Taking Effective Altruism Seriously

post by Salemicus · 2015-06-07T06:59:15.519Z · score: 2 (42 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 125 comments

Contents

  Background
  Doing better
  A greater charity
  Feedback
  Commitment mechanisms
  Further thoughts and alternatives
  Conclusion
None
125 comments

Epistemic status: 90% confident.

Inspiration: Arjun Narayan, Tyler Cowen.

The noblest charity is to prevent a man from accepting charity, and the best alms are to show and enable a man to dispense with alms.

Moses Maimonides.

Background

Effective Altruism (EA) is "a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world." Along with the related organisation GiveWell, it often focuses on getting the most "bang for your buck" in charitable donations. Unfortunately, despite their stated aims, their actual charitable recommendations are generally wasteful, such as cash transfers to poor Africans. This leads to the obvious question - how can we do better?

Doing better

One of the positive aspects of EA theory is its attempt to widen the scope of altruism beyond the traditional. For instance, to take into account catastrophic risks, and the far future. However, altruism often produces a far-mode bias where intentions matter above results. This can be a particular problem for EA - for example, it is very hard to get evidence about how we are affecting the far future. An effective method needs to rely on a tight feedback loop between action and results, so that continual updates are possible. At the extreme, Far Mode operates in a manner where no updating on results takes place at all. However, it is also important that those results are of significant magnitude as to justify the effort. EA has mostly fallen into the latter trap - achieving measurable results, but which are of no greater consequence.

The population of sub-Saharan Africa is around 950 million people, and growing. They have been a prime target of aid for generations, but it remains the poorest region of the world. Providing cash transfers to them mostly merely raises consumption, rather than substantially raising productivity. A truly altruistic program would enable the people in these countries to generate their own wealth so that they no longer needed poverty - unconditional transfers, by contrast, is an idea so lazy even Bob Geldof could stumble on it. The only novel thing about the GiveWell program is that the transfers are in cash.

Unfortunately, no-one knows how to turn poor African countries into productive Western ones, short of colonization. The problem is emphatically not a shortage of capital, but rather low productivity, and the absence of effective institutions in which that capital can be deployed. Sadly, these conditions and institutions cannot simply be transplanted into those countries.

A greater charity

However, there do exist countries with high productivity, and effective institutions in which that capital can be deployed. That capital then raises world productivity. As F.A. Harper wrote:

Savings invested in privately owned economic tools of production amount to... the greatest economic charity of all.

That is because those tools increase the productivity of labour, and so raise output. The pie has grown. Moreover, the person who invests their portion of the pie into new capital is particularly altruistic, both because they are not taking a share themselves, and because they are making a particularly large contribution to future pies.

In the same way that using steel to build tanks means (on the margin) fewer cars and vice-versa, using craftsmen to build a new home means (on the margin) fewer factories and vice-versa. Investment in capital is foregone consumption. Moreover, you do not need to personally build those economic tools; rather, you can part-finance a range of those tools by investing in the stock market, or other financial mechanisms.

Now, it's true that little of that capital will be deployed in sub-Saharan Africa at present, due to the institutional problems already mentioned. Investing in these countries will likely lead to your capital being stolen or becoming unproductive - the same trap that prevents locals from advancing equally prevents foreign investors from doing so. However, if sub-Saharan Africa ever does fix its culture and institutions, then the availability of that capital will then serve to rapidly raise productivity and then living standards, much as is taking place in China. Moreover, by making the rest of the world richer, this increases the level of aid other countries could provide to sub-Saharan Africa in future, should this ever be judged desirable. It also serves to improve the emigration prospects of individuals within these countries.

Feedback

Another great benefit of capital investment is the sharp feedback mechanism. The market economy in general, and financial markets in particular, serve to redistribute capital from ineffective to effective ventures, and from ineffective to effective investors. As a result, it is no longer necessary to make direct (and expensive) measurements of standards of living in sub-Saharan Africa; as long as your investment fund is gaining in value, you can rest safe in the knowledge that its growth is contributing, in a small way, to future prosperity.

Commitment mechanisms

However, if investment in capital is foregone consumption, then consumption is foregone investment. If I invest in the stock market today (altruistic), then in ten years' time spend my profits on a bigger house (selfish), then some of the good is undone. So the true altruist will not merely create capital, he will make sure that capital will never get spent down. One good way of doing that would be to donate to an institution likely to hold onto its capital in perpetuity, and likely to grow that capital over time. Perhaps the best example of such an institution would be a richly-endowed private university, such as Harvard, which has existed for almost 400 years and is said to have an endowment of $32 billion.

John Paulson recently gave Harvard $400 million. Unfortunately, this meant he came in for a torrent of criticism from people claiming he should have given the money to poor Africans, etc. I hope to see Effective Altruists defending him, as he has clearly followed through on their concepts in the finest way.

Further thoughts and alternatives

 

Conclusion


Effective altruists should be applauded for trying to bring evidence and reason to a subject that is plagued by far-mode thinking. But taking their ideas seriously quickly leads to a much more radical approach.

 

125 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-05T20:39:21.305Z · score: 28 (34 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, despite their stated aims, their actual charitable recommendations are generally wasteful

So far as I can see, you (Salemicus, author of the OP) present no evidence for this, beyond the following claims:

  • That sub-Saharan Africa remains poor even though a lot of charity has been sent its way.
    • True, but it is a lot less poor than it used to be and way fewer people are, e.g., starving to death there.
    • Africa has received something like $1tn in aid over the last 50 years. That's about $20 per person per year, and about 1% of Africa's GDP per year. We shouldn't expect that to solve all Africa's problems, and the fact that it hasn't isn't evidence of anything interesting.
  • That cash transfers to the people there merely raise consumption rather than increasing productivity.
    • The paper you link to doesn't appear to say that cash transfers don't increase productivity (I don't think it considers that question as such), but it does say that "transfers increase investment in and revenue from livestock and small businesses".
    • In an area whose problems include people actually starving, increasing consumption is a good thing.
    • Most of the top charities recommended by, e.g., GiveWell are not doing cash transfers, they are doing health interventions. One of the reasons for this is that health interventions improve people's future productivity.
  • That "the problem is emphatically not a shortage of capital".
    • You offer no support at all for this claim.

I agree that "let's give or lend our money to rich Westerners instead of giving it to, or spending it on, poor Africans" is a "more radical" approach to charity. However, I don't see that you've given much reason to think it's a better one.

[EDITED a couple of times to diddle with formatting, and again to fix a ridiculous billions-versus-trillions error kindly pointed out by gwern.]

comment by gwern · 2015-06-08T02:01:21.432Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Africa has received something like $1bn in aid over the last 50 years.

I think you made a typo of a couple orders of magnitude there... You really think Africa has received only an average of $50m a year? The Millennium Villages Project alone has received that much from a single donor.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-08T08:08:22.105Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Typo, sorry, $1T not $1B. (The other figures aren't out by the same three orders of magnitude: 10^12/50/10^9 really is about 20, and 10^12/50/(2x10^12) really is about 1%.) Thanks for catching this; I'll edit my comment.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-07T19:59:16.082Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There are two ways of interpreting "more wasteful".

The first is: more wasteful economically. This seems pretty robust, investments in sub-Saharan Africa have historically generated much less wealth than investments in other countries. Moreover wealth continues to grow via reinvestment.

The second is: more wasteful ethically. This is harder to defend, but I think it is a reasonable conclusion though 90% confidence is a bit silly. While more wealth does result in decreased marginal returns on utility, it also results in faster growth. It's harder to say which effect dominates. Giving to sub-Saharans is a tradeoff between long term growth in wealth and short term utils. As people get more wealthy, they give more (in absolute terms) to charity. Therefore on the margin is better to increase the amount of wealth in the world (which will increase the amount that people give).

comment by anon85 · 2015-06-07T22:14:47.329Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The first is: more wasteful economically. This seems pretty robust, investments in sub-Saharan Africa have historically generated much less wealth than investments in other countries. Moreover wealth continues to grow via reinvestment.

