Better charity through research.
April 24, 2015 4:56 PM   Subscribe

You have $8 billion. You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?
[Open Phil's] six full-time staffers have taken on the unenviable task of ranking every plausible way to make the world a much better place, and figuring out how much money to commit to the winners. It's the biggest test yet of GiveWell's heavily empirical approach to picking charities. If it works, it could change the face of philanthropy.

Previously: GiveWell in Metatalk.
posted by andoatnp (62 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Contraceptives
posted by Renoroc at 5:09 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


As the world burns, I can imagine an AI thinking, "Better paper clips than astroturf!"
posted by a lungful of dragon at 5:12 PM on April 24, 2015


3.7 million cubic meters of beer.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:14 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think this will devolve into some James Bond villain scheme. Something involving Blofeld on a loudspeaker telling us we love chickens.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:17 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


I admire their general ethos (I disagree with their position on art but this is because I see promotion of creative activities as a quality-of-life issue in that access to it will create positive social and individual impacts) but would agree with the concerns raised about diversity toward the end of the article, and I'm surprised they're not doing more about that. If you're so focused on quantification, why are you not doing everything you can to compensate for your invisible biases?
posted by solarion at 5:19 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm reminded of Peter Singer's idea of effective altruism. Haven't seen the talk linked, but read about it some in his reddit AMA.
posted by Gymnopedist at 5:25 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great article, but it blows my mind that climate change is not mentioned at all.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:27 PM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


I get the feeling that, for all their quantification, they have no idea what they are doing. There's a real kinship between the Givewell ethos and the Silicon Valley ethos, in that they are good at quantifying things and good at setting arbitrary benchmarks ... and convincing themselves that they have identified the best ways to spend money when in fact they are just using numbers to lend artificial authority to subjective values.

Before visiting the GiveWell offices, I went to a Super Bowl party at Karnofsky's house. We went around the room saying which team we were rooting for — the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks — and why. Karnofsky said he was rooting for the Pats in light of then-recent allegations that they had purposely deflated their balls to win the AFC championship. Many detractors wanted them to lose as punishment for this offense, and Karnofsky thought it important to disabuse the public of the notion that the world can exact cosmic justice like that: "Trial by combat doesn't work."

Guy sounds like loads of fun.
posted by jayder at 5:46 PM on April 24, 2015 [28 favorites]


An self satisfied Ivy Leaguer's conviction that it is "important to disabuse the world" of a notion is ... well, rich.
posted by jayder at 5:49 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not sure what it says for the level of discourse in my subconscious, but my mind immediately jumped to this section of dialogue.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 5:55 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The support of a philosophical supporter of eugenics, astroturfing, manipulating the global financial market.

Metafilter should start a
Hall of Evil Charities with just the name "GiveWell"
posted by Yowser at 5:56 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


That may mean giving cash to poor people in Uganda, or distributing anti-malarial bed nets, but it also might mean funding research into how to prevent AI from killing us all. Or it might mean funding the fight to end mass incarceration in the US. Or it might mean funding biological research.
Emphasis mine. I hardly dare hope, but it would be amazing if a new billionaire or three took the philanthropic approach to saving the world that, say, the Koch Brothers take toward destroying it: that of recognizing that a politician gives you more value for money than any other investment. Just for once, can absolutely stupid amounts of ill-gotten loot be poured into NOT fucking the world up?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:58 PM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


Hey GiveWell ladies and gents: I have your answer. Malaria. Put your $8B to boost the Gates Foundation's anti-malaria work. That is, if you really want to do the best good for the most people, even at the risk of subordinating your visibility to that of Uncle Bill.
posted by chimaera at 6:06 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


You know, for just $100, they could have paid me not to post a link to Roko's Basilisk in this thread.

I don't think they are spending their money wisely.
posted by 256 at 6:08 PM on April 24, 2015 [13 favorites]


The problem with the analytics-fueled desire to "do the most good" is that it puts the world into a giant priority queue of people you think need your benevolent help and directs all your resources to the head of that queue. The problem is that, even if your philanthropy is particularly effective, the people at the head will still have problems next year and the year after that. Keep giving to them, and everybody else gets bupkis.

