Video Games for Good

Extra Credits is a video series on game design and the game industry.  It has interesting insights I don’t see elsewhere, but it is also… low density.  You could compress most episodes into a single written paragraph and lose nothing.  I tend to watch them when being told the same thing over and over with completely unnecessary accompanying graphics is calming, rather than annoying, which isn’t very often, so I only just caught this video on whether games can induce empathy.

If you are not in the mood to be reassuringly talked down to, they helpfully provide a summary:

Many studies have investigated whether or not there is a link between video games and violence, but few have looked at the bigger picture. What is the correlation between video games and empathy? Since games put us, as players, in the role of characters who are not ourselves, asking us to understand their situation and the problems that they face, they have the potential to teach us about how to empathize with others. While many gamers have anecdotal evidence about games that made them feel a character’s pain, there’s a disappointing lack of formal studies into that side of the question.

Examples: This War of Mine, Cart Life

I didn’t think anything of it until a week later at my Effective Altruism meetup, when we were discussing egalitarianism/maximization.  In a nutshell, EA believes that all lives are equally valuable, so if you can save two lives for $n each or one life for $2n, the most moral thing to do is to save the two lives.  Phrased that way I don’t understand how it’s at all controversial, but in practice it comes up against many people’s instinctive priorities.  For some, passing over a homeless person to give to GiveDirectly doesn’t just give them fewer warm-fuzzies, it feels actively immoral.  Someone at the meeting suggested it was a matter of empathy- people naturally feel more empathy the more often they see someone, or the more they have in common with them.

This is  of course obvious, which is why so many charities try to up the empathy you feel for their beneficiaries, by implying you’re helping a particular person when you’re not, or just sending a letter with a few heartwarming stories of all the injured dogs they’ve saved that year.*  They do it because it get donations, but it’s very hard not to slide into poverty porn. I find those examples really manipulative, but I loved the ability to choose out specific recipients when donating to Modest Needs so clearly I’m just as susceptible.

This is where I thought of that Extra Credits video.  What if instead of telling people how awful extreme poverty is, we gave them a video game demonstrating both the difficulties poor people faced and the resources they used?  Some things I would like to include:

  • Trade offs, trade offs, trade offs.  Do you invest in your child’s schooling or new farming equipment?
  • Bee Sting theory– demonstrating how it is easy to do the right long term thing when you have a few problems, but when too much is wrong sometimes palliatives are all you can manage.
  • The importance of social capital.  The poor (both in the US and the 3rd world) get a lot of criticism for spending so much on alcohol and ceremonies, but the fact is that that builds social relationships that can be crucial later on.  This doesn’t mean spending a lot on booze and parties is optimal, but that the change must come at a societal level.
  • How many well intentioned NGOs fail.  E.g. my continuing hate for the play pump.
  • Ideally you’d like to convey the scope of preventable deaths.  I don’t know how to do that respectfully.  You could do something like Shelter or The Oregon Trail, where you go in knowing some characters will die and the goal is to save as many as possible, but that seems a little horrifically callous.

I have several ideas for how to do this.  You could do the trade offs with a choice mechanism like that of Depression Quest or Long Live the Queen.  Soha Kareem has has apparently done some great work with video games to express her experience of microaggressions and sexual abuse.

EA strikes me as having a real comparative advantage when it comes to producing video games, relative to other charitable movements.  And by “real comparative advantage”, I mean “lots of programmers”.**  None are games programmers specifically, but it might be a skill worth picking up.

*Pro-tip for my local humane society: this may not work as well on cat owners as you were hoping.

**We were up to two non-programmers at the last meeting.  High five.

How effective is volunteering at a suicide hotline?

Months ago my local EA group had a meeting around the concept of Effective Volunteering.  EA is not opposed to volunteering anymore than it it’s opposed to working directly for a cause, but it is more skeptical than the general population that this is the most effective way to help the world.  This doesn’t mean volunteering is bad, it can have all sorts of benefits outside of helping the world- building community, buffing one’s resume, and generally feeling good.  But if you want to justify volunteering on its helping-the-world merits, you have to compare it to the standard option of “work more, donate money.”

