Seeing Like A State, Flashlights, and Giving This Year

Note (7/15/19): I’m no longer sure about Tostan as an organization. I would like to give more details on my current thinking, but they are hard to articulate and it seemed better to put up this disclaimer now than wait for my thinking to solidify.

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.

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

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.


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.


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.

2015 donations

GiveWell: $6,000
I needed to use up company matching quickly before quitting and GiveWell is never a bad choice.
Raising for Effective Giving: $5,000
I am generally fairly skeptical of fundraising charities, especially fundraising charities targeting EAs.  Their mechanisms for evaluating effectiveness seem pretty weak (e.g. Giving What We Can counting donations pledged to be made in 40 years by people who have never donated once).*  That doesn’t mean they’re ineffective or can’t become effective, but I didn’t sign up for this movement to throw money and hope it was at the right place.

REG is different. First, they started with an extremely specific mission: convincing poker players to pledge small portions of their winnings to effective charities. This is a group that was donating minimally before, and is much more susceptible to quantitative arguments than the general population.  They count only money already donated, not pledges. And their plans for expansion seem similarly crafted for very specific niches.  (More or less the same model for fantasy football, microtransactions in video games).  The money raised goes to charities I like

Tostan: $5000
Continuing education courses in small African villages teaching things like literacy, numeracy, cell phone usage, basic medical info, human rights… a lot of different stuff, basically. That makes them hard to measure, and they turned down GiveWell when they tried. But! They did share their data with someone at the Gates Foundation, who found them extremely effective, and I trust his judgement. My focus isn’t “who is producing the highest numbers right now”, it’s “who has the best system for improving themselves and is aimed at the right thing.” Tostan’s classes grew out of requests from the community, so it some ways this is the continuing ed version of GiveDirectly.

That said, I’m working on getting numbers from them. There’s a few different charities I’ve given money to that called me to thank me and ask for my input on their long term plans. My response is usually “but I gave you the money on the assumption you were better at curing poverty than me”, but this year I’m hoping to leverage it into getting them to talk to one of the evaluator charities.** It is not my only plan for accomplishing this, but it seemed worth a shot. And I’d like to offer that as an argument for donating to charities that do things uniquely right while falling down in other ways: once they’re paying attention to you you can nudge them to do better.


*This was uncomfortable to write given that I have friends that work at fundraising charities, but I think they will understand that that is why I had to publish it.

**Specifically Giving What We Can, whose wildly optimistic numbers could theoretically be part of the puzzle that gets Tostan to publish more public data.  I’m also trying to get Treehouse to talk to Impact Matters, on the strength of last year’s donation.

Talking about controversial things (discussion version)

There is a particular failure pattern I’ve seen in many different areas.  Society as a whole holds view A on subject X.  A small sub-group holds opposing view B.   Members of the sub group have generally put more thought into subject X and they have definitely spent more time arguing about it than the average person on the street.  Many A-believes have never heard of View B or the arguments for it before.

A relative stranger shows up at a gathering of the subgroup and begins advocating view A, or just questioning view B.  The sub-group assumes this is a standard person who has never heard their arguments and launches into the standard spiel.  B doesn’t listen, A gets frustrated and leaves the subgroup, since no one is going to listen to their ideas.

One possibility is that the stranger is an average member of society who genuinely believes you’ve gone your entire life without hearing the common belief and if they just say it slowly and loud enough you’ll come around.*  Another possibility is they understand view B very well and have some well considered objections to it that happen to sound like view A (or don’t sound that similar but the B-believer isn’t bothering to listen closely enough to find out).  They feel blown off and disrespected and leave.

In the former scenario, the worst case is that you lose someone you could have recruited.  Oh well.  If the latter, you lose valuable information about where you might be wrong.  If you always react to challenges this way you become everything hate.

For example: pop evolutionary psychology is awful and people are right to ignore it.  I spent years studying animal behavior and it gave me insights that fall under the broad category of evopsych, except for they are correct.  It is extremely annoying to have those dismissed with “no, but see, society influences human behavior.”

Note that B doesn’t have to be right for this scenario to play out.  Your average creationist or anti-vaxxer has thought more about the topic and spent more time arguing it than almost anyone.  If an ignorant observer watched a debate and chose a winner based on fluidity and citations they would probably choose the anti-vaxxer.  They are still wrong.

