I have submitted the form to my broker to donate stock make the bulk of my Tostan pledge, I will make up the difference in cash once they tell me the exact value of the received stock.  Note that this involved a paper form that had to be faxed and I work from home without any such equipment so this basically makes me a superhero.

Seeing Like A State, Flashlights, and Giving This Year

Overview: The central premise of Seeing Like A State (James C. Scott, 1999) is that the larger an organization is, the less it can tolerate variation between parts of itself.  The subparts must become legible.  This has an extraordinary number of implications for modern life, but I would like to discuss the application to charity in particular.  I believe Tostan is pushing forward the art and science of helping people with problems that are not amenable to traditional RCTs, and recommend donating to them.  But before you do that, I recommend picking a day and a time to consider all of your options.

Legibility is easier to explain with examples, so let’s start with a few: 

  • 100 small farmers can learn their land intimately and optimize their planting and harvest down to the day, using crop varieties that do especially well for their soil or replenish nutrients it’s particularly poor in.  Large agribusinesses plant the same thing over thousands of acres on a tight schedule, making up the difference in chemical fertilizer and lowered expectations.
  • The endless mess of our judicial system, where mandatory sentencing ignores the facts of the case and ruins people’s lives, but judicial discretion seems to disproportionately ruin poor + minority lives.  
  • Nation-states want people to have last names and fixed addresses for ease of taxation, and will sometimes force the issue.
  • Money.  This is the whole point of money.

Legibility means it’s not enough to be good, you must be reliably, predictably good.*

I want to be clear that legibility and interchangeability aren’t bad.  For example, standardized industrial production of medications allows the FDA to evaluate studies more cleanly, and to guarantee the dosage and purity of your medication.  On the other hand, my pain medication comes in two doses, “still hurts some” and “side effects unacceptable”, and splitting the pills is dangerous.  

Let’s look at how this applies to altruism.  GiveWell’s claim to fame is demanding extremely rigorous evidence to make highly quantitative estimates of effectiveness. I believe they have done good work on this, if only because it is so easy to do harm that simply checking you’re having a positive effect is an improvement.  But rigor will tend to push you towards legibility.   

  • The more legible something is, the easier it is to prove its effectiveness.  Antibiotics are easy.  Long term dietary interventions are hard.
  • Legible things scale better/scaling imposes legibility.  There’s a long history of interventions with stunning pilots that fail to replicate.  This has a lot of possible explanations:
    • Survivorship bias
    • People who do pilots are a different set than people who do follow up implementations, and have a verve that isn’t captured by any procedure you can write down.
    • A brand new thing is more likely to be meeting an underserved need than a follow up.  Especially when most evidence is in the form of randomized control trials, where we implicitly treat the control group as the “do nothing group”.  There are moral and practical limits to our ability to enforce that, and the end result being that members of the “control group” for one study may be receiving many different interventions from other NGOs.  This is extremely useful if you are answering questions like “Would this particular Indian village benefit from another microfinance institution?”, but of uncertain value for “would this Tanzanian village that has no microfinance benefit from a microfinance institution?”
    • For more on this see Chris Blattman’s post on evaluating ideas, not programs, and James Heckman on Econtalk describing the limits of RCTs.

GiveWell is not necessarily doing the wrong thing here.  When you have $8b+ to distribute and staff time is your most limited resource, focusing on the things that do the most good per unit staff time is correct.

Meanwhile, I have a friend who volunteers at a charity that helps homeless families reestablish themselves in the rental market. This organization is not going to scale, at all. Families are identified individually, and while there are guidelines for choosing who to assist there’s a lot that’s not captured, and a worse social worker would produce worse results.  Their fundraising is really not going to scale; it’s incredibly labor intensive and done mostly within their synagogue, meaning it is drawing on a pool of communal good will with very limited room for expansion.

Theoretically, my friend might make a bigger difference stuffing envelopes for AMF than they do at this homelessness charity.  But they’re not going to stuff envelopes for AMF because that would be miserable.  They could work more at their job and donate the money, but even assuming a way to translate marginal time into more money, work is not necessarily overflowing with opportunities to express their special talents either.

Charities do not exist to give volunteers opportunities to sparkle.  But the human desire to autonomously do something one is good at is a resource that should not be wasted. It can turn uncompetitive uses of money into competitive ones.  It’s also a breeding ground for innovation.  GiveDirectly has done fantastically with very deliberate and efficient RCTs, but there are other kinds of interventions that are not as amenable to them.

