Special Tax Status for Non-Profits?

Non-profits in America get several tax benefits:

  • Contributions to them can be deducted by donors.
  • They do not have to pay sales or property tax.
  • Exemption from corporate income tax

Should they?

There’s a number of problems with this.  One, it makes deciding what is and is not a non-profit really important.  I’m fine with government subsidies (which is what tax breaks are) to help poor people eat, but not for rich people’s entertainment.  Those two are easy to distinguish, but there’s a lot of room between homeless shelters and operas, and I’m uncomfortable with the government drawing the line. Or what about charities that have beliefs you find abhorrent?  Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 due to its ban on interracial dating, and fear of a repeat apparently drives a lot of the religious objection to same sex marriage.  I think people who oppose interracial dating or same sex marriage are wrong and should be shamed, but I’m really uncomfortable having that much money riding on values judgments by the government.

The sales tax thing isn’t that big a deal, as witnessed by the fact that a lot of charities don’t even bother with it.  But property tax is.  It starves the tax base of municipalities with a large percentage of land occupied by non-profits.  It’s something of a problem in DC and an enormous one in some university towns, especially if the surrounding area is poor.  That’s hard to stomach when prestigious universities have endowments in the billions and a good chunk of their work is making the rich richer.  Lack of property taxes pushes charities to buy property when they would otherwise rent (which means it benefits only those charities with consistent funding), and to occupy more valuable real estate than they otherwise would.

I like that I get a tax deduction for my donations, and I’d probably donate less without that.  OTOH, it creates a distinct gap between “people organizing to do some good things” and Official Charity, which creates a barrier to entry.  It’s not a trivial barrier either- I’ve served in the leadership on both official (my old dojo) and unofficial (Seattle EA) charities.  Among other things, official recognition forces a fairly specific kind of hierarchy on you.   In Utopia of Rules, David Graeber talks about the strain his autonomous non-hierarchical collective experienced when someone had the gall to give them a car.  It ends with them destroying the car with a sledge hammer.

Now we see the violence inherent in the system.
Now we see the violence inherent in the system.

Removing the benefits of official incorporation would let more organizations find their natural structure, rather than a one size fits all government imposed one, and also lead to fewer car destruction parties.

My opinion on the corporate income tax is a post in and of itself, so let’s put that aside for now.  I think there’s a very good case for not exempting non-profits from property tax, and not making charitable contributions tax deductible.  I also think it would be extremely disruptive to abruptly switch, so we should ease over gradually, and the change should be revenue neutral.*

*People say I’m cynical but then I write things like “the government should raise this tax and lower another one so they get the same amount of money” so I don’t know what they’re talking about.

Links 8/28/15

My feeling on “awareness” as a charitable concept is that it should arise as a byproduct of something else (read: doing actual work), and if I see a charity promoting awareness I assume it’s a self aggrandizing waste of resources and they don’t really care about helping people.  This is very true about, say, the Susan G. Komen lighting up a record-setting number of buildings to raise awareness for breast cancer.  But it’s not always true.  This 99% invisible is about the original AIDS ribbon, which started at a time when HIV was excruciatingly taboo.  The ribbon advanced the ability of people to talk about AIDS, and in doing so accelerated the development of treatment options and increased the emotional support available to tens of thousands of dying people and those that cared for them.  Breast cancer was never as taboo as AIDS, but for a long time it was literally unspeakable in polite company.  Awareness was probably a good idea back then.

So I’m amending my position to “spreading awareness: a good idea if people will literally not talk about your issue.”

Yes, diet and exercise affect your weight.  But lab animals are fatter than their equivalents of 30 years ago despite provably identical genetics, diets, and activity levels.  I think it is time we consider the concept of an environmental cause.

It never occurred to me to wonder how hummingbirds got nectar out of flowers.  I was nonetheless delighted to learn they do so by way of grooved, spring loaded tongues. They also fly weird.  Good job hummingbirds.

Do you do your best work or feel your emotional best when you wake up hours before you want to?  Turns out children don’t either and if we want to keep up the pretense that school is about teaching them it needs to start later.

One criticism of Uber in Seattle is that they abandon people in the suburbs, because they don’t follow the law requiring taxis to send a certain number of cars to the suburbs even when the bars are getting out in the city and everyone wants a taxi.  Despite this, Uber actually serves the suburbs better than taxis.  They also maybe prevent DUIs.

The Argument Against Incrementalism.

Sometimes there are fights where one group says “iterative progress” and the other says “no, it’s all or nothing” (my interpretation).  For example, people that don’t like GiveDirectly because it reinforces capitalism, or whale treadmills because the whales need to be in the wild, or humaneness standards for farmed meat because it reinforces eating meat.

