"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Beware Systemic Change

[Epistemic status/edit: After reading comments, no longer sure I agree with Part I. Part II still seems right but possibly a cost that can be outweighed by other factors. I continued to be worried about this without necessarily thinking it is a knock-down argument. I’m still not sure how to balance my support for some systemic change causes against my concern about others. Buck’s comment on morality seems important.]

I.

One of the most common critiques of effective altruism is that it focuses too much on specific monetary interventions rather than fighting for “systemic change”, usually billed as fighting inequitable laws or capitalism in general. For example, Amia Srinivasan, in her review of Doing Good Better,

What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary? To answer that you’d need to put a value and probability measure on achieving an unrecognisably different world – even, perhaps, on our becoming unrecognisably different sorts of people. It’s hard enough to quantify the value of a philanthropic intervention: how would we go about quantifying the consequences of radically reorganising society? […]

Effective altruism, so far at least, has been a conservative movement, calling us back to where we already are: the world as it is, our institutions as they are. MacAskill does not address the deep sources of global misery – international trade and finance, debt, nationalism, imperialism, racial and gender-based subordination, war, environmental degradation, corruption, exploitation of labour – or the forces that ensure its reproduction. Effective altruism doesn’t try to understand how power works, except to better align itself with it. In this sense it leaves everything just as it is.

This same point has been made again and again and again. In response, many effective altruist leaders have gone on to say that they love systemic change and that the movement is entirely in favor of it.

I am not affiliated with the organized effective altruist movement and my opinion has no relation to theirs. They have spent a lot of work trying to convince everyone that they are entirely in favor of pursuing systemic change, I believe them, and nothing I say here reflects on that.

But I, personally, worry a lot about pursuing systemic change.

“Worry about” is not the same as “totally oppose”. This post’s Hansonian title is “Beware Systemic Change” rather than “Against Systemic Change.” But I’m pretty serious about bewaring of it.

First, what do I mean by “systemic change”? Traditional charity, like healing the sick, is almost universally viewed as good or at least neutral. Everyone agrees the sick should be healed; if there are unhealed sick people, it’s because we don’t have the resources to pursue our universally held goal. The same is true of feeding hungry children. It’s true of weird causes like AI risk – some people think it’s silly, but they’re happy to let other people work on them if those people want. It’s even true of things like cutting carbon emissions, sort of. When the Koch brothers say they oppose cutting carbon emissions, they mean they oppose laws mandating such cuts, or budgets that spend communal resources to enforce them. If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.

Some political issues are kind of like this. People from all over the political spectrum agree that corporate welfare is a bad idea; if we still have corporate welfare, it’s because there’s not enough attention and organization to force politicians to abandon it. In other cases, we all agree something is good but disagree on whether it is an optimal use of resources: for example, most people agree that aid agencies like UNICEF that help children abroad are doing good work, but not everyone agrees with funding them from the federal budget.

Other political issues are not like this. Some people believe that increasing the minimum wage is a laudable goal; other people believe it will hurt the economy or that it violates important moral rights. The reason we don’t have a higher minimum wage isn’t because passing laws costs a lot of money that no one has raised yet, or because no one is paying attention to the issue. It’s because a lot of people oppose it and so far those people are winning, or at least holding their own.

In terms of Freshman English Plot Devices, traditional charity like healing the sick is “man versus nature.” Political issues like the minimum wage are “man versus man”.

When I think of systemic change, I think of man versus man. Even if effective altruists helped governments increase their foreign aid budget, I don’t think Amia Srinivasan and Jacobin Magazine and the rest would think we were participating in “systemic change”. I think at the very least they’d want altruists out in the street demonstrating for higher minimum wages, and at most trying to eliminate global capitalism.

Which is a problem, because a lot of people like global capitalism. A dialogue:

Bob: Man vs. man conflicts raise some thorny issues which man vs. nature conflicts manage to avoid. I think we should be very wary about opening the door to political discussions.

Alice: What? Come on, Bob, you talk about politics all the time!

Bob: I watch porn all the time too; that doesn’t mean I’m proud of it, or think it’s the most good I could do with my resources. Suppose effective altruists get involved in the 2016 US presidential election – which isn’t prima facie a bad idea; think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had. Lots of people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Democrats. Lots of other people work very hard and raise $10 million for the Republicans. Now the Democrats and Republicans are at exactly the same position vis-a-vis each other as they were before the effective altruists got involved, but we have wasted $20 million that could have gone to healing the sick or feeding the hungry. And I’m using money to make things obvious, but the same goes for donating time or advocacy or other resources. If this sort of thing started happening, we would want to promote a general cultural norm of “never spend resources on man vs. man conflicts”. If both sides were equally likely to follow the norm, then the conflicts would remain unaffected but everyone would have more resources to spend on the sick and hungry.

Alice: But effective altruists are very unlikely to donate to both sides of a political issues equally and cancel out. Political views are heavily shaped by demographics, and EAs are likely to skew left just like most other highly-educated groups. Even aside from this, their similar moral assumptions and thinking styles will lead them to converge onto the same side of an issue. Half of Americans are creationist, and almost as many oppose gay marriage, but I would expect fewer than 5% of EAs to hold either position. The idea of donations cancelling out is totally unrealistic. Instead, we should predict that on most issues, most EA donations will go to the same side. We end up not with a wasteful neutrality, but with a large sum of money going to one side, detracted from only slightly by a much smaller sum going to the other. If the cause is important enough, it might still be the most good we could do – the net benefit of (good from giving large amount of money to one side) minus (harm from giving small amount of money to the other side) would still be higher than the benefit of giving all the money to a traditional charity.

Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.

Alice: That’s a ridiculous way of looking at it. We don’t just flip a coin to determine which side to back. We exhaustively study the argument for both sides, the evidence base, et cetera. Then we focus only on those issues where we can be most certain we’re in the right. The odds there are a heck of a lot better than fifty percent!

Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

Alice: What you’re saying makes a certain kind of sense in Weird Platonic Spherical Cow Perfect Rationality Outside View World. But think about this from the Inside View perspective. Once again, half the country is creationist. Almost half oppose gay marriage. It’s like a stock market where half of the investors are throwing everything they have into the perpetual motion industry. Surely you can admit that even a little bit of intelligence, education, and rationality can actually take you a long way in politics?

Bob: Half the country is creationist, but there’s almost no easy gains from fighting them; any curriculum that federal politics can conceivably affect is evolutionary by this point, and it’s unclear we get any real benefits by going after the last few Alabama middle school students. As for opposing gay marriage, I think you’re going beyond your supposed reliance on evidence here. The strongest conservative case against gay marriage is that it reinforces a centuries-long redefinition of marriage from a strategic partnership focused on child-rearing to a ceremonial acknowledgment of romantic infatuation, potentially leading to a deep shift in the way people think about issues like who to marry, when to have kids, when to get divorced, and how to treat their family. That argument hasn’t been rigorously evaluated by statisticians and found wanting. It’s been found annoying and left untouched. Your differences are foundational assumptions and methodological disagreements about what sorts of issues to focus on, not simple “he made an arithmetic error when calculating the effects” style obvious superiority.

Alice: Really, Bob? You really want to go there?

Bob: Yes. In fact, I worry that this plays into exactly the potential flaws of the effective altruist movement. I can count up all the harms of banning gay marriage: exactly 1.13 million gay people regret not being able to marry, they rate their distress at 3.2/5 on the Likert Scale, that comes out to X QALYs lost per annum, but you have no way of easily quantifying the potential harms of gay marriage, therefore your argument is invalid. A lot of these issues involve trading off easily quantifiable harms on one side versus less quantifiable harms on the other: social trust, cultural cohesion, moral credibility, “freedom” broadly defined, ability to innovate. Highly educated people used to studying science might just be more likely to fall for the streetlight effect and go with the side that promises more quantifiability, rather than the side more likely to be right.

Alice: I…think you’re being deliberately annoying? It seems like exactly the same kind of sophisticated devil’s-advocate style argument we could use for anything. Sure, nothing is real and everything is permissible, now stop playing the Steel Man Philosophy Game and tell me what you really think! It really should be beyond debate that some policies – and some voters- are just stupid. Global warming denialism? Mass incarceration? Banning GMOs? Opposing nuclear power? Not everything is a hard problem!

Bob: I really do sympathize with you here, of course. It’s hard not to. But I also look back at history and am deeply troubled by what I see. In the 1920s, nearly all the educated, intelligent, evidence-based, pro-science, future-oriented people agreed: the USSR was amazing. Shaw, Wells, Webb. They all thought Stalin was great and we needed a global communist revolution so we could be more like him. If you and I had been alive back then, we’d be having this same conversation, but it would end with both of us agreeing to donate everything we had to the Bolsheviks.

Alice: Okay, so the smart people were wrong once. That doesn’t mean…

Bob: And eugenics.

Alice: Actually…

Bob: ಠ_ಠ

Alice: Fine then. For the sake of argument, the smart people were wrong twice. That still doesn’t…

Bob: It does! A quick run through the history books shows that smart people trying to effect systemic change have an imperfect track record. I won’t say that they’re unusually bad compared to other demographics, but certainly nothing as stellar as the “let’s just not be morons” theory might lead one to expect. You like quantifiable things and specific examples, so let me give you one. I’ve sometimes thought that Friedrich Engels can be considered one of the fathers of effective altruism – at least of the earning-to-give variety. Wikipedia says:

Once Engels made it to Britain, he decided to re-enter the Manchester company in which his father held shares, in order to be able to support Marx financially, so that Marx could work on his masterpiece Das Kapital. Engels didn’t like the work but did it for the good of the cause.

And in one sense, Engels-as-altruist was utterly brilliant. He effectively zeroed in on the most influential thinker of his era, funded an otherwise-impossible level of output from him, and his work directly led to revolutions in a dozen countries with radical change in the lives of billions of people. But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative. That should make us really concerned. Not “nod sagely and promise to think about it” level of concern, but more “run away screaming” level of concern. That’s why I’m so reluctant to accept your otherwise-reasonable points about the seemingly obvious issues.

Alice: On an emotional level, I get your point. But on a rational level, wouldn’t it be astounding if smart people trying to figure out the safest ways to do the most good consistently made things worse?

Bob: There are many more ways to break systems than to improve them. One Engels more than erases all of the good karma created by hundreds of people modestly plodding along and making incremental improvements to things. Given an awareness of long-tail risks and the difficulty of navigating these waters, I’m not sure our expected value for systemic change activism should even be positive, let alone the most good we can do.

Alice: So don’t go poking around super-complex systems with lots of variables as complicated as “capitalism” versus “communism”. Stick to well-understood things with fairly predictable effects. If we have a little bit more humility than Engels, maybe we won’t fall into the same trap he did.

Bob: All nice and well, except that I do not see even the tiniest sign of supra-Engels levels of humility in the effective altruist movement as it exists today. Recently I have had to deal with lots of our Facebook friends joining and sharing images from a group called “Muh Borders!” which exists to post memes making fun of anyone who opposes Open Borders as a stupid bigot who is not worth talking to:

In terms of “political causes that we can be totally sure won’t backfire and devastate entire countries for generations”, I would place open borders…well, let’s say somewhere in the bottom quartile. A thorough analysis by one of its strongest and most intelligent advocates concludes with “doubt that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders” but has been mostly ignored in favor of constantly retreading the same old streetlight-illuminated ground of whether immigrants do or don’t affect native wages. And this is the community that is supposed to have solved the hard problem of getting mind-killed by politics, and can now be sure it’s genuinely pursuing the side of Good rather than the side that looks like Good but actually kills tens of millions of people?

Alice: That’s not fair. Yes, there are some people who reflect poorly on the open borders movement, but they’re not all effective altruists, and even humble people who try their best to think about things rationally are allowed to let off steam on Facebook once in a while. The open borders movement has also done a lot of really impressive analysis, and even though there are risks, given the potential benefits it really can be thought of as a no-brainer.

Bob: I am a coward and will stick to buying bed nets, thank you.

II.

There’s another problem with man vs. man: the people we want to recruit are men, and the people we want to make our movement out of are men.

(That came out sounding more sexist than I intended. You know what I mean.)

Several people have recently argued that the effective altruist movement should distance itself from AI risk and other far-future causes lest it make them seem weird and turn off potential recruits. Even proponents of AI risk charities like myself agree that we should be kind of quiet about it in public-facing spaces.

As someone whose own views on open borders are mixed (I should probably write a post), I am really turned off by memes like the one above. And since only seven percent of Americans fully support open borders, that’s a lot of potentially turned-off people. They’re going to go on effective altruist sites, see that a big part of the movement is arguing for a policy that they abhor, and notice their potential colleagues talking about how people like them who oppose that policy are stupid and parochial and hate foreigners. “We think you’re wrong and stupid, come join our movement” makes a really crappy recruiting pitch. But it is the pitch we are sending to anyone who isn’t a Silicon Valley libertarian, George Mason University economics professor, or Vox.com journalist – the only three groups from which I have seen a level of open borders support much beyond the lizardman level.

If effective altruists are split on an issue, then they’re working at cross-purposes, like the people above who donated $20 million to both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. But if effective altruists are not split on an issue, then they’re projecting a unified Effective Altruist Consensus on it which is going to look pretty intimidating to anybody who disagrees. And if there are enough of these issues, then a randomly selected person is almost certain to disagree with at least one of them. The more different from the EA stereotypical demographic they are, the more likely such a disagreement will be. Politics is the mind-killer and quickly takes over from everything else; I do not think political disagreements can stay quiet and harmless for long. If two people are both committed to healing the sick and feeding the hungry but one believes in open borders and the other in a more Bernie Sanders style approach to immigration – not even conservative, just a Bernie Sanders style approach! – they can peacefully coexist in an effective altruist movement focusing on traditional charity, but one focusing on systemic change is likely to get pretty heated.

If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the most recent EA Summit, which advertised fully vegetarian meals but added non-vegetarian options at the last second. This became a big enough scandal that I, who was two thousand miles away from the conference, got inundated with arguments about it on Facebook, Tumblr, and this blog. Several people threatened to quit effective altruism entirely, though I don’t know if any of them followed through.

This is a community that can literally almost tear itself apart over the question of what to have for lunch. I think there might be too much dynamite around to risk shooting off sparks.

And I also think effective altruism has an important moral message. I think that moral message cuts through a lot of issues with signaling and tribal affiliation, that all of these human foibles rise up and ask “But can’t I just spend my money on – ” and effective altruism shouts “NO! BED NETS!” and thus a lot of terrible failure modes get avoided. I think this moral lesson is really important – if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance. If everyone became very interested in systemic change, we would probably have a civil war. Systemic change is sexy and risks taking over effective altruism, but this would eliminate a unique and precious movement, in favor of doing the same thing as everybody else.

If effective altruism became more political, it would likely fade seamlessly into something like the Brookings Institution (a top-tier think tank whose $100 million yearly budget is by my calculations well above what the entire world combined spends on deworming) or the Cato Institute (another top think tank whose $30 million budget is likely more than all AI risk charities and all effective animal rights charities combined). Probably the staff of the Brookings Institution go into work each day thinking “How can I best improve the world by giving it better policies?”, and I admire that, but they don’t have the same sort of moral mission as effective altruism and it would be disappointing to see the latter collapse into an annex of the former.

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871 Responses to Beware Systemic Change

  1. Sniffnoy says:

    This seems like it could be better summed up as “Beware campaigning for systemic change” rather than “Beware systemic change”; you don’t seem to have much negative to say about systemic change itself.

    Or maybe that’s not quite the right summary either, though it’s closer. Maybe a better summary would be “Not everything needs to be about systemic change.”

    • Noah says:

      My go at a very short summary:

      Systemic change is both incredibly hard to get right and incredibly divisive. If a group wants to make things better, it needs to both be capable of action and capable of choosing the right actions. Attempting to create systemic change is bad for both of those things; it’s difficult to chose the right change and actually make things better, and because of the way the human mind and the effective altruist movement work, the argument over which path is the right one could tear the movement apart and prevent them from acting at all. Furthermore, once a path is picked EA will be spectacularly bad at recruiting anyone who doesn’t agree with those exact ideas.

    • Michael Watts says:

      I read

      And in one sense, Engels-as-altruist was utterly brilliant. He effectively zeroed in on the most influential thinker of his era, funded an otherwise-impossible level of output from him, and his work directly led to revolutions in a dozen countries with radical change in the lives of billions of people. But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative.

      as a negative comment on systemic change. The problem with Marx wasn’t that rival political campaigns sank all their resources into arguing about him. That happened, but it didn’t matter much. The problem was that in some cases the pro-Marx side won.

      • Corey says:

        Yeah, that’s the “even if you get the change you think you want you can still end up screwing the pooch” leg of the argument.

      • Tom Womack says:

        The net contribution of Marxism throughout history includes government-supplied pensions, and the post-war welfare state consensus: things that would not exist were there not the spectre of Communism standing with drawn sword, and the reality of the Warsaw Pact standing with tank engines running willing to help the proletariat if the proletariat asked, clearly along the path of not providing them.

        Bismarck built a welfare state in pre-WW1 Prussia because he knew the alternative was having Marxians build one on his bones.

        • nil says:

          The harms of Communism are also a lot more controversial than Scott makes them out to be–but arguing about Communism is sort of fruitless endevour. The sources are all hopelessly biased one way or another, growing up and living in a society that defeated Communism at great effort and expense makes it all-but-impossible to calibrate our personal biases, and pro-/anti-Communism obviously involves different first-order moral priorities that aren’t really able to be genuinely debated.

          Personally, I recommend doing what I do: regard SSC as a place with an anti-Communist line and don’t worry about trying to change it. Besides, Scott mostly just uses Communism as a stand-in for “big important things that a lot of smart and well-meaning people were dead wrong about”; even if you managed to talk him into taking Communism off that list, there’d still be quite a list (the list wouldn’t even be any shorter, because if you take “Communism” off you pretty much have to add “Capitalism”)

          • Anonymous says:

            even if you managed to talk him into taking Communism off that list, there’d still be quite a list (the list wouldn’t even be any shorter, because if you take “Communism” off you pretty much have to add “Capitalism”)

            I would disagree. Even though many individuals seem to fall into this mode of thinking, it doesn’t actually follow. I think that a pro-Communism argument goes along the lines of, “There is a very large parameter space of things that are called ‘Communism’. While certain regions in this space failed, I’m advocating for a different region, which I believe will be stable and converge on a high-value point.” There is an obvious analogy to regions of ‘Capitalism’ (and we might have never seen the region that is ‘good’.

            So, if we think there’s anyway to look across the whole parameter space that includes ‘Communism’ and ‘Capitalism’ subsets, it’s possible to have two stable, high-value subsets of each ‘ism’ subset. Arguing for the existence of one doesn’t negate the possibility of the other without doing some extra work. (This assumes, properly I think, that it’s bloody impossible to make any real estimate of the relation between the two possible high-value points.)

          • PGD says:

            I guess I agree with you Nil, but it is frustrating to see Communism used as a synonym for ‘mass murder’ when the truth is so much more complex than that. The century before Mao took over China was marked by catastrophic famine and civil war; population doesn’t appear to have increased at all for over half of that period, and wasn’t growing very fast even under the Kuomintang. Then under the Communists mortality rates drop sharply, life expectancy goes up, and population soars even given the strict population control policy put in. But none of this stuff is supposed to even be mentioned or considered in the face of the Great Leap Forward famine. By contrast, 19th century Britain is totally awesome capitalist development and people hardly even bother to mention the Irish famine. Etc.

          • +1

            Sorry not to be able to add much to the argument, I just happen to agree with it 100%

          • Mary says:

            ” mortality rates drop sharply, life expectancy goes up, and population soars”

            Post hoc, ergo prompter hoc. What you describe is the effect of the 20th century, not Communism, because that happened all over the place.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            “The harms of Communism are also a lot more controversial than Scott makes them out to be”

            Your post pisses me off (nothing further constructive to add).

          • 27chaos says:

            Feel free to link something offering a defense of communism. I would agree that the USSR was a uniquely bad test case for communism, but some aspects in which it failed seem likely to exist in any communist government.

          • PGD says:

            So Mary — anything bad that happens under Communism is because Evil, and anything good that happens is because ’20th century it would have happened anyway’? That’s a good system.

            If you did want to make a reasonable comparison, China appears to have done somewhat better than India since WWII.

          • Mary says:

            ” anything bad that happens under Communism is because Evil, and anything good that happens is because ’20th century it would have happened anyway’? That’s a good system.”

            I notice you don’t cite any examples of the equivalent of Great Leap Forward famines occurring outside Communism.

            Yes, if everything good happens both inside and outside of Communism, and everything bad happens inside Communism but not outside, it’s a really good system, because it’s true.

          • Tatu Ahponen says:

            Well, a classic example of “Great Leap Forward” -scale famines occurring outside of communism, and indeed being made worse by policies of a capitalist country, would be Mike Davis’ “Late Victorian Holocausts” and its discussion of Indian famines during the British Raj. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jan/20/historybooks.famine

          • Alia D. says:

            Regardless of whether Communism itself if good when rightly practiced, the fact that Marx’s ideas lead his followers to believe bloody revelation in their favor was a good idea puts Marx squarely in the negative column. Think about it. If you were really, really angry and decided to devote 2 hours to creating as much property destruction as possible, what is the maximum amount to the property damage you could do compared to what you earn for 2 hours of work? For most people the ratio is probably on the order of 100 times more value destruction than value creation. And that’s for rank armatures at destruction, once you get professional military minds involved it only gets worse. War is waste. Once man vs. man conflict gets to the point of wanting to destroy value that belongs to the other side, the negative utilities mount up very fast, –which is sort of the point of Scott’s post.

          • Mark says:

            “Marx’s ideas lead his followers to believe bloody revelation in their favor was a good idea puts Marx squarely in the negative column”

            Good ideas are bad?

          • PGD says:

            Mary — I did cite such an example in my initial comment, the Irish famine in the mid 19th-century which was devastating. There are other examples as well.

          • Urstoff says:

            How is the Irish Potato Famine, which was caused by a blight, analogous to the famine of the Great Leap Forward, which was a result of government policies that explicitly ignored economic and agricultural facts on the ground?

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Urstoff – “How is the Irish Potato Famine, which was caused by a blight, analogous to the famine of the Great Leap Forward, which was a result of government policies that explicitly ignored economic and agricultural facts on the ground?”

            Because the actual starvation was driven by policy. Potato famines struck all over europe, only the irish starved, and Ireland continued exporting large amounts of food throughout the famine. There’s also several nasty famines in India during the Raj to consider.

            Near as I can tell, though, even when you add up everything bad by every capitalist government over the last 200-300 years, the death toll of Communism is still greater over the six decades before even China and Russia started abandoning its policies. Attempted counterarguments posted here in other threads have argued for dramaticly lower estimates of communist death-tolls, and attributed lowered life expectancy deaths and so forth to capitalism. We actually had a fairly lengthy debate about this a few threads back, where I was attempting to point out that the Left’s tolerant attitude toward communism is really incompatible with the heaps and heaps of corpses.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            27chaos says:I would agree that the USSR was a uniquely bad test case for communism…

            The real problem is that it was not unique at all, it was just the largest and thus the most prominent.

            The problem with a labour-based system of value is that people who do not work, have no value. Putting a gun to their head and making them work is doing them (and society) a service.

          • Alia D. says:

            Mark,
            Feeding 10 hungry people is a good idea but if you have to torture 15 other people to death to accomplish it hen you have created a net negative.

          • Tracy W says:

            PGD:

            The century before Mao took over China was marked by catastrophic famine and civil war; …. but none of this stuff is supposed to even be mentioned or considered in the face of the Great Leap Forward famine

            That’s because no one is advocating civil war + Japanese invasion as a socio-economic policy.

            By contrast, 19th century Britain is totally awesome capitalist development and people hardly even bother to mention the Irish famine.

            Yes, that’s because Britain and Ireland were two separate countries with different economic policies and different landownership rules. The Irish potato famine is a strong argument against colonialism, which, unlike civil war + Japanese invasion, does have occasional defenders. Irish history more generally is also an argument against trying to impose a religion on people, and an argument against giving land away to your political supporters.

          • Moebius Street says:

            @PGD – your history of the PRC is flawed.

            The insane overpopulation was directly caused by Mao. He grew up as a farmer, and in that context having as many hands to do the work is an asset. He encouraged the nation to reproduce as much as possible to attain this. The population controls didn’t happen until later (’76, IIRC) after Mao died. They knew long before that their population bomb was a disaster, but couldn’t take away his face by publicly contradicting his policy when he still lived.

            The famines during Mao’s reign may have some component of natural ebb-and-flow to them, but if so, it was dramatically magnified by Mao. For example (and this is just one example), again, as a farmer, Mao knew that birds come and eat a lot of your crops. So he started a national initiative to kill all the birds, to ensure that the crops weren’t stolen. Well, they were successful. And no birds came to steal the crops. And also, no birds ate the insects, either. So following that, the crops were entirely *destroyed* by insects.

            There’s really absolutely nothing redeeming about Mao’s China. I come at this from a biased perspective, but that bias comes from what I’ve seen of it. My wife grew up during the Cultural Revolution. And I’ve talked to her parents and aunts and uncles. *EVERY* member of her family was imprisoned at one point or another. She was largely raised by her grandmother while her parents were in labor camps. Her uncle was imprisoned for 20 years (and his wife forced to divorce him) due to the anti-rightist movement: he was a Communist believer, but Mao asked for criticism and suggestions. He was a sucker and stood up to show something that Mao could have done better. Then Mao revealed that the whole thing was a ruse to net anyone not willing to kiss his butt.

            There is no gray area here. The PRC under MAO was unalloyed evil.

          • Alexp says:

            My parents grew up during the cultural revolution and I agree with you that there’s nothing good about Mao’s China*.

            Nevertheless I think it’s important to note that China was in really bad shape before Mao took over. Some of that was Mao’s fault but not all of it. Not every bad thing that happened in China between 1946 and 1976 can be blamed on Mao and Communism.

            *my parents actually disagree and believe that China’s intervention in the Korean War helped end the trend of China being an international doormat and punching bag. National pride is very important to some people.

          • “the insane overpopulation” (of the PRC)

            What insane overpopulation? China has a very large population, but it is also a very large country. Its current population density is 142/km^2. That’s much higher than the U.S., but lower than Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the U.K., Japan (336/km^2), Taiwan (647/km^2), … .

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_population_density

          • Hector_St_Clare says:

            I’d consider myself a communist of sorts and an occasional reader of this blog, and I think that’s about right. We can learn a fair amount even from people we disagree with about fundamental moral priorities. And yes, if you do take communism off the list you kind of have to add ‘capitalism’.

        • Cole says:

          Government supplied pensions have existed since Roman times.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerarium_militare

          Governments throughout history have always found it prudent to provide pensions for ex-soldiers, because ex-soldiers are typically more capable and willing to use violence to get what they want.

          The idea of providing for people in old age doesn’t really seem like a uniquely marxist idea. And although early support for the system might have been driven by fears of communism in Prussia, the limiting factor for pension systems prior to the 1900’s was probably bureaucratic and technical rather than ideological. Running a pension system requires an efficient bureaucracy, an income tax to pay for it, and a government that keeps its promises over multiple generations of leadership.

          Also there are different systems for providing for people in old age. Pension systems don’t seem like a clear winner to me. They are essentially publicly run mandatory insurance systems that pay out if you make it to old age. They aren’t insulated from systemic risks like people staying alive longer and bankrupting the system or demographic shifts, and they are often regressive since poor people tend to live shorter lives and collect less of what they paid in than rich people.

          So I wouldn’t give full credit for pensions to marxism, and I don’t think the benefits are so impressive that they outweigh tens of millions of dead bodies.

          • gbdub says:

            Pensions (like employer-provided health insurance) became popular in the US private sector in large part due to WWII wage freezes. They are supported largely by labor unions, which, while drawing some inspiration from Marx, are hardly Marxist.

            You can’t pick and choose a couple of (arguably) decent ideas Marx advocated and attribute that good to Marxism. Pensions / the welfare state hardly require full-blown communism to work (in fact history seems to indicate they work better without it), and assuming it was communism that drove non-communist countries to adopt such policies is questionable at best.

            All this proves Scott’s point. Marx advocated for “systemic change” that turned out to be disastrous. Had he limited his altruism to more modest and less controversial goals, such as advocating for government social safety nets and pension programs, he’d be remembered rather more fondly I think.

        • CJB says:

          “The net contribution of Marxism throughout history includes government-supplied pensions, and the post-war welfare state consensus: things that would not exist were there not the spectre of Communism standing with drawn sword, and the reality of the Warsaw Pact standing with tank engines running willing to help the proletariat if the proletariat asked, clearly along the path of not providing them.”

          But communism was never a NEGOTIATION. The Warsaw Pact didn’t jump out after the creation of the welfare state and go “Hah! Pure Marxist socialism was just a HIGH END PITCH, you fools! Now, lets all live in peace with a moderate and sensible welfare state for everyone!”

          The Communists wanted pure, unadulterated communism. Period. They fought entire wars that can be defined as “people supporting sensible welfare state vs. commies.”

        • PGD says:

          Tracy’s argument is an example of the special pleading that goes on when it comes to assessing deaths that aren’t associated with the ideology you don’t like. Deaths under non-Communist governments are attributable to special circumstance X that has nothing to do with the policies of the government, while deaths under Communist governments are because Communism.

          Third world Communist revolutions such as occurred in China have everything to do with the assertion of nationalism, the drive to impose national unity and resist colonialism. The widespread chaos and victimization at the hands of foreign governments that occurred prior to the Maoist communist takeover certainly had to do with the ineffectiveness of pre-Communist national governments.

          The unification under Mao also permitted widepsread public health interventions that were effective, and probably lessened famine resulting from localized disorder and conflict. At the same time, it allowed terrible decisions made by the national government, such as the Great Leap Forward, to have a greater negative effect. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t just drop the positive side of the equation.

          • I agree both that one shouldn’t drop any positive results of communism (or other systems) and that it’s a little tricky separating the contribution of an ideology from other things going on.

            On the other hand, when Mao died China was much poorer than all (I think) of the similar societies that had been non-communist (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong), which had population densities ranging from several times as high as China to orders of magnitude higher. And after it abandoned a communist approach to the economy it got very rapidly richer.

            Peasants dying because they are undernourished in part because of bad agricultural policy and in part because of a deliberate diversion of resources from agriculture to industrial development are a lot less visible than tens of millions dying during a famine, but the total numbers may well be higher.

            Which suggests that the best (still imperfect) comparison may be North Korea vs South, PRC vs Taiwan, East Germany vs West Germany, and the like, rather than focusing on specific features, attractive or unattractive, of one society.

          • Asher says:

            The Texax secession movement is another example of the assertion of nationalism against colonialism. You willing to give the same rosy assessment to that, too?

          • Asher says:

            The Texas secession movement is another example of the assertion of nationalism against colonialism. You willing to give the same rosy assessment to that, too?

  2. Buck says:

    If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the most recent EA Summit, when a non-vegetarian lunch option was served at an event attended by many vegetarians. This became a big enough scandal that I, who was two thousand miles away from the conference, got inundated with arguments about it on Facebook, Tumblr, and this blog. Several people threatened to quit effective altruism entirely, though I don’t know if any of them followed through.

    That’s an inaccurate description of what happened. The organizers of EA Global told a bunch of EAs that EA Global was going to be catered entirely vegan. Several people I knew bought $400 tickets, and wouldn’t have bought them if they didn’t think the catering was going to be entirely vegan. And then two days before it started, they told us that actually there’d been a fuckup and they were going to be serving lots of chicken and eggs. Animal-focused EAs are already kind of insecure about the rest of the movement having no respect for them, and this played right into that insecurity. It would have been much less of a drama if the animal EAs didn’t feel like they were lied to and betrayed.

    Please fix this inaccuracy.

    (I thought your post was good otherwise.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Fixed, see if you prefer current phrasing.

    • If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the most recent EA Summit, which advertised fully vegetarian meals but added non-vegetarian options at the last second.

      My understanding is that ‘a word-of-mouth rumor spread that EA Global would have fully vegetarian meals’ is accurate, but ‘EA Global advertised fully vegetarian meals’ is not accurate. So it’s true that vegans had ‘surprise! some people will be eating meat at the event!’ sprung on them at the last minute, but it’s also true that the EA Global organizers had ‘surprise! lots of people have been under the strong impression that the event would be vegetarian-only!’ sprung on them at the last minute, because they weren’t aware of the rumor.

      (I’m not an EA Global organizer myself, so my account might not be 100% accurate either.)

      Quoting Oliver Habryka from a FB thread:

      I won’t speak on behalf of EA Global here, but as one of the people who helped make food decisions for the event, I can explain some of my own thoughts that went into the conference dining arrangements.

      First, I deeply apologize for the short notice on the food choices at the event. I also apologize for the fact that many people were expecting a fully vegan event! This was something that arose from a miscommunication between me, Tyler and Jacy. Jacy was helping us out with some catering, and it looks like there was a misunderstanding at some point between him, Tyler and me that resulted in a lot of people getting the impression that the event would be vegan before we’d arrived at any official decisions. I am really sorry for that; if we’d been clearer in internal discussions about distinguishing ‘options we’re informally exploring’ from ‘final event decisions,’ we could at least have avoided giving people false impressions.

      In terms of the decision itself, secularism-like considerations resulted in us very quickly deciding that the vast majority of food at the conference would be vegetarian and vegan. But it was actually also one of the biggest factors affecting our decision to serve meat at the conference. I think we agree that secularism is a good principle. I’m guessing that if we talk more about how best to put that principle into practice, we’ll be able to converge a bit on how we should have handled this issue, and hopefully do better next year.

      Let’s suppose this is our default policy: people are allowed to eat meat if they seek it out and purchase it themselves, but the conference organizers don’t help facilitate this process. Going by the number of people who said they couldn’t go without meat at the conference, about 10% of attendees will indeed order meat options to be delivered to the event. If a large number of attendees grouped together to order delivery, this could actually result in people bringing more meat options into the cafeteria than there otherwise would have been.

      One alternative would be to ban meat from the dining area. People with dietary restrictions or strong preferences could then go out for their own lunch and dinner instead of eating with us. If they do so, however — setting aside any effects on the atmosphere of the conference — this is a net loss for everyone involved. Them leaving the conference reduces the quality of the conference experience for everyone, and will cost them more money than catering would cost us. Rather than optimizing for the number of productive new conversations, alliances, and friendships between vegan and non-vegan EAs, I’d be encouraging groups of meat-eaters to segregate themselves — alongside any friends who wanted to dine with them. (Which again could result in more people ordering meat than they otherwise would have.)

      I might thereby send a message, but it wasn’t obvious to me that the message would decrease the number of animals eaten during the conference, and it was even less obvious to me that sending this message would end up causing more EAs to go vegan (or otherwise have a maximally good long-term impact on the world) than the aforementioned conversations/alliances/friendships we’d be sacrificing.

      All of this makes me want to allow meat-eaters to stay at the conference and have their dietary preferences fulfilled, if I can keep this from undermining the atmosphere of mutual respect at the conference. This was what we tried to do with our food choices. We separated the meat options from the rest of the available food, and labeled them with a sign saying that attendees should only eat this food if they were unable to eat the other options. We hoped that those precautions would be enough to maintain a general atmosphere of mutual respect — an atmosphere in which vegans and meat-eaters would both feel welcome.

      Since the conference ended, I’ve moved somewhat in the direction of thinking that we didn’t do enough to make the event secular. I think I might have underestimated the degree to which serving meat is seen as a signal of disrespect, and overestimated the degree to which the signage and framing helped to reduce that effect. Certainly the fact that we weren’t transparent at an early date about the dining plans was a very big mistake. For future events, I’d very much like to brainstorm alternative options with you all and see if we can come up with more satisfactory approaches.