It's not clear what you mean by this. Do you mean investments in Africa have generated less wealth for the investor? That might be true, but it doesn't mean they have generated less wealth overall. How would you measure this?

he second is: more wasteful ethically. This is harder to defend, but I think it is a reasonable conclusion though 90% confidence is a bit silly. While more wealth does result in decreased marginal returns on utility, it also results in faster growth. It's harder to say which effect dominates. Giving to sub-Saharans is a tradeoff between long term growth in wealth and short term utils. As people get more wealthy, they give more (in absolute terms) to charity. Therefore on the margin is better to increase the amount of wealth in the world (which will increase the amount that people give).

I believe the price of saving a QALY has been increasing much faster than the growth of capital. (Does anyone have a source?) This means it is most effective to donate money now.

On a meta level, arguments against donating now are probably partly motivated by wishful thinking by people who don't feel like donating money, and should be scrutinized heavily.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-08T01:53:49.897Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The rate of return on the stock market is around 10%. This is much faster than the rate of growth of sub-Saharan economies. Actually foreign aid might have a negative rate of return since most of the transfers are consumed rather than reinvested. Which isn't a problem per say - eventually you have to convert capital into QALYs even if that means you stop growing it (if you are an effective altruist). The question is how much, and when?

I didn't actually come up with the argument that investing now and donating later is more efficient. Robin Hanson did, and there has been some back and forth there which I highly recommend (so as not to retread over old arguments).

I believe the price of saving a QALY has been increasing much faster than the growth of capital. (Does anyone have a source?) This means it is most effective to donate money now.

Even if QALYs per dollar decrease exponentially and faster than the growth of capital (which you've asserted without argument - I simply think that no one knows), there is still the issue of whether investment followed by donation (to high marginal QALY causes), is more effective than direct donation. Its a very difficult optimization problem and while I don't know the answer to it, I'm disappointed by how overconfident people are that they know the answer.

comment by anon85 · 2015-06-08T12:11:21.168Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The rate of return on the stock market is around 10%

You didn't adjust for inflation; it's actually around 6 or 7%.

This is much faster than the rate of growth of sub-Saharan economies.

Depends on the country:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_domestic_product#/media/File:Gdp_real_growth_rate_2007_CIA_Factbook.PNG

Actually foreign aid might have a negative rate of return since most of the transfers are consumed rather than reinvested. Which isn't a problem per say - eventually you have to convert capital into QALYs even if that means you stop growing it (if you are an effective altruist). The question is how much, and when?

Yes, I agree. This is what I was getting at.

Robin Hanson did, and there has been some back and forth there which I highly recommend (so as not to retread over old arguments).

Thanks for the link! I will read through it.

(Edit: I read through it. It didn't say anything I didn't already know. In particular, it never argues that investing now to donate later is good in practice; it only argues this under the assumption that if QALY/dollar remains constant. This is obvious, though.)

Even if QALYs per dollar decrease exponentially and faster than the growth of capital (which you've asserted without argument - I simply think that no one knows)

That seems to me to be almost certainly true (e.g. malnutrition and disease have decreased a lot over the last 50 years, and without them there are less ways to buy cheap QALYs). However, you're right that I didn't actually research this.

there is still the issue of whether investment followed by donation (to high marginal QALY causes), is more effective than direct donation.

Huh? If we're assuming QALY/dollar decreases faster than your dollars increase, then doesn't it follow that you should buy QALYs now? I don't understand your point here.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-08T13:18:01.224Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is much faster than the rate of growth of sub-Saharan economies.

Depends on the country:

You cannot cherry pick a single year (a pretty non-representative year given the recession) in which the growth of a few sub-Saharan African countries was faster than the average growth of the stock market. to refute the claim that the stock market grows faster than sub-Saharan economies. A more complete data set shows that indeed the sub-Saharan economy has grown much slower than the stock market. This shouldn't be a controversial point.

Huh? If we're assuming QALY/dollar decreases faster than your dollars increase, then doesn't it follow that you should buy QALYs now? I don't understand your point here.

So what you are arguing is that the most efficient use of money to gain QALYs (not the average) has decreased exponentially and faster than the growth of capital over time? That seems very difficult to argue while taking into account increased knowledge and technology. But I have no idea how to calculate that.

comment by anon85 · 2015-06-08T16:04:39.514Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You cannot cherry pick a single year (a pretty non-representative year given the recession) in which the growth of a few sub-Saharan African countries was faster than the average growth of the stock market.

I didn't cherry-pick anything; that was the first google image result, so it's the one I linked to. I didn't think it's any different from a typical year. Is it? If so, what was special that year? If you're concerned that the US was in a recession, you can simply compare sub-Saharan Africa to the typical 6-7% stock market returns instead of comparing to the GDP growth of the US in that year.

So what you are arguing is that the most efficient use of money to gain QALYs (not the average) has decreased exponentially and faster than the growth of capital over time?

Yes!

That seems very difficult to argue while taking into account increased knowledge and technology. But I have no idea how to calculate that.

I don't claim to be able to exactly calculate it, but some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that it is true. For example, consider this from slatestarcodex:

http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/05/investment-and-inefficient-charity/

[...] in the 1960s, the most cost-effective charity was childhood vaccinations, but now so many people have donated to this cause that 80% of children are vaccinated and the remainder are unreachable for really good reasons (like they’re in violent tribal areas of Afghanistan or something) and not just because no one wants to pay for them. In the 1960s, iodizing salt might have been the highest-utility intervention, but now most of the low-iodine areas have been identified and corrected. While there is still much to be done, we have run out of interventions quite as easy and cost-effective as those. And one day, God willing, we will end malaria and maybe we will never see a charity as effective as the Against Malaria Fund again.

While I don't have the exact numbers, this seems to me to be self-evidently true if you know any history (to the point where I would say it is the onus of the "invest instead of donating" camp to prove this false).

comment by Journeyman · 2015-06-08T02:26:31.564Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Finally someone else who is thinking like an investor. See my longer comment below for more along this line of thought.

The other advantage of investing is that you have a degree of self-insurance against adverse events. This will help you and your family avoid falling on social safety nets (which could be seen as "negative EA"). Typically EA starts by thinking about foreign countries, but perhaps EA should start at home and move outward.

Additionally, investing and waiting helps deal with the problem of values. Right now, EA suffers from a lack of good moral arguments for what to do with money. The current dominant approaches depend on very narrow and politicized moral assumptions. Waiting will allow more time for better arguments to emerge and to see which direction the world is going.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-08T13:52:59.536Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

a lack of good moral arguments [...] very narrow and politicized moral assumptions

What sort of thing would you consider "good moral arguments"? What makes something "politicized"?

(It looks to me as if the EAs have pretty good moral arguments already, and as if they're politicized only in the sense that anything of importance where one set of interests trades off against another will attract political controversy.)

Waiting will allow more time for better arguments to emerge

People have been thinking fairly seriously about ethics, responsibilities towards other people, etc., for a very long time already. When do you expect better arguments to emerge, and why?

The other advantage of investing is that you have a degree of self-insurance [...] negative EA [...] perhaps EA should start at home and move outward.

You've suggested elsewhere in this thread that EAs may really be motivated not by a desire to help poor people but by a desire to look good at Bay Area parties. It's reasonable to wonder about such things, for sure. How sure are you that the position you're adopting here -- which seems scarcely distinguishable from "stop worrying about poor people in poor countries and take the actions that tend to enrich yourself as much as possible" isn't likewise motivated by a desire to have more money?

comment by Journeyman · 2015-06-09T06:44:37.025Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What sort of thing would you consider "good moral arguments"? What makes something "politicized"?