[I’m ignoring the argument that most people aren’t paid hourly because “learn skills to boost wages, donate excess” is an equally valid plan]

Based on the local discussion plus this post by Ben Kuhn, I propose that volunteering is most effective when some critical mass of the following are met:

  1. The product produced by volunteers is not the same as that produced by minimum wage workers (e.g. food kitchen volunteers are generally more cheerful than McDonalds workers)
  2. The volunteer has some comparative advantage in the task (e.g. pro bono work by lawyers)
  3. The activity does not take away from paid work (e.g.I have more hours in the week total than hours in the week I am capable of programming).

The problem is that 2 and 3 are often in conflict.  People’s comparative advantage tends to be used at work, either because that’s what led them to the work or they developed the talent there.  So it either has to be someone not capable of working regularly, or the person has to have two different comparative advantages.  I happen to think I fall into this category, because I’m very good at both programming and crisis chat counseling and they use entirely different parts of my brain.  And actually crisis chat makes a good play for having trait 1 as well: it’s heavy emotional work, and there are a lot more people capable of doing it 4 hours a week than 40.

Which got me thinking: how effective is crisis chat?  I’m fully prepared for the answer to be “not very”, it really seems like it’s on the less efficient side of things, but let’s run the numbers.

First step: how much does running a suicide hotline cost?  The first posting I found that listed a salary said $16.00/hour, and that’s for bilingual workers in an area with a cost of living 60% higher than the national average.  Let’s say $20/hour to include taxes, phones and computers, vacation time, etc.  GiveWell considers anything under $5,000 per life saved to be extremely cost effective, so to be competitive a hotline worker would have to save one life every 250 hours worked.  Statistics on chat line effectiveness are hard to come by because they’re anonymous by design, but I worked ~170 hours last year and I know for a fact I was 1/2 of a team that saved one life, and find it plausible that I saved more.  I work on the text line, which for various reasons is less likely to attract people who are imminently suicidal, so I suspect the phone line workers are more effective.  By this measure, suicide hotlines are competitive with GiveWell’s top charities.

The complication is that the hotline doesn’t do this alone.  I gave myself half a life because I called in a rescue for a phone worker who contacted me via chat, but that success depended on emergency workers finding the person and a mental hospital to take him in.  Malaria nets don’t work alone either (they can’t solve famine or war), but this seems more like evaluating the cost of the nets without the cost of employees to distribute them.  On the other hand, some percentage of chats may talk people out of suicide without requiring an active rescue.  If I help a person form a plan to keep themselves safe until the urge passes, that’s incredibly effective.

The other way to look at it is what would people pay for the service.  My gut feeling is that the service I provide is more valuable than anything the visitors could buy with $20*.  The most comparable services, therapy and psychiatric visits, start at $60/hour.  Crisis lines are not a substitute for psychiatry or counseling, but a marginal hour of chatting may be a reasonable substitute for an hour of either, given how much of their sessions is empathetic listening.    Even if hotline workers are not as effective at listening because they are lower status, that’s still substantial savings.  Plus we get a good chunk of people are uncomfortable talking to a real professional because they are so high status, but feel okay talking to us.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure most of the bottom billion would take the $20, or even $2, over an hour talking with me.  Competitive within the sphere of 1st world interventions is not the same as competitive.

Still, that’s a much higher effectiveness rate than I was anticipating.  And it manages to hit all three of my criteria above (for people who are good at listening but don’t do it professionally), which is a pretty neat trick.  Unfortunately it does not work for Kuhn’s use case at all, since he was looking for things EAers could do as a group on an ad hoc basis.  I suspect this is not a coincidence.

*Testing this directly would be hard, since there’s nothing to stop someone who wants two hours of chatting to say they want five, but will accept two + $60.

Locks of Love

I have mixed feelings on this criticism of Locks of Love.  They do appear to deliberately mislead people that the hair is going to pediatric chemo patients, when most of the wigs they make go to alopecia patients.  The cancer patients that do get wigs are those rendered permanently bald, not temporarily so.   I think it’s completely fair to criticize LoL for that mislead.