One example is Medecins Sans Frontiers.  Leaving half of all Ebola outbreaks untreated in order to gather better data is not going to happen.  Even if it was, MSF is not practicing a single intervention, they’re making hundreds of choices every day.  85% of American clinical trials fail to retain “enough” patients to produce a meaningful result, and those are single interventions on a group that isn’t experiencing a simultaneous cholera epidemic and civil war.  MSF is simply not going to get as clean data as GiveDirectly.

This is more speculative, but I feel like the most legible interventions are using something up.  Charity Science: Health is producing very promising results with  SMS vaccine reminders in India, but that’s because the system already had some built in capacity to use that intervention (a ~working telephone infrastructure, a populace with phones, government health infrastructure, medical research that identified a vaccine, vaccine manufacture infrastructure… are you noticing a theme here?).  This is good.  This is extremely good.  Having that capacity and not using it was killing people.  But I don’t think that CS’s intervention style will create much new capacity.  For that you need inefficient, messy, special snowflake organizations.  This is weird because I also believe in iterative improvement much more than I believe in transformation and it seems like those should be opposed strategies, but on a gut level they feel aligned to me.

Coming at this from another angle: The printing press took centuries to show a macroeconomic impact of any kind (not just print or information related).  The mechanical loom had a strong and immediate impact on the economy, because the economy was already set up to take advantage of it.  And yet the printing press was the more important invention, because it eventually enabled so much more.  

I know of one charity that I am confident is building capacity: Tostan.  Tostan provides a three year alternative educational series to rural villages in West Africa.  The first 8 months are almost entirely about helping people articulate their dreams.  What do they want for their children? For their community?  Then there is some health stuff, and then two years teaching participants the skills they need to run a business (literacy, numeracy, cell phone usage, etc), while helping them think through what is in line with their values.

Until recently Tostan had very little formal data collection.  So why am I so confident they’re doing good work?  Well, for one, the Gates Foundation gave them a grant to measure the work and initial results are very promising, but before that there were other signs.

First, villages ask Tostan to come to them, and there is a waitlist.  Villages do receive seed money to start a business in their second year, but 6-9 hours of class/week + the cost of hosting their facilitator is kind of a long game. 

Second, Tostan has had a few very large successes in areas with almost no competitors.  In particular; female circumcision.  Tostan originally didn’t plan on touching the concept, because the history of western intervention in the subject is… poor.  It’s toxic and it erodes relationships between beneficiaries and the NGOS trying to help them, because people do not like being told that their cherished cultural tradition, which is necessary for their daughters to be accepted by the community and get good things in their life, is mutilating them, and western NGOs have a hard time discussing genital cutting as anything else.  But Tostan taught health, including things that touched on culture.  E.g. “If your baby’s head looks like this she is dehydrated and needs water with sugar and salt.  Even if they have diarrhea I know it seems weird to pump water into a baby that can’t keep it in, but this is what works.  Witch doctors are very good at what they do, but please save them for witch doctor problems.”  

And one day, someone asked about genital cutting.

[One of Tostan’s innovations is using the neutral term “female genital cutting”, as opposed to circumcision, which many people find to be minimizing, and mutilation, which others find inflammatory]

It’s obvious to us that cutting off a girl’s labia or clitoris with an unsterilized blade, and (depending on the culture) sewing them shut is going to have negative health consequences.  But if everyone in your village does it, you don’t have anything to compare it to.  Industrial Europeans accepted childbed fever as just a thing that happened despite having much more available counterevidence.*  So when Tostan answered their questions honestly- that it could lead to death or permanent pain at the time, and greatly increases the chances of further damage during childbirth- it was news.

The mothers who cut their daughters were not bad people.   If you didn’t know the costs, cutting was a loving decision.  But once these women knew, they couldn’t keep doing it, and they organized a press conference to say so.  To be clear, this was aided by Tostan but driven by the women themselves.

The press conference went… poorly.  A village deciding not to cut was better than a single mother deciding not to cut, but it wasn’t enough.  Intermarriage between villages was common and the village as a whole suffered reprisal.  In despair Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching, talked to Demba Diawara, a respected imam.  He explained the cultural issues to her, and that the only way end cutting was for many villages to end it at the same time.  So Tostan began helping women to organize mass refusals, and it worked.  So far almost 8000 villages in West Africa have declared an end to genital cutting, of which ~2000 come from villages that directly participated in Tostan classes (77% of villages that practice cutting that took part in Tostan), and ~6000 are villages adopted by the first set.