All moral arguments are either politicized or have the potential to be.

My impression is that EA assumes a utilitarian framework which weights people the same and operates mostly in near-mode. EA towards the third world has never been shown to be morally superior to advancing science, medicine, technology, X-risk reduction, or investing the money until better opportunities emerge.

Better moral arguments would involve taking a broader look at the future of humanity, and the current geopolitical and civilizational state of the world. EA does pay some attention to existential risks, but there is insufficient attention to risks that are short of existential risks. Think of all the risks an individual or society faces over a decade. Even if you take a bunch of low probability risks, the probability of at least one bad event happening is going to be higher.

My comment about Bay Area parties is suggesting that if EA's conclusions are all politically palatable, then this could be due to hidden political assumptions, or thinking in a bounded way.

It's certainly plausible that people are biased in favor of keeping their money in their pockets. But perhaps their pockets should be the default place to keep their money until compelling reasons appear to part with it.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-09T10:38:16.641Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

All moral arguments are either politicized or have the potential to be.

Your complaint was about moral assumptions rather than moral arguments. I would say the same about moral assumptions as you do about moral arguments, and suggest that therefore calling someone's moral assumptions "politicized" is not a cogent criticism unless you go further and explain why their politicitization is worse than every other assumption's.

Better moral arguments would involve taking a broader look at the future of humanity, [...]

I think there may be two different issues here that are at risk of getting mixed up. (1) If your aim is to make things better for the world's poorest people, or to optimize net utility (which at least superficially looks like calling for very similar actions), you need to consider the long as well as the short term, and it might turn out that those goals are best achieved by actions whose short-term consequences look bad for poor people or bad for net utility. (2) You might care more about other things than net utility or the plight of the least fortunate.

Of these, it seems to me that #1 is the one it's more helpful to discuss (because pure disagreements on values tend not to make for fruitful discussions) and is, at least ostensibly, the focus of most of the actual discussion here -- but unlike #2 is isn't actually a moral argument.

I do, for the avoidance of doubt, agree with #1. And it's not impossible that putting money into the US stock market does more expected long-term good for the world's poorest people than giving them money or buying them malaria nets. But the arguments deployed in support of that argument in this thread seem to me to be terrible in the same kind of way as the arguments for conventional EA are alleged to be, but with less excuse; and thinly disguised self-interest seems like an awfully plausible explanation for that.

I suppose I should make some attempt to justify my claim that the arguments are terrible, or at least explain it. Here is what I think is the best example.

Both Salemicus (in the OP) and pianoforte611 (a few articles upthread) seem just to tacitly assume that whatever produces the most growth must be best overall, and that this means not transferring any wealth to poorer people whose growth rate is lower. This seems to me exactly parallel to just tacitly assuming that whatever gives the most short-run benefit to the world's poorest people must be best overall. And I think it's flatly wrong. Here is a toy model to explain why I think so.

Consider a world made up of two populations, the Rich and the Poor. The sizes of these populations are, let's say, in the fixed ratio 1:a. At time t they have wealth per capita of u(t),v(t). Utility per person is proportional to log wealth. Wealth grows exponentially: u' = pu, v' = qv. We suppose u(0)>v(0) -- the rich are richer than the poor -- and p>q -- the rich generate more growth than the poor. We discount everyone's future utility by a factor exp(-rt); same discount rate r for rich and poor. And, finally, the rich give some fraction of their wealth to the poor, so the actual differential equations are u' = (p-c)u, v' = qv+cu.

So, the solution of these differential equations is a linear combination of exponentials that I won't bother you with; then the net utility looks like the integral from 0 to infinity of exp(-rt) log(linear combination of exponentials) which, so far as I know, doesn't have a closed form; so I used Mathematica to do it numerically.

The resulting plot of net utility against donation level c is typically not monotone decreasing; its global maximum is at a small but positive value. For instance, let's consider the Rich to consist of the US plus Western Europe (population about 720M) and the Poor to consist of sub-Saharan Africa (population about 800M) so crudely take a=1; take u(0)=40000 and v(0)=1700 (rough estimates of GDP per capita; not the same as wealth but it'll do; ratio of wealth will probably be much larger); take p=0.06 and q=0.03, although in fact I think sub-Saharan Africa is doing better than that lately; and take r=0.02 (which I think is lower than most people's discount rates; higher discount rates tend to favour more charity).

The resulting curve has its maximum at about c=0.01; about 1% of GDP in the Rich countries should be given to the Poor to maximize long-term net utility. Diddling with the parameters doesn't change this hugely; over a wide range of values we get optima roughly in the range 0.001 .. 0.02.

As long as the discount rate is fairly small, this model will never recommend a value of c much bigger than half the difference in growth rates -- because if c is bigger than that, the Poor get richer faster than the Rich do and in the long run they are richer than the Rich :-). (A better model would allow c to vary, and I bet it would end up recommending larger values of c while the Poor are much poorer than the Rich.)

comment by Journeyman · 2015-06-09T18:58:00.250Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think most of this discussion just boils down into a difference of values. You suggest that donating to the world's poorest people seems like to way to increase net utility, but this depends on a utility function and moral framework that I am questioning. I have alluded to at least two objections, which is that this outlook seems too near-mode, and it assumes that people should be weighted the same. I agree with you that getting into a deeper discussion of values would not be fruitful.

Your model is interesting, but it still looks like it weights utility of different people the same, and it doesn't take into account resulting incentives and externalities.

It's possible to imagine a value system and geopolitical picture where saving lives in the third world has zero utility, weakly positive utility, or weakly negative utility. If so, then investing in people who are productive at least does something with your money.

Or my suspicions could be wrong, and there could be flow-through effects that I would find compelling. If I had a comprehensive and strong alternative EA approach and clearly superior value system, then I could be more explicit.

I do want to clarify that I don't consider investing in the stock market to be EA, at least, not very strong EA. I see the stock market more as a way to grow money so that you can do EA later.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-10T01:12:08.965Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

it still looks like it weights utility of different people the same

It does, but if you (say) care about the utility of the Rich 100x more than you do about the utility of the Poor, you can compensate for that just by pretending there are 100x more Rich people. (More likely, of course, what you care about more is your own utility and that of people close to you. The effect is fairly similar.)

It's possible to imagine a value system and geopolitical picture where saving lives in the third world has zero utility [...]

Yes, it's possible. I don't (given my own values and epistemic state) see any reason to take that possibility any more seriously than, say, the possibility that increased economic growth in affluent nations is a bad thing overall. (Which it could be, likewise, given some value systems -- e.g., ones that strongly disvalue inequality as such -- or some geopolitical situations -- e.g., ones in which humanity is badly threatened by harms likely to be accelerated by more prosperous rich nations, such as harmful climate change or "unfriendly" AI.)

I don't consider investing in the stock market to be [...] very strong EA.

OK. So your position differs from the one Salemicus was espousing in the OP; fair enough.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-06-06T16:44:45.671Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Africa has received something like $1bn in aid over the last 50 years. That's about $20 per person per year

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-06T08:12:21.417Z · score: -3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I am astonished by this comment, and even more so that it has been upvoted. I wrote (and it's clear for all to see):

Providing cash transfers to [the people there] mostly merely raises consumption, rather than substantially raising productivity.

This is backed up by the paper, which notes that just 39% of the cash transfers boosted assets (see pg 12 and Table1), meaning that 61% of the transfer had been consumed. The productivity effects were similarly modest. And note that these figures were taken just one year after the transfer, and so likely overestimate the long-term effect; if more time had elapsed, it is likely that more of the capital would have been spent down. Note that this is the opposite of what we want. If the transferees were able to invest this money wisely, their assets after a period would be greater by more than 100% of the transfer.

