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Don’t Fear The Simulators

From the New York Times: Are We Living In A Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.

It lists the standard reasons for thinking we might be in a simulation, then brings up some proposals for testing the hypothesis (for example, the cosmic background radiation might look different in simulations and real universes). But it suggests that we not do that, because if we learn we’re in a simulation, that might ruin the simulation and cause the simulators to destroy the universe.

But I think a little more thought suggests we don’t have anything to worry about.

In order to notice we had discovered our simulated nature, the simulators would have to have a monitor watching us. We should expect this anyway. Although humans may run some simulations without monitoring them carefully, the simulators have no reason to be equally careless; if they can simulate billions of sentient beings, their labor costs are necessarily near zero. Such a monitor would have complete instantaneous knowledge of everything happening in our universe, and since anyone who can simulate a whole planet must have really good data processing capabilities, it would be able to understand and act upon the entire content of its omniscient sensorium. It would see the fall of each sparrow, record the position of ever atom, have the level of situational awareness that gods could only dream of.

What I’m saying is, it probably reads the New York Times.

That means it knows these experiments are going to happen. If it cares about the results, it can fake them. Assuming for some reason that it messed up designing the cosmic background radiation (why are we assuming this, again?), it can correct that mistake now, or cause the experimental apparatus to report the wrong data, or do one of a million other things that would prevent us from learning we are in a simulation.

The Times’ argument requires that simulators are so powerful that they can create entire universes, so on-top-of-things that they will know the moment we figure out their game – but also so incompetent that they can’t react to a warning published several years in advance in America’s largest newspaper.

There’s another argument for the same conclusion: the premises of the simulation argument suggest this isn’t the simulators’ only project. Each simulator civilization must simulate thousands or millions of universes. Presumably we’re not the first to think of checking the cosmic background radiation. Do you think the simulators just destroy all of them when they reach radio-wave-technology, and never think about fixing the background radiation mismatch or adding in some fail-safe to make sure the experiments return the wrong results?

For that matter, this is probably a stage every civilization goes through, including whatever real civilization we are supposed to simulate. What good is a simulation that can replicate every aspect of the real world except its simulation-related philosophy? The simulators probably care a lot about simulation-related philosophy! If they’re going around simulating universes, they have probably thought a lot about whether they themselves are a simulation, and simulation-related philosophy is probably a big part of their culture. They can’t afford to freak out every time one of their simulations starts grappling with simulation-related philosophy. It would be like freaking out when a simulation developed science, or religion, or any other natural part of cultural progress.

Some other sources raise concern that we might get our simulation terminated by becoming too computationally intensive (maybe by running simulations of our own). I think this is a more serious concern. But by the time we need to think about it, we’ll have superintelligences of our own to advise us on the risk. For now, I think we should probably stop worrying about bothering the simulators (see also the last section here). If they want us alive for some reason, we probably can’t cause them enough trouble to change that.

Maybe Your Zoloft Stopped Working Because A Liver Fluke Tried To Turn Your Nth-Great-Grandmother Into A Zombie

Or at least this is the theory proposed in Brain Evolution Through The Lens Of Parasite Manipulation by Marco del Giudice.

The paper starts with an overview of parasite manipulation of host behavior. These are the stories you hear about toxoplasma-infected rats seeking out cats instead of running away from them, or zombie ants climbing stalks of grass so predators will eat them. The parasite secretes chemicals that alter host neurochemistry in ways that make the host get eaten, helping the parasite transfer itself to a new organism.

Along with rats and ants, there is a dizzying variety of other parasite manipulation cases. They include parasitic wasps who hack spiders into forming protective webs for their pupae, parasitic flies that cause bees to journey far from their hive in order to spread fly larva more widely, and parasitic microorganisms that cause mosquitoes to draw less blood from each victim (since that forces the mosquitoes to feed on more victims, and so spread the parasite more widely). Parasitic nematodes make their ant hosts turn red, which causes (extremely stupid?) birds to mistake them for fruit and eat them. Parasitic worms make crickets seek water; as the cricket drowns, the worms escape into the pond and begin the next stage of their life cycle. Even mere viruses can alter behavior; the most famous example is rabies, which hacks dogs, bats, and other mammals into hyperaggressive moods that usually result in them biting someone and transmitting the rabies virus.

Even our friendly gut microbes might be manipulating us. People talk a lot about the “gut-brain axis” and the effect of gut microbes on behavior, as if this is some sort of beautiful symbiotic circle-of-life style thing. But scientists have found that gut microbes trying to colonize fruit flies will hack the flies’ food preferences to get a leg up – for example, a carb-metabolizing microbe will secrete hormones that make the fly want to eat more carbs than fat in order to outcompete its fat-metabolizing rivals for gut real estate; there are already papers speculating that the same processes might affect humans. Read Alcock 2014 and you will never look at food cravings the same way again.

But del Giudice thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout evolutionary history, parasites have been trying to manipulate host behavior and hosts have been trying to avoid manipulation, resulting in an eons-long arms race. The equilibrium is what we see today: parasite manipulation is common in insects, rare in higher animals, and overall of limited importance. But in arms race dynamics, the current size of the problem tells you nothing about the amount of resources invested in preventing the problem. There is zero problem with war between Iran and Saudi Arabia right now, but both sides have invested billions of dollars in military supplies to keep their opponent from getting a leg up. In the same way, just because mammals usually avoid parasite behavior manipulation now doesn’t mean they aren’t on a constant evolutionary war footing.

So if you’re an animal at constant risk of having your behavior hijacked by parasites, what do you do?

First, you make your biological signaling cascades more complicated. You have multiple redundant systems controlling every part of behavior, and have them interact in ways too complicated for any attacker to figure out. You have them sometimes do the opposite of what it looks like they should do, just to keep enemies on their toes. This situation should sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever studied biology.

Del Giudice compares the neurosignaling of the shrimp-like gammarids (small, simple, frequently hijacked by parasites) to rats (large, complex, hard to hijack). Gammarids have very simple signaling: high serotonin means “slow down”, low serotonin means “speed up”. The helminths that parasitize gammarids secrete serotonin, and the gammarids slow down and get eaten, transferring the parasite to a new host. Biologists can replicate this process; if they inject serotonin into a gammarid, the gammarid will slow down in the same way.

Toxoplasma hijacks rats and makes them fearless enough to approach cats. Dopamine seems to be involved somehow. But researchers injecting dopamine into rats don’t get the same result; in fact, this seems to make rats avoid cats more. Maybe toxoplasma started by increasing dopamine, rats evolved a more complicated signaling code, and toxoplasma cracked the code and now increases dopamine plus other things we don’t understand yet.

Aside from the brain, the immune system is the most important target to secure, so this theory should predict that immune signaling will also be unusually inscrutable. Again, this situation should sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever studied biology.

Second, you have a bunch of feedback loops and flexibility ready to deploy at any kind of trouble. If something makes dopamine levels go up, you decrease the number of dopamine receptors, so that overall dopaminergic neurotransmission is the same as always. If something is making you calmer than normal, you have some other system ready to react by making you more anxious again.

Del Giudice makes the obvious connection to psychopharmacology. Many psychoactive drugs build tolerance quickly: for example, heroin addicts constantly need higher and higher doses to get their “hit”. Further, tolerance builds in a pattern weirdly similar to antibody response – it takes a while to build up a cocaine tolerance, and you lose it over time if you don’t use cocaine, but the body “remembers” the process and a single hit of cocaine years later is sufficient to bring you back up to the highest tolerance level you’ve ever had.

The standard explanation for tolerance is that it’s an attempt to maintain homeostasis against the sort of conditions that can cause natural variation in neurotransmitter levels. I never questioned this before. But why is the body prepared to suddenly have all its serotonin reuptake transporters inhibited? Is that something that frequently happens, out in nature? I guess maybe plant toxins could do that, but then how come the body is prepared to deal with this for months or years?

While not denying the value of these standard explanations, Del Giudice thinks defense against parasite behavior manipulation may also play a role. Remember, gammarids absolutely have parasites that try to increase their serotonin levels as a prelude to getting them killed. Is it that surprising that a lot of different animal lineages would develop a reaction of “If something other than normal cognition has started increasing your serotonin levels, it’s a trap and you need to get them back down again”? Does that explain why SSRIs don’t work for some people, or randomly stop working, or need frequent dose escalation?

Third, you encode messages in the timing of pulses. This is a central feature of neuroendocrine communication – an intense pulse of testosterone at 6 AM means something different from tonically high testosterone all day. Parasites cannot do pulses. Remember, these parasites are usually microscopic. Each parasite can only produce a miniscule quantity of neurotransmitter or hormone. Only colonies of thousands or millions of parasites can produce enough chemicals to affect host signaling. This parasites cannot communicate or coordinate with each other, so there’s no way for them to be producing lots of testosterone one minute and none at all the next. That means that when a hormone arrives in a pulse, or better yet a complicated pattern of pulses, that’s a pretty reliable sign that it’s coming from a real gland.

Fourth, you exploit your individuality. The immune system already does this; there are some genes called the major histocompatibility complex that are designed to be especially variable, such that most people (except identical twins) will have different MHCs. These help the immune system differentiate self from other. Because they have such high individual variability, pathogens can’t just evolve around the MHC; they would have to undergo an entire evolutionary process for each new host they invade.

Del Giudice wonders if parasite-host arms races created pressure for increased human variability. SSRIs will make some people less depressed. But some people will get more depressed. A few will even get suicidal. A very few will flip out and become psychotic, or improve much more quickly than the textbooks say should be possible and feel completely reborn on day 3, or have something else even weirder happen. I always assumed God just hated psychiatrists and wanted them to be miserable. But another possibility is that extreme individual variability in neurosignaling pathways is a defense against parasite manipulation. If the effects of serotonin are unpredictable for any individual, no parasite species can devise a universally valid mechanism for controlling its hosts.

Fifth, you let the parasites become part of the furniture. If everybody in your ecosystem is infected with a parasite that raises serotonin, you just evolve a tonically lower serotonin level, and then it all cancels out. This one seems a little bit weird to me – surely this isn’t the stable equilibrium? But:

A downside of preemptive strategies is evolved dependence (de Mazancourtet al. 2005): if brain physiology and behavior are designed to function optimally when the parasite is present, the absence of the parasite will lead to inappropriate or fitness-reducing behaviors (Weinersmith and Earley 2016; see also Johnson and Foster 2018).

I think this is meant to hint at the “hygiene hypothesis”, ie our immune systems are screwed up because we are not getting exposed to the parasites it was built to expect. Suppose lots of parasites try to downregulate the immune system (which sounds logical enough), and the body doesn’t know which ones it’s going to get but expects it to follow a Poisson distribution around some mean. Then it might just upregulate the activity of the immune system that same amount. If you get rid of all the parasites, then your immune system is just set too high and you get autoimmune disorders.

(in case you had the same question I did – yes, the parasitologist Kelly Weinersmith cited above is the same Kelly Weinersmith who co-wrote Soonish with Zach Weinersmith of SMBC fame.)

Sixth, you use antiparasitic drugs as neurotransmitters. This is the kind of murderous-yet-clever solution I expect of evolution, and it does not disappoint. Several neurotransmitters, including neuropeptide Y, neurokinin A, and substance P are pretty good antimicrobials. The assumption has always been that the body kills two birds with one stone, getting its signaling done and also having some antimicrobials around to take out stray bacteria. But Del Giudice proposes that this is to prevent parasites from hijacking the signal; any parasite that tried to produce or secrete an antiparasitic drug would die in the process.

Dopamine is mildly toxic. The body is usually pretty good at protecting itself, but the mechanism fails under stress; this is why too much methamphetamine rots your brain. Why would you use a toxic chemical as a neurotransmitter? For the same reason you would use antiparasitic drugs – because you want to kill anything smaller than you that tries to synthesize it.

People always talk about the body as a beautiful well-oiled machine. But sometimes the body communicates with itself by messages written with radioactive ink on asbestos-laced paper, in the hopes that it’s killing itself slightly more slowly than it’s killing anyone who tries to send it fake messages. Honestly it is a miracle anybody manages to stay alive at all.

All these features together are a pretty effective way of dealing with parasite manipulation. There are a few parasites that can manipulate human behavior – rabies definitely, toxoplasma maybe – but overall we are remarkably safe.

Del Giudice argues that a combination of factors make it easy for parasites to manipulate insects but not large vertebrates. First, insects are small, so you only need a few parasites to produce an insect-sized level of neurotransmitter. Second, insects are so simple that usually one neurotransmitter maps nicely to one behavior; they are too small to support multiple redundant systems or complicated signal cascades. Del Giudice writes:

Although parasites can evolve subtler and more indirect means of manipulation, their computational capabilities are ultimately limited by their size. As the size and complexity of the host’s brain increase relative to the parasite, the disparity may become so extreme that the host is able to “outcompute” its adversary, making complex manipulations effectively impossible. The parasite may still be able to alter the host’s behavior in nonspecific ways (e.g., sickness, brain damage), but is unable to induce the kind of coordinated pattern required for trophic transmission or bodyguard manipulation. Although this argument is admittedly speculative, it is consistent with the fact that complex behavioral manipulations have not been documented in larger, warm-blooded animals (see Lafferty and Kuris 2002).

Finally, almost nothing eats humans, so there aren’t a lot of parasites interested in using us as a vehicle to get to their definitive hosts. If parasites want anything from us, it’s probably STIs wishing we had more risky sex; accordingly, Del Giudice obliquely cites Greg Cochran’s controversial hypothesis that homosexuality may be related to parasites hijacking sexual machinery.

But let’s take a step back: is any of this true?

The strongest evidence against is the dog that didn’t bark. Some systems look heavily defended against parasite manipulation, but others don’t. Amphetamines raise dopamine effectively and without significant tolerance buildup (see part IV here for a defense of this claim); antipsychotics lower dopamine equally effectively and consistently. Since dopamine is one of the most lucrative systems for parasites to hijack, it’s surprising to find it so easy to affect. And what about immune function? Externally administered corticosteroids decrease immune activity and make the body more vulnerable to infection; why don’t parasites secrete them? Why don’t we have some counter against them? These systems look consistent with an evolutionary history in which we don’t expect any threat from parasite manipulation and don’t need to defend ourselves very hard.

But also: homeostasis might be the most basic activity of all living things. Every bodily system can be modeled as a striving for homeostasis in some domain or other, even high-level cognitive functions. So it’s not clear that tolerance to psychiatric drugs needs a complicated evolutionary explanation beyond just “if you increase serotonin, your body is going to try to decrease it again, because that’s what bodies do“.

