By the author of unsongbook.com

Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable

I.

Here is a response I got on Facebook to yesterday’s essay. I will admit I do not, exactly, know what to do. But I do have a call to action I’ve been meaning to make for a while that might tie in more than a little with recent discussions.

But first we’re going to have to go back to two of the examples of Tumblr meme-spreading I mentioned yesterday:

“This is going to be an unpopular opinion but I see stuff about ppl not wanting to reblog ferguson things and awareness around the world because they do not want negativity in their life plus it will cause them to have anxiety. They come to tumblr to escape n feel happy which think is a load of bull. There r literally ppl dying who live with the fear of going outside their homes to be shot and u cant post a fucking picture because it makes u a little upset?”

“Can yall maybe take some time away from reblogging fandom or humor crap and read up and reblog pakistan because the privilege you have of a safe bubble is not one shared by others?”

Wipe away the spittle and there’s an important point here worth steelmanning. Something like “Yes, the feeling of constantly being outraged and mired in the latest controversy is unpleasant. And yes, it would be nice to get to avoid it and spend time with your family and look at kitten pics or something. But when the controversy is about people being murdered in cold blood, or living in fear, or something like that – then it’s your duty as a decent human being to care. In the best case scenario you’ll discharge that duty by organizing widespread protests or something – but the absolute least you can do is reblog a couple of slogans.”

I think Cliff Pervocracy is trying to say something similar in this post. Key excerpt:

When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [conservative] fantasy of rugged individualism starts looking pretty damn good.

Intellectually, I think my current political milieu of feminism/progressivism/social justice is more correct, far better for the world in general, and more helpful to me since I don’t actually live in a perfectly isolated cabin.

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it.

And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

Once again, to be clear, I don’t think this is wrong. I just think it’s a bummer.

I don’t know of a solution to this. (Bummer again.) I don’t think progressivism can ever compete with the cozy self-satisfaction of the cabin fantasy. I don’t think it should. Change is necessary in the world, people don’t change if they’re totally happy and comfortable, therefore discomfort is necessary.

I would like to make what I hope is a friendly amendment to Cliff’s post. He thinks he’s talking about progressivism versus conservativism, but he isn’t. A conservative happy with his little cabin and occasional hunting excursions, and a progressive happy with her little SoHo flat and occasional poetry slams are psychologically pretty similar. So are a liberal who abandons a cushy life to work as a community organizer in the inner city and fight poverty, and a conservative who abandons a cushy life to serve as an infantryman in Afghanistan to fight terrorism. The distinction Cliff is trying to get at here isn’t left-right. It’s activist versus passivist.

As part of a movement recently deemed postpolitical, I have to admit I fall more on the passivist side of the spectrum – at least this particular conception of it. I talk about politics when they interest me or when I enjoy doing so, and I feel an obligation not to actively make things worse. But I don’t feel like I need to talk nonstop about whatever the designated Issue is until it distresses me and my readers both.

Possibly I just wasn’t designed for politics. I’m actively repulsed by most protests, regardless of cause or alignment, simply because the idea of thousands of enraged people joining together to scream at something – without even considering whether the other side has a point – terrifies and disgusts me. Even hashtag campaigns and other social media protest-substitutes evoke the same feeling of panic. Maybe I was the victim of mob violence in a past life or something, I don’t know.

Other people I know are too sensitive to be political – hearing about all the evils of the world makes them want to curl into a ball and cry for hours. Still others feel deep personal guilt about anything they hear – an almost psychotic belief that if people are being hurt anywhere in the world, it’s their fault for not preventing it. A few are chronically uncertain about which side to take and worried that anything they do will cause more harm than good. A couple have traumatic experiences that make them leery of affiliating with a particular side – did you know the prosecutor in the Ferguson case was the son of a police officer who was killed by a black suspect? And still others are perfectly innocent and just want to reblog kitten pictures.

Pervocracy admits this, and puts it better than I do:

But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at injustice and questioning the rightness of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such painful lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal injustices are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods while the original owners of the land have been murdered or forced off it. And you’re never good enough. You can be good—certainly you get major points for charity and activism and fighting the good fight—but not good enough. No matter what you do, you’re still participating in plenty of corrupt systems that enforce oppression. Short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.

That seems about right. Pervocracy ends up with discomfort, and I’m in about the same place. But other, less stable people end up with self-loathing. Still other people go further than that, into Calvinist-style “perhaps I am a despicable worm unworthy of existence”. moteinthedark’s reply to Pervocracy gives me the impression that she struggles with this sometime. For these people, abstaining from politics is the only coping tool they have.

But the counterargument is still that you’ve got a lot of chutzpah playing that card when people in Peshawar or Ferguson or Iraq don’t have access to this coping tool. You can’t just bring in a doctor’s note and say “As per my psychiatrist, I have a mental health issue and am excused from experiencing concern for the less fortunate.”

One option is to deny the obligation. I am super sympathetic to this one. The marginal cost of my existence on the poor and suffering of the world is zero. In fact, it’s probably positive. My economic activity consists mostly of treating patients, buying products, and paying taxes. The first treats the poor’s illnesses, the second creates jobs, and the third pays for government assistance programs. Exactly what am I supposed to be apologizing for here? I may benefit from the genocide of the Indians in that I live on land that was formerly Indian-occupied. But I also benefit from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, in that I live on land that was formerly dinosaur-occupied. I don’t feel like I’m complicit in the asteroid strike; why should I feel complicit in the genocide?

I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough. The old saying goes “you can’t reason yourself out of something you didn’t reason yourself into to begin with”, and the idea that secure and prosperous people need to “give something back” is a lot older than accusations of “being complicit in structures of oppression”. It’s probably older than the Bible. People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

So what do we do with the argument that we are morally obligated to be political activists, possibly by reblogging everything about Ferguson that crosses our news feed?

II.

We ask: why the heck are we privileging that particular subsection of the category “improving the world”?

Pervocracy says that “short of bringing about a total revolution of everything, your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” But he is overly optimistic. Has your total revolution of everything eliminated ischaemic heart disease? Cured malaria? Kept elderly people out of nursing homes? No? Then you haven’t discharged your infinite debt yet!

Being a perfect person doesn’t just mean participating in every hashtag campaign you hear about. It means spending all your time at soup kitchens, becoming vegan, donating everything you have to charity, calling your grandmother up every week, and marrying Third World refugees who need visas rather than your one true love.

And not all of these things are equally important.

Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take. Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.

There is no reason that politics would even come to the attention of an unbiased person trying to “break out of their bubble of privilege” or “help people who are afraid of going outside of their house”. Anybody saying that people who want to do good need to spread their political cause is about as credible as a televangelist saying that people who want to do good need to give them money to buy a new headquarters. It’s possible that televangelists having beautiful headquarters might be slightly better than them having hideous headquarters, but it’s not the first thing a reasonable person trying to improve the world would think of.

Nobody cares about charity. Everybody cares about politics, especially race and gender. Just as televangelists who are obsessed with moving to a sweeter pad may come to think that donating to their building fund is the one true test of a decent human being, so our universal obsession with politics, race, and gender incites people to make convincing arguments that taking and spreading the right position on those issues is the one true test of a decent human being.

So now we have an angle of attack against our original question. “Am I a bad person for not caring more about politics?” Well, every other way of doing good, especially charity, is more important than politics. So this question is strictly superseded by “Am I a bad person for not engaging in every other way of doing good, especially charity?” And then once we answer that, we can ask “Also, however much sin I have for not engaging in charity, should we add another mass of sin, about 1% as large, for my additional failure to engage in politics?”

And Cliff Pervocracy’s concern of “Even if I do a lot of politics, amn’t I still a bad person for not doing all the politics?” is superseded by “Even if I give a lot of charity, am I a bad person for not doing all the charity? And then a bad person in an additional way, about 1% as large, for not doing all the politics as well?”

There’s no good answer to this question. If you want to feel anxiety and self-loathing for not giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to call that “not being perfect”. I would prefer to say that if you feel like you will live in anxiety and self-loathing until you have given a certain amount of money to charity, you should make that certain amount ten percent.

Why ten percent?

It’s ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in precisely that way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

Finally, it’s ten percent because if you believe in something like universalizability as a foundation for morality, a world in which everybody gives ten percent of their income to charity is a world where about seven trillion dollars go to charity a year. Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project. That’s about two percent of the money that would suddenly become available. If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permamently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. That would be the first year. Goodness only knows what would happen in Year 2.

(by contrast, if everybody in the world retweeted the latest hashtag campaign, Twitter would break.)

Everyone giving this level of charity would kill Moloch dead. Moloch is the spirit of things responding to perverse incentives. But charity is in some sense the perfect unincentivized action. If you think the most important thing to do is to cure malaria, then a charitable donation is deliberately throwing the power of your brain and muscle behind the cause of curing malaria. If, as I’ve postulated, the reason we can’t solve world poverty and disease and so on is Moloch, the capture of our financial resources by the undirected dance of incentives, then what better way to fight back than by saying “Thanks but no thanks, I’m taking this abstract representation of my resources and using it exactly how I think it should most be used”?

If you give 10% per year, you have absolutely done your part in making that world a reality. You can honestly say “Well, it’s not my fault that everyone else is still dragging their feet.”

III.

Once the level is fixed at ten percent, we get a better idea how to answer the original question: “If I want to be a good person who gives back to the community, but I am triggered by politics, what do I do?” You do good in a way that doesn’t trigger you. Another good thing about having less than 100% obligation is that it gives you the opportunity to budget and trade-off. If you make $30,000 and you accept 10% as a good standard you want to live up to, you can either donate $3000 to charity, or participate in several thousand political protests until your number of lives or dollars or DALYs saved is equivalent to that. I hope you have a lot of free time.

Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent.

Everything is commensurable. This gives us license to determine exactly how we fulfill that ten percent goal. Some people are triggered and terrified by politics. Other people are too sick to volunteer. Still others are poor and cannot give very much money. But money is a constant reminder that everything goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obligations in multiple equivalent ways. Some people will not be able to give ten percent of their income without excessive misery, but I bet thinking about their contribution in terms of a fungible good will help them decide how much volunteering or activism they need to reach the equivalent.

Cliff Pervocracy says “Your work will never be done, you’ll never be good enough.” This seems like a recipe for – at best – undirected misery, stewing in self-loathing, and total defenselessness against the first toxoplasma parasite to come along and tell them they need to engage in the latest conflict or else they’re trash. At worst, it autocatalyzes an opposition of egoists who laugh at the idea of helping others.

On the other hand, Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This seems like a recipe for getting people to say “Okay, I’ll take your yoke upon me! Thanks for the offer!”

Persian poet Omar Khayyam, considering the conflict between the strict laws of Islam and his own desire to enjoy life, settles upon the following rule:

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law divine;
If to the poor their portion you assign,
And never injure one, nor yet abuse,
I guarantee you heaven, as well as wine!

I’m not saying that donating 10% of your money to charity makes you a great person who is therefore freed of every other moral obligation. I’m not saying that anyone who chooses not to do it is therefore a bad person. I’m just saying that if you feel a need to discharge some feeling of a moral demand upon you to help others, and you want to do it intelligently, it beats most of the alternatives.

This month is the membership drive for Giving What We Can, the organization of people who have promised to give 10% of their earnings to charity. I am a member. Ozy is an aspiring member who plans to join once they are making a salary. Many of the commenters here are members – I recognize for example Taymon Beal’s name on their list. Some well-known moral philosophers like Peter Singer and Derek Parfit are members. Seven hundred other people are also members.

I wish I had a Bitcoin address handy to solve all the world’s problems, but until I do I would recommend giving them a look.

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429 Responses to Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable

  1. Shmi Nux says:

    Re possible reasons for passivism: my personal one is that I had tried activism a few times over the years, and it backfired in various traumatic and unexpected ways, even though my words and actions were indistinguishable (to me) from those taken by other, much more successful activists. My conclusion was that my social IQ is about 70 and I should not try to lead anyone anywhere, ever.

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    • Dave Rolsky says:

      There’s lots of useful volunteer work you can do without leading. You can do research, do grunt work (mailings, postering, leafleting), act as a volunteer bookkeeper, etc. Maybe you have particular sklils (software dev, graphic design, etc.).

      There’s no reason activism must be equal to working with large groups of people. Many nonprofits can make good use of people who’d like to do solo work.

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    • Deiseach says:

      I have no problem at all refusing to reblog things on Tumblr or posts on Facebook, whether it’s “Little Timmy’s one-legged puppy needs a new collar for Kwanzaa if you don’t like this post you are a heartless monster!!!!” armtwisting or the more serious HOW CAN YOU SIT THERE WITH THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ON IN YOUR WARM HOUSE WHILE PAKISTAN/MEXICO/THE GREAT BARRIER REEF ARE BEING DESTROYED????

      And the reason for this is because all my life I’ve been susceptible to guilt-tripping. All my life I’ve been a people-pleaser. Now that I’m old and decrepit and falling apart, I finally have the confidence to say “No.” Whether it’s because :
      (1) No, I DON’T care about your cause. Yes, I’m a horrible heartless monster. Little Timmy can go whistle as far as I’m concerned.
      Or whether it’s because:

      (2) No, I’m NOT going to like/post/reblog. Because me doing it is only piling on the mass frenzy and will achieve precisely bugger-all in terms of doing anything except stroke your ego about being a great activist who is getting the news out there and Getting Stuff Done. If you in fact are not a great activist who is not getting stuff done, save that the only stuff being done is having a herd of followers reblogging, then you are useless also.

      I’ll care about what I choose to care about. I no longer will live down to the tyranny of expectation about “what kind of person are you?” It is entirely possible that I am a shitty, selfish, human being. But genuine outrage and pain is one matter, someone who likes to plume themselves on being an ally or an activist or an organiser simply because they urge reblogging with threats of “you are SCUM if you ignore this” are not doing anything useful, are not helping, and are part of the problem.

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    • What sort of experiences did you run into? Perhaps your experiences could be helpful to others!

      Do you think it was a case of not being suited to the specific group(s) that you were in? Or do you think it was a more general problem?

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  2. Tom Hunt says:

    This is a nice idea, and while I usually don’t give to charity, if I had a salary right now I would probably go find something to give something to.

    Unfortunately, I very much doubt that it’ll do much to reduce the number of people shouting about how it’s a moral obligation to retweet $CAUSE. The purpose behind that message — whether you model it as the occulted true desire of the leaders of the movements which spawned it, or the final cause of that feature of the message as a self-replicating meme — is nothing to do with people wanting to make the world a better place as best they can. Its purpose is to generate support for the message, and place more political power at the disposal of the movements and/or ensure the replication of the meme. It hijacks the moral response in order to get adherents, just like it hijacks the tribalistic response. This message isn’t anything like an answer against those who intentionally spread that particular meme; it’s irrelevant to the real argument.

    That said, it’s still worth having posted, and it’s worth signal-boosting. While it may not strike at the heart of the meme’s real purpose, it may well act as an effective inoculant — at least for some people, in some places, who may otherwise have been vulnerable to getting drawn in and thinking that they’re morally obligated to parrot $CAUSE. That can’t but be a good thing, both in limiting the meme’s spread, and for the happiness of those people. If that was the dominant message, rather than the contrasting meme, maybe I could stop being so damned cynical. <_<

    Thanks for writing this.

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  3. Chris Hendrix says:

    I like this post but could we add one caveat? Give 10% of your income to charities with strong evidence to support their effectiveness given the values system you have. Giving 10% of your income to Kony 2012 campaigns might not do all that much good for the world. I’ll grant that if we had 7 trillion dollars worth of charity money floating around, a charity wouldn’t have to be all that marginally effective to still be worth getting some piece of that pie, but until that happy day let’s make sure to keep the “give to charities that are useful and that your ten percent can actually help” in mind.

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    • David Hart says:

      The Giving What We Can Foundation mentioned in the essay is already on the case:
      “We recommend the most effective charities working to help people in developing countries. The best research in effectiveness can help you to make the biggest possible difference with your money. “

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  4. Pasha says:

    What would you estimate is the charity level (lives saved) of writing/re-blogging posts like these?

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    • somnicule says:

      Depends on the viewership, in terms of how likely it is this will influence them, and how many people will see it. If one extra person, on a $30k annual income donates $3k annually for (say) 5 years due to this post, that’s several lives assuming somewhat effective donations.

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      • Pasha says:

        The tricky part in these calculations is assignment of “cause.” Someone might see this post and decide to donate so we might attribute it to the post. However, they might attribute it to themselves. GiveWell/Giving What We Can will say they helped move such and such amount of money. And let’s not forget the charity itself, although arguably that part is taken care of as part of “room for more funding” calculation. Counter-factually if a single one didn’t exist, the donation would not happen. All of these existing might be necessary for the cause be solved. This isn’t an argument against giving, rather an adjustment of how many lives “you” saved vs. all the enablers and influences.

        Because of that spread of responsibility, it might be worth up-weighting certain actions where responsibility is completely your own. However, i still doubt that things like helping your friend with a resume or solving a work problem in non-confrontational come anywhere close the impact of effective charities.

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        • somnicule says:

          I don’t think the idea of responsibility or cause needs to work like that. Is it the wheels, suspension, fuel, or engine that makes the car go?

          You can’t add up the lives each individual saved, and get the total number of lives saved. You can look at which actions will save more or less lives. The former doesn’t matter when it comes to making decisions.

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    • Shieldfoss says:

      If nothing else, it inspired me to throw $100 at GiveDirectly and subsequently brag about it on two different forums that are inhabited by several people who might be motivated to do the same.

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    • Deiseach says:

      It may not be concrete “number of lives saved”. But cooling down hysteria is a valuable service, even if only as a metaphysical counter to the vast number of screaming guilt-tripping SPREAD THIS MESSAGE GET OUTRAGED YELL AND POUND THE TABLE messages that get spewed out.

      I’m at the stage now that even when I see something I know is wrong or mistaken being blasted as THE TRUTH, I am so weary of fights on the Internet that I simply let it go. What’s the use, they have their mind made up already, I can’t change that, and besides I’ve seen this being cemented in people’s minds as the really real true facts, I’ll never get to enough people to counter this, there’s no point trying.

      At least Scott is not at that level of apathy, and who knows? Someone outside the readership here may come across this post, read it, and then stop a minute when they’re next on the point of engaging in the reblog/post this or else!!!! frenzy, and think about what they’re doing and what they hope to achieve.

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    • schall und rauch says:

      How many lives are saved with this post: I’d guess quite a few.
      I see this blog as the best moral and enlightening guideline I can find in this so confusing world.
      So I try to be better. But I am no saint. Right now, with my lifestyle, my debt and the legal battles I still have ahead of me, 10% is too much of a burden.
      But as a result of this post, I have decided that my new year’s resolution is going to be to increase my charity level to 3% (from 0.8%).
      And since I have now said it openly, I have a high moral incentive to carry this through.

      Looking at
      http://childsdream.org/how-we-help/
      right now, because I like Asia. They operate in an area which has given a lot to me, so it’s fair I give something back.

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      • Julia says:

        Well done for publicly committing! I’d recommending looking at the GiveWell-recommend charities. If you particularly want your donations to work in Asia, you might look at Deworm The World, which is recommended by GiveWell and which works primarily in India and Kenya.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I have had three people tell me they are going to join GWWC and start donating 10% as a result of this post.

      Convincing other people to donate money seems so much easier and more effective than donating yourself (even if you don’t already have a big blog) that I am suspicious of it.

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      • JamesDC says:

        The director of my department, who also runs a charity aimed at ensuring education for girls in Africa, has stated more than once that the hardest part of running a charity is asking people for money. He also said it’s surprising how readily people respond, and how little denial stings over time. Most of all, “You’ll miss every shot you don’t take; you won’t get any dollar you don’t ask for.”

        I’m not certain of the effectiveness of his charity vs. others, given that I haven’t reviewed it and dead girls can’t be educated. However, speaking with him and other very charitable people in my life has taught me that convincing others to give is easy… with one caveat:

        You must give. People will trust a demonstrable investment; people do not trust a bell-ringer who they don’t see drop in a penny every now and then. It would be nice, given BlackLivesMatter etc, if people thought that way in regard to activism.

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      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Four. (I did it too.)

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  5. Anonymous says:

    This post will probably cause me to give more money to charity.

    I am interested in this, though:

    > If charity got seven trillion dollars a year, the first year would give us enough to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, […]

    Probably a comparable or greater amount of money was collected worldwide as taxes last year. So why didn’t we manage to accomplish all these wonderful things?

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    • Anon says:

      Those seven trillion dollars are in addition to extant spending. Also, government priorities are not the same as charity priorities. There are very few charities dedicated to military research.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      1. Almost all taxes are spent in the country of origin. Rich countries have gone pretty far to eliminating starvation, homelessness, easily treatable infectious diseases, et cetera. Their failures are often more political than economic – for example, we don’t give everybody free housing not because we can’t afford it but because welfare is controversial.

      2. Most taxes don’t go to idealistic social projects. The US spends most of its taxes on the military, Social Security for old people, health care for rich people in a country with super-duper inflated health care costs that are mostly useless, and interest on the federal debt. Even money that goes to idealistic projects is extremely politicized in its exact placement.

      3. The charity would be in addition to existing taxes, so if taxes have done half the job, charity could do the other half.

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      • eqdw says:

        we don’t give everybody free housing not because we can’t afford it but because welfare is controversial.

        I can’t help but nitpick: We don’t give free housing to everyone, because the level of housing we would be able to provide would be insufficient.

        The limiting cost of housing for most people is not the physical building, but the land. A naieve approach might note that there is much unoccupied land in the US that is available for housing for dirt cheap, but this housing is in the middle of nowhere. Sure you could build free housing for the poor in rural South Dakota. But that housing would be in rural South Dakota. It would be far from meaningful infrastructure, economic development, etc. You might give homeless folks roofs over their head, but you’ll accidentally lock them out of economic prosperity by placing them in the middle of nowhere.

        On the other hand, if you wanted to provide them with housing anywhere close to the economic opportunities in urban areas, all of the sudden you’re facing up against a pretty obvious blocker: there’s already houses there, and there are already people in them. At this point you can do a few things. You can try to regulate supply, through below-market housing quotas, rent controls, or what have you. History, as well as economic theory, shows that this doesn’t work. You can build denser housing. Most existing residents are not too fond of this, and if too much of it happens all at once it can stress local economic and logistic systems to the breaking point. You can start building outward in inexpensive suburbs. This causes people to be dependent on (in the US, virtually nonexistent) public transit, or compels them to spend large sums of money on buying/maintaining a car (and the opportunity cost of sitting in LA-style gridlock).

        And, throughout all of this, you’re hit with a familiar problem in any free market: If two people want one thing, the person with more money wins. For virtually any proposed solution, people with more money are going to get their preferred housing before people with less money get any. You can try and use the law to lock them out, but like I mentioned above, this rarely works in practice. Additionally, there are strong moral reasons why this might not work at scale (see: arguments over who is allowed/entitled to live in San Francisco vs who should be (forcibly?) expelled).

        The only long term viable solution to housing is for there to be enough housing that the market clears. But housing is restricted. Partly geographically, partly economically, partly by regulation, and partly just because housing is (literally, in 3d space) a positional good: its price depends a lot more on where it is than what it is.

        Housing is a hard problem, and I think it’s not telling the whole story to chalk it up purely to a political failure

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        • David Hart says:

          You can start building outward in inexpensive suburbs. This causes people to be dependent on (in the US, virtually nonexistent) public transit

          My suspicion is that any society that manages to solve the ‘building sufficient adequate housing for the poor in areas close to centres of economic activity’ problem is likely to also be the sort of society that manages to solve the ‘link the suburbs up to economic hubs with decent public transport’ problem – or at least that failure to one is likely to be a symptom of underlying factors that cause failure to do both.

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          • Grumpus says:

            I don’t understand, why can’t there be centers of economic activity where there’s housing?

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          • lmm says:

            There are. But some people like suburbs precisely because there’s no economic activity there.

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          • Anthony says:

            Grumpus – economic activity won’t just show up because there are potential workers there; especially if those potential workers are people who’ve had a hard time getting or keeping any job beyond those barely productive enough to pay minimum wage. And even if the potential workers are desirable, there are other conditions which may deter economic activity.

            Of course, if someone had built lots of free housing for the poor in western North Dakota a decade ago, many of those poor people would be much better off today.