You misquoted me, leaving out the "mostly" and "substantially," and then claim that I am misrepresenting the paper, because the paper does show some (small) effects on assets and productivity. Indeed it does, but this in no way contradicts what I wrote.

Do you have so little faith in your own position that you cannot bring yourself to quote me honestly?

comment by gjm · 2015-06-06T12:56:47.582Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

You misquoted me

I didn't quote you at all (aside from the very opening bit, which was verbatim, and a few words later in quotation marks), I paraphrased you. It wasn't my intention to paraphrase inaccurately, and I'm sorry if you consider that I did.

On the substantive question: first of all, there is a difference between what you say ("just 39% of the cash transfers boosted assets") and what the paper actually says (on average, assets were boosted by 39% of the cash transferred), and I think it's an important one. Secondly, we are talking here not about businesses but about people, and (regrettable though it may be) people need to eat. If you give money to someone whose family is close to starvation, and they spend a lot of the money on food, that is a good outcome.

(The portion of my comment that offended you was small; have you nothing to say about any of the rest?)

[EDITED to add: Er, of course maybe other bits offended you too; I meant "the portion that you singled out for comment and complaint". EDITED again some days later, to clarify a bit of wording that on reflection was much less clear than I'd thought it was.]

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:56:46.357Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If you give money to someone whose family is close to starvation, and they spend a lot of the money on food, that is a good outcome

Spending a lot of money on food is an action, it is not an outcome. You seem to want to imply that this action necessarily leads to good outcomes like not dying from starvation or not losing one's potential because of malnutrition -- but that's a much higher bar to clear. In some cases this is so, but in other cases consumption spending is essentially wasted (other than generating a few hedons).

comment by gjm · 2015-06-07T15:59:15.920Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Fair comment. So let me make a slightly less ambitious claim: If you give money to someone whose family is close to starvation, and they spend a lot of the money on food, that is on the face of it a good thing and shouldn't be assumed to be wasted merely because it's spending rather than investment.

As to whether the extra spending on food really was beneficial, it's hard to tell. The study looked at various health outcomes (conclusion: there seems to be no discernible overall improvement in their "health" index from the cash transfers they looked at; some individual measures, incidentally including the ones most obviously related to nutrition, seem to have improved, but one must beware of data-mining) and at measures of "food security" (which did improve substantially and significantly, but you might say that again they are measuring actions rather than outcomes).

other than generating a few hedons

Generating hedons efficiently is in fact a large fraction of what effective altruism is about. (At least for me; others may differ.) One of the reasons why sending money to places like sub-Saharan Africa seems like a promising approach is that hedons should be much cheaper there than, say, in Ireland or Canada.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T14:31:29.971Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Generating hedons efficiently is in fact a large fraction of what effective altruism is about.

Hm. That seems to point directly to wireheading.

However it seems to me that one of the things at the core of this discussion is the far-view vs. the near-view difference. Crudely speaking, "teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish" vs. "future success at fishing is useless to one dying of starvation right now"...

comment by gjm · 2015-06-08T14:46:13.968Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That seems to point directly to wireheading.

Pure hedon-maximization has that problem, yes, which is one reason why few people who've thought about the issues endorse that. But most systems of ethics include something that looks at least a bit like hedon-maximization. (Preference-satisfaction maximization. Maximization of things that usually lead to hedons. Maximization of hedons with some kind of weighting that values different kind of pleasures differently. ...) I don't think there are many people or cultures whose values don't say that it's generally better for a very hungry person to get a good meal.

Perhaps what you had in mind when talking about wasted consumption spending was spending on things much more frivolous than food. That's hard to assess, but the study we're discussing did distinguish a category of "temptation goods": alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. (I don't know why that particular choice of three.) They found that spending on these was not higher with cash transfers. (In their tables, I can find the entries for alcohol and tobacco -- spending on those appears to be lower for recipients of cash transfers, though the difference wasn't statistically significant. I don't see any numbers for gambling.)

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T15:11:27.513Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hedons are, of course, good things, it's the word "efficiently" which hinted at wireheading for me. And there is a tension between "some hedons right now" and "potentially more hedons, but later".

(I don't know why that particular choice of three.)

These are the traditional "sin" products (they're missing loose women in that list X-D).

From a hedon perspective, I am not sure why a pot of rice is better than a jug of palm wine.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-21T10:15:16.894Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So you're doubling down. Ok, whatever.

No, I have nothing to say about the rest of your comment. I think productive discussion normally requires that both participants feel the other is arguing in good faith. I don't feel that.

comment by dspeyer · 2015-06-05T17:19:47.670Z · score: 20 (20 votes) · LW · GW

The population of sub-Saharan Africa is around 950 million people, and growing. They have been a prime target of aid for generations, but it remains the poorest region of the world.

In absolute terms, conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have improved a lot. Saying "poorest" only states that it hasn't caught up with the rest of the world, which is also improving.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-06T08:18:51.506Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

That's true. But conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have improved by a lot less than in other regions that were extremely poor 50 years ago, such as China and South-East Asia. For most of that period, growth in Africa was slower than growth in the West, despite the fact that catch-up growth is much easier. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa continues to fall further behind China (growth rate of 4.24% versus 7.7%, both for 2013) despite the fact that catch-up growth should favour Africa.

This is not a success story.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-06T22:05:31.765Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

catch-up growth is much easier.

This is not obvious to me; should it be? If so, why?

(It seems to me that a lot of the factors that could make a country extremely poor would also make it harder for it to improve. A few examples: Shortage of natural resources; severe internal conflicts; endemic corruption; absent or badly deficient infrastructure; cultural traditions hostile to education, trade, etc. Or, to take an example I suspect you will find more likely than I do to be a large part of the picture, genetically-based mental inferiority.)

You might hope that a country that's further behind can be helped along by relatively cheap low-hanging fruit that other countries have already picked -- e.g., if even the most basic infrastructure is lacking, then provide the cheap most-basic infrastructure. But (1) the long history of roughly exponential economic growth suggests that actually returns may as well be accelerating as diminishing, and (2) if a country lacks even the most basic infrastructure that everyone else has had for ages, that's probably because something makes it harder to get that infrastructure in place there than elsewhere.

growth rate of 4.24% versus 7.7%, both for 2013

That's a nice cherry-picked statistic.

Some pages at the World Bank website list recent and (predicted) near-future GDP growth figures for various regions. Indeed, "Sub-Saharan Africa" comes out behind "East Asia and Pacific" (including China, but several other countries in that region have similar figures) -- but ahead of "Europe and Central Asia", "Latin America and the Caribbean" and "Middle East and North Africa", and a little behind "South Asia". (That's the complete list of regions there. In every case it's specifically the lower-income countries that they're looking at, which I guess is why e.g. there's no "North America" category.)

Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be improving reasonably fast, as troubled regions of the world go. In particular, I'm not seeing evidence that it's doing so badly as to discredit the idea of trying to help it out.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:23:56.664Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is not obvious to me; should it be?

Yes, catch-up growth is easier -- there are lots of studies. The reason is a combination of several things like starting from a low base and not needing to discover anything: all you need to do is implement well-known technologies and policies.

This should not mean that generating growth is easy for undeveloped countries -- lots of them are unable to. But those countries which manage to get to a lift-off and into a positive feedback loop do generate very high catch-up growth rates for a period of time. The obvious current example is China.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T11:09:04.863Z · score: 16 (16 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, no-one knows how to turn poor African countries into productive Western ones, short of colonization.

The UN millennium goals of halving the amount of people in extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015 was successfully achieved 5 years ahead of schedule. We achieved that without any colonization.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2015-06-07T06:59:28.410Z · score: 9 (13 votes) · LW · GW

Moved to Discussion.

comment by Journeyman · 2015-06-07T21:44:35.650Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

This post has some faults, but it correctly points out the narrowness of currently EA thinking.