Twice now I’ve gone through airport security while they were in express mode, which means you get an x-ray rather than the pornoscanner, you can leave your shoes on your feet and your laptop in its bag, and there’s a k9 unit, which I assume is looking for bombs.  This is great because it’s faster and more convenient and spares me my usual protest groping*.  As an incrementalist, I should be happy about this, but I’m not.

My ultimate goal is not just “not get groped or irradiated”, it’s “stop spending billions of dollars to waste people’s time with absolutely zero compensating benefits”, and beyond that “not have a government for which this kind of toxicity is standard.”  However much I’m enjoying not taking my shoes off, this change does not get us any closer to the latter two goals.  I suspect this is what the [people I previously categorized as anti-incrementalist] felt about the incremental improvements I approved of: that they were harm mitigation at best but did not move them closer to their goals.  So I’m a lot more sympathetic to them now.

*I don’t know if the pornoscanners are actually dangerous or not, but I do know the TSA doesn’t know either and I will punish them for their decision however I can.

Review: The Hot Seat (Dan Shapiro)

Let me begin by describing something The Hot Seat does not do.  A while ago I read Never Say Die, about how society talks about old age.  Sometimes I would want to argue with its factual statements (“old women have no access to sex”), but feel immediately aversive.  Eventually I realized that this was because Never Say Die spent a long time deriding anyone who believed anything good about old-old age as delusional or mean.  I didn’t want to be delusional or mean, so even in the privacy of my own head I resisted arguing.  This is a bad tactic for finding out the truth.   You don’t win arguments by deriding people who oppose you, you win them with facts.  And the facts are that old people in nursing homes get a lot of STDs.*

A lot of business books do this too.  “Other people will tell all a company needs is a website and a mascot, but we’re not like that.  We think you should have a product.”  It’s not quite argument from bravery– more like argument against stupidity.  It often follows statements like “we won’t sugarcoat this” and “fancy new economy idiots/stodgy old economy losers believe…”.  The effect is to discourage critical thought about what they are telling you.

The Hot Seat does not do this, at all.  It gives you information- both legal rules and the unspoken ones, from funding to people management.  I think it would be useful for someone planning on starting their own company, but that wasn’t my use case.  I want to be an early employee at a start up, and want to be able to tell good start ups from bad.  Hot Seat isn’t a complete book for that, but it is a very strong foundation that will make it easier to assess if I’m getting good advice from other books.  It is also extraordinarily readable, to the point I would read it for fun.**

*When I went to look up the numbers I saw that they counted everyone above age 65 or even 50.  The book’s main thesis is that people take happy statements about the (upper class) young old and inappropriately apply them to the old old (80+).  So the author may not have even been wrong, but I don’t like the way she proved her point.

**Other books I read for fun:

But I don’t read finance for fun, so this is novel.

How Does Amazon Convince Anyone To Work For Them?

Amazon is in that club of employers (Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, etc), where working there functions as a stamp of quality.  Their employees are frequently cold called by recruiters working for other members of the club, middle tier companies, and start ups that cannot get enough people through their personal network.  Amazon pays very well relative to most jobs, even many programming jobs, but it does not pay as well as other members of the club.  The salary is just a little less than you’d make elsewhere, but equity and bonuses are backloaded such that many people are driven out before they receive the bulk of them.  The health insurance isn’t as good.  I realize paying for your own lunch is normal, but Amazon makes employees pay for a lot of things other companies offer for free, like ergonomic keyboards.  And then there’s the work environment.

How does Amazon maintain a talent pool equivalent to the other prestige club members while paying less?

This is anecdotal, but my friends at Amazon are much more likely to have come from unprestigious companies or schools than my friends at other club companies.  Working at Amazon doesn’t make them smarter, but it does provide widely-accepted proof of their intelligence that they didn’t have before, and can leverage into cushier jobs later.   In some ways Amazon’s reputation for chewing people up and spitting them out is a feature here, because leaving after 18 months raises 0 questions among other employers.

So my hypothesis is Amazon invests more in finding and vetting smart people who aren’t currently holding Official Smart Person Cards, and that part of employees’ compensation is getting that card.  In this way it’s like the US Armed Forces, which are grueling and don’t pay well but people tend to leave them with many more options than they started with.

I’m unconvinced this is a winning strategy.  Operational turnover is expensive, and bad working conditions decrease people’s productivity even when they’re well compensated.  But it does at least explain why it hasn’t collapsed already.

Links 8/21/15

A 3 part series in the New Yorker about Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions.  Summary: receiving blood is more dangerous than we think and outcomes would be better if we used various techniques to reduce the amount of donor blood patients needed (although they’d still need some).  These techniques were developed in part to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This is why you tolerate weird and dumbSometimes weird and dumb pushes the establishment to invent things that help you too.

Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is out on mobile.  11 year old me is so happy right now.

The New York Times published an article on how awful working for Amazon corporate is. This is one of those times the response is more damning than the accusation.  A lot of their complaints were anecdotal, sensationalized bullshit- every large company has an employee onboarding process where they say CUSTOMERS! a lot, no one expects it to actually affect you.  They left out things I’ve heard from friends that are more damning- e.g. they quote you compensation averaged over four years, but it’s back loaded and a good chunk of people don’t stay that long.  It’s Jeff Bezo’s response– “Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero”- that I think really demonstrates the problem, because it betrays exactly the kind of attitude that would lead to exactly the environment described in the New York Times article.  It’s punishing middle managers for not protecting him from the consequences of the culture he created.

The employee defenses betray the same lack of understanding of what the problem really is-  “During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to.”, “Last year, during all-hands, a very high ranking Executive said, verbatim: Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground. This isn’t how we do things anymore”  (source).  These are the words of people with Stockholm Syndrome.

Dustin Moskovitz explains why long hours aren’t even helpful.

The Future Soon

I’ve officially given notice at work and notified my team. My current plan is to wrap up my project, do a webdev bootcamp to round out my skills, and get a job that actually makes a difference in the world (there are some options I’m extremely excited about, although nothing is done till it’s done). But if that is not the best plan, now would be the ideal time to that find out. So if you have any suggestions on any of the following, please let me know:

  • Companies with EA-compatible missions looking to hire remote programmers.  I have extensive test dev experience (meaning I write code, not run manual tests, and currently I don’t even write many test cases, it’s all designing and implementing tools) and will have webdev experience.
  • Books I should read.  I’ve been reading a lot of business and start up books with the goal of evaluating start ups, but if there’s another field you think I should look into let me know.
  • Bootcamps.  My qualifications were: online, large group and pair programming element, and free of macho bullshit that treats suffering and learning as equivalent, and that appears to have left me with one, but more would be great.
  • Supplemental classes or technologies I should learn
  • Cool people I should talk to.  I appear to have caught that case of “frequent trips to the bay area” that has been going around Seattle EA so in person is an option in either area, and of course there’s always the internet.
  • Projects that could benefit from a short-term/part-time programmer or writer/researcher (similar to this blog or what I did for Charity Science).
  • Off the wall careers I should research.

In Defense Of The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Dutch disease is the economic concept that if a country is too rich in one thing, especially a natural resource, every other sector of the economy will rot because all available money and talent will flow towards that sector.  Moreover, that sector dominates the exchange rate, making all other exports uncompetitive.*  It comes up in foreign development a lot because charitable aid can cause dutch disease: by paying what the funders would consider a “fair wage”, charities position themselves as by far the best employers in the area.  The best and the brightest African citizens end up chauffering foreigners rather than starting their own businesses, which keeps the society dependent on outside help.  Nothing good comes from having poverty as your chief export.

I posit that a similar process takes place in corporations.  Once they are making too much money off a few major things (Windows, Office, AdWords, SUVs), even an exceptionally profitable project in a small market is too small to notice.  Add in the risk of reputation damage and the fact that all projects have a certain amount of overhead regardless of size, and it makes perfect sense for large companies to discard projects a start up would kill for (RIP Reader).**

That’s a fine policy in moderation, but there are problems with applying it too early.  Namely, you never know what something is going to grow into.  Google search originally arose as a way to calculate impact for academic papers. The market for SUVs (and for that matter, cars) was 0 until someone created it.  If you insist on only going after projects that directly address an existing large market, the best you’ll ever be is a fast follower.***

Simultaneously, going from zero to an enormous, productive project is really, really hard (see: Fire Phone, Google+, Facebook’s not-an-operating-system).  Even if you have an end goal in mind, it often makes sense to start small and iterate.  Little Bets covers this in great detail.  And if you don’t have a signed card from G-d confirming your end goal is correct, progressing in small iterative steps gives you more information and more room to pivot.