So I’m not sure how much of an effect this really had. It’s an interesting theory. But whether it explains some things, nothing, or everything, it’s too early to say.

But I like this paper because it takes the complexity of biology seriously. There’s a sense that science is stagnating, and biology is one of the worst offenders. In the 1800s and early 1900s, we were pinning down our mastery of anatomy, discovering all the major hormone systems, learning about microbes and inventing antibiotics. It seemed like the same kind of thing as physics, where you could go out into the world, observe things, and make difficult but fundamentally straightforward discoveries. But for the past fifty years, it’s been kind of a mess. Despite some amazing work by amazing people, we still don’t even understand questions as basic as what depression is. Everything seems bogged down in a million different opaque signaling cascades that fight off any effort to untangle or shift them.

Del Giudice offers a seductive explanation: the perceived perversity of the human blueprint is absolutely real. Parts of it – the parts most involved in health and disease – were sculpted by evolution to be as hard as possible to understand or affect. This makes me feel better about how often the drugs I prescribe fail in surprising ways

Attempted Replication: Does Beef Jerky Cause Manic Episodes?

Last year, a study came out showing that beef jerky and other cured meats, could trigger mania in bipolar disorder (paper, popular article). It was a pretty big deal, getting coverage in the national press and affecting the advice psychiatrists (including me) gave their patients.

The study was pretty simple: psychiatrists at a mental hospital in Baltimore asked new patients if they had ever eaten any of a variety of foods. After getting a few hundred responses, they compared answers to controls and across diagnostic categories. The only hit that came up was that people in the hospital for bipolar mania were more likely to have said they ate dry cured meat like beef jerky (odds ratio 3.49). This survived various statistical comparisons and made some biological sense.

The methodology was a little bit weird, because they only asked if they’d ever had the food, not if they’d eaten a lot of it just before becoming sick. If you had beef jerky once when you were fourteen, and ended up in the psych hospital when you were fifty-five, that counted. Either they were hoping that “ever had beef jerky at all” was a good proxy for “eats a lot of beef jerky right now”, or that past consumption produced lasting changes in gut bacteria. In any case, they found a strong effect even after adjusting for confounders and doing the necessary Bonferroni corrections, so it’s hard to argue with success.

Since the study was so simple, and already starting to guide psychiatric practice, I decided to replicate it with the 2019 Slate Star Codex survey.

In a longer section on psychiatric issues, I asked participants “Have you ever been hospitalized for bipolar mania?”. They could answer “Yes, many times”, “Yes, once”, or “No”. 3040 people answered the question, of whom 26 had been hospitalized once, 13 many times, and 3001 not at all.

I also asked participants “How often do you eat beef jerky, meat sticks, or other similar nitrate-cured meats?”. They could answer “Never”, “less than once a year”, “A few times a year”, “A few times a month”, A few times a week”, or “Daily or almost daily”. 5,334 participants had eaten these at least once, 2,363 participants had never eaten them.

(for the rest of this post, I’ll use “beef jerky” as shorthand for this longer and more complicated question)

Power calculation: the original study found odds ratio of 3.5x; because the percent of my sample who had been hospitalized for mania was so low, OR = RR; I decided to test for an odds ratio of 3. About 1.2% of non-jerky-eaters had been hospitalized for mania, so I used this site to calculate necessary sample size with Group 1 as 1.2%, Group 2 as 3.6% (=1.2×3), enrollment ratio of 0.46 (ratio of the 921 jerky-never-eaters to 2015 jerky eaters), alpha of 0.05, and power of 80%. It recommended a total sample of 1375, well below the 2974 people I had who answered both questions.

Of 932 jerky non-eaters, 11 were hospitalized for mania, or 1.2%. Of 2042 jerky-eaters, 27 were hospitalized for mania, or 1.3%. Odds ratio was 1.12, chi-square statistic was 0.102, p = 0.75. The 95% confidence interval was (.55, 2.23). So there was no significant difference in mania hospitalizations between jerky-eaters and non-eaters.

I also tried to do the opposite comparison, seeing if there was a difference in beef jerky consumption between people with a history of hospitalization for mania and people without such a history. I recoded the “beef jerky” variable to a very rough estimate to how many times per year people ate jerky (“never” = 0, “daily” = 400, etc). The rough estimate wasn’t very principled, but I came up with my unprincipled system before looking at any results. People who had never been hospitalized for mania ate beef jerky an average of 16 times per year; people who had been hospitalized ate it an average of 8 times per year. This is the opposite direction predicted by the original study, and was not significant.

I tried looking at people who had a bipolar diagnosis (which requires at least one episode of mania or hypomania) rather than just people who had been hospitalized for bipolar mania. This gave me four times the sample size of bipolar cases, but there was still no effect. 63% of cases (vs. 69% of controls) had ever eaten jerky, and cases on average ate jerky 15 times a year (compared to 20 times for controls). Neither of these findings was significant.

Why were my survey results so different from the original paper?

My data had some serious limitations. First, I was relying on self-report about mania hospitalization, which is less reliable than catching manic patients in the hospital. Second, I had a much smaller sample size of manic patients (though a larger sample size of controls). Third, I had a different population (SSC readers are probably more homogenous in terms of class, but less homogenous in terms of nationality) than the original study, and did not adjust for confounders.

There were also some strengths to this dataset. I had a finer-grained measure of beef jerky consumption than the original study. I had a larger control group. I was able to be more towards the confirmatory side of confirmatory/exploratory analysis.

Despite the limitations, there was a pretty striking lack of effect for jerky consumption. This is despite the dataset being sufficiently well-powered to confirm other effects that are classically known to exist (for example, people hospitalized by mania had higher self-rated childhood trauma than controls, p < 0.001). This is an important finding and should be easy to test by anyone with access to psychiatric patients or who is surveying a large population. I urge other people (hint to psychiatry residents reading this blog who have to do a research project) to look into this further. I welcome people trying to replicate or expand on these results. All of the data used in this post are freely available and can be downloaded here.

Book Review: Secular Cycles

I.

There is a tide in the affairs of men. It cycles with a period of about three hundred years. During its flood, farms and businesses prosper, and great empires enjoy golden ages. During its ebb, war and famine stalk the land, and states collapse into barbarism.


Chinese population over time

At least this is the thesis of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov, authors of Secular Cycles. They start off Malthusian: due to natural reproduction, population will keep increasing until it reaches the limits of what the land can support. At that point, everyone will be stuck at subsistence level. If any group ever enjoys a standard of living above subsistence level, they will keep reproducing until they are back down at subsistence.

Standard Malthusian theory evokes images of a population stable at subsistence level forever. But Turchin and Nefedov argues this isn’t how it works. A population at subsistence will always be one meal away from starving. When a famine hits, many of them will starve. When a plague hits, they will already be too sickly to fight it off. When conflict arrives, they will be desperate enough to enlist in the armies of whichever warlord can offer them a warm meal.

These are not piecemeal events, picking off just enough of the population to bring it back to subsistence. They are great cataclysms. The Black Plague killed 30% – 60% of Europeans; the Antonine Plague of Rome was almost as deadly. The Thirty Years War killed 25% – 40% of Germans; the Time of Troubles may have killed 50% of medieval Russia.

Thus the secular cycle. When population is low, everyone has more than enough land. People grow rich and reproduce. As time goes on, the same amount of farmland gets split among more and more people. Wages are driven down to subsistence. War, Famine, and Pestilence ravage the land, with Death not far behind. The killings continue until population is low again, at which point the cycle starts over.

This applies mostly to peasants, who are most at risk of starving. But nobles go through a related process. As a cycle begins, their numbers are low. As time goes on, their population expands, both through natural reproduction and through upward mobility. Eventually, there are more nobles than there are good positions…

(this part confused me a little. Shouldn’t number of good positions scale with population? IE if one baron rules 1,000 peasants, the number of baronial positions should scale with the size of a society. I think T&N hint at a few answers. First, some positions are absolute rather than relative, eg “King” or “Minister of the Economy”. Second, noble numbers may sometimes increase faster than peasant numbers, since nobles have more food and better chances to reproduce. Third, during boom times, the ranks of nobles are swelled through upward mobility. Fourth, conspicuous consumption is a ratchet effect: during boom times, the expectations of nobility should gradually rise. Fifth, sometimes the relevant denominator is not peasants but land: if a noble only has one acre of land, it doesn’t matter how many peasants he controls. Sixth, nobles usually survive famines and plagues pretty well, so after those have done their work, there are far fewer peasants but basically the same number of nobles. All of these factors contribute to excess noble population – or as T&N call it, “elite overproduction”)

…and the nobles form “rival patronage networks” to fight for the few remaining good spots. The state goes from united (or at least all nobles united against the peasants) to divided, with coalitions of nobles duking it out (no pun intended). This can lead either to successful peasant rebellion, as some nobles support the peasants as part of inter-noble power plays, or just to civil war. Although famine and plague barely affect nobles, war affects them disproportionately – both because they were often knights or other front-line soldiers, and because killing the other side’s nobles was often a major strategic goal (think Game of Thrones). So a civil war usually further depletes the already-depleted peasant population, and finally depletes noble populations, leading to a general underpopulation and the beginning of the next cycle.

Combine these two processes, and you get the basic structure of a secular cycle. There are about a hundred years of unalloyed growth, as peasant and noble populations rebound from the last disaster. During this period, the economy is strong, the people are optimistic and patriotic, and the state is strong and united.

After this come about fifty years of “stagflation”. There is no more room for easy growth, but the system is able to absorb the surplus population without cracking. Peasants may not have enough land, but they go to the city in search of jobs. Nobles may not have enough of the positions they want, but they go to college in order to become bureaucrats, or join the retinues of stronger nobles. The price of labor reaches its lowest point, and the haves are able to exploit the desperation of the have-nots to reach the zenith of their power. From the outside, this period can look like a golden age: huge cities buzzing with people, universities crammed with students, ultra-rich nobles throwing money at the arts and sciences. From the inside, for most people it will look like a narrowing of opportunity and a hard-to-explain but growing sense that something is wrong.

After this comes a crisis. The mechanisms that have previously absorbed surplus population fail. Famine and disease ravage the peasantry. State finances fall apart. Social trust and patriotism disappear as it becomes increasingly obvious that it’s every man for himself and that people with scruples will be defeated or exploited by people without.

After this comes the depression period (marked “intercycle” on the graph above, but I’m going to stick with the book’s term). The graph makes it look puny, but it can last 100 to 150 years. During this period, the peasant population is low, but the noble population is still high. This is most likely an era of very weak or even absent state power, barbarian invasions, and civil war. The peasant population is in a good position to expand, but cannot do so because wars keep killing people off or forcing them into walled towns where they can’t do any farming. Usually it takes a couple more wars and disasters before the noble population has decreased enough to reverse elite overproduction. At this point the remaining nobles look around, decide that there is more than enough for all of them, and feel incentivized to cooperate with the formation of a strong centralized state.

This cycle is interwoven with a second 40-60 year process that T&N call the “fathers-and-sons cycle” or “bigenerational cycle”. The data tend to show waves of disorder about every 40-60 years. During the “integrative trend” (T&N’s term for the optimistic growth and stagflation phases), these can just be minor protests or a small rebellion that is easily crushed. During the “disintegrative trend” (crisis + depression), they usually represent individual outbreaks of civil war. For example, during the Roman Republic, the violence around the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC was relatively limited, because Rome had not yet entered its crisis phase. 40 years later, in the depths of the crisis phase, there was a second outbreak of violence (91 – 82 BC) including the Social War and Sulla’s wars, which escalated to full-scale (though limited) civil war. 40 years later there was a third outbreak (49 – 27 BC) including Caesar and Augustus’s very large civil wars. After that the new integrative trend started and further violence was suppressed.

In Secular Cycles, T&N mostly just identify this pattern from the data and don’t talk a lot about what causes it. But in some of Turchin’s other work, he applies some of the math used to model epidemics in public health. His model imagines three kinds of people: naives, radicals, and moderates. At the start of a cycle, most people are naive, with a few radicals. Radicals gradually spread radicalism, either by converting their friends or provoking their enemies (eg a terrorist attack by one side convinces previously disengaged people to join the other side). This spreads like any other epidemic. But as violence gets worse, some people convert to “moderates”, here meaning not “wishy-washy people who don’t care” but something more like “people disenchanted with the cycle of violence, determined to get peace at any price”. Moderates suppress radicals, but as they die off most people are naive and the cycle begins again. Using various parameters for his model Turchin claims this predicts the forty-to-sixty year cycle of violence observed in the data.

So this is the basic thesis of Secular Cycles. Pre-industrial history operates on two cycles: first, a three-hundred year cycle of the rise-and-fall of civilizations. And second, a 40-60 year cycle of violent disorder that only becomes relevant during the lowest parts of the first cycle.

II.

This is all in the first chapter of the book! The next eight chapters are case studies of eight different historical periods and how they followed the secular cycle model.

For example, Chapter 7 is on the Roman Empire. It starts with Augustus in 27 BC. The Roman Republic has just undergone a hundred years of civil war, from the Gracchi to Marius to Sulla to Pompey to Caesar to Antony. All of this decreased its population by 30% from its second-century peak. That means things are set to get a lot better very quickly.

The expansion phase of the Empire lasted from Augustus (27 BC) to Nerva (96 AD), followed by a stagflation phase from Nerva to Antonius Pius (165 AD). Throughout both phases, the population grew – from about 40 million in Augustus’ day to 65 million in Antonius’. Wheat prices stayed stable until Nerva, then doubled from the beginning of the second century to its end. Legionary pay followed the inverse pattern, staying stable until Nerva and then decreasing by a third before 200. The finances of the state were the same – pretty good until the late second century (despite occasional crazy people becoming Emperor and spending the entire treasury building statues of themselves), but cratering during the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus (who debased the denarius down to only 2 g silver).

Throughout expansion and stagflation, the Empire was relatively peaceful (the “Pax Romana”). Sure, occasionally a crazy person would become Emperor and they would have to kill him. There was even one small civil war which lasted all of a year (69 AD). But in general, these were isolated incidents.

Throughout the expansion phase, upward mobility was high and income inequality relatively low. T&N measure this as how many consuls (the highest position in the Roman governmental hierarchy) had fathers who were also consuls. This decreased throughout the first century – from 46% to 18% – then started creeping back up during the stagflation phase to reach 32% at the end of the second century.