So yes, I give some money to my local food bank every year and I buy some supplies for localish classrooms through Donors Choose. According to the GiveWell ethos, I'm clearly some kind of monster, because I could do more good helping hungry people or students in the third world. That might be mathematically true, but it would also mean declaring that hunger or education in my neighborhood is simply "good enough," and I don't like that very much either. Students who need books at my local school shouldn't have to wait for hunger in Africa to be solved before they get any attention too.

In his TED talk, Peter Singer asks "Which is the “better” thing to do? To provide a guide dog to one blind American, or cure 2,000 people of blindness in developing countries?" (quoted in the Social Innovation Review article Vox links to, which you should be reading). We're obviously supposed to pick the 2,000 people overseas. But if that philosophy actually holds true, then I should be stepping over the little old lady lying in the gutter, because my time could be more effectively spent helping others or earning more money so I can help others. Similarly, I definitely shouldn't volunteer for any local organizations, as the potential good pales in comparison to what someone else could be doing elsewhere.

Why would I possibly buy books for a local school or help stock a local food pantry when I could do more good for someone on the other side of the world? As much as I dislike the terminology, I'm not convinced that the existence of third world problems negates the need to do something about first world problems too, at least when those first world problems involve things like hunger and homelessness.
posted by zachlipton at 6:09 PM on April 24, 2015 [19 favorites]


Good joke, chimaera . The donors didn't pay $8 billion in indulgences to have the glory go to someone else.
posted by Yowser at 6:09 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's not as obvious as all that; my money's on it's too late and we're all gonna die no matter what we do, so we should invest in preserving our art, music, literature and ideas in a form which will survive everything up to and including a supernova so that we have a chance of having some benign effect on some other race of beings who aren't quite as shit stupid as we are. Or at least giving them a good laugh.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:15 PM on April 24, 2015 [8 favorites]


We must get off this planet. Invest in research to enable that; the main problem is to develop a means to suspend and reanimate the human body. This could even involve DNA editing.
posted by JohnR at 6:32 PM on April 24, 2015


There's a real kinship between the Givewell ethos and the Silicon Valley ethos,

as long as we're making the world a better place
posted by philip-random at 6:35 PM on April 24, 2015


Before visiting the GiveWell offices, I went to a Super Bowl party at Karnofsky's house. We went around the room saying which team we were rooting for — the New England Patriots or the Seattle Seahawks — and why. Karnofsky said he was rooting for the Pats in light of then-recent allegations that they had purposely deflated their balls to win the AFC championship. Many detractors wanted them to lose as punishment for this offense, and Karnofsky thought it important to disabuse the public of the notion that the world can exact cosmic justice like that: "Trial by combat doesn't work."

Announcing that you are rooting for a team you watch play at home on TV disabuses the public of notions how exactly?
posted by srboisvert at 6:37 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also this whole assumption that the thing that saves the most people is the best thing. What if your neglect of other issues means that you're saving them only to die en masse of the consequences of environmental collapse that's actually brought about by unchecked human demand? Are twelve billion people always better than nine, irrespective of any other factor?
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:40 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


As someone who's been around the effective altruism movement for a while, and commented on it here before, the response here is a bit depressing. The cognitive dissonance is so strong among a couple of you that you're happy to make systematic interventions to address the millions of poverty-related deaths each year out to be a terribly selfish ("evil") act.

To respond to a few comments:

I get the feeling that, for all their quantification, they have no idea what they are doing. There's a real kinship between the Givewell ethos and the Silicon Valley ethos, in that they are good at quantifying things and good at setting arbitrary benchmarks ... and convincing themselves that they have identified the best ways to spend money when in fact they are just using numbers to lend artificial authority to subjective values.

• Sure, there's lots of uncertainty when assessing any development intervention, just like there's uncertainty over medical research. There's heaps of randomized controlled interventions to sort through, loads of conflicting data, and sometimes GiveWell's recommendations are a bit different from other orgs that look at the same issue. It's difficult, intricate shit. So is medicine, public health policy, transport policy; all involve trying to put numbers on things that are really hard to pin down. But for some reason you think this area is different and should be guided by feels alone, even though the stakes are actually vastly higher.

Hey GiveWell ladies and gents: I have your answer. Malaria.