      Anyway, I think an accurate summary would be: “If you think this is overly pessimistic, think back to the issues with the recent EA Global conference, where many people thought that only vegetarian meals would be served but they found out at the last minute that there would be non-vegetarian options.”

      • Buck says:

        An organizer confirmed in writing to at least one person I know that the event would be entirely vegan. But yeah, it wasn’t like EA Global publicly advertised the all-vegan food.

      • David Krueger says:

        “labeled them with a sign saying that attendees should only eat this food if they were unable to eat the other options.”

        While I don’t have a strong opinion on whether they should’ve had meat there (I do have an opinion: no.) I’m quite skeptical of the “I *have to* eat meat” argument, that I’ve heard from some people. I haven’t seen it supported, and would like to.

        In general, I find this type of argument from necessity infuriating, due to the role I perceive it playing in the norms of society. Namely, it seems to function as a way to pre-empt rational discussions by signalling that disagreement will now be taken as a personal attack.

        The reality is, we are all free to make decisions all the time, and these decisions have trade-offs.

        If I grant that some people *must* eat meat or they will die (I’ve already voiced my skepticism, and will be happy to be educated on this point), then I presume there are still some people who would chose death (not that I would agree with their decision).

        That’s a bit extreme, and I would accept “I have to” as a substitute for “it is necessary for my immediate survival”, but that is the only case I can think of, off the top of my head. Things like “it would cause me great inconvenience or discomfort” are right out, IMO.

        And jtbc, this is NOT an argument for self-sacrifice and asceticism, just honesty and facilitating clear, open discussions.

        • “The reality is, we are all free to make decisions all the time, and these decisions have trade-offs.”

          At only a slight tangent, this is close to the reason that I devoted a chapter in The Machinery of Freedom to arguing against the use of the word “need” in political discourse.

        • Cypher says:

          In practical terms, many people have bodies that pitch a fit over lots totally normal, otherwise-harmless foods. This reduces the number of options when eating out to 5%. Excluding meat nearly reduces it to zero. Combining these special dietary restrictions (which slowly degrade the body’s ability to process nutrients) with existing damage to nutrient processing, and mental illness, makes the situation worse.

          It might not be immediate survival, but it’s not so far off from long-term survival, and socially signalling that it will be taken as a personal attack if pressed is accurate.

          Reduced meat might be workable. Reduced animals might be workable. But full stop requires fixing mental illness (and never eating out), body, or creating a vatmeat.

          Of course, I don’t see anything morally wrong with a robot body, patching up genes, or vatmeat, and plan to switch as soon as one becomes practical. Bringing vatmeat X years early could be a big deal..

    • Buck says:

      To clarify, I don’t mean to imply that the organizers of EA Global *intentionally* lied to the animal EAs. It was a miscommunication in a situation where the organizers were extremely busy, about as forgivable as mistakes get.

      In my comment, I was trying to explain why animal-focused EAs were upset, by telling the story from their perspective. As always, the real story involved much more confusion than malice.

    • Deiseach says:

      And let’s not re-fight this all over again, please? I’m going to do my bit by not piling in again this time.

      But it does re-inforce Scott’s point; if EA (or any other organisation or movement) is concentrating on systemic change, then for some people there will be a point of no surrender, and it will be an absolute moral principle on which they are not willing to give in, and they’ll walk if it’s not catered to.

      The EA conference was not about veganism or animal rights in toto but you say that some people would not have bought tickets (do you mean tickets at that price, or they would not have attended at all?) if they had known the meals would not all be all-vegan.

      If someone is willing to walk for the sake of animal rights (and I’m not sneering here, I’m one of those creationists* that make up the Dumb Human community Alice is inveighing against) then that issue trumps the goals the conference was trying to achieve of getting the movement more organised and agreeing on strategies for growth and wider public recognition and involvement.

      Imagine the kind of tearing-asunder civil war that would break out if EA was deciding “Okay, we’re going to pick one option for our focus and work to get things changed on a global, ground-up level of doing away with it”.

      *I’m not entirely sure if the quoted figure of 50% of Americans are creationists means to imply – or infer – that every one of those is a “literal six days of twenty-four hours each, six thousand year old earth, humans riding dinosaurs” believer or a “God/deity/deities/something created the universe” believer. Anyway, if it’s meant to distinguish between “believers” and “non-believers”, then lump me in with the creationists!

      • Linch says:

        First of all, thank you for not bringing up the vegan thing!

        Secondly when people quote polls saying that ~40% of Americans are Creationists, there’s a general attempt to separate the “Intelligent Design” folks from the “Creationist folks” who believed that God created the Earth some time in the last 10,000 years:

        http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx

        That said, the numbers are very susceptible to framing effects: I’ve heard as low as 10% of people claim to be creationists in certain phrasings.

        • FJ says:

          Actually, the Gallup poll asked if God created *humans* in their present form within the past 10,000 years. Which is also wrong — anatomically modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago — but may simply be an artifact of people being fuzzy about exactly how old our species is. Weirdly, anatomically modern humans apparently didn’t develop anything like a real culture (ceremonial burial, mastery over fire, etc.) until about 50,000 years ago. It’s not clear why apparently-modern humans were so primitive for so long.

          • LHN says:

            My impression as a layman is that in addition to it being hard to tell how contingent that kind of cultural development is with, in effect, only one example, “anatomically modern” really mostly only tells us about the skeleton. (Since that’s what we have to look at.) More subtle changes in the brain than e.g., braincase size would be hard to detect. So maybe the Mesolithic could have started 50k years earlier with luck and cleverness, or maybe there’s some development that we’re not currently able to identify that was necessary first.

          • Deiseach says:

            If saying “yes” to that question makes me a creationist, then I’m not a creationist. But you can’t then jump to the assumption that I’m an atheist/freethinker/agnostic/materialist, either, which is where we seem to be going: “Great, you’re not one of those nutty creationists! So that means you’re cool with global warming activism, GMOs, nuclear power and gay marriage, right?”

            Uhhhhh…. kinda, not so hot, maybe and I voted no because the yes campaign in my country pissed me the hell off where otherwise I would have been apathetically ‘sure, might as well’.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            The original residents of the Rising Star site might have something to say about this estimate. 😉

          • Linch says:

            @Deisach: Yes, most framings of that question will have at least three sides, “pure” creationism, “pure” evolutionism and theistically guided evolution (which is presumably a rough approximation of what you believe).

            I agree that dichotomies in politics is poor reasoning.

            Actually pro-GMOs and Pro-nuclear power are red tribe issues in the States, so Creationists here are more likely to support them than the average person.

            @FJ: Again framing effects make this really weird, but “God created the earth in <10,000 years ago" almost totally includes "God created humans in less than 10,000 years" and I would guess that most people who say that God created humans in <10,000 years also believes that about the Earth if they were asked during the same survey.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Deiseach:
            I think, being across the pond, this is one of those things you really can’t have a proper conception of. If you are interested, I cold try and dig up some good primers on how diverse the religious spectrum is in America.

            Generally though, the official Catholic position on creation would not put you in the category “Young Earth Creationist” which is usually what the shortened term “creationist” is referring to. Hence the reference to 10,0000 years in the Gallup survey.

            I will also note that intelligent design, while it may have been adopted by some people who aren’t YECs, broadly is a belief in YEC with a very, very, very thin veneer of sciency stuff thrown on top. I’m sure some on here will dispute that, but the origin of intelligent design as something anyone was talking about is in the wake of a USOC ruling on the unconstitutional nature of teaching YEC in public school (as science).

          • Deiseach says:

            Re: climate change – sigh, if the pope says so, then I suppose I have to believe it (after all, he did write a whole encyclical about it and other topics) 🙂

            HeelBearCub, that is part of what annoys me (a) about the American-centrism (but then yes this is an American blog for American people about American topics so I can lump it if I don’t like it) and (b) the assumption that seems to pit “All religious believers, and certainly all Christians, are Young Earth Creationists and on the other side we have all the science-following, reality-based community, atheist normal sane people” that these kinds of polls do not help the dialogue or the popular understanding.

            Somebody like P.Z. Myers would certainly argue that there’s no difference between the Pope and a KJV-Only Bible-bashing Ken Ham’s Museum devotee, but I think that is not at all accurate.

            I don’t know if “50% of Americans are creationists” is accurate or not, that’s part of the problem. To be fair, it’s also part of the problem with all surveys: it’s more accurate to say “50% of the people who answered this survey ticked box A” (and that could be “out of 2000 people we phoned, stopped in the street, and annoyed at their lunchtime in the park, the 300 who didn’t tell us where to shove our clipboard took the survey”), so I’m always a little sceptical when I see poll or survey results blown up to be “30% of Irish people think leprechauns are actually real”.

            However, the Gallup poll question does seem to be fairly decent in its choices, so it has that going for it. On the other hand, is a sampling of 1,028 adults really enough to extrapolate the beliefs of 238 million (roughly) adults? (I’m using their “18 years and over” criterion and omitting the 25% or so of the US population under 18 as per the 2014 census figures).

            Looking at the religious demographics of the USA, only 25% are Evangelical Protestants (those would be the ones most likely to be the YEC; I’m omitting the 15% mainlines because those include such sophisticates as The Episcopal Church, some of whose clergy find it impossible to believe in the divinity of Jesus much less literal Biblicalism) and throw in the 7% Black Protestant churches, this brings you to about 32% (I’m rounding up here).

            Leaving out my co-religionists (21% of the population and the single largest denomination) who technically at least aren’t required to adhere to “6-day literal 24-hours in length” (although God alone knows what they actually believe, don’t look to me to stand over our catechesis, I’ve been moaning about it for 30 years now), doesn’t this figure look more like “50% of the 32% of the American population who belong to YEC churches believe in YEC”?

            Otherwise you have people who do not self-identify as evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who nevertheless hold to YEC 🙂

        • Bryan Hann says:

          I would like to ask the questioner” From whose frame of reference? Seriously. I don’t know enough about general relativity + cosmology to confidently reject /any/ answer.

      • Adam says:

        As Linch said, the phrasings of particular surveys do better or worse at this, but they should be measuring belief in naturalistic evolution, not whether the universe is created or not. That number would be way more than 40% of Americans.

        • Randy M says:

          Why? Naturalistic is an assumption, or an inference, not a fact that can be determined.

          • Adam says:

            Because that’s what it’s actually trying to measure. If you hold the position of Michael Behe, you’re a creationist. If you hold the position of Kenneth Miller, you’re an evolutionist, even though he’s also a Christian.

          • Randy M says:

            I’ve kind of lost the thread in what we’re trying to prove in measuring the number of creationists, so I’ll retract whatever point I thought I was making, and just say that depending on how you wave around the statistic of “creationists” it’s important to realize that covers a fair amount of space, not all of which is indicative of being a blithering idiotic science denier on the wrong side of history, etc.

          • Adam says:

            The blithering idiot science deniers are young-earth creationists. I certainly hope I’m correct it’s not they who are the 40%, but maybe not.

    • Rob says:

      Not enough tearing one another apart over what to eat for lunch in this thread. 🙁

    • Careless says:

      Animal-focused EAs are already kind of insecure about the rest of the movement having no respect for them

      I laughed, but felt bad about it.

  3. Buck says:

    A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

    In some cases, I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s a market inefficiency in morality. The general reason for this is that I’m utilitarian and most people aren’t. Most humans have revealed preferences to care more about people close to them in time and space and mind-shape, all of which I reject. So it’s totally plausible that given my values, the most important interventions are massively underfunded.

    There’s good evidence for this. Most Americans happily (or unknowingly) torture and kill dozens of animals every year. The total spending on existential risk reduction is a tiny, tiny proportion of what it would be if the world cared about humans a thousand years in the future as much as we cared about humans now. And the ratio of spending on local versus international charities speaks for itself.

    That’s the more polite reason that I believe that there’s an inefficient market in morality. The less polite version is that most people aren’t strategic or selfless, and their implicit main motivation in morality is demonstrating that they’re trustworthy and generous. I think it’s pretty obvious that very few people are actually trying to help others in a cause-neutral way. So I think it’s very likely that I can “beat the market”, as it were.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, moral issues have extra complications beyond factual issues like “Will communism be good or bad?”

      I guess it depends how moral realist you are. If you’re not moral realist, then by tautology you want to pursue Buck-morality, and you are much better at knowing what Buck-morality is than anyone else, therefore from your perspective you are right and they are wrong. There might be some additional gains possible by adding in some form of contractarianism, but maybe not.

      If you’re a moral realist, things get more complicated and the same “why do you think you are right and they are wrong” thing comes in.

      And if you want to add moral uncertainty, that puts animal rights on a fantastically strong footing while also having scary effects everywhere else that I have not seen dealt with adequately.

      • Buck says:

        Why do I think that I’m right and they’re wrong about morality? Same reason I usually think I’m right and someone else is wrong when it’s a topic which I’ve spent a hundred times longer thinking about than they have.

        What do you think the scary effects of adding moral uncertainty are?

        • John Schilling says:

          They haven’t spent much time thinking about it because they are willing to accept at face value what they have been taught by people who have collectively spent more than a hundred times longer thinking about than you have and which has been the moral foundation of the most enlightened and successful civilization in history. Are you really sure that your individual intellectual contribution trumps that?

          • blacktrance says:

            Because the thinking was done by people who had some combination of radically different values from mine, important factually incorrect beliefs (Christianity), and passive absorption of the memes of their time, I have high confidence that I can do better.

          • I think you’re overestimating the wisdom of groups. A billion people barely thinking about an issue aren’t going to automatically arrive at a good answer. Sure there is wisdom in crowds on certain issues, but it’s pretty domain specific, and given humanity’s massively bloody history I don’t think morality is one of those domains. It requires personal thought and development imo.

          • Brian Donohue says:

            Edmund Burke in a nutshell.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I think philosophers are plurality but not majority utilitarian.

          Moral uncertainty at least makes a heck of an argument for being pro-life, probably demands giving an extraordinary level of attention to insect suffering (my probability that insects are exactly as important a moral agent as humans is bigger than my estimate of the human:insect ratio) and is vulnerable to all sorts of horrible Pascal’s Muggings, all lovingly chronicled by Brian Tomasik.

        • keranih says:

          Same reason I usually think I’m right and someone else is wrong when it’s a topic which I’ve spent a hundred times longer thinking about than they have.

          Isn’t this the “ten thousand hours” fallacy?

          I could spend a thousand times longer swinging a golf club than another person, and it still wouldn’t say anything about the quality of my golf game, compared to the other person.

        • Tomkob says:

          Back when I was in school, I remember thinking longer (much longer) about a physics problem than my friend. He got it right and I did not. So, I don’t think that thinking about something longer automatically provides the right answer.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            Ah, but did you keep track of how many socially necessary hours each of you spent thinking about it? We wouldn’t want to think Engels went through all that commercial drudgery for nothing!

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Some people have twenty years of experience, as we say in the photography biz, and some people have one year of experience twenty times.

          While I don’t mean to imply this is necessarily true of you specifically, it’s a general caution against this line of thought being taken too strongly.

        • lliamander says:

          What about those people who have spent as much or more time than you thinking about these things, and still disagree?

          • Jaskologist says:

            Reminder: nobody in this thread has thought about this subject longer or harder than either Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle individually, let alone the two combined.

            Therefore they are right and we all are wrong.

            (This applies to many subjects outside of morality, too.)

          • RCF says:

            @Jaskologist
            How do you know how much time Aquinas spent, let alone how much time I’ve spent?

        • nyccine says:

          I think you’re overestimating the wisdom of groups.

          “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

          The “groups” whose wisdom we are questioning consist of all of the Founding Fathers, some of whom are considered reasonably intelligent. It is generally agreed that in coming up with the groundwork for our society, that they went back to the best of the Enlightenment thinkers, and even back in to antiquity amongst the great philosophers to come up with their vision, which values representation as part and parcel of quality of life. Buck doesn’t, and can’t, get it; it is completely irrelevant if liberal democracy doesn’t feed as many people, doesn’t tend to as many sick people, the value of being free simply trumps all that. His claim that he can “beat the market” fails utterly because he simply doesn’t value what the other side values, and no amount of rationalization will change that because his rationalizations depend upon other people having the same values he does. And, if I can be frank, I am not in the least bit willing to grant that he is smarter than, and has put much more worthwhile thought, than the intellectual giants laid the foundation of our society.

          You can magic up any number of scenarios in which people are wealthier, healthier; hell, you can come up with a utilitarian vision which assures me that I’ll live a life of luxury, doing all the blow – and to be clear, that’s not hyperbolic, I literally mean all the blow – off the all the naturally buxom (this is pretty important) beautiful blond women, and I still wouldn’t agree with Utilitarianism. It’s similar to the problem with economics, which starts with “a thing is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it,” and then promptly throws that out the window to loudly insist that economics is all about maximizing profit as measured in currency. No, I am more than willing to trade lower prices for goods in exchange for communities that aren’t atomized, where the incentives don’t align towards fucking over my neighbors just to make a quick buck. Point of fact, I would say that the tyrannies of our country are the direct result of utilitarian thinking, where people sold out our sacred values in exchange for (ephemeral) security, or greater wealth.

          • Linch says:

            “[Buck] simply doesn’t value what the other side values” This is a bizarre criticism. Buck’s arguments explicitly make sense in the context of Buck’s values being substantially different from those with the greatest political sway in the societies he live in.

            Also, I hate to do the SJ #checkyourprivelege meme, but I can’t help but predict that you, in valuing the type of freedom that just happens to benefit people like you immensely, are not suffering from malaria, nor are you typing from a cage while waiting to be slaughtered. Nor are you a slave in one of Jefferson’s plantations.

            So I’m at least a little bit suspicious of the worth of your “sacred values” that people sold out.

          • RCF says:

            Economics is about studying economies, not about changing them. I find that you are engaging in a lot of equivocation as to what you’re arguing against.

        • Matt says:

          The “thinking time” heuristic seems trivially wrong to me. For one, if you follow it to it’s logical conclusion, there’s no reason for you to do any thinking at all. Just find the oldest philosopher with the most “thinking hours” put in and ask them what they believe – but my guess is you did not do this, because you don’t really believe in the “thinking hours” heuristic.

          For two, before the scientific method was invented, we had lots of people put LOTS of thinking hours into basic questions like “How does light work” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/301645) and be completely wrong. Because we haven’t come up with a way to test the “correctness” of moral theories, it seems likely that if we do eventually come up with a “scientific method for morality”, we’ll be just as wrong as the original philosophers were when it came to the physical world.

    • MicaiahC says:

      The problem with the “inside view” re: morality is that I’m not sure that morality-the-inside-feeling would help against forces-that-compel-people-to-do-what-they’re-doing.

      Take animal rights for example, I can readily imagine improving their welfare with stuff that people don’t-centrally-care about, like killing cows in a more painless fashion, or dunno painting them with so they have sexy-to-cow dresses. But once you try and get them to trade off your sacred cows for their sacred steaks, all sorts of “how dare you tell me what i eat” man vs man stuff comes into the picture and everything is terrible forever.

      I don’t think we disagree about the first case I talked about but I think Scott is warning against the second case.

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      Excuse me, but doesn’t your comment simply boil down to “Most people disagree with me about morality”? Couldn’t an opinionated investor make the very same argument about the stock market, with equal justification?

      • shemtealeaf says:

        I think the difference is that almost all people in the stock market have the same goal, while morality involves widely differing goals. If you invest in the market with a goal other than making money, I don’t think the efficient market hypothesis really applies anymore.

        • Mark says:

          People adopt their respective moral stances for exactly the same reason: they believe it to be the best way to live their lives.

          • blacktrance says:

            Yes, but they have different ideas about what that entails. The analogy to the stock market would be if some people try to maximize gains, others try to minimize them, others try to maximize them within some constraints (no buying stocks that start with “M”), etc.

          • Mark says:

            Yeah, fair point.

        • Kodex Komrade says:

          Not quite. In the stock market mostly everyone has a competing goal – money for themselves. In morality, there’s more room for shared goals.

      • Alex Z says:

        Actually people do “win” at the stock market in such a manner. If you look at financial instruments and their prices, you can see tradeoffs between liquidity, risk profile and returns. So let’s normalize our units to 1 so 1 unit of safety (1/risk) is worth 1 unit of return and 1 unit of liquidity. So if I value returns more than I value liquidity, I can buy an illiquid asset which will give me a higher return.

        You can’t beat the market in the sense that you can’t consistently get higher returns when you control for risk, liquidity etc… But that doesn’t mean you can’t get more utility.

        • RCF says:

          Doesn’t illiquity argue against an efficient market?

          • Adam says:

            Yes. That’s part of the reason it’s a heuristic more than a law of the universe. The model assumptions require pretty close to a perfectly liquid market with no transaction costs and instant information propagation.

          • Brian Donohue says:

            I think inefficient/efficient is poor framing. How efficient? that is the question.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      If you’re utilitarian, what’s your utility formula?

      (Or do you, like every utilitarian I’ve ever met, -claim- utilitarianism as a mechanism to declare that your morality is rigorous and mathematical, while never actually sitting down and multiplying, since you wouldn’t know what to multiply in the first place?)

      See, I don’t have your fancy internal moral compass, telling me what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t experience guilt, or regret, or empathy. I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve experienced compassion. When I look at Utilitarianism – I don’t see a functioning moral system (and not knowing -innately- what is good or evil, I actually -do- require a functioning moral system), because there are exactly zero ways to translate utilitarianism into day-to-day morality. I see a system that people -claim- is a moral system, which is actually just a rationalization engine for the morality they actually follow, to allow them to claim a higher moral ground they haven’t actually staked out.

      TLDR? What would a sociopath do under the influence of your morality? If it isn’t what you’d do, your morality isn’t what you claim it is.

      • Anonymous says:

        If you’re utilitarian, what’s your utility formula?

        If you’re a deontologist, what exactly are all the rules? If you’re a virtue ethicist, please provide a list of all virtues with a completely detailed definition for each.

        (Or do you, like every utilitarian I’ve ever met, -claim- utilitarianism as a mechanism to declare that your morality is rigorous and mathematical, while never actually sitting down and multiplying, since you wouldn’t know what to multiply in the first place?)

        Saying “I am a utilitarian” is not the same as saying “I have a formula for morality.” I think utilitarianism in practice is a set of intuitions and guidelines like “The consequences of your actions are what determines their moral value” and “You should think about the effects of your actions even on people you don’t see” and “You should try to avoid scope insensitivity.” Of course people don’t usually sit down and start multiplying probabilities by utilities (though sometimes people can and should and do, for example in drafting medical guidelines or pollution regulations).

        What would a sociopath do under the influence of your morality?

        All moral systems rely on human moral intuition; no one has a book of morality that a sociopath can read to become an unfailingly good person.

        • Dahlen says:

          If you’re a virtue ethicist, please provide a list of all virtues with a completely detailed definition for each.

          What if someone actually did that?

          • Dahlen says:

            @Mark Atwood:

            Hey, it’s an art, not a science. I wrote it more in order to sample the diversity of human values (going beyond “utility” or “pleasure” or “happiness” or what-have-you), in the idea that people can pick and choose among which of them to work towards. It’s not meant to be self-consistent, more akin to a polytheistic religion rather. “Goods” as well as “bads” are included, and while they tend to cluster and tier, there’s no normative statement anywhere as to which of them to maximise.

        • LHN says:

          That’s probably enough to be societally functional. (1 might even be superfluous for that if 2-4 are followed assiduously.) But I suspect there’s a fair amount of jerky behavior short of rating “locked up or killed” between that and being widely accepted as a good (let alone “unfailingly good”) person.

        • mayleaf says:

          >Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

          This seems overly trusting that everyone has the same preferences.

          Suppose I find combat exciting, and would prefer that arbitrary people attack me on the street so that I’d get a chance to fight them?

          Suppose I’m anhedonic and passively suicidal, and I wouldn’t mind if someone killed me?

          Suppose I don’t place any value on trusting others, so I don’t care whether they lie to me or not, but I prefer to be able to lie to them?

          Different people prefer different equilibria. This is especially true when you’re looking at the fringes of mindspace. I don’t think these rules are at all sufficient to make your hypothetical sociopathic person “good”.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          That’s Consequentialism, not Utilitarianism, which you also really don’t want people without an internal moral compass to follow.

          And Virtue Ethics are, in practice, simpler than behaving as if you have some virtues. Virtue Ethics, are at their core, behaving as if you’re already the person you want to be. You don’t need to list the virtues you aspire to.

          Deontology does have the problem that it’s inherently explicit, however, and most deontologists, in practice, are just making their internal moral compass more explicit.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          1.) Do unto others what they would do unto you.
          1a.) Remember others follow this rule too.
          1b.) It’s better if you act first, but only if you are certain.
          2.) Follow the rules, and they will do your bidding. Fight them, and you will never disentangle yourself.
          3.) Lose fast.
          4.) Win slowly.

      • Nornagest says:

        How do you talk someone without an internal moral compass into following an ethical system in the first place?

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m kinda hesitant to call law an ethical system on par with e.g. utilitarianism. I suppose you could use a fully specified ethical system as a code of law, but we don’t have a system like that.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          Read Ayn Rand to get the beginning of an idea.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’ve read all her novels bar We the Living and bits of her nonfiction, and I think she was almost doing the opposite of that: her heroes generally have very strong moral senses, which come into conflict with conventional altruism when that turns out, in her world, to enable various forms of misbehavior. They then reconcile that by adopting a self-focused ethical system.

            She’s not trying to construct ethics out of self-interest, in other words, she’s trying to come up with ethical reasons to be self-interested.

          • “She’s not trying to construct ethics out of self-interest, in other words, she’s trying to come up with ethical reasons to be self-interested.”

            In order to motivate the project of constructing ethics out of self interest, you first have to argue that that is how ethics should be constructed, which I think is what “come up with ethical reasons to be self-interested” amounts to.

            I think her arguments for both halves of the project are full of holes, but that is the structure of what she was doing.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            David – Her arguments -are- full of holes. It doesn’t matter. She’s not arguing ethics into a computer, she’s arguing ethics into people, who are capable of filling in the pieces she didn’t quite rise to the level of filling in herself. The holes she left in are, generally, in the right places, producing an ethics which works even if it’s unsatisfying on a pure-philosophy or pure-logical level.

            Nornagest – I do not recommend We the Living. Think about the salient points of her moral system, though – it doesn’t have a use for guilt, for example, and in fact rejects it to some extent as a moral-system failure. It’s a moral system which sets up those people who most need a moral system as starting off within it at a higher moral level. Think of its status appeal.

      • Saal says:

        Well now, this is interesting.

        I don’t believe I’ve ever had to opportunity to converse with a self-labeled sociopath of above-average intelligence who wasn’t obviously doing it for special-snowflake cred (yes, this is a thing). I’m sort of excited.

        So let me ask you this, as I think it might shed some light. If you feel the need, despite your self-professed sociopathy, to adopt a meta-ethical system, then that would appear to be evidence that you have a meta-meta-ethical belief which says something along the lines of “Sociopaths should attempt to build/adopt an ethical framework which approaches normative ethics.” (Please feel free to correct/alter this). If so, the question is: why?

        • Nornagest says:

          I’m pretty sure OrphanWilde is playing the role of a hypothetical sociopath in those lines, not personally claiming to be a sociopath — partly because of the meta-ethical considerations you mentioned.

          • Saal says:

            In that case, call me the hypothetical Saal who’s interested to hear what the hypothetical sociopath OrphanWilde has to say about these meta-meta-ethical considerations. If the question is really “how to we stop sociopaths from doing bad things” then it’s not really all that interesting. It seems pretty obvious that actual sociopaths are egoistic but behave in a consequentialist manner to avoid behind incarcerated/killed by a broader society with a deontological legal system.

            So I guess the question is, “Other than fear of repercussions, why would a sociopath want ethics?”

            Edit: I guess the question could be read as “How would utilitarianism suffice to make sociopaths afraid to behave badly?”, since it does seem more flexible and open to interpretation than most formulations of deontology (obviously), but then, why would we expect an ethical framework meant for “normal” people to work for sociopaths anyways? It seems to me that the whole point of a rigorous ethics is to figure out marginal/edge cases where normal people’s normative ethics aren’t quite powerful enough. If you don’t have normative ethics to begin with, well, that’s what broader social pressure and the noose are for.

        • Adam says:

          I wouldn’t call myself a sociopath, but believe I at least have far less of an internal moral compass than most, and largely don’t experience guilt, regret, or empathy. I really don’t care about doing things that are right, except to a minimal set of people that I care about, mostly family, for completely irrational reasons (which convinces me I’m not a sociopath). Adopting an ethics that closely approximates the prevailing norms of your own society has instrumental utility as a path of least resistance. I don’t want to be shunned or thrown into prison.

        • Alia D. says:

          I’m not exactly a sociopath. Someone messily murdered is faintly disturbing, but it is only a faint echo of the same sort of disturbance that I felt as a teenager the time my mother rearranged the living room furniture without telling me ahead of time. Now a loved one messily murdered in my living room would be worse than a stranger murdered someplace I didn’t have to look at it. But still, human bodies are things that move around and create messes and couches are thing that stay in place, so dead body not as viscerally disturbing as re-arranged living room. But my eternal moral compass then: evil of surprise redecorating > evil of murder.
          But I’m a divine command theory ethicist so I think that my internal feelings on the matter are irrelevant and that actually murder is much worse. And since doing good is a divine command, debates about how are interesting and desirable.

          • Adam says:

            I still find ethical discussions intrinsically interesting, but I’m not sure I really care what other people do so long as they don’t do it to me.

            You wouldn’t happen to be Ally Davis of New York who once attended Warren Wilson College, would you?

          • Alia D. says:

            Adam,

            Nope, Sorry, I’m not Ally Davis.

            I also find ethical discussions logically interesting puzzles, and don’t find others actual behavior intrinsically interesting. But I am commanded to participate in certain kinds of community and there have a duty to take an interest in community behavior standards there.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          The original reason was something along the lines of the “Reversed Stupidity” logical error. Immoral behavior, as a rule, seemed limited to stupid people. I preferred not to be a stupid person, so I behaved morally. Initially I associated such immoral behavior with awkward situations, which led to a hatred of awkward situations, as well, and a conflation between morality and behavior which would lead to awkwardness.

          Positive reinforcement – noticing that people believed me over other people as a direct result of my refusal to lie, for example – cemented this over time. Moral behavior is more -useful- than immoral behavior. It is, in fact, easier to be moral than immoral.

          There are some interesting contradictions between formal and normative morality, though; most people develop a habit of lying because they don’t want to hurt other people, for example, a habit which extends into other parts of their lives.

          Ultimately I concluded the issue with traditional morality is that it punished those who follow it, resulting in insane situations whereby people ignore the misery around them because, if they acknowledge it, they’re morally obligated to do something about it. It results in a society that lives in a perpetual state of denial, and those few who aren’t capable of ignoring it live lives of inescapable guilt about all the things they can’t do anything about.

          You’re probably mistaking my ethical system for traditional morality, which is an utter mess of contradictory bullshit that leaves anybody who tries to follow it a guilty wreck – and you’re right, there’s no reason to follow that kind of morality, and it would require some special (and probably insane) reasoning to do so. My ethical system is designed to make my life easier, not harder. It simplifies interactions with fellow human beings, rather than complicating them. It’s like a good API in a programming language; if you’ve designed it right, laziness works in your favor, rather than against you. That is what ethics is to me. It’s an API for interacting with other people.

          Or, in short? I’m ethical because I’m lazy, and it’s easier to be ethical, provided your ethics are sane in the first place.

    • Tyler Hansen says:

      >Most humans have revealed preferences to care more about people close to them in time and space and mind-shape, all of which I reject.

      That position doesn’t seem consistent upon reflection to me. Consider the following:

      I want to live in a world where people take care of themselves and the needs that they can most accurately gauge and most easily fulfill (ie, their own and that of their immediate friends, family, and loved ones).

      In other words, are you still perfectly selfless after incorporating my desire for you to have a certain degree of selfishness? If so, how do you incorporate my desire for you to care about nearby things without generating revealed preferences that you reject? If not, does that make this argument one that you do not reject?

    • Shenpen says:

      But you miss the ripple / multiplier effect. Not killing a cow achieves only not killing that animal. We can’t even expect that it will make many more cows because probably they will no breed unnecessary cows, the meat market usually balances. Not aborting the next Einstein achieves far more, as a multiplier, as a ripple.

      Full disclosure: I am right-wing, and I am not even interested in utilitarianism that much, closer to what you call as caring about people like me. And yet I think this attitude actually has, at least potentially, more overally utility in the making as yours, which sounds like an neutral universalism (sorry if I am mistaken).

      Basically I think that I tend to invest in the right kinds of people. Invest in the sense that like most right-wing people I don’t have a generic universal don’t harm / help much routine but it depends on who is that person in question, or who is the group. Obviously, if I help those people who are the most likely to help others most, I get a multiplier in utility? Also, if try not to harm people in general, but try especially hard not to try the people who are nice and productive, that is supposed to have better second-order effects.

      I hope I am not overcomplicating it. As a simple theoretical example of such a ripple-effect is imagine you pay someone’s education with the only condition that he / she pays it forward to another student upon graduation. Imagine usual inflationary discounting and suchlike, you end up basically with 5-6 full educations paid (divided amongst many people actually, as inflation makes the sum work for a smaller and smaller portion of their tutition). This is the multiplier / ripple but it only works if everybody in the chain is trustworthy.

      Think this logic through and you probably have at least an 50% justification for the kinds of right-wing ideas you probably reject. Sure I try to help my ingroup, but the point is, my ingroup is the most likely to pay it forward. This is why part of why we discriminate e.g. between the worthy and unworthy poor, you get more pay-it-forward ripple from the worthy poor.

      This is how you cannot really beat that market. You had to figure out all the ripple effects and you cannot really. You can easily get a Utility Monster type of sink. If you would adopt my broad logic of helping those people most who help others most, preferably they too help those most who help others most (and yes it can look a lot like middle class white westerners sucking each others dick in a large circle), so maximize ripple, and you are the most careful about not hurting not those people who are the most vulnerable, but those who are the least likely to hurt others (and again the ripple all the way down) you broadly get this.

    • Bugmaster says:

      The total spending on existential risk reduction is a tiny, tiny proportion of what it would be if the world cared about humans a thousand years in the future as much as we cared about humans now.

      I feel compelled to render my usual objection here: some of us do care about future humans, we just don’t think that donating to MIRI and other similar charities is the best way to spend our money in pursuit of maximizing the happiness of future humans. By analogy, I care about malaria, but I wouldn’t donate to a charity dedicated to building defences against giant radioactive mutant mosquitoes — I’d rather invest in bed netting.

      Most humans have revealed preferences to care more about people close to them in time and space and mind-shape, all of which I reject… most people aren’t strategic or selfless, and their implicit main motivation in morality is demonstrating that they’re trustworthy and generous.

      I think you might be begging the question (despite the fact that I partially agree with your conclusion). What you are essentially saying is, “my morality is right and everyone else’s is wrong; I know this because everyone else cares about things other than the ones my morality says they should care about”.

    • Anonymous says:

      What this comes down to is that you think you’re a sharp. That’s fine. Some people are sharps. Teddy Covers spends all of his days trying to beat Vegas on sports. David Tepper spends all of his days trying to beat the stock market. Sometimes, these guys do win. Even when they don’t beat the market, they can still make a lot of money (just not as much as they could have if they had been boring). It’s great that you want to be a sharp. The market doesn’t need that many sharps in order to be relatively efficient, but it does need a few fellas like you to step up and throw your hat in the ring. You guys correct the dumbness of the masses so that the rest of us can ride on the boring way.