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        • Shieldfoss says:

          Housing is a hard problem, and I think it’s not telling the whole story to chalk it up purely to a political failure

          “Hard Problem” in certain inefficient nations with political failure, possibly.

          Locally, we subsidize the construction of housing (To help the market clear), which is then rented out to poor people who are being given money with which to do this.

          This also solves the problem of perverse incentives – the subsidies are not so great that you can make money building appartments in the local equivalent of South Dakota, you must still rent them out later and are thus encouraged to build where people will rent.

          This does create suburbs, which is an easily-solved problem with public transportation.

          Or to rephrase and answer your actual quote:

          Housing is a hard problem, and I think it’s not telling the whole story to chalk it up purely to a political failure

          Housing is a solved problem, and only political failure is preventing you from adopting the solution.

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          • Slow Learner says:

            Yeah…there are all manner of ways to fuck up urban planning, but getting the basics right isn’t actually all that hard, and I find it odd that a lot of people treat it as basically insoluble.

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          • Where are these places that have completely solved the problem of housing? A quick search suggests that Europe has roughly the same rate of homelessness as the US, and other parts of the world are doing no better. Furthermore, housing “crises” in the US tend to be along the lines of “housing costs more than I want to pay”, and doesn’t actually mean “I have nowhere to live.”

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          • John Schilling says:

            Some of the better-run public housing projects, “council housing” in British English, seem to come close. This guy seems to be making the case for New York City, though I understand things are moving in the wrong direction lately.

            I think it might be more accurate to say that “housing” is a solved problem in the sense of providing a weatherproof enclosure of durable materials fitted with indoor plumbing, electricity, and the other requirements for minimally acceptable first-world housing, within reasonable commuting distance of an economic hub. Find the cheapest land within 10-20 miles of the chosen hub. Contract out the construction of large, boringly identical blocks of apartments or flats that meet your minimum standard. If necessary, put in a light rail line.

            Then subsidize whatever fraction of the rent (up to 100%) is needed to get the homeless poor under the roof. This can be done for an up-front cost that most first-world taxpayers will be willing to see devoted to such use, and probably second-world authoritarian governments as well.

            The nearly insoluble problems are: First, this sort of project is terribly easy to turn into a pork-distribution machine for labor unions and crony capitalists, which can greatly magnify construction costs. Second, it preferentially attracts on the resident side people who are economically incapable of securing housing on the private market (which correlates with being bad neighbors) and on the management side the sort of bureaucrats who like throwing their weight around without accountability. And third, it largely removes the incentive to maintain the housing in livable condition, at least from anyone who would have the ability to do so.

            Hence, all but the very best-run public housing projects tend to decline precipitously in quality from the very start. Often before they even open their doors. I don’t think anybody has codified the mojo that allows a few places to avoid this fate.

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          • John Schilling says:

            Also: If your metric for “solved the housing problem” is 0% homelessness, that’s not going to happen. There is an irreducible minimum homeless population composed of people whose mental illness causes them to see shelters/housing projects/whatever as Illuminati Mind Control Centers, people who are so committed to self-reliance that they see accepting such charity as sinful, people who are living out of their cars because they are certain that their fortunes will improve Real Soon Now and that they are not the sort of people who will end up warehoused in public housing, and people who are such bad neighbors that they will be thrown out of any housing arrangement that isn’t an actual prison or locked-ward psychiatric hospital.

            I suppose you could make homelessness a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment; barring that you’re going to be stuck with a few percent homeless.

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          • Anonymous says:

            >Housing is a solved problem, and only political failure is preventing you from adopting the solution.

            To say that slums are a “solution” to the problem of housing is to assume anything is better than homelessness.

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          • i believe there are also people who have been exposed to enough violence in homeless shelters that they’d rather take their chances on the street.

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          • Tracy W says:

            Locally, we subsidize the construction of housing (To help the market clear), which is then rented out to poor people who are being given money with which to do this.

            Subsidising housing can be an expensive way of helping the poor as it creates an incentive for non-poor people to indulge in fraud to get the housing subsidises. I don’t know of any studies, but I’ve heard a fair bit of rumours about how much low-income housing set asides that developers were required to build is occupied by not-so-low-income people.

            (Obviously, giving money directly to the poor also creates incentives for fraud, but, as you need to do that anyway to enable some people to buy things like food and heat, you also need to check for fraud, so sunk costs).

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        • sdgsdg says:

          I am not recommending it as a strategy, but I think that communism has left my east-european country full of dense, thus cheap, and nicely center-adiacent living spaces. I have always lived in (semi/central) blocks of flats, I could afford the rent, and could realistically solve my businesses using public transport or bikes. I think a significant portion of y’all’s aversion to denser living is not only cultural, but land-developer-originated propaganda.

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        • drs says:

          “Most existing residents are not too fond of this”

          Which makes it a political problem, not a capability problem. We could provide enough housing in urban areas. The affordable end might be small and dependent on public transit rather than owning cars, but we could do it. We choose to require parking spaces and minimum apartment sizes instead.

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        • Julia says:

          Changing zoning to allow building more densely packed housing seems like it should go a long way there.

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        • Tracy W says:

          And, throughout all of this, you’re hit with a familiar problem in any free market: If two people want one thing, the person with more money wins. For virtually any proposed solution, people with more money are going to get their preferred housing before people with less money get any.

          This doesn’t chime with what I recall of my urban economics (at least pre-trains, motorized buses, etc.). Because with housing you can fit people in more or less densely. Selling 40 people $100,000 apartments raises more money than selling one person a $2 million house. (Though profits depend on the relevant costs).

          Eg New York City, until the subway was built, had a pattern of the rich selling off their mansions and moving out a bit, with their mansions being replaced by tenement housing to accommodate the masses of poor. Or in London, there were lots of Tudor mansions with extensive pleasure grounds along the river, some of which remain, but, over time, the new mansions moved further out, to Hampstead Heath, or further (I’ve seen the modern equivalents in the hills of Surrey), and the rich built grand town houses, in the West End but typically not that large by country-home standards and nearly always without extensive grounds (exception being Buckingham Palace, where the King could hit up Parliament for funds). Eg the Duke of Wellington’s home in central London is nothing on the scale of Blenheim Palace in the English countryside (built for the Duke of Marlborough, the 17th century military equivalent of the Duke of Wellington). Meanwhile, hordes of very poor people were living in London’s East End, where they could walk to work.

          All this changed when there was mass, non-pooing, transport possibilities, and changed even more with elevators that make living in a 20-story apartment building doable. I am not saying that we should expect poor people nowadays to live in 19th century slums like those of London and New York. I’m just saying that the bidding war between the rich and poor for land for housing doesn’t necessarily mean that the rich always win.

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          • Tom Womack says:

            I’d say rather that the rich normally win, but that sometimes the rich decide to use the expensive land as a source of prestige by building a fancy house in it and living there, and sometimes as a source of money by building cheap housing there and renting it out.

            Obviously Mr Rothschild is unlikely to be the one knocking down the Rothschild mansion to build tenements, because he likely liked the mansion, but Mr Monaghan might well do so because he likes rent more than a mansion of unfashionable style; later Ms Li might knock down the Monaghan mansion and build tenements for rent; later Ms Adebayo does the same to the Li mansion, unless by that point having your income come from low-rent housing even through eleven layers of well-briefed intermediary is regarded as an irredeemable social flaw

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          • Tracy W says:

            When the rich decide to use the land to build housing for the poor, the poor win too. Because they get a place to live.

            Economies are not zero-sum.

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  6. Shmi Nux says:

    Another argument for giving to charity, which may sway some of your libertarian-leaning readers, is a reminder that the (US) government does not tax you on anything you donate to a registered charity. It’s like Moloch wants you to defeat him, by giving you tax breaks!

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    • Anonymous says:

      Caveat: You have to itemize deductions and have sufficient deductible expenses to surpass the standard deduction. As such, many of your donated dollars may be taxed just like normal before some of your donated dollars are untaxed. For low and moderate income individuals, the tax implications very well may be nil.

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      • Jeff Kaufman says:

        If you’re already itemizing deductions, for example because you have a mortgage, then each dollar you donate is like a dollar you never earned for tax purposes.

        If you wouldn’t itemize deductions if not for your donations, then yes, you’re right.

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      • DanielLC says:

        If you only donate to one charity, which you probably should be doing anyway, then itemizing deductions wouldn’t be difficult.

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        • grendelkhan says:

          In the US, itemizing deductions does not require listing each individual charitable donation if no individual donation was over $250. See 1040 Schedule A, Line 16, and page A-9 of the instructions. Even if it was over $250 for a single donation, they just tell you to keep a receipt for your records, not to send one in.

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        • RCF says:

          The issue isn’t the complexity, the issue is that there is a very large deduction that can be claimed only if one does not itemize.

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          • DES3264 says:

            I’m sure there are reasons this is oversimplified but, roughly, you want to itemize if the total things you could deduct add up to more than the standard deduction. This is $6200 for a single person or $12400 for a married couple filing jointly. So, if you are giving 10% to deductible charities, this applies if your income is above $62K as an individual or $124K collectively. That’s high (90% percentile and 73% percentile respectively), but not at all impossible given the number of tech people reading this blog.

            If you have a mortgage, it is almost surely to your advantage to itemize.

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          • grendelkhan says:

            Note also that you can generally (if you itemize) deduct state and local property and income taxes (as well as medical expenses above 10% of your income and job expenses), so even if you’re not taking the home mortgage deduction, especially if you have relatively high income, it might be worth it to itemize.

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          • Mary says:

            Also medical expenses over a certain level.

            When considering whether to itemize or not, be sure to get a Schedule A and look at what you can deduct.

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    • g says:

      Similar things are true in other jurisdictions. For instance, in the UK there is a scheme called “Gift Aid”; if the proper formalities are observed, then when a taxpayer gives to a registered charity the income tax they’ve paid on the money is returned. Some of it goes to the charity, and some to the taxpayer.

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    • Just because the government does something doesn’t automatically make it the work of Moloch. That being said, I’d be curious to learn the history of charitable contribution deductions and how they became a thing.

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    • Tracy W says:

      Arguably this is a bad thing from a moral viewpoint. The government has calculated somehow that it needs $X a year to fund whatever the government does. That need for $X doesn’t go away if people give money to charity, so, the more charitable deductions are taken, the more taxes must go up somewhere else to compensate. If two people, A and B, have similar incomes and similar circumstances in other relevant ways (eg number of dependent children), but A gives more to charity as B is paying off student load debt, or has heavy child support obligations or what not, why should B’s taxes go up?

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  7. 27chaos says:

    I’ve been wondering for a while – why isn’t the use of force a more popular political or charitable cause? I would donate a lot to anyone who was willing to take a gun and live in anarchic parts of Africa while trying to set up a functional democratic government. It’s actually something I’ve considered doing myself, though ultimately I’m too selfish for it.

    Obviously, imperialism is a potential issue, and corruption another. But it’s hard for me to believe that there’s no one born in those regions moral enough to want to achieve this. If someone were to start a charity for this cause, would it be illegal in the US/Canada or Europe to donate to it?

    Relatedly, why aren’t any private corporations trying anything like this? It seems like completely controlling a modernized country, even if it were small, would be worth it. Am I underestimating the difficulties here?

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    • drunkenrabbit says:

      I wondered the same thing. Security concerns are a huge problem that prevent different kinds of aid from being effective — there’s no point in building schools when the kids end of getting kidnapped or killed. The South African mercenary firm Executive Outcomes successfully crushed the RUF in Sierra Leone with few problems, before being forced to leave for political reasons. Obviously uncontrolled mercenary firms are bad, but if there were a few private battalion-sized units that the UN could contract out it would be a godsend. No need to stand by and hand-wring as Rwanda happens because risking military casualties is politically sensitive. No more Srebrenicias because of incompetent or intimidated troops.

      EDIT: People have tried to do things like that, it’s just politically unfeasible. This is a particularly fun one, featuring Margaret Thatcher’s son and some former SAS.

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    • NonsignificantName says:

      relatedly, why aren’t private companies doing this?

      Submitted without comment.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Fruit_Company#History_in_Central_America

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    • Randy M says:

      “imperialism is a potential issue”
      No, imperialism is the name of what you are describing, or at the least the exact image it would present.

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      • drunkenrabbit says:

        But at least in theory, benevolent imperialism could be considered justifiable (in a utilitarian sense). Strictly in theory, mind you, the last two wars have shown just how disastrously wrong nation-building can go.

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        • Randy M says:

          Sure, but one has to consider that one is working with humans. Is it worth making peoples lives better if you make them miserable in the process? That is, is it worth bringing order and technology to the third world if every way of doing so effectively causes them to feel resentment such that the only “utilons” or “hedons” gained are your own for being such a swell chap?
          It’d probably save time just to drop the rice off with the local warlord and tell yourself he’ll distribute it fairly.

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          • Izaak Weiss says:

            >Is it worth making peoples lives better if you make them miserable in the process?

            I’d consider that a contradiction in terms. If bringing order and technology to the third world makes people miserable rather than happy, it isn’t making their lives better, and if it makes their lives better, they will be less miserable.

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          • Has that ever happened? I mean, it’s common for net-positive policies to nonetheless make certain political coalitions really mad, and it’s common for policies intended to meet people’s basic survival needs to backfire horribly. But I can’t think of a policy that ever successfully met people’s basic survival needs but nonetheless made them so mad that it failed for that reason alone to be net-positive.

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          • drunkenrabbit says:

            Yeah, the mission civilisatrice and the “white man’s burden” were not well received by the people who ostensibly benefited from them. But I was thinking more of sending a mercenary unit to crush the RUF or ISIS, which wouldn’t provoke the same resentment as foreign rule.

            @Taymon
            The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind. Large segments of the population objected to having foreign troops present, even when said troops were there in support of their own elected governments.

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          • thirqual says:

            “But I was thinking more of sending a mercenary unit to crush the RUF or ISIS, which wouldn’t provoke the same resentment as foreign rule.”

            It would just create a nice power vacuum, struggles between factions with a selection for desirable traits until the next most ruthless group takes power. And starts acting with as much violence and disregard for your principles as the overthrown group. We’ve been there, done that, got the perks.

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          • If those occupations were net-negative, then it was because they caused people living in those countries to get killed, not merely because they caused them to become annoyed about having foreigners in their country.

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          • thirqual says:

            @Taymon

            It does not stop at people being killed (as in, the somewhat easy to compute direct bodycount). It’s also institutions being toppled, infrastructures being destroyed, and very long term consequences of the forced destabilization. China after the opium wars for example.

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          • Sure, but those things are bad primarily because they kill people. I was arguing against the idea that the occupations were net-positive in terms of lives saved, even after taking into account longer-term factors, but nonetheless were bad because they made people mad. See also this post from Scott’s old blog about dystopian fiction, which makes a related point.

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          • thirqual says:

            @Taymon

            1) my point was that you will have a very hard time counting how many people dead as a result of your action.

            2) from the point of view you are stating, Mao is the greatest humanitarian in history., and Stalin is a close contender. See here

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          • Randy M says:

            “Mercenary unit to crush ISIS”
            The average person in the middle East, excepting the sadly shrinking Christian minorities, may prefer to live in a nominal Islamic state run well with lax moral regulations, and be inwardly displeased by the harsh rule of ISIS when they take over, however they may be even more displeased to have there religion humiliated by infidels whenever a regime an infidel mercenary group dislikes takes power.

            This may seem strange because the average person in the middle east is not interchangeable with the average person at a Berkley keyboard.

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          • If the factual claims in that blog post are true, which I highly doubt, then sure, Mao was a great humanitarian. My objection to communism isn’t that it prevents people from actualizing their highest selves, it’s that as far as I can tell it’s worse than capitalism at meeting people’s basic survival needs.

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        • Is the cost of colonialism really a matter of resentment, or is it more that colonialism is unaccountable power, so you get things like the salt tax in India (and not getting enough salt is a serious matter, especially in a hot climate), taking children from their families to raise them differently (and frequently worse), not letting people use their own languages, and probably more I’m not thinking of?

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          • INeedAGoodName says:

            What if colonies had the power to regularly vote on which empire controlled them?

            It seems the main, if only problem with imperialism is that the natives have no way to hold the empire accountable. That and empires fight over colonies. Once all that is replaced with nonviolent competition, is it still a bad system?

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      • Konkvistador says:

        “No, imperialism is the name of what you are describing”

        +1

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      • John Schilling says:

        I think colonialism is a more accurate name for what is being proposed, but it runs into the same problem.

        Both imperialism and colonialism are more universally unpopular than they are universally wrong or harmful. If a new name helps people discuss a proposed new instance of a thing on its specific merits, that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.

        Possibly an impractical thing, given the certainty that opponents of any such plan would go out of their way to relink it with the hated old words.

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    • Jared says:

      A group of libertarians tried to do this in Honduras. It was shut down by the court.

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/04/honduran-judges-reject-model-cities

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      • Blogospheroid says:

        Came here to post just that, and it wasn’t a greatly violent venture as well. It was just politely asking for a space to be carved out, and was roundly refused.

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        • Tom Womack says:

          No matter how politely I ask for a share of your living room, you are quite likely roundly to refuse, and it’s perfectly reasonable for you to refuse.

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          • onyomi says:

            I think a better analogy would be:

            You own vast tracts of mostly unused land, with you and your extended family living on only a small percentage of it. You are pretty comfortable, but most of your family is barely surviving. Somebody comes to you and offers to use his own resources to build some orchards and gardens in one unused corner of your land, part of the proceeds from which will go to you and your family, which is a good thing, because you happen to have thousands of extended family members living on your property, and many of them are starving.

            Sure, you COULD say no, but there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to. In fact, it kind of seems like you owe it to your family to say yes.

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          • Jaskologist says:

            Maybe they remember when Mexico let a bunch of Americans settle in Texas.

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          • onyomi says:

            The charter cities idea as I’ve seen it presented is primarily about giving people who are already citizens of the country a chance to live and work under a more favorable legal regime, not about carving out a space for foreigners to live, though obviously a lot of the initial investment capital is coming from abroad.

            Also, who, on average, enjoys higher living standards: Mexicans living in Mexico or Mexicans living in Texas? Related question, if you were going to be a Chinese person growing up in the 50s, 60s, or 70s, would you rather have been living under the “native” rule of the PRC, or under the crushing imperialist thumb of British Hong Kong?

            This is not to defend imperialism per se, but rather to point out that being oppressed by people who share your language, genetic makeup, and/or culture, is not, in my mind, preferable to being left alone or provided with more favorable conditions by people who don’t.

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            “The charter cities idea as I’ve seen it presented is primarily about giving people who are already citizens of the country a chance to live and work under a more favorable legal regime, not about carving out a space for foreigners to live, though obviously a lot of the initial investment capital is coming from abroad.”

            If the host country was to allow open borders to the libertarian city-state, there are obvious reasons for the host government to object. The city-state would drain away businesses that prefer the less regulated state, and they would use it as shelter to avoid paying taxes or following government regulations. (to a lesser extent something like this happens in the United States due to differences in tax policy and regulations between the “states”)

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          • onyomi says:

            Yes, I can see why the governments of the country would not like it, because, from their perspective, it is competition. Governments, like all other organizations, prefer not to have competition. But it’s good for the people, who not only have the choice to move to the new place, but who will probably enjoy better governance even if they don’t move, since the original government may have to do a better job to keep people from leaving.

            I think things would be so much better in general if people stopped viewing governments as transcendent embodiments of the “will of the people,” and instead as what they really are: territorial monopolies on taxation and the provision of certain services, like law and its enforcement.

            Under this latter conception, governmental competition will nearly always produce better governance, as competition does with just about everything else.

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            I know nothing about Honduras so this is going to be a more hypothetical scenario, so lets say the host-state in country is slightly left-leaning.

            Presumably the reason they have their higher taxes and business regulations is because they think it helps people, regardless of whether this is true or not. So they think allowing the businesses to go unregulated and untaxed is hurting people, regardless of whether this is true or not. So its not just about competition.

            Now, you seem to be a libertarian of some sort, so you either disagree with their claim, have a different value system, or both. Me; I think that letting people do that is inviting in Moloch, and that the most competitive economic system is not necessarily the best according to my value system.

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          • onyomi says:

            Well, here’s a question: presumably you don’t favor world government, correct? If not, then you are in favor of some level of governmental competition. Assuming that is the case, then what level of competition is ideal? Generally speaking, very small nation-states and city states do much better, on average, than larger states surrounding them: citizens of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Monaco have much higher average living standards than citizens of Guangdong Province, Malaysia, and France and Spain, respectively.

            Presumably you don’t like the idea of people being unable to leave a country in which they don’t like living, either due to explicit legal barriers, or prohibitive personal and financial cost (and it’s almost always harder to move out of a geographically larger nation)? If not, then why would more options for people who don’t want to live in, say, a high tax environment be bad? Unless you think citizens have an obligation to continue living under a regime they don’t like?

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            Well, I do like the general idea behind Scott’s Archipelago, though I am concerned that economic issues might make the idea unworkable in a pre-post scarcity world. But Archipelago is not like international competition, rather it is just an especially tolerant variety of a liberal or even leftist state. Archipelago enforces freedom of movement between communities, (both negative and positive), prevention of externalities like pollution, and re-distributive taxation. And it implicitly engages in surveillance state stuff.

            So I guess what I’m saying is, for people to have freedom to choose their society, you need a liberal-ish world-state or at least world-alliance to enforce their freedom. Otherwise you end up with nasty states preventing people from leaving as they please and doing nasty things to them.

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          • Jiro says:

            “Presumably you don’t like the idea of people being unable to leave a country in which they don’t like living”

            Libertarians should understand the difference between “I don’t like X” and “I think people should be forced to pay to stop X”. I don’t like the idea of people starving, but I also don’t like the idea of taxing everyone 90% to give away to starving people. Opening borders causes immigrants to be a drain on public resources. Those public resources are essentially owned by the citizens jointly, and should not be given away any more than property held by the citizens individually should just be given away.

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          • blacktrance says:

            Does that argument apply to anyone who is likely to be a drain on public resources? For example, if someone is likely to live on disability all their life, should they be deported? And if we something like a UBI, should anyone who’d take more out of it than they’d pay into it also be deported?

            Whatever your answer, this is at most an argument for excluding immigrants from the welfare state, which doesn’t necessarily require keeping them out of the country. For example, you could have open borders and a citizens-only welfare state.

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          • Jiro says:

            Treating public resources as jointly owned by the citizens does not imply limiting someone to a “fair share” of resources, so this would not imply kicking out citizens at all, whether for disability or otherwise. For that matter, it doesn’t even mean we can’t let disabled people–or anyone else–become citizens; the joint owners can arbitrarily give away their own property. It does, however, mean that there is no *principled* reason why such a society *should* give away citizenship to all comers. (And a government that is imperfectly democratic can actually give away citizenship wrongly.)

            And you are correct that it doesn’t imply not letting them physically live in the country, just not letting them use public resources. But this is one of those cases where being half-libertarian can be worse than being all-libertarian or none; you can’t just let in the immigrants, say “we’ll keep them from using resources some day when it’s feasible”, and think that at least you’re halfway there.

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          • blacktrance says:

            Treating public resources as jointly owned by the citizens does not imply limiting someone to a “fair share” of resources, so this would not imply kicking out citizens at all, whether for disability or otherwise.

            Doesn’t it imply that? If someone has a certain share in ownership of resources, it’s reasonable that they’d be limited to that share. You’re right in that the joint owners can choose to give away more of their property, but if they’re choosing to give it away to natives (who are strangers to them and about whom they have no particular reason to care about), they can give them away to immigrants as well. It’s one thing to prefer a friend or family member to a stranger, but it’s arbitrary to prefer one stranger to another.

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      • onyomi says:

        Oh, the rejection of the model cities projects makes me so, so angry. The local governments obviously know the prosperity achieved there is going to make them look bad and that they’ll be stuck with competition for citizens, but they always fight against it using arguments about national dignity, “Neo-Imperialism,” etc.

        You know what improves national dignity? Having food and clean, running water?

        I hope Paul Romer is going to keep working on the idea. Last I’ve seen, he was doing something in NYC, but I think the third world needs his efforts more. Though a bit outdated now, I think his TED talk still does a good job outlining the basic idea, and in addressing the “neo-imperialism” criticism:

        http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_romer?language=en

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        • Slow Learner says:

          National dignity is a terrible reason to stonewall a project.
          Concerns about extraterritoriality and colonialism are much more valid, to my mind. I think the charter city is a defensible project, and one that might be worth trying, but I don’t think it’s nearly as one-sided as you’re suggesting.