But the article also criticizes Locks of Love for throwing away hair that is grey, moldy, or too short for wigs (even though the guidelines on the website are pretty clear on what’s required), and for selling most of the hair that is donated.  The author derides this as getting a haircut for no purpose.  I think that criticism is not only unfair, but reveals a fundamental problem in the way the author views charity.  If your goal is to help bald children, you should want them to throw out unsuitable hair, and be agnostic as to whether your hair ends up in a child’s wig, or in a wig made by a commercial company that paid LoL for it.  You’re helping just as much.  Deriding this implies that having your hair on the head of a child is more important than a system that gets the most children.  If that’s true you’re welcome to pay for the privilege, but don’t pretend it’s the same as donating to help people.

Of course the chemo bait-and-switch is still dubious, and if you have a preference for helping that population it’s totally valid to go with one of the other orgs listed in the article

Activism Field Trip

One of my ongoing concerns about Effective Altruism is that it doesn’t handle activism or political change well, because the marginal value of any given activity is essentially zero.  You can do some relative effectiveness- Martin Luther King Jr apparently scouted out towns most likely to react violently to his nonviolent protests, in order to get more sympathetic publicity- but it’s no where near the certainty of Against Malaria Foundation’s cost per life saved (which itself has a huge confidence interval).  And yet, political activism is essential as a tool for improving the human condition.

Recently I participated in a FreePress.net-organized visit to one of my senators, to convince them to more vocally support net neutrality, and specifically Title II classifying cable utilities as common carriers.  This is a thing that seems important as long as cable has a stranglehold on broadband in the US, and my impression was that all I had to be helpful was live in the senator’s state (check) and show up.  That is within my power, and now was a relatively easy time to do it (still on leave for dental surgery but at a relative high in my ability to talk).  I think on some level I expected it to be a more fleshy version of phone calls for the EFF, where they do all the dialing and give you a script to read, and your job is just to demonstrate to powerful people how many unpowerful people are willing to spend their time annoying them over a specific issue.

The plusses: I was shocked by how diverse the delegation was.  I was expecting a bunch of 20-35 year old tech nerds, but the age range was probably 30-75, with me as the only programmer, and a wide range of political orientations.  Several of the people were longtime activists.  At the end of the visit the senator had agreed to do what we wanted.

The minuses:  the visit could have been much better organized.  There was a real disconnect between what FreePress said our senator’s position was, and what the senator’s aid said their position was.  We didn’t so much convince the senator to change positions as ask for something they were already doing.  Maybe FreePress didn’t bother to investigate, maybe the senator’s aid was weaselwording.  There was no one who knew and no one had the authority to shift our collective gears.

This was the first time in a while I’d experienced the gap between talking with EAs and talking with politically and socially active non-EAs.  The groups have different skills.  None of the people who took point could have persuaded anyone I know out to pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the bottom*, but they did organize rallies of 1000+ people, which I have never done and have never heard of being done in the history of effective altruism.  We’re more a blogging type of people.  And the dailykos reporter is better than me at that, in the sense of “many more people read him”.  This is bothersome when he is complaining about rising rents and construction in the same paragraph, but useful when shining light on police misconduct.

So EA is still my home, and probably will be for a while, even if I’m drawn to areas that don’t have any officially blessed EA charities, like mental health and first world education.  I would like us to have more thought diversity than we do, but really enjoy not having to explain why you can’t complain about rent and construction at the same time, or at a bare minimum knowing that if I do have to explain it I’ll have social support.

*”But what if there is a faster or less energy-intensive way to empty the boot?”

Animal Rights Deep Dive Pre-Check

I haven’t written a ton about animal rights/animal suffering because any position I have is guaranteed to get me yelled at by two sides, possibly more.  I will only write things like that when I am absolutely certain of my grasp of the facts and the rigor of my thought process.  That does not describe me and animal rights at all.  My opinions on balancing animal rights with human needs/desires can best be described as “intuitions attempting to balance to several different gut feelings.”  But that is hopefully about to change.  John Salvatier, some other people, and I are going to dig in to Animal Charity Evaluators’s research on the best way to alleviate animal suffering.  This doesn’t actually require me to investigate my beliefs about the health impact of eating animal products, but I probably will anyway.   In the spirit of science and accountability, I’m going to share my starting beliefs (like I did with HAES), so you can see if research changed them.