      The analogy, of course, is that of course there are a ton of people who don’t share your morality. Of course they’re acting with dumb meat-brain biases like, “Everybody love the Cowboys!” “I just want to appear generous!” “Chick-fil-A is getting beaten up in the press; I bet it’s price is depressed; better buy!” And every time, there’s a sharp out there who knows better and bets the other way.

      You might think, “Here’s what’s different – incentives. In the stock market or sports betting, you want to keep all your insight to yourself. It’s a secret so that you alone can profit from it. In the moral market, you want to spread it to everyone!” However, this is really saying, “I want to be a hedge fund manager,” rather than, “I want to be a sharp individual investor.” You don’t think that you, personally, have sufficient resources to exploit the inefficiency to the extent that the inefficiency exists, so you recruit other people to invest their money with you. You’re able to take a cut of their profits, allowing you to exploit the inefficiency to the max, even though you couldn’t do so on your own. These types of investment clubs aren’t well-known in sports betting, because it’s not terribly legal in most areas. Instead, the most well-known route that an individual sharp takes to step up into the land of exploiting a larger base is that they become a bookie (either on their own or they’re hired by an existing book). Again, hedge fund managers and bookies can make a lot of money… they can even beat the market sometimes. But most importantly, they provide the corrections that are necessary to allow the rest of us to float upon the fruits of your labor. This is a real analogy that counters the idea that the incentives are totally different. As you recruit more money to exploit the moral inefficiency that you’re sure exists, then that inefficiency becomes less inefficient… until the point where you recruit enough money to make it efficient.

      Again, most markets have a ton of squares that can cause real inefficiencies. I’m 100% sure you could point out apparent inefficiencies in the moral market caused by squares (as you did). Likewise, I could point out apparent inefficiencies in the stock market or sports betting market caused by squares. Nevertheless, it only takes a handful of sharps (or sharp-led clubs) to correct them. So go! Be free! Be a sharp! I’m still gonna tell a group of squares, “Invest in index funds; stay away from Vegas; give to boring charities that aren’t trying to change the world to communism.”

      Finally, this is all a pretty big aside. I think the main point of the OP stands even without a Moral EMH. I don’t even think it needs a Political EMH. It really just needs a dash of uncertainty concerning systemic change and a desire to bring a group of squares together to accomplish a worthwhile goal while avoiding catastrophic intragroup conflict.

    • BeatCop says:

      For what it’s worth, I have spent a lot of time thinking about morality, philosophy, etc, and I disagree with several ideas that have been brought up by various commenters as obvious moral truths. Does that mean that we’re both right in thinking the others are wrong?

      More specifically, I note that many of the moral foundations don’t seem consistent with maximizing survival of the carriers of the moral meme, which I think is a major weakness. What I mean is, say you have a sincere belief that insects have the same moral value as a man. This results in radical (and contra-survival) changes in your lifestyle, as well as the lifestyle of all those that agree with you. If these are contra-survival, this results in everyone carrying this moral meme being out-competed and eclipsed by those who do not carry the moral meme. Thus, the moral meme disappears.

      One of the problems with systemic change is that it implies a massive change, which is more likely to be contra-survival than an individualist approach. Think of China’s one child policy, or restrictions on carbon emissions, or various other plans that have a moral concept behind them that restrict growth. All of these render the societies using them less competitive, which may (or may not, depending on how strong the effect is) cause the societies using them to disappear. This is how we know, for example, that the voluntary human extinction people will fail in the long run.

      Any realistic moral philosophy must take its own survival and propagation into account.

  4. Randy M says:

    Still reading this, but I wanted to jump to the comments to point out another Scott A has posted similar thougths about the comparison to Stock Markets and political analysis you may be interested in:
    http://blog.dilbert.com/post/128844698316/who-is-smarter-the-smart-people-or-the-dumb

    “As someone whose own views on open borders are mixed (I should probably write a post)”
    I both dread and look forward to this post.

  5. I think this argument proves too much.

    Like, okay, one possibly-valuable thing that animal advocates do is try to overturn ag-gag laws so that it’s legal to report animal cruelty on factory farms. This seems to fall under the definition of systemic change you’re describing – it’s trying to get a preferred change into law – and it’s happening in the service of a bigger effort at systemic change – trying to get people to agree that animal agriculture is bad. It sounds to me like your Bob would say “that’s political, and outside view says politics doesn’t work” and your Alice would say “on average, campaigning to get these laws overturned in a state has a success rate of 60% with an investment of X dollars, and overturning the law decreases animal cruelty on factory farms by Z” and Alice seems to obviously have a better grasp of EA than Bob does. If this doesn’t count as systemic change, what does? If these criticisms are specific to capitalism and immigration, what makes them specific to that and why don’t they apply to animal advocacy? And if these criticisms do apply to animal advocacy then it just seems like the future is here and not actually particularly divisive or scary; no one seems to have been turned off EA by advocacy for ag-gag laws.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I would put ag-gag laws in the same category as stopping corporate welfare and increasing the foreign aid budget; except for a few special interests nobody is strongly against repealing them. It’s more lack of activist will than concerted symmetric opposition.

      In fact, I wish I had used this example instead of foreign aid.

      • Andrew says:

        Wait, I’m confused. Are you claiming that no one is opposed to increasing the foreign aid budget?

        • Scott Alexander says:

          No, I’m saying that most people agree foreign countries getting more aid is good if it happens at no cost to them, but when it comes out of a budget it’s controversial.

          • Carl Shulman says:

            Once you start making your donations publicly and advocating that others do likewise, then you get conflict over that advocacy reallocating the decisions of others. When people successfully advocate to get other donors to reallocate funds from things you think are super-important to ones you think are terrible that has some similar dynamics.

          • “foreign countries getting more aid”

            How about “the governments of foreign countries being given more money.” Calling it foreign aid assumes away some of the important questions.

            I think it’s at least arguable that it makes things worse. It creates a stronger incentive to seize and hold power in poor countries, and provides resources for doing so that don’t depend on popular support.

          • Nathan says:

            I’m ok with foreign aid of the GiveDirectly variety, but imagine a country experiencing a food shortage gets millions of tons of rice donated to it in a spike, for example. What happens? Well the price of rice plummets which is obviously very good for consumers in the short term. But perhaps that price drop also sends local rice farmers bankrupt, which exacerbates their long term domestic food supply problem as well as reducing their ability to purchase imports.

            I have no idea whether these effects net out as positive or negative overall, and I don’t see the same problems arising from expanding budgets rather than directly messing with local markets, but I think its at least arguable that foreign aid as actually practiced may have negative consequences even disregarding the cost to the donor nation.

          • Viliam says:

            See “For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!“.

            several thousands tons of corn are shipped to Africa … A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unsrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the UN’s World Food Program. And because the farmers go under in the face of this pressure, Kenya would have no reserves to draw on if there actually were a famine next year. It’s a simple but fatal cycle.

      • Deiseach says:

        Interesting. We do not appear to have such laws in Ireland, and cases of animal cruelty by farmers are prosecuted in the courts, but on the other hand, we don’t have the same kind of agricultural animal rights activism (a lot of ours is anti-blood sports) so I don’t know what the reaction would be if someone, say, went undercover on an intensive pig-rearing unit in the Midlands for the purpose of documenting abuses.

      • Jiro says:

        I have mixed feelings over ag-gag laws and the above argument makes me favor them more.

        Ag-gag laws are bad by everyone’s standards because of the violation of the freedom of speech of the humans involved. But if the laws are being opposed in the service of a bigger effort at systemic change, I also need to consider whether this bigger effort at systemic change is good or bad, and if bad, that shifts the balance toward the “support the ag-gag law” side. I oppose vegetarianism; I find it perfectly plausible that ag-gag laws are trying to do a positive thing (help free speech) in service of a negative thing (promote vegetarianism). Even if I don’t think stopping animal cruelty is bad by itself, I know very well that the people involved don’t actually think it’s okay to eat non-cruelly-created meat; they’re just picking on animal cruelty as the camel’s nose into the tent, and I find the camel’s presence a negative thing even if I can tolerate the nose.

        Ag-gag laws also seem to me good because they change the incentives. By preventing people from using information gained by deception and by trespassing, they decrease the prevalence of deception and trespassing, which I find to be a positive that must be balanced against the negative of suppressing free speech.

        • Murphy says:

          I’m more worried that the ag-gag laws are themselves their own camel and a far more objectionable one.

          They set a quite horrifying precedent that could allow far greater abuses in far more industries with far higher human cost.

          Supporting them because they’re the enemy of your enemy seems mildly mind-killed. They’re not reverse-evil even if they’re initially put in place to oppose a group you really dislike.

        • Chris says:

          “Even if I don’t think stopping animal cruelty is bad by itself, I know very well that the people involved don’t actually think it’s okay to eat non-cruelly-created meat; they’re just picking on animal cruelty as the camel’s nose into the tent, and I find the camel’s presence a negative thing even if I can tolerate the nose.”

          I’m really not trying to detail into a veg debate, but I’m curious why you think this. Vegetarians are not unified on this issue, and I’m not sure why it would override concern for animal cruelty if they were. Is your view that the potential benefits of reduced animal cruelty are insignificant vs. the costs of giving in to bad discourse behavior by vegetarians?

          • Jiro says:

            I think that anyone who reads this blog knows just how bad “bad discourse behavior” is even when it just consists of Twitter and Tumblir. Bad discourse behavior that involves deception and trespassing is *really bad* . Can you imagine if this became popular and political activists started using such “bad discourse behavior” on all suspected racists or homophobes, or all corporations?

          • Murphy says:

            I take it that in this context you’re counting as “deception and trespassing” being allowed into a location but first being required to sign a form saying “I am definitely not an activist and won’t reveal anything” therefore making it trespass after the fact when they do reveal that the meat you sell is actually ground up orphans? (Rather than *real* trespassing.)

            Kind of like how every company now makes customers sign a “we may never sue you for anything” form as part of every standard contract.

            Most of the time when people talk about “bad discourse behavior” they mean things which will have a chilling effect, not due to what might be revealed but because the act itself. ie: “you disagree with me? then I’ll send 100 people to spy on you, break in and pretend to be friendly with you” where that’s deployed as a punishment rather than any credible attempt to discover important information.

            For the most part journalists already spy on companies and various groups and most of the time the result is positive for the general public.

        • Troy Rex says:

          “By preventing people from using information gained by deception and by trespassing, they decrease the prevalence of deception and trespassing, which I find to be a positive that must be balanced against the negative of suppressing free speech.”
          Sure, let’s balance them against each other, but I’d suggest that the balance favors free speech here, because, as Judge Winmill noted, “laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist.” http://aldf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/8-3-2015-ALDF-decision-ag-gag.pdf

          A rule which permitted suppression of any speech which used information gained by illicit means would be highly susceptible to abuse, even if the rule were a good idea in itself. For instance, former employees could be tied up in litigation to determine whether any of their opinions about their former employers were based on information they shouldn’t have had. Talk about a chilling effect.

          Fortunately, American jurisprudence is very good in this area (for once).

          • Jiro says:

            I’d suggest that the balance favors free speech here, because, as Judge Winmill noted, “laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist.”

            When people start focussing their crimes in a small area, you generally get more laws against them. I’d fully expect that if a political movement started stalking cardiologists all the time to photograph them committing bad deeds, eventually someone would make a law specifically aimed at stalking cardiologists even if that was already covered by other laws.

          • Doug S. says:

            Like the laws about picketing abortion clinics…

          • John Schilling says:

            Sure, let’s balance them against each other, but I’d suggest that the balance favors free speech here, because, as Judge Winmill noted, “laws against trespass, fraud, theft, and defamation already exist.”

            Laws against theft already exist, but we find it useful to also have laws against trafficking in stolen property, and even proponents of free markets don’t seem to have a problem with these laws. So, while I lean against ag-gag laws on principle, I don’t think the balance is as obvious as you suggest.

    • Alex Richard says:

      > no one seems to have been turned off EA by advocacy for ag-gag laws.

      There are definitely *some* people who would be turned off by ag-gag laws; but they’ve not really been targeted by EA to begin with, and to whatever extent they disagree with ag-gag laws, they would probably be turned off earlier, when they realize that the general culture of EA is mostly pro-animal rights. A better analogy would be comparing extant global poverty-focused EA with how well EA’s global poverty efforts would do if EA’s didn’t care about animals or the far future; we know that these causes have damaged the reputation of global poverty focused EA. And even in these cases, almost all people don’t really care; almost nobody has, as an important part of their identity, opposition to AI risk or veganism.

      • lmm says:

        I think plenty of people hate vegans.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I don’t think this is true. People hate preachy activists, and some Vegans tend to fall into that category, so they end up being hated — but the reason is their preachiness, not their dietary preferences.

        • Careless says:

          But they hate vegans because of the way they act about being vegan/others not being vegan, not because of the simple fact of their diet.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          People hate the kind of vegans this joke is about:

          “How can you tell if somebody is vegan?”

          “Don’t worry: they’ll tell you.”

          However, that joke can also suit any number of other groups (I hear it about Mensa members a lot, although I’ve never told anyone I was a Mensa member except when the subject had already been raised.) And the point is, if you’re not the kind of X that will tell people, nobody hates you, because they don’t even know.

          • suntzuanime says:

            You just told us you were a Mensa member without the subject being raised, lol

          • Anonymous says:

            “I’ve never told anyone I was a MENSA member unless the subject had already been raised”, he announced.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            You’ve got me dead to rights, even though technically I did raise the subject of membership in Mensa when I said it was a common replacement for ‘vegan’ in the joke, and that was before I mentioned I was one.

            Nothing I can say one way or another will change anybody’s mind about whether I did that so I could use myself as a counterexample. 🙂 I didn’t, and in my defense I’ll point out that in all honesty I would not expect such a claim to increase my status/authority/respect amongst the readers of this site, so I have no reason to do it other than as a handy example

            But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    • Sastan says:

      Uhhh…….that’s a policy change, not a systemic one. That is exactly the sort of low-level incrementalism the people who oppose systemic change support.

      • Nita says:

        Roughly, there are four positions:
        – conservative: don’t change the system or yourself, and don’t let others do it either
        – revolutionary: change the system right now, all means are good means!
        – apolitical: don’t touch the system, change yourself, perhaps others will join you eventually
        – reformist: change the system, but only in small steps, to minimize risk

  6. Sam Rosen says:

    Can you please write that thing about open borders? I really enjoyed your parable about Conservia in the reactionary philosophy in a nutshell essay.

  7. If everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, the GiveWell charities would immediately run out of room for more funding and then we’d have to figure out what to do with the rest of it. This process seems prone to instigating civil war, or at least the kind of difficulties that you’re hoping to avoid.

    GiveWell has written about the limitations of the giving-as-consumption model. It may be possible for the marginal person to avoid these hard problems while doing the most good they can, but I don’t think there’s any way to avoid tackling them if you want to do good on a really large scale.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Jeffrey Sachs says that it would take about $50 billion a year to solve world poverty; I’m going off his figures.

      • Linch says:

        Sachs is way better at development and more informed than me, but I nonetheless have over 90% confidence that he’s too optimistic with that figure (unless we’re talking about a fairly long time horizon where most of the work is done by internal development+trade).

        • Kyle says:

          I agree. Just looked up UN figures, 1.2bn people <$1 a day. 2.8bn people <$2 a day. Just taking the 1.2 billion people, if we go GiveDirectly, and hand them $40/year or $0.12/day, that still leaves us with 2.8 billion people <$2/day. Given the pretty high rates of ROI on that investment, call it 20% although I think it will be hard to scale that to $50 billion, that would $0.025/day in permanent income increase for a billion people. That's not bad! That's, call it, a 4% increase in lifetime earnings for the billion poorest people in the world in one year. But that doesn't look like we fixed poverty, or that's a plan to solve poverty in a decade or two (even if it makes a tremendous difference in living standards).

          More mobile phones, cheap mobile banking, cheap bandwidth, cheap solar panels, cheaply tracking property rights, and bigger/better cities. Maybe that Silicon Valley dream could be done with 50bn in startup capital? But I don't think starting a bitcoin based housing deed system is what Sachs is thinking, it's not charity, it's very risky, and the technology/business building part is really, really hard. And doing cities right is probably even harder.

      • Is he proposing to do this in such a way that we can be highly confident that throwing $50 billion per year at the problem would actually work and not somehow backfire horribly? It seems likely to me that such a proposal would be systemic change, with all the associated risks.

      • Nornagest says:

        I don’t think you could solve American poverty in any kind of intuitive sense for fifty gigabucks a year, let alone global poverty, but Sachs probably has something specific and not very intuitive in mind.

        • baconbacon says:

          You could probably solve american poverty for negative 50 billion a year.

        • Mary says:

          In the only sense in which it can be solved with money, American poverty has already been solved. You can’t run a homeless shelter without providing amenities (deemed necessary to make it fit for human habitation) that would make kings and queens and emperors of two centuries gape in astonishment.

          If “charity cases live better than royalty” doesn’t mean poverty is solved, the problem is not money.

          • Emp says:

            I can’t agree more with this assessment. The average person’s present lifestyle is far more luxurious and filled with things Roman Emperors couldn’t even have dreamed of. This is a manifestation of jealousy, something which is unfortunately not going away any time soon.

            There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of the ancients and in particular I agree with “Nothing new under the sun”.

            People who think poverty and suffering can be eliminated are wrong, and not in a sense that has anything to do with understanding technology, statistics or economics. Human behaviour will adapt to ensure that these things continue.

          • To take this to the world level.

            One definition of world poverty is living on less than $1/day. By that definition, allowing for inflation ($1 defined as of 2005 purchasing power), about 40% of the world population was poor in the early eighties. The current figure is about 14%. Over a little over thirty years we have eliminated about two-thirds of world poverty, definition held constant, not by charity or foreign aid but simple economic growth.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_threshold

            (also shows figures using $1.25 and $2)

          • wysinwyg says:

            If “charity cases live better than royalty” doesn’t mean poverty is solved, the problem is not money.

            This seems nonsensical:
            a) we should compare the poor of 200 years ago to the royalty of 200 years ago; or the poor of today to royalty today. It’s not at all obvious that “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago means that “poverty is solved”.
            b) Do “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago”? Sure, “charity cases today” have running water and electric lights (feel free to suggest amenities I’m not taking into account), but they presumably do not have dozens of servants (a small subset of which provide most of the utility of electric lights and running water by lighting lamps and porting bedpans), or the sort of fresh, local, seasonal food royalty of 200 years ago was likely to eat. They also have a great deal less personal security; getting robbed in a homeless shelter is a daily occurrence, but it seems unlikely that royalty of 200 years ago were routinely robbed in their own bedchambers. And, of course, royalty a few hundred years ago got to spend a pretty good share of time in leisurely pursuits, whereas a modern day homeless person trying to get enough money together to lease an apartment would probably have to work 16+ hour days (unless maybe they’re skilled labor who became homeless as a result of depression or similar).

            But even ignoring that, homeless shelters don’t even solve homelessness, let alone poverty.

          • wysinwyg says:

            This is a manifestation of jealousy, something which is unfortunately not going away any time soon.

            This sentiment is why there was ever such a thing as a Marxist.

            Yes, people who have to work two or three jobs to keep Kraft dinner on the table are jealous that some people work salary jobs and can shop at Whole Foods. And some people who work salary jobs and shop at Whole Foods are jealous of people who can afford to eat out, order in, or hire a chef every night of the week.

            From the libertarian perspective, this should be a good thing. This sort of “jealousy” is what makes people want to have money in the first place.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            @Mary, Emp:

            Gonna link to my old comments here. Yes, first world poor have a lot more money than third world poor, and that money allows them to easily buy things like digital televisions, air conditioning, and smartphones which are beyond the reach of third-world poor and which would have been unimaginable luxuries to the kings of ages past. No, this doesn’t mean they aren’t poor, because they are still trapped in a situation of having to work really long and really hard at really shitty jobs with a really long commute in order to afford the rent of a really tiny apartment, a really long credentialed education, etc…

            Now, I am sympathetic to the idea that you can’t solve these problems just by giving the first world poor more money, since they appear to be caused by zero-sum competitions and/or monopolies which can eat arbitrary amounts of money. But my point is that saying “there are no truly poor people left in first world countries” is just wrong.

          • gbdub says:

            That’s a bit too rosy – there certainly remain people in pretty squalid conditions by any standard, although the truly homeless seem to be more a problem of lack of effective mental health care than lack of available resources to care for their physical needs.

            I for one am perfectly fine with ratcheting the definition of poverty upward – that is in one sense basically the defining characteristic of progress – as long as we’re honest about it. Yes, American poverty today is not nearly the same thing as American poverty in 1935, but to say it’s “solved” and we never have to worry about it again seems sort of like giving up on progress. I’d like the poor of 3000 to be at least as better off as the poor of today are compared to 1000.

          • Randy M says:

            “a) we should compare the poor of 200 years ago to the royalty of 200 years ago; or the poor of today to royalty today. It’s not at all obvious that “charity cases today live better than royalty 200 years ago means that “poverty is solved”.”

            What is the problem of povery? Quality of life or low esteem due to wealth differential?
            If it is quality of life, then seeing the poor have a quality of life equal to that of those considered well off in times past (if true, all things being equal, etc.) is quite instructive.

          • Mary says:

            dozens of servants (a small subset of which provide most of the utility of electric lights and running water by lighting lamps and porting bedpans),

            Who does nowadays? That’s because the servants’ jobs have been automated away. What do the servants materially provide that the lack makes you poor? After all, if you want your own orchestra nowadays you use recorded music.

            or the sort of fresh, local, seasonal food royalty of 200 years ago was likely to eat.

            You cite its faults, not its virtues. Local and seasonal both mean “limited” — homeless shelters have a better and wider selection. And is it really better to have fresh peaches for the peach picking season than canned peaches all year?

          • Mary says:

            “No, this doesn’t mean they aren’t poor, because they are still trapped in a situation of having to work really long and really hard at really shitty jobs with a really long commute in order to afford the rent of a really tiny apartment, a really long credentialed education, etc…”

            Yes, it means they aren’t poor. This is because you are conflating a lack of money for necessities with other difficulties. “Poor” does not mean “has all sorts of problems,” it means the lack of money for necessities.

          • Mary says:

            “I for one am perfectly fine with ratcheting the definition of poverty upward – that is in one sense basically the defining characteristic of progress – as long as we’re honest about it. ”

            I’m not.

            It invariably turns into a demand for slavery — not by my definition, but by that of the Supreme Court, which defined it that one man should labor for the good of another against his will.

            And I don’t see how it could do anything else. What else could such a ratcheting up of the level of poverty do?

          • wysinwyg says:

            Who does nowadays? That’s because the servants’ jobs have been automated away. What do the servants materially provide that the lack makes you poor? After all, if you want your own orchestra nowadays you use recorded music.

            You have it backwards. You’re trying to argue that the poor of today are better off than the royalty of 200 years ago. I’m pointing out that in all respects that the poor of today are actually in pretty good shape, the royalty of 200 years ago was in similarly good shape. From their perspective, it doesn’t matter if it’s servants or a light switch — as long as the lights are on.

            But to honestly answer your question, having people cook food for me, serve it to me wherever and whenever I want, make clothing tailored for me from the finest materials available, being able to hunt on my private nature preserve, have experts raise horses and dogs for my personal use…these seem like wonderful “amenities” that would improve anyone’s mood a bit.

            You cite its faults, not its virtues. Local and seasonal both mean “limited” — homeless shelters have a better and wider selection.

            “Limited” means “bad”? And I suspect you don’t eat many meals at homeless shelters.

            And is it really better to have fresh peaches for the peach picking season than canned peaches all year?

            I honestly feel a little sorry for you if you think canned peaches all year are not obviously inferior to fresh peaches during peach picking season.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Yes, it means they aren’t poor. This is because you are conflating a lack of money for necessities with other difficulties. “Poor” does not mean “has all sorts of problems,” it means the lack of money for necessities.

            It looks like we are just arguing over a definition, then. If we taboo “poor”, can we both agree that people in first world countries almost never die of hunger, thirst, or exposure, but that a lot of them experience the sorts of problems and difficulties I listed?

          • Mary says:

            Once, the wine froze on the table at Versailles. There’s one amenity he went without that the homeless don’t have to do without.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I notice with a mixture of amusement and despair that the words “poor” and “in poverty” are being used interchangeably by many participants.

            In the words of a famed philosopher, the poor you will always have with you. But a person who is in poverty is not just poor: they are impoverished. “Poor” and “impoverished” are not the same thing. All impoverished people are poor: not all poor people are impoverished.

            In my opinion, America has solved the problem of poverty, for any reasonable definition of “solved” and “poverty.” Granted the solution is not administered anything like as well as it could be and people slip through the cracks: that does not mean the solution is not real, it means it isn’t being applied. Anyone who is impoverished in America is impoverished because of inability to use anti-poverty resources, not because they are not available.

            It has not solved, and never will solve, the problem of there being poor people. Using that as your measurement means you automatically win. Congratulations. Have a cookie.

            I know that is really pedantic, but given the amount of talking past each other that is going on here, I felt like being pedantic. Please stop doing that.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            wysinwyg says:I honestly feel a little sorry for you if you think canned peaches all year are not obviously inferior to fresh peaches during peach picking season.

            Even if you live in a area who’s climate and soil supports peach trees canned peaches whenever you want them are still vastly preferable to no peaches at all 8 months out of 12.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          If you raised the standard of living of everyone in the world to the median “poverty level” household in America, I believe many people would consider (reasonably) world poverty to be a solved problem.

      • zz says:

        Source? I find 150B, 175B, 200B.

      • Alyssa Vance says:

        One of GiveWell’s recommended most effective charities is Give Directly, essentially just giving money to very poor people. Remittances (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Remittance) basically do the same thing – very poor people have a family member in a richer country, and the family member sends some extra cash back to them. Per Wikipedia, remittances to developing countries totaled $436 billion in 2014. A $50 billion annual budget would add to existing remittances by a total of 11%, barely enough to even notice. And before a commenter tells me how they can distribute an annual budget of $50 billion to poor people much more effectively than the combined effort of tens of millions of close relatives of said poor people, I’d like to see where on their resume they managed a budget of $10 million (a tiny amount! only 0.02% as much!) without them, their employees or their contractors wasting a large fraction of it. I used to largely manage a ~$1 million budget, and even at that level it was a continuous grind to resist all the pressures of people who’d annoy you for months, unless they got paid thousands of dollars for work they didn’t do. Managing huge amounts of money effectively is really, really hard.

        • Linch says:

          To be fair, most of those remittances are not going to the bottom billion or two.

          But thanks for some order-of-magnitude clarity into this situation.

        • Adam says:

          I managed a pair of budgets collectively equal to around $50 million and I still don’t think I could do that, but naive uniform random distribution could probably do better than remittances.

          That was the combined travel and micropurchase budget of the 1st Cavalry Division, by the way. Sometimes I ponder the fact that we could probably save a few hundred thousand lives just by axing the budget for awards and ceremonies, which presumably would have the minimal effect on military readiness out of things you could cut. $195,000 a year just in that one division is spent on commander’s coins annually, which aren’t even real awards, just desk decorations.

      • Anon. says:

        Scott, Sachs is a hack. Read Easterly.

      • Emp says:

        I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.

        If $50 billion would do it, it would already have happened.

        Are you sure the assumptions involved with this estimate account for changes in prices and behaviour in response to whatever impact the spending of this $50 billion has.

        • The reason that world poverty is unlikely to end is that, as societies get richer, they raise their definition of what counts as poverty.

          If that isn’t obvious …

          The old definition of world poverty was a dollar a day. The current U.S. definition works out to a little over five thousand dollars/year per person, or about fifteen dollars/day. Not a small difference.

          As I pointed out in an earlier comment, using a constant definition about two-thirds of world poverty (as a percentage of population) was eliminated over the past thirty-some years.

          • wysinwyg says:

            The old definition of world poverty was a dollar a day. The current U.S. definition works out to a little over five thousand dollars/year per person, or about fifteen dollars/day. Not a small difference.

            The difference is presumably commensurate with the difference in cost of living. Try feeding, housing, and clothing yourself in the US for one dollar a day.

            There’s also the fact that ours is a consumer economy which means that the proles need some non-zero amount of spending money to keep the carousel turning.

          • gbdub says:

            @wysinwig – I’m sure David can fend for himself, but I do believe his calculation of “2/3 of poverty eliminated” took inflation into account.

            Of course there are still infrastructure issues – there are places where even if incomes have risen things like water and electricity cannot be purchased reliably at any price. But those are getting better too with advancing technology.

          • brad says:

            No, it is adjusted for inflation and for cost of living differences (which are almost always and everywhere overestimated).

            We are just that much richer. Homeless people in US cities for example don’t kill and eat squirrels and pigeons, because they have better options.

          • wysinwyg says:

            I’m sure David can fend for himself, but I do believe his calculation of “2/3 of poverty eliminated” took inflation into account.

            I didn’t say anything about David’s 2/3rds of poverty eliminated. That did indeed take inflation into account and seems well argued. It’s also interesting and perspective-fixing, and perhaps I should have given him credit for all that.

            But I was actually just pointing out the problem with comparing a world poverty definition with a US poverty definition and not taking into account differential costs of living — it’s a completely different issue.

            Of course there are still infrastructure issues – there are places where even if incomes have risen things like water and electricity cannot be purchased reliably at any price. But those are getting better too with advancing technology.

            As others have pointed out, even the wealthiest 200 years ago did not have running water or electricity. Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing seems to be the more pressing problem regardless of geographic or temporal considerations.

          • wysinwyg says:

            Homeless people in US cities for example don’t kill and eat squirrels and pigeons, because they have better options.

            Better options seem to mostly consist of panhandling and dumpster diving.

            These are good options: Americans are generous and incredibly wasteful with respect to good food. Trickle down at work, I guess.

            Also, I suspect most homeless people wouldn’t know how to field dress a squirrel.

          • Linch says:

            The current definition of extreme poverty is *still* $1.50/day in 2015 prices, which is roughly the same as $1/day in 1995.

            2/3 is a bit rosy. Did you adjust for inflation? Also, it obfuscates certain trends like life-cycle effects and population growth of people in moderate (rather than extreme) poverty.

            http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21578643-world-has-astonishing-chance-take-billion-people-out-extreme-poverty-2030-not

            But yes, in general the world is becoming a better place.

            When Sachs (and hopefully most people on this thread) talks about world poverty, he is explicitly referring to the $1/day (in 1995 dollars) figure. In a hypothetical world where the poorest person in the world lives on just below the US poverty line, I can see a case for redefining world poverty in those terms, however using that as a case for why world poverty as it is used today (instead of just a term) could never end seems like a map-territory confusion.

            wysinwyg: The UN’s definition of poverty is explicitly pegged at US prices. “Try feeding, housing, and clothing yourself in the US for one dollar a day.” Yes, poverty sucks. It’s not mildly inconvenient, it really really really sucks. If you want it to suck less for some people, consider donating to GiveWell’s top charities!

          • Urstoff says:

            I wonder what percentage of people dumpster-diving are doing that because they are mentally ill or otherwise don’t like homeless shelters or other forms of charity rather than people who literally have no other options. Panhandling is pretty common in any US city, but they look to be much better off than any person you see dumpster diving (which seem to be the people that have a bike/shopping cart and have refined homelessness into an art).

          • wysinwyg says:

            I wonder what percentage of people dumpster-diving are doing that because they are mentally ill or otherwise don’t like homeless shelters or other forms of charity rather than people who literally have no other options.

            I suspect they’re mostly drop-out types for whom the psychological/ideological dimensions of eating from a trash container aren’t much of a factor. Realistically, panhandlers seem to use their money to buy convenience store sandwiches or pizza slices. Dumpster divers can get much better food than that if they know where and when to look.

          • Adam says:

            What are you guys referring to as “dumpster divers?” I used to have a neighbor that woke up at 4 AM every morning to be the first one to every dumpster, get all the cans, and take them to the recycling center and he helped pay the rent that way. He wasn’t even homeless. He lived with like eight other people, one of whom owned a medical transport service.

          • Urstoff says:

            My best example of a dumpster diver is the grizzled-looking old guy (who is probably 48 but looks 65) who lives behind the dumpster of the Motel 6 next to my office and digs through the dumpster for who knows what. He’s an OG homeless person.

          • wysinwyg says:

            @Adam:

            What are you guys referring to as “dumpster divers?

            I guess I ended up talking about intentionally-homeless hipster kids.

            But I acknowledge that plenty of housed/employed people go through dumpsters too, and that some of them can even make pretty good money at it with the right skills or connections.

          • “The difference is presumably commensurate with the difference in cost of living. ”

            You are mistaken. The poor on $1/day are not living anything close to the quality of life of the American poor on $15/day. Why do you assume that the cost of the same things, many of which are traded in world markets, is much lower in poor countries?

            I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.

          • Linch asks if I adjusted for inflation. In my earlier comment I wrote:

            “($1 defined as of 2005 purchasing power)”

            So yes.

          • RCF says:

            “Why do you assume that the cost of the same things, many of which are traded in world markets, is much lower in poor countries?”

            Probably because the idea of anyone living on a dollar a day in the US is absurd, and thus either the cost of living in other countries is much lower, or income isn’t being properly calculated. People in less developed countries don’t monetize as much of their lives as people in America do. If an American buys their water at a store, then that is captured as economic activity. But if someone walks an hour-long round trip, pumps water from a well, and carries that home, most of the economic expenditures for that won’t be measured. It might even be considered “free” water, even though it is no such thing.

            “I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.”

            Cost, or cost to the person? Cost, or monetary expenditure?

          • I wrote:

            “I actually did a calculation on my blog of the minimum cost life in the U.S., where the criterion was “conditions that did not reduce life expectancy by 50% or more.” It wasn’t much over a dollar a day.”

            and got the response:

            “Cost, or cost to the person? Cost, or monetary expenditure?”

            The blog post is:

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2013/05/whats-wrong-with-mushy.html

            It’s part of an argument I was having with the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians.” The calculation of minimal cost, a response to the idea that “basic needs” was an objective category, is towards the end.

            Looking at it from the other end, a piece I recently saw, from a not-unbiased source but with links to data on what poverty in the U.S. consists of:

            http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2015/09/poverty-and-the-social-welfare-state-in-the-united-states-and-other-nations

          • RCF says:

            @David Friedman

            First, regarding “Politics and the English Language”, I find it hard to take seriously any essay that complains that the passive voice is used more than it should be.

            As for your calculations, you dismiss housing costs by saying people can live outdoors. While there may be places where nights in the winter are survivable, it would a rather miserable existence. Adding tents and sleeping blankets not only increases up-front costs, but also means that one has to provide security. There is a cost to having a bunch of homeless people living in state parks, or wherever you’re proposing, and these costs would be greatly increased if we had say, several million people living there. Also, you base your food costs on supermarket prices, but there aren’t many supermarkets in the middle of nowhere. Distributing food to a bunch of people living in the woods would significantly increase its costs. And, as you admit, it doesn’t include medical costs. There is also the issue of what sort of dental care you are envisioning. And while technically, a person can survive without social interaction, it’s not psychologically healthy.

            There may be some “mush” in the concept of minimum living standards, but to say that there is not enough clarity in the concept to exclude living in the woods without any social contact, subsisting on flour and peanut butter, having half the life expectancy of average Americans, etc., is going too far.

        • Linch says:

          “I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.”