• Malaria, specifically the Against Malaria Foundation, has been top of the list of effective altruism interventions for years now. Organisations are assessed on a wide range of factors, like proven evidence of impact, auditing procedures (to see how the money is spent), and importantly capacity to actually use the money given to them. If you have robust evidence to show why you think Bill Gates's organisation is more effective than AMF, diarrheal interventions, water charities, nutrition supplementation, deworming and all the other types of interventions assessed – please share it. You don't, which is why effective altruism orgs test this kind of thing. (Also, Bill Gates is actually a big hero to this movement and uses many of the same evidence-based approaches.)

The problem with the analytics-fueled desire to "do the most good" is that it puts the world into a giant priority queue of people you think need your benevolent help and directs all your resources to the head of that queue.

• The people you describe as being at the "head of the queue" are mothers watching their babies fucking die in front of them because they can't afford, or don't have access to, a couple of dollars worth of oral rehydration salts. 50,000 of these kinds of deaths happen every day, far more per year than the Holocaust. We are living through an immense global emergency. You wouldn't know it living in Western countries, but the scale of human tragedy caused by poverty-related disease is as big as most of the great moral horrors of the 20th century. This almost inconceivable number of human deaths that can be prevented really, really easily and cheaply. What's more, they can be prevented while *also* funding books in your local library.

Nobody is coming for your library donations. Some people are just saying, hey, there's an immense humanitarian tragedy happening that can be averted, at least in part, with some more money and effort.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:45 PM on April 24, 2015 [45 favorites]


Shoes, water, pads, and soap come to mind for me right now.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:49 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many detractors wanted them to lose as punishment for this offense, and Karnofsky thought it important to disabuse the public of the notion that the world can exact cosmic justice like that: "Trial by combat doesn't work."

Wait, he's talking about football here, right? Isn't that trial by combat?
posted by el io at 6:50 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The problem is that, even if your philanthropy is particularly effective, the people at the head will still have problems next year and the year after that

Yeah, but better the problem of finding good drinking water than dying of malaria. And then better the problem of finding good shelter than finding good drinking water. etc, etc...
posted by el io at 6:53 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shoes, water, pads, and soap come to mind for me right now.

Those ideas are great ideas. But the development sector is absolutely littered with examples of great ideas that didn't work in practice, or actually made things worse. To take just one example: the shoes for Africa campaign (a different charity from the one you cited) which sent second-hand sneakers to developing countries, and ended up obliterating the local market for shoes.

Jayder said earlier that GiveWell partakes of the "Silicon Valley" ethos, but in fact, this movement is often *not* about the glossy, tech-savvy ideas that look clever or emotionally appealing. I think Kiva -- a long-time Metafilter favorite -- is much closer to that type of philosophy. And it turned out, after many exhaustive studies, that Kiva simply didn't really work very well or help very much.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:56 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


For another good example of how this stuff is actually hard, harder than globetrotting high-profile NGO glad-handers find convenient, see Troubled Water, a story for Frontline about a magic bullet that wasn't, particularly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:01 PM on April 24, 2015


I'm not convinced that the existence of third world problems negates the need to do something about first world problems too.

It doesn't! Also, the existence of first-world problems does not negate the need to do something about third-world problems. They all need to be solved, eventually. But if you have $100 to give to charity and GiveWell estimates that you can save five third-world lives or one first-world life with it, then there's clearly a right and a wrong less right choice. (This is not about saying that only the best charity is any good. It's about quantifying how good each one is, because presumably you want to do as much good as possible if you're bothering to do any.)

And they do rank charities based on marginal utility, not total. So if malaria is the top cause this year and a lot of people donate to fixing it, then one more donation next year probably won't be that much more helpful; but it will help the now-underfunded cause of urban homelessness. Repeat as needed until things start getting permanently fixed.
posted by Rangi at 7:11 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


From the article: Say you're standing before two burning buildings, one of which has a family of five trapped inside and the other of which is storing a $20,000 painting for a nearby museum. You only have time to save the family or the painting. What do you do?