More than one keynote at EA Global talked about the importance of picking the most important thing, and of being willing to switch if you find something better.  That’s obviously great in in some cases, but I worry that this hyperfocusing will cause the same problems for us that it does at large companies: a lack of room to surprise ourselves.  For example, take the post I did on interpretive labor.  I was really proud of that post.  I worked hard on it.  I had visions of it helping many people in their relationships.  But if you’d asked at the time, I would have predicted that the Most Effective use of my time was learning programming skills to increase my wage or increase my value in direct work, and that that post was an indulgence.   It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me it would be read by someone in a far better position than me to do something about existential risk and be useful to them in connecting two key groups that weren’t currently talking to each other, but apparently it did.  I’m not saying that I definitely saved us from papercliptopia, but it is technically possible that that post (along with millions of other flaps of butterfly wings) will make the marginal difference.  And I would never have even known it did so except the person in question reached out to me at EA Global.****

Intervention effectiveness may vary by several orders of magnitude, but if the confidence intervals are just as big it pays to add a little wiggle to your selection.  Moreover, constant project churn has its own cost: it’s better to finish the third best thing than have to two half finished attempts at different best things.  And you never know what a 3rd best project will teach you that will help an upcoming best project- most new technological innovations come from combining things from two different spheres (source), so hyperfocus will eventually cripple you.

In light of all that, I think we need to stop being quite so hard on the sunk cost fallacy.  No, you should not throw good money after bad, but constantly re-evaluating your choices is costly and (jujitsu flip) will not always be most efficient use of your resources.  In the absence of a signed piece of paper from G-d, biasing some of your effort towards things you enjoy and have comparative advantage in may in fact be the optimal strategy

Using your own efficiency against you

My hesitation is that I don’t know how far you can take this before it stops being effective altruism and starts being “feel smug and virtuous about doing whatever it is you already wanted to do”- a thing we’re already accused of doing.  Could someone please solve this and report back?  Thanks.

* The term comes from the Dutch economic crash following the discovery of natural gas in The Netherlands.  Current thought is that was not actually Dutch disease, but that renaming the phenomenon after some third world country currently being devastated by it would be mean.

*Simultaneously, developers have become worse predictors of the market in general. Used to be that nerds were the early adopters and if they loved it everyone would be using it in a year (e.g. gmail, smart phones).  As technology and particularly mobile advances, this is no longer true.  Nerds aren’t powerusers for tablets because we need laptops, but tablet poweruser is a powerful and predictive market.  Companies now force devs to experience the world like users (Facebook’s order to use Android) or just outright tell them what to do (Google+).  This makes their ideas inherently less valuable than they were.  I don’t blame companies for shifting to a more user-driven decision making process, but it does make things less fun.

**Which, to be fair, is Microsoft’s actual strategy

***It’s also possible it accomplished nothing, or makes it worse.  But the ceiling of effectiveness is higher than I ever imaged and the uncertainty only makes my point stronger.

Links 8/14/15

gamessavedmylife.tumblr.com – a collection of stories from people whose lives were significantly improved by video games.  Interestingly, at least some of these fit the cultural archetype of “addict”, but their stories make it clear that like most addicts, they were self-medicating something worse.

When doctors don’t monitor you and don’t give you the tools to monitor yourself.

Lazy Programmer Excuses

My friend Beth made a fashion blog for women in STEM and called it fibonacci sequins.

Microscopic corkscrews swim through your blood vessels to root out plaque.  Good job science.

I’ve written before about the terror of antibiotic resistance.  Resistance spreads fast because a lone resistant individual will find themselves with a wide open field after antibiotics are used.  But what if we could avoid that?  (Some?) Bacteria absorb iron by releasing tiny molecules to bind to it (siderophores), and then absorbing the larger molecule.  There’s no homing device: the siderophores they absorb are not necessarily the siderophores they released.  You’d think this would lead to free riders (bacteria that produce no siderophores, but it doesn’t, possibly because the bacteria are so closely related.

What if you disabled the siderophores?  The bacteria could mutate new ones, but they won’t necessarily reap the benefits of that because they have no claim on their own siderophores.  The selection pressure for new siderophores won’t be zero, but it will be greatly reduced.  As it turns out, there’s an existing drug used to treat certain cancers that does exactly that, and in a short trial bacteria failed to develop resistance to it (while they did to two common antibiotics).  And this mechanism has nothing to do with existing antibiotics, so resistances won’t develop together (i.e. if a colony ever did develop resistance you could probably take them out with penicillin).   High five science, you’re doing great this week.

Employee of Four Hour Work Week takes modafinil to work 60 hours straight.  No one seems to think this has any bearing on the feasibility of the four hour work week.

“The problem with allowing absolutely no abuse in activist circles, of course, is that this cuts people off from the ability to advocate for themselves, based on the “crime” of surviving abuse without proper follow-up care. I don’t think that’s really what we want to do unless we have no other choice. The people who haven’t been damaged by abuse can’t be the only people with the access to advocate.” –Almost Diamonds.