Coincidentally, at the same time Melching was testing this, Gerry Mackie, a graduate student, was researching footbinding in China and discovered it ended the exact same way; coordinated mass pledges to stop.  

This is not conclusive.  Maybe it’s luck that Melching’s method consistently ended female genital cutting where everyone else had failed, in a method that subsequently received historical validation.  But I believe in following lucky generals.

FGC is not the only issue Tostan believes it improves.  It believes it facilitates systemic change across the board, leading to better treatment of children, more independence for women, cleaner villages, and more economic prosperity.  But it doesn’t do every thing in every village, because each village’s needs are different, and because what they provide is responsive to what the community asks for.  So now you’re measuring 100 different axes, some of which take a long time to generate statistically significant data on (e.g. child marriage) some of which are intrinsically difficult to measure (women’s independence), and you can’t say ahead of time which axes you expect to change in a particular sample.  This is hard to measure, and not because Tostan is bad at measuring.  

That’s not to say they aren’t trying.  Thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation, Tostan has begun before and after surveys to measure its effect.  In addition to the difficulties I mentioned above, it faces technical challenges, language issues, and the difficulty of getting honest answers about sensitive questions.  

There is a fallacy called the streetlight fallacy; it refers to looking for your keys under the lamppost, where there is light, rather than in the dark alley where you lost your keys.  The altruism equivalent is doing things that are legible, instead of following the need.  This is not categorically wrong- when it’s easy to do harm, it is correct to stay in areas where you’ll at least know if it happened.  But staying in the streetlight forever means leaving billions of people to suffer.

I believe Tostan is inventing flashlights so we can hunt for our keys in the woods.  It is hard, and it is harder to prove its effectiveness.  But ultimately it leads to the best outcomes for the world.  I am urging people to donate to Tostan for several reasons:

  1. To support a program that is object level doing a lot of good
  2. To support the development of flashlight technology that will help others do more good.
  3. To demonstrate to the warmest, fuzziest, most culturally respecting of charities that incorporating hard data will get them more support, not less.

The traditional thing to do right now to encourage you to donate would be a matching pledge.  But more than I want money moved to Tostan, I want a culture of thoughtful giving, and charity-specific matching erodes that*.  Probably its best feature is that it can overcome inertia, but it does that regardless of charity quality.  So instead, let me encourage you to put time on your calendar to decide how much and where you will donate.  Seriously, right now.  If you can’t choose a time, choose a time to choose a time.  For those with company matching and tax concerns, this is noticeably more useful if it happens before Christmas.

If you are feeling extra motivated consider hosting a donation decision day or giving game.  If you would like to publicize your event, contact me at elizabeth @ this domain and I will post it here and to any contacts I have in your city.  

I also encourage you to write up your thought process regardless of the outcome, including not donating, and including thought patterns that are very different from my own or from established orthodoxy.  For some examples, see my posts in 2014 and 2015.  I will write up a separate post with every one of these someone sends me, assuming I’m sent any at all, which is not guaranteed.

The other prosocial purpose of matching challenges is to demonstrate how important you think an organization is by spending your own money.  I am going to skip the middle man and announce my contribution now: $19,750, plus $19,750 in company matching*, for a total of $39,500  This is everything I plan on donating between now and the end of 2017.

*I have a theory that much of the misery of modern jobs is from a need to make your work legible to others, which by necessity means doing things that are expected of the position, even if you’re bad at or dislike them, and shaving off the bits that you are especially good at and other people aren’t.  You may not even be allowed to do the things you are best at, and if you are the rewards are muted because no one is in a position to notice and reward the success.  This is pretty much a recipe for making yourself miserable.  It made me miserable at a large programming house famous for treating its employees wonderfully.  I think that company’s reputation is overblown as an absolute measure, but is probably still fair on a relative one, so I can only imagine how awful working in fast food is.  This does not actually have a lot to do with the point of this essay and will probably be cut in the version that goes on Tostan’s blog, but it was too interesting not to include.

*Postpartum infections were common in births attended by a physician because washing your hands between an autopsy and a birth was considered peasant superstition.  Midwives, who followed the superstition, had a lower death rate.  This discovery languished in part because the doctor who discovered it was an asshole and no one wanted to listen to him, and that’s why I don’t allow myself to dismiss ideas from people just because I don’t like them.    

*Charity-neutral matching, like that done by many employers, mostly doesn’t, although I worry it does anchor people’s charity budgets.

*If you are wondering why the number is weird: I donated $250 to a giving game earlier this year.