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    • Blogospheroid says:

      You’re better off contributing to seasteading.org which will increase the number of sovereign and quasi-sovereign cities in the world. This benefit will trickle down to people with lower skills, if not overtaken by the population explosion.

      However, if perversely inspired by the previous post, you’re interested in something more controversial, your plan for violent takeover is probably more controversial.

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      • Randy M says:

        I think it is hilarious that libertarians want free, open borders, and an island nation with a twenty mile moat.

        (I understand this is not in all cases the same people)

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        • eggo says:

          Not libertarian, but I like to think of it as “free open borders, but not for tanks”.

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        • onyomi says:

          There are two primary reasons for the Seasteading idea, so far as I understand: 1. there’s basically no habitable land on earth not already claimed by some state, and 2. if one’s land is floating, moving away from a community which no longer reflects one’s values is super easy.

          It’s not about keeping people out (other than the agents of existing states); it’s about freedom from the territorial claims of existing regimes and also those of any potentially pushy neighbors. It’s kind of like Nozick’s imaginary universe in which the ideally sized states emerge through everyone having a right of secession.

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    • lmm says:

      China is doing this, and that will probably be the thing that actually lifts Africa out of poverty. The best way to improve the world is not to give money to charities (who have poor incentives and can only take a very limited category of actions) but to be an enthusiastic participant in the global economy.

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      • onyomi says:

        I have even seen arguments that Bill Gates’ money would have done more good invested in developing economies than in all of his charity work. Seems plausible to me, especially given that I think some of his charity work (common core) is downright harmful, and I’ve heard from others working on the ground that their huge foundation is not very responsive to local needs.

        I’m sure a lot of good has, nevertheless, been accomplished by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but more good than if all that money had been invested in economic development of third world nations? I’m not so sure.

        This is why the idea of micro-loans also really appeals to me. It’s not “charity,” so much as an invitation to the poor to join in the development that has already so greatly improved living standards around the world.

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    • Jaskologist says:

      This was a major argument for the Iraq War. Still willing to argue for it?

      Report comment

    • Deiseach says:

      People with guns setting up a more democratic polity is being done all over the place – haven’t you kept track of all the coups and current wars and insurrections?

      “Private companies doing it” is also a thing – look at the contractors in Iraq, for example, or Mark Thatcher’s failed coup attempt.

      The problem here is “the arts that win a crown must it maintain”. People, particularly private companies, who go into a country with guns and soldiers are doing it not out of the goodness of their hearts, but with “what’s in it for me?”

      Which generally ends up with the strong military leader stuffing the new democratic government with his relatives and supporters and the state treasury ending up in Swiss bank accounts in his name for when the next strong military leader takes over.

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    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      Donating to violent action does happen. IIRC the IRA got funds from American donations.

      Also, while I’m not so sure about sending money, foreign volunteers showing up to help a side in a civil war that matches their ideology is definitely something that happens. For example, Islamists going to join ISIS/the Mujaheddin, and various leftists going to help in the Spanish civil war.

      (I never said that these are for causes I agreed with. For the record, I’m against Islamists and the IRA, and in favor of the Spanish Republicans (or at least they were much better than the alternative)).

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      • Slow Learner says:

        NORAID were indeed a major source of funds for the Provos in the Troubles. It was a major policy priority of the British Government throughout the Troubles to shut off the flow of NORAID funds.

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    • Leonard says:

      It won’t work because the “international community” would crush you. As it has done every other government which is not “democratic” according to its standards, which involve “will of the people”, and other modern concepts. This process is not fast, either; it tends to take years of posturing, sanctions, and subversion via various means. As a consequence, the country you were attempting to save becomes impoverished by sanctions. And unless you go full hermit kingdom ala North Korea, you get a rebellion of the best, brightest, and most power-hungry people, who naturally pick up the signals from the State Department that if only they’d rebel, they’d get support. “Responsibility to protect.” So you end up with a country that is impoverished, with a civil war. And also you personally end up like Saddam or Gaddafy. This is not effective.

      Now, if the “international community” were to lose its power, then what you are talking about — colonialism — would work. So, maybe you can wait for it. Or maybe you can take the really long view, and work for the demise of the “international community”.

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      • Tom Womack says:

        I see no sign of the international community attempting to crush Singapore or Malaysia, or Mexico during the PRI period, or Japan under the LDP; provided you have elections, you’re fine to direct disproportionate media coverage at the Teal Party and make strong explicit promises of withdrawing development funding from the precincts that voted Orange.

        If you can’t manage a mandate using Lee Kwan Yew’s level of manipulation of the democratic process, you didn’t deserve it in the first place.

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    • Nornagest says:

      I would donate a lot to anyone who was willing to take a gun and live in anarchic parts of Africa while trying to set up a functional democratic government. It’s actually something I’ve considered doing myself, though ultimately I’m too selfish for it.

      (With apologies to XKCD.)

      SITUATION: There are 14 competing warlords and no functioning government.

      CUEBALL: 14? Ridiculous! We should hire a mercenary army that’s good enough to establish hegemony, take over, clean the place up, and install a real democracy!

      PONYTAIL: Yeah!

      Soon:
      SITUATION: There are 15 competing warlords and no functioning government.

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    • Galle says:

      The use of military force to overthrow an existing government, or to establish one, is a form of political activism, which as Scott pointed out is one of the least efficient forms of doing good for the world.

      Even worse, it’s THE LEAST EFFICIENT FORM OF POLITICAL ACTIVISM. Military force is really, really good at killing lots of people and destroying lots of infrastructure, and really, really bad at producing stable, non-abusive, democratic governments, as demonstrated by basically every revolution ever.

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      • John Schilling says:

        Germany and Japan being the most obvious counterexamples, and I think too monumentally significant to be dismissed as outliers.

        Though it may be significant that we did not “use military force” to overthrow their governments; we waged war against them. People who euphemize their warfighting are almost guaranteed to leave the job half-done, and that just leaves you with dead bodies and broken stuff. Acknowledging that you are waging war is I think a necessary but not significant condition for accomplishing anything really useful by the use of military force.

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    • blacktrance says:

      It has a bad reputation for historical reasons, but also there are knowledge problems involved: running a government in your own country is difficult enough, but it’s even worse when you’re unfamiliar with the local problems, customs, etc.

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      1. Charities are bad at binary things. It’s easy to start your malaria charity small, treat ten people, and then expand until you treat a million people. A violence charity would have to have a pretty strong army before it could do anything at all.

      2. Relatively likely to start at least a small war, I don’t think people want that kind of blood on their hands. Most people donate to charity to feel good. Even if the war was won and the reconstruction successfully improved the country, that’s not exactly warm and fuzzy. And there’s no guarantee those two conditions would hold.

      3. I think there are laws against a country supporting or tolerating any movement to invade another country it recognizes diplomatically. See this incident, which is probably closest to what you describe.

      4. Everyone would hate you and the media would beat up on you nonstop.

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      • John Schilling says:

        1. You could presumably start by e.g. arranging ten mercenaries or volunteers to guard food distribution convoys on the fringes of a hostile warlord’s territory, and scale up from there if successful. Indeed, this has been done – the word “technical” for “pickup truck with a heavy machine gun or whatever” evolved from the creative accounting dodges various charitable groups in Somalia used when locally arranging such guards.

        2. You could probably get people to feel good about this, at least on a small scale. Beating up on warlords who tyrannize the wretched is kind of a feel-good thing, particularly if you do it defensively. Though, as noted, charities in Somalia preferred to conceal their efforts in this area.

        3. and 4. are definitely going to be problems if you try to scale this sort of thing up. If I had to try it, I’d want a rock-solid reputation as the Good Guys who guard food convoys and refugee camps, then carefully escalate to preemptive attacks on the military forces of the warlords who keep attacking the refugees. Eventually, hopefully, the warlord has no army and flees, and the charity is the de facto government. But I expect it would fail on the world stage even if it were tactically successful in the field, for the reasons you cite.

        There’s also the danger of being co-opted and corrupted by people who would offer to finance a whole lot of food-convoy escorts and refugee-camp guards if you were to also guard their lucrative mines and plantations and associated shipping routes.

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    • Wirehead Wannabe says:

      For myself, the answer is a lack of evidence. There’s just no way for me (or, if we’re being pessimistic, anyone) to know whether you’re making a positive difference at all. I would also worry about the incentives that might arise if regular donations to militaries became a common thing.

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    • Tracy W says:

      why isn’t the use of force a more popular political or charitable cause?

      It was very popular in Northern Ireland for decades. And, by proxy, very popular in Glasgow, Scotland and Boston, USA, from what I hear.

      This may explain why it’s no longer so popular.

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  8. drunkenrabbit says:

    I’m now having happy daydreams of a world where everyone needs to purchase an “activism license” by tithing to charity, as a prerequisite for doing any cost-free holiness signalling like hashtag activism. You could call it the “Put Up or Shut Up Act of 2015”.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough…

    Insofar as such messages are predominant in one’s upbringing, I am having a hard time seeing how this does not constitute an emotionally abusive childhood. Certainly the effects on the recipient are the same:

    Victims of emotional abuse may react by distancing themselves from the abuser, internalizing the abusive words, or fighting back by insulting the abuser. Emotional abuse can result in abnormal or disrupted attachment development, a tendency for victims to blame themselves (self-blame) for the abuse, learned helplessness, and overly passive behavior.

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    • Also Anonymouse says:

      For what it’s worth, I was raised in a very religious household that held a very similar belief: We are all worthless sinners, saved but by the grace of god. We will always be horrible people, but we have a moral obligation to try our absolute hardest to overcome.

      I consider this to have been emotionally abusive. It fucked me up in the brain pretty good.

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      • Randy M says:

        I don’t think “argument from emotional fragility” is particularly persuasive; would you respect the person arguing against teaching evolution on the reason that hearing that mankind is simply another animal and there is no eternal purpose to existence was emotional abuse and a brain fuck-up?

        I had a broadly similar worldview taught growing up and consider myself more-or-less psychologically well adapted.

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        • Anonymous says:

          1. Evolution does not imply either of the things you mentioned.

          2. If the message was that that mankind is simply another animal and there is no eternal purpose to existence and you must always feel horrible about that (accomplished by whatever rhetorical methods), then yes, I would consider it emotional abuse and a brain fuck-up.

          3. If the mere fact that some people can come out of an experience “psychologically well adapted” means that emotional abuse did not take place, then nothing can qualify as emotional abuse.

          4. Your argument would be considered “victim blaming” under the liberal ethos, as it attributes the problem to “emotional fragility” on the part of the sufferer. Either way the liberal ethos collapses on itself.

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          • Grumpus says:

            I’m not sure if this is what you meant by “the liberal ethos collapses on itself”, but what does qualify as emotional abuse, if not trauma-causing behavior?

            Edit: In other words, what’s the difference between (1) person is abused and traumatized, (2) person is treated okay but is emotionally fragile and is traumatized, and (3) person is abused and not traumatized?

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          • Anonymous says:

            Well, let’s back up a little. Roughly speaking, I believe this constitutes emotional abuse since there is a direct causal line between the action and internalized self-hatred on the part of the sufferer. Does this produce trauma 100% of the time, no, but neither does dropping a brick off a highway overpass.

            But I can imagine somebody claiming that “emotional abuse” (or at least the moral equivalency class thereof, if we want to get all subdividey—apply this qualifier from now on) requires stronger criteria, or even that the entire concept of “emotional abuse” is invalid. I believe that attempting to convince such a person of my conception of “emotional abuse” would be futile, and likewise for them attempting to convince me of theirs, as is usual for arguments over definitions. So much for that.

            However, while I cannot require that they subscribe to my conception of “emotional abuse”, I can require that they subscribe to a conception of “emotional abuse” (or lack thereof). Which brings us to “the liberal ethos collapses on itself”. Within the liberal ethos, “emotional abuse” and its moral equivalence group is relatively broad and does not require intent or actions of sole individuals (cf. “institutionalized”, “microaggressions”, and arguably even the whole of “privilege” and “oppression”). Furthermore, power differentials, such as that between a child and a political movement with the position of moral authority during said child’s upbringing, are an aggravating factor.

            To claim simultaneously that the liberal ethos is correct, but that liberalism is not committing “emotional abuse”/”microaggressions”/”oppression” when operating as quoted, is then about as credible as me claiming my example of a power differential was picked for no particular reason.

            We had to destroy the village in order to save it.

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        • Also Anonymous says:

          It is difficult to describe the exact dynamic, but in practice it basically turns out the same way that Scott described tumblr above. Once you take a sacred, unquestionable, yet unachieveable goal, what happens next is that you’re constantly judged on your progress relative to it. But since it is both unachievable and ill-defined, it ends up being used as a tool of manipulation.

          In such an environment, whenever somebody wants to hurt or manipulate you, they can just refer to your failing to achieve the (unachievable) moral goal as evidence of your despicable moral character. It’s like the tumblr example: “I know you are a blog dedicated to cute kitten videos, but This Thing Is Horrible and You Have A Duty to Do Everything You Can. If you won’t even reblog this, then you are scum”.

          This is already an effective oppression tactic on Tumblr, the consequences are roughly 9/10ths “people on tumblr will think you are a bad person” and 1/10th “this will explode into the real world where real people will think you are a bad person”. It’s essentially only a loss of social status, and this is already powerful. Imagine this dynamic, but combined with “also if you don’t do this you will LITERALLY BE TORTURED IN HELL FOR ETERNITY”.

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          • Deiseach says:

            Myself, I don’t give a toss if people on Tumblr think I’m a bad person. Granted, it took me about forty years to get to the stage where I could think “I don’t actually care what perfect strangers think about me”, and a lot of people on Tumblr are much younger and so more vulnerable to popularity contests (though not that young; there was something about how users were older than thought, giving an average age up in the late 20s rather than the teens as assumed).

            In fact, when I’ve been told that I make people laugh or they like reading my tags because they’re funny, that gives me a whole free gratis and for nothing warm glow of ego boost, because I wasn’t trying to win followers or entertain people.

            Also, I make very sure to keep my ‘real world’ and ‘online’ interactions very, very, very separate so there’s little fear of that kind of “Oh no, my potential employer will find out I said that thing about the stuff!”

            As for hell, if I go there, I’m putting myself there. I don’t and won’t blame God; God is not putting me in hell, I’m sending myself there by my choices and actions. That’s freedom. But on the other hand, if people genuinely are paralysed by terror of eternal punishment, then I don’t think they should be abused by that.

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            @Deiseach

            You have an extremely warped view of freedom.

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          • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

            I don’t and won’t blame God; God is not putting me in hell, I’m sending myself there by my choices and actions. That’s freedom.

            Similarly, if a robber points a gun at you and says, “Give me your purse or I’ll shoot!”, you don’t and won’t blame the robber; the robber is not shooting you, you’re shooting yourself by your choice not to give him your purse. (yes, that was sarcasm)

            Religion has a way of perverting everybody’s mind; theism is basically a millinnia-long sequence of brainwashing and Stockholm syndrome. You have to worship an invisible, blackmailing psychopath but since he is Omnipotent and the Source of all Morality, of course everything that happens is your fault.

            But hey, at least you Christians are currently not burning/stoning people or slaughtering hundreds of children. That makes you better than past Christians and some current Muslims.

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          • Mary says:

            Similarly, if a robber points a gun at you and says, “Give me your purse or I’ll shoot!”, you don’t and won’t blame the robber; the robber is not shooting you, you’re shooting yourself by your choice not to give him your purse. (yes, that was sarcasm)

            but a very poor counter-example, since it’s bad luck you happened to have him point it at you.

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          • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

            Mary, it would also be very bad luck to be born into a universe where there happens to be a crazy psychopath god who sends souls into everlasting torment for finite transgressions.

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          • Jaskologist says:

            On the other hand, if somebody jumps off a bridge, do you blame gravity, or do you view it as something the jumper did to himself?

            Moral and physical law both originate from and are enforced by the same source. Why treat them differently?

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        • Also Anonymous says:

          Also, as the first anonymous said above: this is pretty literally the working definition of victim blaming.

          I would go so far as to say the majority of arguments in favour of trigger warnings are arguments from emotional fragility. Person A becomes emotionally fragile when they hear about X. Person B wants to talk about X. The current social mores (within the SJ sphere anyway) have decided that it’s primarily Person B’s responsibility to accommodate Person A’s emotional fragility, by self-labeling with trigger warnings, as opposed to Person A’s responsibility to actively discover which conversations are triggering and avoiding them.

          Additionally, as there is no national registry of accepted triggering topics, we’ve generally agreed on the principle of charity to decide what needs to be labelled: If someone says that X causes them distress, we accept their claim as sincere and try to accommodate them.

          A quick perusal of tumblr, or even some more ‘legitimate’ meatspace communities (university humanities departments) will easily reveal people being triggered (eg, being emotionally fragile around a topic) by things lighter than what I went through, and it’s also generally accepted as valid by others in the communities.

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    • Sarah says:

      Yes, I consider that kind of upbringing to be emotionally abusive.

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  10. Frog Doe says:

    Off the cuff thought, this is a possible benefit of a caste society. Noblesse oblige, and everyone else can be safe in the knowledge they’re not noble and it’s not their responsibility.

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    • somnicule says:

      I think this is, probably not a motivating factor, but a common argument for “natural aristocracy”.

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    • Jared says:

      You could also say it’ a disadvantage of democracy. People wouldn’t be so obsessed with turning everything political if they didn’t think their political beliefs mattered.

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      • Randy M says:

        That depends on if the alternative to activism in non-representative polities is to accept the political realm as beyond one’s control and to invest one’s energy into improving one’s community or donating to those in need; or if it is to attempt revolution should accepting political realities seem too painful.
        If Hashtivism functions as a pressure release it could be a good thing, but sometimes it seems more like a chain reaction.

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  11. charred-triumph says:

    I spent a huge portion of my time since teenagerhood freaking out about not doing enough, and therefore not doing anything. I think I was likely one of those people you like to say could benefit from reading Ayn Rand, and in fact I did so pretty early on–but when everyone in my life seemed to /just not get/ how heroic responsibility worked and that there were people DYING RIGHT THEN that I was responsible for, it was hard to take someone seriously who was even further from my convictions than they were.

    This year, severe health issues forced me to accept that I couldn’t shoulder the burden I thought I should, and I was basically just in pain and incapable of acting without feeling emotionally and physically shitty.

    This summer, I finally convinced myself that I needed to apportion some time, money, and energy to getting better, because beating yourself up is a good way to make sure you don’t fall into passivist thinking (and there was nothing that scared me more), but a real shitty way to actually improve the world. Modifying myself to not constantly feel terrible in sympathy with everyone in the world in a terrible situation was really scary–what if I became one of those people who look at the world and see a few (nonoptimized) pet issues and a lot of not-my-problems? But, well, committing to not mentally self-flagellate turns out to have serious benefits in terms of learning things, building healthy habits, being mentally healthy, and dealing with disease, which are pretty important factors in my capacity to improve the world.

    I can’t fully believe in the 10% Schelling point as I am now. And I don’t yet want to become a person who could consider 10% sufficient, especially since a big part of my brain sees that and shouts to me that it’s the actual /amounts/ that matter, though another part recognizes that that’s beside the point. That “yet” above is crucial, though: from my prior experience of lowering the bar labeled “you must be this good to not feel shitty”, I think it’s possible this is what I need and I just need to be talked around.

    In any case, the idea of finding a Schelling point of contribution to focus on for people who freak out about the amount of pain in the world makes me feel very warm inside. I’m happy that there are other people who think in the way that can lead to this problem, and it’s very nice that some–e.g. you, Scott–understand and accept this mindset to the extent that they try to help people with it be happier and accomplish more. Which doesn’t sound like a lot now that I write it out, but it’s a giant leap ahead of the vast majority of discussions I’ve had on the subject, and even far ahead of EA sites like GiveWell which can just overwhelm me with aaaah so many problems I can’t solve!!

    A lot of your posts are interesting, a lot are enlightening, a lot are touching. This one might not be that special to you, but know that it warmed one brittle young altruist’s heart. c:

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    • Anon says:

      Start with donating ten percent. You can worry about whether or not to give more later, once you have at least reached the Schelling point.

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    • Julia says:

      I actually think 10% (or something in that neighborhood) might be better than 90%. 90% makes you look crazy, and no one will want to do the same. 10% seems more feasible to most people. So if you’re able to persuade a few people to follow you in donating 10%, it’s much more useful than donating more alone.

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  12. Jackson says:

    It’s a rather parochial view that equates charity with philanthropy. How do non-philanthropists do their version of good? Where’s the misanthropic charity threatening to wipe humanity from the earth?

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  13. AR+ says:

    Eh, yeah I guess it would be great if I could feel like I’ve done my part if I just save a few dozen lives a year, but how does that make my own society stronger?

    If I seriously took to advocating my own positions I’d probably end up hurting yours, since one of the things that I feel should be a no-brainer for the wealthy industrial world would be to stockpile food. It is ludicrous to me that there is no nation that could go even a single year with no new food and not completely stave to death. This is hardly a new idea, except that we can do it even more effectively now than when Joseph is alleged to have told Pharaoh, “Hey, if you have an abundance of grain maybe keep some of the extra in case you run out latter?” Hardly seems like an insight borne of divine revelation but given how food stockpiling is seen as a sign of subversion instead of common sense, I suppose a heavenly command is about what it would take for well-off people to stop seeing their ability to eat as something that just happens. Or maybe just a week without food would do the trick.

    So before anybody tries to help anybody starving somewhere, I would say they should have a year of food and water in their own home first. Don your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you, and all that. Survivalists are often maligned as “selfish,” but if everybody who could afford to do so stockpiled like a survivalist, it would downgrade some collapse-of-civilization level events into mere global catastrophes, and some global catastrophes into severe inconveniences. Meanwhile, saving millions from malaria is great and all, if that’s your thing, but it doesn’t make our civilization any more resilient against things that, in all technical sense, should be trivial for use to prepare for, but which we have simply opted not to.

    Factually, I don’t think many would disagree with the above. But if everybody suddenly agreed with me and decided to get a year supply of food in advance, of course, the potentially years-long jump in global food prices might well be enough to starve tens of millions of people. Just goes to show how important it is to have a stockpile in case there’s any sudden shock to the food supply! So I guess we’d better go ahead and make it a 2 year supply, just in case, eh?

    So I think political activism can make perfect sense if you just have a different measure of success than this particular brand of utilitarianism. You don’t even have to leave utilitarianism, if you can accept utility functions that do not treat all humans as equally important or equally-your-problem.

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    • Anon says:

      > So before anybody tries to help anybody starving somewhere, I would say they should have a year of food and water in their own home first.

      What? why? what sort of high-probability catastrophe would could possibly matter for? This feels like it came out of nowhere.

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      • AR+ says:

        If a year of supplies seems like too much for you, how about a month? It is common enough to see store shelves stripped bare in the lead up to many ordinary disasters in America, despite such things happening fairly regularly. People just act like you can always get food from a store right up until the hurricane is definitely going to hit their city. I saw it myself in Hawaii during the recent Hurricane Iselle freak-out.

        But of course there’s never going to be enough to go around by the time a disaster or catastrophe is imminent enough to become “high-probability.” Especially if the argument for it being high-probably is, “it just happened.”

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        • Anonymous says:

          Honestly, I live in a household that has probably sufficient stocks to last ~1-2 month at all times; the water situation here is extremely stable and plentiful locally, so I don’t worry about it. This is more due to thrift than to any worry about the future, though – many dried goods and canned goods and the like are less expensive when bought at sale prices and/or in bulk, so stocking up in quantity at opportune times is an effective way of saving money if you can afford to wait and can afford to stock up in bulk. It’s a middle class variant of the Sam Vimes Boots Theory of socioeconomic unfairness, basically, as told by Terry Pratchett:

          “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

          Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

          But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

          This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

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      • drs says:

        “What? why? what sort of high-probability catastrophe would could possibly matter for? This feels like it came out of nowhere.”

        I don’t think “high probability” is the right criterion. Probability is frequency, low probability is low frequency, in fact for the more extreme versions of this sort of thing we expect a frequency of zero up until now, because if it had happened within our civilization then we wouldn’t be here talking about it.

        General climate change; large volcanic eruption; asteroid strike; monoculture crop plague. Easy to imagine various things that could cause a sudden disruption to the food supply. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer#Effects
        How prepared are we for another Tambora, or bigger?