The crisis phase began in 165 AD at the peak of Rome’s population and wealth. The Antonine Plague ravaged the Empire, killing 30% of the population. Fifteen years later, the century-long dominance of the Good Emperors ended, and Commodus took the throne. Then he was murdered and Pertinax took the throne. Then he was murdered and Didius Julianus took the throne. Then he was murdered and Septimius Severus took the throne.

Now we are well into the disintegrative trend, and the shorter 40-60 year cycle comes into play. Septimius Severus founds a dynasty that lasts 41 years, until Septimius Alexander (the grandson of Septimius Severus’ sister-in-law; it’s complicated) was assassinated by his own soldiers in Germany. This begins the Crisis Of The Third Century, a time of constant civil war, mass depopulation, and economic collapse. The Five Good Emperors of the second century ruled 84 years between them (average of 17 years per emperor). The fifty year Crisis included 27 emperors, for an average of less than 2 years per emperor.

Finally, in 284, Emperor Diocletian ended the civil wars, re-established centralized authority, and essentially refounded the Roman Empire – a nice round 310 years after Augustus did the same. T&N mark this as the end of a secular cycle and the beginning of a new integrative trend.

T&N are able to tell this story. But they don’t just tell the story. They are able to cite various statistics to back themselves up. The Roman population statistics. The price of wheat and other foodstuffs. The average wages for laborers. They especially like coin hoards – the amount of buried treasure from a given period discovered by treasure-hunters – because they argue you only bury your money during times of instability, so this forms a semi-objective way of measuring how unstable things are.

They are at their best when presenting very broad summary statistics. For example, Roman industry produced vast amounts of lead, which entered the atmosphere and settled into the Greenland ice sheet. Here is Roman lead output per year as measured in ice cores:

This shows four peaks for the four cycles T&N identify in Rome: the Kingdom, the Republic, the Early Empire of Augustus (Principate, the one described above), and the Late Empire of Diocletian (Dominate). It even shows a sawtooth-y pattern corresponding to the shorter bigenerational cycles.

Or here is building activity in Rome, measured by how many buildings archaeologists have found from a given time:

This is a little less perfect (why is there a big gap in the middle of the Principate? I guess Augustus is a hard act to follow, building-wise) but it still looks good for the cycle theory.

And here is an Index Of Political Instability, which “combines measures of duration, intensity, and scale of political instability events, coded by a team of professional historians”:

Rome is the one on top. Instability clearly peaks during the crisis-depression phases between T&N’s secular cycles – again with a sawtooth pattern representing the bigenerational cycles.

III.

Seeing patterns in random noise is one of the basic human failure modes. Secular Cycles is so prima facie crackpottish that it should require mountains of data before we even start wondering if it might be true. I want to make it clear that the book – plus Turchin individually in some of his other books and papers – provides these mountains. I can’t show every single case study, graph, and table in this book review. But the chapter above on the Roman Principate included 25 named figures and graphs, plus countless more informal presentations of data series, from “real wages of agricultural laborers in Roman Egypt during the second century” to “mean annual real land rents for wheat fields in artabas per aroura, 27 BC to 268 CE” to “imperial handouts per reign-year” to “importation of African red slip ware into the Albegna Valley of Etruria, 100 – 600”. And this is just one chapter, randomly chosen. There are seven others just like this. This book understands the burden of proof it is under, and does everything it can to meet it.

Still, we should be skeptical. How many degrees of freedom do T&N have, and is it enough to undermine their case?

First, they get some freedom in the civilizations they use as case studies. They could have searched through every region and period and cherry-picked eight civilizations that rose and fell over a periods of three hundred years. Did they? I don’t think so. The case studies are England, France, Rome, and Russia. These are some of the civilizations of greatest interest to the English-speaking world (except Russia, which makes sense in context because the authors are both Russian). They’re also some of the civilizations best-studied by Anglophone historians and with the most data available (the authors’ methodology requires having good time-series of populations, budgets, food production, etc).

Also, it’s not too hard to look at the civilizations they didn’t study and fill in the gaps. The book barely mentions China, but it seems to fit the model pretty well (“the empire united longs to divide; divided longs to unite”). In fact, taking the quotation completely seriously – the empire was first united during the Qin Dynasty starting in 221 BC, which lasted only 20 years before seguing into the Han Dynasty in 202 BC. The Han expanded and prospered for about a century, had another century of complicated intrigue and frequently revolt, and then ended in disaster in the first part of the first century, with a set of failed reforms, civil war, the sack of the capital, some more civil war, peasant revolt, and even more civil war. The separate period of the Eastern Han Dynasty began in 25 AD, about 240 years after the beginning of the Qin-Han cycle. The Eastern Han also grew and prospered for about a hundred years, then had another fifty years of simmering discontent, then fell apart in about 184 AD, with another series of civil wars, peasant rebellions, etc. This was the Three Kingdoms Period during which “the empire united longs to divide, divided longs to unite” was written to describe. It lasted another eighty years until 266 AD, after which the Jin Dynasty began. The Jin Dynasty was kind of crap, but it lasted another 180 years until 420, followed by 160 years of division, followed by the Sui and Tang dynasties, which were not crap. So I don’t think it takes too much pattern-matching to identify a Western-Han-to-Eastern-Han Cycle of 240 years, followed by an Eastern-Han-to-Jin Cycle of 241 years, followed by a Jin-to-Sui/Tang-Cycle of 324 years.

One could make a more hostile analysis. Is it really fair to lump the Western Jin and Eastern Jin conveniently together, but separate the Western Han and Eastern Han conveniently apart? Is it really fair to call the crappy and revolt-prone Jin Dynasty an “integrative trend” rather than a disintegrative trend that lasted much longer than the theory should predict? Is it really fair to round off cycles of 240 and 320 years to “basically 300 years”?

I think the answer to all of these is “T&N aren’t making predictions about the length of Chinese dynasties, they’re making predictions about the nature of secular cycles, which are correlated with dynasties but not identical to them”. If I had the equivalent to lead core readings for China, or an “instability index”, or time series data for wages or health or pottery importation or so on, maybe it would be perfectly obvious that the Eastern and Western Han defined two different periods, but the Eastern and Western Jin were part of the same period – the same way one look at the lead core data for Rome shows that the Julio-Claudian dynasty vs. the Flavian Dynasty is not an interesting transition.

A secondary answer might be that T&N admit all sorts of things can alter the length of secular cycles. They tragically devote only a few pages to “Ibn Khaldun cycles”, the theory of 14th century Arabic historian Ibn Khaldun that civilizations in the Maghreb rise and fall on a one hundred year period. But they discuss it just enough to say their data confirm Ibn Khaldun’s observations. The accelerated timescale (100 vs. 300 years) is because the Maghreb is massively polygynous, with successful leaders having harems of hundreds of concubines. This speeds up the elite overproduction process and makes everything happen in fast-forward. T&N also admit that their theory only describes civilizations insofar as they are self-contained. This approximately holds for hegemons like Rome at its height, but fails for eg Poland, whose history is going to be much more influenced by when Russia or Germany decides to invade than by the internal mechanisms of Polish society. Insofar as external shocks – whether climatic, foreign military, or whatever else – affect a civilization, secular cycles will be stretched out, compressed, or just totally absent.

This sort of thing must obviously be true, and it’s good T&N say it, but it’s also a free pass to add as many epicycles as you need to explain failure to match data. All I can say looking at China is that, if you give it some wiggle room, it seems to fit T&N’s theories okay. The same is true of a bunch of other civilizations I plugged in to see if they would work.

Second, T&N get some degrees of freedom based on what statistics they use. In every case, they present statistics that support the presence of secular cycles, but they’re not the same statistics in every case. On the one hand, this is unavoidable; we may not have good wage data for every civilization, and levels of pottery importation might be more relevant to ancient Rome than to 19th-century Russia. On the other hand, I’m not sure what prevents them from just never mentioning the Instability Index if the Instability Index doesn’t show what they want it to show.

Here are some random Rome-related indicators I found online:

None of them show the same four-peaked Kingdom-Republic-Principate-Dominate pattern as the ones Secular Cycles cites, or the ones Turchin has online.

Third, a lot of the statistics themselves have some degrees of freedom. A lot of them are things like “Instability Index” or “Index of Social Well-Being” or “General Badness Index”. These seem like the kind of scores you can fiddle with to get the results you want. Turchin claims he hasn’t fiddled with them – his instability index is taken from a 1937 paper I haven’t been able to find. But how many papers like that are there? Am I getting too conspiratorial now?

Likewise, we don’t have direct access to the budget of the Roman Empire (or Plantagenet England, or…). Historians have tried to reconstruct it based on archaeology and the few records that have survived. T&N cite these people, and the people they cite are at the top of their fields and say what T&N say they say. But how much flexibility did they have in deciding which estimate of the Roman budget to cite? Is there enough disagreement that they could cite the high estimate for one period and the low estimate for another, then prove it had gone down? I don’t know (though a few hours’ work ought to be enough to establish this).

I wish I could find commentary by other academics and historians on Secular Cycles, or on Turchin’s work more generally. I feel like somebody should either be angrily debunking this, or else throwing the authors a ticker-tape parade for having solved history. Neither is happening. The few comments I can find are mostly limited to navel gazing about whether history should be quantitative or qualitative. The few exceptions find are blog posts by people I already know and respect urging me to read Turchin five years ago, advice I am sorry for not taking. If you know of any good criticism, please tell me where to find it.

Until then, my very quick double-checking suggests T&N are pretty much on the level. But there could still be subtler forms of overfitting going on that I don’t know enough about history to detect.

IV.

If this is true, does it have any implications for people today?

First, a very weak implication: it makes history easier to learn. I was shocked how much more I remembered about the Plantagenets, Tudors, Capetians, etc after reading this book, compared to reading any normal history book about them. I think the secret ingredient is structure. If history is just “one damn thing after another”, there’s no framework for figuring out what matters, what’s worth learning, what follows what else. The secular cycle idea creates a structure that everything fits into neatly. I know that the Plantagenet Dynasty lasted from 1154 – 1485, because it had to, because that’s a 331 year secular cycle. I know that the important events to remember include the Anarchy of 1135 – 1153 and the War of the Roses from 1455 – 1487, because those are the two crisis-depression periods that frame the cycle. I know that after 1485 Henry Tudor took the throne and began a new age of English history, because that’s the beginning of the integrative phase of the next cycle. All of this is a lot easier than trying to remember these names and dates absent any context. I would recommend this book for that reason alone.

Second, I think this might give new context to Piketty on inequality. T&N describe inequality as starting out very low during the growth phase of a secular cycle, rising to a peak during the stagflation phase, then dropping precipitously during the crisis. Piketty describes the same: inequality rising through the peaceful period of 1800 to 1900, dropping precipitously during the two World Wars, then gradually rising again since then. This doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, since I’m not sure you can fit the post industrial world into secular cycles. But I notice Piketty seems to think of this as a once-off event – inequality has been rising forever, broken only by the freak crisis of the two World Wars – and it’s interesting to read T&N talk about the exact same process recurring again and again throughout history.

Finally, and most important: is there any sense in which this is still going on?

The easiest answer would be no, there isn’t. The secular cycles are based around Malthusian population growth, but we are now in a post-Malthusian regime where land is no longer the limiting resource. And the cycles seem to assume huge crises killing off 30% to 50% of the population, but those don’t happen anymore in First World countries; the Civil War was the bloodiest period of US history, and even it only killed 2% of Americans. Even Germany only lost about 15% of its population in World Wars I + II.

But Turchin has another book, Ages Of Discord, arguing that they do. I have bought it and started it and will report back when I’m done.

Even without a framework, this is just interesting to think about. In popular understanding of American history, you can trace out optimistic and pessimistic periods. The national narrative seems to include a story of the 1950s as a golden age of optimism. Then everyone got angry and violent in the early 1970s (the Status 451 review of Days Of Rage is pretty great here, and reminds us that “people have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States”). Then everything suddenly got better once Reagan declared “morning in America” in the 1980s, with an era of optimism and good feelings lasting through the Clinton administration. Then things starting to turn bad sometime around Bush II. And now everybody hates each other, and fascists and antifa are fighting in the streets, and people are talking about how “civility” and “bipartisanship” are evil tools of oppression, and PredictIt says an avowed socialist has a 10% chance of becoming president of the US. To what extent is this narrative true? I don’t know, but it’s definitely the narrative.

One thing that strikes me about T&N’s cycles is the ideological component. They describe how, during a growth phase, everyone is optimistic and patriotic, secure in the knowledge that there is enough for everybody. During the stagflation phase, inequality increases, but concern about inequality increases even more, zero-sum thinking predominates, and social trust craters (both because people are actually defecting, and because it’s in lots of people’s interest to play up the degree to which people are defecting). By the crisis phase, partisanship is much stronger than patriotism and radicals are talking openly about how violence is ethically obligatory.

And then, eventually, things get better. There is a new Augustan Age of virtue and the reestablishment of all good things. This is a really interesting claim. Western philosophy tends to think in terms of trends, not cycles. We see everything going on around us, and we think this is some endless trend towards more partisanship, more inequality, more hatred, and more state dysfunction. But Secular Cycles offers a narrative where endless trends can end, and things can get better after all.

Of course, it also offers a narrative where sometimes this process involves the death of 30% – 50% of the population. Maybe I should read Turchin’s other books before speculating any further.

OT134: Open Zed

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. 26 teams have signed up for the adversarial collaboration contest so far! But don’t feel overwhelmed; if people flake out at the same rate as last year, there will still only be 10 or so final entries. I’m curious why the second post was so much more successful at encouraging signups than the first. Was it the rule that only people with A-M names could propose? The rule that nobody could post non-proposal comments in the comments section? Or did people just need more time?

2. I’ve been taking more advantage of a feature where any comment that more than three users report gets removed until I can check it over for appropriateness. Most of these comments are inappropriate but not worth banning people for, so I usually just keep them removed and take no further action. I know people don’t like moderator actions without transparency, but I don’t have enough time/energy to moderate in a transparent way and so you are stuck with this for now. Sorry.

3. Related – I want to remind people that it’s almost never a good choice to go too general. If a post like Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy is getting too many comments like “This proves that government is bad at everything” or “You are a free market ideologue too blinded to see that the free market has killed millions of people”, something has gone wrong, and it’s probably me not banning enough people. Feel free to report posts like this, though I may not ban all of them. I might crack down harder on this in the future; for now, re-read Arguments From My Opponent Believes Something.