A note on comments: this is a pretty scary thing to write, because I’ve seen so many personal attacks in animal rights threads in many different Effective Altruism forums.  If you have a pointer to information I would benefit from, please send it along, I would really appreciate it.  If you think my beliefs are immoral, please hold off commenting until the Post-Check, which will contain only opinions I am willing to defend.  If you believe that there are no trade offs or your trade off is the only moral trade off, please go share this opinion with people who agree with you.

Okay, that said, here is my existing knowledge: I watched Earthling and Farm to Fridge with my EA group.  John has already read a few studies and passed links and comments on to me, I skimmed some of the studies he linked to while I was tired.  I have read a few EA facebook threads on animal rights that had minimal informational content, relative to the emotional vitriol.  Without further adieu, here are my current opinions:

Animal death for the purpose of food is okay, animal suffering is not.

Everyone dies eventually.  A good life and a clean death is more than animals get in the wild.  Ecosystems without predators are very unhealthy for the remaining prey animals.  So while unnecessary suffering bothers me a great deal, death seems not to.  This is pretty close to my attitude with humans; I’m frequently angry at how the medical system focuses on postponing death rather than improving health/quality of life.

Modern factory farming produces unacceptable levels of suffering

Even if everything I saw in Farm To Fridge was outliers, the implied bell curve is unacceptable.

Animal death or suffering for the purpose of clothing is not okay

I didn’t so much reason this out as found myself in a shoe store trying to talk myself into leather being okay, and realized it would be much easier to just not buy leather.  I am not entirely convinced I will stick to this if I find something amazing that can only be had in leather, but I am definitely willing to put a great deal of energy into finding vegan alternatives.  This leads me to believe…

My position that animal death for the purpose of food is morally okay is dependent on my belief that eating animals is essential to human health

This is a weird position for me because I didn’t eat meat until I was 28, because I couldn’t digest it, which 4 year old me translated to “it’s gross”.  I was the least bothered of anyone when we watched Earthling and Farm to Fridge, and I believe that’s in part because for everyone else they were learning something horrible about something they enjoyed.  My thought process was more along the lines of “Of course meat is disgusting, but you have to grit through it for your health.  Gastric acid pills will solve a lot of this problem.”  My forebrain knows HCl does not actually have anything to do with pigs eating necrotic flesh off of other pigs, but the hindbrain worked so hard to overcome it’s visceral disgust that the new reason to find meat disgusting just bounced off.

I’m not claiming people will literally die without meat.  I do think that the healthiest diets involve small amounts of meat, and any deviation from that platonic diet is a blow to your health.  If you are otherwise healthy and health has thresholds, that blow may not make a perceptible different in your life.  If you are me, it does.  To the extent healthy vegan diets are possible, they will generally be some combination of less delicious, more expensive, or more work than the omnivore alternative.

This doesn’t mean meat is some sort of magic salve.  My gut feeling is that a even really bad vegan diet is probably better for you than a really bad American-style meat-based diet, although this will depend somewhat on genetics.

Not all meats have equal moral density

I have almost-but-not-quite given up pig (which was the first meat I was able to stomach, because bacon) because pigs are smarter and I think that makes them more capable of suffering.  Meanwhile crickets barely rank above plants (and may end up being more humane, depending on how many bugs and rodents die to produce those plants).  All this is strictly from a suffering perspective: if you want to consider environmental impact things get even more complicated.

I prefer Mercy for Animals’s approach (lessening the amount of suffering in meat production) to The Humane League’s approach (convincing people to go veg*n)

Some of this is because I was coming at it from the framing of meat-offsets (donating to a charity to balance out meat consumption).  Originally I framed it as “paying someone not to do something you just did is stupid”, like I do with carbon offsets.  It also galls me that what you’re paying for is not making it easier for someone to veg*n, via cooking classes or covering the difference in cost, you’re paying to convince them that veg*nism is a good idea.  Being inspired to convince people to do something by doing the exact opposite feels incredibly broken and toxic to me, but I could never articulate it more than that.