The problem with effective altruism is that it depends on values, and values are hard. Values are also notoriously gameable by politics. Currently, EA is Afrocentric and only effective for a very narrow value system.

EA is focused on saving the max number of lives in the present, or giving directly to the poorest areas. This approach is beneficial for those people, but it's not clear that this approach has a large impact on the future of humanity. It also seems very near-mode.

GiveWell claims that there are flow-through effects of charity, such as greater economic development, but these are underspecified.

Science, technology, medicine, and economic development has had a large positive impact on humanity. The style of EA that appeals to me would focus on promoting those things. Existential risk reduction also has appeal. Current EA claims to benefit economic development, but it's not clear that it's the best way to do that. And current EA seems weak for promoting science, technology, and medicine.

Most scientific, medical, and technological advances have come from the West (and Asia). If we want to see more of those advances, then shouldn't we be investing capital in the places with a historical track record of accomplishment?

If you are approaching EA with the attitude of an investor in the future of humanity, then you must also consider national differences in IQ and the correlation of intelligence with per capita income. An investor with a blank slate attitude will be sorely disappointed, because many areas will likely hit a wall in accomplishment.

The current EA approach seems to focus on aid over investment. From a redistributive standpoint, helping the most needy makes sense. Yet from an investment standpoint, helping the most productive makes more sense, even if the bang for your buck is less. Since the most productive people are typically less needy, these two approaches come to diametrically opposite conclusions. There is also a potential conflict between X-risk reduction and technological progress. This underscores how values are hard, and the tensions between different potential value systems in EA.

Yet perhaps there is a way to reconcile the aid and investment approaches: find a place in the world that has poverty or other problems but is high in human capital, and invest there. Is there really no such place in the world like this?

EA's current research seems focus on need-based, accomplishment-blind aid, but this only satisfies a narrow range of the values that EA could represent. It is curious that all major recommended EA interventions seem politically appealing, and there have been no major EA interventions proposed (to my knowledge) that are politically incorrect. Yes, EA has recommend avoiding certain popular interventions, but only in order to get better results within the same progressive value system.

We live in a very convenient world if helping humanity involves doing things that just happen to make people look good in Bay Area parties and the media in 2015. I am concerned that there is a file drawer effect for potential EA approaches that are politically awkward.

comment by Viliam · 2015-06-08T08:19:03.290Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

We live in a very convenient world if helping humanity involves doing things that just happen to make people look good in Bay Area parties and the media in 2015.

Would it be a more or less convenient world, if helping humanity involved giving money to rich and smart people living in the Bay Area? (Which is what your solution seems to suggest.)

comment by Journeyman · 2015-06-09T06:51:43.197Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

My intuition is that if you want to see more good stuff happen, then maybe we should be giving some resources to the kinds of people who have made good stuff happen historically, and make sure we are getting a return on investment. I do not think all these people are located in the Bay Area, and my previous post does suggest trying to find poor people who are likely to be highly productive.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-08T13:26:37.244Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Flow through effects have not been completely ignored by GiveWell. But their comments on it are much less rigorous and careful than their other work:

http://www.jefftk.com/p/flow-through-effects-conversation

http://blog.givewell.org/2013/05/15/flow-through-effects/

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T10:59:44.304Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

To the extent this critique, it may be that Effective Altruists should focus on promoting a pro-innovation and pro-liberty mindset

It's quite easy to say that you want to promote a pro-liberty mindset. There seems to be a lot of corporate money invested in think tanks to promote the concept of economic freedom.

What's makes you think there a good way for EA's to spend money in that region that isn't already funded?

We also want some government regulation to prevent Xrisk.

comment by homunq · 2015-06-06T15:43:09.527Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW · GW

I think you can make this critique more pointed. That is: "pro-liberty" is flag-waving rhetoric which makes us all stupider.

I dislike the "politics is a mind-killer" idea if it means we can't talk about politically touchy subjects. But I entirely agree with it if it means that we should be careful to keep our language as concrete and precise as possible when we approach these subjects. I could write several paragraphs about all the ways that the term "pro-liberty" takes us in the wrong direction, but I expect that most of you can figure all that out for yourselves.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T01:06:08.594Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, the use of a flagrant applause light to disguise confused thinking in this article is a big red flag. He is advocating a peculiar view of economic development held in some very right-wing economics circles, but economic development is not altruistic in the sense that the Effective Altruism movement means: it does not generate utility for any particular human individuals who happen to be suffering now, and in fact often generates very few "hedons" per marginal dollar invested, because the rich are well into diminishing happiness returns to marginal wealth increases.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:11:07.548Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

economic development is not altruistic in the sense that the Effective Altruism movement means: it does not generate utility for any particular human individuals who happen to be suffering now

Like capitalism?

comment by fubarobfusco · 2015-06-07T20:26:41.879Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Which "capitalism"? The word is used to mean too many things.

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense that has been around since the Dutch and British East India Companies: the synergy, at the national level, of military force and private investment to meet those ambitions of the national elite that could not be funded by the hereditary conqueror class alone?

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense of Adam Smith — an independent private business sector, enabled by government regulation to prevent collusion and fraud, but freed from nationalist mercantilism?

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense of Marx — a globalizing economy focused around the ownership of capital by a shrinking minority class; with the non-owning class eventually reduced to possessing nothing of value but their labor, and their eventual privation through mechanized overproduction?

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense of Ayn Rand — an economy in which the greatest human aspirations are realized through the unshackling of great men from their subjection to unworthy men, and from irrational ideologies such as altruism?

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense of the "first world", the Western faction in the 20th-century Cold War, with its particular institutions, ideologies, and alliances — but particularly with its opposition to the "communist" Soviet and Chinese geopolitical axes?

Do you mean "capitalism" in the sense of particular current political parties or forces which are opposed to social-democratic measures (e.g. national health care) and various forms of industrial regulation (e.g. environmentalism)?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T14:39:29.627Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I mean capitalism as the empirically observed economic organization of the world's richest countries for the past couple of centuries.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T06:11:55.964Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If by that you mean, "capitalism does not generate utility for any particular human individuals" and so on, yes.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T14:40:37.606Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Does that not create a bit of a problem, then, given that capitalism is one of the best things that humanity came up with during the last few centuries?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T18:59:43.538Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't take that as given, particularly since taking such a statement as given tends to involve packing all the nice things about modernity into the word "capitalism" while simultaneously shoving all the nasty consequences of capitalism into some other word.

comment by jsteinhardt · 2015-06-07T17:05:43.708Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the claim is that capitalism increases (something like) total wealth but this does not necessarily entail increasing the wealth of each personal individually. In fact, most people could see their wealth decrease under capitalism, and some such as Piketty would (I think) say that this is the limit we are heading towards.

While I agree that capitalism is responsible for quite a few good things, at the end of the day it's just an (extremely stable) economic system, and figuring out realistic ways to deal with some of its shortcomings seems like an incredibly important problem, though not one I know how to solve.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-06-07T17:43:40.066Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The rich getting ever riches doesn't sound stable to me, since the poor periodically get fed up and hang the rich. Capitalism+redistribution could be stabler though.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-08T02:46:57.218Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think the claim is that capitalism increases (something like) total wealth but this does not necessarily entail increasing the wealth of each personal individually.