          I am 99% confident that your claim cannot be literally true.

          • stillnotking says:

            If the pain of poverty in the developed world mostly stems from lack of status, then it is true. In that case, the only way to “solve” poverty would be to give everyone a customized Matrix habitat where they are a rock star, a head of state, or a highly esteemed blogger.

            (I don’t mean to trivialize status hunger. It’s very real, and is a major driver of depression and suicide, especially in men.)

          • Randy M says:

            That depends on if poverty is a question of inequality or of quality.

          • Linch says:

            Most of the time when people talk about “world poverty” (esp. among people like Sachs and people in EA circles), they’re implicitly not referring to developed-world poverty.

            Now the developed world is a part of the world so maybe that term is imprecise, but I think the semantics dispute isn’t particularly important.

            Randy: If you think poverty is a question of inequality and not quality, you could advocate for eg, a genuine communist revolution or a reactionary return to a more egalitarian hunter-gatherer society. If relative poverty (defined reasonably as, eg, less than 1/3 of the median income) is the greater culprit, it’s not mathematically impossible to solve.

            Now I personally wouldn’t, since I think quality>>>equality, but saying that “you can’t ever solve this issue even with infinite resources” is kinda silly.

          • Randy M says:

            “It’s not mathematically impossible to solve.”
            Nor is it a question of where to apply how much funds in that case, however. If EA’s are trying raise xxT$ to fund a global communist revolution, that’s going to get notice, and soon money won’t be the limiting factor.

          • Linch says:

            Sure, I was mostly responding to the claim “I am 95% confident that there is literally no amount of money that will end world poverty.” which at the literal level seems *really* excessive.

          • Randy M says:

            My point was that it wasn’t necessarily excessive, it might be quibbling about the definition of poverty.

          • Linch says:

            I don’t think any reasonable*, currently extant definition of poverty will not be solved by pouring an arbitrarily large of pile of money at the solution.

            If your definition of poverty is “less than $1.50/day,” we can brute force the problem with less than a trillion every year. (and there are probably better leveraged methods!)

            If your definition of poverty is “1/3 of the median income” redistribution through cash transfers for people with less than 1/3 income will solve that too.

            If your definition of poverty is something more complicated like Sen’s capabilities approach, I still think it’s plausible (like way more than 5% plausible) that each of those social services could be set up by pouring enough money into the situation.

            *Maybe reasonable is doing the heavy lifting here, but I struggle to come up with a definition of poverty that isn’t solvable by money and isn’t obviously absurd.

          • Linch says:

            @Mark OP made the original claim of “literally no amount of money” If you don’t like unbounded claims, take it up with him/her.

            And the US currently spends close to a order of magnitude more on social security than is needed to lift the entire world out of (the $1.50/day definition of) extreme poverty in the most direct means possible, so I think you more than exaggerate the fallout of the “problems you may claim to wish to solve”

          • RCF says:

            If they claim that they are 95% confident, I see no reason to doubt that it’s literally true that they are 95% confident.

            Also, money is means of redistributing resources. If there aren’t enough resources to solve a problem, then it is literally true that literally no amount of money will solve the problem.

          • Linch says:

            The world we live in has enough resources that all 7 billion of us could live at significantly above $2.50 a day. Why is this even an argument?

          • “The world we live in has enough resources that all 7 billion of us could live at significantly above $2.50 a day.”

            “Could” conceals a lot of problems. Since it isn’t happening, you are assuming that something is changed, and it’s worth specifying what.

            Suppose God orders everyone to act as he is currently acting, while he transfers enough income from those making more than $2.50/day to those making less to bring everyone above that level. That’s workable as long as current per capita world income is above $2.50/day, which I am sure it is.

            But that isn’t one of the available options. Next assume a competent and benevolent world government which taxes the richer people and subsidizes the poorer. Doing that alters the incentives of both rich and poor, with the exact effect depending on the details. If the government simply offers to bring everyone up to $2.50/day, there is no incentive for those making less than that to work, which will reduce world income by whatever they currently produce. If it gives everyone a demogrant of $2.50/day, that costs about eight trillion dollars a year, which will have to be collected in additional taxes, and those taxes affect the incentives of the people paying them and may reduce the amount they produce.

            Next suppose we are imagining not a benevolent and competent world government but the sort of world government we would actually be likely to get if we had one—rather like existing governments. Now getting everyone above $2.50 may be impossible, because it may not be the outcome that comes out of the politics of such a system. We have lots of examples of real world governments that proclaim their belief in equality and helping the poor while actually maintaining an elite largely supported by the government.

            All of which is to say that your “could” conceals a lot of hard issues.

            A different way of making part of the same point is that your “resources” ignores the fact that the main resource is people—oil doesn’t pump and refine itself. Each person is controlled by himself. So not all ways of getting people to act to produce the outcome you want may be possible.

          • Linch says:

            David:

            1) while I agree with you that there are nontrivial difficulties of implementation, and it’s possible (though I think, with admittedly not much evidence, unlikely) that the disincentive effects outweigh the benefits, the evidentiary barriers of “literally no amount of money” (later clarified by not the OP as “no amount of resources that exist”) can end world poverty is very high, and your points while interesting do not directly address them.

            2) In the messy real-world of implementation, I agree with you that giving people up to X will create strong disincentive effects. That’s why I would prefer a basic income. I suspect the disincentive effects there are much smaller. The disincentives from welfare obviously exist in the first world…but poverty here and poverty there are qualitatively different.

            3) I would also prefer creating more money (which obv. does not create more resources) as a method of redistribution, though I’d like to talk to a monetary economist about why it’s stupid first. The basic idea being that it shouldn’t be enough inflation to create a hyperinflation death spiral, and as long as it’s consistent, inflation hurts the poor significantly less than it hurts the rich.

            4) Again, I’m not creating a policy proposal. I’m just saying that a 19-in-20 chance of “*literally* no amount of money” is very overconfident and abuse of the word literally.

            @RCF “If they claim that they are 95% confident, I see no reason to doubt that it’s literally true that they are 95% confident.”

            In the conventional sense of the term, for a belief of “X% confidence” to have any meaning, they should be willing to bet at those odds. I would gladly take them up on it, except alas there aren’t enough entities willing to spend literally any amount of money to end world poverty. I am indeed incredulous that they are confident in the sense of “if there’s any possibility of my if-statement being true, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.”(and bet, against, say a 7.5% chance of ending extreme poverty by pouring literally any amount of money at the problem) At the risk of being uncharitable, I feel the same way about “no reason to doubt” on your end, since I suspect you’re better at updating than that.

            I recognize that those are both likely rhetorical strategies on your respective part(s), however turning a confidence% into a rhetorical strategy is not exactly pleasant IMO.

          • Linch:

            I was responding to your “The world we live in has enough resources” statement, which I started by quoting, not to anyone’s claim about any possible amount of money.

            Inflation helps debtors at the expense of creditors, but only if it is unexpected–expected inflation just gets built into the terms of loans. So there is no reason why funding your basic income by money creation would bear more heavily on the rich than the poor. The only unavoidable cost it produces is a tax on cash balances–real cash, green paper, not checking accounts, money market funds, stocks and bonds, and the like. My guess is that the ratio of currency to income is higher for lower income people, who are less likely to use credit cards and the like or keep money in a bank account, but I don’t actually know.

            Hyperinflation happens when governments print a lot of money and keep doing so—I’m not sure what model your “hyperinflation death spiral” refers to. Currently the world supply of dollars (actual currency) is a bit over a trillion dollars. I don’t have figures for other currencies, but the U.S. money supply (a much broader definition) is about one seventh of the world money supply. If we assume the ratio of currency is the same (my guess is that U.S. currency is a larger fraction than that of world currency), that gives a world currency supply of about seven trillion. So a demogrant that pays everyone in the world $2.50/day would require you to print somewhat more than the world’s supply of currency every year. That would lead to quite a high rate of inflation. Just how high is complicated, since it depends in part on how other forms of money (checking accounts, for instance) are affected by the increase in the amount of currency. If the only money were currency, I would expect an inflation rate of over 100%/year.

            Inflation has a variety of dead weight costs, since it makes it harder to arrange transactions, keep track of prices, and the like, so I doubt it is a very efficient form of taxation.

    • stargirl says:

      I am pretty sure something like Give Directly would be able to improve the world. And could easily be scaled up.

      • Linch says:

        Agreed.

      • GiveWell estimated GiveDirectly’s maximum room for more funding at $40 million last December. I think that if you tried to scale it up faster than that you’d at least run the risk of problems. (That said, I’d favor cash transfers as the default thing to pour money into in the absence of a compelling case for something else; my point is that there aren’t any safe bets at that scale.)

      • anon85 says:

        Wouldn’t Give Directly *obviously* create bad incentives if scaled up enough? For example, if they give money to people who don’t have good roofs, then people will deliberately break their roofs to receive money. Whatever your measurement of “poverty” is, people will fake it to get the money.

        • Saint_Fiasco says:

          I expect the sort of people who break their roofs to get money from charity to be the sort of people who desperately need money.

          As long as they don’t spend it on drugs or something, that kind of small scale corruption should be manageable.

          • anon85 says:

            I feel like it would get unmanageable as soon as you tried to scale by a couple orders of magnitude. If people start breaking their roofs, that’s already a huge economic inefficiency caused by the charity. If you try to scale up to a lot more money (e.g. billions), I assign a decent probability to all sorts of terrible things happening.

          • wysinwyg says:

            If people start breaking their roofs, that’s already a huge economic inefficiency caused by the charity.

            Let’s think about this for half a second.

            The roof didn’t appear out of nowhere; either the person built it or already paid for it. Also, they are inconveniencing themselves for the period between the time the roof is broken and the money is actually received (and since it’s charity, they’re really doing it for a chance at the money, I don’t think it’s guaranteed).

            For this to actually be inefficient, the person involved has to be so stupid as to break a roof that cost them more money (or time equivalent) than they are getting in charity.

            I think this “breaking the roof” example is not a good one.

          • Mary says:

            The person who broke does not have to be the person who paid.

            Also, one sees a lot of stupid behavior among the very poor.

          • Linch says:

            I suspect that a lot of the behaviors we consider “stupid” are a result of misunderstanding the incentives involved.

          • anon85 says:

            @wysinwyg, you’re misunderstanding. I’m considering the situation where it’s efficient for an individual to break their own roof, due to the expected charity funds. However, this outcome is *socially* inefficient, because it involves destruction of goods. In this case, the existence of the charity decreased the number of “nice things” in the world.

            Admittedly, the charity in this situation still redistributed some of the existing nice things to poorer people, which is good. But depending on how many nice things it broke in the process, this may not be a great idea at a large scale.

          • lunatic says:

            To call it improbably stupid, you have assume people have a rudimentary ability to work with numbers, which is not always true. In particular, budgeting is a very different problem to purchasing and I know plenty of people who are somewhat comfortable with the latter but not at all with the former.

          • wysinwyg says:

            @Mary:

            The person who broke does not have to be the person who paid.

            No, but then we’re in the position of having to argue for a very large number of people who:
            a) convinced someone else to pay for or build their roofs
            b) are willing to put up with the inconvenience of having no roof for an indeterminate period of time
            c) will break a functional roof with no guarantee that they will get money for a new one

            Which seems implausible to me.

            Also, one sees a lot of stupid behavior among the very poor.

            I see a lot of stupid behavior, but it’s mostly from middle class and rich people who have the leisure time in which to be stupid. Most of the poor people I see are working.

            @anon85:

            you’re misunderstanding. I’m considering the situation where it’s efficient for an individual to break their own roof, due to the expected charity funds. However, this outcome is *socially* inefficient, because it involves destruction of goods. In this case, the existence of the charity decreased the number of “nice things” in the world.

            Presumably, most of the people breaking their roofs are looking to trade up. Most likely, their roofs will be in poor shape anyway. And roofs are perishable goods.

            By these standards, consumerism is incredibly socially inefficient. Clothes are thrown away that could be patched. Cars are junked that could be refurbished. PCs and smart phones are thrown away every few years.

            And the charity money is used to pay laborers and buy materials and so boosts the local economy besides just improving the roof.

          • anon85 says:

            wysinwyg, when you say “presumably, most of the people breaking their roofs are looking to trade up”, you’re simply rejecting the premise, which is that people would break perfectly good roofs. Now, I agree that this probably isn’t happening yet, but it sees like a serious danger if you try to scale up to billions of dollars.

            Yes, these people would then repair the roofs again. But this is a giant waste! Economic efficiency should be part of the goal here – we want everyone to have nice things. Breaking nice things usually means you’re doing it wrong. Jobs only matter to the extent that they produce nice things; jobs consisting of breaking and fixing the same roofs are pointless. If the economy becomes centered around fixing roofs, this will not lead to sustainable development.

            I don’t feel like I’m saying anything controversial here; this is just basic economics. Again, perhaps charities can avoid creating bad incentives like roof-breaking, but at the scale of billions of dollars it seems difficult.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            I think that a lot of you are missing the important fact that someone doesn’t have to “break the roof” they just have to “not fix it”. Like Wysinwyg said, roofs are a perishable good.

          • Linch says:

            @Mark: A uncharitable (or maybe honest?) reading of my own life will suggest that I have a lot in common with the vices of the “cohort of humans” you talk about.

            WARNING: Personal Stuff Ahead.

            “unable to have a time horizon longer than a week at best”
            I certainly procrastinate, even for things due significantly less than a week in the future. This was especially a problem in college.

            “often cannot even pay attention to anything other than the presence of sugar / alcohol / drugs / dat-ass in the immediate absolute present” My focus is completely sapped by games, fantasy novels, the occasionally Netflix show I marathon, and SSC comments 🙂 My time horizon for these things are pretty low. Like, if you suggest I marathon a show 2 weekends in the future, or say spend 3 hours on SSC commenting the day after tomorrow, I would be justifiably horrified…or at the very least, embarrassed.

            “are unable to override and bridle their immediate urges even when they CAN keep the future in mind,” See the point about procrastination above. I mean, I have an good job now, but my GPA would probably have been a quarter point higher if I fully internalized the potential differences in global utility.

            “have a great deal of difficulty generalizing from personal experience or external observation”
            Ok, not applicable. OTOH it’s possible that I generalize poorly.

            “have a poorly formed sense that other people have minds and preferences that those other people will defend”
            I have very naturally low empathy and have trouble modelling other people’s minds. It’s actually worse than that. An anecdote I like to tell (with more than a considerable degree of truth) is that I’ve been known to point things to other people even when it’s impossible for them to see said things from their respective angles. So I *literally* have trouble seeing things from another’s perspective. This despite the fact that I am almost certainly neurotypical by common definitions of the term.

            “have a very hard time remembering the consequences of past actions”
            Not exactly true for me.

            “and have an exquisitely developed ability to blame anything and everything on everyone other than themselves.”

            Not true for me AT PRESENT, but for the longest time I’ll blame all my problems on my parents and upbringing.
            //

            I suspect that I am far from a central member of the cohort you describe. However, on the meta-level, the only meaningful differences are that I had a more privileged background and a higher IQ (which I do not believe to be particularly morally salient).

            I consciously have to retrain my own brain to be more empathetic, to take responsibility for issues that are my own fault (and ones that are not), to be exuberant and cheerful (which is surprisingly easy), and to be conscientious/hardworking (which is a lot harder).

            I find the arguments for utilitarianism to be extremely convincing.

            “Stupid behaviors” might be common for many people, but I could easily see myself succumbing to them in a counterfactual where my life turned out differently. (Though I guess there’s the age-old philosophical question of me-ness).

            On a rational level (since, as noted above, I’m not intuitively empathetic) it’s easy for me to see how someone without the same structural advantages as I have, who isn’t as clearly/blatantly wealthy relative to the rest of the world, who wasn’t educated, who was not dewormed and have not received iodine supplements in their youth, etc., well it’s easy for me to imagine how they could make “stupid” decisions or non-choices. And it will be kind of silly for me to judge them, or decide, on the basis of desert, that I shouldn’t care.

          • RCF says:

            @HlynkaCG

            “I think that a lot of you are missing the important fact that someone doesn’t have to “break the roof” they just have to “not fix it”.”

            You’re simply rejecting the hypothetical.

            @wysinwyg

            “And the charity money is used to pay laborers and buy materials and so boosts the local economy besides just improving the roof.”

            If you think that’s enough to address the objection, you’re falling for the Broken Windows Fallacy.

          • Linch says:

            @Mark: I don’t know. It’s not clear to me, on a purely philosophical level, why present me should forego happiness now for slightly greater happiness in the future. Ie, given a total (or even moderate) lack of altruism for my future self, the incentives are probably there for Linch[2013] to play videogames then instead of worrying about the GPA or employment prospects of Linch[2015]. (The utilitarian/EA case seems a lot stronger because of the inherent mismatch between what I need to sacrifice and the many utilons I could create, and even that is only sufficient to motivate me to do things I don’t enjoy sometimes).

            I would also probably say that my own (in)actions are less excusable than the failings of 90%+ of humanity, so I’m not sure how well they generalize.

            Another issue is that misunderstanding incentives could cut both ways. Like, an outside observer who can’t mindread might congratulate me on how much I read or my ability/willingness to tackle fairly complicated math problems, and no doubt (even ignoring natural talent) those activities correlate with developing socially useful skills, but it’s not like 8 year old me calculated EV’s and thought: {Reading? Man, that’s gonna be tested on the GRE. Plus, it’ll get me all the verbal skills I need to compensate for my lack of social ones. Totally useful for persuading people to do socially positive things. I should be interested in it! Crack cocaine? Useful for understanding the desires of the criminal class, but too expensive, future me would rather use that time and money for donating to GiveWell’s top charities. So I’ll pass on wanting to enjoy that}.

            On top of the usual privileges like geographical and genetic endowment, I suspect that most people who post here have had the good fortune where their interests (from a young age) have nonzero overlap with skills that’s immensely valuable in society.

  8. Anon says:

    To be more charitable to the Muh Borders people than is perhaps warranted, everyone I know who enjoys or shares its content is very careful to ensure that doing so comes out of their “personal amusement timewasting” budget, not their “doing good in the world” budget.

    “Donate money to fight malaria? But I already did my part by sharing this image! Systemic change!” is a caricature of a position which no one, as far as I am aware, actually holds, even implicitly.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right, that was unnecessary and I’ve taken it down.

    • Nornagest says:

      Not many people explicitly voice that opinion, but if I had a dime for every EA that’s shared an annoying political meme and I lost a dime for every EA that’s donated anything to charity, I’d… not be rich, it’s a small movement, but I bet I could buy myself a nice sushi dinner.

      Revealed preference, you know?

      • Alex Richard says:

        I agree.

      • suntzuanime says:

        Wait, there are EAs that don’t donate? Really? Oh my god.

        • Nornagest says:

          There are lots of EAs that don’t donate, or at least haven’t donated.

          To be (a little) fair(er) to them, though, a lot of them are students or otherwise on very limited budgets.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Where the fuck would they get off telling me how to give to charity, if I gave to charity? Man, I was tolerant of the smarminess because I figured at least they were doing more good than me but I guess I underestimated people’s capacity for empty signaling.

          • Nornagest says:

            No one ever went broke betting on empty signaling.

            That being said, I should probably mention at this juncture that I’m pretty much behind the weak argument for EA — less so for Singer-style strong arguments, but that’s because those arguments are utilitarian and I’m not. Sure, it can come off a little smarmy, but that doesn’t make them wrong, and I’ve been called smarmy myself on occasion.

          • Linch says:

            http://effectivealtruismhub.com/sites/effectivealtruismhub.com/files/survey/2014/results-and-analysis.pdf

            “The mean EA in our sample donates 11% , but again this is because of a skew. The median is 3.2%.”

            Hopefully both the numbers and percentages will increase as the movement grows and the median EA gets older!

          • RCF says:

            @suntzuanime

            One can assert that another person’s giving is suboptimal, without giving oneself.

        • zz says:

          How many effective altruists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

          Actually, it’s far more efficient if you convince someone else to screw it in.

          How many Giving What We Can members does it take to change a lightbulb?

          Fifteen have pledged to change it later, but we’ll have to wait until they finish grad school.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I think this is unfair. It’s appropriate to not want to give very much money, but be interested in making sure the small amount you do give is targeted effectively. And if you make $100K a year, you can save a life each year by donating even 3% of your income.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I’m not talking about people who give a “mere” 3%, I’m talking about people who give 0%.

            I mean, shit, if I were going to donate money I probably wouldn’t give it to Child’s Play either, am I an Effective Altruist?

      • jeorgun says:

        You’re almost tautologically much less likely to hear from EAs who don’t post annoying things about politics (as one data point, the last time I shared any political memes anywhere was sometime in the 9th grade).

  9. Linch says:

    Here’s a question that has been bugging me for awhile: what’s the historical track record of utilitarians?

    My impression is that it’s ridiculously good, but obviously I’m biased here. Like, a common argument in the 20th century is that utilitarianism could theoretically permit slavery… yet the century before, the phrase “dismal science” was invented from traditionalists who weren’t big fans of Mill’s opposition to slavery.

    I literally have trouble coming up with examples of utilitarians being on the “wrong” side of history. Like the track record of utilitarians, whether academic consensus or the modal position of self-professed amateur utilitarians is just *ridiculously* clean.

    This worries me. Nobody’s right all the time!

    Can people give me examples of utilitarians being massively wrong historically so I have a better model of reality?

    • Buck says:

      Well, Bentham was against masturbation, but that seems to be mostly a factual error.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I’ve heard it said before that Bentham supported pederasty, but how would we know whether or not not he’s on the wrong side of history with that one? It’s not 2016 yet.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Would the communist apologists who justified mass murder as a means of ushering in the workers’ paradise count?

      • Linch says:

        I don’t know…were there many utilitarian philosophers or self-professed utilitarians who were all like “yay Communism!”?

        I haven’t heard of them, but as multi demonstrated, my knowledge is sorely lacking at points.

        • Protagoras says:

          I have no idea of the proportions, but there were definitely 20th century utilitarians who were strongly pro-socialist. I’m especially weak on utilitarians in the early 20th century, but in recent times Peter Singer is pretty pro-socialist, and Kai Nielsen was more so. And for the early 20th century, I know the Logical Positivists often had utilitarian sympathies and often had communist sympathies, frequently together, though as they tended not to focus on ethics I don’t know if they should count as central cases of utilitarian philosophers. All of the utilitarian pro-socialists I’m aware of were also very pro-democracy, and so opposed to Stalinist methods, but people are of course able to deceive themselves about what those who are in some respects their allies are up to, and I know at least a few of the Logical Positivists were initially supporters of the Soviet Union.

      • Adam says:

        Seriously, though, scholars of utilitarianism may or may not have advocated communism, but the revolutionaries themselves were sure as shit not doing it on any belief about the personal virtue or deontological goodness of murder. They knew rounding up people and killing them was wrong, but justified on the ground that it was for the greater good in the overall arc of history. How the hell is that not utilitarianism?

        • Ghatanathoah says:

          That could be utilitarianism, or it could be old-fashioned statism, where the prestige of the state (or world-state for the ones who thought communism would conquer the world) is considered more important than people’s lives.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if both ideologies weren’t a factor.

        • Protagoras says:

          If I had to speculate about the thinking of the revolutionaries themselves, I think you greatly underestimate the deontological component; I think you’d see a lot more “the parasite class deserve to die” than “this is for the greater good.” Sure, Marx himself would say that’s a mistake (though he was willing to use it in his own rhetoric at times anyway), but as you say you’re talking about the revolutionaries, not the scholars.

        • RCF says:

          How many communists actually believed that they were increasing total utility? My mental model of a communist views equality as a goal in itself, not as instrumental to increasing utility. Although they may engage in motivated reasoning to argue that equality increases utility, their ideological commitment to equality comes first.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        I’m not sure of how utilitarians viewed communism.

        Marx, on the other hand…

        > But this prejudice was first established as a dogma by the arch-Philistine, Jeremy Bentham, that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century. [49] Bentham is among philosophers what Martin Tupper is among poets. Both could only have been manufactured in England. [50] In the light of his dogma the commonest phenomena of the process of production, as, e.g., its sudden expansions and contractions, nay, even accumulation itself, become perfectly inconceivable. [51] The dogma was used by Bentham himself, as well as by Malthus, James Mill, MacCulloch, etc., for an apologetic purpose, and especially in order to represent one part of capital, namely, variable capital, or that part convertible into labour-power, as a fixed magnitude.

    • multiheaded says:

      I literally have trouble coming up with examples of utilitarians being on the “wrong” side of history.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon

      The paradigmatic Terrible Utilitarian Idea.

      p.s.: replied without looking at the other comments and oh wow, three separate complaints about Bentham.

      makes u think, lol.

      • Linch says:

        tou-fucking-che. Yeah, I think this is a far more egregious example of Bentham being wrong than the other two, esp. since Bentham was on the right side of history for most other sexual “offenses.”

        Damn. Connection between utilitarianism and the modern industrial prison complex. Damn. :/

      • Murphy says:

        That doesn’t seem terribly evil and seems pretty much the norm in schools now, not just prisons.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I’m also confused. If it didn’t have a scary Latin name, would any of us be horrified about the idea of a prison where the guards could watch what the inmates were doing? Seems like a pretty good way to cut down on prison abuse (assuming non-abusive guards).

        • Urstoff says:

          It’s considered to be evil because Foucault, not because of it actually being evil.

        • LHN says:

          Seems like a pretty good way to cut down on prison abuse (assuming non-abusive guards).

          Any power structure is pretty good assuming non-abusive wielders. But that seems like a pretty heroic assumption for something you want to implement using humans.

          That said, the panopticon and Orwell’s ubiquitous telescreen network do seem to have stopped being a horror trope for a large segment of Western society the moment it started to become practical to implement.

          • Ilya Shpitser says:

            Yeah, it’s a problem. You know they have Eye-of-Sauron blimps hanging in the skies around the DC area, right?

            I wonder what Orwell would have thought of Facebook.

          • Hemid says:

            “Because Foucault.”

            He wouldn’t like the term, but panopticism might be the most virulent “meme” ever. I mean the panopticon itself, not Foucault’s talk about it (which has been utterly ineffective). To him it was a striking metonymy pointing to a batch of interdependent ideas/schemes that, at what’s turned out to have been a decisive conceptual moment, changed everything. It’s exemplary “systemic change,” maybe the most significant that’s come over us recently enough that we can still kind of understand it.

            We’re practical. Imprisonment exists. It’s given. (How?) Anyway it’s here and we want to make it “effective.” We’re presented with a plan. It’s neat, geometrical. Seems pretty good! It would accomplish this list of things we say we’re trying to do…now that the plan has defined those things as accomplishments for us. Yada yada yada, the thing is done, not nearly as good and hard as our calculations say would be optimal, but it’s kinda done. It’s a thing in the world.

            And, oops, it turns out that it’s a destructive artificial intelligence, a replacement humanity, and now we are it and we can’t anymore quite conceive of ourselves being—or ever really having been—otherwise.

            I’m not doing Foucault’s prison song justice, but it goes a little something like that. I recommend it to anyone who thinks “thinking” is important business. He had a special talent for it.

            A warning, though. In one of his lectures on the subject, he tells a charming anecdote about the city of Paris justifying its appropriation and razing of three poor people’s houses on a riverbank with (the era-correct equivalent of) a PowerPoint presentation that mathematically demonstrated, down to the very last one, how many lives would be saved by un-trapping miasmas in that area.

            So he’s not for the easily offended.

        • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

          (assuming non-abusive guards).

          really?

        • Alia D. says:

          The Panopticon is also association with the idea that prisoners should be in essentially solitary confinement to avoid prisoner on prisoner violence, but it is now thought that solitary confinement is not generally good for prisons mental health.

        • multiheaded says:

          >(assuming non-abusive guards)

          Why not also assume that prisoners all made a random tragic misstep and set them free, then?

    • Dahlen says:

      History doesn’t “prove” anything about the validity of a moral system. Remember that people from ages past could have asked just the same question, and judged a type of ethics on the same criteria, conclude they’re right just as well, and yet arrive to completely different moral conclusions. The content of your answer is mostly a consequence of when and where you were born. So, whatever history converges on doesn’t have any bearing on what is truly right.

      It may be that your utilitarianism has come to shape the world more than you realise. Utilitarianism influenced American individualist culture (which came to be spread to the whole world via your movie & media industry) and came to be employed in economics, so in some ways it shaped its circumstances and put its questions into the moral forefront; is it then surprising that the right answers to those questions are utilitarian ones?

      • Tracy W says:

        Utilitarianism influenced American individualist culture (which came to be spread to the whole world via your movie & media industry) and came to be employed in economics

        I find this implausible as the movie industry (from memory) only really started in the 20th century, which is after the marginal revolution in economics, which of course was European-led and even after Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics publication started in the 1890s. I can’t recall anything in economic analysis that changed in the 20th century to become even more individualist, can you cite any examples?

        • Dahlen says:

          No, sorry. Layman speculation. Feel free to dismiss anything I’m saying about the topic on that basis, it would be easier on me than having to gain access to academic journals or research fields I have no previous training in.

          Also, I meant that utilitarianism influenced economics in that economists perform utility calculations with money playing the role of utilons, sharing a set of basic assumptions about value, rather than influencing it towards greater economic individualism. In case I got this one right.

          • Tracy W says:

            Darn, I was hoping to be surprised.

            On the economists calculating utilions, I’m rather sceptical. If you assume money=utilions then there’s a whole bunch of things you can’t explain, like why anyone ever takes time off work to do self-indulgent things like sleep.
            Sometimes assuming people maximise income is a justifiable (IMO) simplifying assumption, eg in financial markets, and of course in cost-benefit analysis economists try to measure utilions in money so as to be able to compare it (eg how much more money do people pay for a house with green space nearby).

          • Dahlen says:

            Purely theoretical models in various economic fields sometimes do that, defining agents, choices etc. in a mathematical-utilitarian way. As far as I had been exposed to them, the calculations are pretty complex. If it fails to map accurately onto everyday experience, this concern can be explained (away) by stating that “it’s just a model after all”.

          • Tracy W says:

            Mathematical-utilitarian way is not the same as assuming money to be utilions.

            And “this model is wrong but it’s still useful” can be an utterly valid argument. For example a model that tells you the direction of change correctly 95% of the time but not the magnitude is better than a model that tells you nothing.
            (There’s also the problem of macroeconomics where the human costs of things like recessions are so large that people keep trying to come up with models despite all the data problems.)

          • “Mathematical-utilitarian way is not the same as assuming money to be utilions.”

            To expand on this.

            No economist believes that the only thing in the utility function is money income or wealth.

            Some economic analysis is done as if money value, how many dollars you were willing to pay if necessary to get something, is a measure of utility. That’s the assumption on which maximizing economic efficiency is equivalent to maximizing utility. It’s false, for reasons economists are familiar with, but sometimes useful.

            For anyone sufficiently curious, I discuss the efficiency/utility connection in some detail in several of my books, including two that can be read for free online. For instance:

            http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Laws_Order_draft/laws_order_ch_2.htm

          • Dahlen says:

            Do you both seriously think that I do not understand that?

            I can understand the usefulness of a model for a narrow purpose. Just because I was being a bit snarky about it doesn’t mean I strongly disagree with the idea.

            My larger point is that utilitarianism shares a common worldview with a lot of other elements of Western society, which might explain why it might “click” more to a Western individual, and I was giving an example of a sister concept in another field which from afar looks more similar than different to that of utility. The claim is good enough for its purpose, it supports my thesis. Whether the overlap between the two is perfect or partial doesn’t have much bearing on my central point.

    • Chris says:

      I don’t think ‘utilitarians’ is a useful reference class, especially not when evaluating long term historical trends. Utilitarianism takes a stance on normative ethics but is compatible with many mutually exclusive views on applied ethics, not to mention all of the empirical disciplines. Even if there is enough historical information to infer an associative trend between utilitarianism and economic theory X (which I doubt), that information would be of very limited use when looking at utilitarians today.

      The core EA movement seems easy enough to poll; someone should gather data on EA economic/political views and then forecast the success of the movement from there.

      • LTL says:

        This. Uncharitably (but this is what I believe) I notice that a lot, possibly all, of utilitarians will essentially just rationalize their pre-theoretical ethical intuitions in terms of utilitarians, say that therefore utilitarianism provides all the right answers, and all other utilitarians who came to different moral conclusions were just confused about the facts or something.

        This isn’t unique to utilitarians. All advocates for a normative ethical theory do this to one degree or another.

        • Linch says:

          N=1, but I definitely did not believe animals have moral worth when I was say 16, I did not stop eating pork until about a year ago, and I consumed meat regularly until a few months ago.

          I also independently came up with the idea behind a secular tithe, but would probably not have cared as much about effectiveness. It’s also likely that I would have stopped at 10% if I didn’t either a)read Famine, Affluence and Morality or b)engaged with the EA community.

          While the base rate will always be that people are more likely to change the surface than the substance of what they believe, I think it’s a stretch to say that it’s impossible for arguments to change people’s views, and I personally suspect that utilitarianism is sufficiently detailed that people are less likely to use it as a confirmation for their pre-conceived object-level notions than eg., virtue ethics.

          In one sense of vigilance against co-option, utilitarianism probably stacks poorly against most deontological theories, but that’s at least partly because deontology is less demanding.

          • LTP says:

            “I personally suspect that utilitarianism is sufficiently detailed that people are less likely to use it as a confirmation for their pre-conceived object-level notions than eg., virtue ethic”

            Why? Utiltarianism isn’t detailed *at all*. I would say it is just as susceptible to this as virtue ethics for similar reasons. It just says maximize happiness/preferences/utility. All I have to do is come up with a plausible sounding story for how my pre-theoretical beliefs maximize happiness/preferences/utility and they’re now rationalized, which IME in reading utilitarians is very easy to do. This is easy to do, as people don’t agree about what happiness/preferences/utility is, whose happiness/preferences/utility matters (e.g. just humans, just rational beings, all conscious things), and there is no way to measure it in practice, AND the only way to get a definitive answer would require literal omnipotence.

          • Linch says:

            “If you pull numbers out of your ass and use them to evaluate decisions, you’re more likely to get accurate/novel/counter-intuitive results than if you just pulled the decisions directly out of your ass”

          • Nornagest says:

            I think I’d expect accurate, novel, and counterintuitive to not just be uncorrelated but actually anticorrelated.

          • RCF says:

            @Nornagest

            Given three variables, it’s rather unlikely that each pair will be anti-correlated.

          • Nornagest says:

            More precisely, I’d expect novelty and counterintuitiveness to be correlated with each other but anticorrelated with accuracy.

          • Linch says:

            I agree with your statement in general, but still believe that self-described utilitarians are less likely to use utilitarianism to justify their pre-conceived notions than virtue ethicists, or people whose philosophy are more literary minded.

            I don’t believe it very strongly though, maybe we can set up an experiment?

    • Irenist says:

      One interesting premise that has to be hammered out before answering a question about the historical track record of utilitarians is determining when to begin the history of utilitarianism. Even if you go back beyond Bentham to Paley and Gay, or back beyond them to Hume and Hutcheson, or back further to Shaftesbury, you’re still pretty much in the 18th century or late 17th. In which case, “having a good track record” has a serious confound in that Enlightenment moderns obviously have sensibilities closer to ours. Further, utilitarian thinking was centered in Britain, which had a relatively tranquil political history in the modern period–so not that many civil war crimes to be complicit in. I suspect (but don’t know) that Diderot (who translated Shaftesbury’s “Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit” into French) and some of the other philosophes who provided the ideological background for the French Revolution were influenced by utilitarianism. Someone who actually knows something about that might be able to tell us whether French utilitarians showed rectitude and mercy during that period or acted in ways more reminiscent of modern sympathizers with Stalinism.