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    • somnicule says:

      I don’t think “before” is a psychologically pragmatic solution (regardless of the necessity of such a policy), since it just puts a large obstacle in the way before charitable donations. A norm of stockpiling some resources at the time of each donation might be more pragmatic, if indeed local stockpiling is necessary to that degree.

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    • Ghatanathoah says:

      Considering how cheap food is in the first world these days, it would probably not cost that much to stockpile a years worth of food. You could probably do it within a few months if you devoted 10% of your income per month to it. Then you’d could begin donating to charity.

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      • AR+ says:

        A food stockpile is just one example of something that I feel should be a straight-forward enough and certainly well-precedented form of preparation that few people do. Having done that, my next question was, “so what next?”

        And my actual answer has for most practical purposes has proven to be, “give up.” What can I possibly do that will make my civilization more resilient when Californian farmers are dumping millions of gallons of fresh water on flood-irrigated fields because it’s too heavily subsidized to justify upgrading to something more efficient? I’ve mentioned that specific thing recently before but it really drives home for me that everything is broken and even strident activism seems largely pointless.

        It seems I am still clearly part of this article’s target audience, even w/ the difference in what counts as “doing good.” Maybe I should read it w/o regard to that disagreement and focus on at least helping my own family and neighborhood and see if I can honestly say, “Well, it’s not my fault that everyone else is still dragging their feet.”

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      It sounds like you’re claiming that food stockpiling is a very effective form of charity (in the sense of high chance of saving civilization). Plug that in for “malaria prevention” and I don’t think it changes the argument much.

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    • Linch says:

      I haven’t crunched EVs, but I don’t think the amount of money needed to stockpile food for a year or two (for one thing, I’ll need larger living arrangements) divided by the likelihood of a catastrophe is worth the opportunity costs of saving somebody’s life right now.

      On the other hand, Mormons both do tithing and food stockpiling, so clearly it’s not incompatible with a normal amount of charity.

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  14. Vox Imperatoris says:

    I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough. The old saying goes “you can’t reason yourself out of something you didn’t reason yourself into to begin with”, and the idea that secure and prosperous people need to “give something back” is a lot older than accusations of “being complicit in structures of oppression”. It’s probably older than the Bible. People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

    They may not have “reasoned” themselves into the problem, but they’ve certainly accepted dubious moral premises that make them feel that way.

    Even in your article, when you talk about giving 10%, you justify it by saying that “Well, nobody can be perfect,” with the implication that giving 100% and spending every waking moment on social justice activism is the only thing that could constitute being perfect.

    The “nobody’s perfect” slogan has a certain amount of truth: that somebody will make the best possible decision on every moral issue (to the best of his information at the time) is tremendously unlikely. It’s like someone playing Dark Souls without ever dying on his first time through. It’s not literally impossible, but it’s tremendously difficult, given all the unfamiliar pitfalls and perils.

    But “nobody’s perfect” is not a license or excuse to then refrain from attempting to strive for perfection as best one can. You may not be perfect, but you should want to be perfect. If you don’t, it could be a problem with you. But it could also be a problem with the standard that you have set up. “Giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity” is a ridiculous standard. It’s inhuman and a recipe for misery and guilt, exactly as you’ve described. It makes as much sense as a guide to human morality as saying that the highest possible moral achievement for a human is to spend all day chewing cud or to run on four legs.

    When you set up absurd moral standards, you create an atmosphere of guilt and repression. This is true even if you follow the “Catholic” approach of “forgiving” everybody who doesn’t meet them. Because now you’ve turned that need for forgiveness into a method of psychological control. If the highest goal is to chew cud like a cow, then every human being now has to hold his head down a little and beg the High Ruminant to show mercy on him. Maybe someone can content himself by chewing a little grass, but he’ll always have that nagging feeling that he isn’t living up to the true demands of his code. Make the standards crazy enough and, sure enough, everyone starts to seem like an equally bad sinner.

    There is a sense in which humans are inherently “imperfect”. For example, they have goals like investigating the secrets of the universe, but they don’t have laser vision—even though laser vision would help them do this. But are humans inherently flawed morally? I think that is a contradiction in terms, since morality ought to be defined in terms of how an agent ought to be behave, as dictated by the nature of that agent.

    I’m not going to argue here about what the proper moral standard should be. But I am going to advance the radical proposition that, whatever it is, perfection should consist of something that is actually achievable and appropriate for human beings. Not something that would be disastrous if people seriously attempted to follow it.

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    • somnicule says:

      Growth mindset. Knowing that you’re doing well, but can do even better, is more honest and more productive in terms of actually being honest about things. If I really could do better, I’d rather know that than not.

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    • blacktrance says:

      Agreed. The “10% is good enough because no one is perfect, and it’s better than nothing” argument implies that giving some extremely high percentage would be perfect – and who decided that? Perhaps giving away some amount of money makes you happy, because of the lives you improve, but at a certain point your marginal utility of additional charity becomes negative, and at that point you should stop giving. Why give until you’re miserable, or even uncomfortable? Utilitarians and Christians alike say that you have to give 10%, but why should you accept what they say?

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    • On what point do you disagree with Scott? I feel like you are trying to get at something specific, but I am not sure what.

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    • Salem says:

      This is a fantastic comment. Do you have a blog?

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    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think we’re quibbling over the definitions of the words “perfect” and “good” in a nonproductive way. For me “perfect” carries a connotation of “literally no way to go further, but probably can never be humanly reached”. It doesn’t carry a connotation of “you have an obligation to be this”. There’s no use defining that away.

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  15. AR+ says:

    My positions on various issues have changed enough over my young adult life that if I were a fully militant activist I would had to have shot my own past self several times over. I feel that this somewhat biases me against ever becoming more activist in the future.

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    • eggo says:

      “You’ll be first against the wall when the revolution comes, Comrade”, says mini-AR+ as he adjusts his mao cap in the mirror.

      Oh, if only it were possible to temper the fury of youth with the certain knowledge that you will look back on yourself as a total, utter prat. It would save so many of us so many embarrassing memories/incriminating photographs.

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  16. thirqual says:

    I am probably going to feel very lonely, but the 10% thing (I also read “$4000/year or 10%, whichever is higher” on an EA website) feels completely disconnected from everyday life for many, many people.

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    • somnicule says:

      Religious organizations call for tithes at that level and higher, and often have the poorest as their members. It’s not entirely disconnected from reality. But the very poor aren’t usually the target audience for effective altruism, and even then, donating will be more effective than activism.

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      • thirqual says:

        Yes, the churches asked, and historically it was mandatory and enforced violently, even when it meant that people would suffer. The use of this example to justify altruistic donations is revolting. Of course if you choose not to care, you can ignore the consequences of tithing.

        You assert that the poor are not part of the the target audience. Scott does not in his article, as shown by his calculations. That’s a rather good thing, too, as even a percent of the minimum salary in the US can have a huge impact in the poorest countries.

        Meanwhile, in the real US of A, the poorest are giving 3% of their income and the richest 1.3%, with the gap getting larger. Meanwhile, politicians also claim that charity should replace welfare programs.

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        • oldman says:

          I think a lot of whether or not 10% seems reasonable depends on whether or not you do have dependants. I was able to give 10% when I was on about 60% of the UK median Salary. (I don’t know what percentile this placed me in)

          On the other hand it should be noted that I had a reasonable expectation that my salary would soon rise, and parents that were I knew would act as a ‘I-can-no-longer-afford-rent’ scenario.

          Giving What We Can do have a variety of pledges, because they know that 10% isn’t feasible for everyone. One option is to give nothing now, but then in future to give either any income increases (that are above inflation) or 10%, whichever is smaller.

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        • Deiseach says:

          the poorest are giving 3% of their income and the richest 1.3%

          It’s an old saying: “Only the poor help the poor”.

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    • Barryogg says:

      Sheesh. That is over a third of my yearly income. Seems like I’m not fit to be a Good Person yet 🙁

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    • Julia says:

      Do you know where you saw the “$4000 or 10%, whichever is higher” idea. I’m pretty familiar with most of the EA websites, and I don’t remember seeing it.

      It would be a very silly way to do a pledge, since it wouldn’t be workable for many students or low-income people.

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  17. I love the meta-level message this sends. ‘The way to defeat Moloch is not to write posts about race and politics deploring how many posts there are about race/politics, and how few there are about charity. It’s to just do the good thing. Just exhibit inexplicable grace, even when your incentives want you to defect. Don’t just talk about the correct thing; do it.’

    ‘… And the correct way to communicate the virtue “exemplify virtues rather than just talking about them” is to exemplify the virtue of exemplifying your virtues. So, long story short: here’s a post about charity.’

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  18. Jai says:

    Direct donation links:

    GiveDirectly
    Against Malaria Foundation
    SCI
    Deworm the World
    GiveWell

    Scott: Could you add these to the end of the main post to minimize barrier to entry? I think there are a lot of people who, on reading this post, won’t be quite ready for the GWWC Pledge but will want to donate some amount to a charity immediately.

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  19. Thank you for writing this. Like much of the best of your writing, it has simultaneously made me feel better and given me a lot to think about.

    Also, I was totally just about to share this with all my friends, and then I read the penultimate paragraph. 😛

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  20. Dan Simon says:

    I would go even further than Scott. Charity is clearly morally superior to political activism. Unlike most charity, activism is often completely canceled out by opposition activism, having no effect whatsoever. And even when effective, it results in other people’s resources being redirected towards one’s own cause from other purposes that may or may not be morally superior to it. In contrast, effective charity redirects one’s own resources, which would almost certainly be otherwise devoted to purely selfish goals, towards selfless ones.

    I never give to advocacy causes–only to actual charities. When I debate issues on Internet fora, it’s purely for my own benefit and amusement. And I would never, in a million years, have the unspeakable arrogance to imagine that the world is a better place–let alone take moral credit for it–because I occasionally harangue people about my political convictions, no matter how irrefutably correct I might believe them to be.

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  21. Amanda L. says:

    The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it. Giving even a tiny amount of money to charity is hundreds or even thousands of times more effective than almost any political action you can take.

    I don’t think it’s obvious that activism has lower expected value than efficient charity, if we define efficient charity as GiveWell-type charities.

    In fact, the argument that activism has potentially higher value than efficient charity is structurally the same as the argument that MIRI has potentially higher value than efficient charity. Namely: efficient charity allows you to save individual, present-day lives with some certainty. But MIRI gives you a (small but non negligible) chance of changing the course of history by averting an extinction event. This has astronomical benefit, because the potential future of humanity stretches out very long (infinitely long?)

    Similarly, I don’t think activists merely aim to create a 20-year moratorium on unjustified police killings. I think they want (a small but non negligible shot at) changing the course of society by creating a permanent change in how non-black people view black people, such that the entire class of race-based unjustified police killings, and all the attendant unfairness/fear/resentment, will be someday eliminated for the lifespan of our society, and all societies influenced by our society. Which could potentially be very long.

    Now whether this is a good idea is still dependent on whether activism works. Your last post indicates that activism could make things worse — at least in the short term. Whether this short term damage is offset by the potential of long-term astronomical gains is an empirical question that I don’t think has an obvious answer (and is different for each particular activist act.)

    But you can’t just say that activism is categorically a less efficient use of resources than efficient charity, at least not from the 20-year moratorium thought experiment.

    (Also, many people don’t care about lives as an undifferentiated category, but rather “American lives” or “unjustly taken lives.”)

    Even if you’re absolutely convinced a certain political issue is the most important thing in the world, you’ll effect more change by donating money to nonprofits lobbying about it than you will be reblogging anything.

    You could be reblogging in leisure time, not time that you could have monetized. So why not both?

    That said, most armchair activists probably don’t donate to lobbyists, so this is a good practical point.

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    • Dan Simon says:

      To recapitulate my comment as a response to yours:

      1) Charity rarely has the problem of other charities working to directly counteract yours, and possibly negating its effectiveness entirely.

      2) The opportunity cost of charity is some selfish benefit purchased with the same time or effort. The opportunity cost of activism is completely unknown–it’s whatever people would have been doing or contributing to had they not been mobilized by the activism–and in some cases may even be larger than the benefit.

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      • Amanda L. says:

        1) But is “the effect of Act A is counteracted by Act B” really an argument against Act A? It depends on what you think the relevant counterfactual is, no? If you think “if I cease to be politically active, then someone else on the opposing side will also cease to be politically active,” then you should cease to be politically active. But if you don’t think this is the case, then ceasing to be politically active would in fact have a cost — the cost of a political stalemate tipping to the opposing side, for example.

        If there were a mad scientist engineering diseases to kill people, would that cause you to stop trying to save people from diseases, because on net your efforts just balance out his? Only if you thought you were somehow simultaneously choosing for both him and yourself.

        2) I don’t think the opportunity cost of either is obvious. It could be that the opportunity cost of charity is activism, for example, if you only have the emotional energy to dedicate yourself to one cause. People are complex creatures.

        In any case, I’m not saying that activism is efficient, I’m saying that the particular argument that Scott uses to say it’s inefficient is flawed.

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      • Tracy W says:

        On your 1), this assumes that the other charity would stop working to achieve whatever it wants to achieve in your absence. If your cause is peace, and you’re being worked against by a terrorist organisation, the existence of that opposition might well have been the initial motivation for your charitable impulse.

        2) The resources you spend on charity are not resources that you’d spend on, say, luxury holidays or slightly better quality food, or investing in a factory, or whatever. Thus the hotel owner or the farmer, or the shopkeeper have less money when you give that money to charity.
        And, if that money would have gone on goods produced in the developing world, that might well deprive someone very poor of a much-needed job, with subsequent costs.

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    • somnicule says:

      You can play that game both ways, though. Deworming or malaria nets have knock-on effects with regards to increasing the effectiveness of educational investments and other kinds of giving, strengthens local economies, etc. Saving a life isn’t just a life saved, but all the benefits that they can make, and the people they help, and everything else.

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      • Amanda L. says:

        Oh yeah, sure. I’m not arguing that political activism is better than deworming. Just that the 20-year moratorium thought experiment doesn’t actually show that activism is worse than deworming, and that actually trying to show this would involve analyzing all the small chances for long-term societal alterations caused by each action. Which is a hard problem, and not one with an obvious answer.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I feel like activism is also about making institutions work more effectively – not just stopping police from killing unarmed civilians, but changing the police into an organization where that simply happens much less often, and effectively punishes those responsible when it does.

      It’s probably hard to quantify this sort of benefit, but I’d like to see it steelmanned. A Roman citizen might conclude it’s more important to tithe to the church than spend his time on politics, but if the empire falls that decision doesn’t look quite as good.

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      • llamathatducks says:

        Yes, this.

        Charity is nice because you know that your money will be effective. Activism doesn’t have that certainty. But if activism succeeds, it can have systemic effects that make a lot of things better all at once.

        For instance: I’ve heard it argued that in a country with high poverty rates and poor records on democracy in civil rights, the most important thing to do is actually to make the country more democratic, because then the leadership of the country will actually be accountable to the people and therefore will have an incentive to make the people happier (including, for example, not stealing public money for private use). (Not to mention the other, direct benefits of better civil rights.)

        Also for example: I think there is generally agreement that the standard of living in, e.g., the USSR was made pretty bad by the large-scale political and economic system of the country. Perhaps charity could have made some of that better, but only temporarily – it would not have addressed the root cause of the problems.

        Reforming or replacing a government is much harder than just giving money to a country’s poor people. Efforts in this direction might not succeed. But if they do succeed, the structural change can be extremely worth it. High risk, high reward.

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  22. Daniel Speyer says:

    I realize this isn’t the point, but is Cliff Pervocracy “he”? I thought I remembered “she”. Has this changed recently?

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  23. I think the reason that your charity posts are less popular is because charity is uninteresting. Race and gender are controversial topics because there are about ten million questions going on there, we as as society don’t really know how to deal with those issues yet. But charity, we have already come to an answer: donate 10% of your income to GiveWell’s recommended causes. What is there to talk about?

    You seem to have found a good solution in this post, where you relate donating 10% of your income to GiveWell’s recommended causes to race and gender and other issues you’ve been talking about on this blog, mention donating 10% of your income to GiveWell’s recommended causes several times throughout the article, and turn donating 10% of your income to GiveWell’s recommended causes into a sort of rallying cry for the no-politics tribe. So, great job.

    I had been debating for a while whether or not to donate 10% of my income to charity because I’m a student and my “income”, if you can even call it that, came entirely from my minimum-wage summer job, and was about $2000. On the one hand, 200 dollars seems like a drop in the bucket compared to what I will donate when I have my first real job. Also making the money I have stretch over the rest of the school year is a realistic concern for me. Also I saw a post where Robin Hanson argued that young people shouldn’t donate to charity, because their money is better used on themselves so that they can earn more in the future. Also I heard that donating to charity is supposed to make you much happier, but I didn’t really feel any psychological effects when I donated 150 dollars or so last year, probably because I knew how small of an amount it is.

    But… on the other hand, the money that I could donate is probably funging against clothes, or alcohol, or video games. The kids in Africa need it more than me, and every bit counts. Donating is the objectively moral choice. As a compromise, I decided to go to GiveWell and donate 10% of my current bank account balance.

    However, for some reason the site wouldn’t let my payment go through, even though I tried multiple times. I kind of am taking this as a sign from God that I shouldn’t donate. So for now, I am selfishly hoarding my money, I guess.

    EDIT: I just had another thought. I wonder if this post also doubles as an argument for not being vegetarian.

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    • Slow Learner says:

      Why is this post an argument for not being vegetarian?

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      • “Don’t worry about helping the planet as you can possibly can, it’s impossible to be perfect. Instead, let’s somewhat arbitrarily state that if you donate 10% of your income to charity, you are a Good Person, and you shouldn’t worry about the other stuff.”

        I see being vegetarian as kind of similar in this context to living the lifestyle of a political activist. Both require a lot of effort. Both are questionable in how much of an effect they have on the world. Both are definitely not as good as donating 10% of your income to GiveWell’s charities.

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        • Slow Learner says:

          From the perspective of living in the UK with a vegetarian, but not being one myself:
          1) it doesn’t take much effort or expense. Seriously what? Buying, cooking and eating vegetarian food is *less* expensive and effortful than doing the same with meat because most vegetarian food doesn’t go off as fast or have the same problems with hygiene and food safety as dishes including meat.
          2) vegetarian food can be problematic (e.g. monoculture, battery hens), but you remove most of your dependence on factory farming and are likely to be more individually healthy.
          3) It definitely isn’t as good as donating 10% of your income to charity, but what is?

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          • lmm says:

            The costs may not be financial, but they are still costs – otherwise would just be vegetarian.

            If you want to eat healthily then do that, but I don’t think an absolutist “no meat” position is the best way to achieve that.

            Part of the point of this post is that good deeds are fungible. Figure out how much good vegetarianism does, put it in monetary terms, and then decide whether you’d rather be vegetarian or pay that much as an extra donation.

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          • Slow Learner says:

            Beyond the obvious “I like eating meat, if I were veg*n I wouldn’t be able to get that enjoyment”, what cost is there to being vegetarian? Slightly less choice on restaurant menus?

            Certainly from a personal perspective the one easiest fix to improve my diet was cutting down my meat consumption. This may not apply in your case, but most Westerners over-consume meat and can easily reduce their consumption to no loss.

            I agree entirely that good deeds are fungible*, and that’s part of the point of additionally going for at least partial veg*nism over and above donating effectively. I can give monetarily to various causes; once my budgetary category of “charitable donations” is maxed out I can still do a little bit more good by eating less meat, and it has a neutral or positive effect on my personal budget while having a positive value in terms of making the world a better place.

            In another example I volunteer for a social enterprise preparing applicants for interview at Oxford and Cambridge. On the face of it that isn’t the most efficient way to achieve anything, but they donate to charities I nominate on my behalf, and last year they donated ~4% of my gross income in return for my time; so I exchanged some of my free time for a highly effective means of generating charitable donations. I could have volunteered my time for a charity directly, or worked overtime and donated my overtime pay, but both would have been less effective.
            I guess what I’m trying to say is that because good deeds are fungible, unless the only budget you have slack in is your cash budget (as against time budget, empathy budget etc) you probably have opportunities to be more effective by diversifying your good deeds to use slack in each of your budgets rather than just donating the money you can spare and holding everything else constant.

            *Up to a point. I can’t funge good deeds towards my partner for good deeds to other people without harming our relationship.

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          • eggo says:

            “Don’t worry: you can eat the same bowl of arugula for a week” is not exactly reassuring, I’m afraid.

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          • Jiro says:

            “I like to eat meat” is a benefit, and one which must be counted in any calculation that weighs the benefits of eating meat.

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        • Daniel says:

          I think that being veg*n plausibly does more good than donating 10% of your income to GiveWell’s charities, considering how expensive it is to save a human life, and how much farmed animals suffer (and the fact that the mean American eats ~200 of them per year). That being said, this hinges on the fact that I think that non-human animal suffering is only slightly less important than human animal suffering.

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          • Yeah, but in terms of cause and effect does one person becoming vegetarian actually cause the meat companies to reduce supply by that precise amount to compensate? I’m not exactly sure how this works.

            Also I looked up the 200 animals thing, and while technically true, it might not be exactly what people imagine when they hear that number:

            Roughly 130 shellfish
            40 fish
            26 chickens
            One turkey,
            Nearly half a pig
            A little more than a tenth of a cow

            If you’re making 50K a year (a little below the median salary), then donating 10% of your income, or 5000 dollars, saves two lives according to the OP. I would weight two human lives much higher than the sum of the animals in that quote.

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          • Daniel says:

            general butt naked: It doesn’t reduce supply by that precise amount, I think the multipliers are approximately 0.3? So it’s more like 60-70 animals saved. For the mechanism, see here.

            Regarding the types of animals killed, I’m sorry if you got the wrong impression? That being said, I don’t think it does much to detract from the moral seriousness.

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          • That link is very interesting, thank you.

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          • ThrustVectoring says:

            >this hinges on the fact that I think that non-human animal suffering is only slightly less important than human animal suffering.

            This is empirically false, at least for me and the thought experiments I can come up with. There’s roughly the same biomass for ants as there are for people. I care a hell of a lot more about 200 pounds worth of people dying than 200 pounds worth of ants.

            There’s some sort of relationship between complexity of an entity and how much I care about it. This is super-linear – I care more about one person than I do about many simple things that a person’s worth of resources could make. It’s the explanation I have for why ants matter so little to me. If there’s an ant hive on one fork of a railroad track and a person on another, you’d have to have loss of the ant population be so massive as to impact other people’s quality of life before I’d even consider saving the ants over the person.

            Sure, chickens are more important than ants are. There has to be some increasing relationship between complexity and value, and it should be concave up because ants don’t matter on a per-resource basis and otherwise I’d care much more about 3-inch-long beetles than 1-inch-long beetles.

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        • stillnotking says:

          Being vegetarian requires very little effort, unless you mean effort of will because you really love meat. Pretty much every restaurant in the Western world has vegetarian options these days (a friend of mine recently ate at a Brazilian steakhouse that offered some kind of soy substitute!), and obviously vegetarian food is both easy and cheap to cook for yourself.

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    • oldman says:

      For what it is worth I think donating USD150 when your total income is USD2000 makes you a cool guy/gal/other

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    • Sean says:

      I work for GiveWell and happened to notice this comment, and wanted to say that if you’re having trouble donating feel free to email us at info@givewell.org and we’ll help you sort it out.

      (We haven’t read all the comments here and don’t plan to monitor this thread, but we’ll happily answer any questions at info@givewell.org or at a more public venue if you notify us where at info@givewell.org.)

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  24. Ghatanathoah says:

    The section on feeling bad and self esteem reminds me of the theory that there are two kinds of self esteem, stable and unstable. Stable self esteem is based primarily on liking yourself, whereas unstable is based on pride in your accomplishments. People with unstable self-esteem are more likely to have emotional issues because any challenge to their accomplishments will damage their sense of self-worth.

    After reading through the comments, I consider myself insanely lucky that I appear to have stable self-esteem. I try to give to charity when I can (my income is in the toilet) but I never feel bad or inadequate about not doing more. Whenever I have feelings of inadequacy they’re always related to some temporary problem and go away when the problem does. It sounds like a lot of people here have unstable self-esteem, and that it really sucks.

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    • Nita says:

      I don’t understand this dichotomy. Can’t I like myself and be dissatisfied with my lack of accomplishments, at the same time?