Or take effective altruism.  I don’t mind losing people who think measuring human suffering with numbers is inherently wrong.  But if we ignore that entire sphere we won’t hear the people who find the specific way we are talking dehumanizing, and have suggestions on how to fix that while still using numbers.  A recent facebook post made me realize that the clinical tone of most EA discussions plus a willingness to entertain all questions (even if the conclusion is abhorrent) is going to make it really, really hard for anyone with first hand experience of problems to participate.  First hand experience means Feelings means the clinical tone requires a ton of emotional energy even if they’re 100% on board intellectually.  This is going to cut us off from a lot of information.

There’s some low hanging fruit to improve this (let people talk before telling them they are wrong), but the next level requires listening to a lot of people be un-insightfully wrong, which no one is good at and EAs in particular have a low tolerance for.

Sydney and I are spitballing ideas to work on this locally.  I think it’s an important problem at the movement-level, but do not have time to take it on as a project.**  If you have thoughts please share.

*Some examples: “If you ate less and exercised more you’d lose weight.”  “If open offices bother you why don’t you use headphones?”, “but vaccines save lives.”, “God will save you…”/”God isn’t real”, depending on exactly where you are.

**Unexpected benefit of doing direct work: 0 pangs about turning down other projects.  I can’t do everything and this is not my comparative advantage.

The Giving What We Can Pledge

On one hand, I think the  Giving What We Can pledge (10% of your income to the most effective charities) is an excellent idea and I’d be thrilled if me plugging it led to an additional pledge.  On the other hand, I haven’t signed it and don’t plan on doing so.  This makes me feel kind of awkward suggesting other people do.

I have many aborted paragraphs written about why I think the pledge is a good idea but not for me, but in retrospect they’re mostly fluff.  It boils down to: I have a strong need to create my own number.

Scott Alexander talks about how satisfying having A Number that he can reach and then feel done is to him.  This seems extremely valuable, and 10% seems like a reasonable number.  But it doesn’t do that for me.  If I had billion dollars I’d need to give more, and if I accepted a job that paid $20,000/year but saved the bottom billion, I would hang on to that $2,000, thank you very much.  Not just because I earned it, but because spending the money on myself would actually do more good for the world, by freeing up my time and energy.

In order to feel done, I need to exhaustively examine my income, spending, and choices. That means the pledge can’t possibly save me work or increase my emotional satisfaction.  But if I signed it and circumstances arose such that me giving less than 10% was the right thing to do, I would feel awful about breaking it.  To the point I might subconsciously prevent myself from even considering the option.*

The other common reasons I hear for signing are to push better behavior in future!you, to create a community of giving, and as a useful conversation starter.  These are all excellent goals.  In my particular case, future!Elizabeth has been so consistently smarter and kinder than past!Elizabeth that think she will make better decisions than me and I don’t want to constrain her.  Given that, I think I’ll do a better job contributing to a culture of giving by fostering a culture of deep thought around giving (which not everyone will or should participate in).***

So basically, signing the Giving What We Can pledge is incompatible with my version of scrupulosity.  But it might be extremely compatible with yours.  If the idea of having a target and then being done appeals to you, I highly suggest you consider signing.  But if having a hard target feels awful and spending  several hours thinking about exactly much to donate feels fun or satisfying, consider coming to Seattle EA’s donation decision day (in person, but we’ll create a virtual meeting room if there’s interest) or creating your own.


*I did in fact take a pay cut to work for Sendwave, which enables people to send money to their families in Africa cheaply and easily.  I am going back and forth on how that affects giving.  Last year I did 10% + offsets for things with negative externalities (eating meat and my bullshit patent).  This year I  took a way more than 10% paycut to do way, way more good than I could possibly have done with donations.  So in a certain sense I’ve already given 10% of my potential income and could consider that obligation met. On the other hand, I would have accepted the same pay from if it meant working from home**, so there’s a strong argument that doesn’t count against my born-lucky tax.  On the third hand, I’m starting with UI testing and I hate UI testing, so doesn’t that count for something?  On the fourth hand, in the grand scale of human suffering, no, it does not.