Things I wish I had written: Reason vs. Evidence in Effective Altruism.  Some people believe cash transfers are better than microcredit because of evidence (RCTs examining the effects of both on identifiable metrics).  Some people believe existential risk is more important than global poverty because of reasoningThey believe that by the time we have concrete evidence, it will be too late.  That’s not necessarily wrong, but it is very different than the proof that cash transfers outperform microcredit.  I guess I lean more to the evidences side but am super glad there are people on the reasoning side.

In that vein, I want us to start distinguishing risky from uncertain.  RIsky implies a low chance of success, but if the potential return is high enough the expected value may still be high.  Uncertain means “we don’t know what success buys us” or “we don’t know what success is.”  Going into a hospital is risky because of the high rate of medical errors and hospital-originating infections.  Investing in unfriendly AI risk is uncertain because who knows how that’s going to work out.

Food Choices at EA Global

[EAGlobal was a wonderful experience that I haven’t written much about because my brain was too stuffed full of wonderfulness to produce anything useful.  I dislike that the first thing I’m writing about it is a controversy/complaint]

There’s a utilitarian thought experiment: would you rather have one person tortured for their entire life, or a googolplex of people experience a single dust mote in their eye?  I always viewed it as too theoretical to be anything but an ideological purity test, but I think I’m seeing a version of it in action right now, in the debate around serving animal products at EA Global.

You have a small number of animal rights activists saying “this is torturing and consuming a sentient being and that’s morally abhorent”, and a much larger number of omnivores going “but seriously, they’re delicious”.  The ARAs don’t understand why aesthetic preferences are overriding morality (and either don’t believe that animal products are ever medically necessary or don’t believe that outweighs the cost to the animal), and the omnivores don’t see why such a small group is getting to override their preferences because of a principle they don’t believe in.

I think the moral weight of the ARA’s concerns may actually be working against them here.  I don’t think many people would object if the organizers said “the local cuisine is vegan and shipping in meat is just too expensive, bring some in your luggage if you must.”  But the fact that the morality arguments exist and tend to resonate with people even if they don’t agree makes people defensive, and then aggressive.  Allowing the organizers to drop meat for morality reasons is an implicit endorsement of the idea that meat is indeed immoral, which has unpleasant implications for omnivore’s moral standing the rest of the week.  By the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, better to deny that there is a problem than participate in an incomplete solution.

My original position, based mostly on the fact that I am simultaneously really bothered by and completely immune to ARA’s disgust-based arguments, was that EA Global had made the right call: vegan or at least vegetarian options in the main line, a small amount of meat hidden off to the side.  But now that I think the insistence on meat is strongly Copenhagen-driven, I’ve changed my mind.  Admitting unpleasant things about ourselves and making incremental progress is supposed to be one of our things.

[By that same token I think ARA’s should be a little happier about how much meat consumption was reduced that weekend, even if it didn’t go to zero.  But then, I’m an incrementalist]

At the same time, some people need animal products.  The definition of need is tricky here- my doctor has told me to eat small amounts of meat, but going three days without any will be fine, but in practice what was served at EA Global was too hard on my stomach and I wouldn’t have been able to eat enough calories from that alone.  Some people are on paleo and even if that wasn’t the healthiest choice, a sudden drop off in meat will be physically hard on them.  Some people have a lot of things they can’t eat such that meat is the easiest way to get them a nutritionally complete meal- especially when you have a lot of different people with a lot of different exclusions.  But even if meat were served, it’s impossible to fulfill 600 people’s dietary requirements with a reasonable amount of effort and money. The best solution may have been to announce the menu ahead of time so people could plan, and then let the chips fall where they may.

But I think we can do one better.  My new favorite solution is to offer both meat and whatever vegans nominate as the best fake meat and offer both without a way to distinguish between the two at the time.  Omnivores would be given one at random with a code that they could later use to register 1.  how much they liked what they were served and 2.  whether they think it was real meat or not.  If they really don’t like what they got they could go to a back room somewhere with their code and ask for the other one (still not telling them which they got).  The same back room could serve people who medically need meat and people who want the definitively vegan option.

This gives people who want but don’t need meat (and are able to eat !meat) a way to get it, and vegans a way to advance the cause of veganism, possibly further than they would get by banning it (by showing people how good !meat tastes).  In most circles neither side would find this adequate, but Experimenting and Using Data are What Effective Altruists  Do, and I think that could convince/pressure enough people (on both sides) into it that it would be worth trying.