SMBC has already covered the best course of action here.
posted by Rangi at 7:14 PM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


What. This is literally just what funders...do. The article creates a strawman out of some sort of John Q. Eccentricbillionaire Family Foundation and then equates it with all socially-directed funding streams. How does the author think major professionalized foundations select grantees? How does the author think US federal agencies select grantees? The breathless tone, in its unfounded exceptionalism, makes the article read like ad copy.
posted by threeants at 7:22 PM on April 24, 2015 [12 favorites]


So they are paying 6 people full time wages, benefits etc to figure out how to give money to other people? :/

There is no one thing that is "the best". Go out, do stuff NOW instead of dicking around. Effective contraception, safe drinking water, education, maria, vaccinations, cash grants, adequate food supply, education, economic/environmental balance. There are not two burning buildings there are dozens and the right one to put out is any one, then you move to the next and so on.

get off the pot and do it
posted by edgeways at 7:23 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


And they do rank charities based on marginal utility, not total. So if malaria is the top cause this year and a lot of people donate to fixing it, then one more donation next year probably won't be that much more helpful; but it will help the now-underfunded cause of urban homelessness.

Ok, but even if we eradicate malaria this year (yes, I'm being sarcastic, but I also recognize that the malaria organizations have made some huge strides in certain areas), how many years is it going to take before the homeless people I passed on my walk home get some attention? I'm absolutely not saying we shouldn't be funding effective programs globally, but do you really want to be the guy who walks up to a homeless man on the streets in a moderate climate with his hand out and say "Fuck you. Children are dying in Africa?" Because it might be literally true, but it's of little consolation to the guy asking for help.

And don't tell me that something like hunger or education or homelessness in America should be a governmental problem instead. If you're serious about effective altruism, you should want our government to slash welfare benefits down to third-world subsistence levels and spend the difference on the most effective charities around the globe.
posted by zachlipton at 7:32 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


The breathless tone, in its unfounded exceptionalism, makes the article read like ad copy.

well the writer also 'fessed up to being good buds with the Givewellians.
posted by jayder at 7:33 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


"We've all browsed websites before. The broken links, the black text and white background, the webrings-- these have become cherished, even essential, parts of our lives. But one plucky group of web designers plans to change all that. Their forthcoming website project, to be released in the third quarter of 2015 according to industry insiders, will not only offer blocks of text and the ability to scroll downward as you read, but will also feature colors, the ability to log in as a "user" and view personalized content, and "drop-down" menus (a series of links that spring forth from a cell as if by magic when hovered over, as was unveiled in a much-buzzed press conference earlier this spring). It's an unconventional, ambitious-- some might even say quixotic-- venture, but the team of young developers behind the project seemed entirely unfazed by the odds when we caught up with them last week in their converted loft office. [...]"
posted by threeants at 7:35 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've never read something on Vox that seemed very good. I always inwardly groan when that garish logo comes up after I click on a link. It's not.a.good publication, IMHO.
posted by jayder at 7:50 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


You really have to doubt everything they say when they dismiss trying to do anything about climate change (other than some vague ideas about geoengineering) but think that trying to influence the US Fed to possibly prevent recessions (which obviously isn't something there is some kind of clear path to) is a good idea.

Heavily empirical? More like vague, handwavy, and biased.
posted by ssg at 8:01 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm absolutely not saying we shouldn't be funding effective programs globally, but do you really want to be the guy who walks up to a homeless man on the streets in a moderate climate with his hand out and say "Fuck you. Children are dying in Africa?"

You can take context into account. If a homeless man is right in front of you and you have a dollar, it's so easy to help him compared to the whole process of sending your extra dollar to some charity org that you might as well give him the money. Plus, you'd probably feel guilty about walking away from him -- he's right in front of you, watching you leave, but the malarial Africans don't even know you personally exist. Nothing wrong with taking your own mental state into account.

So go ahead! Help the people you know, put effort into local problems where you can see the results directly and feel good about your work. Trying to optimize every dollar spent would be futile, for an individual or a government. But if you're going to be mailing an impersonal check to some cause, it's probably best to judge them on objective metrics about how much good they do, not on (say) the relative poignancy of the pictures in their brochures. (I don't mean that as an insult, to you or anyone else, but that really is the sort of thing our intuitions react to when it comes to deciding who needs help.)
posted by Rangi at 8:06 PM on April 24, 2015 [4 favorites]


It's as if they're the first people to ever discover utilitarianism or spreadsheets.