4. Two new sidebar ads this month. 21st Night is a study program that combines spaced repetition with error logging. Sparrow is a charity app that links automatic donations to events in your life – for example, you can set it to donate 10% of your restaurant bills to ending world hunger.

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Highlights From The Comments On Billionaire Philanthropy

Thanks to everyone who commented on Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy. For whatever reason, the comments there were exceptionally good. In particular, I’m happy that our usually-quiet leftists finally showed up with some strong (and interesting) pushback.

I usually highlight good comments with short responses, but it was hard for me to avoid debating some of these. I realize that’s complicated, because I can’t quote most long comments in their entirety, and I realize I have more of a platform than other commenters who may feel I misrepresented them or who just want to reply to me. I don’t have a great solution to this, but if you’re annoyed at how I featured/responded to your comment, please tell me, so I can calibrate how serious a problem this is for next time.


Matt Yglesias writes on Twitter:

I think this whole post from @slatestarcodex and, indeed, most of the dialogue on the subject of “billionaire philanthropy” actually misses the bulk of what it is billionaires do with their philanthropy.

In their great book “Billionaires and Stealth Politics” what Page, Seawright, and Lacomb find is that most billionaires don’t seek publicity for their activities & mostly donate to right-wing causes like regressive tax cuts & lower government spending.

Which is to say both sides of this debate are making clever arguments but mostly missing the big picture as to what billionaire philanthropy actually is — not complicated reputation laundering that helps people, but quiet lobbying for libertarian economics.

If we want to debate whether Bill Gates, personally, is Good or Bad it would probably be better to do it on those terms (he seems pretty good to me) rather than talk broadly about billionaires — he is very unusual.

I think Matt is misunderstanding the thesis of Billionaires And Stealth Politics.

(I haven’t read the book. But I’ve read the the original paper it was based on, plus some book reviews that confirm the book is saying the same thing as the paper)

Stealth Politics doesn’t argue that billionaires spend more on right-wing causes than on altruistic ones. It argues that on certain issues relating to wealth and inequality, billionaires spend more on right-wing causes than on left-wing ones. Its methodology is terrible in a bunch of ways, but I assume something like that is probably true, so whatever.

The key finding in the paper (also cited in reviews of the book) is that:

[From 2011 – 2012] most billionaires (65% of those who made partisan contributions) contributed primarily or exclusively to Republicans, and the bulk of their money (averaging $53,227) went to Republican rather than Democratic ($21,411) parties or candidates.

Okay. Over the same period (2011-2012), Bill Gates donated $6,070,000,000 to global health. That is 100,000 times as much as $53,227. Please don’t cite this book to show that “the big picture” is right-wing spending, and that altruistic spending is irrelevant by comparison.

But this is a cheap shot, and the book isn’t designed for these kinds of comparisons, so I want to try my own analysis to see how much billionaires spend on right-wing vs. altruistic causes.

I started with OpenSecrets.org’s list of the 100 top contributors to “federal candidates, parties, political action committees, 527 organizations, and Carey committees”. In order to make the list, you had to donate at least $1.7 million. Of the 100 people who donated at this level, 55 were Democrats and 45 Republicans. The Republican contributions totalled $346 million.

This doesn’t count various sneakier ways of influencing the political climate – for example, the Koch brothers didn’t even make the list! Koch-affiliated groups probably spent $400 million on the 2018 election (some sources say they “planned to” spend $900 million on the 2016 election, but I think they held back because they didn’t like Trump). “Koch-affiliated groups” are complicated, and although they’re not 100% funded by the Koch brothers – one of their groups boasts 90,000 donors! – we can probably round up here. This doesn’t mesh well with claims that the Koch foundation donated $196 million over ten years, but my guess is the lower claim is just what they did openly, so let’s stick with the higher one. I am nervous about how many Koch-like things there are that we don’t know about, and this is a possible source of error in this estimate, but the Kochs are clearly the biggest.

What about non-election-related spending, like think tanks and college professorships? I looked at this list of the top 50 think tanks and added up their budgets. Total budget for all conservative/libertarian think tanks is about $350 million per year. I don’t know how much of this is funded by billionaires, but let’s say all of it.

Add all these numbers up, and divide the election-related ones by two since there’s only an election every two years, and order of magnitude it looks like maybe the budget for conservative politics is around $1 billion per year.

Some basic sanity checks – this site says the 2018 election involved $5 billion of donations, of which $2.5 billion went to the Democrats, $2.0 billion to the Republicans, and $0.5 billion to third parties. If billionaires fund about 30% of the Republican war chest, that would match my estimates above. There’s also this Forbes article, whose author estimates “that if we combine the budgets of these and other conservative free-market think tanks…the entire U.S., Canadian and U.K. market of pro-free society [ie conservative/libertarian] groups is approximately $500 million”. That meshes well with my estimate of $350 million for the US alone.

I can’t emphasize enough that I’m just eyeballing these figures and I can’t find anyone who has done really good work on this question – but I think I have the order of magnitude right. So how does $1 billion for right-wing causes compare to the overall billionaire philanthropy budget?

I’m leaning pretty heavily on this Vox article, but it says that the top 50 billionaires gave $15 billion to charity in 2017 and $8 billion in 2018. If we average this out to about $11 billion/year, only 9% of billionaire philanthropy goes to right-wing causes.

This is actually way too generous to Yglesias, because the Vox article admits it’s only talking about the top 50 US billionaires (out of 500 or so), but I’m comparing it to everyone (billionaire or not) who donated to a think tank or gave $1.7 million+ to campaigns. Probably the real number is much lower.

And we don’t even need to bring in all of the top 50 billionaires! Bill Gates alone averaged $2.5 billion in donations during those two years. One person gave more to global health than every billionaire combined gave to right-wing causes.

So I think Matt is wrong when he says that right-wing causes are where the real money is, and genuinely good philanthropy is just a distraction. The truth is the opposite.


Some commenters agreed that I had demonstrated to their satisfaction that the Gates Foundations was really great, but were concerned I was overusing it as an example. m50d wants us to picture a very different kind of spending when we think of donations:

Imagine a community with a handful of rich people. Winston buys nice suits and fancy dinners, spreads his extra money around the town’s shops and businesses. Geoffrey puts all of his extra into an opera house (or a polo club, or a church he likes, or…). To my mind it’s absurd to say that Winston owes a larger (tax) contribution to the town’s community expenses than Geoffrey does – Winston’s spending already supports the rest of the town, whereas Geoffrey has directed his funds towards his own specific interests. (Which is fine and dandy with your own private money – but only once you’ve paid your share of taxes like everyone else).

Ultraximus agrees:

You could end up in a situation where more and more decide to donate their income towards their favored (but very specific) cause / charity, which in turn decreases tax revenues at a governmental level, which reduces the level of public goods, which in turn leads to lower morale among citizens, which in turns leads to higher amount of people taking advantage of donation deductions, which in turn… soon you end up in a situation where rich donors give large donations to their favored schools and universities to get an entrance for their children. And get a tax deduction for it! From Nordic POV, this kind of situation is simply unfathomable.

Is it unfair of me to keep saying Gates Gates Gates Gates Gates and not talk about the polo clubs, churches, and underhanded trades with colleges?

I think the most important defense is: this isn’t being graded on a curve. If one person saves ten million lives, and everyone else fritters away their money on stupid stuff, the end result is you’ve saved ten million lives.

This is the principle behind “hits-based investing”. Suppose I invest $100 in the Safe Fund, which buys shares in 100 companies guaranteed to go up at market rate. You invest $100 in the Crazy Fund, which invests in 100 crazy startups; 99 will crash and burn, and one will be the next Facebook. Using real-life returns from Facebook vs. the Dow Jones over the same period, the Safe Fund would net me $270, and the Crazy Fund would net you $40,000. If you argued “Yeah, but that one startup that did really well was an exception, the Crazy Fund still mostly failed”, you are missing the point of hits-based investing.

Likewise, if you argue “that one charitable foundation that did really well was an exception, billionaire foundations still mostly fail”, you are missing the point of hits-based giving. And if you use this as an excuse to weaken billionaire foundations in general, you will weaken the exceptional hits along with the many misses. If you decrease the amount of money available to billionaire charities by 37% (the natural consequence of removing tax-deductible status, assuming billionaires neither donate more to compensate, nor manage to evade your taxes), then a charity that saves 10 million lives will only be able to save 6.3 million lives, meaning your policy has killed 3.7 million people. The fact that you also sabotaged a bunch of idiots’ plans to spend money on their polo clubs seems kind of irrelevant.

I think that’s the most important defense. But a secondary defense, and one that I’m less confident in, is that actually a lot of billionaire charity spending is like the Gates Foundation.

One reason a lot of billionaire charity spending is like the Gates Foundation is because a lot of billionaire charity spending is the Gates Foundation. From eyeballing these two pages, the Gates Foundation looks like about 15% of US billionaire charitable spending. This is partly because Bill Gates is really rich, and partly because other billionaires like Warren Buffett donate to the Gates Foundation instead of setting up their own charities. I’m not just using the Gates Foundation as an example, I’m saying it’s a big chunk of what we’re talking about.

But even non-Gates billionaire charity seems pretty good. Moving down the list of largest charitable foundations, the second biggest in the US after Gates is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, funded by the fortune of aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, which invests $825 million per year in medical research. Its homepage says that “as one measure of success, to date, 28 current or former HHMI scientists have been awarded a Nobel Prize”. That seems absurd to me – surely they must be cheating by giving $1 to every scientist in the world, or something like that? But if we’re going to critique billionaire philanthropy as useless, we should probably skip the people with 28 Nobel Prizes.

The third-largest billionaire foundation on the list is George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. They get a lot of flak for their US political activities, but according to their website, they also fight HIV and tuberculosis in Central Asia, provide prenatal vitamins to Roma in Hungary, help refugees in Jordan run small businesses, promote good nutrition in Liberia, help prosecute war crimes in the Congo, and build libraries in Haiti. Also, it did some amazing work propping up the social system in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, including giving $100 million to impoverished Russian scientists to keep doing science instead of going off and selling their nuclear secrets to rogue states. I am honestly pretty okay with this one too.

The next five foundations on the list are more questionable. Eli Lilly’s foundation mostly funds seminaries. The Ford Foundation used to do some amazing stuff, but is a recent victim of wokeness; the most heavily-advertised project on their site is about funding “social justice storytelling and the 21st-century arts infrastructure that supports it”. The Silicon Valley Community Foundations supposedly supports Silicon Valley communities, though for an organization that spends $1.3 billion per year, it’s surprisingly hard to find a single specific thing they’ve done. The Getty Foundation does art. The Robert Wood Johnson foundation does US health care, and it seems pretty good at it; I provisionally pronounce them okay.

Number 9 is the Hewlett Foundation, previously cited as briefly outspending the US government on climate change; it also helped make Creative Commons, secure nuclear weapons, save the rainforest, and spends about $100 million/year on global health.

Number 10 is the Kellogg Foundation, which mostly works on children’s health in the US (especially dental care for low-income individuals), but has also worked to fluoridate water in Latin America. I was kind of unimpressed by their Wikipedia page, but:

I retract my objection.

These seem like an even mix between really impressive Gates-like work, and things that are a little less important but still not absolutely useless. The next few dozen on the list look similar, with some highlights (the Moore Foundation helps fund PLOS, Jupyter, Julia, and R) and some lowlights (the George Kaiser Family Foundation has decided the best use of its $4.4 billion is to pay techies $10,000 each to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma). But overall a lot of this seems really good.


subb4k writes:

The Koch brothers are not quite on Hitler’s level, but they are definitely funding policies designed to hurt members of the outgroup which includes most of humanity. They’ll fund things that are likely to cause people to be hurt (from pollution, for example), rather than things actually likely to save people. I am ready to believe some of their donations fall under the traditional definition of charity/philanthropy, but those probably aren’t the ones people are mad about.

The hits-based giving model cuts both ways. If a small amount of spending goes to very good causes, it doesn’t matter how much poorly-targeted spending there is. But if a small amount of spending goes to very bad causes, it matters a lot, even if it’s only a tiny fraction of the whole. So is it possible that, even though right-wing spending is low in absolute number of dollars, it’s still very bad?

Although it would be hard for this to be more harmful than Gates’ ten million lives are helpful, it wouldn’t be impossible. If the Koch brothers’ spending on climate change denial makes the world significantly worse at fighting climate change, that could potentially cost ten million lives or more. One can (with a little more of a stretch) come up with ways other misguided political causes could do this.

I think in this case this worry probably doesn’t apply. It looks like the Kochs spend about $10 million per year on climate-denial related causes (remember, this is like 1% of what Gates spends on health). This is trivial in comparison to the amount of climate denial spending by corporations (even though corporate spending and billionaire spending may seem morally similar, they occupy different places in the tax code, which is what’s relevant for my argument). It’s also trivial in comparison to how much some billionaires spend supporting the fight against climate change, eg the Hewlett Foundation’s $600 million – although this is a dangerous argument, since the marginal dollar spent on climate denial might have more of an effect.

So this specific area is probably not so big a deal. But maybe the general concern is still valid. I personally doubt it’s true, but I can’t rule it out.

I think my answer is that, when I said the Gates Foundation etc saving ten million lives shouldn’t be collateral damage, I seriously meant it shouldn’t be collateral damage. If it’s important to stop the Koch brothers from lobbying against climate change, it’s worth a few extra moments’ thought to figure out some way to do this that doesn’t also prevent Bill Gates from fighting malaria. For example, have stricter rules saying political spending isn’t tax-deductible, but global health spending is. I realize it will be hard to figure out how to do this exactly right. But for ten million lives, please just do the hard thing.

This objection actually applies to a lot of the “this kind of billionaire philanthropy might be wasteful” or “this kind of billionaire philanthropy might be harmful” arguments. Even if you are right, I think it’s worth finding a way to separate the good from the bad, even if it’s hard, rather than throwing out baby and bathwater alike.


An Fírinne writes:

The thing about billionaire philanthropy is that people like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates don’t care about people. Billionaire philanthropy is nothing but a PR stunt in order to get the public off their backs about wealth redistribution and to distract from how dreadfully they threat their employees.

Gates (along with 203 other billionaires) has signed a pledge promising to donate half his wealth. Isn’t donating half your wealth kind of a weird step in a plot to keep all of your wealth? Hedge fund billionaire Jeremy Grantham has pledged to donate 98% of his wealth to fight climate change. Isn’t that a pretty dramatic way to prevent your taxes from going up 10% or something?