The plan I made last year means donations this year are against last year’s tax return, so for now I can just follow that.  Except some of it will be in January so I can use more employer matching.  But I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.

**Which is everything I ever dreamed it could be.

***Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive.  Unit of Caring has pledged 30% and contributes a fabulous amount to discourse.

Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder) and the case against cost effectiveness

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who founded a small clinic in Haiti and ended up saving hundreds of thousands of lives, possibly millions.  But that’s at the end.  The beginning is spent with him  doing obviously suboptimal things like spending $5000/year per patient treating AIDS patients in a country where people were constantly dying of malnutrition and diarrhea (average cost to treat: <$30), while baiting me by bragging about how cost ineffective it was.  I was very angry at him for a while, until it dawned on me that getting angry at a man for distributing lifesaving drugs probably said more negative things about me than it did about him.  Plus he did maybe avert a worldwide epidemic of untreatable tuberculosis, so perhaps I should stop yelling at the CD player and figure out what his thinking was.

Let’s take tuberculosis.  At some point in the story (it’s frustratingly vague on years), Farmer’s friend brings him to Peru, which had what was widely considered the world’s best TB containment system (called DOTS).  The WHO held it up as what the rest of the world should aspire to.  DOTS did many things right, like ensuring a continuous supply of antibiotics to patients and monitoring them to ensure compliance (intermittent treatment breeds resistance).    On the other hand, the prescribed response to someone failing to get better on drugs (indicating their infection was resistant to them) was “give them all the same, plus one more.”  This is exactly the right thing to do, if what you want is to make sure the bacteria evolve resistance to the new drug without losing its existing resistance.  The protocol specifically banned testing to see which drugs a particular patient’s infection was susceptible to, because that is expensive and potentially difficult in the 3rd world.

The WHO ignored the possibility of drug resistant TB because it was considered an evolutionary dead end.  Resistance had to evolve anew in each patient, and rendered the infection noncontagious.  I don’t know what evidence they based this on, but  at best it was a case of incorrectly valuing evidence over reason.  At worst, it indicates a giant sentient TB cell has infiltrated the WHO and is writing policy.

Hello fellow humans. I sure do hate death and suffering.
Hello fellow humans. I sure do hate death and suffering.

If your evidence says a contagious disease spontaneously becomes completely noncontagious at a convenient moment, your first thought should be “who do I fire?” because obviously something went wrong in the study design or implementation. If you check everything out and it genuinely is noncontagious, your next thought should be “wow, we really lucked out having all this extra time to prepare before it inevitably becomes contagious again.”  At no point should it be “sweet, cross that off the list”, because while you are not looking it will redevelop virulence and everyone will die.

Farmer’s response to the ban on treating multiple drug resistant TB was to steal >$100,000 worth of medicine and tests from an American hospital to treat a handful of patients.  When caught, a donor bailed him out.

Or take cancer.  A young child with weird symptoms shows up at his clinic.  He drops a few thousand dollars on tests to determine the child had a rare form of cancer.  60-70% survival rate in the US, no chance in Haiti.  He convinced an American hospital to donate the care, but when the child becomes too ill to travel commercially he spends $20,000+ on medical transport.

Both of these went against standard measures of cost effectiveness, as did Farmer’s pioneering work treating AIDS patients in the 3rd world.  But let’s look at his results:

  1. The WHO’s “yeah, it’s probably fine” approach to drug resistant TB worked as well as you would think.  Farmer proves it is contagious, is treatable, and drives down the price of treatment (to the point it is $/DALY competitive with standard health interventions). He goes on to change the international standard for TB treatment and lead the effort in several countries. Book gives no numbers but I estimate 142,000 lives and counting, plus avoiding an epidemic that could cost 2 million lives/year.*
  2. Kid’s cancer is inoperable, he dies in the US.  American hospital agrees to take a few more cases each year.

In retrospect his actions in the TB case seem pretty damn effective.  But he didn’t set out to change the world.  He stole those drugs for the exact reason he flew that boy to the US: someone was dying in front of him and it made him sad.  It’s possible you couldn’t correct his answer in the cancer case without also “correcting” his answer in the TB case. And while someone more math driven could have launched the world changing anti-MDR TB campaign, they didn’t.  Farmer did, and we need to respect that.