      On the other hand, imagine that you fail to reach your goals again and again. This goes on for so long that you start to doubt whether you can ever be productive again. Wouldn’t you feel even a little bit inadequate?

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      • Jadagul says:

        It’s a tricky distinction, and does probably break down in the limit. But I always find it sort of genuinely incomprehensible that people don’t like themselves, or don’t think they’re “good enough.” Good enough for what? I exist, what else to I need to justify to myself?

        I’m one of the people Scott mentions towards the end of section 1, who doesn’t actually feel any need to justify myself or “give back” to be a good person or anything. Which isn’t the same as stable self-esteem but does have some relationship, I suspect.

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        • Nita says:

          I think, from an evopsych perspective, there is an incentive to not seem like the sort of person who likes themselves unconditionally.

          Most people would be wary of a guilt-free person, because they would be an unreliable ally — e.g., such a person wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning you in a time of need, so they’re more likely to do it.

          Which, in turn, creates pressure to actually develop a guilt-module or “conscience”.

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          • Jadagul says:

            You can be an honorable person without being a guilty person. I try to do good things. And sometimes I do something that isn’t good. (Today, for instance, I spent seven hours rereading a webcomic that I read all of on Monday, and zero hours actually doing work or reserving the hotel room I’ll need in January).

            And then I decide that I should try to do more good things and fewer bad things in the future. But I don’t know how guilt would help anyone.

            Sort of the same way I don’t see a need to make suffering part of criminal punishment (beyond putative deterrent effects). How does hurting people help anything?

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          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Nita

            I do feel guilt. But the guilt is always about specific things I’ve done and goes away once I’ve made a reasonable effort to rectify whatever it was I did. It’s this constant unending guilt and feelings of inadequacy that I don’t feel.

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      • Paul Torek says:

        I didn’t read it as a supposed dichotomy. The idea as I took it was that some people mainly base their self-esteem on liking themselves, and some people mainly base it on accomplishments.

        I totally agree with Jadagul’s point that it is genuinely incomprehensible that some people don’t think they’re “good enough”. Channel some Kant here, people: you are an end, not merely a means, dammit.

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        • Nita says:

          It seems that many people find Aristotle’s views more intuitive.

          But, speaking of Kant, what would be his opinion of someone who ignored a/the categorical imperative?

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  25. I’d like to suggest differentiating between politics as just contraversial stuff everyone likes to weigh in on, and politics as discussion about how government and law should systematically occur. If people completely disengage with the second type, and only donate to charities, it seems at least possible that deomcracy and/or effective, fair government couldn’t occur at all. Also, it seems likely that coordination issues between different charities, or corruption within the charity system, would become extremely difficult problems to solve.

    Also, there are many neglected issues which have relatively few people involved in them. Boring issues are often neglected issues. If you’re willing to break from the “party-line” of the day, then engagement conceivably could have quite a big impact per-person.

    Engagement with politics isn’t all bad – I know that wasn’t exactly the intended message but I feel that distinction would sharpen a slightly blunt instrument (the article’s intended meaning). Otherwise great article.

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  26. Jordan D. says:

    Would attempting to make charity controversial in order to focus media attention on it work? Would that be counterproductive? Obviously if you got the bulk of Republicans or Democrats or whatever donating a lot, that would be a good thing. Hell, 10% of the money donated to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2012 would still be a hundred million dollars.

    Edit- Actually, never mind. It seems pretty obvious after a moment that if you politicize the will to charity, you’ll end up corrupting the charities into the same sort of self-serving political platforms we have anyway.

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    • eggo says:

      A system of charitable giving that burns every penny of donated cash in a hellscape of competing infernal outrage furnaces tended by the souls of the damned?

      You had my curiosity. But now you have the setting of my next novel.

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  27. Blogospheroid says:

    I’m currently a 2 percenter. (In terms of annual income percentage given to charity). Someday in the future, maybe this number will creep up to 5 and then 10, doubtful though. The upshot is I’m giving to causes that I think can utilise my marginal dollar much better, eg. MIRI and SENS and hope that their research will give a disproportionate amount of benefit to the world.

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  28. Harald K says:

    Coming from another school of ethical thought here, I say with Henry David Thoreau:

    It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him […] I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.

    Unlike you consequentialists (?), I see a fundamental divide between the oughts and oughts not. Take the negative form of the golden rule: not doing what you wouldn’t want others to do to you. The obligations here are not a matter of degree, they are a matter of yes or no. I do not, for instance, want to be lied to or be tortured (by the definition of those things, it’s not possible to consent to. If there is consent, lies become fiction and torture just becomes kink), so I am forbidden from lying or torturing.

    But the positive form, and positive obligations, are different. I would certainly like to be saved when my life is in danger, but I cannot myself promise to always save people whose lives are in danger. That is impossible, since I can’t hope to say, save everyone about to die of malaria. Unlike with stuff like lying and torture, you CAN consent to not receiving life-saving treatment. Actually, if you want to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, you must draw the line somewhere at that, since you yourself aren’t capable of unlimited effort in helping others.

    In Kant terms, saving kids from malaria is an imperfect duty. It’s still great to do it, and if we are honest with ourselves we probably DO want a lot of positive help from others (even though we theoretically could refuse it), so by the golden rule we should still do it.

    But how about shooting fleeing kids, now? I’d say abstaining from that is a perfect duty. It’s a stretch to argue someone could ever consent to being shot (maybe if you’ve lost your mind and are about to hurt someone? We get back to how much pre-commitment should matter) but if you’re unarmed and fleeing, well…

    I’m not saying outrage is productive. I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about what’s productive. Effective aid is great (though I’d personally be wary of letting the likes of Singer or your guy Eliezer measure the weight of the outcomes). But I do understand why people get more upset about direct manifest injustice, than about a human-killing parasite in far off lands.

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  29. Anatoly says:

    Cliff Pervocracy thinks the difference is between progressivism and conservatism. You think it’s rather between activism and passivism. But maybe seeing it as running between radical activism and everything else is more helpful.

    In Everything is Problematic, a Canadian student describes how she pulled back from radical activism to “just” liberalism.

    The aftermath was wonderful. A world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour. I can’t convey to you how bleak my worldview was. An activist friend once said to me, with complete sincerity, “Everything is problematic.” That was the general consensus. Far bleaker was something I said during a phone call to an old friend who lived in another city, far outside my political world. I, like a disproportionate number of radical leftists, was depressed, and spent a lot of time sighing into the receiver. “I’m not worried about you killing yourself,” he said. “I know you want to live forever.” I let out a weak, sad laugh. “When I said that,” I replied, “I was a lot happier than I am now.” Losing my political ideology was extremely liberating. I became a happier person. I also believe that I became a better person.

    I think she’s talking about the same feeling as Cliff Pervocracy is, perhaps sharper and wound up a notch tighter. And now that she’s, well, a plain old boring Canadian liberal leftist, can she not be an activist? I think she could; she could rally for universal basic income and support human rights and protest police brutaity, all without being drawn into the vortex of all-encompassing everything-is-political everything-is-problematic radical activism.

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  30. Anonymous says:

    I’d like to know more about this statement:

    “…Solving global poverty forever is estimated to cost about $100 billion a year for the couple-decade length of the project.”

    When I read this I was really surprised that anyone had a plan for solving global poverty at all. We don’t even know how to solve local poverty! — I mean, we know how to give people money, but you described the project as “lasting a couple decades” and I’m not sure how you expect those people to not be in poverty once the project is over.

    Examples of specific problems we don’t know how to solve very well in the US include homelessness (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_housing_in_the_United_States: public housing projects do not seem to work very well) and education. In the third world, I would additionally worry about corruption.

    Another problem is population growth. In Moloch-driven groups, adding enough resources to support the current population just causes the population to increase until it’s used all the resources. Even if you give everyone in the world free food for life, won’t we all just have a bunch of children and the problem will come back worse in the next generation?

    How would you use $100 billion a year to solve poverty forever?

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    • I don’t know what the master plan to end global poverty is, but I do have responses to two of your points:

      * If everyone in the world could enjoy the same standard of living as the American poor, that would be a massive improvement over the status quo. The most pressing problems associated with first-world poverty are thorny and deeply entangled with one another and with many other societal factors; they don’t seem to be solvable by throwing money at them. The most pressing problems associated with third-world poverty mostly do boil down to people not having enough money to pay for basic survival needs, and could be alleviated relatively cheaply using fairly well-established interventions. GiveWell wrote a good post about this.

      * As far as I can tell, competition between modern-day human populations mostly isn’t driven by reproduction. On the contrary, the demographic transition causes members of populations with lower child-mortality rates to have fewer kids. The Gates Foundation wrote about this in their annual letter.

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      • Anonymous says:

        I like your second link; it makes me feel much better about the Moloch thing, even as I have reservations about believing it completely. I would be more comfortable with its conclusions if it had a clearer argument for why saving lives causes a demographic transition.

        The current argument seems to be that, when child mortality drops, parents stop feeling like they need a lot of backup children in case the first few die suddenly. That makes a lot of sense to me, except I keep running into this charity that wants to feed starving children who are suffering from severe malnutrition, and I wonder what’s going on in their parents’ heads. “Gee, I had two children who are starving because I don’t have enough food to feed them. I’d better have six more children, which will increase the chance that one or two of them will avoid this starvation problem.” The connection does not seem very strong.

        The Gates Foundation has a second argument about women staying in school and learning about contraception. And that’s great and I’m 100% in favor of it, except I don’t see a strong connection to decreased child mortality. Can we just pay directly for making sure everyone has access to contraception?

        (I do, in fact, donate to Planned Parenthood. If there’s a better charity for this, I’m all ears.)

        Maybe the best argument would be something like: “The US intervened in South Korea, and we don’t know exactly how the causal arrows went between child mortality and economy and urbanization and demographic transition, but there’s totally a demographic transition there now. We’re going to take your money and do a few more South Korea operations, because that’s been proven to work.”

        I do not know much about South Korea, so I don’t know how well it would generalize.

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        • Tracy W says:

          “Gee, I had two children who are starving because I don’t have enough food to feed them. I’d better have six more children, which will increase the chance that one or two of them will avoid this starvation problem.” The connection does not seem very strong.

          If your ancestors hadn’t thought like that, they probably wouldn’t have had kids and thus not become your ancestors.

          Which makes for a very strong connection after a few million generations.

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        • Nita says:

          I keep running into this charity that wants to feed starving children who are suffering from severe malnutrition, and I wonder what’s going on in their parents’ heads.

          Perhaps the children were conceived before their parents’ crops failed due to a drought, for instance?

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      • Anonymous says:

        As to your first link, I don’t think it addresses my concern. I think my concern was along the lines of: “How do you give money in a way that gets people to start taking care of themselves, rather than to become dependent on handouts?”

        GiveWell’s answer was: “People in developing countries really need a lot of basic necessities which we know how to give them, so a dollar goes a lot farther there than here”.

        I could see there being a good answer to my question, maybe something about supporting developing businesses or education or buying people fruit trees or capital, and being really careful to make sure the money actually gets spent on that. But I don’t think it’s easy to do this in a way that you could spend a hundred billion dollars on it, and if someone does have a comprehensive plan for buying a hundred billion dollars of “teach a man to fish” then I’d like to know more detail.

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    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Agreed; the poverty-ending project was definitely the most incredible part of this post for me, in both senses of the word.

      One of the best candidates for permanent quality-of-life increases I know of is disease eradication; however, as you point out, even then Moloch might simply respond by making more humans.

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      • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

        I wanted to mention that more humans means more scale benefits from bigger markets; but I also want to mention that I’m not generally in favor of maximizing population as an ethical project like some are.

        I think a sustainable world with 10 billion internet users who aren’t starving is probably realistic and more desirable than other realistic scenarios. Since I sometimes still see people who think “AIDS is good because Malthus”, we should point out the flaws in that logic and also the commonly overlooked benefits of larger populations.

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      • Julia says:

        >Moloch might simply respond by making more humans

        If the demographic transition model holds true, it might not.

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  31. Ian James says:

    Cards on the table: I think this post, along with the entire rationalist focus on charitable giving, is completely wrongheaded. The U.S. has a higher level of charitable giving than other developed countries in part because we have a lower level of income redistribution. (Source.) We give 1.85% of GDP while redistributing 8%. On the other hand, Austria (which has the highest level of redistribution in the OECD) gives 0.17% of GDP while redistributing 18%, for a net increase of 8.32% over the U.S.! (Source.) So if you don’t look into it too closely, the American way seems more generous; but if you dig deeper, it becomes apparent that we prefer the warm fuzzy feeling of voluntary giving to the cold hard calculations of potential increased utility from mandatory giving (i.e., taxes). Seems utterly anti-consequentialist to me.

    But wait, it gets worse! Wealthy Americans donate less to charity as a percentage of their income than other groups. Not only do the 1% want to avoid being taxed (and they mostly get their wish on these matters) they want the rest of us to make up the difference! And the worst part is, we do it for them, year after year, because we feel guilty.

    You might argue that redistribution won’t help anyone because gubmint. I’m actually highly sympathetic to this argument. I’ve been to the DMV. I’ve used healthcare.gov–twice! Contemporary progressives are generally in favor of increasing redistribution, not by having the government provide more services directly, but by just giving people money–whether it’s through a guaranteed income, or wage subsidies (similar to the EITC). Dylan Matthews at Vox, among many others, has been beating this drum for a while now.

    There are three legitimate economic concerns one might raise when considering these policies: inflation might rise, labor supply might decrease, and future economic growth might suffer due to higher taxation on top incomes. This article gives a good explanation of why inflation wouldn’t rise under a properly implemented basic income. The labor supply thing is a little bit trickier. So far, empirical studies of basic income programs have indicated that, contra Econ 101, labor supply effects won’t be much of a problem (see the Dylan Matthews articles above). Finally, I would point out that the conservative economist Milton Friedman–the last economist one would ever suspect to endorse a policy that caused inflation or decreased labor supply–nonetheless endorsed a form of basic income.

    The third issue (effects on growth) is the most controversial. The strongest bit of evidence, in my opinion, is that mid-20th century growth rates were much higher despite the fact that there were much higher tax rates on top incomes. Thus, when you try to correlate growth rates and the top marginal tax rate over time, it looks like a higher tax rate is correlated with increased growth. In any case, almost nobody (except maybe Piketty) supports returning to a mid-century level of taxation. To create a decent basic income, you would only have to raise taxes by about 3% of GDP ($480 billion), while redirecting money from some other programs (play around with this if you’re curious).

    Finally, there is at least some tentative evidence that inequality itself might harm economic growth.

    To sum up, these issues strike at the heart of the political inadequacy of LessWrong-style “rationalism” as I understand it from reading this blog. The wealthy will always prefer to pay taxes as close to zero as possible, while donating a paltry amount of their income to charity. They will then reason about this state of affairs in a laughably transparent motivated way, and infect every corner of public discourse with that motivated reasoning (a process that used to be called “ideology,” and probably still should be). Meanwhile, they (the wealthy) are not much happier than they would be paying higher taxes (because diminishing marginal utility of income), but tens of millions of Americans remain in soul-crushing poverty. And to escape that condition the poor need more money than we (the ones in the middle) can ever give them directly. Being “actively repulsed by most protests, regardless of cause or alignment” won’t really fly here. You have to pick a side.

    P.S. I can’t believe I forgot to link Oscar Wilde’s incredible essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” I can’t even summarize it. Just read it.

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    • blacktrance says:

      we prefer the warm fuzzy feeling of voluntary giving to the cold hard calculations of potential increased utility from mandatory giving (i.e., taxes). Seems utterly anti-consequentialist to me.

      I’m sure that some people make that distinction because of warm fuzzies, but there’s also a consequentialist argument for it. If I am forced to give, it’s likely that I’d give more than I’d want, but if I only give voluntarily, then I can give as much as I want and no more. My expected utility is higher in the second case than in the first.

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      • Ian James says:

        Sorry, I meant aggregate utility*. Basically, I was trying to say that people might intuitively have a bias in favor of a system where they can choose how to give and see immediate results from their choice–rather than being forced to pay taxes, which are ultimately a drop in the ocean of the government’s budget. The latter system might be aesthetically uglier in a certain way, but if it’s better at helping people, we prefer it anyway.

        But maybe it’s not uglier! I added a relevant link to the post above…

        * FWIW, I’m not even a utilitarian per se. I feel committed to some form of consequentialism, but I’m very skeptical that any perfect model for consequentialism can ever be spelled out. So I’m interested in using several models including utilitarianism (I’m not even sure in which form) as heuristics. In any case, I accept the basic argument that redistribution can raise overall utility due to diminishing marginal utility of income.

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    • Tom Womack says:

      Competent charitable giving and the kind of redistribution-by-tax you’re talking about address completely different problems. Competent charitable giving addresses the wretched of the Earth; redistribution addresses poorer people in rich countries, and these are non-overlapping sets.

      There is undeniably a lot of incompetent charitable giving – that the RSPCA gets a single penny in legacies while malaria still exists is unfortunate. But that’s a different issue.

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      • Mirzhan Irkegulov says:

        Ian James (your parent commenter) gave a link, showing that rich people donate less than middle class. If that tendency doesn’t change with more wealth equality, then more money will be donated overall. If wealth equality improves scientific progress and foreign policies of powerful countries, then humanity as a whole benefits.

        Politics is orders of magnitude more cost-effective than charity, because it’s irresponsible to think that rich people will somehow do government’s duty of protecting and supporting orphans, disabled, mentally ill etc. One filthy rich guy may suddenly feel a jolt of altruism and build a school. But all rich guys will never do that consistently. Government will. But politics is hard and non-trivial. It’s extra-easy to do politics in a wrong way. Hence “politics is the mind-killer”.

        Politics is even more important in poor countries. Take Kazakhstan, where I live. The corruption is beyond belief, people have to bribe school principals, road police, judges, environmental inspectors, university professors, government officials, nurses, surgeons, to get anything done. Bribery is an open secret and is ubiquitous. If you give money for charity here, it will be just soaked by the system, by all the intricate channels of corruption, and rich people will get richer. But even if you manage to convey your money across to those in need, one day government devalues national money, or introduces anti-labor/pro-corporate or anti-welfare policies, and poor people become even poorer, negating your charity efforts.

        To get rid of the corruption and to instate a government that is not consistently against its people as this one, would require a revolution, a massive transformation of economic and political structure. But politics is hard, and it’s even harder, knowing that there are big players on the board, like TNCs and powerful nation states, whose interests may clash with your desire to change the system.

        Hence Iain Banks: “Giving to charity under capitalism is like putting a band-aid on cancer”. (quoted from The Bridge)

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    • Misha says:

      If your basic assumption is that the wealthy are scum who don’t deserve any of their money, and act in a concerted way to ruin the world for everyone else, you’re not only wrong, you’re evil. You are sabotaging the very engines that have created ALL of the prosperity you want to distribute out to the poor. And your plan to have everyone else team up to take their wealth and decide what to do with it is one that has been unsuccessfully tried before.

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      • Slow Learner says:

        Um, supporting slightly higher tax rates than are currently in force != “saying the wealthy are scum who don’t deserve any of their money”.
        Over-reacting to that extent suggests that you’re projecting a lot more into Ian James’ comment than he put there.

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    • Alex Godofsky says:

      There are three legitimate economic concerns one might raise when considering these policies: inflation might rise, labor supply might decrease, and future economic growth might suffer due to higher taxation on top incomes. This article gives a good explanation of why inflation wouldn’t rise under a properly implemented basic income. The labor supply thing is a little bit trickier. So far, empirical studies of basic income programs have indicated that, contra Econ 101, labor supply effects won’t be much of a problem (see the Dylan Matthews articles above). Finally, I would point out that the conservative economist Milton Friedman–the last economist one would ever suspect to endorse a policy that caused inflation or decreased labor supply–nonetheless endorsed a form of basic income.

      There’s something weirdly like strawmanning underneath this post. Basic income isn’t contraindicated by “econ 101”; rather, in pretty standard models a basic income is the obviously best redistributive policy, competing with, maybe, EITC. You shouldn’t be surprised about Milton Friedman because in fact the majority of conservative economists are in favor of either a basic income or expanded EITC[citation needed but I am pretty sure I could source this].

      The only context in which I would oppose a basic income is one in which it is just being added on top of all of our existing inefficient welfare programs, rather than being proposed alongside the dollar-for-dollar repeal of them.

      [I will admit to political economy concerns about a basic income, and do mildly prefer an expanded EITC on a dollar-for-dollar basis.]

      The third issue (effects on growth) is the most controversial. The strongest bit of evidence, in my opinion, is that mid-20th century growth rates were much higher despite the fact that there were much higher tax rates on top incomes. Thus, when you try to correlate growth rates and the top marginal tax rate over time, it looks like a higher tax rate is correlated with increased growth. In any case, almost nobody (except maybe Piketty) supports returning to a mid-century level of taxation. To create a decent basic income, you would only have to raise taxes by about 3% of GDP ($480 billion), while redirecting money from some other programs (play around with this if you’re curious).

      This is a really bad inference because both your x and y axes have huge problems.

      The problem with the x axis is that “top marginal tax rate” across history is only a fraction of the influences on the real marginal tax rate faced by top earners. During the same periods that the top MTR was high, it also applied to very, very few people (because its threshold was high) and many of the people theoretically subject to it had access to deductions/loopholes/etc. that limited their exposure.

      There are several problems with the y axis. One is that we are absolutely terrible at measuring real growth rates because we are terrible at measuring inflation (to the degree that inflation is even a real thing that can be measured). Another is that we shouldn’t really have a strong expectation that mean GDP growth rates will be the same in different decades. There are many, many things that could explain a secular decline in trend growth (I puke a little saying this, but as an example you can see The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen) and “well, top MTRs went down, but it turns out high top MTRs are actually good for the economy” deserves to be rather low on that list.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Milton Friedman was directly involved in the creation of EITC.

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      • Geirr says:

        I really, really doubt that there are many economists, conservative or not who support a basic income. To see why read this essay by Chris Stucchio. It does some basic economic modeling of a basic income and a basic job. As Dr. Stucchio points out most discussion of a basic income is innumerate. A basic income would be really, really expensive or really, really low and would under very conservative assumptions have a large and negative effect on economic growth.

        An EITC or basic job are both much better ideas.

        https://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2013/basic_income_vs_basic_job.html

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      • Tracy W says:

        in fact the majority of conservative economists are in favor of either a basic income or expanded EITC

        I’m rather skeptical about this, because every attempt I’ve seen at doing the numbers for a basic income comes up with the basic income being either much lower per person than today’s benefits, or very unaffordable (eg average, not marginal, tax rates of above 50%) or both. The people I’ve seen advocating UBIs generally resort to some handwaving at this point.

        Although, since you lump this in with the EITC, this may be a case of saying that “the majority of left-wing economists are in favour of either rolling out cold fusion or a carbon tax.” Probably literally true, but lumping together two very very different policy solutions.

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    • eggo says:

      ” cold hard calculations of potential increased utility from mandatory giving”…

      Increased utility to who? If you can make sure the answer to that question is and always will be “to the needy”, mandatory giving is great.

      Otherwise you’ve just set yourself up for a nightmare of making sure the money you’ve already been forced to give is being spent in a non-awful way.

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    • Jared says:

      If you are a utilitarian, then you should prefer money be given to the absolute poor people in the developing world rather than the relative poor in the developed world. If America giving more to charity is a direct result of less government taxes, then the US has the better utilitarian policies.

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      • houseboatonstyx says:

        To maximize happiness, the money would be more productive donated to a scholarship fund for musicians or artists. Someone living in poor health and poverty might get a few minutes of less pain, but even during those minutes zie would still have the worries and grief of zis whole situation, plus anxiety about the pain coming back. The winner of the scholarship and zis family would have many hours of happy celebration, and countless people for many years would enjoy zis music or art.

        I realize this is also a point against spending resources to make factory farming animals less uncomfortable, since they cannot be happy in that situation anyway. For increased animal happiness, putting out birdbaths and bird feeders for wild birds would be better.

        That way Emolas lies? Naw….

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  32. Grumpus says:

    Maybe I was the victim of mob violence in a past life or something, I don’t know.

    Is this a joke? We all know this happened in *this* life.

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  33. Daniel says:

    I think the case for activism is much stronger for animal activism (I even think it’s stronger than you make it out to be for human activism, basically due to the logic contained in Amanda L’s comment). Most people, even nice charitable people who work hard to make the world a nicer place, don’t really care about non-human animals very much, if at all. As such, there is going to be a lot of low-hanging fruit just in getting people to do things that involve comparatively little personal sacrifice with huge benefit to non-human animals. With activism that helps humans, you would expect those small sacrifices to already be made, and therefore the only remaining ways to help said humans to involve some larger tradeoff (e.g. make it more difficult for police officers to defend themselves).

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    • Misha says:

      You appear to have forgotten that people can have different values from your own

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      • Daniel says:

        … I promise that I haven’t? The whole basis of the argument is that other people don’t value non-human animals (or at least think that they don’t), which means that non-human animal activism is an excellent way of fulfilling my own values.

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    • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

      As such, there is going to be a lot of low-hanging fruit just in getting people to do things that involve comparatively little personal sacrifice with huge benefit to non-human animals.

      Can you name one or two examples?

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      • Tom Womack says:

        Buy the slightly-more-expensive eggs from chickens kept in better condition; buy farmed rather than wild-caught fish; buy ultrafiltered long-life milk so you waste less of it.

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        • Rowan says:

          With the labels like “free range” that distinguish the “slightly-more-expensive eggs”, producers have incentives to meet the absolute minimum standards that will let them get away with using that label, and go no higher. Confirming the animals are actually kept in conditions better enough to be worth the price difference is non-trivial.

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          • Tom Womack says:

            Of course many of the producers will be meeting the absolute minimum standards for free-range. But these standards are stronger than the ones they’d be required to meet if they decided not to use the label; the chickens suffer less.

            I don’t have the faintest clue what valuation to use for a quality-adjusted life day for a chicken, but I’m reasonably sure it’s not zero or negative. So I don’t think “conditions better enough to be worth the price difference” is very meaningful; but I can be confident that the eggs-meeting-minimum-free-range-standards are better for the chickens than the absolute-cheapest-value-eggs.

            Maybe I should be buying the Dutchy Original Pale Blue Eggs From Specially Pampered Chickens at 50p rather than 20p the egg – I am rich enough and buy sufficiently few eggs that price is immaterial – but the local supermarket doesn’t stock them and having to make a special trip is material.

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          • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

            I don’t have the faintest clue what valuation to use for a quality-adjusted life day for a chicken, but I’m reasonably sure it’s not zero or negative.

            I am curious again: How do you know that?

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          • houseboatonstyx says:

            With the labels like “free range” that distinguish the “slightly-more-expensive eggs”, producers have incentives to meet the absolute minimum standards that will let them get away with using that label, and go no higher.

            Still, there is such a thing as a race to the top, or at least upwards. Some customers are choosing the “cage free” carton over the unlabeled carton, even if it costs 10-cents more. And a carton that advertises Our chicken pens surpass minimum requirements, especially if it has a good picture, will bring some of those customers on over to your competing brand, even if it costs 20-cents more than the unlabeled. So good old competition gives an incentive to keep nudging your chicken pens* up so you can nudge your price up. (Until few customers are willing to go higher.)

            So the minimum-requirement eggs may not have made a big difference to the chickens, but the customers who choose them are contributing to starting such a competition. (As well as just in general sending the message to producers, law-makers, etc that this many customers care.)

            * Well, nudging up some of your pens so you can nudge up the price of some your eggs, to see how it goes.

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        • eggo says:

          People can waste milk? That stuff’s expensive!

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        • Daniel says:

          I suspect that the first two don’t actually help. ‘Free-range’ or ‘humane’ don’t mean much, and farmed fish is probably far worse than wild-caught fish (because you’re subsidising someone’s horrific life and then death, rather than just killing someone who probably has an awful life anyway).

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          • houseboatonstyx says:

            farmed fish is probably far worse than wild-caught fish (because you’re subsidising someone’s horrific life and then death, rather than just killing someone who probably has an awful life anyway

            Yes. Better a free life before death, than a bad one. But why assume the free life was awful? That’s an assumption that helps the anti-animal side, and is unsupported imo.

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      • Daniel says:

        Don’t pay for someone to murder non-human animals for your own pleasure. (I did say *comparatively* small…)

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  34. For whatever it’s worth, I just want to say that although I am not yet about to give 10% of my modest income to charity, I did feel moved to make a one-off donation to the Australian Red Cross immediately after reading this blog post.

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  35. Anonymous says:

    It’s ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more.

    That sounds analogous to Laffer curve. Has anyone looked into charity donations from this angle?

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    • Stephen says:

      I’ve been meaning to write something about this for a while. I think the Laffer curve is exactly the way we should think about “optimal” or “morally perfect” charity.

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  36. Anonymous says:

    Paul Graham’s quote succinctly summarizes an important point:

    If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong

    Robin Hanson’s idea about Policy Tug-O-War seems very relevant.

    The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War “ropes” set up in this high dimensional policy space. If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are “one of them,” you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions. That is, pick a rope and pull on it.

    If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy. On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled.

    A lot of people are into standard political battles and they were into them for a long period of times, decades or even a century. One additional person doesn’t change anything, it’s a waste of that person’s abilities (of course, some people make careers out of showing off how loyal they are they to a particular political ideology. Many politicians and activists seem to have very few talents except the said loyalty to their side). If you go into non-standard politics or things that are apolitical, you are probably more likely to use your abilities well.

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    • Paul Torek says:

      I find it amusing that the physics of the metaphor absolutely does not work. F=ma, and the F in that equation is the net of all component forces. So whatever force f you add, in whatever direction, will change a by f/m in the direction you aimed. Regardless of whether that direction was sideways.

      Just sayin.

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  37. stillnotking says:

    One of my former Zen teachers once told me something I’ll always remember: Ego isn’t about thinking you’re good, it’s about thinking you’re special. You can just as easily be an ego monster by thinking you’re the world’s most worthless trash as by thinking you’re the world’s most wonderful saint. Two sides of the same coin.

    When I read posts like Cliff Pervocracy’s, or really most of contemporary social-justice discourse on the internet, the “negative egotism” fairly jumps out of the screen. It’s like a person trying to make sure they don’t drown by setting themselves on fire.

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  38. kernly says:

    Charity is nothing, politics is everything. Programs like Medicaid will always be more effective than any charity could be. They change the very nature of our resource allocation system, while charities can only ever halfheartedly treat the symptoms arising from problems in our resource allocation system.

    Of course, the argument you make stands pretty strong against getting invested in political fights of little or no consequence. But the thing is, the main political battle now is between two ideologies, one which considers any change to our resource allocation system verboten (except to provide provisions that protect current beneficiaries) and the other that, well, doesn’t. That makes the political battle The Most Important Thing, by far, bar nothing.

    However I still agree with what you said about Not Doing The Best Thing and Evil not being equivalent. Definitions made for man, not vice versa, and nobody Does The Best Thing so set achievable goals. In this case, the goal should be “support changing the resource allocation system,” not “fruitlessly try to ameliorate the resource allocation system’s failings by personal action.” IOW – get involved in politics!

    I feel like I haven’t discouraged charity enough, let me try a little harder. Changes to our resource allocation system are a result of political will, which comes from people realizing that there are problems with our resource allocation system. Changes to that system – the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, recently the ACA – tend to be long lasting if not semi-permanent. Giving to charity might succeed in ameliorating the symptoms, in which case it forestalls real changes. There’s a good reason why I don’t consider charity a ‘real change’ – the thing is that charitable giving is and will always be pro-cyclical rather than counter-cyclical. People have the most spare when times are good. There is the most need when times are bad – right when people have the least ability to justify spending money on charity.

    The wonderful thing about government programs, and why they deserve to be called real changes to our resource allocation system, is that they are automatically counter-cyclical. When people suddenly get a lot poorer, simultaneously a lot more of them qualify for unemployment insurance, SNAP, medicaid, and ACA subsidies. That’s a Big Deal. Unlike charity, it is a semi-permanent shoring up of the very fabric of our society.

    The good thing is that people don’t actually donate that much to charity, so we don’t suffer much consequence from relying on a pro-cyclical aid system. But Mr. Alexander, that would change if absurd amounts of people started giving absurd amounts of money! When times were good, well, we’d make quite a dent in our societal problems! Probably the hungry or homeless would be scarce indeed. But when the worm turns, we would be devoured. During times of extreme economic hardship and uncertainty, even those who retain the ability to give won’t be able to justify continued contributions at the same level. The system will unravel, the safety net will be revealed to be made of a few strands of silk, and we will plunge into a very deep hole compared to where we would be if we’d just gone about changing things in the appropriate manner. Thanks, Scott Alexander.

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    • Tom Womack says:

      I’m very confused by this comment, because at the most charitable interpretation it’s ludicrously parochial.

      Scott is explicitly talking about donating to GiveWell or similar; so he’s recommending charity towards the problems readily solved with money in countries much worse off than the US, rather than replacing the superb American government programs for improving American peoples’ lives with charity alone.

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      • kernly says:

        I mean, my point is fully generalizable. In a world with global financial crises, relying on procyclical measures is bad regardless of where you’re applying them, and extremely bad if they replace potential countercyclical measures to a significant extent. I think a hug part of “the problem” in countries doing extremely badly is precisely same as here – the ideological position that government should not be involved in redistribution. I don’t see how GiveWell “readily solves” that problem.

        Also Scott is putting forward charitable giving as a potential way to “kill Moloch dead,” which I think covers the world, not just worst off parts of it. You know –

        solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permamently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars

        So not strictly limited to helping those starving African babies with distended bellies.

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        • drs says:

          As I put it once, “charity is begging for help, welfare is having a right to help”.

          OTOH giving to the global poor does have pretty good immediate payoff. Not like there’s a global Democratic party to donate to for sensible world government.

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  39. Shenpen says:

    Scott,

    >People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

    Frankly, in Eastern Europe people who understand how lucky they are feel, a deep seated need to take a huge shit on the less fortunate and rub their noses in – like flaunting their wealth with gold and designer clothes and calling them unsophisticated for only being able to afford cheap Chinese jeans, precisely to make the unfortunate peasants feel bad, so that they can feel a good power trip. A power trip does not require the condition that you should have somehow actually earned and deserved it to feel good.

    Scott, you are just too optimistic about human nature and think the customs of Blue Tribe Americans are the laws of nature.

    It is so uncommon in Eastern Europe that when I first heard that some Americans who are born rich are ashamed of it because they have not earned nor deserved it. Why do you need to earn your wealth or power, is it being earned and deserved somehow necessary for the enjoyment of pimping it around to the peasants, rubbing their noses in it, and harvesting their sweet, sweet envy and frustration? As that is what people who are born rich do here.

    Seriously.

    This used to confuse me a lot. Finally I figured out the following reason: when you are a Roman soldier serving in Caesars legion, take a Gaul town, slaugther everyone, loot them and you are given your share of the loot, you need to feel you earned and deserved it (by courage) compared to your fellow soldiers, but not to your victims, obviously – they are victims, they are dehumanized, they are the prey, you obviously don’t have to prove to them that what you take them by sheer force, is earned or deserved! So probably the reason is that we Eastern European see each other as the victims to loot, while Americans see each other as the fellow soldiers, and see some other people in the world as the victims to loot. Or no one, if they are really that optimistic.

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    • Nita says:

      Speak for yourself, neighbour. Perhaps in your corner of Eastern Europe the rich do walk the streets in heavy gold chains, but I haven’t seen it around here, personally.

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    • Anonymous says:

      I think that the reason is that by purchasing power even America’s poor would be middle class in Eastern Europe, and America’s middle class would be considered very rich in Eastern Europe. What I’m trying to say is that in the US when poor people become rich, they try to signal it by spending a lot to show off their wealth, but people who are even richer try to countersignal it by spending money on things like charity. And that creates a culture, which, after some time, becomes popular even among the less rich people. In Eastern Europe there are fewer people who can afford to show off their wealth by buying the expensive things, and, because of communism, there is almost no Old Money in Eastern Europe, that would countersignal by spending on things like charity. Since there was no such culture in recent times, there is no one to pick up a habit of charitable donations from, therefore most people do not have such habits. Church donations, TV fundraisers and a few student volunteering programs are almost the only kind of charity there is, and it is much smaller than similar kind of thing in the US.

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    • Jaskologist says:

      In America, you could get rich by working hard and taking risks at a business venture, earning your way from rags to riches.

      Communism shut down that path in EE. The only way to get rich was through corruption, and survival at the higher levels of the system entailed a good deal of nastiness. Therefore, the only rich people were corrupt and nasty.

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  40. Eli says:

    Well, I for one am inspired. I’m going to go find the most effective socialist activist organization I can, and donate 10% of my money to them every year. Or at least, some of my money. After I’ve done Giving Directly. Which I already did this year.

    I mean, sorry, but you’re just ridiculously, TERRIBLY wrong about activist politics being an inefficient form of doing good. Add up the QALYs we can credit to the following programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, OSHA, minimum wage laws, TANF, Obamacare, unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, foreign aid, the FDA, FEMA, the CDC, and the EPA. I’m not talking about Keynesian multipliers or any of that crap (though I’d certainly count them as evidence in my favor); let’s just start with the direct QALY impact of social insurances, poor aid, environmental management, and disaster prevention/management — and the solving of coordination problems related to all of the above.

    In terms of QALYs or even in terms of dollars for our corporate overlords, if state policy was ineffective, nobody would buy it. So what’s the rate of return on marginal effort invested in changing public policy?

    With all your droning on about SJWs and neoreactionaries and other internet nasties, you’ve lost sight of the most basic fact about politics: it is the means by which public policy is made and trillions of dollars are disseminated annually for good-and/or-evil causes.

    (And I’m giving you a free potential argument by talking of the FDA, since you’ve criticized their efficiency and effectiveness before.)

    (And if you only meant social media “activism”, well, problem is, most actual activism happens in meatspace, doesn’t involve the Culture Wars, and is, as noted above, effective enough that it’s really quite rational to keep doing it.)

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    • David Simon says:

      How do you know that those programs happened because of political activism? I’m not asking snarkily, I genuinely think that political activism is very plausible as a primary cause, but it’s not the only possible one, and I’m not sure how to determine the reality.

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      • Eli says:

        How do you know that those programs happened because of political activism?

        A) Because I took US History in school, where it was quite explicitly noted that activist campaigns pushed favorable candidates into office and compelled them to pass new aid programs.

        B) My overall point is that government aid is more effective than charitable donations, because it enjoys economies of scale and coordination benefits.

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    • You’re not engaging with Scott’s actual argument. He agrees with you about government programs having the capacity to do good in a way that nothing else can. The question is whether there’s a causal relationship between making a lot of noise about political hot topics and actually getting better policy, comparable in strength to the causal relationship between donating money to AMF or GiveDirectly and actually saving or improving people’s lives in the Third World.

      Also, your last paragraph made me curious. Can you give me any recent widely-supported examples of meatspace activism that wasn’t about tribalism and actually resulted in improvements in policy? Most of the activism that I see these days is on social media (which isn’t all that surprising, it’s how people communicate these days) and is pretty much 100% lined up along tribal lines.

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      • Eli says:

        Have you not payed attention to the minimum wage rises that got passed this past election? Those were meatspace activist campaigns behind those, and they put money in the pockets of impoverished workers as directly as possible!

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        • I confess that I didn’t pay especially close attention to those, since they were happening in places other than where I am (to the best of my knowledge only one city and one small state passed high-profile minimum-wage increases). I did see a huge amount of social media activism over the federal minimum wage, which accomplished approximately squat.

          Can you tell me what exactly activists in Seattle and Connecticut were doing in meatspace and how it was causally linked to minimum wage increases there in a way that online activism isn’t?

          Also, minimum wage is totally wrapped up in tribal politics. The convention is to use the term “culture wars” to refer to non-economic issues, but I figure issues that reliably divide the Blue Tribe from the Red Tribe should be considered as such whether they’re economic or not.

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          • drs says:

            In 2007 the Democratic Congress raised the federal minimum wage 40% (phasing in over the next few years.) Big effect from having the right ‘tribe’ in power. Obamacare’s a big deal too.

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    • Macbi says:

      “Add up the QALYs we can credit to the following programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, OSHA, minimum wage laws, TANF, Obamacare, unemployment insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, foreign aid, the FDA, FEMA, the CDC, and the EPA.”

      I think the numbers will work out to be surprisingly pro-charity. There are 300M people in the USA so these programs contribute at most 300M QALYs/year (generous estimate). Givewell saves one life (say 30 QALYs) per $3000, so to save the same amount by charity would cost $30B/year, or $100 per American. Keeping those programs running costs far more than that, so charity wins even with very generous calculations.

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      • drs says:

        Giving to poor people has utilitarian advantages over giving to rich people like Americans. OTOH Givewell rates would start running into decreasing returns at some point.

        There’s also that the government programs aren’t entirely charity, they’re self-interested safety nets, collective bargains, regulations, or purchases of public or otherwise non-market goods.

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  41. Alex Godofsky says:

    Not all politics is necessarily less important than charity. I have a friend who works on tax policy, and their models spit out ~15-20% total increase in GDP as the long-term gains from an optimal tax policy (i.e. after an adjustment period in all future years GDP would be that much higher than the counterfactual). If that’s even remotely in the right ballpark then there is a lot of room on this issue for politics to be more beneficial per-unit-effort than charity.

    [Digression: “the economy is really big” is a good reason to be concerned about policies that might depress it, even if that debate seems much less accessible than issues like racism.]

    re: 10%

    This point has been reference in a slightly different way above, but we already have a collective action system to decide how much we ought to donate to charity, and it already takes a lot more than 10%. And, yes, its allocation of funds is terrible. But a world in which you can convince a bunch of people to give 10% of their income to well-chosen charity is also a world in which you can convince them to vote for less terrible government spending.

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    • Randy M says:

      Heh, I thought you were going to conclude with “is a world where charities are so big that their allocation systems get terrible as well.”

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      • Alex Godofsky says:

        That’s the other failure mode, yes. Good call. I can totally imagine government regulation of charity (likely in the form of much more tightly defining which things get deductions and which don’t) that result in massive misallocation.

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    • How exactly should we spend effort on making this happen? Like, I believe you that the potential upside is huge, but I don’t think making a lot of noise on social media is likely to work.

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      • Alex Godofsky says:

        Actually I think there is a lot of potential upside in evangelizing ideas to your friends, so long as you do it properly.

        (Tumblr reblogs are probably not a good mechanism for this.)

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  42. lmm says:

    The choice to do nothing is still a choice, and is likely to be conservative rather than progressive almost by definition. So I don’t think it’s accurate to recharacterise this as politically neutral activist vs passivist.

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    • Anonymous says:

      You say that as if it is only self-proclaimed progressives that are trying to change things. They are not the only ones. There are a lot of groups that try to change things into different directions. The actual position of the government is almost a compromise between them. If you consider yourself progressive, note that for any issue there is a group that is approximately equal in size and influence that would like to move thing in the other direction. Now, do you still think that keeping government’s policy as it is is a thing that your opponents do? Everyone thinks that the government’s policy is too much influenced by their opponents, and keeping the policy as it is would prevent them from getting rid of that influence and pushing everything in the direction they prefer.

      I think that the names (and their connotations) “conservative” and “progressive”, “social change” are misleading. I am tempted to say that it is intentional, but I’m a bit biased, therefore I might see conspiracies even where there is none.

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      • eggo says:

        Their ideology makes it very easy for progressive activists to misunderstand their opposite numbers, doesn’t it? The opposition is strictly passive in a historical materialist sense, and can at most block the flow of history before being inevitably swept into the wastebin.

        Even the slur “reactionary” denies them agency beyond Newton’s third law.

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        • Anonymous says:

          In the Soviet Union (I know that communists and modern day US progressives aren’t the same thing, but they are partially influenced by the same authors) different revolutions were called either Revolution (if they were for communist cause or at least in that direction) and Counter-Revolution (if they were against communist cause). Because, you know, there is only one kind of true revolution, all others are fake ones.

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  43. zz says:

    First, it’s $3,340, not $2,500. Second, I’m sure GiveWell would comment that there’s all sorts of problems with these cost-effectiveness estimates.

    Good post. Thanks for writing.

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    • GiveWell puts a bit more weight on cost-effectiveness estimates now than they were doing a year ago. That said, they’re still estimates with large fudge factors, and GiveWell does expect that many others will have different opinions about how much certain factors should be weighted.

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  44. Symmetry says:

    I’ve been putting at least 10% of my (post tax) income into charity for a while, I should really sign the GwwC pledge.

    Well, really what I’ve been doing is putting 15% of my post-tax income into an account and donating 1/3 of it to charity every year. And the only other reason I touch that fund is for emergencies like when my apartment building burned up. But hitting 10% every year isn’t hard even with hiccups like that.

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  45. mb says:

    You are usually able to articulate opposing views fairly well, which is why I like reading your blog, but you completely miss it here. There are hardly any conservatives that will argue they are an island/rugged individualists/do everything on their own, there are many that will argue that the only way to cooperate is through government or politics. The is a world difference between the two. Conservatives are much more likely to cooperate outside of government coercion.

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    • eggo says:

      Unless I’m very wrong, the “rugged individualist” part of the quote was included as a subtle reminder of the real purpose of conspicuous activism: making yourself look better than the yucky, monstrous rednecks in the outgroup.

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  46. peterdjones says:

    I think you are generalising hastily from a single example. Governments can cause a lot of harm. If you were living under apartheid, would charity really be the most effective way of improving welbeing?

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    • Tom Womack says:

      Of course: giving a small fraction of what you earned as a white manager at Sasol to people trying to eliminate polio in the poor world (which was the Big Intervention at the time of apartheid) would improve the wellbeing of many more humans than getting yourself arrested and fired for protesting against local policy.

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  47. SSC comes out in favor of tithing. I approve!

    I am stunned when I hear people talk about being afflicted by a feeling of moral inadequacy and self-doubt by virtue of not being activist enough or not giving enough to charity. Stunned, mostly because this stuff sounds basically identical to what you get from former evangelicals (or evangelicals who have chilled out), who describe being constantly guilt-stricken for not telling everybody about Jesus all the time. After all, what’s a little social discomfort when put up against the possibility of saving someone from a literal infinity of suffering in hell? It’s surprising (though maybe it shouldn’t be) to hear how the same broken thought process is triggered by activism or any other “moral” cause.

    St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Passivism 4eva.

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    • Leonard says:

      It should not be surprising, especially when you realize that Progressivism is Christianity with the overtly supernatural shorn away. See my comment below.

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      • I’ve known for a while that Progressivism is Puritanism, but I still manage to be surprised at how well progressives reproduce the Puritan guilt-complex.

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        • Jaskologist says:

          Actually, I think what we have in this post is a reinvention of indulgences.

          Original sin/total depravity are accepted right off the bat with the acknowledgement that we can’t be perfect. Guilt flows naturally from that. (And since when are Catholics known for being guilt-free?)

          But what is the solution offered to those convicted of their sin? Not grace; there’s nobody available to forgive or pay the debt that is owed. So, let’s just stop worrying about that and pay money instead, allowing us to draw on the Treasury of Merit accumulated by the virtues of the saints.

          That this takes the form of a tithe is ultimately a red herring, and probably just a case of Chesterton’s fence rebuilding itself.

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        • g says:

          There seems to me much merit in distinguishing between “X shares some features with Y” and “X is Y”.

          (I appreciate that when Y is something widely scorned and X is something you wish to put down, the latter may be rhetorically more effective, but I would have hoped better standards to obtain in this community.)

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          • I was using the cladistic “is”, like saying “birds are dinosaurs.” Obviously Progressivism is not actually identical with Puritanism, but it is the memetic descendant of Puritanism.

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            Is a zebra a fish?

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          • Hainish says:

            Is a zebra a fish?

            Actually, from a cladistic standpoint, a zebra is indeed a fish (so am I and so are you).

            (Sorry.)

            Having said that, I don’t buy that progressivism is, cladistically, puritanism.

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          • nydwracu says:

            Birds aren’t real. #birdcore

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            “Actually, from a cladistic standpoint, a zebra is indeed a fish (so am I and so are you).”

            Oh, I know that mammals are descendants of fish. My point was that there is usually a limit on how derived things can be to say that they are part of some ancestral group because of cladistics. And I was sort of implying that, assuming progressivism actually is a descendant of puritanism in the first place, progressivism=puritanism is more like zebra=fish than bird=dinosaur.

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          • Jaskologist says:

            Ok, I now have time for slightly more than a snarky reply.

            If, on the push westward, American cowboys scorned the Plains Indians for their silly conical tents, and then, as time went on, you noticed that their own dwellings were growing more and more pointy, you’d probably enjoy tweaking them about it, too. You might even decide, when building your tent, that it’s probably best to model your plans after the guys who’ve been doing it in this environment for centuries, rather than the guys who snark about feathers hats.

            Atheistic Rationalists tends towards the same failure. They try to sweep away all those outmoded ideas of guilt which made them feel bad, and all those silly rules which felt so constricting, and later discover that, lo and behold, people are complicated.

            Scott is confronting the question at the core of every religion: What the heck is wrong with the world? He’s come up with the Christian answer: mankind is broken; we do not do we what ought. He even layers on the Christian contention that we cannot do all that we ought (Christians called it Total Depravity). Social justice’s idea of privilege goes so far as to lay the burden of guilt on us at birth, precisely as in Original Sin.

            This all smacks of Relearning to me. Relearning is better than continuing to wallow in ignorance, but is far inferior to building on what your predecessors had already learned.

            And that’s partly why the solution is so unsatisfying. Widespread imperfection may be seen as a license for individual imperfection, but it can just as easily be seen as a license to damn the whole species as flawed, and liquidate them as in the days of Noah and Stalin. 10% is completely arbitrary, and a Rationalist isn’t going to be able to hang onto it long before admitting to themselves that “giving 10% of income wipes away your sins” is anything other than a comforting fable.

            And at that point, I ask myself why I shouldn’t just listen to the guys who already figured out original sin a long time ago, and have spent orders of magnitude more thinking over its implications.

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          • Mary says:

            ” He even layers on the Christian contention that we cannot do all that we ought (Christians called it Total Depravity). ”

            No, that’s Original Sin. Total Depravity is a specific variation of that held by some Christians.

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          • Jaskologist says:

            What’s the term describing, essentially, inborn guilt, such that we start off damned? I thought this was the core of original sin, though that may vary by sect. There must be a term to distinguish “Guilty from birth” from “unable to do right.”

            I know Total Depravity is more a Calvinist term, but it sure seems like Augustine believed in it, too. I’ve never been sure, though, if he really did, or if I’m just getting Augustine’s views from Calvinists who read Calvinism back into him.

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      • peterdjones says:

        By strict utilitarianism maybe. Most people aren’t utilitarians, and find deliberate elected suffering worse than the natural kind.

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  48. Illuminati Initiate says:

    This is somewhat similar to Eli’s and Alex Godofsky’s points above, but…

    OK, first off let me be clear that I’m certainly not against giving 10% of you’re income to charity. I think It’s great when people do decide to do that, and once I have a stable income I may do so myself as long as I have enough leftover to pay for my own interests and needs (including eventually cryonics). And I agree that internet re-blogging of whatever the latest media outrage is is not very helpful, and the “you are evil if you don’t be an activist, everyone must be an activist” meme is probably actively (npi) harmful (it does not seem to actually help and might lead to something like a cultural Stalinism-lite if taken too far).

    But politics is more important than charity.

    Scott, you talk about massive amounts of people deciding without coercion to simply give away 10% of their income out of the goodness of their brains. Like, what you are saying there is basically communism. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. And yeah, it would be great if masses of people suddenly decided to become anarcho-communists and actually made it work. And as a someone increasingly supporting something like a form of socialism, it feels weird and amusingly ironic saying this but this goes against human nature. You are not going to solve poverty, and many other things, by trying to convince people to donate alone. Pretty much all the non-technological achievements of modern society were accomplished in part by coercion (exceptions include some cultural changes that could come about because of conditions caused by coercion and/or tech, i.e greatly decreasing sexism), be that coercion by the modern enlightenment state (through taxes to fund projects or laws against doing various bad things) or coercion by revolutionaries. You need to make people do things. This sounds harsh but the things you need to make people do are usually not a great burden*, and usually involve things like “we will take some stuff from you you have plenty of already” (taxes and wealth redistribution) or “we won’t let you hurt people”. And not only is there the problem of people not donating, there is the problem of people deliberately blocking you out of politics. Imagine tying to fund birth control and abortion in an Islamic theocracy. Or dealing with the government shutting down you’re life extension research because the ruling Christian-Green Party has decided that it is an abomination against nature. Fighting those things can only be done with politics- or sometimes, unfortunately, by politics by other means.

    There is another problem also, which is that nothing is unobjected. You have to decide which charities are good, which are irrelevant/a waste, and which are actively evil. And if charity was as big as you’re talking about it would become politics. It might even sort itself into competing international government-like entities, actually.

    Edit: actually a bunch of other people also said similar things.

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    • Nornagest says:

      Like, what you are saying there is basically communism. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

      That slogan doesn’t make communism. It might make a decent working outline for socialism, which is a much fuzzier cluster of ideologies, but even there you’re missing any leveling impulse, any suggestion that inequality is bad in and of itself. Noblesse oblige is far older than communism.

      I don’t think you need coercion to get something like this to work. But if you’re not coercing anyone, I do think you need to inculcate some sense of responsibility among charitable donors, and notions of universal responsibility haven’t historically worked out too well. More limited forms of responsibility have, but those tend to have a certain tension with egalitarianism.

      The EA crowd gets around this by actually taking utilitarianism or related ethical philosophies seriously, but you’re never going to mainstream that.

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      • Illuminati Initiate says:

        Your’e right that what I was talking about was not quite actually communism, now that I think about it. But I think it runs in to the same problems.

        I’m just highly skeptical that convincing enough people to donate to do the level of stuff Scott was talking about is doable. Plus there are the other issues I mentioned.

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    • call_me_aka says:

      Minor nitpick: Islam’s actually pretty cool with birth control and (first-trimester) abortion. All things that are not Blue/Gray are not equivalent.

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    • Mary says:

      You are not going to solve poverty, and many other things, by trying to convince people to donate alone.

      That is not an argument for “You need to make people do things.” because you are assuming that these things can be solved, and if voluntary doesn’t cut it, involuntary must. Because there must be a solution.

      No. It is quite possibly that poverty and many other things are insoluble.

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  49. Leonard says:

    It amuses me to read all this post-Christian apologia as Christian apologia. Here’s the translation key:

    progressivism:Christianity
    conservative:pagan
    injustice/inequality/suffering:sin
    rightness/correctness:righteousness
    activism:proselytization
    good:holy
    the revolution:the Second Coming
    change:repentance of sins
    charity:charity

    It maps pretty well.

    For example:

    When you’ve grown up with messages that you’re incompetent to make your own decisions, that you don’t deserve any of the things you have, and that you’ll never be good enough, the [pagan] fantasy of rugged individualism starts looking pretty damn good.

    Intellectually, I think my [Christianity] is more correct, far better for the world in general, and more helpful to me since I don’t actually live in a perfectly isolated cabin.

    But god, it’s uncomfortable. It’s intentionally uncomfortable—it’s all about getting angry at [sin] and questioning the [righteousness] of your own actions and being sad so many people still live such [sinful] lives. Instead of looking at your cabin and declaring “I shall name it…CLIFFORDSON MANOR,” you need to look at your cabin and recognize that a long series of brutal [sins] are responsible for the fact that you have a white-collar job that lets you buy a big useless house in the woods…

    And you’re never [holy] enough. You can be [holy]—certainly [God is pleased by] charity and [proselytizing] and fighting the good fight—but not [holy] enough. No matter what you do, you’re still [a sinner]. Short of bringing about [Christ’s return], your work will never be done, you’ll never be [holy] enough.

    Once again, to be clear, I don’t think this is wrong. I just think it’s a bummer.

    I don’t know of a solution to this. (Bummer again.) I don’t think [Christianity] can ever compete with the cozy self-satisfaction of the cabin fantasy. I don’t think it should. [Repenting your sins] is necessary in the world, people don’t [repent] if they’re totally happy and comfortable, therefore discomfort is necessary.

    Update: I should have said the obvious:
    tithe:tithe

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    • Illuminati Initiate says:

      those words mean different things. You cant just swap them out and say that Christianity and Progressivism are the same

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      • Jaskologist says:

        Totally different. These go to 11.

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        • Illuminati Initiate says:

          My argument is not even that there are no similarities between Christianity and Progressivism, its that you can’t just take a passage, swap out the words with different words that have different meanings, and then say its the same. You could play mad libs like that for anything.

          Now, by doing this you might find some kind of common rhetoric or framing based on either shared human psychology or shared cultural background. But this is by no means limited to Christianity/Progressivism, and it still does not make them the same.

          Edit: for some reason did not see the replies below.

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          • Randy M says:

            “You could play mad libs like that for anything.”

            Mad libs is funny because in most cases changing out a few words makes a long complex text passage largely nonsensical. The fact that you retain any meaning, let alone a largely analogous if not identical one, is evidence that they may come from a similar impulse or… whatever his point was. It’s amusing at least.

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          • Illuminati Initiate says:

            Actually I think you might be right. The text does still make sense, though the meaning has been changed. But I think Taymond has got it right below.

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      • Leonard says:

        Obviously some of the words mean different things. That’s what analogy is. (I might point out that tithe and tithe are pretty much the same.)

        The point is, does the analogy fit? When I make relatively simple textual substitutions according to a suggested analogy, do I destroy the meaning of the text? If so, the analogy is not a good one. If the meaning is preserved, I am not sure what that means. Maybe not that the analogy is good, but at least that it is suggestive.

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    • The fundamental similarity between progressivism and Christianity is that they both impose ethical obligations on people. I bet you could do this swapping-out-words-thing with any moral framework that does that. Then it just becomes a question of which moral framework is correct (I think progressive-ish utilitarianism is).

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      • Anonymous says:

        I’m sure there are moral frameworks that impose ethical obligations under which it is possible to not have to consider oneself a horrible person, or that even allow for the possibility of considering oneself a good person. Even particular strains of progressivism and Christianity could fit this bill—though not the ones being discussed at present.

        But even beyond this there is an unsettling possibility: what if the whole concept of ethical obligation is itself broken? The more strongly you believe in ethical obligation, the more you suffer, whereas the better you are at rationalizing your own well-being as an ethical obligation and getting others to bind themselves to that obligation, the more you succeed.

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      • Jared says:

        It’s not just moral beliefs, it’s pretty much any belief in anything. That’s why I hate when people compare things they don’t like to religion. It’s not an argument and it doesn’t mean anything other than “I’m so smart for not being brainwashed by those guys”.

        Things I can compare to religion:
        Progressivism
        Libertarianism
        Communism
        Nationalism
        Atheism
        Utilitarianism
        Humanism
        Transhumanism
        Moral realism
        Science
        Truth
        Rationalism
        Empiricism
        Etc.

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    • eggo says:

      You don’t even really need a translation. You can feel the hair shirt chafing them, which was the payoff of the post for them.

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    • Ryan says:

      Could we simplify the analysis by just saying that Christianity is the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and that Protestantism was always just proto-progressivism?

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    • Jstone says:

      Bravo. It’s unfortunate that a lot of youngish activists act as if the world began spinning the moment they were born. There is nothing new under the sun.

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  50. David Simon says:

    I’m a GWWC member myself, pledging 11%. I picked that instead of 10 because (a) I thought it was amusing and (b) I figured that it might encourage further escalation, e.g. “Oh, you did 11%? Well, then I’ll do 12%!”

    However, I’m wondering now if (b), should it happen at all, would actually be counter-productive. If escalation continued, the standard would pretty quickly reach a point where people are saying things like “What, I’m expected to give 15/20/x%? That’s totally unreasonable, this GWWC thing is clearly only meant for unusually altruistic people.”

    By going past the Schelling point, am I (albeit gently) shoving the whole system off balance down the slippery slope? Should I maybe even adjust my pledge back down?

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    • eggo says:

      You are a monster of charity on several different levels, congratulations!
      …you monster.

      Instinctively, it feels like one-upmanship would be less likely to induce charitable burnout with large, single instance giving. Plus donating more of your estate to charity lets you thumb your nose at pretty much everybody from beyond the grave.

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    • Julia says:

      I think how specific you are about the amount you donate should vary by who you’re talking to.

      When I’m talking to someone I think is unlikely to donate much, I just talk about choosing effective charities. If I think they’re amenable to the idea of giving more, I say I’m a member of Giving What We Can (indicating 10% or more). If they’re already on board with that idea, I might say the real (higher) percentage.

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  51. vV_Vv says:

    Everyone giving this level of charity would kill Moloch dead. Moloch is the spirit of things responding to perverse incentives. But charity is in some sense the perfect unincentivized action.

    You wish. Charities are private companies with notoriously perverse incentives: if charity A has the stated goal of solving problem X, let’s say cure malaria, then the moment problem X is solved is the moment charity A goes out of business.

    Furthermore, charities compete in a substantially free market, but their “customers” (donors) aren’t typically their users. Charities have the incentive to optimize for selling “warm fuzzies”, maximizing their income, rather than working towards their stated goals.
    But GiveWell and the Effective Altruism movement are supposed to solve that problem, aren’t they? Well, GiveWell is a charity, which means that it is subject to the same kind of perverse incentives. Even if it currently optimizes for accuracy of its estimates, what does prevent it from drifting away and optimize for income? Or to be outcompeted by a charity that does so?

    Short of reprogramming humans into a eusocial species [insert joke about reproductively viable ants], you can’t kill Moloch.

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    • aplofar says:

      This is sort of what I wanted to say, so I’ll just tack a few things on.

      Not that I think most charities are unusually bad or worse at achieving their stated goals than any other realm of human endeavor – but I have a hard time thinking of them as working absent incentives. Perhaps this goes for the person giving the money, in the sense that the rewards from unpublicized charity are personal; but it still has to be administered by somebody. (I recommend William Easterly’s elaborations on this, in The Tyranny of Experts.) Basically, there’s all sorts of ways that charity can and does go wrong, and it can be just as zero-sum as politics, though in less obvious ways. Even the simple stuff, like “give food directly to hungry people”. It sounds foolproof and common sense, and it works in the immediate present, but what about the farmers whose incomes from food sales have gone down, now that free food is available? They might go hungry too, in later years, if the supply of charity food stays high. And if you need to have no safety buffer of food before you can qualify for food aid, then there goes the incentive to fill the granary or not slaughter your livestock. It’s actually not that easy to give money away and still affect only the thing that you want to.

      And one person’s perverse result may be another’s desired outcome. I think coerced sterilization campaigns are absolutely awful, but other people think that the fertile poor are not educated enough to know that they shouldn’t have so many children, and that such campaigns actually help them. Giving to an efficient charity that supports doctors doing forced sterilizations might indeed be highly effective for someone holding the latter view. Sometimes different ideas of ‘the good’ are just incommensurable. And even if someone says “charities shouldn’t use violence or coerce”, that’s great but I think it is a different criteria than the idea that non-trade charity overcomes Molochian perverse incentives.

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  52. Sarah says:

    I’m pro-charity, in general, but there’s an anti-charity argument that I feel needs to be put out there.

    GiveWell does excellent, rigorous research. But here’s the thing: when an organization tries to rigorously research charities, they find that *very few* charities are “evidence-based” by their standards. The handful of “efficient charities” approved by GiveWell are collectively far too small to use 10% of everyone’s income.

    After you capture the low-hanging fruit (give to charities that are unquestionably good and short of funds), the question of “how do I use my money to do good in the world?” is wide-open and there’s lots of disagreement on the subject.

    I happen to think that the most important opportunities for “effective altruism” are the things that nobody has done yet: the cures that have not yet been developed or distributed, the technologies that have not yet been invented, the companies that have not yet been founded. Yes, giving to SCI or AMF or GiveDirectly is going to do good, but once you’ve saturated those charities, the big wins are going to come more from applying *mind* and *labor* to problems than to applying money to problems.

    The problem is that applying your mind to problems is a high-variance strategy; you might not succeed. But, y’know, there’s really no way around that. “it is not required to complete the task but neither are you free to neglect it.”

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    • vV_Vv says:

      GiveWell does excellent, rigorous research.

      How do you know? Who watches the watchmen?

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      • That’s why they do the whole radical transparency thing. My own experience with them is the more of their work I read, the more convinced I became that they were the best humanitarian bet available.

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        • Sarah says:

          Right. there’s nothing secret about GiveWell; they publish everything. You can read it and draw your own conclusions. Mine are positive.

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        • vV_Vv says:

          That’s why they do the whole radical transparency thing.

          Scientists are also supposed to be radically transparent about their research, and yet there are whole sub-fields of science fraught with replication problems, not to mention the obvious pathological fields such as parapsychology and cold fusion.

          We can say that over a sufficient long timescale, science probably works, as scientists have incentives to expose the flaws in each other research.
          If GiveWell had a significant number of competitors that could expose its shortcomings, I would be more inclined to trust them.

          In any case, I think that the more money is on the table, the higher the perverse incentives becomes. This applies to for-profit companies (e.g. financial scams), science, and charities.

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    • John Schilling says:

      There will be a second-order effect that if the charities determined to be efficient by e.g. GiveWell’s metrics are funded to capacity, this will incentivize other charities to meet the same standard. It is far from clear that this would be sufficient to absorb a global commitment to tithing or the like, but it’s not something I am inclined to spend too much time worrying about when there is still so much low-hanging fruit unpicked. Should at least be worth a little thought up front, though.

      On the mind/labor vs. money dichotomy, the two are at least marginally interchangeable. There’s plenty of labor that will follow the money. If your mind is comparatively advantaged in the field of e.g. curing malaria, that may be the best thing for you to do. If your mind is comparatively advantaged in the field of investment banking, making a small fortune and giving 10% to an efficient charity is going to be far, far more effective than either becoming a second-rate malaria researcher or going off to Africa to personally dig wells and build clinics.

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  53. Mike Blume says:

    > Everyone giving this level of charity would *kill Moloch dead*.

    It’s not often I get to out-pessimism Scott, but are we *sure* that if everyone started tithing Moloch wouldn’t just laugh and start inventing negative-sum fundraising games for charity managers to play against eachother? Either because they Genuinely Believe Their Cause Is Just (and are failing to cooperate on the Epistemic Prisoner’s Dilemma) or because at the back of their mind they know their charity needs to go on functioning because it pays their rent and their grocery bills and occasionally lets them go to cool parties.

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    • Jaskologist says:

      Moloch will laugh and say “HAW HAW HAW YOU THOUGHT ALL THIS COULD JUST BE SOLVED BY THROWING MONEY AT IT? WATCH SLOTH AND HEATHEN FOLLY BRING ALL YOUR HOPES TO NOUGHT!”

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  54. eggo says:

    >participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it
    “But God, have I told you how uncomfortable this hair shirt I’m conspicuously wearing is? It’s intentionally uncomfortable!”

    Looking at the math is the best way to confront your own motivations. Am I really doing this to save the world, or do I just want to feel smugly superior to those disgusting, ignorant conservative cabin-fevered rednec–…sorry: sometimes the outgroup’s total inferiority forces me to go on insulting rants.

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  55. K. says:

    Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

    The moral of the story is that if you feel an obligation to give back to the world, participating in activist politics is one of the worst possible ways to do it.

    Wait, what?

    That example doesn’t show that at all – it just shows that malaria kills more black people than cops do. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether donating to anti-police-brutality organizations would be more effective than protesting against police brutality, nor whether protesting to raise awareness and/or pressure governments to do something about malaria would be more effective than donating to the AMF.

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  56. Fu says:

    Applause for using the tall bar on the graph to get to the important small bar on the graph.

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  57. Mark says:

    I just donated $200 to Against Malaria because of this post.

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  58. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    I’ve been doing some work on crowdsourcing the lobbying activity directly, but this turns out to be quite a complicated design problem and one which legal informatics tooling is still catching up to.

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  59. Alsadius says:

    As a slightly longer-form explanation of why 10% is a good number, I tried to examine it from first principles here: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/l8w/the_atheists_tithe/

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  60. Jstone says:

    I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone that this notion of striving for moral perfection is a fool’s game. Of course it results in feelings of perpetual guilt and inadequacy, how could it not? One could say that this is a function of Progressivism’s incoherence on what it means to be “good”, or maybe its an intentional design feature keep people motivated to continue pushing for change in the face of despair.

    Ultimately the Progressive moral imperative (or any Utopian ideological moral imperative for that matter) is based in mindfuckery. It “works” by setting impossible standards, then condemning people for not living up to them. Paradoxically, the more you care – the more you try to be a “good person”- the more Evil you feel, through realization of just how inadequate your paltry efforts are in addressing the countless horrors of the world. If you’re already trying, why aren’t you…trying harder?! Like the person said, no one is ever “good enough”, but that doesn’t stop everyone from viciously shaming each other over their (inevitable!) imperfections. It’s a moral trap – activism requires prioritization of how you spend your limited material and emotional resources- priorities that others will disagree with, and use to condemn you.

    If there is no “good enough”, and everyone falls short of the ideal, then by what logic do activists go around constantly castigating each other for not meeting undefinable expectations for how other people should prioritize their time and energy? It’s insane.

    The sane course is simply to follow your own conscience and reject nonsensical purity/righteousness contests framed by Utopian delusions. Most of that boils down to mundane social status competitions within activist communities anyway.

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  61. Andrew says:

    As a data point on how useful these types of posts are, I can’t point to a specific piece of writing from here or lesswrong (though I don’t lurk there hardly at all these days) that pointed me towards the ideas of effective altruism and the 10% watermark, but it was definitely writings between here and there that prompted me to start donating at all (perhaps 50-70%?) and in the right places (100%), and while I have some mental blocks (frugality) surrounding managing 10%, I’m getting better, and plan to catch up to make at least 10% as a lifetime total, which should easily clear 6 figures.

    (The other 30-50% that got me over the hump to start was walking past a TV at work that rotates through various company-related notices and information and seeing that they would match donations up to $1000 per year. Since I never pay attention to that stuff, I’m pretty sure my brain never would have even registered it if I wasn’t already primed with the effective altruism idea)

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  62. blacktrance says:

    One option is to deny the obligation. I am super sympathetic to this one. The marginal cost of my existence on the poor and suffering of the world is zero. In fact, it’s probably positive… I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough.

    This reminds me of the hair dryer solution you wrote about in an earlier post, but while people can reasonably disagree about its effectiveness in that particular case (on one hand, it’s not very onerous, on the other hand, it doesn’t get rid of the problem, and it could get worse), but in this case, giving away 10% of your income is a significant burden, so if people really don’t have this kind of obligation, the right thing to do is to convince them that they’re not obligated, not try to channel their impulses away from one burden and towards another. It’s true that as long as they’re going to feel obligated, they should do something effective, but why hold constant whether they’re feeling obligated? Also, you seem to be assuming that it’s easier to convince people to change what they do because of their feeling of obligation than to change whether they feel obligated, but seeing the arguments for politics and against charity in the comments here, that’s a questionable assumption.

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    • You can see why someone would prefer the poor actually not suffering over us not feeling guilty about their suffering, right? Altruists not being utterly miserable is important, but it’s not the end goal.

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      • blacktrance says:

        Whose end goal? If you’re someone who’s willing to cause some misery among would-be donors to charity in order to increase donations, sure. But if the question is whether the would-be donors are actually obligated to donate, they would be acting wrongly if they donated based on their mistaken belief. If someone is feeling guilty but isn’t actually guilty, then their feeling is mistaken. More practically, if you have friends who are feeling uncomfortable or miserable because of the altruistic burden they believe themselves to have to bear, presumably you should try to convince them that they don’t actually have this burden, rather than trying to channel it elsewhere.

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  63. Artemium says:

    First I have to say that I am a huge fan of your work. That ‘Meditation on Moloch’ post literally changed my life and turned me into Effective Altruist overnight. That being said, I also think there are problems with the argument you presented here. It is true that charity is shamefully ignored in comparison with hashtag-happy political action but it is a serious mistake to dismiss any form of political action as laughably ineffective compared to charity.

    Political activism got a bad rap recently as many people were annoyed troll-heavy discussion on recent issues in US politics (Ferguson, Garner killing). But with risk of sounding insensitive, this are not the only political issues in the world, and some issues are actually pretty important and cannot be substituted by charity giving.

    Let’s just mentions some historical examples where shorting the political action in favour of charity would be a bad choice:

    -China in 1977- Deng Xiaoping is preparing to start his reform program, but he has to implement a strong political action in order to remove hardline-communists from politburo who will try to stop him. If we are going to use Charity>Politcs logic, our advice would be: “Hey, instead of using massive resources in trying to reform China which is very risky endeavour, maybe you should use all this political energy in trying to popularize charity for sick and poor and just keep status quo as is..” . But that would be a very BAD advice. In reality, Deng succeeded in his reform, and as result China become economic powerhouse we know today, which permanently lifted 100s of millions of people out of poverty, and is actually helping Africa escape poverty with massive business investment.

    -Eastern Europe in 1989 – similar example, bringing down communism as hard as it was, created massive economic gains, lifted people out of poverty, and created more opportunity for charity (like richer Eastern Europeans being able to participate more in charitable giving)

    And to use one example where things went wrong:

    -United States in 2003 – There were many political movements trying to stop US in going to the war in Iraq. They were too weak, political climate was too war-happy and as result we got the war and all the bad consequences. But let’s imagine if people could build a better anti-war coalition and actually prevent going to war. Benefits: 1 Trillion! dollars saved and available for use in charity, science or else, 100 of thousand’s Iraqis are alive, 5000 American soldiers are alive and 10 of thousand’s are not handicapped or suffering from PTSP…and that’s just the start .

    I could name dozens of historical examples where politics was instrumental in creating better world, but you can just read books like “Why nations fail” (where Aclemoglu has shown that political activism and strong institutions were essential in building successful western societies ) or “Beter Angels of our nature” (Right’s movement, political activism dramatically reduced violence in several crucial periods of our history).

    I absolutely agree that charity, and especially the EA type charity is tremendously important, but it is only one part the game and we should still have a room to participate in intelligent, important and consequential political action.

    We heave to ask ourselves what is the long game? So you help poor kid get food and malaria nets. Great! But what next? What about his job, his education? His right to rule of law and free enterprise? We know how societies become rich from our history, and that is building the right institutions, the corrupt-free government, good schools and economic reforms. All of that require not just giving money but actually getting into a political fight and ultimately winning it.

    We need a diverse kit of tools in fighting the Moloch, and I wouldn’t eliminate politics just yet.

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    • MicaiahC says:

      I really like this post. Earlier while browsing the comment thread, I got very frustrated by other posts advocating the “Government > Charity” view and this post put into perspective why.

      It has a lot of object level examples, a ‘call to action’ in the form of book recommendations and acknowledges that the main post has a point.

      One thing I would like for you to expand upon though, is what, practically speaking can a upper-middle class American do politically that would be high impact. Naively speaking, I don’t suppose I could become Deng, and even if I do support an existent political movement, I cannot think of any exceptional way of influencing proceedings (Presidential election voting is very bad on the margin unless you’re in a swing state, many other policy proposals require careful study to satisfy egghead types like myself).

      I’ve heard that taking an interest in city hall meetings is a good first step that you can see and be proud of. And my limited view of politics is that things such as anti PIPA/SOPA stuff also seemed to be effective. Do you have any suggestions?

      Incidentally, not specific to your post, but I can’t help but feel as if most political “gains” or “losses” might be just random and a result of hindsight bias, but of course, that’s exactly what a person incompetent at politics would see it as! I would love to see more examples of grassroots movements of 1-2k odd people acting in some sanity checked way and pushing significant reform through, because as a dopey-hard-science type, that’s the only thing I’d do politically speaking.

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  64. John Beshir says:

    Okay, call to action accepted.

    This post convinced me to adopt the proposed 10% standard, up my automated monthly donations to SCI from 5% to 10%, and join Giving What We Can.

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  65. Markus Ramikin says:

    > I also benefit from the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, in that I live on land that was formerly dinosaur-occupied. I don’t feel like I’m complicit in the asteroid strike

    Whether you feel like it or not, your present life is built on their corpses; it is immortal to forget, and inexcusable to refuse to spread this.

    /abg bar uhaqerq creprag frevbhf

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  66. Kai Teorn says:

    I don’t think charity and protests are all that commensurable. They work in different ways towards different goals. Charity works quietly to save lives; protests change the perceptions of what kind of world we live in and what people around us care about. Protests form a global agenda, and it can be argued that their effect on the sum total of world happiness, even though indirect and long-term, is bigger than anything charity can do. Without protests, we probably wouldn’t have much of the civil rights we enjoy now.

    Another point: the 10% threshold is nice and simple, but isn’t it a little _too_ simple? It’s basically a flat tax. For lower middle class people, even if it’s tax-deductible, sending 10% to charity is a much more serious burden than for someone rich.

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  67. Tom Scharf says:

    My favorite charity is the US Treasury. It builds roads, feeds the starving, houses the homeless, provides health insurance, free schooling, foreign assistance, and many, many other good things.

    And I give more than 10% to this charity. In fact the harder I work and the more effective I am at my job, the larger percentage I give to my favorite charity. I guess that makes me a pretty good person.

    Strange that so many refuse to even contemplate this reality. It doesn’t count. One is divinely inspired by working at a soup kitchen for 4 hours but a tool of the evil corporate oppression system if you work 4 hours of overtime that produces enough tax revenue to pay for 16 hours of soup kitchen labor which will be performed by people who are actually better at the job. What is really the better choice?

    Charity certainly has its place, it allows for a more focused use of your revenue to your particular values.

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    • Tom Scharf says:

      And this is why politics is more important than charity, because politics directs the revenue of the world’s largest charity (US treasury).

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      • Susebron says:

        The US Treasury, in general, tends to give to people in the US. It’s not going to perform the most effective interventions. Furthermore, there are already a lot of people and dollars working to affect politics, so the added utility of any given person’s effort and money is unlikely to do much. There’s a reason that GiveWell’s top charities are selected on the grounds of being effective, evidence-backed, and underfunded.

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    • This is not entirely unfair, but the US government is not very effective at reducing global suffering (mostly by not focusing its resources where they are most required, i.e. outside the US) – and Scott proposes something far more effective than volunteering at soup kitchens.

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  68. LTP says:

    Here’s my worry about giving to charities to help people in third-world countries. Yes, you can save a lot of lives by fighting malaria, but in the long run, are you actually preventing positive institutional change. In other words, are you propping up corrupt and ineffective and, in some cases, outright evil institutions in a country by shielding them from the consequences of their incompetence? What if tolerating more death and suffering in the short-run actually promotes the development of functional, organic, and local institutions in these places in the long-run?

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    • Anon says:

      It probably doesn’t. And, remember, you have to be sufficiently confident that this would be the outcome to outright let people die to effect it. I have a hard time believing you could possibly be that confident.

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    • Nita says:

      How exactly would malaria improve institutions? I’m having trouble imagining the mechanism here. As far as I know, disease, hunger and war tend to render societies weaker, not stronger.

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      • LTP says:

        HiYou’re enabling corruption and incompetence from local authorities by dealing with their problems for them. Presumably there’s less public pressure for them you do better because the situation is supposedly being handled by outsiders. It creates dependency and allows local authorities to not take responsibilty for their failures. It targets the symptoms not the problem. Now, I’m no expert, so I’m open to changing my mind.

        None of the rich, healthy western countries had outsiders solving their problems for them, no?

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        • Nita says:

          So, the alternative scenario is:

          1. Lots of people get sick, some die, others suffer brain damage.
          2. Everyone blames the local authorities.
          3. ???
          4. Better institutions.

          What exactly is step 3? Wide-spread healthcare reform initiated and sustained by the grieving, sickly, cognitively impaired survivors?

          As for Western countries, do we have any evidence of rapid development following epidemics (as opposed to, say, periods of health and prosperity)?

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          • LTP says:

            So, as I said, this is merely a worry of mine, not a strongly held conviction. Just keep in mind I’m not super committed to this view.

            You make a good point about suffering people not being in a good position to improve their countries’ situations (though, I wonder, how did Europe get to where it is today from, say, where it was after the black plague).

            I’m actually very tentative about this, and I don’t even think I believe it right now, but I’ll lay out my thought process.

            I’m thinking in much longer time scales than perhaps you are. Generations, not years. Yes, in the short term people will be hurt and killed, but perhaps the next generation, or the generation after that, will see the suffering of their parents and be motivated to do something about it, instead of coasting along and letting the west do it (suboptimally, because they’re outsiders) for them. Perhaps it’s a bad analogy, but I’m thinking of what people say about addicts having to hit rock bottom before reforming themselves.

            Westerners running these countries destroyed their institutions and customs, and left them dependent on help. Now, the solution that problem is to… send more westerners in to help them run their countries? Maybe the new westerners are more benevolent, but new, organic, and optimal institutions aren’t going to develop if westerners keep interfering. Maybe this latter aspect doesn’t apply so much to malaria as it does other forms of charity and aid, though

            But, again, I’m not making my decisions about whether, where, and how much to donate based on this worry. It’s just a very very tentative worry that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.

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          • LTP says:

            Actually, on further reflection, I don’t think I believe it at all. I think dependency is a real worry, but it doesn’t outweigh other concerns.

            Heh, probably one of those things that sound great in your head, but when written out seem less plausible over time.

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          • Nita says:

            Thanks for the discussion! Too bad I didn’t get to shame you for comparing malaria to heroin 🙂

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    • Jeff Kaufman says:

      Some of GiveWell’s recommended charities help governmental institutions in third world countries do their job better. For example, Deworm the World convinces governments to run deworming programs and advises them on how to do them better. GAIN and ICCIDD are doing something simlar for salt iodization.

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  69. cheeseandbeans says:

    I’m surprised nobody has brought up that charity is seen as a bad thing by leftists. The argument goes: the rich have more money/resources through arbitrary, unfair, or oppressive systems, charity allows them to give money to seem virtuous while not actually addressing power structures, thus perpetuating existing power structures.

    For example, Bill Gates is now seen as a great philanthropist, but leftists would see his wealth as illegitimate, so him sharing his resources in the way he wants is tyrannical. How resources are given out should be decided democratically and in a way that removes power structures and oppression. By taking much more resources than he needs and then giving a portion back, Bill Gates is reifying himself and the rest of the ruling class as legitimate.

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    • Anon says:

      You, as an individual, do not have “take everyone else’s money and distribute it optimally” as an option on the table. You maybe have the option of trying to convince everyone to agree to do that for you, but I wouldn’t give that project good odds. As such, your remaining options are:

      1. complain about rich people giving away their money (???)
      2. engage in activist politics
      3. donate to effective charities

      Option 3 is the one which is going to save the most lives. I don’t think that concern about the rich reifying themselves as legitimate, as you say, should stop you from going with option 3 regardless.

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    • Eldritch says:

      I don’t think that I’ve ever heard that argument from any leftists, or even seen it implied.

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      • Hainish says:

        I’ve seen a softer version of the argument that focused on the failure of charity to address underlying structural problems, but did not imply that wealth was necessarily illegitimate.

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      • Jeff Kaufman says:

        One example is Zizek arguing that the worst slaveholders were those who were kind to their slaves, because this delayed the end of slavery.

        (Of course I disagree.)

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        • Artemium says:

          He seems to be arguing for Accelerationism. Basically the way how you bring down a bad system (capitalism or slavery) is not by amending it but by increasing its worst aspects. There is a fun post about that on Charlie Stross blog. He basically says that the ideological clash of the future will be between Accelerationists and Neoreactionaries.

          But as general rule every time someone brings up Zizek I feel obligated to mention how he is a horrible fraud and plagarist. Consider it as form of intellectual hygiene.

          I always feel sorry for Konvistador when I hear about Zizek.

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  70. drs says:

    @onyomi:
    “presumably you don’t favor world government, correct?”

    Why would you presume that? World government makes sense in lots of ways. Regulation of the environment, regulation of the financial system, having global taxes and welfare underlying a global freedom to migrate.

    “Oh, the rejection of the model cities projects makes me so, so angry. The local governments obviously know the prosperity achieved there is going to make them look bad”

    Or they think the model cities will achieve prosperity only for a foreign elite, or by attracting local elites with low taxes in a parasitic fashion, rather than creating prosperity.

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  71. Jiro says:

    I am extremely skeptical of the 10% idea.

    Yes, it’s a Schelling point. But it’s not as if a group of people randomly got together and decided on 10%. The 10% figure was promulgated for a *reason*. Now, it’s tricky to speak of the reasons for memes when the meme might not have been written with the conscious intent of any human being, but it’s a lot easier to phrase things that way. The 10% was most likely chosen (by the process, if not necessarily by actual people) because 10% is high enough that most people wouldn’t be able to meet it. A figure that people could realistically meet would not have been as effective in spreading guilt, in letting religious leaders lecture about how everyone needs to do their X percent, or in letting the occasional person who does meet it go on being holier than thou.

    In other words, the very factor which makes 10% useful as a Schelling point–the fact that that number has won the memetic contest–is inherently associated with the number being unrealistically high. So no, you should not give 10%; you should give a much lower number.

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    • jsalvatier says:

      That is a very interesting point.

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    • MicaiahC says:

      That’s an interesting point I hadn’t thought about.

      Were there historical records showing that the tithe was typically not met and that priests frequently used that fact to leverage more political influence out of others? This seems like something that would be decently well known.

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      • Jiro says:

        It need not be true that the tithe was not typically met, just that it was not typically met without pressure and threats. People already pay taxes of more than 10%, after all.

        Something I hadn’t heard of before: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tithe_War

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        • MicaiahC says:

          Wouldn’t that imply that there’s less to worry about wrt to the current recommendation, since the old meme required pressure and threats, and this is a much milder push?

          Also, wouldn’t countervailing forces, such as the higher average prosperity of an SSC reader compared to middle age peasants also counteract it? Perhaps the meme set at 10% was a substantial cost back then, but is closer to 15, 20% now?

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          • Jiro says:

            “Wouldn’t that imply that there’s less to worry about wrt to the current recommendation”

            That is damning with faint praise. Less bad than something bad is not good.

            “wouldn’t countervailing forces, such as the higher average prosperity of an SSC reader compared to middle age peasants also counteract it?”

            Yes, but on the other hand, medieval tax rates were shockingly low by today’s standards. I can’t easily find out from a Google search if tithes were paid on top of taxes or as taxes, but even if they were on top of taxes, 10% taxes + 10% tithe is still less than you probably pay in taxes alone today. If you pay 30% in taxes and a third of that actually goes to help other people, you’re already paying 10% to charity.

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  72. Anonymous Cowherd says:

    One option is to deny the obligation. I am super sympathetic to this one. […]

    I have no objection to people who say this. The problem with it isn’t philosophical, it’s emotional. For most people it won’t be enough. The old saying goes “you can’t reason yourself out of something you didn’t reason yourself into to begin with”, and the idea that secure and prosperous people need to “give something back” is a lot older than accusations of “being complicit in structures of oppression”. It’s probably older than the Bible. People feel a deep-seated need to show that they understand how lucky they are and help those less fortunate than themselves.

    It’s not as hard as you might think, and it’s not necessarily hard for everyone. There is a community of people who categorically deny the obligation, some of whom were undoubtedly predisposed to hold that position (as I think I probably was), but some of whom explicitly reasoned themselves into it. They’re called Objectivists.

    In all seriousness, if you want to consider seriously the position that you do not owe the world for existence, try reading some Rand.

    There’s also another (if much smaller) community that explicitly embraces passivism: they’re (the Moldbuggian wing of) the neorectionaries. If you want to consider the position that your activism is doomed to make the world a worse place, try reading some (more) Mencius.

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  73. drs says:

    @blacktrance

    “Whatever your answer, this is at most an argument for excluding immigrants from the welfare state, which doesn’t necessarily require keeping them out of the country. For example, you could have open borders and a citizens-only welfare state.”

    That brings you into the realm of second class ‘citizens’, or metics, a la classical Athens. It’s not necessarily a good model to follow. While guest workers might be better off immediately as individuals, the long term situation needn’t be good for them (and children) or their host society.

    There’s inequality risks from having a working class that can’t vote for worker protections and such. There’s also a potential environmental argument for “we don’t want any more people, period.”

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    • Multiheaded says:

      On that note… I cannot pretend that I am not experiencing serious amounts of schadenfreude over Singapore’s looming migrant workforce crisis. I think they’ve built themselves a very blatant ticking time bomb in the rush to maximize the rate of exploitation for natives and migrants both.

      At least the other East Asian autoritarian capitalist regimes that have destroyed their ability to reproduce their own labor power haven’t also seized upon the brilliant idea to bring in a disporportionately huge serf underclass!

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    • blacktrance says:

      The children of guest workers would have the benefits of being born in a wealthier country, and where their parents make more money. Meanwhile, the host country benefits from immigrant labor while not having to expand the welfare state. This seems mutually beneficial. As for them not being able to vote, that’s not making them any worse off than they already are – they’re stuck in their current countries and not able to vote for worker protections in the US anyway. It’s similar to the PETA case.

      As for the environmental argument, that’s an argument for birth restrictions as well. Do you favor them?

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  74. moridinamael says:

    Well, great. Now I’m seriously considering donating 10% to charity, entirely due to this post. (This makes me wonder why I’ve had an ick reaction to all other effective altruism material, but somehow this post bypassed my ugh field.)

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  75. Anonymous says:

    “You boast of spending a tenth part of your income in charity; may be you should spend the nine tenths so, and done with it.” -Henry David Thoreau

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  76. Anonymous says:

    ” I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind. I do not value chiefly a man’s uprightness and benevolence, which are, as it were, his stem and leaves. Those plants of whose greenness withered we make herb tea for the sick serve but a humble use, and are most employed by quacks. I want the flower and fruit of a man; that some fragrance be wafted over from him to me, and some ripeness flavor our intercourse. His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious. This is a charity that hides a multitude of sins. The philanthropist too often surrounds mankind with the remembrance of his own castoff griefs as an atmosphere, and calls it sympathy. We should impart our courage, and not our despair, our health and ease, and not our disease, and take care that this does not spread by contagion. From what southern plains comes up the voice of wailing? Under what latitudes reside the heathen to whom we would send light? Who is that intemperate and brutal man whom we would redeem? If anything ail a man, so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even — for that is the seat of sympathy — he forthwith sets about reforming — the world. Being a microcosm himself, he discovers — and it is a true discovery, and he is the man to make it — that the world has been eating green apples; to his eyes, in fact, the globe itself is a great green apple, which there is danger awful to think of that the children of men will nibble before it is ripe; and straightway his drastic philanthropy seeks out the Esquimaux (16) and the Patagonian,(17) and embraces the populous Indian and Chinese villages; and thus, by a few years of philanthropic activity, the powers in the meanwhile using him for their own ends, no doubt, he cures himself of his dyspepsia, the globe acquires a faint blush on one or both of its cheeks, as if it were beginning to be ripe, and life loses its crudity and is once more sweet and wholesome to live. I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself.” – Henry David Thoreau

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  79. John says:

    Hi Scott. I’d just like you to know that I discovered your blog only a few days ago (through Bryan Caplan’s warm praise over at Econlog). I joined Giving What We Can today, in large part because of this post. So thank you.

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  80. Cranky Old Man says:

    Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign. Suppose that solely as a result of this campaign, no currently-serving police officer ever harms an unarmed black person ever again. That’s 100 lives saved per year times let’s say twenty years left in the average officer’s career, for a total of 2000 lives saved, or 1/2500th of a life saved per campaign participant. By coincidence, 1/2500th of a life saved happens to be what you get when you donate $1 to the Against Malaria Foundation. The round-trip bus fare people used to make it to their #BlackLivesMatter protests could have saved ten times as many black lives as the protests themselves, even given completely ridiculous overestimates of the protests’ efficacy.

    Speaking as an effective altruist who earns to give, I think well-targeted activism is plausibly a top way to improve the world, and this post did little to convince me otherwise. To maintain my cranky persona, I’ll say the above quoted paragraph consigns itself to a special hell for paragraphs that make numerical arguments with made-up numbers generated in two seconds or less in order to make the basis for a long essay’s key argument. You state: “Five million people participated in the #BlackLivesMatter Twitter campaign.” The opportunity cost of retweeting a tweet on Twitter is way under $10. Let’s say the average person’s time is worth $20 an hour. Then if all five million people spent a full half hour on Twitter finding the very best #BlackLivesMatter tweet and tweeting it, looks to me as though we’d be saving lives at an efficiency comparable to AMF (in your admittedly toy model).

    Yes there are some people who took buses to and from protests… but protesting in the street arguably has higher impact than protesting on Twitter. Also, were there five million street protestors? Seems a little unlikely.

    More generally, you are making a very hasty generalization. You run the numbers for a single activist cause and quickly decide based on that that all activist causes compare unfavorably to donating. That’s like saying “I examined one developing-world charity and it was poorly run… think I’ll stick to donating to local charities since they don’t seem to have that problem”.

    Here are some links that make me think activism is potentially high-impact:

    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/05/policy_tugowar.html

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/fao/voting_is_like_donating_thousands_of_dollars_to/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/04/crazy_equilibri.html

    http://foundational-research.org/publications/differential-intellectual-progress-as-a-positive-sum-project/

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  83. heyo says:

    Are there links to discussion of the classic utilitarian problem (if we’re trying to maximize total, not average, happiness, we should just have a trillion of really unhappy people)? If not, what are the reasons to save so many people in developing countries if we can’t provide for a “decent” living, as opposed to spending the money on breakthrough biotech/farming/etc. technologies?

    In similar vein, where do the “utilitarian values” come from? That’s the biggest criticism I’ve heard from my “justice-oriented” friend.

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    • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

      >(if we’re trying to maximize total, not average, happiness, we should just have a trillion of really unhappy people)

      Not sure if trolling…

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      • heyo says:

        No sorry, I’m totally serious. Isn’t that the difference between the average and total utilitarianism? Actually very curious and quite possibly clueless, I probably haven’t read every single LW thread on this topic. Please direct me in the right direction. 🙂

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        • Nikias The Random Blog Commenter says:

          Perhaps utilitarian-essays.com ?

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        • Anonymous says:

          Yes, that is the difference between average and total utilitarianism. Whether having lots of unhappy people is actually good for total utilitarianism depends on lots of details, both factual, and also moral, like what kind of life is equivalent to no life according to your utility function. Derek Parfit call this problem the “Repugnant Conclusion.”

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  84. Anonymous says:

    My income this year was $18k. I’m considering donating $1.8k because of this post, and because I can afford it. Being an Internet nerd, though, I’m going to have to ponder the most effective way to make that money build a better world.

    For people looking for the opposite of Kiva, this may be a good start: http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/

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  86. Anonymous says:

    ” Exactly what am I supposed to be apologizing for here? I may benefit from the genocide of the Indians in that I live on land that was formerly Indian-occupied.”
    I really don’t like how this statement assumes that groups have some right to land that their ancestors occupied. It might have been wrong to those now dead, but it not a wrong to those now alive, especially if they participated in a society that didn’t convey property rights through inheritance. However, it is even more wrong to assume that such a group exists in a meaningful sense in the context of today, any more that assigning rights to England or France does, or the rights of tribes that predated the tribes known at colonial times. This is buying into a worldview that wants to divide us by groups in order to make unjust claims of power in the (false) name of justice.

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  87. Naveen says:

    Big fan of your writing Scott, and this article in particular. You seem as good a person to ask this (possibly silly) question as any.

    It seems like the effective altruism community is pretty heavily comprised of people in tech, science, and math. Do you have any sense of whether there is much representation from the hedge fund/ finance crowd? As a member of the latter I think a lot of people in my industry would be very receptive to the ideas of EA. If there isn’t a lot of overlap between the communities already I can’t help but think there should be, and am wondering whether I should devote some time trying to do some networking on both sides to help make it happen.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

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  88. Elim says:

    “…and marrying Third World refugees who need visas rather than your one true love.”

    I read this, and, well, it seems obvious. Is there a place where I can find refugees who desperately need visas? Is there any reason that I shouldn’t marry one (and perhaps successively divorce, and marry another, in whatever time-frame is required by the law)?

    Where can I get more information?

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  89. dlr says:

    How about people who would like to contribute to bio-medical research? Is there any organization that suggests the best place to funnel those dollars to?

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  90. zz says:

    I just checked your “top posts” link and noticed that this post isn’t there. This, Scott, is the single best post you’ve ever written. It belongs in “top posts”. Maybe not on top (goodness knows, it requires having read a bunch of your earlier stuff to have its full impact), but this is the absolute best thing you’ve ever written. Posts tagged ‘charity’ may not be popular, but you do charity no favor by not putting your best post ever, with its ‘charity’ tag, in your list of top posts.

    And, in case you missed it, this is the best post on this blog.

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