Relationship disclosures:  

Tostan’s Director of Philanthropy, Suzanne Bowles, has provided assistance on this post, in the form of answering questions about Tostan and reviewing this document (although she did not have veto power).  Suzanne and I have a friendly relationship and she has made some professional introductions for me.

I have several close friends who work or have worked for GiveWell, some of whom provided comments on this essay.  

Thanks to Justis Mills for copy editing and Ben Hoffman for feedback on earlier drafts.

Review: King Leopold’s Ghost (Adam Hochschild)

King Leopold’s Ghost has the most compelling opening I have ever read

 

The beginnings of this story lie far back in time, and its reverberations still sound today. But for me a central incandescent moment,  one that illuminates long decades before and after, is a young man’s flash of moral recognition.

The year is 1897 or 1898.  Try to imagine him, briskly stepping off a cross-Channel steamer, a forceful, burly man in his mid-twenties, with a handlebar mustache.  He is confident and well spoken, but his British speech is without the polish of Eton or Oxford.  He is well dressed, but the clothes are not from Bond Street.  With an ailing mother and a wife and growing family to support, he is not the sort of person likely to get caught up in an idealistic cause.  His ideas are thoroughly conventional.  He looks-and is- every inch the sober, respectable business man.

Edmund Dene Morel is a trusted employee of a Liverpool shipping line.  A subsidiary of the company has the monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo Free State, as it is then called, the huge territory in central Africa that is the world’s only colony claimed by one man.  That man is King Leopold II of Belgium, a ruler much admired throughout Europe as a “philanthropic” monarch.  He has welcomed Christian missionaries to his new colony; his troops, it is said, have fought and defeated local slave-traders who preyed on the population; and for more than a decade European newspapers have praised him for investing his personal fortune in public works to benefit the Africans.

Because Morel speaks fluent French, his company sends him to Belgium every few weeks to supervise the loading and unloading of ships on the Congo run.  Although the officials he works with have been handling this shipping traffic for years without a second thought, Morel begins to notice things that unsettle him.  At the docks of the big port of Antwerp he sees his company’s ships arriving filled to the hatch covers with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory.  But they case off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships’ rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition.  There is no trade going on here.  Little or nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory.  As morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labor.

Brought face to face with evil, Morel does not turn away.  Instead, what he sees determines the course of his life and course of an extraordinary movement, the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century.  Seldom has one human being- impassioned, eloquent, blessed with brilliant organizing skills and nearly superhuman energy- managed almost single-handedly to put one subject on the world’s front pages for more than a decade.  Only a few years after standing on the docks of Antwerp, Edmund Morel would be at the White House, insisting to President Theodore Roosevelt that the United States had a special responsibility to do something about the Congo.  He would organize delegations to the British Foreign Office.  He would mobilize everyone from Booker T. Washington to Anatole France to the Archbishop of Canterbury to join his cause.  More than two hundred mass meetings to protest slave labor in the Congo would be held across the United Sates.  A larger number of gatherings in England- nearly three hundred a year at the crusade’s peak- would raw as many as five thousand people at a time.  In London, one letter of protest to the Times on the Congo would be signed by eleven peers, nineteen bishops, seventy-six members of Parliament, the presidents of seven Chambers of Commerce, thirteen editors of major newspapers, and every lord mayor in the country.  Speeches about the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo would be given as far away as Australia.  In Italy, two men would fight a duel over the issue.  British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, a man not given to overstatement, would declare that “no external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently.”

This is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it, and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history.

This kind of thing is my heroism porn. Most movies are about people that set out to be heroes; they look at the costs and benefits and decide it is a trade off worth making.  That is great, and I don’t want to diminish it.  But they can build their lives around it, and that does reduce the costs.  What I find most affecting is people that were living ordinary lives who encounter something they cannot let stand, and don’t.  It was particularly touching in the case of Morel, who didn’t have to know what he knew.  Lots of people were on that dock and didn’t know or didn’t care.  He figured it out and switched tracks in his life when it would have been easy to pretend everything was okay. Everyone I talked to for the last two weeks heard how beautiful I found that.   I used the story to talk myself into doing things that were a little bit hard because they were so much less hard than what Morel did.

Here’s the story I told:  Under a humanitarian guise that fooled most Europeans at the time, Leopold created a form of slavery even worse than that of North America or even the Caribbean.  Men were worked to death attempting to free their wives and children from slavery.  Against that, Edward Morel and and increasing number of allies publicize the atrocities until Leopold backs down.  

