Monthly Archives: October 2016

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 4

This is part of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. My prior post considered the second argument, that even assuming symmetry between Good Ventures and other GiveWell donors, Good Ventures should not fund more than its fair share of the top charities, because it has a legitimate interest in preserving its bargaining power. In this post, I consider the third through fifth arguments:

Argument 3: The important part of GiveWell's and the Open Philanthropy Project's value proposition is not the programs they can fund with the giving they're currently influencing, but influencing much larger amounts of charitable action in the future. For this reason it would be bad to get small donors out of the habit of giving based on GiveWell recommendations.

Argument 4: The amount of money Good Ventures will eventually disburse based on the Open Philanthropy Project's recommendations gives them access to potential grantees who would be interested in talking to one of the world's very largest foundations, but would not spend time on exploratory conversations with smaller potential donors who are not already passionate about their program area.

Argument 5: GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and their grantees and top charities, cannot make independent decisions if they rely exclusively or almost exclusively on one major donor. They do not want Good Ventures to crowd out other donors, because it makes them more dependent on Good Ventures, which will reduce the integrity of their decisionmaking process, and therefore the quality of their recommendations.

If you already think that GiveWell is doing good, Argument 3 should make you more excited about it - and implies that Good Ventures should be looking for ways to give away money faster in order to build a clear track record of success sooner.

Argument 4 seems plausible at some margin - if Good Ventures gives away most of its money quickly, then it will become a small foundation and have access to fewer potential grantees. But it would be a surprising coincidence if the amount of money Good Ventures will eventually give away were very close to this access threshold. If giving money away freely now will make it difficult to change behavior later once remaining funds are close to the access threshold, this is an argument for communicating this intention in advance, which may require Good Ventures and its donors to make their funding commitments more explicit.

I deal with two components of Argument 5 separately. First, GiveWell's top charities may become less effective if dependent on a single primary donor. Second, GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project have a legitimate interest in preserving their own independence.

The top charities independence consideration seems unlikely to uniformly apply to all the GiveWell top charities; each has a different funding situation and donor base, so this seems like a situation worth assessing on a case-by-case basis, not with a blanket 50-50 donation split between Good Ventures and everyone else.

To the extent that Good Ventures becoming the dominant GiveWell donor threatens GiveWell's institutional independence, this problem seems built into the current institutional structure of GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project, in ways that aren't materially resolved by Good Ventures only partially funding the top charities. Continue reading

Costs are not benefits

You're about to brush your teeth but you're all out of toothpaste, so you walk over to the drugstore. They're out of your favorite toothpaste too, but there's a shampoo available for the same price. On the efficient market hypothesis, you expect that the market prices already contain all relevant information about the products, so you have no reason to think the shampoo is less valuable to you. So you buy it, go home, and wash your hair.

What's wrong with this story?

The problem is that you're using a marginalist heuristic. The efficient market hypothesis applies to markets in which people have roughly the same preferences. Everyone wants roughly the same thing from their financial investments - to make more money. So at any given level of risk, you should expect to evaluate tradeoffs the same as anyone else does.

In the case of the drugstore, you have a lot of information about whether you prefer shampoo or toothpaste, that is unlikely to be reflected in the price. The efficient market hypothesis suggests that you shouldn't expect to get a much better deal in a nearby store, but not that you should be indifferent between all similarly priced goods. You value toothpaste over shampoo a lot more than any price difference is likely to reflect, because you have what is called an inframarginal preference: you need toothpaste, and you've already got enough shampoo.

Critch just reposted an old argument in favor of voting, by doing a back of the envelope calculation of its expected impact. The model is perfectly fine, but to estimate the value, he uses a related cost. I don't think this seems like a reasonable thing to do if you're not making the shampoo-for-toothpaste error. Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 3

This is part of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. My prior post considered the first argument, that the Open Philanthropy Project, and thus Good Ventures, has superior judgment to that of GiveWell donors. In this post, I consider the second argument:

Even if Good Ventures isn't special, it should expect that some of its favorite giving opportunities will be ones that others can't recognize as good ideas, due to different judgment, expertise, and values. If the Open Philanthropy Project does not expect to be able to persuade other future donors, but would be able to persuade Good Ventures, then these opportunities will only be funded in the future if Good Ventures holds onto its money for long enough. Thus, while Good Ventures may currently have a lower opportunity cost than individual GiveWell donors, this will quickly change if it commits to fully funding the GiveWell top charities.

This post is my most direct response to GiveWell's blog post explaining the reasoning behind its "splitting" recommendation.

Argument 2: Bargaining power

In its blog post on giving now vs later, GiveWell discusses potential policies it might have recommended to Good Ventures on funding the GiveWell top charities' funding gap. Good Ventures and individual GiveWell donors may have very different opinions on what else their money should be spent on, but still agree that the optimal allocation of resources should prioritize the GiveWell top charities.

Without holding the view that Good Ventures currently has a higher opportunity cost than individual GiveWell donors, GiveWell might still believe that committing to fully funding the GiveWell top charities' funding gaps would be a mistake on the part of Good Ventures. GiveWell might believe that this commitment would be bad because it cedes all of Good Ventures's bargaining power to other GiveWell donors.

GiveWell begins with a principled argument, asking whether Good Ventures should respond to each additional dollar given by other GiveWell donors by giving less ("funging"), more ("matching"), or the same amount ("splitting"). GiveWell recommends splitting, and in the first major section, I explore the principled case for this, assuming the conditions of symmetry laid out above. I argue that the principled case for splitting is only coherent under very pessimistic assumptions about effective altruists' ability to cooperate with one another. These assumptions may be justified, but as far as I can tell, haven't been seriously tested.

GiveWell goes on to make a specific recommendation that Good Ventures's "fair share" of the GiveWell top charities is 50% of the top charities' total room for more funding. In the second major section of this post, I see whether this recommendation seems intuitively fair, trying a couple of different simple back-of-the-envelope quantitative comparisons. I argue that the most intuitive relative allocation assigns substantially more of the funding burden to Good Ventures at present. Continue reading

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