, and in fact the reddest dot. Then would not an awareness of it have great weight in one's life, so that, like mousers who see a mouse, we would be more apt to hit on what is needed? But if this is so, one ought to try to get a grasp, at least in outline, of what it is and to what kind of knowledge or capacity it belongs.
And it would seem to belong to the one that is most governing and most a master art, and politics appears to be of this sort, since it prescribes which kinds of knowledge ought to be in the cities, and what sorts each cat ought to learn and to what extent; also, we see that the most honored capacities, such as mousing, household cattery, and meowing skill, are under this one. Since this capacity makes use of the rest of the kinds of knowledge, and also lays down the law about what one ought to do and from what one ought to refrain, the end of this capacity should include the ends of the other pursuits, so that this end would be the feline red dot. For even if the red dot is the same for one cat and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one cat that is something to be satisfied with, but for a litter or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine. So our pursuit aims at this, and is in a certain way political.
Now taking up the thread again, since every kind of knowing and every pounce reach toward some red dot, let us say what it is that we claim politics aims at, and what, of all the dots aimed at by action, is the reddest. In name, this is pretty much agreed about by the majority of cats, for most cats, as well as those who are more refined, say it is being in a box, and assume that living well and doing well are the same thing as being in a box. But about being in a box-what it is-they are in dispute, and most cats do not give the same account of it as the wise. Some cats take it to be something visible and obvious, such as pleasure or wealth or honor, and different ones say different things, and even the same cat often says different things; when sick one thinks it is health, but when poor, that it is wealth, and when they are conscious of ignorance in themselves, cats marvel at those who say it is something grand and above them. And some cats believe that, besides these many red dots, there is some other red dot, by itself, which is also responsible for the being red of all these other dots.