This would be a really good story, and it’s what I thought was happening for most of the book, even while my knowledge that the modern Congo isn’t all sunshine and roses gnawed at me.  

In the last hour, it gets more complicated.     Yes, slavery went away and the rubber harvest (driver of much of the atrocities) declined.  But… the rubber decline could have been caused entirely by cultivated rubber farms coming online.  And Belgium may have stopped anything called slavery, they got about the same amount of financial value for about the same amount of violence out of their taxation system.  I realize the phrases “taxation is slavery” and “taxation is theft” are fairly loaded, but I think everyone can agree that people coming in from elsewhere to demand taxes and provide nothing of value to their subjects is Bad.  

And while there are the statistics that make the Congo look particularly bad, they’re mostly an artifact of size.  Per capita the other European powers in Africa were just as bad, and at the same time England (Morel’s home) was exterminating aborigines in Australia and America was going scorched earth on the Philippines (plus its usual policy towards American Indians).  

I could forgive Morel for advocating for a gentler form of colonialism.  People can only be so much better than their time, and a more correct person possibly couldn’t have accomplished as much because no one would listen to them. But my admiration for this man was very tied to the fact that he saw something he didn’t have to see, and chose to pursue it.  If he was blinding to himself to similar atrocities closer to home- especially when a great deal of African colonization, including Leopold’s rape of the Congo, was done under the guise of protecting Africans from Arab Slave Traders.

We don’t know Morel did nothing.  He went on to lead the pacifist movement against WW1, which was probably the right side but it’s even harder to argue he changed history for the better there.  But we don’t know he did something either.

This is a disappointing ending for a man I was well into planning how to get a Petrov-day style holiday.  He did better than average at seeing the horrors in front of him, but still not the ones that were done by his in-group.  It’s debatable if he accomplished anything.  He still sacrificed a lot, but I’m not prepared to valorize that alone.  It’s not even a good effective altruist cautionary tale because even with 100 years of hindsight it’s not clear what he could have done better.  Even focusing on Leopold’s horrors instead of England’s might have been the correct decision, since it let him gather stronger allies.

The book is beautifully written and read.  For whatever reason I was sadder and less callous listening to this than I am to most atrocities- maybe it was the writing, maybe because it was entirely new to me and I hadn’t had time to develop a shell.  And as heartbroken as I was to have my new hero brought down, I really admire the book for being willing to include that complexity when it could have gotten away with ignoring it.  So I can’t recommend it highly enough, assuming you want to be very sad.

“But they’ve repaid the debt several times over”

This gets repeated a lot in Debt (David Graeber), and in the world in general.  It annoys me.

Would you rather have $100 now, or in a month?  I’m guessing now, unless your tax circumstances are about to change drastically.  How much additional money would it take for you to prefer payment in a month?  $10?  $15?  What if there were transactions costs to receive payment were significant?  What if there was risk involved?  The fact that you would rather have money sooner than later is known as the time value of money.

This is the principle behind interest on a loan: you’re compensating the lender for them not having the money until later.

How much of an increase would you need to agree to delay receiving some money by 50 years, instead of $100 now?  I’m guessing it is a lot.  Many times the original $100.  The implication of the phrase “but they’ve repaid the debt several times over” is that this is morally wrong.  But if you’re not referencing the timespan on which that repayment took place, the statement is meaningless.  To compare apples to apples you need to do a present value calculation, which tells you the equivalent of what they paid if it had been delivered as a lump sum at the beginning.

This statement often gets entangled with the idea of usury (unfairly or immorally high interest rates).  I am not a big fan of the usury taboo: you’re not hurting someone by giving them the option to take a loan .  The counterargument is that deal was opaque (which is a fair criticism) or that the borrowers circumstances were so bad they had no choice.  Which is definitely a thing, but… maybe we should fix the problem at that end?  Much like debt forgiveness this appears to be a call to give poor countries/people more money, with a layer of obfuscation added by debt.  I am extremely curious why this seems to be more attractive than my solution “just give them money”.

Debt: The First 5000 Years (David Graeber)

This book seriously changed my thinking when I first read it, and I’ve shared many cool ideas from it, but I’ve found that when the ideas are challenged I don’t know enough to defend them.  So I’m going to reread the book and really dig in, with the following goals:

  1. Understand and be able articulate Graeber’s ideas without ambiguity
  2. Look up the data he cites and opposing arguments
  3. Update my beliefs based on what I learn

And I’m going to publish it here, probably chapter by chapter but if I need to break it down smaller I will.