Perhaps, but it does increase the wealth of nearly each person individually. The average American today, heck even the bottom 1% American today is wealthier then a rich ring ~200 years ago.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T14:37:14.141Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

it's just an ... economic system

Heh. It's just the system which achieved this :-)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-06-07T16:44:00.084Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'll agree with that, if you agree it's also one of the worst.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:10:13.715Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I could write several paragraphs about all the ways that the term "pro-liberty" takes us in the wrong direction

Do you believe that existing human societies can evolve (or made to move) in the direction of more liberty or in the direction of less liberty? Is this axis meaningful to you?

comment by Dahlen · 2015-06-08T07:16:52.142Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Whether liberty is a useful metric for societies is beside the point, the point was that it is disingenuous to use "pro-liberty" as a codeword for "pro-private sector", which is exactly what you appear to aim for here. The rhetoric of "pro-liberty" was already coloured capitalist before this discussion even started; it's difficult and risky to bargain for taking the term at face value, against collective perception. So if one means to praise the merits of free market policies, it is best if one does so honestly and openly, and if there is no way to present your viewpoint sympathetically without using buzzwords, best to leave it out of the discussion entirely.

There are a lot of separate discussions we could have about the relationship between economic freedom and overall freedom, the distribution of freedom, categories most in need of liberation, whether capitalism macht frei and so on. But they have little bearing on this discussion, and it's best for all participants to not conflate terms for rhetorical value.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T14:48:28.813Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

which is exactly what you appear to aim for here

You may be confused -- I'm not the OP.

So if one means to praise the merits of free market policies, it is best if one does so honestly and openly

One of the huge benefits/consequences/advantages of free market policies is the advancement of liberty (where this term is taken at face value). I see no reason to pretend this benefit does not exist.

conflate terms for rhetorical value

I don't see any conflating going on. Free markets and (social and political) liberty are correlated and many people have made the point that you can't have the latter without the former. I think this correlation is an empirically observable fact. What someone thinks is "in need of liberation" is neither here nor there.

comment by Dahlen · 2015-06-08T16:52:50.505Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just because you are libertarian and, understandably, freedom in general seems to you inseparable from (or sufficiently strongly correlated with) free-market capitalism does not mean that this notion is not up for debate. There are people who value freedom, who do not value laissez faire capitalism, and until there is reasonable proof that their value system is incoherent, it is and remains disingenuous to use pro-liberty to really mean pro-capitalism. And the discussion on that is its own can of worms; the concept of freedom is stupendously broad and, if you're not being very intellectually rigorous, can be used to justify any action taken by anyone ever.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T17:23:24.369Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

it is and remains disingenuous to use pro-liberty to really mean pro-capitalism

You are not listening: wanting the outcome of liberty (at face value) and believing that there is an empirical correlation between free markets and liberty is a reasonable and defensible position. It's not even a bit disingenuous to be pro-liberty (at face value) and to believe that pro-capitalism is the best (some people would even say "only") way to get there.

You seem strangely unwilling to accept the pro-liberty inclinations literally, at face value. The observation that things are complicated is not a good justification here.

comment by homunq · 2015-07-12T23:08:06.629Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Whether something is a defensible position, and whether it should be embedded in the very terms you use when more-neutral terms are available, are separate questions.

If you say "I'm pro-liberty", and somebody else says "no you're not, and I think we could have a better discussion if you used more specific terms", you don't get to say "why won't you accept me at face value".

comment by Lumifer · 2015-07-13T14:38:21.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

you don't get to say "why won't you accept me at face value".

Oh, but I do :-)

The issue in this subthread is whether the call for liberty is a terminal goal in itself or is it a proxy for some other, hidden goal (here -- laissez-faire capitalism).

comment by homunq · 2015-07-14T00:52:05.873Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I disagree. I think the issue is whether "pro-liberty" is the best descriptive term in this context. Does it point to the key difference between things it describes and things it doesn't? Does it avoid unnecessary and controversial leaps of abstraction? Are there no other terms which all discussants would recognize as valid, if not ideal? No, no, and no.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-07-14T14:31:29.022Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Would you like to suggest a better term for the subject of this subthread, then?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-06T08:43:32.252Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I do not think you are right, after reading your arguments and the discussion below; yet I upvoted your post for at least the reason that it provided a perspective of which I would not have thought otherwise. This is exactly what discussion is for.

comment by Kawoomba · 2015-06-06T16:54:30.072Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I too have the impression that for the most part the scope of the "effective" in EA refers to "... within the Overton window". There's the occasional stray 'radical solution', but usually not much beyond "let's judge which of these existing charities (all of which are perfectly societally acceptable) are the most effective".

Now there are two broad categories to explain that:

a) Effective altruists want immediate or at least intermediate results / being associated with "crazy" initiatives could mean collateral damage to their efforts / changing the Overton window to accommodate actually effective methods would be too daunting a task / "let's be realistic", etc.

b) Effective altruists don't want to upset their own System 1 sensibilities, their altruistic efforts would lose some of the fuzzies driving them if they needed to justify "mass sterilisation of third world countries" to themselves.

Solutions to optimization problems tend to set to extreme values all those variables which aren't explicitly constrained. The question then is which ideals we're willing to sacrifice in order to achieve our primary goals.

As an example, would we really rather have people decide just how many children they want to to create, only to see those children perish in the resulting population explosion? Will we influence that decisions only based on "provide better education, then hope for the best", in effect preferring starving families with the choice to procreate whenever to non-starving families without said choice?

I do believe it would be disastrous for EA as a movement to be associated with ideas too far outside the Overton window, and that is a tragedy, because it massively restricts EA's maximum effectiveness.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:29:14.625Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

it massively restricts EA's maximum effectiveness

It's not that simple. Implementation of radical outside-of-Overton policies requires not only the willingness to do so. You need to have sufficient power to say "We will do this and the rest of the world can go jump into the lake".

EA is very very VERY far away from such an amount of power.

(That is a good thing)

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T17:27:57.817Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

b) Effective altruists don't want to upset their own System 1 sensibilities, their altruistic efforts would lose some of the fuzzies driving them if they needed to justify "mass sterilisation of third world countries" to themselves.

I think the likely result of any attempt of a mass sterilisation project is increased population because you don't get it to work but Western doctors in the third world lose credibility.

Will we influence that decisions only based on "provide better education, then hope for the best",

We actually have good data that better education decreases birth rates.

comment by Kawoomba · 2015-06-06T17:56:31.038Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Certainly, within what's Good (tm) and Acceptable (tm), funding better education in the third world is the most effective method.

However, if you go far enough outside the Overton window, you don't need credibility, as long as the power asymmetry is big enough. You want food? It only comes with a chemical agent which sterilizes you, similar to Golden Rice. You don't need to accept it, you're free to starve. The failures of colonialism as well as the most recent forays into the middle east stem from the constraints of also having to placate the court of public opinion.

Regardless of this one example, are you taking the position of "the most effective methods are those within the Overton window"? That would be typical, but the actual question would be: Is it because changing the Overton window to include more radical options is too hard, or is it because those more radical options wouldn't feel good?

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-07T05:53:59.834Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

You want food? It only comes with a chemical agent which sterilizes you, similar to Golden Rice. You don't need to accept it, you're free to starve

Again I think the likely result of your project is lost influence because you provide ammunition to various people who don't want to have Western doctors in their country.

You want food? It only comes with a chemical agent which sterilizes you, similar to Golden Rice. You don't need to accept it, you're free to starve

I think you have a bad model of political realities. Even if individual citizens of a third world country would accept that, the power that be in that society don't. Additionally you will be able to distribute less condoms.

Regardless of this one example, are you taking the position of "the most effective methods are those within the Overton window"?

Almost per definition the mere act of discussing ideas outside of the Overton window publically comes with a cost even if you just discuss them and not do anything further.

To the extend that you discuss them you don't do that publically.

However, if you go far enough outside the Overton window, you don't need credibility, as long as the power asymmetry is big enough.