More fundamentally, even if donating money to ward off redistribution would be a good move for billionaires as a class, you would have to solve a really hard coordination problem to make any individual billionaire do it. If you have $10 billion, and your motivations are entirely self-interested, you shouldn’t donate $1 billion unless that single donation makes the government 10% less likely to appropriate billionaires’ wealth. No single donation will make that much difference, so self-interested billionaires shouldn’t act this way.


fluorocarbon writes:

I don’t think this has to do with how they earn their money, but how they spend their money. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t just give $100 million to Newark schools, he gave the money on condition that the school district “welcome more independently run charter schools [and] close low-performing schools.”

A lot of people disagree about the best way to run public schools. In a democracy, these kinds of conflicts over public institutions should be resolved through voting—every citizen should have the same say. The argument against Zuckerberg is that he’s subverting this process. Because he has more money, he can tell the school district how it should be run.

Bill Gates, on the other hand, is spending money fighting malaria through the Gates Foundation. He’s not offering money to the CDC on condition that they have to run it the way Bill Gates wants.

There will always be some people who are negative about everything, loud on Twitter, and who hate billionaires. But the reason Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are getting so much pushback for their giving but Bill Gates is not is because Zuckerberg and Bezos are (or at least seem to be) using their money to commandeer public democratic institutions. Even if good comes out of it on the whole in a utilitarian sense, there’s something a lot of people find unsettling and un-American about using money in this way.

And from Freddie deBoer:

I was utterly flabbergasted when you approvingly cited the Newark disaster. “How could he possibly think this helps his cause?” I wondered. Control of Newark’s school system naturally and by right belongs to the people of Newark. That’s what democracy requires. Zuckerberg’s explicit intent was to helicopter in and use his sacks of money to violate that sacred principle of local control. And it failed. It failed catastrophically. Because the people have the right to control their own local institutions.

I don’t really care about Mark Zuckerberg or donations like his – I would be happy to throw them under the bus if doing so would help expand my coalition against sabotaging Gates and Moskovitz and Tuna. I would happily support some clarification of tax laws saying donations like Zuckerberg’s aren’t okay, or aren’t tax-deductible. As long as it doesn’t do collateral damage to the important stuff, whatever.

But I’m still confused by this perspective. My understanding (backed by sources like this), is that Zuckerberg didn’t impose conditions for his donation. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, wanted to reform Newark schools. Someone connected him to Mark Zuckerberg, who thought Booker’s ideas were great. So Zuckerberg donated the money to Booker, an elected mayor democratically vested with the legitimate authority to reform schools the way he wanted, and Booker enacted the reforms he wanted to enact anyway.

It’s hard for me to see Zuckerberg as commandeering anything here. It’s true that if he hadn’t come around, Booker might have been forced to gnash his teeth and not do anything. And it’s true that Zuckerberg made the decision to donate to Newark instead of some other city whose mayor wanted some other plan. But giving a city slightly more ability to do the plan it had decided on (I say “slightly” more because this source says Zuckerberg’s gift was only 4% of the school system’s budget) seems really different from “commandeering it” or “sabotaging democracy” or anything like that.

Even if Zuckerberg had absolutely told Cory Booker to change all of his plans to Zuckerberg-approved ones or else he wasn’t going to donate, it still seems to me like the democratically elected mayor of a city has the right to decide that it is vs. isn’t worth it. I mean, what would be a better alternative? That every billionaire donation (and only billionaire donations, and no other policy) has to be approved by a popular referendum before it’s accepted? Or that you, a person who doesn’t live in Newark, gets to dictate that the city of Newark can never accept billionaire donations, even if everyone in it wants to, while using Orwellian language about how this is to “respect the will of the people of Newark”?

Weirdly, I can’t find any polls or even guesses about how much support Zuckerberg had among Newarkers, or how popular the school reforms were. Conventional wisdom is they were really unpopular. But conventional wisdom also says they failed, and the most recent studies really challenge that perspective, so I don’t know.

It’s hard for me to see this as a giant problem, but if it is, I think my preferred solution is that if governments don’t want billionaires’ help, they shouldn’t ask for it or accept it. Destroying the power of billionaires to offer help to anyone seems like overkill.


Hackworth writes:

On your point 4, you don’t really refute the argument. You’re just saying why it’s ok for large-scale philanthropy to be anti-democratic because you can point to what you perceive to be success stories of billionaire charity. You’re essentially saying that the end justifies the means or, less charming, might makes right. That doesn’t sit right with me, because it can easily be turned around on your position. So, street violence against peaceful protesters, or gerrymandering, or voter suppression is anti-democratic? Tough luck, we still do it because we can.

I probably did err in how I described this.

I think it’s good (as argued in the section being referred to) for some spending to remain outside the power of the government. I think “anti-democratic” means something more sinister than just “outside the power of the government”, and I don’t think billionaire spending qualifies.

That is: is me spending $2 on a slice of pizza anti-democratic? Is it just me saying “might makes right, I can do whatever I want with my own money, you can’t stop me” without even asking the government whether my pizza-buying is the will of the people? Am I committing a crime against the public?

If not, what is the difference between me spending $2 on a pizza, me giving $2 to a beggar, and a billionaire giving $2 million to the Save The Beggars Foundation, as far as democracy goes? None of them represent a significant amount of money compared to the government. None of them represent an authoritarian-level concentration of power – there are 500 billionaires, supporting a wide variety of causes. They’re all just people spending small (compared to government budgets) change on stuff they want, which is a known Okay Thing You Can Do In A Democracy.

Maybe Hackworth is referring only to the small percent of billionaire spending which is an attempt to influence the democratic process, like election donations or something? If so, I think it’s important to say that explicitly, since I don’t care about that kind of billionaire spending and am not really focusing on it. Also, because that mostly isn’t tax-deductible and so Reich’s argument doesn’t apply to it.

Or maybe he’s referring to the small percent of billionaire spending which eventually influences elections despite being tax-deductible, like donations to partisan think tanks? Again, don’t care much about this, and agree it’s less good than real charity and that we should try to discourage it. But I still don’t think it’s equivalent to voter suppression or whatever.

Like, what does it mean for something to be “anti-democratic”? Is founding a newspaper anti-democratic? Is it just “I’m the guy with the printing press, so my opinion matters more than yours, might makes right”? Is peaceful protest itself antidemocratic? “I have some free time and am good at organizing people, therefore I’m going to try to use shame and harassment to override the will of electorate who voted in the government I’m protesting”? Is all of this basically equivalent to beating people up in the streets?

I would counter that fighting for what you believe in isn’t anti-democratic, it’s the essence of democracy. Telling the government “Fuck you, you are wrong and bad and we’ll see which of the two of us is still standing at the end of this” is continuing the legacy of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and other people who are considered paragons of democratic society. The whole point of democracy is that individuals are supposed to try to change government policy! The examples given above – voter suppression, gerrymandering, street violence – are bad not because they’re attempts by individuals to change government policy, but because they’re attempts to prevent individuals from changing government policy.

And I don’t think we can limit “trying to change government policy” to voting only. Putin’s Russia has elections. As far as I know they are “fair” in the sense of not lying about the vote count [EDIT: Apparently sometimes they do]. The [EDIT: other] difference between them and a true liberal democracy is that the democracy is more permissive of attempts to change the government outside of a once-per-several-years election. I think these other attempts are basically about coordination. You can oppose Putin in your heart, you just can’t coordinate large-scale effective opposition to Putin. Newspapers and protests help coordinate a bunch of powerless atomic individuals into a useful counterweight to government power.

One could defend billionaire foundations on the grounds that they do the same. For example, George Soros famously helped kickstart the Black Lives Matter matter movement. He did not create it out of thin air, and he is not a puppetmaster for it – it is composed of real and genuinely committed black people. But there’s a difference between those black people sitting around feeling committed at home vs. going out and effecting change, and Soros helped make that happen. Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna’s animal advocacy work has done the same: there are lots of Californians who are against factory farming, but they couldn’t make anything happen until Moskovitz and Tuna solved the logistical work for them of getting a proposition on the ballot.

If billionaire foundations were evenly distributed across the political spectrum, they would have a nondistortionary effect of improving general coordination power and making it more possible to change the system. Since they’re not, they coordinate some parts better than others, which produces a genuine distortion. I agree this is bad. So it matters a lot whether you think a general increase in coordination power is worth the risk that the other side gets more of it than you do.

It sounds like Hackworth thinks the tradeoff is billionaire power vs. people power. I think there’s also state power, special interest power, corporate power, and (especially) Moloch. All of these actors are naturally well-coordinated and ordinary people’s success or failure in fighting them depends a lot on whether they can overcome their coordination handicap. This means I care more about coordination power, and think increasing it is good enough to be worth some distortion in the process. It’s still not as good as people donating to actually effective causes, but could be positive on net.


NocD writes:

It doesn’t address what I’d consider one of the prime arguments against Billionaire Philanthropy which is the tax subsidized nature of it. Charity is tax deductible and those deductions need to be accounted for somewhere. So we really get a system where a select few get to underwrite their personal causes with governmental resources, building up their personal influence and capacity to enact very political choices. Gates’ support of charter schools and Zuckerberg’s own particular thoughts when it comes to education are not neutral endeavors and the profile they get to build being labeled as “Billionaire Philanthropists” lets them launder ideas and spend influence while being indirectly supported by government backing.

First, a terminological quibble: I don’t like summarizing this as “using government resources”. If you claim a child tax credit, are you diverting government resources to raise your child? Sounds pretty corrupt. If I heard that a senator was using government money to raise their child, I’d want them indicted. This seems like a deliberately inflammatory misrepresentation of the real situation, which is that the government has specifically decided not to claim those resources, and given donors its blessing to keep them.

Putting the semantic dispute aside, I interpret the concern as: should charitable donations be tax-deductible or not?

This is a hard question because I don’t have a coherent philosophy of tax deductibility. Lots of things are tax deductible, including mortgage interest on your house, medical costs, home offices, taking business clients out to lunch, gambling losses, retirement savings, and some state and local taxes. Most of these cost the government more money than charitable tax deductions – according to this website, the charitable deduction isn’t even in the top ten.

If I had to weave all these together into a coherent narrative, I would guess that the government usually gives tax deductions when people are doing something sympathetic that results in them not getting to use the money anyway. For example, if you have to spend a lot of your money on catastrophic health problems, there’s a sense in which you never got to “enjoy” the money or spend it on what we usually consider personal consumption. Even if you spend your money on business expenses, that’s different from enjoying it and buying luxury goods with it. Retirement savings don’t get enjoyed immediately, plus we want to encourage people to save for retirement.

Charity donations seem to fit into this model. We want to encourage people to give to charity, plus money you give to charity isn’t being spent on personal enjoyment and consumption.

All of this seems kind of vague to me, but given that there are hundreds of other similar tax deductions, and charity is both an especially prosocial one and an especially cheap one in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure why anybody would consider it their first target for attacking. If you hate the very idea of tax deductions because it’s “stealing from the government”, fine. If you point to the charitable activity tax deduction in particular, while ignoring a bunch of much costlier and less beneficial ones, then I’m confused.


hls2003 writes:

My natural inclination is to think that the people Scott is responding to are so wrong as to be nearly incomprehensible. But I feel like it is a failure of charitable imagination to simply accept the gulf is unbridgeable. So trying to put myself in their shoes, I think that Scott’s rebuttal does not engage with the idea of philanthropy as wartime propaganda.

Take someone like Tokyo Rose or Lord Haw-Haw. If one constructed a careful analysis of what they could be doing with their time – committing atrocities, fighting as a common soldier, or serving a shift in a munitions factory – it is clear that materially speaking, talking on the radio is probably the least physically damaging thing they could be doing against Allied soldiers. But yet they were despised as much or more than anyone in those other jobs, because their role in propagandizing for their evil regimes helped the Axis war effort by boosting Axis morale and damaging Allied morale. They were the pleasant face (or voice) hiding an evil regime. If one starts from the premise that the capitalist system (or whatever systemic bogeyman you blame) is the enemy, then billionaire philanthropists like Gates are capitalism’s Lord Haw-Haw. They hide the true nature of the regime, prolong the war, and sap the will of the people to fight. Or take Potemkin villages, for a non-WWII example. Presumably a Russian peasant was legitimately better off (temporarily) for living in a clean, idyllic Potemkin village than continuing in their base-state filthy squalor. But just analyzing whether a few people were slightly better off clearly misses the main point that the Potemkin villages were hiding the truth and preventing change. Philanthropic billionaires are the Potemkin village, hiding the true impact of the capitalist bogeyman.

While I don’t share the starting opinion of capitalism, it seems like – under this Conflict Theory rubric – Scott’s essay misses the point of the critics. Why get more angry at charity than extravagance? The same reason you hate Lord Haw-Haw more than an ordinary German soldier; the soldier is just doing what you expect, and is mostly neutral to the broader effort of wartime morale, while Lord Haw-Haw is an underhanded traitor eating away at the emotional war effort. And why ignore the good work that charity does? Because the “seen” charity is simply a prop masking and perpetuating the “unseen” squalor of the system. In either case, micro-analyzing on a purely material level (Tokyo Rose versus Tokyo factory worker, who makes more bombs?) doesn’t make sense because it omits the larger effects.

Ironically I think the lesson of “seen” and “unseen,” per Bastiat, is more commonly missed by the revolutionary Utopians. But if one starts with unrealized Utopia as a postulate, then even charity can be propaganda, and propagandists are plausibly reviled.

I find this one of the most sympathetic and comprehensible of the arguments I’ve read so far.


aashiq writes:

Accelerationists might say philanthropy is wrong because it is a bandaid that keeps the existing fundamentally flawed system chugging for longer than it would otherwise. I do not believe this, but I was hoping to see it addressed in this article. These people might argue that we should oppose philanthropy exactly because it makes the world better. By letting conditions naturally get worse as capitalism pursues its own inhuman ends, a necessary revolution becomes more likely. Thus, we should eliminate policies like tax deductability of charitable contributions.

I understand accelerationists want to make the world worse, because that could cause a communist revolution, which would make the world much better. But what if there were something even better than a communist revolution? Then holding a communist revolution might alleviate enough suffering to prevent us from doing that even better thing! I think the only ethical choice is to promote billionaire philanthropy, which will prevent a communist revolution, which will cause the even better thing to happen. I realize this will be controversial, but I think sometimes you have to be willing to do a good thing for the greater bad if that greater bad contributes to an even greater good.