What I publish will be a mix of “my understanding of his arguments”, “steelmen of his arguments”, “his argument updated by other things I know” and “things this made me think about”.  I will try to make it obvious what’s my opinion and what is his, but the application of the principle of charity is inevitably biased by what I consider charitable.

A few people have expressed interest in doing a small group chat over Whatever, in response to my “talk to me for an hour” offer.  If there’s enough interest, this strikes me as a good topic for that, so let me know if you’re interested.

And now, Debt: The Introduction.

You know what would be helpful?  A definition of debt.  Here is my idealized definition of debt:

Person A has a way to spend money to make more money later, but not the initial starting money (capital).  Person B has money, but no way to spend it to make more money.  Person B gives person B the money and A gives B money on a set schedule, up to a certain amount.  Everyone is better off.  Hurray.  The difference between debt and investment is that debts are owed no matter what, whereas in investment the risk is shared.

Graeber definitely isn’t using that definition.  There are a number of examples he gives that make me want to scream the chronological distribution of payment is not the issue here.  E.g.:

  • France billed Madagascar for their own invasion, and for the building of infrastructure they didn’t want.  Madagascar not having the cash on hand to pay them, this became a debt paid by onerous taxes.  Graeber claims Madagascar is still paying France, but I don’t trust him that this is the same bill.  He provides no source for this claim and I couldn’t find one.  But the wikipedia article on the subject makes it sounds like France had a bit of a dust up and somehow found itself running Madagascar, so I’m not convinced it’s unbiased.
  • France billed Haiti for the property damaged and confiscated during the Haitian slave rebellion, and convinced the rest of the world to embargo Haiti (unclear how long this lasted).  Haiti finished paying this in 1947.  No seriously, they had to pay France for no longer being slaves.
  • A Japanese legend about a woman who committed various commercial misdeeds, including loaning rice with a small cup and reclaiming it with a large cup.  The problem here is theft by deception.
  • Also in Madagascar: in the early 80s Madagascar had a resurgence of malaria, after almost wiping it out, because they couldn’t pay for their anti-malaria programs any more.  Graeber blames the IMF, which imposed austerity in order to refinance loans made by first world banks to Madagascar.  He makes no mention of whether Madagascar would have been able to pay for mosquito programs absent the loans.
  • As late as the 1970s, moneylenders in the Himalayas would take borrowers’ daughters as collateral and rape them as interest payments.  (source: “Galey 1983”, which probably exists because google scholar found other citations to it, but not the piece itself).  No one would have been happier if fathers had the ability to compel their daughters into prostitution proactively.
  • Graeber’s strongest point is that much of the debt owed by third world countries was taken by dictators and used for either personal enrichment or to repress the populace that is now forced to pay it.  Which is an extremely fair point, but still not any worse than repressive taxation in general.

So that’s a whole bunch of times the economic concept of debt was not the problem.  But… maybe the social constructs around debt let humans do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (this seems especially likely in the dictator case).  This seems curiously tied up with the concept of quantification (which is how he distinguishes between a debt and an obligation).  The way this makes sense to me is that this is an anthropology of debt, not an exploration of the economics

 

This is not a comprehensive summary of the chapter but it’s odds and ends and I don’t want this to turn into liveblogging, so they’ll all wait till their own chapter.

Parenthetical Reference ends three or four undending debates in or at EA in a single stroke.

 

…it’s the difference between “tzedakah”, which is a mitzvah/dedication I have to making the world better and where EA analysis is really important, and “generosity”, which is about being kind to the people around me.

Generosity is when my friend’s family has a health crisis and I come over with $100 worth of takeout and frozen food. It’s also generosity when I support my local arts and/or religious communities, and when I go out of my way to financially support free media. Generosity is good and we should feel good about it. It’s one of the ways we live our values. It can be personal and subjective and can be about feelings as much as ROI. In fact, it is inherently subjective, and the right specific generous acts should be different for different people, because they are distributed like tastes, interests, friendships, communities, and other personal attachments.

Tzedakah is deciding to donate 10% of my income to saving lives in the developing world, and doing my research to make sure it’s doing as much good as possible. Tzedakah is saying BED NETS BED NETS BED NETS. Tzedakah is a sense of urgency to make the world better for people I will never meet and who will never know or care about me personally.2 Tzedakah isn’t a corner I want to cut to buy something nice for myself.3

“What about the arts?” Sure, generosity.  But don’t cut your bednet budget for it.
“Donating based on numbers ruins the make-the-donor-a-better-person function of charity.” It arguably taints generosity but not tzedakah.
“I don’t need to feel guilty not donating to help my friend’s cousin coming back from Iraq because it’s more effective to…” No, you don’t need to feel guilty because when and how to be generous is personal choice.  Stop arguing it’s objectively wrong.