As I’m writing this I see that this is actually tied in with my justification that meat (or at least animal products) are necessary for health.  “This is necessary for my health so I’ll pay someone else to sabotage their health” is sick and immoral.  “This is necessary for my health but I’m going to work to make others suffer for it as little as possible” seems much more reasonable.

I do think that convincing people to eat much less animal protein is a good idea, and I’d support efforts to change norms around meat and lessen the cost/effort/taste differential between vegan and meat meals.

Also leafletting is dumb

Seriously, I just don’t see it helping.  They say leafletting but according to John they actually mean canvassing with leaflets.  My understanding from PIRG is that the vast majority of money raised by canvassers goes to paying the salaries of the canvassers.*  Humane League isn’t trying to raise money, but “convincing people to do a lot of work to avoid something they see as a staple” seems like a strictly harder pitch than “give me $10 and I will go away.”

But if it’s going to work anywhere, it will be at colleges

College students are much more open to new ideas, and cafeterias lessen or even eliminate the work to avoid meat.

But I don’t think we’ll ever know the absolute effectiveness because it’s really hard to measure

Unless they’re actually following people (without telling them) and charting what they eat, how could they possibly know?  And spying on people is expensive and possibly illegal.

Wait, I just thought of a way to measure it.  College students (especially freshman, who are often segregated from other students) eat at college cafeterias.  You could total measure consumption of meat vs. vegan items and see if it changes after leafletting.

*Whether or not particular canvassers are paid or are volunteers is mostly irrelevant, because their time still has value.

Why I donated to the EFF this year

I applied for a patent this year.  While I sincerely believe my invention is patentable under the current definition applied by the US Patent Office, I also believe the US Patent Office’s current definition is bullshit, and is stifling innovation by giving exclusive rights to obvious ideas and creating a culture of fear that hurts start ups more than big companies.

The incremental effect of my patent in reinforcing this bullshit system is very small.  Even if you internalized all the negative externalities, I believe the cost is trivial next to the benefits of applying (shiny resume line and a $5,000 bonus).  But no single snowflake believes it’s to blame for the avalanche, and I was really not comfortable justifying material gain because everyone else was doing it.  My compromise was to donate half the bonus to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for a variety of pro-individual and pro-start-up positions, including patent reform.  There’s no way my patent did $2500 worth of damage to society, so everyone comes out ahead except the patent trolls.

One friend asked if I thought patent reform was truly the most important cause in the entire world, and if not, why not donate to the more important one?  I have a few explanations, but I must acknowledge I made the decision first and then looked for why I made it.  The easy answer is that the world is complicated, and when the developing world catches up with us, I want what they catch up with to be not just materially comfortable, but… well honestly I want some sort of Star Trek utopia where all material needs are sated and people do things for sheer love of learning.  But failing that, I at least want a world where individuals can invent things that improve the world.  I don’t want us getting stuck at any particular rung on the ladder.

The other reason is that donating to the EFF isn’t supposed to be penance or an indulgence, it’s supposed to undo a specific harm I did.  I am deeply uncomfortable with justifying unethical behavior by helping some greater good.  For one, humans are bad at math, so it’s easy to see that doing net harm.  But even if all the trades are strictly advantageous it complicates the system, which ultimately makes it harder to get my Star Trek utopia.  Sometimes that complication is necessary and moral, but if you are in a situation where that is necessary you should probably find someone else to do it.  My talents lie in simplifying.

Why I donated to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood

Neither is a neglected cause.  I mean, I wish they had more money, but in the scope of finite resources to billions of worthy causes, they’re relatively unneglected.  Certainly they have non-EA movements supporting them.  Which is why I didn’t give them much money.  But they both also politically tenuous, and benefit from donations not just with what they buy, but with evidence of a supporter they can brandish threateningly to politicians.  That’s a pretty cheap way for me to influence policy.