Luispedro writes (based on the estimate that the Gates Foundation may have saved ten million people):

This means that if the combined effect of Reich et al. is a 1% probability of discouraging the next Bill Gates (i.e., one of the billionaires agrees with them that the “yachts and parties with paid supermodels” route is better than the evil “science and malaria cures” route), this still implies an death toll of 100,000 in expectation from their efforts.

We can do better! If the effect of me writing this blog post complaining about it is a 1% probability of discouraging the next Rob Reich, this implies I have saved 1,000 lives. And if the effect of you writing this comment is a 1% probability of encouraging the next me to write that article, you’ve saved 10 lives with this comment alone! Unless you’re a trauma surgeon or something, writing this comment is by far the most important thing you’ve ever done!

This is why I hate numbers like “ten million lives” and really hate Pascalian reasoning. I’m not saying it’s trivially wrong, just that I really hate it. It’s too crazy and too self-serving.

But I still wouldn’t recommend poking the thing that saves ten million lives with a stick to see if it breaks.


Gwern writes:

While we’re listing billionaire examples: to a greatly underappreciated extent, the whole Reproducibility Crisis and its very expensive replication efforts like the Many Labs projects, are bankrolled by a billionaire, John D. Arnold. You’d think the federal government would be more interested in this problem, but it’s not.

This is a really interesting example I didn’t know about, thanks.


Conrad Honcho writes:

Also, timely tweet/article.

“Only 22 percent of U.S. adults are on Twitter, and 80 percent of the tweets come from 10 percent of users. If you rely on Twitter for political information, you are being informed by ersatz pundits residing within 2.2 percent of the population.”

So I’m not sure how well a sampling of tweets about billionaire philanthropy represent public mood.

Many people objected to me using tweets to try to gauge public mood.

I may write another post soon defending my choice. But the short version is, all the time I hear people saying ridiculous things about what “everybody believes”. “Everybody believes veterans are evil murderers who deserve to be shamed, but I am going to be a bold contrarian and say we should support the troops” or whatever. I wish I could cite polls to tell these people they live in a fantasy world, but there aren’t polls available on everything. I don’t think Twitter perfectly matches public opinion, but it’s not infinitely different from it, so I think it represents a useful corrective to letting people claim anything they want.


georgioz writes:

If I am to steelman the critique of billionaires I think it really is about institutional integrity. As a comparison I calculated the total net worth of top 25 Putin’s oligarchs according to this list. The result is somewhere around 270 billion dollars. Which is a lot but comparable to the power of all american billionaires relative to the economy – these oligarchs could finance Russian government budget also for around 1 year. And yet Putin and his oligarchs have a very tight grip on the whole Russian state and they have much more power than the net worth numbers suggest.

So I’d explain the anti-billionaire philanthropy as just a gut feeling that it is a dangerous development. Maybe the danger lies in a fact that billionaires – at least as a class if not individuals – use the charity as a PR front in order to sway public opinion in their favor. Which is catastrophic as the concentration of power in their hand can pose a real threat to democracy prepping the stage for complete institutional takeover by more ruthless and ambitious among them. If this is the endgame then spending a few hundreds of billions of dollars on charity is nothing – not only monetarily but also compared to the damage caused longterm.

From this standpoint spending on philanthropy is much more dangerous than spending on yachts. Because buying yachts is what billionaires are supposed to do and it leaves them prone to mundane criticism in standard political struggle.

Or to use another example imagine you are Cato the Younger and you see Caesar spending his fortune to give bread and circus to the plebs of Rome. It is very hard to argue feeding the poor on the object level. But still Cato sees this as a ruse for the ultimate endgame of Caesar which is capture of the state at which point he will get his investment back with astronomical interest. Needles to say Cato was correct in his paranoia.

Good point. I guess I would be more worried about this if a completely repulsive billionaire known for never making the slightest attempt to do good in his life hadn’t just captured the state using a completely different method, but maybe this one might happen sometime too.


Viliam writes:

As a survivor of socialism, I can assure you that the sentiment is much deeper than that. Rich people giving gifts is a problem, but after that problem is solved, poor people giving gifts becomes a problem, too. Afterwards, simply “people doing something on their own” becomes a problem.

The actual problem is doing things without the government approval. As a former socialist once said: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” This is exactly how it worked in socialism of my childhood. Individual initiative was a bad thing, regardless of its actual aims. The only good thing was to do what you were told.

The journalists argue that rich people’s philanthropy is “against democracy”, but what they really mean is that it is “against the state” or rather “without the state”. This is why Scott’s argument that people actually trust billionaire philanthropy more than government spending, so in that sense it is kinda more democratic, isn’t going to convince anyone. It’s not about being more democratic in the sense of “plebs being happy about what happens”. It’s about someone acting on their own, which threatens those who identify with the state.

Erusian makes a similar point:

Not to be overly cynical, but I think there’s a simpler explanation here than any real principle. Certain people have a class interest in empowering the state and shrinking the private square. These people will oppose billionaire philanthropy because it complicates their narrative that concentration of wealth is inherently bad. Zuckerburg buying a huge mansion doesn’t disrupt their narrative. Zuckerburg curing cancer does, especially because that concentration of wealth is a necessary precondition for curing cancer. Likewise, due to their interest in growing government power they will very, very pointedly overlook any possible downsides to increased government power.

I wanted to highlight these because some people accused the anti-billionaire-philanthropy side of being overly fanatical conflict theorists. But it looks like there are some conflict theorists on both sides. I am skeptical of this. It’s hard for me to imagine people having “crush individual initiative” as their goal, and I imagine these same people would support other kinds of outside-the-state individual initiative (like anti-Trump protests).

I was leaning towards this position before, but I find some of these comments sympathetic and convincing. I think the potential argument against billionaire philanthropy is that a lot of billionaires use it for vapid, personal, or even sinister causes, and it’s weird that they can get a tax deduction on it. If people are getting their college to make a vanity building with their name on it, or promoting their own politics, it does seem disturbing that this is costing the government money that it could use for potentially-valuable government business. I am sympathetic to people who worry about this.

But I think a more quantitative look shows that the good in billionaire philanthropy outweighs the bad, and that as a whole it more than meets our (low, confusing) standards for things that should be tax deductible. I am sympathetic to arguments that we should more carefully word the tax deduction, to make sure it only applies to genuinely altruistic ventures and not to vanity projects or lobbying. But I think this needs to be done with the understanding that the valuable parts of billionaire philanthropy are extraordinarily valuable, that they are not acceptable collateral damage, and that protecting and promoting them should be one of the most important goals for any policy on this issue.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 450 Comments

Links 8/19

[Epistemic status: I have not independently verified each link. On average, about two of the links in each links post end up to be wrong or misleading, as found by commenters. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

Hell’s bells are real and located 100 feet under the surface of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Before we had the austere classical goddess Columbia, personifications of the Americas including a tradition of portraying the continent as a naked woman riding an alligator.

Sarah Constantin and Noah Smith are the latest people to review the Tabarrok and Helland book on cost disease; Smith agrees with some of my wage criticisms.

New malaria control plan: genetically engineer a fungus to kill mosquitoes.

An underappreciated perspective: separating immigrant families at the border is actually really bad.

Related: regardless of your position on immigration, detaining suspected illegal immigrants until their trial is not a necessary part of the system and suffers from the same considerations as bail in general. Most actionable option for individuals is to help pay immigrants’ bail – if you want to donate money, you can support the org making it happen or contribute to the a bail fund directly.

Ken Gillman argues that our concept of the MAOI diet is outdated, because food products have much less tyramine now than in the 1960s.

One medical finding you don’t want showing up in your lab results: death crystals. Yes, they are green and mysterious.

r/TheMotte book reviews: First Blood, aka Rambo.

A good overview of the debate around in what sense algorithms are or aren’t racially biased. Article concludes both positions are true in a sense, but I think it underemphasizes that it’s impossible to create an unbiased algorithm by these definitions.

How are changes in the entertainment industry causing both the Golden Age Of TV and the Dark Age Of Unoriginal Movies?

In 1835, the UK banned bull-baiting, bear-baiting, and a-bunch-of-other-animals-baiting. But, crucially, not rats. Thus the inevitable rise of rat-baiting, where spectators placed bets on how quickly a dog could kill rats, if thrown into a rat-filled ring. The sport’s greatest champion: Tiny The Wonder, a 5.5 lb terrier who was able to kill 200 rats in one hour.

Kevin Drum on the millennial debt crisis and the millennial housing crisis (original, update)

BoingBoing: “One of the arguments against hate-speech laws is that once the state starts dividing expression into ‘allowed’ and ‘prohibited,’ the ‘prohibited’ category tends to grow…” – proposed French hate speech law now bans “stigmatizing agricultural activities”, ie criticizing factory farming.

Palm Pilot founder turned neuroscience researcher Jeff Hawkins has a good explanation on the grid cell system brains use to represent space, a claim that abstract ideas are represented by a grid cell system in conceptspace, and very optimistic predictions about neuromorphic AI.

Worried about the effect of air travel on climate change? Most carriers will soon be carbon-offsetting their flights [EDIT: maybe partially offsetting? Unclear].

Pablo Escobar’s brother claims Elon Musk stole his flamethrower design, says that he planned to use flamethrower to set stacks of money on fire to rub in how rich he is. “He” meaning Pablo Escobar’s brother, not Elon Musk. But only because Elon Musk didn’t think of it.

Genetics study: Anorexia not just a psychiatric disorder, it is also metabolic. I’ve been saying this must be true for years (1, 2).

New study of 5,000 students finds no impact of growth mindset. I want credit for predicting this one too.

Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment – somebody linked this as the scientific-study version of Against Lie Inflation and The Whole City Is Center.

Can a smart benevolent dictator make an outsized positive impact in their country’s economy? Little evidence for this: new study finds that the economy goes up during a dictators’ regime only as often as chance, but goes down during regimes much more often.

Very large study of gender transition, including almost 7000 people presenting to a gender clinic in the Netherlands, finds various interesting things – including that fewer than 1% of people who get gonadectomy end up regretting it.

Stephan Guyenet challenges the pop nutrition idea of “carb cravings”, points to studies showing people are more likely to feel cravings for fatty than for sugary foods.

Related: OurWorldInData on per capita caloric intake through the ages.

Rosalind Arden: “Personal statements do not predict performance at university [and] should be dropped.” I had a brief feeling of confusion at seeing someone hold non-SAT college admission factors to standards anywhere near the ones we hold the SAT to.

Related: Charles Murray wants to abolish the SAT I

How to automatically and objectively detect gerrymandering – one possibility is to see whether a real districting scheme produces outcomes way at the tails of a set of randomly generated districting schemes.

Did you know: Ross Perot’s son was the first person to circumnavigate the world by helicopter.

Some of the best-known scientists on both sides of the innate gender differences debate, including Cordelia Fine and Marco del Giudice, debate on Psychology Today (link goes to the latest anti-innate-differences piece, click through to get context and the other side). Didn’t find it very helpful, in that both sides mostly agree on the evidence, but still plan to pitch it to the public in opposite ways. I know who I think is being more honest, but I don’t think this kind of debate will shed much extra light for most people who already get the basic dynamic.

Related: survey of gender stereotypes over time. Divides them into “communal” (eg caring), “agentic” (eg ambitious), and “competent” (eg intelligent). Usual stereotype that women are more communal and men more agentic is increasing. People believed men were more competent in the 1940s, reached parity about 1960, and now women are winning by a 4:1 ratio.

New study argues e-cigarettes increase heart attack risk; Reason writes about a letter from concerned scientists and statisticians who find the study is so badly done that it unintentionally claims vaping defies the laws of time and space – ie using an e-cigarette increases your past heart attack risk just as much as it increases your future risk. Imagine a world where this kind of thing gets caught by the Journal Of The American Heart Association before they publish a paper, rather than having to get signal-boosted by a random webzine.

Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister of Britain, so let’s celebrate by revisiting his greatest moment: this interview last month where the interviewer asked what he does to relax, and Johnson replies that he paints old wooden crates to look like buses. Is this a real hobby, a bizarre lie, or a 12-dimensional chess move?

Paige Harden: how does childhood adversity cause health problems later in life? Probably not through cortisol.

The GAO has released a report on causes of cost overruns in infrastructure. The infrastructure cost overrun blogosphere is not impressed. Eric Goldwyn and Alon Levy are doing their own research project and looking for sponsors.

The Costs Of Reliability. Why is it easier to do things for fun than for a job, and what are the implications?

A group on Open Psychometrics have gotten 50,000+ people to take some birth-order related questions; they match most of the rest of the literature (but not me) in reporting real but very small birth effects in favor of more independence and intellectual curiosity from firstborns. No word yet as to whether they find it resets after seven years.

Did you know: the Knights Hospitaller, a chivalric order who crusaded beside the Knights Templar, were briefly a major 20th century European air power.

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Squareallworthy On UBI Plans

I want to signal-boost Tumblr user squareallworthy‘s analysis of various UBI plans:

1. Jensen et al’s plan
2. Healy et al’s plan
3. Andrew Yang’s plan
4. Torry’s plan
5. Sheahen’s plan
6. Dolan’s plan
7. Stern and Murray’s plans
8. Santens’ plan
8½. Varoufakis and Reich’s plan
9. Yang’s plan, redux

He finds that most of them fail on basic math – they rely on funding schemes that wouldn’t come close to covering costs. The rest are too small to actually lift people out of poverty. None of them are at all credible.

These plans fail even though they cheat and give themselves dictatorial power. “End corporate welfare, then redirect the money to UBI!” But if it was that easy to end corporate welfare, wouldn’t people have done it already, for non-UBI related reasons? “We’ll get a UBI by ending corporate welfare” is an outrageous claim. And even the plans that let themselves make it fail on basic math.

This is humbling and depressing. And it concludes the intelligent and useful part of this post that signal-boosts the work of a responsible person. Everything below is epistemic status: wild speculation.


About 40 million Americans live below the poverty line, which is $12,000 for an individual and a little higher for families. Multiplying these out to get $480 billion to end poverty is too high, first because most of these people live in families with each other, and second because most of them already have some income. Let’s halve it to $240 billion.

The top 1% are currently taxed at a rate of 37%, and this brings in about $560 billion. Increasing it to an even 50% would give an extra $200 billion or so, leaving $40 billion to get from random other places, the top 2%, etc. For a basic sanity check, the Bush tax cuts decreased revenue by $180 billion per year. A tax increase of the same scale as the Bush tax cuts would suffice for a basic income that ended poverty.