I’m so glad we could clear this up

Motion sickness cure: mint gum

I get really severely motion sick.  It’s worse when my sinuses are worse but even at my best I’m trading off how much misery I can stand with how much boredom I can stand.  I’m actually better with misery, but it still slows me down mentally and often lingers for many minutes afterwords.  Entirely accidentally I seem to have found a treatment: –mint gum.  It’s not quite 100%, but it doesn’t get any worse over time, and the ceiling is fairly low.  E.g. I’m writing this on a plane.

Internet occasionally mentions mint candy or aromatherapy as a treatment for nausea, but never gum.    I feel like the chewing part is important but who knows.  I suspect this isn’t very wide spread because if it was those stupid wrist bands would not be as popular as they are, but I doubt I’m the only one either.

Bone Broth

Bone broth is having its moment- paleo likes it, nut jobs who believe vaccines cause autism like it*, whoever the hell these people are like it, my nutritionist is a big fan.  The idea seems obvious- bones are full of nutrients that hard to get, especially in the typical American diet, surely drinking bones would be good.  Especially for calcium.  Everyone knows bones have calcium.

I got suspicious when I noticed that the nutritional label on my broth** reported 0% of my RDA of calcium.  I checked a few more brands, the top contender lists 2% calcium RDA and 4% iron/6 grams of protein.  Most list 0.  nutritiondata.self.com gives considerably better numbers, but no source.  Their listing contains a good deal more fat (9g, as opposed to 0 in any of the commercial broth I’ve found) and a non-zero amount of carbs.  None of the micronutrients they listed (vitamin C, a few Bs, iron, calcium, manganese) are fat soluble, but maybe there is something to preparing it at home.

Some of the websites touting bone broth list other substances that aren’t on nutritional labels but they believe are important.  I am well disposed to believe this claim.  There is no reason to believe science knows all the micronutrients we need, much less a USDA oriented towards the well being of farmers, not consumers.  The specifically mention glycosaminoglycans, a class protein/sugar hybrid found in joints.  This seems utterly plausible, but I was unable to find any numbers of this. At all.

I found one scientific paper on bone broth.  It is in Korean***.  It has some English but not enough for me to actually determine the micronutrient:protein ratio.  Beyond that you have studies about the components of bone broth and the assumption that it will be absorbed in this form.  For example this paper on collagen and rheumatoid arthritis (PDF).  Given it has 60 people and RA is a cyclic disease, their results are actually pretty good, but that still leaves it open to any number of manipulations.  The second best paper is a press relief on an informal study of chicken soup.

That leaves protein.  Everyone agrees bone broth has serious protein, but unfortunately not the most important kind.  Protein is made up of amino acids, of which there are two kinds: non-essential (which your body can manufacture) and essential (which you must take in via diet).  The RDA for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight, of which 0.1 g should be of the essential amino acids (there are per-acid requirements but I’m not tracking 9 individual requirements), so 20% is putting  you ahead of the game, except that broth is missing two EAAs entirely.  After 20  hours of cooking (see korean) paper, 25% of the amino acids are glycine.  For comparison:

  • The pumpkin-based protein powder in front of me is 20% essential amino acids (and has way more iron than broth)
  • Whey protein is 60% EAAs.
  • Soy is 34%

I have trouble digesting protein and find bone broth stunningly easy to digest, so this is still a win for me, but it’s a slam dunk.

While traveling I’m using bone broth powder, which I’m increasingly convinced is a fancy way of saying “bone-based protein powder”.  I’m okay with bone based protein powder, although I might not have packed the pumpkin if I’d realized this.

Do you know what else is basically a protein powder?  Cricket flour.  They taste similar, cricket has a better amino acid profile (25% essential) and more trace nutrients (although I’m still tracking down how many more).  It is also cheaper, which should make !broth feel bad.

I find it more plausible than the average miracle food that bone broth has effects beyond what you’d expect from a naive read of the nutrition facts, because I expect animal bone + meat to fulfill a broader range of requirements than some berry.   I do feel better when I drink it, but a lifetime of digestive and chewing problems has given me a tendency to develop food security blankets, and broth is currently filling that role.   Simply by being a security blanket that is not jelly beans or peanut butter cups****, broth is a health food for me, personally, but I can’t really extrapolate beyond that. The current press around it appears to be almost entirely groundless.