Meanwhile, thousands of charitable foundations pay people with long experience in a given field to not only compare metrics of success but also create a long-term strategy based on deep understanding of a problem.

Sometimes a problem is more complex than numbers reveal. For instance, (I don't know international public health, but I'll give this a shot), I imagine there are anti-government-corruption efforts. On their own, they save 0 lives. But if they reached a tipping point, then all those shipments of grain and medicine getting intercepted by the corrupt regime would actually reach their destination, saving tons of lives, maybe even obviating the need for all that charity food donation. That's what an experienced in-field expert would know that a spreadsheet of marginal utility would not know.
posted by salvia at 8:17 PM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


There is no one thing that is "the best". Go out, do stuff NOW instead of dicking around. Effective contraception, safe drinking water, education, maria, vaccinations, cash grants, adequate food supply, education, economic/environmental balance. There are not two burning buildings there are dozens and the right one to put out is any one, then you move to the next and so on.

That's total rubbish.

Many charities that people give to are not even trying to put out the burning building; they're directed at much less life-or-death causes.

And of those that are, heaps of them are not very effective. Look at Kiva. A lot of you round here spent a lot of time and effort giving to Kiva couple years back, and it didn't really achieve anything, according to the multiple, carefully designed impact studies. That example alone proves how vitally important it is to actually investigate and measure what you're funding, rather than just throwing it around impulsively.

Your philosophy is the equivalent of a doctor arriving at an overcrowded hospital and treating the first patient they see – even if it's an ingrown toenail and there's someone bleeding to death in the waiting room – because everything helps. Some things helps orders of magnitude more than others.
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:20 PM on April 24, 2015 [10 favorites]


If you're serious about effective altruism, you should want our government to slash welfare benefits down to third-world subsistence levels and spend the difference on the most effective charities around the globe.

If I thought that transferring $X million from federal welfare programs to foreign aid would actually do a lot more good, then yes. But would you trust the US government to effectively address problems in foreign countries through direct intervention? Maybe a perfectly virtuous government-sized organization could stop paying for a thousand families' food here to pay for a million families' potable water there, but that's not at all how things would actually go.

My guess is that at the national-budget level, the most efficient way to spend money is (a) on domestic problems like food stamps or education grants (since the government has the most information and the most leeway regarding problems in its own territory), and (b) on global problems that require larger efforts than any private charity can organize (like policies to fix global warming, or stopping Hitler). Which basically matches what people already expect the government to do. Figuring out the details of a budget is up to Congress, and I would only hope that they use GiveWell-type reasoning instead of asking whose lobbyists have donated to them.
posted by Rangi at 8:20 PM on April 24, 2015


I want to step back from my comment above where I (rudely) said "That's total rubbish." I apologise for that. The interventions you are suggesting – safe drinking water, vaccinations, malaria, etc – are all sensible and validated. Donating to any of them will do good.

I guess the point I'd make, however, is that it takes hardly any time at all – like 5 minutes maybe? – to read the rankings of those who've audited these charities and tried to compare them for effectiveness. If you don't like GiveWell, as I've said before, try Life You Can Save or Giving What We Can. In other words, it takes just as much time to give to a crap charity as it does to give to a charity with pretty-good evidence of impact, and with the capacity to actually use the money you give to it. So why would you give to the crap one?

A few people have mentioned causes that are hard to measure, like climate change and anti-corruption initiatives. I think this is a great point. (Also in this category are systemic fixes, like debt relief, anti-globalisation efforts, political activism, etc). But I don't see why, because some things are hard to measure, we shouldn't measure anything at all. I'd compare it to evidence-based medicine. We know for a fact that fixing the social determinants of health, like poverty, are more likely to help people than pioneering a new drug. However, does that mean we should stop developing drugs because the systemic fixes are difficult and hard to measure? No – I think we should work on both at the same time.
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:45 PM on April 24, 2015 [6 favorites]


Your philosophy is the equivalent of a doctor arriving at an overcrowded hospital and treating the first patient they see – even if it's an ingrown toenail and there's someone bleeding to death in the waiting room – because everything helps. Some things helps orders of magnitude more than others.