Almost per definition the person who moves outside of the Overton window doesn't have a big amount of power.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T01:03:29.966Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you were really intent on extending the Overton window in general, you would include Communist solutions as well as fascist ones ;-).

comment by [deleted] · 2015-08-01T11:28:22.144Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You're assuming that system 1 sensibilities aren't a useful heuristic for evaluating what's effective given finite evaluation resources.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T00:59:02.980Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Solutions to optimization problems tend to set to extreme values all those variables which aren't explicitly constrained. The question then is which ideals we're willing to sacrifice in order to achieve our primary goals.

No, the question is why you're employing algorithms that routinely tell you to drink 500 gallons of vinegar per day, sterilize the poor, or take other obviously ridiculous actions.

It is probably usually better to just use probabilistic constraint methods, in which solutions that meet your constraints better are more likely - but all other variables are allowed to vary randomly subject to the minimum necessary causal constraints - and sample until you find a satisfactory solution.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-07T02:47:15.987Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It is probably usually better to just use probabilistic constraint methods, in which solutions that meet your constraints better are more likely - but all other variables are allowed to vary randomly subject to the minimum necessary causal constraints - and sample until you find a satisfactory solution.

This objection reads as both rude and wrong to me. First, it seems rude to link to a paper to explain a term when that paper neither explains nor embodies that term; it reads as just trying to browbeat your audience into submission.

Second, it seems wrong because the underlying issue that you're unhappy with--a constraint or objective that we consider important is left out--is not solved by sampling from the solution space instead of deterministically finding optimal points. There's no morality from randomness! The methodology of 'preferentially sample until you find a satisfactory solution' is not appreciably better than 'iteratively add constraints until you find a satisfactory solution,' and to my eyes it's considerably worse. (Specifically, what groups of optimization methods are you comparing, and what feature of the latter group makes them superior on what metric?)

And if your complaint really is "maximization has problems," then say that maximization has problems, not that sampling from a distribution (which, in the limit, maximizes) solves those problems.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T06:11:24.016Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry for any apparent rudeness.

Second, it seems wrong because the underlying issue that you're unhappy with--a constraint or objective that we consider important is left out--is not solved by sampling from the solution space instead of deterministically finding optimal points. There's no morality from randomness!

"There is no morality from randomness" is not exactly dealing with the point under contest. I am effectively claiming that one should treat selection of social policies as a constraint-satisfaction problem, precisely because treating it as an optimization problem throws out subconscious constraints by default, which makes optimization methods mostly useless when we can't directly write down precisely the one and only objective function we care about.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-07T16:15:54.432Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I am effectively claiming that one should treat selection of social policies as a constraint-satisfaction problem

So, there's a class of problems where the hard part is finding a solution that satisfies all the constraints (i.e. a feasible solution). "Is it possible to pack the boxes on this list into a truck following these rules?" It's generally better to use optimization methods than generic sampling or satisfiability methods, because it can provide near-feasible solutions ("this is the plan that gets the most boxes on the truck") and can be much faster.

But I don't think that's the problem class under discussion, which is some mixture of "what social policies should we support / what should we do with our charitable energy." If someone says, "I want to reduce the damage done by blindness, please advise," they're talking about a maximization problem with many feasible solutions, not a feasibility problem, because it's easy to come up with a very broad range of things they could do to reduce the damage done by blindness.

The approach you're recommending seems like it would cash out as "well, I got a list of charities with "blind" in their name, and randomly sampled five from that list. Maybe you should donate to one of them!"

Another way to look at this is 'absolute constraints' vs. 'relative constraints.' The absolute constraints are the same regardless of what solutions exist (or don't), the relative constraints are defined only in terms of other solutions. The core insight of EA is that it makes sense to take relative constraints into account when doing charitable donations--it is more good to donation to more effective charities. If we discover that one health charity generates a QALY for a thousand dollars, then we can implicitly add the constraint that all health charities have to generate at least one QALY for every thousand dollars we give them.

I agree that there's reason to be suspicious of automatically generated relative constraints, but I think that there are better approaches to take to resolving that suspicion than moving to pure sampling.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-07T15:49:46.320Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

it seems rude to link to a paper to explain a term when that paper neither explains nor embodies that term

I've only glanced at the paper, but it looks to me like it does embody the term ("probabilistic constraint methods"). What am I missing?

comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-07T16:56:48.973Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What am I missing?

So, "probabilistic constraint methods" is a trigram that I don't think has an established unique technical meaning, and the various bigrams that can be formed from it don't seem quite correct to me. I suppose the thing I'm objecting to the most is the absence of 'sampling,' but even then it has to be clear that the thing being sampled is points from the distribution, rather than constraints from the constraint set.

At least in the plate example, they aren't "probabilistic constraints" in that the constraints are satisfied with some probability*--the way the method works is that they put a 'uniform' prior over 'all' layouts (that both satisfy the constraints and don't), then update on the fact that the layout satisfied the constraints to get a posterior distribution. (The thing that seems to be specific to that paper is that they have a reasonable prior distribution over open layouts, which allows them to extend the method to that domain.)

(A related idea is also a thing in optimization--start with a prior distribution over feasible solutions, update with a likelihood function that's the utility function to get a posterior, and then try to estimate the mode of the distribution using standard statistical tools like MCMC.)

eli_sennesh's primary point, as far as I can tell, is that we should sample from the feasible region and then use our human judgment on a population of candidates, rather than trying to optimize using machine judgment and then only consider the one candidate it produces. But none of the three words of the trigram deal directly with that claim!

*Though the method can handle that gracefully, for the obvious reasons.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-07T19:53:39.137Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a trigram that I don't think has an established unique technical meaning

For what it's worth, that's my impression too. So I take it Eli is coining his own term; I don't see anything wrong with that.

I suppose the thing I'm objecting to the most is the absence of 'sampling'

I take it you mean that you'd like the 3-word description to include "sampling", rather than that the 3-word description implies sampling that isn't being done (which is how I first misinterpreted your comment!). I agree that a description with the word "sampling" in might have been more informative -- but probably necessarily longer too.

they aren't "probabilistic constraints" in that the constraints are satisfied with some probability

I was parsing the phrase as (probabilistic (constraint methods)) rather than ((probabilistic constraint) methods) and therefore wasn't expecting to see the constraints being satisfied only with some probability.

Anyway: It's possible that Eli didn't choose the best possible 3-word description for the class of methods he had in mind. But that seems a quite different complaint than that the paper doesn't embody the term as Eli meant it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T11:04:39.680Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

John Paulson recently gave Harvard $400 million. Unfortunately, this meant he came in for a torrent of criticism from people claiming he should have given the money to poor Africans, etc. I hope to see Effective Altruists defending him, as he has clearly followed through on their concepts in the finest way.

I don't think Harvard is on any EA list for recommended charities. You also don't provide an argument that Harvard has a high use for marginal dollars and that more EA money should go towards Havard.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-06T11:25:11.916Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

You also don't provide an argument that Harvard has a high use for marginal dollars.

My argument is precisely the opposite. My argument is that Harvard is so rich that it has very low use for marginal dollars, but at the same time it has a credible commitment to its future state, so large donations to Harvard will serve to swell its endowment. And also that Harvard has demonstrated the ability to manage its endowment well. Therefore funds donated to Harvard are likely to be invested indefinitely - and therefore to provide increasing amounts of economic tools that will benefit mankind, both now and in the future.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T11:35:56.019Z · score: 2 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Good usage of marginal dollars is one of EA principles. Of course you can argue that those principles are wrong, but it's makes no sense to expect the EA community to defend people who don't follow their principles.

And also that Harvard has demonstrated the ability to manage its endowment well.

They lost 8 billion of it in 2008.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T14:29:39.557Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

And also that Harvard has demonstrated the ability to manage its endowment well.

They lost 8 billion of it in 2008.