Lots of people in the philanthropic space, including Farmer and most EAs, say that it’s unreasonable to expect perfect altruism from everyone.  People need to spend money on themselves to keep themselves happy and productive, and constant bean counting about “do the morale effects of name brand toilet paper make up for the kids I won’t be able to deworm?” is counterproductive.   You put aside money for charity, and you put aside money for you to enjoy life, and you make your choices.  What if we view Farmer’s need to save the life in front of him as a morale booster that enables our preferred work (averting world wide incurable TB pandemic), rather than the work itself?  By that measure,  $150,000 on a single kid’s cancer and 7 hours doing a house call for one patient in Haiti is a steal.  Given that I pay my cats more (in food and vet care) than what 1/6 of the world survives on, I do not have a lot of room to judge Paul Farmer’s “saving children from cancer” hobby.

Farmer himself raises this point, in a way.  It turns out that effective altruism did not invent the phrase “that’s not cost effective.”  Lots of people with a lot of power (e.g. the WHO) have been saying it for a long time.  From Farmer’s perspective, it seems to be used a lot more to justify not spending money, rather than spending it on a different thing.  He also rejects the framing of the comparison: cancer treatment may save fewer lives per dollar than diarrhea treatment but it saves way more per dollar than a doctor’s beach house, so how come it only gets compared to the former?  Those are fair points.

It’s not clear he could have redirected the money even if he wanted to.  Most of the care for the cancer patient was donated in kind; there was no cash he could redirect to a better cause (although that’s not true for the cost of the medivac).  No one gave him $100,000 to spend on TB treatment, he stole drugs and got bailed out.  It’s not clear the donor would have been as moved to rescue him if he stole $100,000 worth of cheap antibiotics.

In essence, I’m postulating that Farmer operated under the following constraints.

  • Evaluating cost effectiveness is emotionally costly even in the face of very good information.
  • Low quality information on effectiveness
  • Financial discipline was emotionally costly
  • Some money was available for treatments of less relative effectiveness but could not be moved to the most effective thing.  But the money was not clearly labeled “the best thing” and “for warm fuzzies only”, he had to guess in the face of low information.

Under those things, evaluating cost effectiveness could easily be actively harmful.  Judging by the results, I think he did better following his heart.

Doing The Most Effective Thing is great, and I think the EA movement is pushing the status quo in the right direction. But what Farmer is doing is working and I don’t want to mess with it.  At the same time, his statement that “saying you shouldn’t treat one person for cancer because you could treat 10 people for dysentery is valuing one life over another.” (paraphrased) is dangerously close to Heifer International’s “we can’t check how our programs compare to others, that would be experimenting on them and that would be wrong.” (paraphrased), which is dangerously close to Play Pump’s “fuck it, this seems right.” (paraphrased) as they rip out functional water pumps and replace them with junk.  So while Farmer is a strong argument against Effective Altruism as “the last social movement we will ever need” (because some people do the most good when they don’t compare what they’re doing to the counter-factuals), he’s not an argument against EA’s existence.  Someone has to run the numbers and shame Play Pump until they stop attacking Africans’ access to water.

It doesn't even make sense as a toy. The fun part of carousels is the coasting, not the wind up
It doesn’t even make sense as a toy. The fun part of carousels is the coasting, not the wind up

And just like you couldn’t improve Farmer by forcing to him do accounting, you can’t necessarily improve a given EA by making them sadder at the tragedy immediately in front of them.  EA is full of people who didn’t care about philanthropy until it had math and charts attached, or who find doing The Best Thing motivating.  We’re doing good work too. I understand why people fear doing the math on human suffering will make them less human, but that isn’t my experience.  I cry more now at heroism and sacrifice than I ever did as a child.

Ironically the one thing I was still angry at Farmer for at the end of the book was his most effective choice: neglecting his children in favor of treating patients and global health politics.  I could forgive it if he felt called to an emergency after the children were born, but he had kids knowing he would choose his work over them.  For me, no amount of lives saved can redeem that choice.  Maybe that is what he feels about letting that Haitian child die of cancer.

*This paper (PDF) estimates 142,000 deaths averted 2006-2015 by the program Farmer pioneered, and the program is still scaling up.    I estimate a drug resistant TB epidemic would cost a minimum 2.3 million lives/year (math below), although how likely that is to occur is a matter of opinion.  That’s ignoring his clinical work in Haiti, the long term effects of his pioneering HIV treatment in the 3rd world,the long term effects of his pioneering community-based interventions that increased treatment effectiveness,  infrastructure building in multiple countries, and refugee care.  I would love to give you numbers for those but neither Paul Farmer nor PIH believe in numbers, so the WHO evaluation of the TB program was the best I could do.


Untreated TB has a mortality rate of ~70%l

TB rates have been dropping since ~2002, but that’s due to aggressive
treatment. New infection rate held steady at ~150 people/100,000
from 1990-2002, so let’s use that as our baseline. With 7.3 billion people, that’s 11 million cases/year. 11 million * .7 chance of death = 7.7 million deaths. Per year. 25% of those are patients with AIDS who arguably wouldn’t live very long anyway, so conservatively we have ~5.7 million deaths. If I’m really generous and assume complete worldwide distribution of the TB vaccine (efficacy: 60%), that’s down to 2.3 million deaths. Per year.

For comparison, malaria causes about 0.5 million deaths/year.

Thanks to Julia Wise for recommending the book, Jai Dhyani and Ben Hoffman for comments on earlier versions, and Beth Crane for grammar patrol.

EA Book Roundup

In the span of a few months, three intro-to-effective-altruism books came out- Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, Nick Cooney’s How to be Great at Doing Good, and Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better.  After reading all three, my preference order is: How to be Great…Doing Good BetterThe Most Good…, with fairly large gaps between the three.  I actively disliked reading The Most Good….  On the other hand, if you measured the impact each person has had on moving money to effective charities, the order is most certainly Peter Singer >> Will MacAskill > Nick Cooney.*  This leads me to believe my preferences are not wildly predictive and shouldn’t be given much weight.   But I think I understand why I like How to be Great… best, and that information might be useful.

In a nutshell: Peter Singer tells you what to do, Nick Cooney teaches you a way to think about the problem.**  In particular: I hate the argument from a drowning child.  It works by evoking a primitive instinct that is almost impossible to translate to rigorous analysis completely separate from the part of my brain that plans effective giving.   The same instinct that tells you to ruin your suit to save a child will tell you to skip a one time opportunity to earn billions of dollars for charity to save a child.  We like saving children.  Meanwhile, Nick Cooney’s book is about building up the skills so you can look at tough choices without blinking.  To me, this came off as simultaneously less judgmental of my faults and yet a stronger push for me to do better.

[I suspect high scrupulousness plays a role here- I constantly felt like Singer was saying I was a bad person because I wasn’t doing the most goodest thing, and it made me want to think about giving less.]

As EA-the-movement grows, I think it’s going to have to have very different inward and outward faces.  On one extreme you have the very core- doing or planning on doing direct work, the kind of hardcore earning to give that depends on social support, organizing the movement, or spreading ideas outside it.   On the other extreme you have people who are going to donate a modest amount to charity and are choosing based mostly on warm fuzzies, but are influenced by EA to donate more, or more effectively.  I picture this group as slightly less rigorous than my parents, who I have convinced to donate to several EA charities, and who have done good research on charities themselves, but also still give money to my dad’s extremely well endowed alma matter.  How to be Great… is for preparing people to be core.  The Most Good… is for motivating people on the very fringe.  I would place Doing Good Better between them, but much closer to The Most Good… If one of my friends wanted to know about EA, I’d give them Doing Good Better, on the theory that my friends are a lot like me.  If a stranger wanted to know more I’d probably point them to The Most Good…, based on empirical results (unless they were highly conscientious).  If you enjoy my blog I suspect you’re a How to be Great type- even if you don’t want to drink the EA koolaid, you probably like being taught more than being ordered.

*Singer had major influences on Bill Gates and Dustin Moskovitz (funder of GoodVentures) and after he’s done that there’s no point even counting the other people he’s influenced.  Will MacAskill cofounded 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can.  Nick Cooney runs some relatively small budget animal charities.

** If I had to pick a description for MacAskill’s approach it would be “descriptive”, but it doesn’t contrast with the other books as much as they do with themselves.   Peter Singer also spends a lot of time describing the effective altruism movement but I found a lot of it to be wrong.

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.