Monthly Archives: February 2017

Humble Charlie

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, "You must not ask for so much."
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door.
She cried to me, "Hey, why not ask for more?"

-Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire

In my series on GiveWell, I mentioned that my mother's friend Charlie, who runs a soup kitchen, gives away surplus donations to other charities, mostly ones he knows well. I used this as an example of the kind of behavior you should

I recently had a chance to speak with Charlie, and he mentioned something else I found surprising: his soup kitchen made a decision not to accept donations online. They only take paper checks. This is because, since they get enough money that way, they don't want to accumulate more money that they don't know how to use.

When I asked why, Charlie told me that it would be bad for the donors to support a charity if they haven't shown up in person to have a sense of what it does.

At first I was confused. This didn't seem like very consequentialist thinking. I briefly considered the possibility that Charlie was being naïve, or irrationally traditionalist, or thinking about what resembles his idea of a good charity. But after thinking about it for a moment, I realized that Charlie was getting something deeply right that almost everyone gets wrong, at least where money was involved. He was trying to maximize benefits rather than costs, in a case where the costs are much easier to measure.

Donations are a cost. Charlie had enough basic humility not to try to impose costs for no specific reason, even though he could easily do so.

Donors who know what the charity they're supporting does, who have personally inspected it, are following a heuristic that actually does something. Donors who give based on branding and buzz are putting their money somewhere that's well-optimized for branding and buzz. What do you do if you want to cooperate with the first heuristic, and not accidentally promote the second? What do you do if you don't want your own attention drawn towards things that will please the second crowd, at the expense of the first? Charlie's strategy seems like a reasonable answer.

Attention is a cost. Charlie's strategy avoids imposing this cost, except where it is most needed.

When I was writing my series on GiveWell, I asked Charlie for permission to tell the story about him. He asked me not to mention the name of his soup kitchen, because if other charities knew he had surplus money to give away, he'd be deluged with solicitations. This would waste their time asking him for money, and his own time responding.

Right now, if someone mentions a giving opportunity to Charlie, it's a high-quality signal. Charlie felt the need to hide his good works, because developing a reputation as someone with money to give away would destroy his ability to find high-quality giving opportunities.

Of course, there are benefits to honest openness as well, if you are humble enough to open yourself up to judgment, both positive and negative. But not everyone can pull that off in every context. Some people just don't like being criticized, for instance. And if you hide the things about yourself or your institution that are most likely to draw criticism, while publicizing the parts that attract positive attention and resources, then you're not really capturing those benefits. You're just engaged in brand image management, part of our society's cost-maximization machinery.

If you seems like a promising best strategy for implementing convergent strategies in a divergent world: Stay humble. Minimize the costs you impose on others. Hide from the machinery of cost-maximization. Send out signals optimized for audience quality rather than quantity, to help like-minded people find you.

Against neglectedness considerations

Effective Altruists talk about looking for neglected causes. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense. If you are trying to distribute food, and one person is hungry, and another has enough food, it does more direct good to give the food to the hungry person.

Likewise, if you are trying to decide on a research project, discovering penicillin might be a poor choice. We know that penicillin is an excellent thing to know about and has probably already saved many lives, but it’s already been discovered and put to common use. You’d do better discovering something that hasn’t been discovered yet.

My critique of GiveWell sometimes runs contrary to this principle. In particular, I argue that donors should think of crowding out effects as a benefit, not a cost, and that they should often be happy to give more than their “fair share” to the best giving opportunities. I ought to explain. Continue reading

GiveWell and the problem of partial funding

At the end of 2015, GiveWell wrote up its reasons for recommending that Good Ventures partially but not fully fund the GiveWell top charities. This reasoning seemed incomplete to me, and when I talked about it with others in the EA community, their explanations tended to switch between what seemed to me to be incomplete and mutually exclusive models of what was going on. This bothered me, because the relevant principles are close to the core of what EA is.

A foundation that plans to move around ten billion dollars and is relying on advice from GiveWell isn’t enough to get the top charities fully funded. That’s weird and surprising. The mysterious tendency to accumulate big piles of money and then not do anything with most of it seemed like a pretty important problem, and I wanted to understand it before trying to add more money to this particular pile.

So I decided to write up, as best I could, a clear, disjunctive treatment of the main arguments I’d seen for the behavior of GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and Good Ventures. Unfortunately, my writeup ended up being very long. I’ve since been encouraged to write a shorter summary with more specific recommendations. This is that summary. Continue reading

The humility argument for honesty

I have faith that if only people get a chance to hear a lot of different kinds of things, they'll decide what are the good ones. -Pete Seeger

A lot of the discourse around honesty has focused on the value of maintaining a reputation for honesty. This is an important reason to keep one's word, but it's not the only reason to have an honest intent to inform. Another reason is epistemic and moral humility. Continue reading