      But further back is, AFAIK, a problem. E.g., if there were no utilitarians during the Middle Ages, then there’s no track record w/r/t going on Crusades or burning heretics because the utilitarians weren’t there to have an opinon. In which case, a utilitarian can claim that ze wouldn’t have burned heretics like all those nasty virtue ethicists and deontologists, but there’s no historical track record, specifically, of how utilitarianism would’ve acted if it shared theist cosmological assumptions about, e.g., heresy sending you to hell if you don’t repent–which seems like a recipe for a very ugly Pascal’s mugging, as arguably happened in a milder way in Pascal’s Wager itself.

      Now, there were certainly pre-modern consequentialist thinkers (Machieavelli, Mo Tzu) and ancient hedonists (the Epicureans, and even more so the Cyrenaics), but they weren’t properly speaking “utilitarians” and if I were a utilitarian I might want to draw some sort of distinction between, say, Machiavelli’s views and mine so I’m not stuck claiming him.

      This is just a long way of saying “hard to say.” Sorry about that.

      ETA: I suppose you could reach and claim Buddhism for utilitarianism (what with its hedonic goal of ending suffering), and then get points for vegetarianism, how awesome Ashoka was, etc. But “wanting to ameliorate suffering” is a REALLY broad category that in one way or another will rope in most ethics not inspired chiefly by valor in war, so I think that would be a bridge too far. YMMV.

  10. Alejandro says:

    This post seemed weirdly split to me. I agree entirely with the main thesis, that EA should remain confined to “unambiguously good” charities and not involve itself in politics. The arguments in part II of the post are more than sufficient to explain why, for practical, prudential, and strategical reasons.

    But the Alice-Bob dialogue in part I goes far beyond that; it seems to imply an extreme Outside View agnosticism about political beliefs. Bob (who you seem to endorse) is saying basically that whenever there is a “live” political argument in your society you should not take sides, because both sides must have good points to be popular and you can never know if the side you support is the right one. Taken consistently, this line of reason percludes you from having any (interesting, nontrivial) opinions at all: both in your field of expertise (e.g. psychiatry for you) and in fields of general interest (not only politics but also e.g. philosophy) you can never take a controversy, do a honest Inside View analysis of the evidence/arguments, and decide for one side; as long as there are people you respect supporting the opposite side, you must remain agnostic. Do you really want to endorse this?

    • John Schilling says:

      I think the creationism example is sufficient to show that, yes, you can sometimes look at the evidence and decide that this is unambiguously the correct belief and that yes, it is harmful for this belief to inform political decisions, but that no, you probably shouldn’t embark on a crusade to impose or even support it because all the other people who saw the same evidence and came to the same conclusion already did that for all it’s worth. Which is finite.

      Yes, the error persists. There’s a diminishing marginal return to error-correction, and the costs increase exponentially as you try to achieve 100% perfection. The forces of rationality have finite resources; at some point they will rationally say “OK, it’s time for just a holding action on creationism while we focus on knocking homophobia down to size”. If you propose to focus substantially more (or less) resources on correcting any particular error than what all the other rational people are by their combined actions already doing, what’s the basis for that?

      That’s not a rhetorical question, because sometimes there will be good reason to focus unusual effort on imposing systemic change. But it would be good to explicitly understand what the criteria are, and necessary to understand that “Look, here is an provable error that is being left uncorrected in some corners of the political sphere” isn’t it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I do not fundamentally understand how to reconcile the inside and outside views myself; the confusion is basic to the piece rather than just a poor explanation of well-understood territory.

      • Alejandro says:

        Right; I am also confused by this topic, and I’m not saying the the Inside View position necessarily is correct. But if you are uncertain about Inside vs Outside view, then why direct the Bob ultra-Outside View argument against political activism, instead of just relying on the arguments of Part II?

        My suspicion is that you are conflating two things: an abstract “efficient markets” argument for an Outside View approach to political activism (which could apply equally to philosophy or specialized topics), and a genuine Inside View quasi-agnosticism you feel about politics (you find good points supporting different sides of the political spectrum, and are truly uncertain about which direction for “systemic change” is the right one).

        • Let me suggest an argument for the outside view that I think more powerful than an analogy to efficient markets, since the latter depends on particular features of how markets work.

          I believe something. I know someone as smart, well informed, and thoughtful as I am who disagrees. Why should I prefer my opinion to his?

          (approach borrowed from something Robin Hanson wrote long ago)

          • You should prefer your opinion because of you don’t, and switch to neutral, then there are no longer two equally smart people with opposite opinions. Instead there is one person who disagrees with your original opinion, and one who is neutral. So maybe you should be a bit less neutral. Repeat.

            This argument is only partially silly. If the other person is speaking/writing/blogging a lot about his opinion, then you had better do the same, to maintain the equilibrium.

      • Bugmaster says:

        What, really ? But I was just about to thank you for helping me to reconcile the two views !

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but my takeaway from your post was as follows:

        Politics has potentially huge benefits, but also huge costs, as well as huge risks. Winning a political battle is hard, because other people will oppose you just as vigorously as you oppose them. Even if you win, you may end up causing more harm than good, like (arguably) Engels. And, because you are trying to influence society rather than nature, it is a lot more difficult to measure your success rate.

        By contrast, relatively small fixes such as malaria netting or carbon filters have smaller benefits. They won’t change the entire world for the better, they will just change one piece of it. However, you can pursue these goals virtually unopposed; you can easily measure your success; and the potential for disaster is a lot lower.

        Thus, your best strategy (most of the time; this is a heuristic, not a rule) is to pursue the smaller goals, at least in the short term. Over time, you may accumulate enough good will and political power to easily topple your political opponents; or perhaps the overall political climate may change. At this point, getting involved in politics might become more attractive (though you’re still stuck with the whole unintended consequences issue); but until then, you’d be doing some real good in the world, so why wait ?

        • Let me suggest a third alternative strategy, the one I follow.

          Try to influence the system not by acting to change it directly—campaigning for candidates or ballot propositions or becoming a government regulator and regulating better—but by improving the mix of ideas which other people use in deciding how to do such things.

          That can go wrong, as in the Marx/Engels case. But only if I make a mistake in my thinking and enough other people make the mistake of being persuaded by mine.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I don’t think this is any better.

            You are still fighting against other humans, who want to change people’s minds in the direction opposite to yours; so your costs are still quite high.

            You still have the potential to change people’s minds in a way that brings about unintended consequences; so the risk is still high. In fact, the risk is higher, because politicians have a limited amount of power and a limited term in office, whereas people’s minds are legion and, once changed, tend to stay changed for a while.

            Your success is now much more difficult to measure, because now instead of something simple like “Candidate X got elected and signed policy Y into law”, you’ve got something like, “a larger proportion of people would prefer abstract philosophical concept Z over W”. The latter criterion is much more difficult to measure, and it is not entirely clear how Z translates into concrete gains toward your true goals, anyhow.

    • Christopher Chang says:

      I disagree. Continuing the open borders example, there are a few places like Sweden, Svalbard, and the UAE which already have immigration policies which are far more liberal than usual on some axes of interest, with the consent of the governed. All of these examples currently have some problems which prevent them from being models that lots of citizens of other Western countries want to copy (e.g. Sweden’s immigration policy is rapidly losing citizen support, Svalbard’s main employer is subsidized by the Norwegian government, the UAE treats its guest workers horribly by Western standards), but if open borders is anywhere near as good of a policy as most of its advocates claim, it should not be too difficult to significantly improve at least one of these implementations. Because of the preexisting consent, this problem is mostly of a “man vs. nature” character.

      Another mostly-man vs. nature approach is “create a new open-borders country”. Quite a few people are interested in this; see e.g. Naguib Sawiris (http://money.cnn.com/2015/09/16/news/egypt-billionaire-refugee-island/ ), Jason Buzi (http://metro.co.uk/2015/07/28/a-millionaire-wants-to-move-the-worlds-60-million-refugees-to-an-island-5315744/ ), and less directly, the Seasteading Institute. Technically, politics can’t be entirely avoided here because islands and even patches of ocean belong to existing countries, etc., but it’s only a minor factor; I agree with Arnold Kling (http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/whats-missing-from-refugee-cities/ ) that the real challenge is figuring out how to build the necessary social capital and patterns of sustainable specialization and trade. But the challenge should not be impossible.

      So the principle articulated by Scott does not mandate agnosticism on open borders. It merely advises that you minimize your involvement in political battles, which happens to be totally doable for open borders, and, I suspect, for most other charitable causes which have a political dimension.

      (Yes, I’ve avoided the inside/outside question, but that’s because there’s demonstrably no need to resolve it yet.)

      • Randy M says:

        You’re saying that one can push for open borders if they are able to create a country of millions of people from the ground up (or move to one of the few already have it and like it)?

        Heck, I can get behind that Quixotic quest.

      • RCF says:

        It seems to me that there are three main extremes on immigration: treat everyone who immigrates with full equality (immediate citizenship, etc.), let anyone come but don’t give them any rights, or don’t let anyone to come in. I would assume that the Open Borders movement is directed towards the former, while UAE leans towards the second.

    • Emile says:

      But the Alice-Bob dialogue in part I goes far beyond that; it seems to imply an extreme Outside View agnosticism about political beliefs.
      […]
      as long as there are people you respect supporting the opposite side, you must remain agnostic. Do you really want to endorse this?

      I’m fine with endorsing that, with being mostly agnostic/uncertain on a bunch of political topics, until I feel like I’ve researched them to my satisfaction. That’s why I’m agnostic now on the minimum wage, on open borders, etc.

      Does that seem like an outlandish attitude to you?

      • Alejandro says:

        The key part of your response is “until I feel like I’ve researched them to my satisfaction”. Presumably Alice in the dialogue feels she has researched to her satisfaction the political topics on which she urges action. I took Bob/Scott to be arguing that even if you have done thorough research into, say, open borders, and come to a conclusion, you should still not push politically for your view if there are people who have also done thorough research and reached the opposite conclusion. (Just like according to the EMH if you research a stock and decide it will go up, you should still not buy it if enough other people have researched it that the current price reflects a market consensus). It is this more extreme agnostic position that seemed outlandish to me.

        • Adam says:

          I took it to be saying not that you shouldn’t push a view you hold, but if an equal number of equally smart, equally well-researched people disagree with you and push the opposite position, you shouldn’t expect to make much headway and the expected return to your effort is less than just snipping the remaining low-hanging fruit the world still offers.

          • Alejandro says:

            No, that’s the “practical” argument and I agree with it, but it’s not all that Bob is saying. See these paragraphs:

            Bob: That just kicks the problem one meta-level up. Suppose that on each given issue, effective altruists converge dramatically around one or the other side. If half the time they converge around the right side, and the other half around the wrong side, then over a large number of issues their contributions will gradually even out and sum to zero.

            Alice: That’s a ridiculous way of looking at it. We don’t just flip a coin to determine which side to back. We exhaustively study the argument for both sides, the evidence base, et cetera. Then we focus only on those issues where we can be most certain we’re in the right. The odds there are a heck of a lot better than fifty percent!

            Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.

            Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!

            Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.

            This argues for theoretical agnosticism, not just practical quietism. Also in the next paragraphs Bob seems to be saying that the arguments of “sophisticated” opponents of gay marriage and open borders are not of the quantifiable sort that can be easily proven wrong with math and economics, so EAs shouls be more agnostic than they are on them.

    • haishan says:

      I’m not Scott, but I’ll endorse that.

      The cold fact of the matter is that human brains aren’t built for tracking truth well; the only halfway decent predictor of which brains track truth better is whether they use narrow, domain-specific facts and models rather than big-picture ones. So if you know a lot about a domain, like Scott and psychiatry, you can probably come to some conclusions. Otherwise it’s best to suspend judgement.

    • gbdub says:

      I just took Bob’s arguments to be 100% Effective Altruist. What I mean is, he is defining the borders of effective altruism, without really commenting on how to behave when not acting as an Effective Altruist. The Effective Altruist must confine themselves to the man-vs.-nature realm, where almost all men agree man ought to “win”. If Alice wants to advocate systemic change, that’s her prerogative. It may even be very net positive for society. But it’s not within the EA scope.

      No one is under obligation to spend 100% of their time being an Effective Altruist. In fact it would be bad if too many people did so. There’s lots of stuff that needs doing (even politics) that doesn’t fall under the EA aegis. But Bob’s point, which I think is a good one, is that once you’re engaging in trying to create systemic societal change, you are in a fundamentally different realm (man-vs.-man). That time gets budgeted to Political Advocacy, not Effective Altruism, and trying to shift EA to PA ultimately undermines the goals of EA.

  11. Dan Simon says:

    A word that’s oddly missing from this essay is “democracy”. If a “systemic change” makes America or the world less democratic, then there’s a huge moral cost, as well as potential material ones: millions of people suffer an erosion of (what those of us who cherish democracy believe to be) their inalienable right to participate in their own government. And if the “systemic change” makes America equally or more democratic than it is today, then it’s likely to be less, not more, sympathetic to the goals and methods of effective altruism (if current levels of public sympathy for those goals and methods is at all indicative).

    So which’ll it be, effective altruists? Tyranny or failure?

    • Linch says:

      That’s one way to look at it. Another (admittedly Panglossian) way is that EAs have traditionally targeted the disenfranchised, and a “true” democracy would take the preferences of those who don’t currently have a vote into account (eg a global, informed democracy with genuinue access to civil institutions a la Sen would be a good start).

      I admit that this is harder with nonhuman animals or far future issues.

    • blacktrance says:

      On the other hand, there are also some people who would welcome the erosion of democracy, and others who see it as merely instrumental for producing good outcomes (so if we can do better with somewhat less democracy, that’d be an improvement).

      • Dan Simon says:

        The obvious next question is, “who gets to judge ‘good’ and ‘better’, and what entitles them to that judgment”?

    • stargirl says:

      In my opinion Democracy has no inherent moral worth whatsoever. Though democracy seems, on average, to have quite alot of benefits in terms of increasing human living standards.

      • Agreed. It seems to me that describing the right to cast one vote out of a hundred million or more to choose your rulers as the “right to participate in their own government” confuses symbol with substance.

        • I’m not arguing that democracy isn’t useful–I expect it sometimes is. I’m arguing that if it is desirable the reason is consequences, not inherent moral desirability.

        • Dan Simon says:

          How about, say, the right of millions of Blacks to cast one vote each, out of millions, along with millions more Whites?

      • Nathan says:

        The value of democracy is not that it empowers the people, it’s that it castrates the government.

        • Murphy says:

          I’d have said that it gets buy-in from the population and pretty much guarantees a chance of change for the angry.

          It’s harder to get support for an attempt to bring down the government when half the people in the room voted to put them in power 3 years ago and there’s a good chance of them losing power to someone else if you just wait another year.

          Stability through constant minor change.

        • Adam says:

          I think Scott’s anti-neoreactionary FAQ explains pretty well the main value of democracy. It seems to do a terrific job of ensuring stable leadership transitions. Better policies are mitigated a lot by having three or four civil wars per century.

          • Dan Simon says:

            How many pre-modern European absolute monarchies had “three to four civil wars per century”? And what was so great about their policies compared to those of their modern democratic counterparts?

          • Adam says:

            I’m not saying their policies were better. I’m saying a hypothetical future government with better policies but that consistently degraded to war over leadership transitions would not be better, in spite of the better policies.

            As for the frequency of succession disputes, just read the FAQ. I don’t want to reproduce the whole thing. It’s really long.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          “it castrates the government” — Nor necessarily; in fact, I’d be tempted to say not normally. More often it leads to a tyranny of the majority kind of situation, not to mention the fact that people’s usual default response to a problem or tragedy seems to be “The government must do something!”

      • Urstoff says:

        Democracy seems like a symptom of a society that somewhat values the fundamental rights of the population. It’s not democracy, but the fact that the societies values are such that they want democracy, that makes for a good society.

        • Dan Simon says:

          Does that apply to the citizens of the Soviet-controlled East Bloc during the Cold War? Or, say, Venezuelans and Turks today?

          • Urstoff says:

            Maybe. I’m positing that democracy is a symptom, not a perfect indicator. Your society can have those values without democracy, but it’s doubtful that a democracy is going to last long without those values. In other words, those values are necessary for a sustained democracy, but not sufficient.

    • Brian Slesinsky says:

      Preventing tyranny seems more like protecting against an existential threat than it is like systemic change.

      The question is whether tyranny prevention is likely to be a good use of money and effort? I would rank the need rather low in the U.S. There are much more serious risks in other countries.

  12. Ghatanathoah says:

    This probably isn’t the most mature reaction after reading this, but I am immediately struck by an impulse to somehow get a job writing a superhero comic book. Just so I can have a superhero deliver a modified version of these arguments, after the latest idiot asks the question “What good are superheroes if all they do is save people and they never use their powers to enact systemic change?”

    (For those of you unfamiliar with superhero literature, this is something that comes up constantly)

    • Linch says:

      To be fair, some of the suggested alternatives to superheroing around are pretty EAy:

      http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2890
      http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2305

      • Daniel Speyer says:

        I’ve always thought SMBC went out of its way to be depressing in those strips. I like this version a lot better.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        That happens in comics occasionally already. I’ve read a few comics where the JLA does some kind of stunt for charity.

        There’s probably a literary-anthropic reason for this: Superheroes doing charity events is boring, so they always happen off-panel, unless a super-villain attacks the charity event at some point. I’d love it if a writer ever added in dialogue like this:

        Superman: I hate how everyone wants to interview me about my fight with Metallo last week, but nobody wants to ask me about the de-worming charity I’m promoting.

      • Jiro says:

        My response to that is that fighting supervillains is basically non-systemic change as Scott has defined it here. Everyone except the supervillain agrees that it is bad for the supervillain to conquer the world, and defeating the supervillain never has any side effects that anyone would consider worse than letting him keep being villainous. For Superman to fund after-school programs or give grain to poor countries, on the other hand, has the potential to really screw things up. (It was mentioned in this very thread that giving food to poor countries can help warlords and destroy the livelihood of the local farmers who normally produce and sell food.)

      • DrBeat says:

        If you want a comic about “what would happen if superheroes really tried to make the world a better place,” read “Superman: Red Son”. Baby Kal-el lands on a collective farm in Ukraine and uses his powers to make the world a better place by making Communism work.

        Also, if you aren’t interested in that, read “Superman: Red Son” anyway because it’s just amazing.

      • hawkice says:

        I am amazed you forgot this one, which is pretty on the nose for “alternative to being a superhero that ends up sounding a lot like effective altruism”:

        http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=3840

    • AJD says:

      You may enjoy the webcomic Strong Female Protagonist.

    • Nornagest says:

      I haven’t read many superhero comics for a long while, but the last reasonably high-profile title I read that tried to do the enact-systemic-change thing turned obnoxiously polemical, and sooner rather than later. So this post might be the Watsonian explanation, but the Doylist explanation is that it just doesn’t make for very good literature.

      They did kill God at one point, though, and that was kind of cool.

      • anon says:

        Would that happen to be Stormwatch/The Authority?

        • Jeff H says:

          I think he’s pretty obviously talking about Preacher.

        • Nornagest says:

          Yep. It was disappointing. Juvenile revenge-fic is never a good thing, but even if we set that aside it’s still broken: “escalate, and then escalate some more” isn’t a bad plot framework for a comic book (cf. Worm), but my suspension of disbelief falls apart when some escaped caricatures from a newspaper political comic turn out to have literally had a bigger threat than Cthulhu up their sleeve the whole time.

          (I’ve read Preacher too, and I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t call it a superhero comic nor particularly interested in systemic change in OP’s sense.)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            Oh man, the Authority. It’s hard to think of a comic that made me feel skeevier than that one did.

          • Nornagest says:

            I can think of one: Wanted. That was just juvenile revenge-fic, without even the thin excuse of a political motive; I guess the moral of the story is that I should stop reading stuff written by Mark Millar.

            (While Wanted made me feel skeevier, though, the Millar/Quitely run on The Authority probably pissed me off more.)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Nornagest – “I can think of one: Wanted. ”

            I’d disagree. Everyone in wanted was obviously, even cartoonishly evil. The message seemed to be “evil is fun/cool”, but it’s still, y’know, evil. The Authority themselves and their authors seemed to be under the impression that they were the good guys, and what they were depicting was at some level how the world worked.

            That, and the rape. Sweet jesus the rape.

          • DrBeat says:

            I know, right?

            I only read the early volumes of the Authority but I was ready to shout “OKAY, I GET IT ALREADY, THE BAD GUYS ARE BAD AND ARE THUS THE HUMANOID INCARNATIONS OF THE PLATONIC IDEAL OF RAPE”

            “Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.” was basically trying to do a lot of the same things as the Authority, and it ended up a thousands times better and a thousand times more mature because it wasn’t so obsessed with defining itself as “mature”.

          • Nornagest says:

            Nextwave is fantastic, but Warren Ellis could probably have stopped the pitch at “ninja broccoli” and I’d still have read it. He’s got a way of taking concepts that in anyone else’s hands would have been ridiculous and making them awesome.

    • suntzuanime says:

      The real answer is, the ones that try to use their powers to enact systemic change get labeled as “supervillains” instead.

      • Linch says:

        Yeah. Hollywood is biased against consequentialism.

        • drethelin says:

          “The world is a mess and I just need to rule it” It’s not the first half of this supervillain quote that people disagree with.

          • Linch says:

            Hmm…if you haven’t detected a tendency for baddies to be more cerebral and calculating than the good guys in superhero/blockbuster movies, then we probably watch very different things.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @Linch

            I wonder how much of that is just an attempt to make the hero more of an underdog. For me, making the villain more calm, composed, and thoughtful than the hero has the same effect as making the villain physically stronger than the hero. I get a stronger feeling of “how are they gonna beat this guy?”

        • Matt says:

          I’d guess the majority of the human race is biased against consequentialism – at least the western world is (as well as most of its philosophers). Hollywood may display a stronger bias, but I’m not certain that’s the case.

    • Mary says:

      Writing a superhero novel would be easier to get published. I’m working on one myself where my heroine’s job is working on maintaining seashores, and occasional rescues at sea — for which she charges an arm and a leg, and follows up by pointing at the hysterical activists who say that supers are being introduced to make human society dependent on them, and then cause it collapse when they are withdraw, and point out that they do actually have a point.

      But if you want to read one now, try Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon and its sequels. Lots of grip on consequences. Perhaps the biggest impact is on disaster relief. Indeed, superhero teams do not actually have an objective of fighting normal crime; they will list assisting the police in super crime as one.

  13. Iglr says:

    > I am not affiliated with the organized effective altruist movement and my opinion has no relation to theirs. They have spent a lot of work trying to convince everyone that they are entirely in favor of pursuing systemic change, I believe them, and nothing I say here reflects on that.

    It’s odd to talk about “the organized effective altruist movement” setting the official ‘EA’ position, when EA is a movement comprised by a diverse range of people taking EA actions, with a diverse range of opinions – including Scott’s just as much as anyone else’s.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, but the Centre For Effective Altruism, 80000 Hours, William MacAskill, and Peter Singer all have a sort of ex cathedra prestige which I don’t want to infringe upon.

  14. Mark says:

    It might be worth linking to Srinivasan’s review. I went out to find it after reading this post.

  15. Apocryphal says:

    In my very humble and limited experience, I find that within my social circle at least, those who criticize effective altruism by citing the systemic change argument often do nothing to promote said systemic change– in fact, they hardly do any charity at all. Arguments such as “effective altruism reinforces modes of capitalism and consumption that ipso facto perpetuate present-day inequality” feel more like a bludgeon with which to beat ideological opponents and/or signal intellectual superiority for being radically opposed to current societal norms, as opposed to a genuine attempt to improve the world. It’s possible that I’m just very frustrated with people who put more effort into posturing, instead of contributing to the good. I certainly don’t see systemic change and effective altruism as diametrically opposed.

    • bartlebyshop says:

      “they hardly do any charity at all”

      How do you know? Are you helping them file their taxes?

      • Linch says:

        I don’t understand your point. Low base rate+special info from within your social circle is enough to make an educated guess. At the risk of making the same error, I can’t help but suspect that your demand for rigor is not entirely charitable.

        • bartlebyshop says:

          My point is that many people (Catholics, for instance) have a strong norm against throwing the window-shades wide and bellowing to the whole village that they just donated $500 to something. If you asked all of my friends they would almost certainly say I “hardly do any charity at all” because I don’t discuss charity with my friends. They don’t have access to any special information. My stance on this isn’t particularly rare. Maybe Apocryphal’s social group is radically different. My friends and colleagues don’t have enough information about me to determine if I do charity or work for systemic change, and I don’t have that information about them. This has been true in all real-life circles I have moved in. I find the proselytizing EA stereotype significantly rarer. I don’t think you can assume you have more information (if you have any more at all) than low base rate.

          • Linch says:

            That’s fair. I don’t see a lot of “systematic change” arguments from religious conservatives, but I wouldn’t pretend to know anything about Apocryphal’s social group.

            Personally, I’m of the strong opinion that when tactfully done, informing others of your good deeds (occasionally even just good intentions) is more likely to encourage others to do good themselves than turn them off, so on net (and for the typical situations I could be thinking of) secretiveness is probably immoral, but YMMV.

          • bartlebyshop says:

            The Catholics are just a (big) example. I am and always have been a very non-conservative atheist and so most of my social group whose beliefs I’ve been aware of.

            Tactfully is doing most of the lifting here. Some of the groups that have my stance have it because otherwise you end up in the arms race of “until we see receipts, you aren’t allowed to have an opinion!”

          • Linch says:

            That’s a fair complaint. It’s difficult to strike a balance between the annoyingness of conspicuous giving and the “empty signaling” that was a large worry upthread, while still being sufficiently vocal that enough people actually believe and alieve that EA is an option for their altruistic impulses. Sh-t’s complicated.

            OTOH, I hate status games as much as the next person, but you gotta admit a race to see who could donate the most to eg, GiveWell’s top charities is probably a better state of affairs than the current one, no?

          • bartlebyshop says:

            It’s better for the first five minutes, while 20 or so people are throwing money around. Then, when the rest of the audience decides the best way to win the game is not to play, when they otherwise might have been convinced, how can you be sure you’ve come out ahead?

            This will also lead to people doing things like 72hr straight Turking marathons. People go ballistic for competitions in a way that’s not sustainable long-term.

          • Linch says:

            I think you underestimate people’s willingness to go against their hedonic self-interest for signaling effects:

            http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/21/conspicuous-conservation-and-the-prius-effect/

            *shrugs* Neither of us have data, so this is kinda a moot point.

            A bigger problem might be that too much signaling obfuscates substance. It’s extraordinarily hard for mechanism design to be aligned exactly right that signaling that you’re doing good could be made roughly proportionate to the actual good you do.

          • Berna says:

            I agree with @Linch that “when tactfully done, informing others of your good deeds […] is more likely to encourage others to do good themselves than turn them off”; that’s why I posted on my Facebook timeline about my donation to givewell.org that I’ve finally decided to set up after reading this article.

          • Adam says:

            I’m not going to argue about the relative virtue of secrecy versus openness, but just as a data point, I’ve never personally told anyone except my wife about any personal donations I’ve made. For the most part, I just don’t talk a whole lot about routine purchases I make at all, and I also don’t even talk to people very much. I’ve never posted anything at all to my Facebook wall and don’t have a blog, don’t Tweet. Some people just aren’t sharers.

          • Linch says:

            @Berna: Congratulations for setting up your donation!! 🙂

            @Adam: bartleby(rightly!) warned us against the dangers of mindreading, but I would posit that you are unlikely to be a central member of “people who criticize effective altruism by citing the systemic change argument” Thank you for the data point, and thank you for donating.

  16. Echo says:

    There are two brands of “low-income housing” advocate where I live. One type want to raise money to house poor people. The other want to bring “systemic change” by abolishing land-ownership and forcing everyone to live in communes (yes, I’m serious. They actually come out and say “you can’t OWN land”).

    Almost everyone supports the former. The latter is an abomination that decent people are already ganging together to exterminate.
    Do not try to be the latter group unless you think you can out-massacre everyone outside your tiny clique of tech-bubble hipsters, because that’s what this kind of thinking leads to.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Where do you live?

      • Echo says:

        Cascadia, around the kind of crunchy cultists who wrote this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascadia_%28independence_movement%29 >_<

        I can send you the details on bumblr if you’re interested. It’s a beautiful but crazy county.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          As an aside, Cascadia would have been a far better name for Washington state (named for a guy who, as far as I can tell, never even went there, and easily confused with an important city on the other side of the continent). Maybe if those people don’t succeed in their independence movement, they could settle for a renaming project instead.

          • KR says:

            For what it’s worth, Washington was originally going to be named “Columbia” (i.e., American Columbia as opposed to British Columbia to the north), but was changed to “Washington” at roughly the last minute. Get this though (from Wikipedia):

            “Representative Richard H. Stanton argued that the proposed name—the “Territory of Columbia”—might be confused for the District of Columbia, and suggested a name honoring George Washington instead.”

            So that didn’t quite work out.

    • Dahlen says:

      This kind of sounds like a threat.

      • Echo says:

        “We’re going to take your land” is a threat.
        “There will be consequences for that” is just a promise.

        • Dahlen says:

          You sound upset enough about this whole situation for the promised consequences to refer to some rather dire stuff. Yeah, no difference. Still sounds like a threat.

          • Dahlen says:

            Wikipedia makes it seem like a boring vanilla obviously unsuccessful secessionist movement, and unlike you two, makes no mention of anything resembling violence or a serious threat coming from their side. By your account, I’d imagine guerrilla street fights are a few months from happening, if they were to have their way. Why do you take them seriously enough to get this riled up about them?

          • Adam says:

            Ha, Mark beat me to defending himself, but he just said 1e-62 probability of secession. That’s pretty far from a few months from happening.

          • Echo says:

            Yep Mark. We get the ones who go mad in Seattle, and come up north to live in radical communes. A lot of them bring family money and connections, and they can do a lot of harm even without “taking over”.

            They used ties with local democrat party officials to get D senators endorsing their “affordable housing” plans. Ended up conning an obscene amount of grant money out of charitable organizations to build a few units in an “sustainable planned community” designed by an expensive Seattle architecture firm.
            Custom-size imported windows and leaky solar water systems, all paid for by people who thought they were helping to house the poor.

            Of course, these fancy houses don’t go to actual poor people, because it’s more important to import the Right Sort of People, who will Support Systemic Change In Our Community. That somehow always seems to mean “more radicals from Seattle”.
            You have to prioritize the long term as an activist, I suppose.

            Meanwhile actual poor people here are living in abandoned trailers, and all the grant money’s gone. We just do our best to help on an individual level.

    • Forcing everyone to live in communes is stupid. Then again, ganging together to exterminate people sounds pretty freakin ominous. I’m glad I live in a part of the world where neither of these things happen.

    • Doug S. says:

      I’ve heard that, in China, it’s true that you can’t own land outright, only rent it from the government… (Communism, and all that.)

      • Linch says:

        This is true. However, most Chinese people I know still care a lot about home ownership, indeed they care much more than the (arguably already ridiculous) amount people in the States care about.

        • hawkice says:

          True and easy to corroborate: the rent on e.g. a million dollar property is much lower in China than in America (investment properties have lower returns due to a substantial cultural difference in values related to owning your own home).

      • Having to pay property taxes strikes me as a lot like not being able to own land, just rent it from the government. There’s also eminent domain.

      • Cet3 says:

        Technically, you can’t own land outright in common law countries, either.

        • Nornagest says:

          It would be more accurate to say that allodial title is very rare and banned under some jurisdictions than to say that it’s not a feature of common law. But if Wikipedia’s page on land tenure in China has it right, then even the equivalent of fee simple is basically unobtainable there in urban areas, and restricted to agricultural cooperatives in rural.

  17. Marge Simpson after failing to remove Itchy and Scratchy from television, at the end of one of my favorite half hours of television, “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

  18. This is something I’ve been worried about for a while, but I’m concerned about what might happen if we just give up on politics. Surely there will be a demographic effect that will allow the anti-EAs to get their politics put into law? I’m not sure how we escape Moloch here. Maybe the answer is something like “don’t spend any more effort than your opponents” but that seems obviously susceptible to bias.

  19. Stuart Armstrong says:

    I think the post equivocates over the position of global warming – one of the clearest positive “man vs man” (or PvP) causes out there. Just because most people would approve of a policy *if it didn’t have any downsides*, does not make that policy “man vs nature” (or PvE).

    I’m also not convinced that “If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.” is necessarily true. Politics is tribal, and doing anything about global emissions is tribal as well; have we checked that really, doing this for free would be accepted on a political level (imagine if, eg, the UN decided to fund the de-carbonisation of the US economy). By claiming that global warming is PvE, the post avoids facing one of the strongest PvP interventions.

    On a meta level, I’m not sure the PvP and PvE distinction is valid. “Everyone agrees the sick should be healed”; in fact there were and are many people worried about overpopulation, who think foreign populations should be left to starve or collapse, who worry about the breeding of people with certain classes of values and think we shouldn’t help these populations survive or grow. Not huge amounts of people are like this, but enough to make the theoretical distinction invalid.

    So I feel the point of the first part of the thesis is reduced to “beware change where the downside is difficult to measure”, which is not a universally effective anti PvP argument.

    The second half of the thesis – why certain interventions should be avoided for political and PR reasons – is much better. The distinction between PvP and PvE is clear here – PvP are those interventions where the opposing group is largeish, PvE those where the opposing group is tiny. I have no intellectual problem with that argument, much as it saddens me at an emotional level.

    • Martin says:

      As someone who doesn’t entirely buy into the Global Warming point of view I would say yes, if some Third Party offered to install harm reduction technology at all power stations or rolled out electric cars across the planet that this would be a good thing.

      Possibly a an inefficient use of money, but certainly something we wouldn’t want to try and stop. Why would it? It might help a problem, without doing any significant harm.

      (Why don’t I buy into AGW? Whenever I see a report on (for example) the IPCC, the report always features the worst possible outcome of all the outcomes modeled. Even when the economic model in question requires constant population growth, no technological advancement and an increase in coal power. Yes, big scary numbers make for better news, but it leaves a very sour taste in my mouth and leaves me distrustful of the entire field.)

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        >Whenever I see a report on (for example) the IPCC, the report always features the worst possible outcome of all the outcomes modeled.

        Nowhere near. Almost nobody pays attention to the tails, and there are strong reasons (the usual overconfidence and model errors) to suspect they are far too thin. The xrisk lie in the (underestimated) >+6C warming category, not in the range everyone goes on about (now, fortunately, the xrisk seems small, but not small enough).

        The most terrifying thing you can say about global warming? “There are great uncertainties in the climate, which scientists don’t take into account.” I agree with that. Of course, most people saying that are thinking that the impact is overestimated, but uncertainties go in both direction.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think a plausible interpretation of Martin’s comment (or at the very least, a subtle shift of it to be more in line with what I’ve argued in the past) to be that it’s the overall outcome, not just the degree of warming that is exaggerated. Mostly, I think this is due to the fact that we have close to zero clue for how to model the actual outcome (this requires a good economic/political model that runs on a timescale much faster than climate change), so we assume things like constant population growth rate, no technological advancement, no changes to economic behavior, etc. all while we’re jacking up the slow parameter to it’s hundred-year value (…even if this hundred-year value is not in the tail of possible hundred-year values…).

        • Martin says:

          It is quite plausible that the media reports we see are distinct and don’t overlap.

          Actually, that would be an interesting study – measure media bias across the world by looking at the distribution of reported warming predictions.