And the effective altruism philosophy is the equivalent of the guy with the ingrown toenail never gets treated at all (or doesn't get treated until he has a massive systemic infection and is in the ICU) because there are more people bleeding to death in the world than available doctors. Why should there be more than one doctor in my local hospital at all when other countries have a severe lack of doctors compared to population and medical need? Why bother providing prosthetic limbs to amputees when the same surgeons could be saving a life instead?

Look, I think it's great to say that a lot of charitable giving in the US goes to fairly well off causes that aren't hugely effective. Having your name put on a new wing of a hospital or on the side of a gym at your alma mater is the kind of thing people talk about at the club, while serious global problems don't get enough attention. But effective altruism, as people seem to talk about it, takes utilitarianism to such an extreme that it advocates not just shifting the balance in the discussion, but on demanding maximum global effectiveness from every project.

The world cannot run on a perfect centrally-planned utilitarian scheme because there are many socially useful activities that are not the absolute most useful thing someone could be doing for the world at any particular moment. William MacAskill's What Charity Navigator Gets Wrong About Effective Altruism gives us the analogy of saving a $20,000 painting or a family from a fire and tells us that all charitable giving is making the same choice. But we could put anything in the place of that painting and get the same result. Why do we pick up garage and litter when we could be saving families from fires? Why do we have elementary schools when we could be saving families from fires? Why start Facebook (where the $8 billion that's going to do so much good came from in the first place) when we could be saving families from fires?
posted by zachlipton at 8:59 PM on April 24, 2015 [5 favorites]


longdaysjourney: Great article, but it blows my mind that climate change is not mentioned at all.

Seriously. That's the overwhelming priority to deal with, right now. Even something like malaria pales in comparison; if the climate gets badly damaged enough (which is currently predicted to occur) the deaths from starvation, lack of clean water, etc. will make it look like nothing. Also, the destruction of arable land will probably collapse the planetary economy, which will probably collapse society. And malaria doesn't cause permanent damage to the planet; if the climate goes out of whack badly enough, it'll destroy the planetary biodiversity. Even if we fix the climate, that will never come back for as long as humanity can reasonably exist.

You might argue that those issues should be addressed because healthier and more stable populations experience lower population growth, but programs to search for better sources of clean energy should be included.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:23 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


snickerdoodle: Not because it isn't a problem, but because it's a problem they don't feel they can solve.

$8 billion would fund a pretty sweet alternative energy research program, and if it succeeded in any way it might result in returns or even become self sufficient. I don't think that's it.

My guess is they don't talk about it because it's politically sensitive and they don't want to scare off donors. I don't really agree with the decision though; quite honestly, if that particular issue is not addressed, I'm not sure there's much point in worrying about the others.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:49 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


There's no data that indicates that throwing money at the problem, even $8B worth, is going to fix it.

Contrariwise, we already know that continuing to do nothing to address climate change has allowed it to get worse. In fact, in the cost-benefit analysis, doing nothing can lead to possible collapse of human civilization and mass extinction of surface life — while spending billions (or whatever) may also do nothing, but maybe it could get our kids closer to being able to manage the effects and keep humans and other lifeforms around on Earth just a little longer. It's a safe bet, in other words, except that no one wants to put it in those terms.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 10:16 PM on April 24, 2015 [2 favorites]


And the effective altruism philosophy is the equivalent of the guy with the ingrown toenail never gets treated at all

Yes, this is known as triage. In a situation where hundreds of people need life-saving interventions – an earthquake, say – people with minor ailments might wait indefinitely or get sent home untreated. Triage is pretty shitty for the person with the ingrown toenail. But it's a whole lot better than treating the middle class white guy for their toenail and leaving a dozen patients to bleed out on the floor while you do it. That's why there's not a medical system in the world that doesn't follow the principle.

However, you can rest easy. The horrific picture you conjure up – of a world with less galleries, museums and Ivy League sports fields, but where the world's poorest people can access basic food and medicine – isn't going to happen any time soon. Effective altruists are framing their philosophy in the context of a world where a roomful of a couple dozen plutocrats own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people. Your nightmarish visions of global wealth equality have absolutely zero chance of coming to pass.

Indeed, I think it's really depressing that talk about the poorest people in the world reverts within a few comments to "what about the middle class Americans"?
posted by dontjumplarry at 10:53 PM on April 24, 2015 [11 favorites]


This is all well and good but I'm still pretty sure the answer is to spend it toward the training and equipment necessary to dress up like a bat and beat up criminals.
posted by ckape at 11:18 PM on April 24, 2015 [3 favorites]


talk about the poorest people in the world reverts within a few comments to "what about the middle class Americans"?

it's a cliche but it's also not unwise.

Think globally -- act locally.

At least you have a hope of actually tracking the money. And don't underestimate what a little less despair on your local level might just do for global concerns. feature not bug
posted by philip-random at 11:25 PM on April 24, 2015 [1 favorite]


There is a clear path that massively reduces the threat of hostile strong AI, which I discussed previously.

Ask yourself : Where does an AI come from? It "evolves", like all complex technology. How does an AI become hostile? It becomes hostile because it evolved doing hostile things! What sort of hostile things might an pre-AI computer do?

Try these :  Spying on everyone   Manipulating people   Killing people   Keeping secrets   Worried yet?

We must shut down the NSA and CIA, lock away private individual's private data behind unbreakable encryption, and force radical transparency on government and corporations.

There are more immediate upsides too in that radical transparency is probably the only effective way to combat the systemic corruption throughout the world.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:01 AM on April 25, 2015


Incarceration is a useful target if you've chosen to spend money in the U.S. of course, not sure how they're obtaining any "leverage" there though. Just back journalist and activist maybe?
posted by jeffburdges at 1:13 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Roads.
posted by alby at 5:46 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


The U.S. spends $5B on research annually (cite).

That's total US energy R&D spend, across all technologies.

Current spending on renewable energy is $175B (cite).

This is total global investment, which will tend to be in the more mature technologies, ie, wind PV, solar thermal. We don't have all the RE technologies working as yet and the less mature ones (tidal, wave, etc) are underfinanced in terms of R&D. With investment some would likely mature but this is likely to require government (or other intervention).

(I'm not making a case to spend the money on RE, just addressing the above.)
posted by biffa at 6:11 AM on April 25, 2015


Eight billion dollars is a lot of money. It's probably enough to develop a substance that, upon introduction into the global water supply, will quietly and without any fuss destroy the reproductive capability of the human race.

We can only hope.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:00 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just popping in to say that malaria fucking sucks and it's a miserable way to be sick. It saps a lot of economic revenue in affected countries because people are debilitated for a long time even if they don't die, and it is a truly horrible way to die. It seems like, for some reason, it has become a symbol of a useless or less meaningful cause to donate to in this thread... But it's actually really important and affects a far greater proportion of the world than some local issues.

Think globally, act locally, but don't forget that our globalized economy means that local and global are inextricably linked. You'd want to help keep your colleagues' kids from dying, you'd want to help keep your bus drivers' kids from dying, you should want to help keep your chocolate suppliers' and cell phone mineral providers' and customer service phone workers' and flower cutters' (etc.) kids from dying, too.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:26 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


i'd like to question the premise of philanthropy a little! like donors choose and médecins sans frontières are great and all (kind of like the opposite of assassination markets and mercenary armies ;) but what does it say about the democratic process and global governance that these organizations are _increasingly_ necessary? what does it say about public schools -- how they're funded and where our taxes are going -- that they're having to rely on charity drives and volunteers just to function?

as eye of newt said: "In driving around various neighborhoods in the Bay Area, I was astounded by a fund-raising sign at a public elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood. I've seen signs like this in typical middle-class neighborhoods. It is usually drawn as a thermometer, showing how close the they are to reaching their goal--usually something like $10,000. This particular school district's goal was $2 million! And they almost reached it. I think the district consisted of maybe 5 or 6 elementary schools. Eagads, what is this country coming too?"

