My Comparative Advantage in Effective Altruism

Comparative advantage is the idea that the person you want doing task X is not necessarily the one who is the best at X relative to your other choices, or relative to other tasks.  What you want is the person for whom their ability to do X * the importance of X is more valuable than anything else they could be doing.

Up until age 12, I was the Word Kid and my brother was the Computer Kid.  I read 10 books a week, he turned our IBM/Amiga into an Amiga at age 5 and we’re still not sure how.  I could play games and use the internet, but I knew nothing about the inner workings.  We got a new computer when I was 12, back when tech support was both competent and extremely necessary because that thing constantly broke.*  You would think this would be my brother’s job, but he was Not Good at talking to people.  My dad was good technically but was at work while tech support open.  My mom was home at the right time but still viewed the computer as a fragile word processor that generated many fights between the kids.  So despite not being the best at computers or talking to people, I had the comparative advantage in talking to tech support.  I want to say “I was good at it”, but honestly, I knew enough to follow directions and report results in a useful manner.  Nonetheless, it gave me some knowledge of something, and by the next year I was a STEM person.**  My first love was biology, but I needed a second major to justify four years at college, and I picked computer science.

But strictly practical computer science.  My first choice for second major was math, which I had been extremely good at when taking classes at community college in high school, when they were applied classes taught by people hired for their ability to teach.  My first class at actual university was theoretical hired by someone hired for his ability to bring in grant money, and I hated it.  I got through my first CS theory class because the professor was entertaining, but I resented it the whole time.  The next semester I had what should have been an applied class, but it had a habit of tacking on theoretical problems to the projects.  However much I hated theory, my partner hated it worse.  So despite being extremely bad at theory, I had the comparative advantage.  At the end of the semester, despite everything going against me- it was a miserable, poorly taught class and both my partner and I had the worst semesters of our college careers- I found myself really liking theory.  I not only enjoyed the subsequent mandatory theory classes, I did all my CS electives in theory.

This is what I thought of reading Ben Kuhn’s post on comparative advantage in EA.  You have a group of people who have spent their whole lives with their comparative advantage in math, science, and logical thinking.***  This means that all the squishy stuff inherent in running an organization- leading discussions, advertising, mediating disputes- is going to be done by someone who hasn’t done it much before.  This makes EA a tremendous driver of growth for the participants, independent of the good EA does for the world.  All three of us organizers have leveled up in leadership in the very short time we’ve been doing it, in ways I think will carry over to other spheres.

I still kind of choke on the idea that I’ve got a comparative advantage in organizing, but I am the one who said yes and my work appears to be net-positive, so on a practical level I guess I do.  I’m also the person best read in social justice,  so I was the one that wrote our don’t-be-a-dick policy and who a member approached when she was feeling marginalized.   Which is also not something you would have guessed looking at me at 18. These are all almost totally unrelated to my normal comparative advantages of “math”, “systems level thinking” and “simplifying complex things.”

It is really good for people to experience doing things they’ve never done before.  It also good for the person with the comparative advantage to do them because they are done faster and better.  It is good to have diversity of thought in an organization, and while my EA group is not as terrible as it once was****, we could do a lot better.  This is partially a reminder to myself next time I’m mad at systems or people for being inefficient that sometimes the extra energy is going somewhere good.

*As witnessed by the whole “owning an IBM/Amiga thing”, my dad was not good at choosing computers and had yet to turn the responsibility over to his offspring.

**This, of course, a drastic oversimplification.  There were a lot of other things involved

***I put myself in that category despite my early childhood experience because it was so early.

****So everyone here is a programmer?” “No, James works with robots.”