          I would also accept that both the consequences and the numbers tend to be chosen from the disaster side of the spectrum, as per Anon’s post.

          Also, for comedy value, note that I have solar panels for the house. Not because I believe in climate change, but because it works out on a financial level. If we are ever to beat climate change as some people believe we need to do, that is going to be the way to do it.

          • Adam says:

            I’ve never actually seen any popular media reporting of climate change, but I’m not a blogger who specifically covers this stuff. I only ever see television news in hospital lobbies, and from what I can tell, they only seem to report murders and elections.

      • I have no objection to people spending their own money on carbon mitigation, choosing to live low carbon lives, or the like. But it’s a slight exaggeration to say that it couldn’t do any harm. There is at least one very low probability situation in which it could do harm—if AGW is all that is holding back the end of the current interglacial.

    • Nathan says:

      I am a rather stronger climate sceptic than Martin and agree with him: if you want to waste your own cash on CO2 mitigation, go for it. I’d rather see it spent on bed nets personally, but your cash, your choice.

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        Since you are in the orbit of the rationalist community, I don’t think your reaction is necessarily typical.

    • Ben says:

      I completely agree with you that Climate Change falls into the PvP bracket, but I think that this actually doesn’t change the argument against messing with PvP very much. In particular, the unforeseen consequences of trying to ‘fix’ it, whether by covering the world in nuclear plants (something I broadly support but could probably be convinced I was wrong about), or large scale geoengineering projects which make me very nervous indeed, could very easily play out in much the same way as the Engels and Marx scenario where a well meaning attempt to solve an obvious problem ends up being a blood soaked catastrophe.

    • stillnotking says:

      I’m also not convinced that “If a private donor offered to pay for scrubbers on every smokestack at zero cost to the rest of the economy, the Koch brothers would have no objection.” is necessarily true. Politics is tribal, and doing anything about global emissions is tribal as well; have we checked that really, doing this for free would be accepted on a political level (imagine if, eg, the UN decided to fund the de-carbonisation of the US economy).

      We don’t even need to imagine, because rolling coal is a thing. People are quite willing to pay costs — personal, social, or both — purely to spite members of the opposing tribe. (Perhaps it’s not purely out of spite. One could make camel’s-nose arguments about symbolic acceptance, etc. But it’s mostly spite.)

  20. trolololololol says:

    “if everyone gave 10% of their income to effective charity, it would be more than enough to end world poverty, cure several major diseases, and start a cultural and scientific renaissance”

    If everyone tried to give 10% of their income to “effective charity”, it would go about as well as raising taxes 10%. It looks like you already know this on some level, when you talk about not wanting to be the Brookings Institution or Cato Institute. If you think that it is possible to do better than this, and OpenPhil, for example, looks like it’s doing much better, you have to be doing something different from existing philanthropists, not keeping the message simple to appeal to maximally many people.

  21. Emp says:

    1) Whenever I see EMH, I see red. It’s the most nonsensical idea in the history of mankind. It literally posits; everything is perfectly priced ‘because’. Extending that lunacy to ‘no one can be right about anything’ is logically consistent, but highlights the problem with the idea itself, it’s complete bollocks and this sort of issue is not the kind you can solve by slapping numbers on it, making whatever assumptions you like and then pretending the conclusion is scientific, as the creators of EMH did.

    2) If ‘Effective Altruists’ are willing to split up over trivial disagreements like not wanting people to have non-veg food (seriously an issue more suited to religious political parties in India), then they aren’t really committed to EA at all. They are committed to their egos and personal control. Being willing to splinter your movement over this or not concede ground is the literal antithesis of the ‘effective’ part of your movement’s philosophy.

    At this point you need to question whether your goals are aligned in ANY WAY at all. What I think you guys have is a philosophical agreement about how one should go about pursuing goals and unsurprisingly, NO AGREEMENT AT ALL as to what those goals ought to be in the first place.

    In plain English, the reason you’re advocating man vs nature issues is because those are the ones where you all agree about the goal. What this WILL NOT change is that for some of your group man vs man issues will be more important as a whole, and it absolutely makes sense for them to destroy the entire EA movement over such an issue rather than have it proceed with a misguided goal.

    The fact that you agree about a method is just utterly irrelevant compared to the fact that you disagree with what to do about it which is a FAR bigger issue and more in need of consensus.

    • Emile says:

      I find the EMH perfectly sensible when talking about stock prices and other similar commodities: as a rule of thumb, if someone claims to know whether such-and-such stock’s value is going to go up or down, based only on publicly available information, than chances are they are full of it.

      Don’t you agree?

      • Trevor says:

        I think I’m getting this from Fama, but I can’t find the source right now.

        It can be useful to split the EMH into two claims:

        1. You Can’t Beat the Market. Prices reflect all available information, markets are anti-inductive, yada yada.

        2. The Price is Right. Prices reflect the “true” value of the stock, markets allocate resources in the socially optimal way, yada yada.

        To many people, the first is obviously correct and the second obviously false. A lot of persistent EMH arguments go away when you realize one side is taking about (1), the other about (2), and neither has a good reason why both answers must be the same.

        • Adam says:

          Like Urstoff says below, there are two efficient market hypotheses, the strong and the weak. Neither says that prices are actually rational or optimal or ‘true’ or anything like that. The only ‘true’ price of a financial asset is the immediate book value plus all future discounted cash flows, which is unknowable because it’s the future.

          What the hypotheses actually say are:

          1) Weak: Publicly traded equity prices reflect all publicly available information, so you can’t consistently beat the market using only publicly available information.

          2) Strong: Prices reflect all private information, too, so you can’t even beat the market using private information.

          I don’t think too many economists actually believe the strong, as insider trading empirically works. The weak form is close to tautological, as if you have a strategy that actually works, eventually others will figure it out, adopt it, and it won’t work any more. But it does explain the extreme secrecy of hedge funds, as what they do can only possible work if no one else actually knows or can figure out what they’re doing.

          • Emp says:

            2) Isn’t remotely tautological.

            It basically posits that there is no such thing as excellence, because if there was. everyone would just do it.

            It’s absurd. It assumes that good trading is about that one canned strategy that you keep repeating. It’s an inherently academic conception that only someone with no practical experience could come up with.

            I defy you to explain to me how this logic doesn’t apply to baseball, or football, or any damn thing for that matter? Why the hell would everyone ‘eventually’ become as good as the best guy at anything, and doesn’t that necessarily imply that until they do, the market actually isn’t efficient?

            In reality, different strategies work at different times and markets do graduate towards what works in the short term. This explains a lot of the mania for EMH and index funds right now (it’s a strategy and thought process that’s having it’s best time for decades, until the stock market started plummeting).

            Anyone with a brain who understands the market can tell you the S&P is more likely to drop than rise over the next year, but an efficient market is incredibly convenient theory, so keep buying and reading articles about how ‘panicking and selling is worst thing to do’.

            Watch out for the change in opinion about the merits of EMH as the market continues to crash and the crash accelerates.

          • Adam says:

            Clearly, this inspires levels of caring above and beyond my own as a topic of discussion, but I was just trying to explain what the hypothesis is and why it says nothing about whether prices are correct or rational or not.

          • lmm says:

            @Emp the difference is that the not-so-good footballers play just as much football as the best. Whereas those who are best at pricing get more money and therefore get to have more input into pricing.

            I was about to suggest we bet on the S&P 500 but then I realised how dumb that would be. I trust you already have a large short position if that’s what you believe.

          • What’s your accounting of the empirical evidence for the Efficient Market Hypothesis? I don’t have the link handy but I know it’s been proved quite often that no investor, no matter how skillful, beats the market at a rate better than chance.

          • Emp says:

            JamesVonderHaar:

            I’ve already addressed this. This so-called proof ignores people who’ve actually done that by calling them outliers. It then uses data from mutual funds as a class and assumes that whatever applies to them applies to sophisticated hedge funds or individual traders who aren’t affected by the same constraints, mandates, error tracking budgets and career incentives.

            The proof isn’t worth the paper it’s written on, because the assumptions underlying both the theory and it’s proof are demonstrably false.

        • Quixote says:

          In some sense both are false. Or 1 is true when its talking about you, you the one reading this (probably). But its not true to say that no one, with lots of time, staff resources etc can. Lot’s of people have. People continue to do so.

          Everyone talks about how if enough people enter a coin flipping contest someone is sure to win. Very few people actually work out the binomial expansion numbers for the probability of getting Warren Buffet, George Soros or Renaissance Capital like return numbers.

          • Adam says:

            I really don’t think it’s meant to be taken as a concrete law of investment. An Emp is so passionately pointing out, there are clearly fund managers who have consistently beaten the market, even for very long periods of time, but as I tried to explain above before getting yelled at, the condition of the hypothesis is that in order to do so, they can’t reveal what they’re doing. Knowing all of Buffett’s or Soros’ positions allows me to just mimic them exactly. Knowing Clayton Kershaw’s exact training routine doesn’t mean I will ever throw a curveball like this.

          • Emp says:

            Adam, sorry for the yelling. I just care about the topic a lot and it’s a little irritating to see people take the wrong end of it for granted and argue as though denying it is in flat-earth territory while demanding impossible levels of evidence that essentially make the hypothesis non-testable.

            That said, a very interesting point about Kershaw. I still don’t think if Soros and Buffet explained their trading process to you, that you would be able to replicate it. Sure, if you know their exact positioning at any given time, you could copy that, but it’s not the case that knowing their process would enable you to just pick out every trade they do.

            What you’re saying might be the case with some types of mechanical strategies, but I don’t think the most successful entities rely on a particular strategy that can be programmed and just keep applying it (which is the sort of paradigm academics have in mind when they say “other people will copy what you do”).

          • brad says:

            EMH isn’t true, but it is useful. When someone comes to you and tells you that he can beat the market (or worse that you can, all you need is to watch these videos, now available for the low, low price of …) , 99 times out of 100, the welfare maximizing response to run, not walk, away while checking to make sure you still have your wallet.

          • Emp says:

            Brad, your comment is entirely true.

            In fact 100% of such offers are bogus, because market success requires hard work, time dedication, understanding AND a substantial capital base to start with. You could alternatively credential farm to get into the financial industry, but only a select few hedge funds actually have the freedom to do whatever they think is optimal, rather than be hemmed in by a gazillion institutional constraints.

            If someone told me “You can be a great neuro-surgeon if you follow this course” my response would be similar. I’ll grant that believing this will protect you against charlatans, but thinking markets can be beaten with great skill shouldn’t make anyone believe that they should be able to do it without professional dedication, skill or aptitude.

            The market is unique inasmuch as it is so scalable that there is very little scope for mid-level competence as a career option. It’s much like how you may be much better than me at Tennis, but that’s irrelevant in the sense that neither of us could have a pro career and Federer would beat both of us 6-0 6-0 6-0.

            In financial markets, the best players get to wield trillions of dollars in capital and consequently, if you’re really good, but not as good as them, you will still under-perform the market, the same way the Tennessee Titans are a ridiculously high skilled football squad, but in the universe of NFL they suck.

            The fact that over-performers are both so scarce, as well as so overly successful is actually very strong evidence of skill. It’s really important that in a zero-sum game, if all you look at is results, a game which requires enormous skill can look completely random if it’s played by a lot of participants with roughly equal skill levels.

          • Emp says:

            Also, to add on to my previous comment, it certainly cannot and should not be taken as a given that at all points in time everyone will be so high-skilled, or equally skilled that no one will have much of an edge.

            Certainly it’s possible, but it’s very unlikely to last for any length of time, precisely because so much of the money is compelled to act in particular ways by institutional requirements and because the flow of money (think sectors, strategies) are drawn by irrational human preferences and biases.

          • An important issue in interpreting the EMH is what counts as public information. If the facts I am using are public but I am interpreting them in a way few other investors will, my interpretation is in the relevant sense private information.

            Real world example. I bought stock in Apple shortly after the Mac came out. That was in part a response to a colleague (Tulane Business School) asking me why I bought a Mac instead of a PC Junior.

            I was putting together three facts, all available to others. One was the nature of a GUI—I had seen material on the Xerox Star. One was the fact that the Mac used a Motorola 68000, a processor previously used mostly for multi-user machines—because it needed the horsepower to run a GUI. One was my colleague’s comment, which I thought reflected an attitude shared with a large fraction of investors.

            My general view of the implication of the EMH for investing is that if you have an opinion relevant to the value of a stock that you are willing to bet against the world, you can assume that everything else relevant to the stock’s value is already incorporated in the price so don’t have to research that.

      • Emp says:

        No. I don’t. In fact, I myself work at markets, and my practical experience leads me to believe this theory is complete and utter bullshit.

        The only evidence of this theory is that it hasn’t been disproved according to highly rigorous standards which begin by assuming that this theory is true.

        I just don’t get how people who don’t know the first thing about the market are so sure “it can’t be beaten”. What the data shows is that no particular group AS A CLASS, beats the market. This isn’t surprising to me, but the fact that mutual funds or hedge funds as a whole don’t beat the market isn’t surprising at all. Groups that are large enough to be the market and that continue to be hamstrung by any number of institutionally mandated sizing and positional direction requirements can’t beat the market.

        The funds that supposedly ‘can’t beat the market’, have an error tracking budget beyond which they aren’t even allowed to deviate from the said market.

        There’s a reason why no academic has ever offered to lay Warren Buffet even odds of beating the market, and the same goes for Hedge Funds such as Rennaisance, Bridgewater, Medallion, Pershing Square and other top tier funds.

        There’s an ocean of difference between something being difficult and it being impossible. The problem is the theory refuses to even engage in first principle argumentation rather than relying on class-wide statistical data, picking groups wide enough that they ARE the market, and then claiming said groups can’t beat the market.

        The theory is based on assumptions that are demonstrably false, and cannot prove itself without recourse to said assumptions. It will not engage in first principle reasoning, will not subject itself to an empirical test (I identify a guy beforehand and let’s see how his positions do).

        • Quixote says:

          This guy gets it.

        • Anonymous says:

          Naive question: if there are people who reliably beat the market, why haven’t we all given them all of our money to invest?

          • brad says:

            1) A lot of people have given their money to some of them. Berkshire Hathaway has a market cap of 323B.

            2) Some of those people don’t want your money, because their strategies aren’t infinitely scalable, and they’d rather save that sweet sweet alpha for themselves than have to give 80% of it to you. If they want more money to invest they’d rather just lever up on debt.

            3) If you accept as true that some people out there can reliably beat the market, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell who they are. It can be kind of like an existence proof in math.

          • Adam says:

            Part of the reason I somewhat advocate the weak EMH without actually believing it’s completely true is that it’s good advice for the lay investor. Just giving all your money to the guy who can do the best doesn’t work in practice because a place like Medallion might just charge 5 and 55 and the return to a person parking their money there is significantly less than the return of the fund itself, most of which goes to the fund manager. That was John Bogle’s point in starting index funds as much as any a prior belief about the impossibility of success in active fund management. You don’t just have to beat the market, you have to beat the market plus transaction costs plus management fees plus taxes on realized gains to make it worth it.

          • Anonymous says:

            Berkshire Hathaway has a market cap of 323B.

            OK, fair, but why not more? Everyone else just isn’t savvy enough to give their money to Berkshire Hathaway?

            their strategies aren’t infinitely scalable

            Again, I am naive about this but I don’t yet buy this point. If they are consistently beating the market then there is money being left on the table, right? They should be exploiting their advantage until they have invested so much money that they have shifted the market and eliminated whatever opportunity they were exploiting. Whether they get this money by soliciting investors or by borrowing seems immaterial.

            it doesn’t necessarily mean you can tell who they are

            Emp seems to think they can? “Warren Buffet … Rennaisance, Bridgewater, Medallion, Pershing Square and other top tier funds.”

            Anyway, we should certainly be able to identify such people retrospectively, though we have to do the statistics right to ensure we aren’t just picking up people who got lucky.

          • Emp says:

            Anonymous:

            Warren Buffet said this theory was BULLSHIT in 1984. 1984. That’s 2

          • Emp says:

            Anonymous:

            Warren Buffet called EMH nonsense in 1984. That’s more than 30 years ago, and he himself has substantially outperformed the market since then, so claiming that he just got lucky till then and after being identified as a test case, beat the market over 30 years through sheer luck is just wildly improbable.

            The same is true of plenty of others.

            Please do focus on Brad’s answer number two. People who can beat the market reliably tend to have a LOT of money. If you look at the Forbes List, a startling number of the top 100 richest people in the world made their money speculating in markets. They don’t need or want your money or want you to benefit from their strategies and expertise.

            Also, yes, no strategy is infinitely scalable. When your strategy is more advanced than taking a position and holding and you want to be able to reverse fast, a lot of your edge won’t exist if your fund has more than $100 Billion AUM or you will be restricted to a very small number of markets. That’s why you can’t access Medallion or Rennaisance’s services.

            Also, C) Lots of people like you are simply mistaken and no amount of evidence will convince you that there is anything such as investment expertise, and hence that’s a lot of money not going to these people.

          • Matt says:

            brad is correct – I think scalability is the hardest part. Consider the likelihood of the market being inefficient to the tune of millions of dollars versus billions or trillions. The first is a rounding error, the second is a small percentage, and the third *is* the market.

            I will also point out that just because someone has beat the market for the last decade doesn’t mean they will continue to do so. If markets are efficient at all, I’d naively expect them to include previous market beating strategies (eventually).

          • brad says:

            Anyway, we should certainly be able to identify such people retrospectively, though we have to do the statistics right to ensure we aren’t just picking up people who got lucky.

            Not necessarily. Let’s say we build a model and it tells us that of a certain group of hedge funds, we should expect that six would outperform for ten years in a row by pure chance. We go and look at the data and see that twelve have, run some statistics and find that that is statistically significant. We reject the null hypothesis and conclude that alpha exists. That still doesn’t tell us that any particular one of those twelve didn’t get their returns by pure luck.

      • John Schilling says:

        Markets are asymptotically efficient. In order to achieve efficiency, smart people have to actually devote themselves to analyzing lots of information, which they aren’t going to do if they can’t get paid for it. But, the better these people do as a class, the harder it is for them to individually prosper. If they ever create the perfectly efficient market, they’d all be out of work.

        The stable equilibrium for e.g. the stock market is to be just inefficient enough for a clever analyst working with a share of the average mutual fund’s capitalization, can eke out above-market profits just sufficient that his share will make for a good upper-middle-class income. The places where significant above-market returns will still be possible are the ones where arcane knowledge is required for accurate analysis and the market capitalization is too small to justify more than one or two analysts devoting themselves to that arcane specialty.

        • Brian Donohue says:

          That’s right. There’s a market in analyzing securities, just like anything else. And it’s pretty damn efficient. Maybe it doesn’t look so efficient to Warren Buffett, but most people don’t have his eyes or brains.

          Not that complicated.

    • Urstoff says:

      That isn’t what EMH says. EMH is about stocks, not “everything”. In addition, there are several variants on the EMH. The weak form, according to which you can’t reliably predict a stocks future performance from it’s past performance, is almost certainly true. A stronger form, according to which information is disseminated quickly so reliable returns above average are impossible, is also very well supported; index funds (almost) always win. The strongest form, according to which prices always reflect all information, is probably literally false (although it’s hard to think of an empirical test that would distinguish it from the semi-strong form), but close enough to the truth for people who aren’t day traders.

    • Tracy W says:

      The EMH seems to have become some sort of weird bogeyman in some areas of left-wing academia. I once had a debate with the guy who wrote that book about economic zombie ideas where I wound up going back to the source material of what the economic reformers in NZ and the UK were thinking in the 1970s and 1980s and showing that there was no mention of the EMH, to which his response was that the EMH was unconsciously influencing them. At which point I gave up.
      (He also kept promising me a cite for his claim that the EMH in the form you describe was the same as Fama’s EMH. Never got that either.)

    • Matt says:

      Its a shame your first point on the EMH derailed all replies. Your second point is the most cogent description of the EA movement in this thread (including the article itself). I typed a much longer reply, but I will instead turn it into a blog post. The gist is that some institutions organized around meta-beliefs are stable. Some fractious institutions organized around beliefs proper are successful perhaps because of their nature.

      tldr: I agree with your assessment if not your conclusion. A forced consensus is not necessarily required for success.

  22. Tatu Ahponen says:

    “But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change. If we count him as an effective altruist – and under the circumstances I’m not sure we can do otherwise – then the net contribution of the movement throughout history has been spectacularly negative.”

    That’s a fairly big argument to make, isn’t it? There have been far, far more people and political movements in the world affected in some way by Marx and Engels and their studies than just the Bolsheviks and the movement following in their footsteps.

    • Emp says:

      I feel this is a larger problem with calling “effective altruism” a movement. It isn’t. It’s a broad agreement about how to go about things, but not an agreement about what things ought to be achieved.

      Can this be called a movement at the point where large segments of the group are bound to have diametrically opposed goals?

    • Agreed. Even if we do the calculation against the counterfactual world (how many people die in the 20th century without communism?) it’s not clear that we can lay the responsibility for the whole sum on Engels and hold him the example of a failed intervention. Marx had a new philosophical critique of the existing, deeply flawed societal structure and, from the evidence, this resonated with many people. If we support a deep marketplace of ideas then it’s a good thing that the conversation happened.

      It is strange to make your point of intervention in limiting the damage of Communism the choice of Engels to fund Marx. Why not change the policies of Nichloas II or the Kuomintang (who certainly influenced their ideological rivals)?

  23. Deiseach says:

    What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary?

    Well, that’s pretty easy to work out, thanks to the Occupy protests. My favourite is the Occupy and Trinity Wall Street kerfuffle, where right-onness of every description collided, and to nobody’s surprise the single richest parish in the entire Episcopal Church finally decided that owning a piece of property in a desirable location far outweighed keeping on the right side of a bunch of crusties.

    Revolutionary anti-capitalists did damn-all to effect any change; the damage to the system came from within, thanks to good old human vices like avarice, pride and covetousness.

    • Brandon Berg says:

      Sure, but occasionally they succeed, with disastrous consequences for humanity. So the expected value is negative, though it’s not clear exactly how negative.

      • stillnotking says:

        My thought when I read that sentence in Scott’s post: “It’s not the number that concerns me, it’s the sign!”

    • Tatu Ahponen says:

      Considering that there have been more minor consequences of Occupy protests – certain relatively effective new concepts like “99%” gaining ground, a new generation of activists being trained in activism, their effect on movements in the rest of the world – it’s really too early to tell what the total effect of the Occupy movement will be.

      • ThirteenthLetter says:

        > a new generation of activists being trained in activism,

        Oh good. More GMO fields getting burned down, more people getting harassed out of their jobs by insta-mobs, more corporations desperately wasting millions of dollars on feels. I can’t wait.

  24. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Social Justice Warrior vs Social Justice Facilitator? One who ‘fights’ for systemic change meets opposition, yet one who encourages others to improve a situation *may* make more progress. It’ll take longer though.

  25. Shenpen says:

    Interesting that you mention only left-wing systemic change in the first sentences. How about right-wing systemic change: invading Africa, replacing corrupt dictators with honest colonial administration?

    I think “man vs. man” is OK – just these guys get it the wrong way around: capitalists, Western colonial admin etc. GOOD, revolutionaries, third world dictators etc. BAD.

    In other words, I feel drawn towards a Carlylean worldview – it IS good vs. evil, but the roles reversed.

    I mean at least one has to consider it as an alternative – that there are two potential answers to left good, right evil: either that it is better not to see people as evil, which is your view, or consider the option what if the left is evil. For example, gaining power, status and influence, and gaining “holiness” and warm fuzzies, while only sowing violent chaos and disorder, is evil. Essentially one should at least consider that it is the sweet-talkers, the folks who speak the language of ethics and nice intentions, are the evil ones. In other words, the first thing to consider at hearing any proposition isn’t “is this really true?” but “is this guy a liar?”

    • suntzuanime says:

      There is a fourth view, which is to see everyone as evil. That’s the view I feel best reflects the facts.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >There is a fourth view, which is to see everyone as evil.

        “And when everyone’s evil… no one will be!”

      • Doug S. says:

        “Let me give you some advice, Captain. It may help you to make sense of the world. I believe you find life such a problem because you think there are the good people and the bad people. You’re wrong, of course. There are, always and only, bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.”
        — Lord Vetinari, Guards! Guards!

    • Dahlen says:

      In other words, the first thing to consider at hearing any proposition isn’t “is this really true?” but “is this guy a liar?”

      Wait. Finding out whether someone says true things is kind of a prerequisite for knowing whether that person is a liar. (Then you’d have to know whether the untrue things are said knowingly / maliciously.) What’s the rationale for favouring the second question? Is it more worthy to tag people with characteristics than to sort statements into true and false?

      • Shenpen says:

        Yes, because the manipulators / liars have a HUGE advantage over truth-seekers. It is possible even to lie / manipulate while every statement is technically true, just filtering facts selectively. Like always showing the EU migration crisis as crying women and children, and ignoring the 70-80% angry young men. All the photos of crying women and children are technically true – they were made there, then, of those folks, technically not manipulated. Just the _selection_ makes the message manipulative and something of an unspoken lie, as it gives the impression this is what the majority is.

        Beyond filtering facts selectively, one can employ emotional mind tricks that are literally true, such as noncentral fallacy.

        And in a stream of facts, there is not always time to check all so some literally false ones can slip in.

        Therefore, most debating cultures and most discussions are based on trust that at worst the other party is making honest mistakes.

        This is why it is crucially important to detect liars and manipulators and exclude them from discussions because checking every half-truth, decoding every emotional trick, pointing out every selective filtering is just too much effort wasted.

        • Dahlen says:

          Alright. I suspected the answer was along those lines. My real worry is probably the shifting of debate norms towards false positive accusations of being a liar, after no longer making false negatives. Because that creates a climate of paranoia and hostility wherein a person can’t be just wrong, but necessarily a liar.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Dahlen
            My real worry is probably the shifting of debate norms towards false positive accusations of being a liar [….]

            This. And to weed out falsities in the accusation, you’d have to look way back to what the accused person is accused of lying about in the past. You might as well just argue the current issue with whatever evidence we have now, correcting everyone’s current errors as usual.

          • Christopher Chang says:

            It is usually* easy to distinguish between people who, when proven wrong, acknowledge it, never make the wrong claim in the future, and sometimes even refer to the disproof later; and those who try to get away with the same false claim later when they don’t think anyone smart enough is looking.

            It’s reasonable to publicly and permanently ostracize people in the second class. (If they’re an adult, anyway. If it’s your six-year-old kid, welcome to one of the classic challenges of parenting…) In the past, this might have been impractical, but nowadays you can find enough intellectually honest people on the Internet to afford this without completely isolating yourself.

            *: technically it’s possible to exhibit unusual honesty/humility in some areas to gain trust, and then try to abuse that trust, but that’s rare; it’s normally more efficient for a liar to surround themselves with more gullible people.

          • “It is usually* easy to distinguish between people who, when proven wrong, acknowledge it”

            The problem is that it’s easy to conclude that someone who disagrees with you has been proven wrong when he has no good reason to agree. Consider Scott’s comments on “debunked” research in one of his old posts. Most of us have a bias in our own favor.

          • Christopher Chang says:

            The problem is that it’s easy to conclude that someone who disagrees with you has been proven wrong when he has no good reason to agree. Consider Scott’s comments on “debunked” research in one of his old posts. Most of us have a bias in our own favor.

            That is a good point.

            An additional diagnostic that helps reduce the classification error rate is to see whether they preferentially engage with stronger or weaker critics/criticisms. Genuine truth-seekers engage with the strongest apparent counterarguments they can find, and are likely to revise their position at least a little bit over time as a consequence; charlatans systematically ignore them, while of course trying to pass themselves off as truth-seekers by refuting flawed counterarguments when they get the chance. It takes multiple data points to draw a conclusion here, since there’s lots of room for disagreement re: what counterarguments presented on a given day are worth engaging and which ones can reasonably be ignored, but usually a pattern emerges. (Sadly, as you’ve noted, the pattern is frequently not a good one.)

        • My version of Shenpen’s point is that a critical intellectual skill mostly not taught and sometimes anti-taught in our system is the ability to judge sources of information on internal evidence. From the way this book/article/web page/blog post is written, is the author an honest and intelligent person doing his best to say what he thinks is true or is he either dishonest or badly biased.

          Scott’s posts provide a good example of one end of the range, most FB posts on climate topics, on either side, of the other.

    • Frank says:

      It’s interesting how left-wing positions seem to map to attempts at short-term altruism and right-wing positions seem to map to attempts at long-term altruism. For example, left wingers want to redistribute earnings. Right wingers want to avoid redistributing earnings so people will be incentivized to work. Left wingers want open borders to help poor people. Right wingers want to keep borders closed in order to preserve the institutions that make some countries nicer places to live in. Left wingers want gay marriage to make gays happy. Right wingers want to preserve traditional marriage to avoid messing with parental investment etc.

      • Tatu Ahponen says:

        “Right wingers want to keep borders closed in order to preserve the institutions that make some countries nicer places to live in.”

        That doesn’t sound very altruistic towards the people who don’t live in those countries either in the long or the short term, no?

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Institutions aren’t like natural harbors or coal deposits: people in other countries are perfectly capable of adapting Western institutions to their own circumstances.

          Why can’t we encourage Syria or Guatamala or wherever to go down the path of Atatürk’s Turkey or Deng’s China rather than letting them all crash on our national couches?

          • birdboy2000 says:

            Neither place has an Ataturk or a Deng running it, and when the people living in Syria say they want better they have a habit of winding up dead. When they got pissed enough at that situation to start fighting back they got barrel bombs rained on them. And now there’s a civil war.

            Getting a Deng or Ataturk out of this mess is much, much easier said than done. And those two had their own severe failings – consider the nostalgia for Mao in much of China, or the Kurdish conflict which can be traced directly to Ataturk.

          • Tatu Ahponen says:

            The closest analogue to Atatürk in Syria would be Bashar al-Assad, and it could be said that the whole thing starting this thing was that a large number of countries, including the US, have wanted to get rid of him.

          • HlynkaCG says:

            Because when we do that it’s called imperialism, and imperialism is worse than Hitler.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          One of the arguments I’ve heard against open borders is that the people who leave a country to seek better earnings are disproportionately likely to be young, motivated and hard-working, i.e., exactly the people who’d be needed to build up the country they’re leaving.

          • Saint_Fiasco says:

            They are, in fact, helping to build the country they are leaving.

            Mostly through remittances. I know lots of people who could only afford College because one or both of their parents emigrated and sent them money, for example.

        • Frank says:

          Having powerful, benevolent nations with high-quality institutions (like the US) is arguably good for the rest of the planet. Americans give more to charity than citizens of any other nation. The vast majority of EAs are from developed nations that let them get high quality educations and high paying jobs which allow them to donate to charities working in the third world. High quality Western educational institutions educate the smartest of the third world, who then get sent back to their home nations to develop things. For the past few decades, we’ve had a unipolar distribution of world power with the US being the world’s sole superpower. This (along with the previous unipolar US vs USSR period) has coincided with a period referred to as the “long peace” where there’s been much less war than in decades prior. This might have something to do with the US spending a massive amount on its military and playing the role of benevolent world police officer.

          If the West doesn’t maintain high quality institutions other countries will. Japan is very xenophobic and is not likely to open its borders any time soon. They’ve got a history of viciously attacking their neighbors. I would prefer populations with a long history of altruism, like say the British who ended slavery within their empire and accelerated the economic development of their colonies and were arguably the most benevolent empire builders in history, keep the top spots in terms of world power. People will copy whatever the winning nations are doing. That’s why nowadays the vast majority of countries at least pretend to be democracies and today’s global youth are growing up watching American movies and listen to American music. If the USSR had won the cold war, the vast majority of countries would at least pretend to be communist and global youth would be consuming USSR media.

      • xq says:

        Don’t think this is systematic. Left-wingers want to address long-term risk of climate change, right-wingers are concerned about immediate economic effects. Left-wingers wants to reduce “root causes” of crime, right-wingers want to put more people in prison.

        • @xq:

          Your general point is probably right, but the prison example is a poor one. You could equally well say that right wingers want to put more people in prison in order to deter future crime, left wingers are against because they are pained by the immediate costs to people of being in prison.

        • Frank says:

          FYI, I am concerned about long-term risks of climate change (though it’s not something I have looked in to in depth so my beliefs are not held strongly). I agree this example defies my pattern. I’m in favor of addressing root causes of crime, but I’m doubtful of left wing solutions there. (Also doubtful of right wing solutions but less doubtful.)

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        What I’ve noticed is that there are two tiers of right-wingers. The top tier believes in right-wing positions for the reasons Frank gives. The lower, and much more common, tier, believes right-wing things for reasons that are even less intellectually sophisticated and more short-term than the reasons that left-wingers believe in things.

        They want to avoid redistributing earnings because it’s their money that they earned, they want to close borders because foreigners are scary and taking our jobs, they want to ban gay marriage because buttsex is gross. In other words, if you accept the top-tier right-wing arguments as true, the bottom-tier right-wingers believe the right things for the wrong reasons.

        • @Ghat:

          Don’t you think the same pattern exists on the left? The sophisticated left winger supports an increase in the minimum wage because he believes the elasticity of demand for low wage labor is small, hence the main effect will be to make poor people better off and other people worse off, and he doesn’t have any less inefficient way of doing that that’s politically viable. The mass of left wingers take it for granted that raising the minimum wage means poor people being better off, possibly some very rich people making less profit, and a general improvement in the economy due to the higher wages being spent.

          Similarly for most other issues. Consider the contrast between the actual IPCC projections and the widespread images of drowned cities and the Earth burning up.

          • Wrong Species says:

            But do you think the left winger supports the minimum wage because of that argument, or uses that argument because it supports his already held belief that the minimum wage is good? I bet most of the smart progressives never seriously questioned this belief, they just spent more time looking for a convincing argument. The same could probably be said for smart conservatives and gay marriage. I’m sure there are smart groups on both side who have seriously questioned their beliefs but they are a minority of a minority.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            You’re probably right. There are probably knee-jerk liberals and knee-jerk conservatives.

    • Linch says:

      On the meta-ethical level I’m a moral relativist, but day-to-day I assume that pretty much everybody is good, or tries to be.

      I do not lock my door, and I sleep well at night.

      • Linch says:

        Damn. That sucks. I definitely agree that people with dependents should be a lot more cautious than me.

        Greater Madison area. I currently lock my front door, but it’s mostly out of respect to my roommates/landlord. I was thinking more of not locking my room (I know my roommates generally do) and also not locking doors during college (small college, different state) when I wasn’t sharing.

        As an experiment/early warning sign, I tend to leave fairly large sums of money in visible areas in my room. This has yet to reduce my faith in the fundamental goodness of all things.

        For what it’s worth, (unless you’ve tanned a lot since your picture was taken :P), I have a higher-than-yours melanin content, and one of my roommates have a higher-than-mine.

      • Adam says:

        I never locked my door when I lived in Sonoma County, CA. Never locked my door in Harker Heights, TX. Now I live in Dallas and often don’t lock my door, but it’s in an old factory converted to lofts. I’m not sure what would convince a random passerby to try out third-story doors to see if they’re open.

        Where I grew up, we definitely locked our doors, not that it was a terrible place, but you know, at least occasional visible crime. My school had a few drive-bys.

        Also, yes, my melanin content is much higher than Mark’s, probably 90th percentile here if I just had to guess, even though I’m not that dark and usually lightest in my family since I barely ever go outside.