Donations in 2014

I have been trying to figure out how much money I want to donate, and where I want to donate to.  As I described before, my past habit has been maximizing employer matching plus a bit.  That no longer felt sufficient to me, but as I upped the number I started feeling a lot of anxiety.  It’s not about giving up luxury consumption, or having a smaller home, or anything material.  It’s the worry that $15k worth of dental surgery and 4.5 months without any income will not be the worst thing that happens to me, and I’ll need the money for that.  Or that I will have enough money to be okay, but will cut it close enough that I become miserable and miserly.  I like who I am a lot more when I have enough cushion to feel safe.  That’s why I get to the airport much earlier than necessary: so can walk at a leisurely pace and let stressed people ahead of me instead of racing old ladies in walkers to the security line.

Trying to pick a particular number just wasn’t working- it was either too low to satisfy my moral needs or too high to satisfy my safety needs.  So I decided to come up with a formula first, and then abide by what it said.  In that same post I described a severe preference for consumption taxes over income taxes, so I picked a number (20%), and calculated my spending.  This took a little bit of doing- I have several credit cards, plus a few expenses paid out of checking directly, plus I did not feel like medical expenses should be taxed, and of course previous donations shouldn’t be counted as consumption.  But I made a pretty good estimate rounded up to the nearest 10k, and got: exactly my employer matching cap.

I could have upped the percent more, but that’s basically me choosing a number, which is what I was trying to avoid.  So I began really digging in to why income based obligations bothered me so much.  Some of it was that I felt like I had more control over consumption than income.  I have low fixed expenses so that’s in some ways true, but if I am low on money, the correct thing to do is spend less and earn more regardless of whether I’m taxed on consumption or earnings.  But it went deeper than that.   I make enough money that any extra goes into savings, not spending (I am aware both that this is incredibly fortunate and that I lack the life experience to appreciate just how fortunate).  Savings are good and they brought me a lot of security this year, but since they happen automatically my internal sense of wealth doesn’t particularly go up when I have more.  Whereas writing large checks definitely makes me feel poorer.  So I was correctly predicting my irrational feeling that giving away 10% of my income would mean increases in real income would make me feel poorer, and balking.  While I have to commend myself for accurately anticipating something that weird, it was also a fixable problem.  I spent some time sitting down and figuring out exactly how my savings had grown this year, and suddenly any argument I couldn’t afford 10% seemed awful.  So while I’m not ready to sign the pledge just yet, I decided to give the GWWC recommended percentage.  Scott Alexander’s argument that if everyone gave 10% we would literally have more money than we knew what to do with was prominent in my mind here.

Then I needed to define “10% of what, exactly?”  John suggests the income line on my W2, but that includes stock grants (which for tax reasons I really shouldn’t sell right now) and excludes health insurance.  My health insurance has been way too useful this year for it to not count as income.  Plus I won’t know the W2 number until I get all my W2 forms, and that will be tricky this year because I did eventually get disability payments, some of which are taxed and some aren’t.  And hey, given that they’re not taxed (because the premiums were paid with post-tax money), does that mean they shouldn’t count towards my income?

Finally, I hit on a solution: use last year’s income.*  I spent 10 minutes on the IRS’s ridiculous new efile system, got roughly my income for last year, and used this year’s COBRA costs to estimate the value of my insurance last year.  I didn’t get any equity or disability last year, so I can figure it out later.  The W2 income isn’t exactly right (For the benefit of the IRS: this is a 401k issue, not tax fraud), but I was done investigating this, so I rounded up, divided by 10, and got A Number.  It may not be the exactly correct number, but it is most certainly close enough that the correct thing to do is stop fiddling.

Except.

All this donation is done partially because helping people live better lives is awesome, and partially because my ability to make so much money is dependent on a number of things I didn’t earn.  My genetics, the time and place of my birth, a feminist movement that opened up lucrative work to me,  a substantial investment in my education made by my parents.    This doesn’t mean I didn’t work very hard or make excellent choices, it just means that I would not have had the same results if I worked this hard and made this quality of choices after being born in Ethiopia, or in 1900.  10% of my income to discharge that debt is actually a pretty good deal.  But there are certain choices I make that incur additional debt.  One is eating animals.  And then there’s high-fixed-cost low-marginal-cost goods I could free ride on, like wikipedia.