Isn’t basic income supposed to be universal? Yes, but most serious proposals accept that it will be gradually reabsorbed as higher taxes. People below some income gain money on net, people above the income lose money on net, and there’s some break-even point. I’m proposing the break-even point is somewhere between the poverty line and the top 1% – not in an abrupt way that forms a welfare cliff, but gradually according to the normal progressive tax system, and at a level so that we can imagine it abstractly as transferring money from the top to the bottom, with everyone else ending up about equally well-off, or getting gains and losses that cancel out.

This ignores the concern that higher taxes would stifle the economy, and the concern that the promise of a UBI would make more people quit their jobs and fall into the income stratum that benefits. But it also ignores the hope that lifting everyone out of poverty would obviate some welfare programs, or improve education, or bring other economic benefits. I don’t want to claim to be able to calculate all of these considerations, but order of magnitude estimate, we could give out a UBI sufficient to end poverty with a medium-sized tax increase.

If you think a world full of people trying to eke out an existence on $12,000 a year sounds dystopian, remember that’s the average cost of room and board at US colleges. I think the reason $12,000 can give college students such a good standard of living, but gives people on the edge of the poverty line such a bad one, is partly related to the hidden costs of work.

Why is this so much easier than the plans above? Number one, not pretending that it’s going to help the middle class. Number two, not pretending that it can be done without raising taxes. Remove those restrictions and the economics are easy.

Some people would say that it makes the politics impossible, but I’m not so sure. Raising taxes on the rich from 37% to 50% doesn’t seem outside the scale of what a Sanders or a Warren might do anyway. And pad it out a bit so that the middle class is still below the break-even point and gets maybe $1000 or so per year, and the pitch is still “end poverty in a way that makes you personally $1000 richer”. That’s still a pretty good pitch.

But if someone wanted a Yang-style universal income, one that went to everyone including the middle-class and which didn’t obviously raise anyone’s taxes, would there be a way to do it?

I wonder if you could just declare by fiat that it has to work, and leave the future to figure out the details. Start in 2020 with a basic income of $1 per person. Then mandate that it has to increase by $300 per year. Congress can decide how to do that, whether it’s by raising taxes or cutting other spending. If they can’t find the money, there’s a government shutdown until they can.

Even better, forget the $300 number and mandate that it has to increase at a rate pegged to GDP growth. Maybe fix the start date at 2020, and then in year X, one third of the difference between year X GDP and 2020 GDP must be given out as basic income. In theory you should be able to get a UBI of $10,000 per person in a few decades without making any person or government program poorer (though you will make their wealth increase less quickly than it would otherwise).

Aside from inflation (which means the $10,000 will be worth less than expected, but shouldn’t affect the system’s ability to reach $10,000 in 2020 dollars eventually) what am I missing?

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Adversarial Collaboration Update

Here are the teams that have registered for the adversarial collaboration contest so far.

1. Joel P. and Missingno on circumcision.
2. Yaleocon and flame7926 on incarceration.
3. Eigenmoon and Andrew S. on the simulation argument.
4. James B. and Reed on abortion.
5. TracingWoodgrains and lazygraduatestudent on critical learning periods.
6. TracingWoodgrains and Rhys Fenwick on reducing the abortion rate.
7. David G. and Froolow on eating meat.

Since that’s more than five, the contest is officially going to happen!

I’ll give everyone else one more chance to sort out teams, in the comment section here. Please don’t comment unless you’re proposing an adversarial collaboration topic. All other posts will be deleted. Please email me at scott@slatestarcodex.com once you’ve got a team and topic.

Also, an experiment: only people with usernames A-M can propose. People with names N-Z, you’re stuck accepting from here out (people with names A-M can still accept if they want to). This is to address the problem where nobody accepts anyone else’s offer because they’d rather propose their own topic. If it works, I’ll do it the opposite way around next year. If you care enough about this to register a new username, whatever.

Against Against Billionaire Philanthropy

[Conflict of interest notice: I’ve volunteered for both private and public charities, but more often private. I received a small amount of money for work done for a private charity ten years ago. Some of the private charities have been partially funded by billionaires.]

From Vox: The Case Against Billionaire Philanthropy. It joins The Guardian, Truthout, Dissent Magazine, CityLab, and a host of other people and organizations arguing that rich people giving to charity is now a big problem.

I’m against this. I understand concern about the growing power of the very rich. But I worry the movement against billionaire charity is on track to damage charity a whole lot more than it damages billionaires. Eleven points:

1. Is criticizing billionaire philanthropy a good way to protest billionaires having too much power in society?

Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe? Obviously it’s the low-income students. I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph.

Which got more negative press? Jeff Bezos donating $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children? Or Jeff Bezos spending $2 billion on whatever is going to come up when I Google “things jeff bezos has spent ridiculous amounts of money on?”.

Billionaires respond to incentives like everyone else. If donating to charity earns them negative publicity, and buying a private yacht earns them glowing articles about how cool their yacht is, they’re more likely to buy the yacht.

Journalists and intellectuals who criticize billionaires’ philanthropy but not their yachts, or who spend much more energy criticizing philanthropy than yachts, probably aren’t doing much to promote a world without billionaires. But they’re doing a lot to promote a world where billionaires just buy yachts instead of giving to charity.

2. If attacks on billionaire philanthropy decrease billionaires’ donations, is that acceptable collateral damage in the fight against inequality?

That depends on your values. But for most people’s values, the answer is no.

Nobody knows exactly how many lives the Gates Foundation has saved. The Guardian says it’s some appreciable fraction of the 122 million lives saved in general from progress fighting infectious diseases over the last few decade. This article says Gates has saved seven million people through his vaccination campaign alone, provided another seven million with antiretroviral treatment (usually life-saving), “tested and treated” twelve million people for tuberculosis (often fatal, but there’s a big difference between testing and treatment), and been responsible for a big part of the seven million lives saved from malaria. I expect these numbers are inflated, but even by conservative estimates the Gates Foundation may have saved ten million people.

Suppose Jeff Bezos is watching how people treat Bill Gates, and changes his own behavior accordingly. Maybe in the best possible world, when people attack Gates’ donations, Bezos learns that people don’t like ruthless billionaires, decides not to be ruthless like Gates was, and agrees to Bernie Sanders’ demand that he increase his employees’ pay by $4/hour. But Bezos also learns people criticize billionaires’ philanthropy especially intensely, decides not to be charitable like Gates was, and so ten million people die. You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.

In my moral system, this means billionaire philanthropy is not acceptable collateral damage in the war against inequality. Even if for some reason you believe that criticizing billionaire philanthropy is a higher-impact way to fight inequality than criticizing billionaires’ yachts, you should stick to criticizing the yachts.

3. Do billionaires really get negative reactions from donating? Didn’t I hear that they get fawning praise and total absence of skepticism?

Vox quotes Rob Reich (not the same person as the former Labor Secretary), a prominent critic of bilionaire philanthropy. Reich writes that billionaires “ask everyone involved to bend over in gratitude for her benevolence and genius in sprinkling around some social benefits” and so we need to “stop being merely grateful to donors and instead direct our skepticism and scrutiny at their activities”.

How much gratitude vs. scrutiny do billionaire donors get?

The three most publicized recent billionaire donations were Zuckerberg to Newark schools, Bezos to preschools, and Gates to malaria. I looked at Twitter to examine how much fawning vs. scrutiny people were giving each. Specifically, I searched “Zuckerberg Newark”, “Bezos preschool” and “Gates malaria”. I then coded the first twenty-five tweets on the Top Tweets page for each as positive, negative, or neutral. I ignored mismatches that weren’t about the donations, and also ignored the genre of people using Zuckerberg’s donation as a way of criticizing Cory Booker (which was more than half of the Zuckerberg tweets).

Searching “Zuckerberg Newark”, I counted 2 positive tweets, 4 neutral tweets, and 19 negative tweets:

Searching “Bezos preschool”, I counted 5 positive, 7 neutral, and 14 negative tweets:

Searching “Gates malaria”, I counted 15 positive, 4 neutral, and 6 negative.

The same is true of Google search. I examined the top ten search results for each donation, with broadly similar results: mostly negative for Zuckerberg and Bezos, mostly positive for Gates.

But when people talk about “billionaire philanthropy” in general, they tend to elide this distinction and focus on the bad. A twitter search for “billionaire philanthropy” produced 2 positive, 3 neutral, and 20 negative tweets, more negative than for any individual donation. A Google search for “billionaire philanthropy”, and the top ten results contained 1 positive article, 5 neutral articles, and 4 negative articles.

Although some donors like Bill Gates are generally liked, others, like Zuckerberg and Bezos, are met with widespread distrust. This might be because Gates has worked harder to target his donations well, or because he made his money a long time ago and nobody is too angry about his business practices anymore. But on a broader scale, the media and social media consensus is already parroting anti-billionaire-philanthropy talking points.

If everyone were unreflectively praising philanthropic billionaires, there would be a strong case for encouraging skepticism. But if most responses to billionaire philanthropy are negative, we should worry more about the consequences of the backlash.

4. Is it a problem that billionaire philanthropy is unaccountable to public democratic institutions? Should we make billionaires pay that money as taxes instead, so the public can decide how it gets spent?

From Dissent:

Big philanthropy is overdue for reform. The goal should be to reduce its leverage in civil society and public policymaking while increasing government revenue. Some possible changes seem obvious: don’t allow administrative expenses to count toward the 5 percent minimum payout, increase the excise tax on net investment income, eliminate the tax exemption for foundations with assets over a certain size, and replace the charity tax deduction with a tax credit available to everyone (for example, all donors could subtract 15 percent of the total value of their charitable contributions from their tax bills). In addition, strict IRS oversight of big philanthropy—especially all the “educating” that looks so much like lobbying and campaigning — is crucial […]

Private foundations fall into the IRS’s wide-open category of tax-exempt organizations, which includes charitable, educational, religious, scientific, literary, and other groups. When the creator of a mega-foundation says, ‘I can do what I want because it’s my money,’ he or she is wrong. A substantial portion of the wealth — 35 percent or more, depending on tax rates — has been diverted from the public treasury, where voters would have determined its use.

This makes the same argument as some of the other articles linked above. Since billionaires have complete control over their own money, they are helping society the way they want, not the way the voters and democratically-elected-officials want. This threatens democracy. We can solve this by increasing taxes on philanthropy, so that the money billionaires might have spent on charity flows back to the public purse instead.

Two of the billionaires whose philanthropy I most respect, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, have done a lot of work on the criminal justice reform. The organizations they fund determined that many innocent people are languishing in jail for months because they don’t have enough money to pay bail; others are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have to get out of jail in time to get to work or care for their children, even if it gives them a criminal record. They funded a short-term effort to help these people afford bail, and a long-term effort to reform the bail system. One of the charities they donate to, The Bronx Freedom Fund, found that 92% of suspects without bail assistance will plead guilty and get a criminal record. But if given enough bail assistance to make it to trial, over half would have all charges dropped. This is exactly the kind of fighting-mass-incarceration and stopping-the-cycle-of-poverty work everyone says we need, and it works really well. I have donated to this charity myself, but obviously I can only give a tiny fraction of what Moskovitz and Tuna manage.

If Moskovitz and Tuna’s money instead flowed to the government, would it accomplish the same goal in some kind of more democratic, more publically-guided way? No. It would go to locking these people up, paying for more prosecutors to trick them into pleading guilty, more prison guards to abuse and harass them. The government already spends $100 billion – seven times Tuna and Moskovitz’s combined fortunes – on maintaining the carceral state each year. This utterly dwarfs any trickle of money it spends on undoing the harms of the carceral state, even supposing such a trickle exists. Kicking Tuna and Moskovitz out of the picture isn’t going to cause bail reform to happen in some civically-responsible manner. It’s just going to ensure that all the money goes to making the problem worse, instead of the overwhelming majority going to making the problem worse but a tiny amount also going to making it better.

Or take one of M&T’s other major causes, animal welfare. Until last year, California factory farms kept animals in cages so small that they could not lie down or stretch their limbs, for their entire lives. Moskovitz and Tuna funded a ballot measure which successfully banned this kind of confinement. It reduced the suffering of hundreds of millions of farm animals and is one of the biggest victories against animal cruelty in history.

If their money had gone to the government instead, would it have led to some even better democratic stakeholder-involving animal welfare victory? No. It would have joined the $20 billion – again, more than T&M’s combined fortunes – that the government spends to subsidize factory farming each year. Or it might have gone to the enforcement of ag-gag laws – laws that jail anyone who publicly reports on the conditions in factory farms (in flagrant violation of the First Amendment) because factory farms don’t want people to realize how they treat their animals, and have good enough lobbyists that they can just make the government imprison anyone who talks about it.

George Soros donated/invested $500 million to help migrants and refugees. If he had given it to the government instead, would it have gone to some more grassroots migrant-helping effort?

No. It would have gone to building a border wall, building more camps to lock up migrants, more cages to separate refugee children from their families. Maybe some tiny trickle, a fraction of a percent, would have gone to a publicly-funded pro-refugee effort, but not nearly as much as would have gone to hurting refugees.

The idea that we should divert money from freeing the incarcerated, saving animals, and reuniting families – to instead expanding incarceration, torturing animals, and separating families – seems monstrous to me, even (especially?) when cloaked in communitarian language.

5. Those are some emotionally salient examples, but doesn’t the government also do a lot of good things?

Yes, but the US government is not a charity. Even when it’s doing good things, it’s not efficiently allocating its money according to some concept of what does the most good.

Bill Gates saved ten million lives by asking a lot of smart people what causes were most important. They said it was global health and development causes like treating malaria and tuberculosis. So Gates allocated most of his fortune to those causes. Gates and people like him are such a large fraction of philanthropic billionaires that by my calculations these causes get about 25% of billionaire philanthropic spending.

The US government also does some great work in those areas. But it spends about 0.9% of its budget on them. As a result, one dollar given to a billionaire foundation is more likely to go to a very poor person than the same dollar given to the US government, and much more likely to help that person in some transformative way like saving their life or lifting them out of poverty.

But this is still too kind to the US government. It’s understandable that they may want to focus on highways in Iowa instead of epidemics in Sudan. Yet even on issues vital for the safety of the American people, the government tends to fail in surprising ways.

How much money does the US government spend fighting climate change? This 538 article explains why this is a hard question, but it tries to give the best answer it can:

The 2018 GAO report found that, while the Office of Management and Budget has reported that the federal government spent more than $154 billion on climate-change-related activities since 1993, much of that number is likely not being used to directly address climate change or its risks. Many of the projects reported as “climate-change-related activities” are only secondarily about climate change.

For instance, the U.S. nuclear energy program predates serious concerns about climate change and would likely exist in its current form even if it did not produce fewer greenhouse-gases than some other forms of energy production, like burning coal. But the nuclear program’s budget is counted as climate spending. All told, when the GAO evaluated six agencies that report their climate spending to the OMB, it found that 94 percent of the money was going to programs that weren’t primarily focused on climate change — things like nuclear energy. The money marked as climate spending wasn’t going to new initiatives. Instead, “it’s a bunch of related things we were already doing,” Gomez told me. Numbers like that $154 billion total can be used as political props, but that kind of accounting isn’t much good for understanding what the government is actually doing about climate change.

$154 billion * 6% primarily focused on climate change / 25 years = $369 million per year. It might be higher than the 25-year average now, because of increasing awareness of climate change, but it might also be lower, because Trump. I have low confidence in the exact estimate but I think this is the right order of magnitude.

In 2017, the foundation of billionaire William Hewlett (think Hewlett-Packard) pledged $600 million to fight climate change. One gift by one guy was almost twice the entire US federal government’s yearly spending on climate issues.

This isn’t some parable on how mighty billionaires have become or how much power they have accrued. Mr. Hewlett’s budget is still only one ten-thousandth the size of the government’s. It’s not that he’s anywhere near government-sized, it’s just that the government doesn’t care at all, so a billionaire can outspend them if he cares a little.

Thanks to Hewlett and a few other people like him, I calculate that about 3% of billionaire philanthropy goes to climate change, compared to 0.01% of the federal budget.

Not every billionaire spends their money on global health or fighting climate change. There’s a lot of criticism of billionaires who “waste” their donations on already-well-endowed colleges and performing arts centers, and I agree we should push them to think harder about their choices. But charity, like investing, is in what Nassim Taleb calls Extremistan – almost all the value lies in getting it very right once or twice. An investment fund that picks a hundred duds plus 2004 Facebook is still an amazing investment fund. A form of philanthropy that produces a hundred duds plus Bill Gates (and Dustin Moskovitz, and Cari Tuna, and Warren Buffett, and Ben Delo, and…) is still an amazing benefit to the world.

I wish I could give a more detailed breakdown of how philanthropists vs. the government spend their money, but I can’t find the data. Considerations like the above make me think that philanthropists in general are better at focusing on the most important causes.

I think this also makes intuitive sense. Charities are capable of laserlike focus on the most important and desperate causes. Give their money to the government instead, and it will get spent on fighter jets, bombing brown kids in Afghanistan, shooting brown kids in Chicago, subsidizing coal companies, jailing anyone who tries to dress hair withoug a hairdresser license, and paying farmers not to grow crops – and then, at the end of all that, maybe have a tiny bit left over to spend on the desperately important problems that affect the most vulnerable people.

Governments are a useful type of organization that should exist. I don’t want to get rid of them. But right now we’re thinking on the margin, and on the margin an extra dollar given to a charity will do more good than that same dollar given to the government.

6. The point of democracy isn’t that it’s always right, the point is that it respects the popular will. Regardless of whether the popular will is good or bad, don’t powerful private foundations violate it?

Reich again:

The modern foundation is an institutional oddity in a democracy.

In a democracy, officials responsible for public policy must stand for election. Don’t like your representatives’ policy views? Vote against them in the next election. This is the accountability logic internal to democracy — responsiveness to citizens. It does not always work this way, but the logic has some real force.

But foundations have no electoral accountability. Don’t like what the Gates Foundation did with its $3.4 billion in 2011 grants ($9.3 million each day of the year), or what it has done with $25 billion in grants since its inception in 1994? Tough, there’s no way to vote out the Gateses.

I realize there’s some very weak sense in which the US government represents me. But it’s really weak. Really, really weak. When I turn on the news and see the latest from the US government, I rarely find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I see they’re representing me very well today.”

Paradoxically, most people feel the same way. Congress has an approval rating of 19% right now. According to PolitiFact, most voters have more positive feelings towards hemorrhoids, herpes, and traffic jams than towards Congress. How does a body made entirely of people chosen by the public end up loathed by the public? I agree this is puzzling, but for now let’s just admit it’s happening.

Bill Gates has an approval rating of 76%, literally higher than God. Even Mark Zuckerberg has an approval rating of 24%, below God but still well above Congress. In a Georgetown university survey, the US public stated they had more confidence in philanthropy than in Congress, the court system, state governments, or local governments; Democrats (though not Republicans) also preferred philanthropy to the executive branch.

When I see philanthropists try to save lives and cure diseases, I feel like there’s someone powerful out there who shares my values and represents me. Even when Elon Musk spends his money on awesome rockets, I feel that way, because there’s a part of me that would totally fritter away any fortune I got on awesome rockets. I’ve never gotten that feeling when I watch Congress. When I watch Congress, I feel a scary unbridgeable gulf between me and anybody who matters. And the polls suggest a lot of people agree with me.

In what sense does it reflect the will of the people to transfer power and money from people and causes the public like and trust, to people and causes who the public hate and distrust? Why is it democratic to take money from someone more popular than God, and give it to a group of people more hated than hemorrhoids?

If the people want more money to be spent by private philanthropists instead of Congress, and they use the democratic process to produce a legal regime and tax system that favors private philanthropy, their will is being represented.

7. Shouldn’t people who disagree with the government’s priorities fight to change the government, not go off and do their own thing?

Suppose I was donating money to feed starving children, and it was going well, and lots of starving children were getting fed. Then you come along and say “No, you should give that money to the Church of Scientology instead”.

I say “No, I hate Scientology.”

You: “Ah, but you can always try to reform Scientology. And maybe in a hundred years, it won’t be racist anymore, and instead it will try to help starving children.”

Me: “So you’re saying that I should work tirelessly to reform Scientology, and then in a hundred years when they’re good, I should give them my money?”

You: “Oh no, you have to give them all your money now. But while you’re giving them all your money, you can also work toward reforming them.”

Why would I do this? Why would it even cross anybody’s mind that they should do this? I am not saying that the government is evil in the same way as Scientology. But I think the fundamental dynamic – should you give your money to a cause you think is good, or to an organization you think is bad while trying to reform it? – is the same in both cases.

Also, do you realize how monumental a task “reform the government” is? There are thousands of well-funded organizations full of highly-talented people trying to reform the government at any given moment, and they’re all locked in a tug-of-war death match reminiscent of that one church in Jerusalem where nobody has been able to remove a ladder for three hundred years. This isn’t to say no reform will ever happen – it’s happened before, it will surely happen again, and it’s a valuable thing to work towards. Just don’t hold up any attempts to ease the suffering of the less fortunate by demanding they wait until every necessary reform is accomplished.

Also, a lot of billionaires are trying to reform the government (eg George Soros, Charles Koch) and that makes the anti-billionaire-philanthropy crowd even angrier than when they just help poor people.

8. Is billionaire philanthropy getting too powerful? Should we be terrified by the share of resources now controlled by unaccountable charitable foundations?

From Dissent:

Right now, big philanthropy in the United States is booming. Major sources of growth have been the wealth generated by high-tech industries and the expanding global market. In September 2013 there were sixty-seven private grant-making foundations with assets over $1 billion. The Rockefeller Foundation, once the wealthiest, now ranks fifteenth; the Carnegie Corporation ranks twentieth (Foundation Center). Mega-foundations are more powerful now than in the twentieth century—not only because of their greater number, but also because of the context in which they operate: dwindling government resources for public goods and services, the drive to privatize what remains of the public sector, an increased concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent, celebration of the rich for nothing more than their accumulation of money, virtually unlimited private financing of political campaigns, and the unenforced (perhaps unenforceable) separation of legal educational activities from illegal lobbying and political campaigning. In this context, big philanthropy has too much clout.

The yearly federal budget is $4 trillion. The yearly billionaire philanthropy budget is about $10 billion, 400 times smaller.

For context, the California government recently admitted that its high-speed rail project was going to be $40 billion over budget (it may also never get built). The cost overruns alone on a single state government project equal four years of all the charity spending by all the billionaires in the country.

Compared to government spending, Big Philanthropy is a rounding error. If the whole field were taxed completely out of existence, all its money wouldn’t serve to cover the cost overruns on a single train line.

If this seems surprising, I think that in itself is evidence that the money is being well-spent. Billionaire philanthropy isn’t powerful, at least not compared to anything else. It just has enough accomplishments to attract attention. Destroying it wouldn’t enrich anyone else to any useful degree, or neutralize some threatening power base. It would just destroy something really good.

9. Does billionaire philanthropy threaten pluralism?

From Reich’s Vox interview again:

I am, by contrast, a pluralist; I want to champion the decentralization of what would otherwise be a majoritarian decision-making structure for the spending of tax dollars to produce various forms of social benefits. And I think part of what makes ordinary charitable giving a good thing is the conversion of every individual’s idiosyncratic, eccentric preferences into some civil society-facing project that by extension produces a diverse, pluralistic civil society, which is good for democracy.

I am having trouble following the argument. We need pluralism and decentralization. Therefore, we should ban anyone from doing their own thing, and instead force them to go through a single giant organization?

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsors research into mental health uses of psychedelic drugs. You might have heard of them in the context of their study of MDMA (Ecstasy) for PTSD being “astoundingly” successful. They’re on track to get MDMA FDA-approved and potentially inaugurate a new era in psychiatry. This is one of those 1000x opportunities that effective altruists dream of.

The government hasn’t given this a drop of funding, because its official position is that Drugs Are Bad. MAPS writes:

Every dollar has come from private donors committed to our mission. The pharmaceutical industry and federal government have not yet supported our work, so the continued expansion of psychedelic research still relies on the generosity of individual donors and foundations.

Most of the funding for their MDMA trial came from the foundation of billionaire Robert Mercer. Because there were actors other than the government with enough money to fund things they believed in, we were able to get some great work done even though it wasn’t the sort of thing the government would support.

Or: in 2001, under pressure from Christian conservatives, President Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research. Stem cell scientists began leaving the US or going into other area of work. The field survived thanks to billionaires stepping up to provide the support the government wouldn’t – especially insurance billionaire Eli Broad, who gave $25 million to the cause, and eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar, who sponsored a California ballot initiative to redirect state funding to cover the gap. Time after time, the government has stopped supporting things for bad reasons, and we’ve been lucky that we didn’t bulldoze over the rest of civil society and prevent anyone else from having enough power to help.

Or: despite controversy over “government funding of Planned Parenthood”, political considerations have seriously limited the amount of funding the US government can give contraceptive research. It was multimillionaire heiress Katharine McCormick who funded the research into what would become the first combined oral contraceptive pill. More recently, it was Warren Buffett who funded RU-486 and the IUD. Together with similar work by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, these have prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies.

When there are hundreds of different actors who can pursue their own projects, we get hundreds of genuinely different projects, some of which go great. If we restrict individuals from pursuing their own projects, and everything has to be funded by a single organization with a single agenda, we reduce the possibilities for progress to a monoculture, vulnerable to any minor flaw in the hegemon’s priorities.

In other cases, billionaires and government agencies are performing the same tasks in parallel. For example, both Bill Gates and the CDC are fighting infectious diseases in the developing world; both Elon Musk and NASA are working on space exploration.

Both groups bring different institutional cultures and priorities to the fight. The Gates Foundation is not run along exactly the same lines as the CDC; SpaceX has a different institutional culture from NASA. When one organization gets stuck in a dead-end, or isn’t up to a certain task, there’s a chance that the other will have the right structure to succeed. Some of this is random variation, some of it is structural differences between the public and private sector. I think it’s really healthy to have multiple diverse institutions trying to pursue the same goal. Robustness against obvious failures like “the government just banned all stem cell research” is just a special case of this principle.

I am using Reich as a foil, but in other places he seems to agree with this. At the end of this article he writes about “the case for foundations”, and says:

I believe there is a case for foundations that renders them not merely consistent with democracy but supportive of it.

First, foundations can help to diminish government orthodoxy by decentralizing the definition and distribution of public goods. Call this the pluralism argument. Second, foundations can operate on a longer time horizon than can businesses in the marketplace and elected officials in public institutions, taking risks in social policy experimentation and innovation that we should not routinely expect to see in the commercial or state sector. Call this the discovery argument.

I agree with all of this (and am now confused about to what degree Reich and I disagree at all), but I take this as meaning that private philanthropy, far from threatening pluralism, exemplifies it.

10. Aren’t the failures of government just due to Donald Trump or people like him? Won’t they hopefully get better soon?

Billionaires sometimes do a better job than the government at funding things like stem cells and the fight against climate change. But this is because of bad decisions by bad government officials. Obama overturned the stem cell ban; hopefully the next Democratic president will fix the climate funding situation. Does this make it unfair of me to compare the government vs. billionaires on this axis when there’s a hopefully-temporary reason the government is as bad as it is?

No. My whole point is that if you force everyone to centralize all money and power into one giant organization with a single point of failure, then when that single point of failure fails, you’re really screwed.

Remember that when people say decisions should be made through democratic institutions, in practice that often means the decisions get made by Donald Trump, who was democratically elected. At the risk of going Civics 101, we’re not supposed to be a pure democracy. We’re a complicated system of checks and balances that uses democracy in some of its components. But we deliberately have other, less democratic components to deal with the situations when the demos f@#ks up. The demos seems to be f@#king up pretty regularly these days and I’m glad we still have those other institutions.

11. So you’re saying these considerations about pluralism and representation and so on justify billionaire philanthropy?

I’m bringing up these considerations as counterarguments to some of the things opponents say. But I think they’re the wrong thing to focus on.

The Gates Foundation plausibly saved ten million lives. Moskovitz and Tuna saved a hundred million animals from excruciatingly painful conditions. Norman Borlaug’s agricultural research (supported by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation) plausibly saved one billion people.

These accomplishments – and other similar victories over famine, disease, and misery – are plausibly the best things that have happened in the past century. All the hot-button issues we usually care about pale before them. Think of how valuable one person’s life is – a friend, a family member, yourself – then try multiplying that by ten million or a billion or whatever, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t represent those kinds of quantities anyway. Anything that makes these kinds of victories even a little less likely would be a disaster for human welfare.

The main argument against against billionaire philanthropy is that the lives and welfare of millions of the neediest people matter more than whatever point you can make by risking them. Criticize the existence of billionaires in general, criticize billionaires’ spending on yachts or mansions. But if you only criticize billionaires when they’re trying to save lives, you risk collateral damage to everything we care about.