      • Ghatanathoah says:

        I can understand the value of assuming the goodness of others if you are engaging in behavior that increases your own security at others’ expense (i.e. installing spikes to stop homeless people from sleeping in a public place). But locking your door doesn’t hurt anybody else, so why not do it?

        • Linch says:

          The honest answer is that I was really bored one day in college and calculated the amount of time it takes me to lock the door/find keys, plus the inconvenience of losing my key or otherwise locking myself out*probability of that happening and compared it with the perceived increased likelihood of all my material possessions being stolen*the value of my possessions. The former was several times greater. The one possibly significant number that I didn’t include (and I suspect a lot of other “rational” people might want to) is the expected mental anguish of losing possessions above their material value to replace. I didn’t do it because I don’t think I would care that much. I don’t think my current location is significantly more risky and I managed to avoid accumulating more possessions, so I have not bothered to update those calculations.

          Of course I was absent-minded then so there’s some motivated reasoning going on here…

          • One thing I did along these lines, after a neighbor reported a burglary, was to take a spare hard drive, back up my desktop to it, and hide it. That struck me as the sensible solution to the fact that the only thing in the house that I thought burglars were likely to take that could not be replaced pretty easily was the contents of my computer’s hard drive and the attached backup disk. There are other things that I would hate to lose, but they aren’t the sorts of things I would expect a random burglar to go for.

  26. Winter Shaker says:

    Can I flag a typo?

    If two people are both committed to healing the sick and feeding the hungry but believes in open borders and the other in a more Bernie Sanders style approach to immigration

    should have ‘one’ between ‘but’ and ‘believes’.

    Please feel free to delete this comment.

  27. Thanks, good post. Two points:

    1) I agree it’s very important to retain the moral message. In fact, policy advice from an organization that has a moral credibility is likely to have more of an impact, than the same advice coming from a pure expert organization like the Brookings Institution. So even those who think that EAs should do more policy work, like myself, should agree that it’s important that the EA continue to be associated (though not exclusively so) with giving to effective charities.

    2) I agree that one problem of the EA movement getting involved in politics is that that large parts of politics is a conflict game, where opposing parties waste lots of resources fighting each other. That is part of the reason why I work on evidence-based policy and “political rationality”, instead of doing conventional political work. Most people should want politics to become more evidence-based and rational, regardless of their political view. (I also think there are other reasons to work at this “meta-level”, as opposed to doing “object-level” policy work – a subject I talked about on EA Global Oxford.) See, e.g.:

    http://www.effective-altruism.com/ea/ic/the_effectivenessalone_strategy_and_evidencebased/

    The political bias test, which was recently covered here, also falls under political rationality. (I made it with Spencer Greenberg.)

  28. chaosmage says:

    What about scrutinizing the big intransparent megacharities and pushing them to be verifiably effective, rather than self-perpetuating networks of people paying themselves with altruism budget money to do relatively unsupervised jobs?

    Is that sufficiently directly related to the actual work of getting money where it is needed, or is it political and we should just let them go on like they do?

    • Randy M says:

      A worthy goal that would quickly turn to political.
      “You spend a lot of donations on fancy cars for yourself instead of on people in Africa” is a valid complaint against a church budget.
      “You spend a lot of money on people in Africa talking about Jesus instead of malaria nets” is a difference in belief about certain values (and disputable facts) that would likley quickly be disguised as a critique of corruption.

  29. Sam says:

    I feel that the question should not be ‘Systemic change: yes or no?’ but rather ‘how can systemic change be done well?’.
    Two arguments for thinking this:

    1.
    In my mind the argument Bob makes is unconvincing and somewhat similar to aid-sceptic arguments. ‘Providing aid sounds good but is really difficult and look at these anecdotes of smart people getting it horribly wrong so let’s conclude that aid is not a good idea.’
    The EA response to the aid skeptic is to agree that change through aid is difficult but that we should not dismiss it out of hand but be looking into how to do it well.

    2.
    The research of the EA movement largely helps altruistic people be effective at improving the world. Lots of people are keen on systemic change, finding good evidence about how individuals can push for systemic change in the ways that are most likely to be positive, means we can help more people achieve more good in line with their own goals.

    HOW TO DO IT WELL
    I imagine this involves someone looking at questions like: Are there areas of significant systemic change where we can find consensus? What size of systemic change (between repealing ag-gag laws and funding the next Karl Marx) is likely to have the biggest impact? What ways are there of safely experimenting with systemic change? Are there areas where the EA movement is best placed to push for change?

    • Shenpen says:

      >Are there areas of significant systemic change where we can find consensus?

      – No rent control. Find other ways.

      – Tax consumption and land mostly.

      – Shift welfare towards actually paying the poor instead of paying the welfare bureaucracy.

      – No corporate welfare.

      – Huge rich countries should engage in free trade. Small poor ones can be excused if they have some protectionism so that they are not entirely dependent on imports in strategic industries and thus get too vulnerable to blackmail.

      – Find a way to let nominal wages drop during recessions. Even intelligent lefties like Keynes wanted this, just could not find a way how.

      • Jaskologist says:

        People do not agree that corporate welfare is bad; people believe that certain kinds of money transfers to corporations are bad, and then they call those things corporate welfare. Start calling them Green Initiatives, Diversity Initiatives, or Infrastructure Investment and the agreement vanishes.

      • Mostly agree except for the nominal wage drop during recessions. If you meant “real wages”, then you’d be correct (Keynes is outdated because he wrote in a gold standard, we have fiat money now which is better).

        I also agree with Jaskologist on corporate welfare, most of it is actually defended by a lot of people.

      • Brian says:

        #3 is the only one where there’s any real consensus (and even then, it’s a consensus as to the goal, not the method. There’s no consensus for “stop putting conditions on welfare,” even though those conditions are what creates a need for bureaucracy).

        1, 5, and 6 have a consensus among economists, not among ordinary people. The average person is opposed to 5 and 6, and there are a lot of people who think rent control is necessary to get affordable housing.

        2 doesn’t have any consensus, except maybe that consumption and land taxes are on net more efficient. Most people think a progressive income tax’s fairness outweighs the efficiency of a consumption tax.

        4 has the same kind of consensus that gives Congress an 80% disapproval rating and a 96% reelection rate. We all agree businesses shouldn’t get welfare, and then make exceptions for our preferred businesses (sure, I’m against corporate welfare, but I’m for giving grants to businesses to build local plants!)

      • lmm says:

        There is absolutely not a consensus on consumption taxes.

  30. Alex says:

    Isn’t Bob’s argument against the Engels model sort of like saying “You think saving the lives of babies is good…but what if someone saved a baby’s life and that baby grew up to be HITLER??” Any action can always have totally unpredictable negative consequences. That isn’t really a great rationale in and of itself to avoid actions that are otherwise reasonable. (Also, it’s a questionable premise that if Marx hadn’t written his books that a similar movement to Communism, or at least a number of political upheavals with similar consequences, would not have started.)

    • multiheaded says:

      >(Also, it’s a questionable premise that if Marx hadn’t written his books that a similar movement to Communism, or at least a number of political upheavals with similar consequences, would not have started.)

      Indeed. As previously suggested by our generous host!

      (I am not interested in arguing for the massive positive externalities of communist revolutions as of now; let’s just swap Engels with [generic evil systemic change person]?.)

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Given the track record of attempts at sudden systemic change over the last two hundred years or so, I don’t think “ending in a massive bloodbath” can really be called a “totally unpredictable” consequence.

      • albatross says:

        Does that include the industrial revolution, electrification, and the computer revolution? How about the huge changes in public health and sanitation that caused infant mortality rates to fall so low? Those are all examples of huge systematic change, though not mainly mediated via political means (wars, elections, revolutions).

        • Adam says:

          I can’t speak for everyone who would advise not investing in politics, but I would advise that. I would also advise investing tremendously, if not exclusively, into technology.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          No, I was speaking of politically-driven systemic change, a la the French Revolution or Soviet Russia.

    • haishan says:

      “Smaller” actions are less unpredictable than “bigger” ones, though. If I’m working on a computer program, changing a couple of lines in one function is more likely to work than trying to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

      • Adam says:

        Also easier to undo. Not with software because of version control, but human societies can’t just git revert.

  31. Sammy says:

    I agree with you about ‘systematic change’, mainly because it’s a characteristic of EA that it doesn’t focus on those kind of issues, and that’s a valuable unifying factor it would be a shame to lose. Even though I don’t think it affects the validity of your argument much, there was something about the dialogues’ tone that caused me disquiet. What was it you said?

    ‘Also, I like Jonathan Haidt, but I’m starting to think he’s gotten too into the whole “Liberalism isn’t 100% perfectly obviously correct provable by universal reason with conservatives merely being those who are too stupid to understand this incontrovertible fact, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.” I mean, yeah, a lot of intellectual people eventually have this experience, and it’s scary and requires a lot of soul-searching, but Haidt’s doing it so publicly and so protractedly that it’s starting to be a little embarrassing.

    Why can’t he just feel vaguely anxious, and occasionally read some Moldbug while loudly declaiming he doesn’t believe any of it, like everyone else?’

    Are you sure you haven’t just had an attack of Haidt-itis? I know we all get it from time to time, but your own advice is good.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’d rather Scott continue to focus on being right than worry about appearing unconventional or not fitting in with standard liberal viewpoints.

      • Sammy says:

        Hey, I’m certainly not a standard liberal (certainly not in the american sense of the word), but EA organizations like Givewell already examined the costs and benefits of things like advocating for climate change mitigation (http://www.givewell.org/labs/causes/climate-change), and in the article is the assumption that climate change is real and the government has a right to do something about it, assuming what they did would be effective. That’s automatically excluding many libertarian and conservative viewpoints.
        And that counts as systematic change that might be really effective, but if you’re so keen to not be seen making assumptions, like bob in Part I, you might shirk away from it.
        Now, the quote I took off Scott’s tumblr did say you couldn’t prove liberalism universally true, and that although that should influence your thinking, you shouldn’t run away with the idea, like Haidt. So I’m fine with advocating for systematic change for things like climate change and woman’s rights, but not actually controversial stuff or stuff that’s the specific domain of the left, for example a higher minimum wage.

  32. Brawndo says:

    My original comment got marked as spam for some reason after I edited it… could it be rescued?

    multiheaded (my comment seems to have ended up above in the threading):

    The burden of proof for large amounts of immigration should be pretty high. I don’t think it’s been met, because the crime, political change, security risks, and ethnic conflicts have not been adequately addressed by open borders advocates, to name just a few of the problems. Open borders advocates focus on economic and moral arguments. Nobody should take my word on this; do your own research from sources on both sides, watch the videos in my previous comment, and see whether Chesterton’s Fence should really be kicked down here.

    • suntzuanime says:

      It’s poor form to argue the object level example in the comments of a meta-level post.

      • Nita says:

        Is it? Why?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          Meta-level discussion is a low-entropy state that decays all too easily into object-level discussion. Object-level discussion is less abstract and more political; hence requires less thinking, is more enjoyable, and leads more readily to mind-killing. There are a lot of other places to discuss object-level issues (if nothing else, just wait until the next open thread and make a comment), so please allow this meta-level discussion to exist unmolested.

          • Nita says:

            The object level is the only level that can be grounded in reality — and outside of mathematics, that’s the only reliable anchor we have.

          • Mark says:

            Where does the term “object level” come from?

          • Urstoff says:

            Logic/linguistics: the metalanguage is used to talk about the object language.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            Object-level discussion is less abstract and more political; hence requires less thinking, is more enjoyable, and leads more readily to mind-killing.

            I actually find meta-level discussion much more fun than the object level for some reason. Maybe it’s that it seems to transcend parochial conflicts. Or maybe it’s because since it’s more abstract I don’t have to look at as many statistics.

        • Adam says:

          It isn’t what Scott wanted to talk about and quickly drowns out everything else because we all have reflexive positions that won’t change for years, if ever, but certainly won’t sway one direction or another thanks to a comment thread, so we just end up rehashing exactly the same arguments five times a month.

          It violates Effective Blogging, basically.

  33. E. Harding says:

    An entire post on systemic change, beginning with descriptions of complaints of people not “fighting inequitable laws or capitalism in general” and zero people have mentioned China? Or at least Chile? This is ignoring the elephant in the room!

    • Ronald Coase’s final work was a book coauthored with Ning Wang on the Chinese transition. Its central claim, as I read it, was that the transition worked because Deng did not know what systemic change should happen and knew he didn’t know it. The other top person, Chen Yun, did know, was wrong, but was sufficiently modest to revise his view on the basis of evidence. What both of them agreed on was that China had somehow gotten things terribly wrong. It had what they believed was the world’s best economic system (Marxist socialism), yet the income of a trash collector in London was six times the income of a vice-premier of China.

      Reform proceeded in two ways. One was an attempt to fix what they thought was wrong. It met with at most mild success. The other was tolerating changes not initiated from the center that they disapproved of but were willing to be proved wrong about, such as the (illegal) introduction of semi-private agriculture. The latter set of changes were chiefly responsible for the spectacular success–real per capita income increasing twenty fold from Mao’s death to 2010.

      Part of what I found interesting about the book is that Coase, as I read him, not only thinks China would have done worse if Deng had followed Chen’s advice (central planning primary, market secondary) but would have done worse if China had followed the advice of some Chinese equivalent of Chile’s Chicago boys—that change by trial and error works better than change by even relatively good economic design.

  34. Nathan says:

    Thinking about the central problem underlying Scott’s post in a little more depth. Namely, how do we know what the right thing to do is, if smart people get things wrong a lot?

    I think that the essential answer to the question is trial and error. In my view the essential reason science has given us so many awesome things is not because scientists were really smart, it’s because they tried lots of things. (as a corollary, I have a high degree of scepticism of any academic field where you can’t realistically try out an idea and see what happens)

    I mean think about it. Suppose every one of us is perfectly capable of making a powerpoint presentation if we actually tried (likely). But unless you regularly use powerpoint, I bet you couldn’t sit down and write step by step instructions for constructing one without reference, and not miss anything or get anything wrong. Once you try and see what went wrong you probably could quickly figure out what you missed – but you would most likely have to try first. And that’s for something as simple as powerpoint! For remaking the world’s economic or political system, there’s a *slightly* higher chance of missing something.

    There’s tremendous value in testing ideas. For that reason, we should be highly sceptical of really smart, well thought through but utterly untested systemic changes. We should also highly value experimental changes of limited scale.

    • Sastan says:

      I think you are very correct, but also that this is a very conservative argument. Everything we have has been tested. Maybe the test was a failure, but it was tested. If we’ve had something and it has been working for a very long time, this logic dictates we should resist changing it.

      • Nita says:

        The logic dictates that if we want to improve what we have, we will have to test some ideas, and, since we can’t tell how good they are without testing, some of them will inevitably fail.

        And many people do want improvement, since they consider some aspects of the current situation intolerably bad.

        Therefore, the challenge is to figure out how to test ideas in a way that would maximize informative value and minimize risk.

        • Sastan says:

          All of this is true Nita, and I agree. But consider problems with this we can’t avoid. People’s perception of what is “intolerably bad” can change wildly over time. At one point, “intolerably bad” didn’t include mass rape, genocide, and torture. Now it includes not calling someone by their preferred (and possibly just invented) personal pronoun.

          • Nita says:

            At one point, “intolerably bad” didn’t include mass rape, genocide, and torture. Now it includes not calling someone by their preferred (and possibly just invented) personal pronoun.

            Not sure how true that is. I think the people experiencing the rape, torture and genocide did find them pretty intolerable. Meanwhile, others were thinking “ugh, who cares about those people, anyway” or “this is the price for avoiding a much greater evil”, or “hey, what if we can do better? what if torture is always bad, and we can get by without it, somehow?”.

            And what exactly is the problem with change? The goal of reform is not necessarily to arrive at a perfect system that should be preserved without change for millennia — at this point, we don’t even know if such a system is possible.

            Perhaps societies change, and their infrastructure has to change with them.

          • Sastan says:

            Once again, I agree. I’m just saying that human beings are always roughly as discontent with what they have as every generation has been. We should try to continue the process of civilization, but retain a sense of scale. This gets easier with age, but as you age, there is a new cohort just bound and determined that they are the first people to every be smart and altruistic, come along to “revolutionize” everything.

          • sweeneyrod says:

            I don’t know that calling people by non-preferred pronouns is in fact intolerably bad. It is legal, and I have done it without being ostracised.

        • Sastan says:

          As a very practical matter, I like the idea of sunsetting laws. You pass a law for a number of years, if it is working, you reauthorize. If not, you let it go away. Now, it’s not perfect, politics never is, but we know it is possible, and it gives those of us with an academic bent a good source of data!

          • LHN says:

            I don’t hate the idea, but politicians being lazy and reasonably clever, I don’t see how you avoid most of it ultimately being rolled into the omnibus reauthorization bill that gets passed without comment.

            (And if that gets stalled by grandstanding over some provision or other, you can bet that before murder becomes legal by default we’ll see the “temporary continuing resolution” that does pretty much the same thing.)

            It seems really hard to force a legislative body to deliberate over things it decides that it doesn’t care to deliberate about. The US Constitution, framed by people who distrusted standing armies due to their British inheritance, carefully specifies that “no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years”. How well has that ensured frequent reconsideration of whether we should continue to maintain land forces?

      • Nathan says:

        @ Sastan

        It is, which is a little depressing from my perspective because I actually want to replace our economic system with an alternative that has never been properly tried but sounds *really good* in my head, honest! So from an objective perspective I guess that means people would be well advised to be wary of ideas like mine. 🙁

        • Sastan says:

          Actually, I don’t think there are any alternative economic systems. There are economic policies, and some are better than others, but the only parts of any economy that work at all are either violent exploitation or capitalism*.

          I think of people who want to change economic systems to be a special sort of history and science denialist. There are no alternatives. You can debate the economic policies all you like, and I’ll join the scrum. But trying to replace capitalism as a system for distributing goods and services is like trying to replace oxygen as the gas we breathe.

          I saw it in Russia, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union. Totally communist, right? No! In law, you want a plumber, you call a plumber, he comes fixes your free apartment for free. In reality, you call the plumber, he puts you on a wait list stretching back to the Romanovs. If you want the work done, you go down there, and you pay the man, he then comes out and does the work. You exchange goods for services. In a completely socialist economy! Imagine that…..

          All communism did was change the titles of the activities, and impede them somewhat. What we would call payment, they call bribes. And you could go to jail…..unless you pay the cops too!

          I do not claim capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. It just happens to be the only one we have.

          *capitalism in the broad sense, not as in any nation’s specific policies, which all incorporate some level of capitalism, and a lot of stuff that isn’t.

          • Mark says:

            People respond to incentives – you’ve identified that they can be either a carrot or a stick (“violent exploitation or capitalism”) – but I don’t think that what you are talking about really is capitalism at all – its a market (or, more generally, the provision of positive incentives).

            Anyway, looking at the specific example you give of the plumber … you go on to say “What we would call payment, they call bribes. And you could go to jail…..unless you pay the cops too!”

            Well, yes. In my (vaguely functioning) country, when I call the police, I don’t pay them. When I go to the doctor, I don’t pay them, either. So, what is going on there?

          • Sastan says:

            In the case of the police, violent exploitation*. In the case of the doctor, capitalism*.

            *Both highly modified by whatever country you happen to live in. A high enough level of societal trust allows for deferred payment and for violence to be implied rather than performed. Both violence and capitalism can be hidden. I presume, however that your country pays its police and its doctors?

          • Mark says:

            Yes, the government pays doctors, but what does that have to do with capitalism? Capitalism can’t just mean “giving people incentives to do work” can it?
            If it does, then you wouldn’t have to look to the black market for examples of capitalism in the Soviet Union. They paid the workers within the system too.

          • Dahlen says:

            Well, if you like it well enough, you probably won’t rack your brains for alternatives, but this notion that capitalism is the only mode of acquiring resources is well in the realm of fanboying.

            There are about five of them. Exchange (capitalist-like systems in the broadest sense) is one. Predation is another. But guess what, it doesn’t end here! Then there is self-sufficiency, which doesn’t scale. Also, allotment, which maps somewhat onto historical socialist states, the Inca Empire, and every economic unit considered in isolation; you may also call this one centrally planned production. Finally, there’s communism, or communalism, or sharing or pooling of end products without keeping track of the hands they pass through – that fabled unicorn of the economic left. But no worries, it happens often enough on the family scale, among others.

            All of them are present in any given economy, in varying degrees. All of them will not necessarily produce a Western industrial nation-state when dominant, but that’s not the same as saying they don’t “work”, whatever that may mean. Remember, history is still young, and modernity even younger. We shouldn’t let our civilisational specifics blind us to what might be.

          • Sastan says:

            @Dahlen,

            So, you’ve listed “exchange”, which I think is a fair enough proxy for what I’m calling capitalism.

            “Predation”, which I called “violent exploitation”. This is quite obviously not a generalizable economic system. Every predator need prey, and not everyone can be a predator. It works in small groups, or even relatively large ones, but requires an actual productive system to feed it. So, we’re back to “exchange”.

            Self sufficiency may allow people to live, but isn’t really an economic system. By definition it isn’t a means for distributing goods and services. Also completely incapable of technical progress, so apart from a few hermits, we’ll scratch this one as a legitimate contender.

            “Allotment”, which I think encompasses the more totalizing monarchies and socialist countries. All of them still contain bits of capitalism, exchange is still a big part of the society, but certain goods may be alloted (food, health care, etc.). So, partially capitalist at the very least, and the parts that aren’t I argue are usually much worse than the exchange alternative. And in order to override the basic exchange, you need some violent exploitation to get there. You’ve got to execute a lot of Kulaks and sacrifice a lot of people to get this even started.

            “Communalism”, which is, as you note, a “unicorn”. Communes have been tried over and over, and they never work in the end. Communes dedicated to a religious ideal work better for a while, because the only thing that can concievably replace economic self-interest is tribal altruism. This doesn’t scale well either.

            So you’ve got the two systems I mentioned, one that isn’t a system, one that can’t be scaled to nation size and fails anyway, and one that does scale, but requires violence and still uses exchange for much of its economy. Oh, and its track record is terrible.

            Yup, thesis stands.

    • Emp says:

      This thread is full of alarming misconceptions.

      No matter how much you ‘try out’ things, you won’t be able to solve this because:

      a) There is no consensus on what the good is

      and

      b) You don’t get to see the alternative.

      • Nathan says:

        Sure you (sometimes) get to see the alternative. You just try different policies at different times or in different places. Yes, it’s pretty difficult to isolate specific causes and effects in many cases, but others are easier.

        A recent example from the Australian experience is refugee policy (which has clear implications for the situation in Europe). When large numbers of people are risking their lives trying to reach your country by boat, what should you do if you want to minimise drownings? One option is to go and try to rescue people when their boats sink, proactively find and intercept incoming boats that are unsafe and bring their passengers to land, etc. Another is to refuse to take any refugees that come by boat (to avoid incentivising risky behaviour) and to instead settle other refugees in their place. We tried both of these policies over the course of the last 5-10 years and one was a clear and obvious winner.

        So to the extent that EAs should be politically involved, we should probably be doing things where there is a demonstrated “correct” answer, like agitating for Europe to learn from the Australian experience.

        (note: Essentially the same number of refugees were resettled in Australia under both policies on an annualised basis – the number of drownings was the only real difference, and I think we’re all on board with less death = better)

  35. Sastan says:

    In these moments of brief intellectual humility, I always like to urge people, if they want to learn something about themselves and “smart” people, to read the research done by Dan Kahan and others at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project. It makes for sobering reading.

    I can summarize most of their findings thus:

    Smart people are no more likely than anyone else to be “correct” about any issue we can factually measure. What they are better at is justifying their position, and resisting evidence to the contrary. In this manner smart people are actually worse at real world correction than dumb people. Dumb people know they’re dumb, and can be convinced of their factual errors if someone manages to hit all the right buttons.

    For a fun exercise, think about all the people you know who are “right”* on things like Global Warming. Are they also right on Nuclear Power?

    The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

    The people who are right on mass incarceration, are they also correct on gun control?

    All of us are politically motivated, perhaps most so when we think we aren’t. We define ourselves into our positions and resist any and all evidence to the contrary. And if we’re very, very bright and very, very altruistic, we are very, very incapable of seeing how badly we are screwing up.

    *for the purposes of this argument, “right” will mean “in congruence with the vast majority of specialist scientists in the field”.

    • Anonymous says:

      >For a fun exercise, think about all the people you know who are “right”* on things like Global Warming. Are they also right on Nuclear Power?

      >The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

      >The people who are right on mass incarceration, are they also correct on gun control?

      You clearly think you have the right position on all of these, so why can’t that be more common? Or are you less sure than you sound?

      • Adam Casey says:

        >”You clearly think you have the right position on all of these”

        I think Sastan clearly claims *not* this. That’s like, the whole point of the comment.

      • Sastan says:

        I clearly do (with certain caveats), but I am probably wrong on a whole raft of ideologically linked things that don’t spring readily to mind. It so happens that my tiny ideological sphere is well placed to exploit the differences in the dominant left/right paradigm. So, as a libertarianish sort, I have no trouble with the motes on the one side and the beams on the other. I’m sure I’m missing some of my own though.

        There are two components to any political position, a factual judgement and a value judgement.

        I can share a factual judgement with someone without sharing their value judgement, but most people do not make this distinction. And very intelligent people usually try to redefine their way into making their value judgment seem like a factual one.

    • Alphaceph says:

      > The people who are right on Evolution, are they also correct on racial IQ averages?

      Hey, no race or gender in the comments please.

      There is no such thing as race anyway, it’s a social construct.

      And IQ doesn’t actually measure intelligence because intelligence is complex, ineffable and multi-dimensional, really intelligence is impossible to measure because every human is a unique individual and you can’t reduce that to a number.

      But all races definitely have equal intelligence on average, because if you believe otherwise you are just enabling racism. BTW, are you a cis white male? I think this conversation is being dominated by cis white male voices and you should be banned.

      • Whatever Happened to Anonymous says:

        >Hey, no race or gender in the comments please.

        That’s actually just for the Open Threads, because Scott doesnt’ want them to become “All race, all gender, all the time” and because Ozy used to do simultaneous “Race & Gender” threads.

        • Alphaceph says:

          Apart from pick-up, which is banned everywhere. (Gender).

          And how well would it go if someone started an off-topic discussion on race as the top comment in the next post? Realistically?

          (I am not saying I disagree with this, I am just pointing out that that is the way we operate – we complain about the dangers of getting our epistemology wrong whilst at the same time doing things that are contributing to bad epistemology, like banning discussion of unpopular but probably true topics, relegating them to much less viewed spaces, etc)

          • Randy M says:

            The norms are “No off-topic posts, and on open threads, nothing about race and gender.” If a topic touches on race and gender, discussion usually turns to it, though if that isn’t always your go to example that will probably help.

      • Nita says:

        I think this conversation is being dominated by cis white male voices and you should be banned.

        Well, thanks for demonstrating just how thoughtful and non-mind-killed meta-level discussion can be.

        • Dahlen says:

          I don’t want to be known as the Poe’s Law guy around here, but I have to ask yet again: was that not an obvious caricature?

          • Nita says:

            Obviously it’s a caricature. But I don’t see how posting (rather crude) political caricatures of your opponents adds anything positive to the discussion, so to me this is an example of a bad meta-level comment.

          • Alphaceph says:

            There was a thread in the effective altruism facebook group where someone found some comments that were against open borders. These comments were low quality, not well-reasoned, and could be construed as racist and islamophobic. This person pointedly remarked that the low-quality poster was white and male, and asked for him to be banned.

            I don’t have to go to the effort of making this up; it’s not a caricature.

          • Nita says:

            I’m sorry you had a bad experience on Facebook, but does turning SSC into the mirror image of that really make things better?

          • Alphaceph says:

            > but does turning SSC into the mirror image of that really make things better?

            I have to be honest here and say that I posted my comment because it amused me not because I first calculated whether or not, all things considered, it was the best thing to do. I would probably hold myself to a higher standard if I were writing a top-level post on a blog.

      • Sastan says:

        Funny, but derailing. I used the example advisedly, because it is roughly as mindkilling for each side as the other. I have no desire to litigate it.

        • Alphaceph says:

          I admit that I mostly posted that because it amused me, but every single line has actually been used against me in these debates.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think yes. Effective altruists seem to mostly have the right position (or more right than population average) on all of these issues, defining “right” as some nebulous combination of “agrees with me” and “agrees with the scientific consensus as best I can tell”.

      • Sastan says:

        EA types tend to what you called the “grey” tribe of politics, yes? And as such, they can see clearly the contradictions in the left and right, as I can. But what they can’t see, and I can’t see, and none of us can see, is how those positions blind us to other problems exactly as the blue tribe is blind to nuclear power and the red one is blind to evolution.

        There is no special quality to EA types, only a different tribal affiliation.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I actually make an effort to find and remember examples of people I think are right on some issues, but wrong on many others.

      I suspect that this is because I like morally complex characters in fiction, and want them to exist in real life too. I similarly enjoy reading about real-life badass soldiers.

    • On the subject of Dan Kahan’s very interesting work.

      1. He has an explanation of his results, a theory of rational irrationality. What I believe about evolution or global warming has almost no effect on the world, which is a big place. But it has a large effect on me, because those are issues that have become linked to group identification. If I live in a rural town dominated by fundamentalists, announcing that I believe in either evolution or AGW will have sizable social costs. If I am a university professor, announcing that I don’t believe in either will have sizable social costs. So it’s rational to persuade yourself of the position your social group believes in, and the smarter you are the better you are at doing so.

      2. There was recently a post on FB linking to a (partisan) page that referenced Dan’s work with the title:

      The Republican Brain: Why Even Educated Conservatives Deny Science–and Reality

      I put up two comments. The first was an explanation of Dan’s argument. The second:
      —-
      I want to see if I can persuade you that your comment about the conservative brain applies equally to your brain.

      I have a blog post which, I claim, shows that a prominent figure on your side of the climate arguments has lied in print about his own work. Logically you have no reason to be sure it isn’t true–even if your view of AGW is correct, there might be some dishonest people supporting it.But admitting that someone on your side is a deliberate liar feels like treason to your side, just as admitting that there are good reasons to believe in evolution would feel like treason to my hypothetical small town fundamentalist—even if he could think of ways of squaring it with the Bible.

      There are two possible responses you could have to my post if, as I believe, it actually provides very strong evidence for my claim. One is “looks as though it’s true. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t mean AGW is wrong even if one of its supporters is dishonest.” The other is “there must be something wrong with the argument, let me see if I can find it.”

      I predict that if you read the post, you will find yourself taking the second position. If you want to try the experiment, here it is. You will note that all of the evidence is where you can look at it, conveniently provided by the person I am accusing of dishonesty.

      http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-climate-falsehood-you-can-check-for.html
      —-

      Spotting the pattern in yourself is more important than spotting it in other people.

    • David Byron says:

      That really sounds unlikely. In my experience smart people are right more often, not less; how else would you know they were smart? Maybe they are worse at changing their minds (from being wrong I assume you mean – since changing your mind from being right is no virtue), but given the poor quality of your example issues I have to strongly doubt that the selection of issues used in the research was very good at finding issues with known answers. After all if smart people have different views on something then how can you tell if it’s right or wrong?

      The examples you give look like bait and switch set ups.

  36. P. George Stewart says:

    gaun yersel’ son. As you say, systemic change is “sexy”, and that’s the problem: it gains adherents because virtue signalling for systemic change is sexy, not because everyone’s sagely thought it through.

    • Sastan says:

      And kids always think they know better than the last hundred billion smart people over the last fifty thousand years.

    • moridinamael says:

      This really deserves to be hammered home. I have friends who describe themselves as various forms of “radical” or “revolutionary” who talk (on Facebook) about how other people are being “insufficiently revolutionary” in complicated ways. And to me, it always seems like “good revolutionary behavior” is perfectly synonymous with “horribly antisocial and destructive behavior.” I feel like I could successfully troll these people by just linking to news articles about bank robberies and hit-and-runs and adding a caption describing the perpetrators as revolutionaries, and my friends would just eat it up.

      I’m still not sure what the difference is between me and them. They’ve probably read a bit more Marx and Chomsky (or Ayn Rand as the case may be) but I’ve been exposed to all the same radical ideas, and if it came down to revolution, I think I would easily be on the side of the counter-revolutionaries. The “break everything and remake it better” tactic has essentially only worked once, with the foundation of the U.S. government, and the fact that all my revolutionary friends loathe the U.S. government does not inspire confidence in their models.

      • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

        I think you overestimate how revolutionary the Revolution was.

        • moridinamael says:

          After thinking about it, I decided to retract my assertion that even that revolution was necessarily a net good. The UK lost control over most of its colonies not too long after the American War for Independence anyway, so it’s possible that the war was just a waste of life.

          • Nornagest says:

            The French Revolution would probably have looked pretty different if there hadn’t been a successful American Revolution twenty years before, too. It’s hard to say if it would have happened anyway — many of the demographic etc. pressures leading up to it would still have been present — but without war debt from the Americas and without a recent major revolution in the national memory, the sequence of events would probably have changed substantially.

      • Vorkon says:

        Actually, I’d argue that the American Revolution isn’t a successful example of the “break everything and remake it better” model at all. The colonies already had stable governments and their own homogenous cultures and social constructs, completely separate from the British, thousands of miles away. The revolution didn’t break down those structures. Functionally, it was no different from an existing country repelling some foreign invaders from another continent. The fact that they were descended from those “invaders” a few generations back is mostly immaterial.

  37. Anonymous says:

    think about how easy it would have been to make Gore win in 2000 and how much would have changed if he had

    Bob is clearly delusional.

    • PDV says:

      Significantly more advocacy for anti-global warming, very low chance of the second Iraq War, Afghanistan War substantially less probable but the chance of its being replaced by a different war would take up a lot of the slack (not necessarily called a war; it might have been an insistent ‘internal police action’ in Saudi Arabia or something). Unclear what the non-war response to 9/11 would have looked like; it would probably be large, but the direction is unclear. Existing response was large and negative, so either reducing the magnitude or changing the direction would most likely be an improvement.

      So no, Bob isn’t delusional. George W Bush had outsize influence on the country compared to most presidents, and the things he did with it were not good for the country or the world. It doesn’t take a ton of confidence in counterfactual Al Gore to be reasonably assured that, in expectation, things would have been a lot better.

      (Things that would not have changed: The financial crisis would probably not be averted, and there’s no reason to predict it would have been less severe (though on an eight-year timescale, it would have been butterflied to be *different* in severity). Wealth inequality would probably not be affected significantly either way. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs would have continued more or less unchanged.)

      • nil says:

        I doubt even Afghanistan would have gone differently, and I’m moderately skeptical of the idea that the AGW situation would be any better–but Iraq wouldn’t have happened, and that’s enough.

      • I think things would have gone about the same, with differences in detail. The big difference is that the blame for the results would have been on the left instead of on people who believe in the things Bush claimed to believe in.

        So Republicans back in the White House until the next time they messed up.

  38. Adam Casey says:

    It’s amazing how overconfident at least some people are in topics like this (I don’t in principle know *who* unless I know the right answer of course). Saw a great example of this on some EA’s FB wall. The topic of colonialism came up, the question was asked if it was good or bad.

    Someone gave a instrumental variables study that argued for “good”. The response was “IV studies are crappy, and so we should stick with the common sense prior”. Which was followed by the question what the common sense prior said.

    The common sense prior, (or so some claimed), states that colonial regimes were exploitative, hence colonialism is bad and that this is obvious. The common sense prior (or so some others claim), states that civilization exists, hence colonialism is good and that this is obvious.