Then there’s the question of where to send the money the bulk of the money.  The goal is to have the highest marginal impact, which means picking not strictly the most useful thing, or the most neglected thing, but some combination thereof.  Against Malaria Foundation’s math is very compelling, but so is their story, so they should have an easier time getting funding from non-EAs than GiveDirectly.  I think the research determining what the next Next Big Thing is important, less likely to be funded, and just more interesting to me personally.  So I funded some of that by giving GiveWell an unrestricted donation.

[To be fair, GiveDirectly invests an enormous amount in trying new things and checking their own work.  That is why I gave them some money.  But they are are never going to work in American criminal justice or chronic pain, so they don’t get all the money.]

I also donated to Social Justice Northwest Fund (full disclosure: a fellow EA member is on the board), which is in many ways a (much, much) fuzzier GiveWell.  Their goal is to fund small grassroots organizations working for social/economic/criminal justice and racial/gender/queer equality.  These are important communities to help, they’re often not tapped in to the regular funding machine, and the history of people (usually whiter and richer) who are tapped in to them coming in to help is not good.  SJN gives them money so they can get started.  Many of these organizations are not as efficient or effective as the top GiveWell organizations, but they will not get better unless they are given money and room to fail.  Absent a convenient measure of “utility founder/community knowledge gained”, I have to make my best guess and accept that there will be some inefficiencies.

With all that said, here are my total donations for the year.  I’ll be writing more posts with explanations for specific charities, check the comments for links.

St Stephen’s Protestant Episcopal Church (runs a food bank in Ferguson): $500
Modest Needs: $1544 (this was before I was so strongly into EA)
GiveDirectly: $4547
Planned Parenthood: $10
ACLU: $10
Mercy for Animals: $500
Ocean Conservancy: $250
GiveWell (unrestricted): $3000
Social Justice Fund Northwest: $2500
Electronic Frontier Foundation: $2500 (half my patent bonus)

From this you can approximately derive my income last year.  I’m not thrilled about this, but I think the social norms that make me uncomfortable hurt employees to the benefit of employers, so I am trying to fight them.  Apart from the tens of thousands of dollars we donated, one of the best parts of Seattle Effective Altruists Donation Decision day was when a subgroup of us (with comparable jobs) shared our salaries with each other.  It was really informative.

*When I brought this up at my EA group, people were evenly split as to whether this was brilliant or cheating, by which I mean Brian thought it was brilliant and Stephanie thought it was cheating and no one else cared.

My Comparative Advantage in Effective Altruism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Ferguson, part 2

I talked before about the challenges in supporting causes like Ferguson, where the best work is being done spontaneously and you have very little information.  It turns out I do have a little bit of a connection- a good friend’s little brother goes to college in St. Louis, and he has a professor he considers a local expert on the subject of activism in St. Louis.  I realize that readers as smart and informed as my own will give “blogger’s friend’s little brother’s professor” very little weight as a source.  But sharing this information is better than not, so here it goes:

So after a bunch of back and forth with Bob Hansman, a professor here who is probably the person in St. Louis I trust the most to know how various charities affect people on the ground here, we decided that the best place to donate is the United Way of Greater St. Louis’s Ferguson Fund.

If you’re curious, I looked at various people on the ground and activist groups to see how to (or if we should) get them money. The problem was that many of these groups are not super active or transparent and that they advocate their own solutions to the complex issues at play here. For example, the most recent cause one of these groups organized for was a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers.

I wanted to send out a recommendation that was more broadly applicable. United Way seems to be pretty transparent and post a lot of updates on where this money is going. They also are supporting independent groups who are trying to figure out how to solve the problems in Ferguson, like the Ferguson Commission appointed by the governor. Hard not to get behind that.

I found this surprising.  United Way is often held up as everything that’s wrong with charity: a big, lumbering organization more concerned with their own status than the people they are helping.  And yet, they seem to be doing good work here, including supporting more nimble organizations.  I think I will be putting some money towards this.