Protecting the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem, arising when multiple individuals can unilaterally access a shared resource (in economic terms, it’s rival but nonexcludable).  It comes from when medieval farmers would graze their animals on common fields.  Every individual benefits from grazing just one more animal, but eventually the fields are overgrazed and everyone starves.  Tragedy of the commons can also refer to goods with a high up front cost but zero marginal cost (so they’re nonrival as well).  No, you pirating Game of Thrones doesn’t cost HBO anything, but if everyone pirates Game of Thrones then HBO won’t make it, and judging by the number of people that pirate it, that would make many people very sad.

You may notice that medieval farmers did not all starve and therefor must have found a way to avoid overgrazing, and that Game of Thrones exists.  Some of this is survivorship bias- we don’t know what shows wouldn’t have been made if they were easier to monetize.  But some of this is that humans have devoted a lot of brain space to solving social problems and we have tools Homo economicus doesn’t.  We deride benefiting from something without contributing as free riding, and we punish people for it.

I think one reason some people react so poorly to the idea that it is more moral to help the third world than their own first world community is that it feels like freeriding.   They benefit a lot from being in their community and it is fair that when they are prosperous, they return the benefits.  If everybody moved their giving from local charities to global poverty charities then the first world would collapse and everyone would be worse off.  I think this is true, and it would be bad if it happened.  Maintaining the first world norms that let us be so wealthy and cooperative (seriously guys, we do an insane amount of cooperating with total strangers in one-off interactions) before saving Africa is the equivalent of putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. I think our oxygen mask is on right now and has more than enough money from others, so I give globally- which is kind of the equivalent of “I’d contribute to the kickstarter for that book if it were going to fail, but it’s got plenty of money so I’ll just pirate it.”

I struggle with this some, because I think the commons are sacred.  If too many people loot them, even for extremely good causes, even for causes better than what the commons are currently doing, they will disappear.  For example, let’s take stackoverflow.com, a website for posting and answering technical questions.  I ask way more questions on stackoverflow than I answer.  You could view this as free riding, but I view it as an inherent part of stack overflow: the knowledge is going to flow from the people who know the most who know the least.  The people who know the most are getting the joy of sharing and improving technical knowledge in the world.  So even though it’s an unequal exchange, I view it as morally pure.

But if someone used the traffic at stack overflow to funnel attention to their website, that would not be okay.  People gave their attention in the expectation it would be used for sharing technical knowledge.  If they keep getting tricked into viewing a different website they will stop coming and no one will tell me how the hell to get google compute engine instances to change templates.*  This is true whether the website is porn, knitting, or the Against Malaria Foundation, even if it raises money for AMF, even if the amount raised for AMF outweighs the value of stackoverflow.  It’s not just freeriding, it’s looting.

This is why it bothers me tremendously when, for example, someone continually advertises their own projects on a forum that has made it clear they don’t find it valuable.  They are hijacking something someone gave freely (their attention) to give it to something they didn’t consent to, and in doing so make people more guarded and less open.

Take the bagel man, who delivers bagels to offices on the honor system.  Some types of offices have a much higher payment rate than others (don’t bother feeding lawyers).  It is probably true that an AMF staffer getting an extra bagel when their blood sugar is low is more important than this guy getting an extra dollar; but if too many AMF staffers do that they will lose bagel deliveries entirely. This is why I think it is important to avoid freeriding, even if by utilitarian calculus it is morally better.

*I’m not kidding about this one, if you know the answer please email me at elizabeth @ this domain name

 

My stock donation to Tostan has finally gone through.  With the stock price the day it went through, my total donation is $19701.26, $49 less than I pledged.  I blame Morgan Stanley for taking 5 weeks to process the donation.  I will fix this, but for tax reasons it will probably need to wait until next year.

Tracking donations

Tostan has told me the total donations by people who listed my post as an inspiration, and wow that is a fun number to hear.  I have moved more money through writing than I did through donating directly, even counting my employer matching.  But it is also an underestimate, because I know some people have donated without telling Tostan why.  These people include my parents (who are generally pro-saying-nice-things-about-me) and a couple that wrote me personally to tell me they were donating who I know didn’t list me on the donation form because the size of their donation exceeds the last total Tostan gave me.  This number also excludes any employer matching.

This lets me fantasize about an almost unlimited amount of donations that might be due to me.   In the interests of getting a more accurate number, would people who donated to Tostan because of me please fill out this poll?  Obviously this is not a perfect measure, since not everyone who read my post reads my blog, and of those who do not all will fill out the form.  But this will provide me with both happiness and a better estimate of how much time I should invest in this kind of work in the future.

Update on my personal donation: Morgan Stanley still hasn’t finished giving my stock to Tostan, but as of Friday they swore it was in progress.  I took a best guess at what the stock was worth at time of transfer and donated the remainder by credit card.

Uuuuuugh the broker only just started transferring my stock to Tostan (apparently they lost a week or two while they waited for me to confirm I’d given them the right account number, without alerting me in any way).  For tax purposes this still counts as 2016, so that’s okay- except I need to know the total value of the shares so I know how much I need to top off with cash, and I’d like to make the cash donation in 2016 as well.  I got their best guess and donated, I guess the worst case scenario is I donated too much.  But it has taken a lot of executive function I sent this in almost a month ago, this is not acceptable Morgan Stanley.

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.