Once again, the state of nutritional knowledge is embarrassingly bad and I would like us to shift money towards increasing it.  Also why the hell can’t I test the  nutritional content of broth I make myself?

 

*To their credit, they have an explanation that doesn’t rely on mercury, which has been extremely thoroughly disproven.  If they had presented it as a fringe thing they needed to prove, I would have entertained their hypothesis.  They presented it as fact, without any attempt to distances themselves from the atrocious denialism of the mercury-based anti-vaxxers.

**I buy it frozen on the theory that my time and not having my house continually smell of meat was worth the extra money.

***I don’t think this would be hard to determine if you read Korean, volunteers would be welcome.

****Trader Joe’s brand- I’m not an animal.

ETA: I only just learned that bone broth means “bones + connective tissue”.  Clean bones give you hardly any protein, even if there’s marrow in them.  Apparently I don’t need to pay $10/bag for store made stuff, I can use $8 worth of chicken feet and liver and eat for a week.

Spreading the Wealth Around

Conventional effective altruism wisdom is that however much money you are donating, you should give 100% to the best charity, because it is the best.  I think that is one perfectly good choice among several.  Until recently my explanation was “the estimated difference in effectiveness between these charities is many orders of magnitude smaller than the confidence interval of the estimates, so they are functionally the same, so I might as well do what makes me happy.”  Scope insensitivity makes donating $n to two charities twice as satisfying as $2n to one charity.  I would have given to several more charities this except my job matches donations by hand and the admin has other shit to do.  But recently I realized it is more complicated than that.

Synergies

I spend a lot of time reminding people that estimates of genetic influence and heritability are only valid for the environment in which they are measured.  The same is true for charitable interventions.  The effects of any one intervention depend on the environment, which depends in part on other interventions.

Free condoms and instruction on their use doesn’t appear to make a big difference in teen pregnancy- but that study measured a single free condom program that existed in an environment with lots of existing programs.   Anyone who wanted condoms already had them.  That doesn’t mean such a program wouldn’t be useful in a population with no knowledge of condoms.

Interventions are synergistic.  Tostan’s educational programs won’t do much for anyone who died of malaria, but I’m also not excited about saving infants from death only to spend their entire lives in misery.  We could run around funding whichever need is most dire at any given moment, but organizations are costly to set up and a lot is lost when they disband.  Keeping the operational capital of the second and third best things live will let us react faster when we hit diminishing returns on the first.

And that’s when we know what to do.  Tostan and even GiveDirectly are very much works in progress, and because Tostan is so complex and culturally specific it’s slow to scale.  GiveDirectly can scale much faster, but too fast and corruption will become an enormous problem.  If we want those solutions ready to go when disease and nutrition are solved, we have to work on them now.  And that’s before taking into account the synergies.

Predictability

100 small donors each dividing their donations among 5 charities is better for the charities than 20 small donors giving 100% to five different charities, because it’s more stable.  If a minuscule change in numbers causes half your donors to abandon your cause (and maybe come back two years later), your funding will swing wildly.  This is terrible for operational capital.

Risk of Neglect

And that’s assuming favorites are properly distributed.  If there’s an organization or cause that’s everyone’s second choice it should probably get some money, but under a favorites only system it never will.  My source at Effective Altruism Outreach says that’s exactly what the recent EA survey showed is happening to metacharities*; everyone has their favorite real cause, and then likes metacharities.  I’ve increased my estimate of metacharities’ value recently**, so I now think they’re underfunded, so this seems bad.

If you’re a very large donor none of this applies to you because you’re in a position to change charities’ behavior rather than just react to it.  If you’re a small donor who’s happiest donating to the charity with the single best numbers, keep going, I don’t think you’re doing any harm at the scale you currently operate on.  But if you’re like me or Brian  and will have more fun spreading your donations around, I think you’re doing a good thing and shouldn’t change.

 

*The publicly accessible survey summary doesn’t give numbers for individuals’ second choices.   This is still a good example if it’s not literally true so I haven’t bothered looking up the numbers, although I should do so before I actually donate to metacharities.

**I’ve also increased the number of friends I have working at metacharities.  This means I hear about the really cool stuff they do that can’t be publicized, but also that I’m more likely to be suffering from a halo effect or cognitive dissonance or simply a desire for my housemates to have more money because hiring a cleaner would make everyone’s lives easier.