could it be that something's gone awry? "It maintains both that Bill Gates believes entirely in a free market and that he undemocratically influences education reform in this country with his money. Maybe those are consistent claims but it's not obvious to me (although I agree with the undemocratic nature of his mega-philanthropy)."
posted by kliuless at 8:08 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think the problem with the kind of coldly rational calculus that people like Peter Singer propose is that sometimes the cold, rational thing to do is not to give a shit about other people at all. Singer seems to believe that things like art and feelings are sentimental bullshit, and you should be such a brutal utilitarian that you would literally kill your disabled infant child since the entire universe of sentient beings would benefit more if resources were spent elsewhere. The only acceptable emotion is concern for all sentient beings, which you are supposed to feel because Peter Singer says so. And I don't think that's the way people work. I think that if you deaden your soul so you can ignore the hungry-but-not-dying child in front of you, you will become the kind of hard, brutal person who can ignore a suffering child, and that person will ultimately ignore suffering and dying children elsewhere. I believe that art helps people feel empathy for others, and that's necessary if we're going to care about the suffering of people other than ourselves. I'm all for research about what's effective, and I certainly don't think people should focus exclusively on local problems or the arts, but I think there's just a weird blind spot about how people actually think and function.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:15 AM on April 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


Eight billion dollars is a lot of money. It's probably enough to develop a substance that, upon introduction into the global water supply, will quietly and without any fuss destroy the reproductive capability of the human race.

We can only hope.

Faint of Butt

Whenever I see these oh-so-cynical statements I always imagine the people making them saying those lines to children starving to death because they had the misfortune of being born in the wrong place or people suffering from cancer and other ailments caused by some company dumping poison in their water supply.

In other words, the vast, vast majority of people you sneeringly cheer the death of are victims of bad shit, not perpetrators.

I'm so tired of this "climate change as morality play", where the wicked humans will finally reap what they have sown. As usual, it's going to be the poor who suffer and the rich who are fine, and laughing at the poor while they die in droves because "humanity" deserves it is just sick.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:03 AM on April 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


zachlipton: "Similarly, I definitely shouldn't volunteer for any local organizations, as the potential good pales in comparison to what someone else could be doing elsewhere."

The depressing thing is that this is more or less true. Habitat for Humanity would be more effective hiring crew than relying on volunteer construction, but would not appeal to donors that way.
posted by pwnguin at 10:13 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


my cousin, a mining guy, has spoken at length about the overall incompetence of many of the NGO types he's seen trying to do good in Africa. As he puts it, "I see a plane fly in with a dozen of them on board and not a proper engineer among them -- just a pile of often conflicting good intentions. Meanwhile, a mining company (for mostly non-altruistic reasons -- ie: they're trying to win the favor of the locals) can put two of its guys on a drinking water project and actually deliver in a few days."

He's also quick to point out that, when it comes to mining interests, the Chinese are by the far the best when it comes to respectful treatment of the locals. They may treat their own people horribly back home, but when it comes to Africa, they embarrass the hell out of most Western interests.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Whenever I see these oh-so-cynical statements I always imagine the people making them saying those lines to children starving to death because they had the misfortune of being born in the wrong place or people suffering from cancer and other ailments caused by some company dumping poison in their water supply.

And I put it to you that if the people starving to death had been born into positions of power over the food supply, or if the people suffering from cancer and other ailments had had the good fortune to own the company that dumps the poison in the water supply, they would have made exactly the same decisions. The fact of suffering doesn't imply some sort of moral superiority.

Each and every one of us deserves death, and each and every one of us gets exactly what we deserve.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:37 PM on April 25, 2015


the overall incompetence of many of the NGO types he's seen trying to do good in Africa. As he puts it, "I see a plane fly in with a dozen of them on board and not a proper engineer among them -- just a pile of often conflicting good intentions.

If that. I swear to god most of the NGOs that I have any direct knowledge of exist principally to provide sinecures and letterhead positions for the very well-connected as they move into a high-profile active retirement, and their mission is in practice a pretext for this. The carbon footprint alone just for flying all these glossy greyheads to flash their exquisitely maintained dental work in front of a be-logo'd backdrop at every conference in the world probably counterbalances whatever good they do.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:41 PM on April 25, 2015


Each and every one of us deserves death, and each and every one of us gets exactly what we deserve.

yeah whatever. We're all gonna die. That's for sure. Do we deserve it? Only Jehovah knows.
posted by philip-random at 12:26 AM on April 26, 2015


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