    I bet the person reading this has a very strong view about which one of those two claims is utter nonsense right? Well. at least some of us are overconfident.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I kind of agree that between twenty million dead and an instrumental variables study, the prior leans towards the twenty million dead.

      • Adam Casey says:

        hmm, let me be clearer about my point. My claim is not that the IV study was good, it’s not. My point is that people are overconfident about what the prior is.

        If you’re confident that “the prior leans towards the twenty million dead” I suggest you beware of the seen and the unseen.

        You see the 20 million dead, you don’t see the gains from trade and infrastructure. (More concretely: Suppose that colonialism makes Borlaug’s saving a billion lives just 2% more likely. That has wiped out the 20 million dead.) I have no idea if these things balance out the obvious costs, but I’m not confident they don’t.

        • Adam says:

          Of course, just by normal population growth, you can go into any random continent in the 1600s, kill 20 million people, and at some point several hundred years in the future, there were will be a billion on the same continent, and since it’s 400 years later and we have science and better technology, they’ll probably be better off people, too. That kind of calculus justifies anything. Hitler was good, because WWII forced Europe to stop fighting more wars and now it’s a prosperous international union of peaceful well-off nations, not a collection of terrible places full of artillery impact craters experiencing depression, hyperinflation, and negative population growth (at least for now).

          • Adam Casey says:

            I don’t claim at all that my calculus justifies colonialism. I’m only trying to claim that the result is not obvious. This is not one of those questions where we are many orders of magnitude away from changing our minds.

          • Adam says:

            I’m more just pointing out that it’s not fair to use as justification for something far in the past that it saved a billion lives in the future. There are more lives to save now, and you can always save more by just waiting until there are even more people. This makes anything at all look good in retrospect so long as it doesn’t wipe out all of humanity.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I bet the person reading this has a very strong view about which one of those two claims is utter nonsense right? Well. at least some of us are overconfident.

      I am actually horribly torn between these two claims. On one hand I recognize how hard it is to impose civilization by force. On the other hand, I really want the benefits of civilization spread to everyone.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      I think that ‘colonialism’ was a lot of different people in different times and places doing different things for different reasons, and some of them turned out better or worse in different ways.

  39. John Sidles says:

    MIXED SOLUTIONS

    Wittengenstein’s solvent  A central tenet of Wittgenstein’s philosophy affirms that philosophical problems are not solved, they are dissolved (e.g., “A philosophical problem has the form ‘I don’t know my way about”, and “The clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity; but this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear”, and “By means of what criteria shall we judge that that a philosophical problem has been dissolved?”).

    Seeking dissolution  It is natural to wonder, by what solvents are present-day moral problems being dissolved? Political problems? Even mathematical problems?

    ——————
    Solvent solution I
    A rising tide of mathematical understanding

    One starting reference is Colin McLarty’s The rising sea: Grothendieck on simplicity and generality (2007)

    The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration. … The sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it … yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.

    ——————
    Solvent solution II
    A rising tide of political understanding

    One starting reference is Thomas Corns and David Loewenstein’s survey The emergence of Quaker writing: dissenting literature in seventeenth-century England (2007)

    “Their manuscripts flye thick as Moths up and down the Country”

    ——————
    Solvent solution III
    A rising tide of moral understanding

    One starting reference is Donald Knuth’s elenchus Interactions between faith and science (2007).

    Q  “If God asked you to do something dire, would you do it?”
    A “There’s the story of Abraham being asked to kill his son, and he decides to do it. […] I probably don’t have that much faith, as he did, to do something like that.”

    Knuth goes on to speak of his article “The Dangers of Computer Science Theory” (Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, 1973)

    ——————
    Further readings  Solvent works by Jane Goodall, Fred Rogers, and Wendell Berry are commended as compatible in both methods and objectives to Knuth’s.

    Conclusion  The modern Enlightenment is pursuing its objectives, not by the perilous process of systemic change, but by ingeniously conceiving and adaptively implementing a rising tide of solutions that dissolve moral, political, economic, and even mathematical problems.

    Implication  Cthulhu’s not swimming left, but rather the foundations of reactionary conservatism are dissolving.

  40. A says:

    I refer anyone thinking about systemic change to:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Uses-Pessimism-Danger-False-Hope/dp/1848872011/

    Not that it will help, as the book itself explains.

  41. stillnotking says:

    I’m not affiliated in any way with EA and thus have no dog in the fight, but I will make a prediction: EA will, in the near future, be taken over by political interests. Charitable organizations have to be extremely vigilant and dedicated against that to have any chance of preventing it. (Or operate entirely in realms where politics rarely obtrudes, as Scott mentioned, e.g. children’s hospitals.) The widespread attitude within EA seems to be that rationalism is a magical anti-politics vaccine — a theory that could only be farther from the truth if it somehow incorporated phrenology.

    • Viliam says:

      Exactly this. When people with some political opinion will start connecting their cause with EA, people with other opinions will hesitate to join, or even leave. Which will increase the proportion of the people with the dominant political opinion. If you don’t stop this at the beginning, it only becomes more difficult later.

      Then at some level someone will “go meta” and say that the most effective thing to do — in long term — is to destroy (metaphorically) the people with the opposing views. And suddenly most of the “altruist” resources will go to a political faction X fighting against a political faction Y, feeding the Moloch.

      And the more money you succeed to collect (which is kinda the point), the more attractive target you become.

      For example, at some point (more or less, when you become a topic in mainstream media, which again is what you want) you will either donate a large part of the EA budget to feminist organizations — not chosen by you, but by people with media power, so it would be someone like Anita Sarkeesian instead of someone like Malala Yousafzai — or the media will call you a misogynist hate group. That is the most trivial form of attack — if I had a popular twitter account and an evil mind, I could literally start it today — so you need the strongest precommitments you can find to defend against it.

      More generally, when people start to talk about you, it will not be just inside pressure to join a political faction, but a combined pressure from both outside and inside. At the beginning, there is the luxury of debating these things among insiders.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        “Then at some level someone will “go meta” and say that the most effective thing to do — in long term — is to destroy (metaphorically) the people with the opposing views.”

        Welcome to environmentalism in the USA. They have taken something with pretty much universal appeal and forged it into a one sided political weapon. Yea team! There is no way a conservative could ever be comfortable in a Sierra Club meeting.

        This was a very bad error on their part in my view, and there seems to be no reversing it (or any desire to reverse it).

        • Adam says:

          I almost feel like part of the problem with environmentalism is it worked. We got wetlands preservation, endangered species protection, national parks, ended acid rain, solved many, though definitely not all, of the problems associated with invasive species, and pretty severely curtailed most of the really bad forms of air and water pollution. We even got reforestation passed. This leaves environmentalism as a movement with only the fringe element still giving a shit, because all of the uncontroversial goals were accomplished and support of them isn’t considered ‘environmentalism’ any more.

          Just take the Sierra Club itself. Basically everything John Muir wanted happened.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            Totally agree. A perfect example of a victim of their own success.

            The best thing for global environmentalism would be to export all the USA’s environmentalists to China, ha ha.

          • Urstoff says:

            Seems to be the trend of lots of (all?) progressive causes. The low-hanging fruit are picked and you’re left with a core fighting over safe spaces and fur coats.

          • Linch says:

            Not a lot of resources are being put into geoengineering or the other plausible solutions to alleviate the dangers of climate change. Environmentalism may have succeeded a lot, but it may arguably have succeeded a lot because it targeted the wrong things.

          • Adam says:

            Depends on your perspective, I guess. I kind of appreciate clean air and water, lakes that fish can still live in, and still having forests, and think those are even meaningful social goods. It’s not like geoengineering was even a feasible thing when John Muir was around, or even back when Rachel Carson was agitating about pollutants and probably even when E.O. Wilson came up with the idea of biophilia. It really hasn’t been feasible to even think about until pretty recently, and at this point, the IPCC, NOAA, NASA, National Academies of Science have all pitched in, but they largely get ignored. Some schemes are even within the reach of single wealthy individuals, so it’s not like they even necessarily require popular support.

          • Linch says:

            I’m ambivalent about nature for complicated reasons, but yeah, I would rather breathe in the US than in China.

            OTOH picking the low-hanging fruit is a *very* rational thing to do. Hopefully people can move faster to other causes after the low-hanging fruit in X cause has already been picked, but all in all it’s not a terrible state of affairs.

          • Randy M says:

            Or put another way, it was able to succeed because it targeted problems people felt affected them tangibly, or at least emotionally.
            If they had instead of going after air pollution or endangered species gone first after global warming, I think they would have had even less success at global warming mitigation than they are having now.

    • Adam says:

      Maybe as a website or an organization that holds conferences, but as an idea? I don’t know. I tried to evaluate charity performance measures and the impact of a marginal dollar well before I’d ever heard the phrase ‘effective altruism.’ It’s not like this is some revolutionary idea and you don’t need to have any affiliation with a named organization or talk to other people who self-identify in a particular way and collectively strategize with them to employ the idea.

    • Deiseach says:

      Yes, that’s a very likely risk. As soon as EA gets big enough to be noticeable, to start making enough of a difference to be counted, then it will have to deal with the existing structures, which includes politics. Even on a simple level like “We need to liaise with the state body on [water quality or what you will]” or “For PR purposes, we got our photographs taken handing over a cheque to the local hospital and of course the local councillors/member of parliament/Minister for Health was in it too smiling and handshaking”.

      People may vigorously argue over “Should we be seen even in a photo op with [member of this political party]?” and that’s where the wrangle over ‘stay small but virtuous’ versus ‘getting big enough to be effective means some compromise’ begins.

    • Vorkon says:

      I’m not saying that Magical Anti-Politics Vaccines CAUSE Rationalism, just that parents should have the option to spread them out a little further, if they want to… :op

  42. Shenpen says:

    An addendum to my above “what if it is man vs. man but good and evil reversed” idea: I am not proposing Alice is evil. I am proposing someone who is evil feeding manipulative propaganda to Alice. In other words, I am proposing smart and pure hearted Alices are particularly susceptible to a specific kind of propaganda and some evil folks noticed that market gap (that is how there is a Left). Decoding how exactly that propaganda works and why is it so incredibly effective at specifically misleading smart and good people, while simple, curmudgeonish plumbers are unaffected by it, is one of the main goals of the Reactionary project. I am not 100% sure exactly how it works, what I know is that it is extremely, extremely good at vilifying counter-propaganda. Thus smart and good people, while they see the propaganda is only borderline sciencey and has rationality failures, see it as the less bad option. In other words, it seems smart and good people are especially susceptible not to a specific kind of positive propaganda but a specific negative one: that tells them the opposition is idiotic and evil.

    I don’t know how this works.

    When we watched Star Wars, we were not 100% sure Han or Leia are really good people or their cause is good – maybe the just want to be the next rulers. But we were 200% sure Vader and Palpatine are really really evil. Right? People are easier to convince who is evil, not what is right and true.

    But why?

    • stillnotking says:

      Most likely because the cost of being exploited by someone is sharp and immediate, but the benefits of reciprocity are diffuse and deferred. There’s probably also an element of coalition psychology — it’s important to know right away if someone is not in your tribe. Hence Vader and Palpatine’s distinctive “othering” via black masks, strange voices (Palpatine’s accent is really interesting; I could write an entire post just about that), and physical disfigurement.

      In other words, I am proposing smart and pure hearted Alices are particularly susceptible to a specific kind of propaganda and some evil folks noticed that market gap (that is how there is a Left).

      There is a Left because people have basic intuitions about fairness — intuitions which are completely sincere, albeit susceptible to parasitism by destructive ideas (distinct from deliberately manipulative propaganda).

    • Viliam says:

      People are easier to convince who is evil, not what is right and true. But why?

      Well, “evil” doesn’t mean “evil all the time”. Even the greatest mass murderers don’t literally spend 24 hours each day murdering someone.

      Seeing that someone murdered dozen random innocent people during one day is pretty strong evidence about their character. Observing someone for one day and seeing that they didn’t murder anybody, that’s very weak evidence.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Because Good people rarely try to come off as evil and Evil people often try to come off as good.

    • Nornagest says:

      As a general rule, I tend to throw out as implausible any theory which requires big chunks of politics to be driven by a cabal of evil people insincerely feeding propaganda to the masses — not because there are no evil people or because effective propaganda doesn’t exist, but because people are really good at detecting insincerity. Conspiracies thrive in settings like corporate or backroom politics, where everyone expects a steady diet of bullshit and so insincerity signals are no great disadvantage. They’re very hard to maintain in the context of demagoguery, where any hint of it sets off instant red flags.

      It follows that sincere people who’ve managed to convince themselves utterly that they’re doing good, are still capable of wreaking huge amounts of destruction. Which they’ll then turn around and try to blame on somebody else, or on their plan not being sufficiently well implemented.

      • Shenpen says:

        >but because people are really good at detecting insincerity

        I have no idea what you base that on… People are really good at detecting “ha ha I am SO going to screw you over” type of lies, but such lies are extremely rare. They are not very good at detecting the far common kind of lie when the liar first lies to himself, and then just projects it.

        Look at the history of scientific frauds, such as the ones related to climate alarmism. What happened is that the scientist first convinced himself that it is for the greater good of protecting the environment anyway, and besides even if this or that measurement does not show it, the whole climate thing is still true, so when publishing falsified results, they are still supporting Truth and Goodness. Having convinced themselves first, it was easy to appear sincere in public.

        In other words, your model sorely lacks the huge human capacity of self-delusion, that people can delude themselves first into sincerely believing things they knew aren’t true and then they project outward that sincerity with confidence.

        This thing is hard to catch. The way I usually try to catch is actually by a certain sense of overconfidence or fanaticism. As usually they are not able to delude themselves 100% and have lingering doubts, there is an edge in the speech directly inwards, to shutting up doubts. This edge is aggressive, shrill, triumphant, whiny, vilify disagreement, and work up quite a fanaticism. This is how I usually detect it.

        Compared to peopel who really believe things. Real beliefs are formed by an intimate understanding of something and it means knowing details and it means understanding just about everything is complicated. This has a different tone, roughly “sorry, no simple answers”.

        • Nornagest says:

          Oh, sure, self-delusion happens all the time, though climate probably isn’t the best example if you’re looking to convince people across the aisle. I’m just not comfortable calling self-deluded people evil.

  43. Peter says:

    I found that Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve The Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott gave me my very best arguments against systemic change.

    • PJ says:

      I second this recommendation. This book changed the way I think about complex systems in which any model is bound to be a vast oversimplification.

    • What I found amusing about that book was that it was making arguments that, on the whole, appealed to libertarians and the author, apparently aware of that fact and unhappy with it, went to some trouble to make it clear that he wasn’t a libertarian. To the extent of making sure that when he wrote a footnote agreeing with Hayek on something, it included an (irrelevant) negative comment.

      • Peter says:

        Yeah, I see that as an effort to distance himself from any ideological perspective.

        The author spends the entire book saying ‘hey, communism is a cool idea- here’s how it broke down from the very start with an absurd number of extremely specific examples. No, I’m not saying capitalist high modernism is better- here’s specifically how it breaks down from the very start’ etc.

        So he needs the footnotes to avoid being labeled an anarchist or libertarian with an agenda after an entire book spent shooting down each of the high modernist statist perspectives.

        • Somewhere he has a comment about Jane Jacobs’ objection to city government planning projects (by memory from a while ago, so I may have the details wrong), put in a way that implies that that shows she wasn’t a libertarian. Which made me wonder how familiar he was with the views of actual libertarians.

          But an interesting book.

  44. Anon. says:

    >What’s the expected marginal value of becoming an anti-capitalist revolutionary?

    Are we supposed to take this question seriously? Assuming that your anti-capitalist revolution had some probability of succeeding, it’s obviously negative.

    • Adam Casey says:

      Please be super super careful about that word “obviously”. It’s obvious to you and to me. But it’s not obvious to a huge number of very smart people. There are a huge number of people who think that capitalism is positively destructive, like slave-trade-level destructive. I have very strong arguments about why they’re wrong, so do you. But it’s overconfident to think that the probability of them being wrong inside those arguments is the same as the probability outside those arguments.

      • Murphy says:

        Capitalism is a better stable(ish) system than most of the simple alternatives though I get the feeling that there’s almost certainly a far better alternative to having a very well compensated nobility who’s main/only contribution to the economy is as meatsacks legally able to hold title to property.

        • Adam Casey says:

          > I get the feeling that there’s almost certainly a far better alternative to having a very well compensated nobility who’s main/only contribution to the economy is as meatsacks legally able to hold title to property.

          I get that feeling too, I think such a system is called capitalism.

          • Murphy says:

            And yet modern capitalism has no shortage of rent-seekers and people who contribute nothing except their ability to legally hold title to property.

            Nobles born into fantastic wealth who’s total contribution to the economy between their birth and death would only be increased if shortly after their birth they were magically transformed into a potato while retaining their legal right to own property.

        • I believe that actual statistics on the top one percent of the income distribution show that most of them are doctors and lawyers and such, not coupon clippers living on inherited wealth.

          • Vorkon says:

            While I agree with your sentiment here, I don’t think I’ve ever heard trust fund babies living on an inheritance referred to as “coupon clippers.” Anecdotally, I’ve always thought the stereotypical person living on an inheritance and doing nothing else productive would be too careless with their money to bother clipping coupons.

          • notes says:

            Bonds, once, had physical coupons to be exchanged for the interest payments: the phrase is old, and the implication is that someone is living off of the interest.

            You see another residue of this in zero-coupon bonds, so-called because they pay nothing until maturity.

          • Murphy says:

            Where did I mention the 1%?

            The bottom 9/10ths of that 1% are mostly doctors/lawyers/executives, I have no beef with them, they contribute.

            The top fractions are far more likely to be living on inherited.

          • I think the very top fraction are likely to be people who inherited money and then turned it into much more money. That’s clearly true of Bill Gates, but I believe also of the Koch brothers.

            That’s in the U.S. Elsewhere in the world I think it also includes people with control over governments who use it to make themselves rich. Some of whom may be self-made kleptocrats.

    • Shenpen says:

      Careful, there are critiques of capitalism on the Right too – see Distributism. Basically the problem is that Capitalism has multiple meanings. If it means “free market”, nobody sane has a problem with that. If it means “the concentration of capital into ever fewer hands”, then yes. Chesterton got the _conservative_ critique of it down saying “too much capitalism means too few capitalists, not too many”. I.e. understood capitalism as the force that drives towards ever fewer capitalists. It is better to have more.

      Today the conservative-Distributist lineage of critiques of Capitalism is maintained by Medaille:

      http://www.amazon.com/Toward-Truly-Free-Market-Distributist/dp/161017027X

    • Tom Scharf says:

      Obviously this all comes down to your definition of “marginal value”. Once someone defines what that means to them, it is pretty obvious what side of the argument they will fall on. Most people who think this will be a net benefit either magically believe GDP will be unaffected by the death of capitalism or believe living on a commune and being one with Gaia is the goal. Curiously we find very few who actually take the initiative to go live in a non-capitalist society.

  45. Albatross says:

    Completely agree. There is something rational about gradual change. Lots of examples.

    1. I’d like a single payer system. But I advocate a few wealthy US states trying it out for a few years. I also like Obamacare, but in hindsight we can see that transition can be very rough and cause all sorts of problems. State level pilot programs are wise. Systemic change at the federal level is premature and dangerous. Most advocates don’t want to hear that.

    2. All fifty states now have conceal carry laws. These laws make it illegal to carry firearms without a license and training except in a few rare times and places like private property and shooting ranges. They are gun control. And crime statistics tell us these laws are crime neutral at worst. Even most rationalists can’t get past pushing for systemic change like Japan. Turning Chicago into Houston would save hundreds of lives a year and cut gun violence in half. But most advocates would rather keep the status quo if they can’t turn Chicago into Tokyo. People are very irrational in these man vs man conflicts. If we use Houston laws to cut gun violence in half, it seems like giving up on Japanese utopia. So instead Chicago just stays the same. Note: there are legitimate arguments that laws alone won’t change Chicago into Houston or Japan. But the same principle applies to cultural change as well.

    3. When I tell people that wind and solar renewable energy is really awesome I get lots of push back. Texas gets 9% of its energy from wind. On a recent windy evening it spiked to 30% and the price of electricity briefly went negative. Lots of states and companies are no doubt very interested in cheap, clean energy. I don’t have to win the argument. Texas has already done that. In other words, I don’t need to advocate for renewable energy because all sorts of capitalists have already read enough science fiction to know how cool it is.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      Wind and solar energy are, in their present incarnations, terrible. They consume vast amounts of real estate, require reserve capacity pretty much equal to their contributions less a tiny percentage, and the next-best option, nuclear, can’t serve in a reserve capacity role. It’s not cheap – you need double the infrastructure, once for the renewables, and again for the reserve capacity. Once you remember that natural gas is the best reserve capacity fuel, it’s not clean, either.

      • Adam says:

        One of the great things about Texas is there’s a hell of a lot of real estate here, much of it is in the middle of nowhere, it’s both very windy and very sunny, and putting a wind or solar farm on the land doesn’t even stop you from grazing cattle or drilling for oil on the same land.

        Of course, this doesn’t generalize to every state.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        If you really want to understand the intricacies of wind power, find it here in a recent series of posts:
        http://scienceofdoom.com/

        Still more expensive, but makes sense in some areas. The problems get larger as more intermittent power is installed. Transporting wind power to populated areas is very expensive. Think $T, not $B.

        There are big problems that most people don’t consider, such as if a massive well engineered wind farm produced large amounts of power, that it will still likely fall below 10% of power needs around 5% of the time. Thus you need to keep around a 100% backup system in place. Pay twice for infrastructure. But a lot of natural gas plants actual long term costs are fuel so….

        Gets pretty complicated. There are legitimate reasons this isn’t being embraced beyond politics.

    • Jiro says:

      All fifty states now have conceal carry laws. These laws make it illegal to carry firearms without a license and training except in a few rare times and places like private property and shooting ranges. They are gun control. And crime statistics tell us these laws are crime neutral at worst.

      This is factually incorrect, and the reason why it’s factually incorrect is revealing. You probably read some version of https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/02/17/growth-chart-of-right-to-carry/ which does state that concealed carry has grown–as a step in the liberalization of gun laws. Five states don’t require a permit for concealed carry.

      Also, some states which require concealed carry permits allow open carry as well. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_carry_in_the_United_States shows 25 states that allow open carry of guns without a permit or license. Needing a permit for concealed carry isn’t the same thing as needing a permit to carry at all.

  46. Just to provide one data point, that fight about the vegan/non-vegan meals did make me feel like I never want to hear anything about the EA movement again.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      Seconded. Manage your own affairs without a shitshow erupting, then you can come advise me how to manage mine.

  47. bean says:

    When I started in on the section about politics, it didn’t go the way I expected. What I expected was that you were going to suggest some sort of market where people on opposite sides of issues could pair off, and instead of donating to politics, they’d both take their political contributions and send it to bed nets or the like. There are obvious problems with enforcement (and political imbalance) but it seemed an amusing idea.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve proposed that before. I think some people tried it and it didn’t work for some reason.

      • bean says:

        I’m not really surprised that it’s been tried, and I’m not surprised at all that it didn’t work. Leaving aside the issue of people breaking the rules, it seems that the equilibrium outcome would be the conservatives ‘giving everything’, and the liberals ‘giving’ what the conservatives do, plus however much they’d normally give to politics. And based on that, it seems the conservatives wouldn’t get involved in the system in the first place. (This assumes that there is a ceiling on how much people want to spend on politics. If politics is the number one choice of both sides, and they would give 100% normally, then it does makes sense for the smaller side to participate.)
        Of course, this is sort of an artifact of the political balance among those who would do this sort of thing. If the sides are relatively evenly matched, then cancellation makes sense.

      • Nornagest says:

        Enforcement mechanisms seem like the obvious weak link in an idea like that.

    • Jack LaSota says:

      If Xanthia believes the most effective cause is Blue politics, and Yevgeniy believes the most effective cause is global poverty and that the second most effective cause is Green politics, Yevgeniy might be tempted to pretend to believe that the most effective cause was Green politics, and make an agreement with Xanthia so that both of them donate to relieve global poverty, and Xanthia doesn’t donate to Blue politics.

      I’m not actually sure this would be a bad thing if universalized though, because its net effects are (A) moving more money to relieve global poverty, and (B) moving political influence to people who think that political issue is less important/tractable/uncrowded than global poverty.

      (B) probably sounds scary in a “we could be wrong like Engels!” way, but like, reversal test: would you like to shift political influence the other way? Do you have a reason to think that this particular power balance is the at the best point it “could” be?

      Also I think this whole style of arguments “we could be wrong like Engels!” is rooted in omission bias and vulnerable to the reversal test.

    • Julia Wise says:

      Toby Ord has a paper on this, “Moral Trade.”

    • Anaxagoras says:

      Yeah, I thought it would go in that direction too. Seems like a nifty idea, though there might be ways the incentives get screwed up.

  48. Banananon says:

    For people who might not have come across this poem before (alluded to in the final paragraph):

    Fire and Ice, Robert Frost

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.

    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

  49. I think make a good point that political activity has a significant zero-sum component (man-vs-man) that means systemic change has a higher “disagreement” cost than is intuitively obvious.
    I didn’t realise many EAs advocated open borders (seems like a bad idea to me), so that was interesting to hear. However, I think the article’s central thesis goes too far for a number of reasons that I’ll try to present:

    1. Effective altruism exists thanks to a number of systemic changes.
    a) Effective altruism relies on widespread high levels of education. Such levels were achieved by deliberate systemic change.
    b) Effective altruism relies on not-tyranny (including far-left, far-right and apolitical), because tyranny seizes spare resources. Not-tyranny is a deliberate state achieved by systemic change.
    c) Effective altruism relies on science, evidence and access to true information. All these are a result of deliberate systemic changes including freedom of speech and the enlightenment.

    2. Systemic change is less like a minefield or dark wood, where you’ll be safe if you just avoid it entirely. It’s more like being on a ship in a perpetual storm surrounded by hidden rocks. Sure, its really easy to make a wrong turn left or right and sink the ship, but you don’t fare any better when there’s no-one at the wheel. Even worse, a complete idiot could seize the wheel. It’s better to study the rocks as best you can, post lookouts, and ask everyone on the ship what they know about the ship’s condition and the waters in which you sail, then make cautious, prudent, turns to keep the ship off the rocks as best you can. Systemic change happens whether people plan it or not, and the unplanned type can spell the end of your civilization just as much as the planned change can (see Roman Republic, Roman Empire).

    3. In some places the article seems to conflate systemic change with far-left revolutionary ideas. We can reject the latter while remaining neutral on the former. I take systemic change to include a whole variety of political, economic and social ideas from all over the spectrum – Adam Smith’s ideas overcoming mercantilism would be an example of systemic change, or JS Mill’s arguments in support of freedom of speech, for example. Engels is not a good example of rationalist attempts at systemic change, because Marx is not a rationalist; imo most fundamentally because his position is characterised by a rejection of the is-ought distinction, though also because he saw no need to gather empirical evidence that supported the idea that the government/system he proposed was actually good and not a massive disaster, as we can now see it was in most cases.

    4. We can identify specific types of systemic changes that are harmful. Revolutions cause chaos and seem to give tyrannical or totalitarian regimes the opportunity to take root. Emotionally based systemic change allows important principles to be undermined without proper debate or consideration. Systemic change without empirical trials leaves the door open to unexpected or perverse results. This for me is the big one – most systematically bad political stuff can be shown to be bad if it’s tried on a much smaller scale.

    5. Regarding the external presentation of systemic change and the debates involved results as harmful to effective altruism, I think this can be addressed by:
    a) Quarantining politics and systematic change to certain parts of the movement, which don’t include newbie areas.
    b) Enforcing rules of discussion that discourage mind-killing, intimidation, ad hominem, and all the other things that rationalists, regardless of political position, know to be bad.
    c) Clearly labelling effective altruism as politically pluralist and resisting any efforts to normalise alignment with any specific political camps.
    If people find those measures unacceptable, I wonder if that isn’t a reasonably good filter for people that need to put more work into rationalism before they participate?

    • Aegeus says:

      Systemic change is less like a minefield or dark wood, where you’ll be safe if you just avoid it entirely. It’s more like being on a ship in a perpetual storm surrounded by hidden rocks. Sure, its really easy to make a wrong turn left or right and sink the ship, but you don’t fare any better when there’s no-one at the wheel. Even worse, a complete idiot could seize the wheel. It’s better to study the rocks as best you can, post lookouts, and ask everyone on the ship what they know about the ship’s condition and the waters in which you sail, then make cautious, prudent, turns to keep the ship off the rocks as best you can.

      In that analogy, incremental but guaranteed-beneficial changes would be like getting the lifeboats ready or patching leaks in the ship. It’s something that will be good regardless of where the ship goes. If you believe systemic change is inevitable, better that we face it with a population that’s happy, not impoverished, not dying of malaria, etc.

      • I don’t disagree that they’re useful or good. But I think there is a worthwhile return from spending a few resources keeping the ship off the rocks (thinking about cautious systemic change). I imagine the optimal position is a balance in this case, rather than abandoning one or the other.

  50. Psmith says:

    1. I’ve been thinking something along the lines of Communism:1920s::Open Borders:2010s since that Malcolm Muggeridge post, and it’s pretty neat to see that I’m not the only one. (Speaking as a former open borders advocate, mind you.).

    2. Completely agree with the general points of this article. There was also a Robin Hanson piece some time ago that made a similar point about voting–in any reasonably close election, you probably don’t have sufficient reason to believe that your favorite side is actually right to make it a good idea to vote. (Or it may have been in David Friedman’s micro text, now I think about it.).

    3. Also completely agree with Sastan’s point above that intelligence, possibly beyond a certain minimal threshold, doesn’t make you more likely to believe true things. Also heavily influenced by Dan Kahan’s work here. Unlike Sastan, I take this to be the antecedent of the conditional in a valid modus ponens argument, and endorse conservatism as a result.

    4. “Is there suffering in fundamental physics?” cf tumblr user hyper-traditionalist–horseshoe theory, anyone? FALSE COINAGE IS BUT A BOURGEOIS DISTRACTION FROM THE TRUE DEGENERACY OF FALSE VACUUM.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think I agree with the strongest version of the thesis that intelligence doesn’t make you more likely to hold true beliefs. It’s hard to differentiate intelligence from education from liberal-culture, but I can think of a lot of things more intelligent people get more right afaict (creationism, gay marriage, vaccinations, atheism, etc) and comparatively few going the other direction. Further, the ones going the other direction seem to be vaguer and harder to analyze (communism), which makes me think that if an issue is sort of straightforward factually based intelligent people do have an advantage.

      Also, I think effective altruists probably have complicated advantages over normal intelligent people in the sense of some sort of carefulness and evidence-basedness. As I said above, it’s not perfect, but it’s not nothing.

      • FJ says:

        You just implied that “Does Communism work?” is a vaguer and harder question than “Does God exist?” “Vaguer” seems clearly wrong: we’re more likely to come up with consensus definitions of “Communism” and “work” than “God” (not that reaching consensus would be easy for any of those definitions). And as for “harder”: you previously warned against overconfidence on the God question. If there’s a 5% chance that you’re wrong about God, what do you think the odds are that you’re wrong about Communism? 10%? 50%?

      • Psmith says:

        1. “It’s hard to differentiate intelligence from education from liberal-culture, but I can think of a lot of things more intelligent people get more right afaict (creationism, gay marriage, vaccinations, atheism, etc) and comparatively few going the other direction.”

        “As far as I can tell” is doing a whole lot of work here, it seems to me. We might unpack that as “to me, a member of group W, it looks like group W’s majority positions (arrived at via the inside view) on issues A, B, and C are probably correct, from my inside view.” Well, you would think that, wouldn’t you.

        On the other hand, some people ITT have (correctly, I think) pointed out that you can’t just take the outside view on everything–not as a matter of maximizing accuracy, but as a matter of something like psychological predisposition. We have to take the inside view, because we’re inside. I think there may be parallels here to Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”, e.g. “The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships is, I think, too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them; and being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that is in question.”

        And some brief object-level quibbling: Bob’s remarks on gay marriage in your article above strike me as at least a somewhat compelling reply to claims that intelligent people are more likely to be right about gay marriage. In re atheism, distinction between instrumental and epistemic rationality. CDC doesn’t appear to publish vaccination rates by smaller than state, but vaccination rates among the wealthy coastal elite in West LA appear to be noticeably lower than national averages, see http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/wealthy-la-schools-vaccination-rates-are-as-low-as-south-sudans/380252/.

        2. I think effective altruists have an advantage in knowing what their goals actually are. Regardless of whether those goals are the right ones, EAs at least have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish and how they’re going to measure it.

  51. Ever An Anon says:

    Comment removed in courtesy to Scott.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think this is unfair and would prefer fewer posts like this in the future.

      Everyone agrees that causes need to meet a certain burden of scrutiny.

      Symbolism is a pretty big deal; if for some reason you needed to beat up a puppy to get into a conference, that’s probably not a whole lot of suffering in the grand scheme of things, but I wouldn’t go to that conference.

  52. Kaj Sotala says:

    > But in the more important sense, the net effect of his contribution was global mass murder without any lasting positive change.

    That doesn’t sound quite right. At least the standard narrative around here is that the Nordic welfare states with their strong social security protections trace their roots to Marxist thought, with a social democratic ideology having split off from Marxism and communism and then creating successful and prosperous states.

    • stillnotking says:

      The Nordic “welfare states” are closer to Milton Friedman than to Karl Marx.

      They have more redistributive taxation than most other contemporary market economies, but that’s less taxonomically salient than the fact that they are market economies.

      • Shenpen says:

        Given that government spending is always centrally planned, 60% of GDP spent by the government is 60% central planning. Soviet systems had about 80-90% central planning given that there was some amount of hobby farm and mom and pop shop level of private industry.

        The reason you don’t notice it, or it looks so different, is that Sweden puts basically all of its actually productive economy in that 40%. So you see IKEA. While for the Soviets obviously most of the productive economy was in the 80-90%.

        • stillnotking says:

          The Swedish government does not give IKEA production targets, nor coerce people into working for it. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to say that Sweden’s economy is X% centrally planned; their private sector is not planned at all, and the “planning” they do in public-sector spending is very different from the Soviets’ Five-Year Plans.

          • Shenpen says:

            My point is that IKEA alongside with the rest of the productive part of the Swedish economy is in the 40%. So the unproductive part, which is not actual business, is the 60%.

        • Anon. says:

          >Given that government spending is always centrally planned, 60% of GDP spent by the government is 60% central planning

          I don’t think that’s right. Government can spend money in different ways. If you collect $100 in taxes and then just redistribute it in the form of welfare benefits, that’s completely different than if you use the money to buy or produce something and then distribute the goods.

        • Tatu Ahponen says:

          Nordic governments do not have 60% of their GDP spent by the government. The ratio that’s usually bandied around here and the related confusion is explained here: http://faktabaari.fi/fakta/juha-sipila-the-public-sector-accounts-for-58-per-cent-of-gdp-while-taxes-are-equivalent-to-46-per-cent-of-gdp/

          The actual share of public expenditure in Finland, in 2014, was 21 per cent of GDP.

          • Shenpen says:

            …. and I don’t understand it any better. What is the difference between “share of” and “ration of” ?

            I admit there was a confusion in my post as well, because I should be seeing the government as a consumer, not as a producer.

            So. Simplified model. Say Finnish factories make 100 widgets a year. Say there are no exports, and all 100 are bought domestically. Does the government buy 58 and the people 42, or 21 and 79? And if the later, then what does the 58 figure actually mean?

      • Tatu Ahponen says: