Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.

Month: May, 2013

Contributing to tech progress

I think that contributing to technological progress may be one of the most efficient ways to make the world richer. I don’t yet know much quantitative justification, so this impression could easily be wrong. In any case it seems to be worth asking: “How effectively can we increase the pace of tech progress?” Read the rest of this entry »


What is the return on giving?

Suppose I have $1 to spend and I want to use it to make the world as rich as possible.  How far can my dollar go? Can I use $1 to to make the world $2 richer? $50 richer? $1000 richer? It’s hard to know what to even expect a priori, and people seem to have widely varying estimates. Let’s call this figure the return on giving. This seems like an important number, and I’ve seen lots of implicit speculation. I think it would be great to have much more explicit discussion, though it seems worthwhile to first clarify what exactly we are talking about. Read the rest of this entry »

Beware brittle arguments

Often there is a tension between a simple argument suggesting that a trend is positive on average, and more subtle arguments suggesting it might be negative at the moment. For example, all of the following are arguments I have encountered in the last few months: Read the rest of this entry »

The value of prosperity

“Making the world richer” seems like a useful abstraction for thinking about impact; I’m quite interested in understanding how valuable making the world richer actually is.

For concreteness and simplicity, I want to think about an across-the-board change, where everyone’s real income increases by 1% (due to some exogenous increase in supply, improvements in efficiency, or whatever). Of course no intervention would have such a simple effect. But nevertheless it seems like a good starting point for similar analyses. Read the rest of this entry »

Making people richer

Many interventions seem to have the effect of “making people richer.” In addition to understanding the long-run impacts of prosperity, I am interested in looking in more detail at what happens when you make someone richer, and looking at a few examples to understand whether the intuitive model of a small across-the-board increase in real income is reasonable.

As a first example, I’ll look at cash transfers in the developing world. I think very similar ideas are needed for the analysis of many interventions in the developing world (e.g. health interventions) and also for many interventions in the developed world (e.g. supporting self-driving cars). But it seems useful to first go through the analysis with a particular case in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

The efficiency of modern philanthropy

Summary: The most important inefficiency in philanthropy may be the philanthropist’s desire to make decisions that look good in retrospect.

In financial markets, if you encounter an investment opportunity which looks like it will significantly outperform the market, it is reasonably safe to conclude that either (1) finding the opportunity required some special ability, info, disposition, or connection you have that others lack, or (2) you are mistaken about the goodness of the opportunity, or there are associated costs.

We might ask: to what extent is the same thing true in philanthropy? If it looks to me like a cause is obviously important, but others are ignoring it, does that mean that I’m overlooking something they know? Of course, there is a spectrum of possibilities. In general I should ask: how hard should I expect to have to search before I can expect to find something important that others have overlooked?

Holden from GiveWell has recently commented on this question. His conclusion, roughly, is that while there are probably still neglected high-impact causes, you should expect to have to do a lot of effort to identify them. In particular, one can’t appeal to simple a priori arguments about what people are likely to miss and expect to thereby find great neglected opportunities. Read the rest of this entry »

Economics of small changes

Consider the following three actions:

  1. I bury $20 in my back yard.
  2. I sell a pound of strawberries at a farmer’s market.
  3. I accept an engineering job I’m offered.

Each of these actions has some obvious local effects:

  1. I’m $20 poorer.
  2. I have some money; my customer has some strawberries and they won’t buy strawberries from anyone else.
  3. I have an engineering job; my employer has an engineer and will not hire anyone else.

But each of these actions also has a more subtle long-term effect:

  1. The value of a dollar is slightly increased; everyone else is slightly richer (or the government is slightly richer, depending on their monetary policy).
  2. The price of strawberries is slightly decreased; worldwide strawberry production will decrease to substantially offset my contribution (and those resources will be used for other things).
  3. Engineering salaries are slightly reduced.

These long-term effects are very small but affect a very large number of people. They are mediated by complicated chains of cause and effect with which I have no direct experience. There are many causal steps between burying money in the ground and my local supermarket decreasing the price of milk very slightly. This seems like a brittle picture of how the world works, which could well be completely inapplicable to the real world even if it applies to an idealized efficient market.

Nevertheless, I think that these indirect effects are quite robust in the face of uncertainty and non-ideal behavior. Read the rest of this entry »