Harvard's endowment has performed exceptionally well. Here’s the data: http://www.hmc.harvard.edu/docs/Final_Annual_Report_2014.pdf

Endowments are managed with long-term time horizons. Therefore, cherry picking one year of endowment performance and generalizing investment skill from it is misleading and inaccurate.

Also, percentage gains and losses are a more appropriate metric to use when comparing investment skill between managers. Otherwise, a large endowment will seem riskier than a small one, even if the two endowment allocations are identical.

comment by Jiro · 2015-06-06T12:42:33.953Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

They can "have a low use for" in the sense that they get little immediate gain, yet they can have "good usage" in the sense that the total utils created is large because they retain the capital and the capital continues to provide utility for a long time.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T00:50:49.561Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Rates of util acquisition matter. Time integrals also matter. But the most common thing for invested money to do is not to grow ad-infinitum, resulting in its owner owning half the planet after 100 years, but instead to eventually go completely bust in some or other speculative bubble.

A rational market only has a finite need for capital. Attempt to invest beyond that need, attempt to supply capital beyond the demand for it, and you will run into problems.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:14:47.776Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But the most common thing for invested money to do is not to grow ad-infinitum

Yes, correct, so? Would you take this to mean one should not invest one's money?

A rational market only has a finite need for capital.

This is true. However I feel that dealing in aggregates is misleading: what matters is not really how much capital in total is available, but rather how it is distributed (aka available to whom). It is possible to invest capital successfully, it is also possible to waste it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-06T13:19:31.199Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would guess that a hedgefund billionaire has more skill in investing capital than people who manage the Harvard endowment fund.

If investing that money is good, he can invest the money directly. Yes, there are tax benefits involved in given to Harvard but those shouldn't drive the decision.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-06T15:39:40.584Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would guess that a hedgefund billionaire has more skill in investing capital than people who manage the Harvard endowment fund.

The difference isn't skill. A manager of a hedge fund doesn't have much in the way of leverage; the manager of Harvard's endowment has a direct line to the admissions office, which can be traded for information that can generate high returns.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:15:57.145Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

the manager of Harvard's endowment has a direct line to the admissions office, which can be traded for information that can generate high returns.

Um. Are you suggesting that admission to Harvard is traded for stock tips? That is idiocy.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-06-07T02:24:48.941Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I bet it implicitly is. X gives useful advice to a Harvard investment manager, and a few years later the investment manager recommends X's son to Harvard's admissions office. Think of Harvard as mainly a hedge fund, and ask yourself if it is in its self-interest to do this?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T02:42:24.227Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I bet it is not.

People who want to buy their kids Harvard admission just do it directly: you give Harvard $X million and the admissions office accepts your kid (usually).

Think a bit: what kind of a useful advice can one give to managers of a $36 billion fund? That some company is about to be taken over? They don't care. There is not enough liquidity in the market for them to buy enough of the target stock to move their needle.

Very large funds are peculiar creatures: their freedom of action is severely constrained by their size and their investment choices largely boil down to slow drifts in asset class allocations.

Oh, and the characterization of Harvard (all Ivies, actually) as an investment business with a very minor sideline in higher education is common and even, ahem, traditional :-)

comment by James_Miller · 2015-06-07T05:30:58.424Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My knowledge of high finance is theoretical so this might be wrong but is $36 billion really that much compared to the size of the world's financial markets Harvard gets to play in? Yes, knowledge of one takeover wouldn't allow them to double their endowment, but knowledge of, say, ten material non-public events a year could let Harvard earn a significant above market return.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T14:46:36.786Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

is $36 billion really that much compared to the size of the world's financial markets

The whole market, not much, so if a fund of that size wants to shift its asset class allocaton and, say, sell a few billions of bonds and buy a variety of global equity instead, it can do this. But if, instead, it wants to buy a particular security, it can't buy much relative to its own size. Liquidity constraints are very real at this size.

$1m profit is less than 1/3 of a basis point of return for a $36B fund. It's just not worth the bother, especially given how insider trading is illegal in the US.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-07T15:09:54.406Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

especially given how insider trading is illegal in the US.

And the need for coordination between the admission office and the endowment manager that might leave a paper trial.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-06-07T14:46:04.117Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That some company is about to be taken over? They don't care.

But by this reasoning, they also do not care about a $5M cash gift to get someone off the waitlist. If I know that my company is going to put in an offer for another company at 20% above the current trading price, that info is worth $5M if you have and can move $25M without raising any concerns. If anything, the larger a fund, the easier is it to make adjustments like that to take advantage of insider info without it appearing suspicious. ("Yeah, we bought $25M of that stock the day before the buyout offer was announced, but it was as part of $700M of rebalancing, because we like to adjust 2% of our total portfolio every month.")

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-07T14:57:39.445Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But by this reasoning, they also do not care about a $5M cash gift to get someone off the waitlist.

Correct. The endowment managers absolutely don't care about a $5m cash gift. It's the admissions office which cares because it's a part of that minor side line in higher education and doesn't have free access to all those billions.

that info is worth $5M

Assuming an average return somewhere in the 8-10% area, the endowment generates each year $3-3.5 billion. Why risk an SEC investigation, a potential prosecution, a hit to reputation, etc. for a mere $5m which is about the rounding error in financial statements?

In general, I would recommend learning to distinguish between reality and caricatures drawn by enemies. It would seem to be... rational :-)

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-08T03:02:48.220Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why risk an SEC investigation,

Because the SEC wouldn't dare go after Harvard. And even if some prosecutor at the SEC who didn't get the memo decided to start something, it would get covered up. The issue is that Harvard has more moral authority then the SEC.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-08T14:41:46.797Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Because the SEC wouldn't dare go after Harvard.

And on which basis do make such a confident pronouncement?

comment by Benito · 2015-06-05T17:30:04.539Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see an alternative recommendation in your post to giving your money to the most needy people in the world. You mention investing in economic tools - could you give an example of an economic tool that you could use your money on that would be better than giving it to a woman and child starving to death in Africa?

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-05T17:57:17.708Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are confused. You say I don't suggest an alternative, but then you correctly identify my suggested alternative in the very next sentence.

To be clear: None of the top recommended charities on GiveWell, including Give Directly, are aimed at famine relief, so if your top concern is starvation, your complaint should be directed at them. But if you want specific examples of such tools, I would certainly say that the funds invested to finance Norman Borlaug 's research were better spent than wasting them on aid, because that investment created the economic tools to prevent future famines, as opposed to temporary relief. See the Maimonides quote at the top.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-05T20:46:32.324Z · score: 8 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, most of the funds invested to finance people like Norman Borlaug turned out not to be financing Norman Borlaug.

Still, if you want to generalize from that example, feel free. The conclusion would be that would-be effective altruists should be sending their money to the Mexican government, which is what was paying Norman Borlaug to do the work that led to his discoveries. We could generalize further and suggest supporting government-sponsored research. But I don't think there's any credible way to get from Norman Borlaug to saying that the best way to help the world's poorest people is to invest in the stock market or to send money to elite US universities like Harvard, which were your preferred options.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-06T08:22:40.888Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, most of the funds invested to finance people like Norman Borlaug turned out not to be financing Norman Borlaug.

Sure, I wasn't suggesting that Borlaug's work was replicable.

Still, if you want to generalize from that example, feel free.

When did I generalize from that example? I was merely refuting the crass claim that giving money to a starving woman and child (note the incidental misandry!) must be better than creating economic tools.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-06T21:46:49.175Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I was merely refuting the crass claim that giving money to a starving woman and child [...] must be better than creating economic tools.

But you didn't refute it, because "give the money to someone who will do as much good as Norman Borlaug" is not an instruction anyone is in a position to follow. "Give the money to someone engaged in plant-breeding research" might be, but the example of Borlaug gives only very weak reason to think that this will be effective. Likewise for "Give the money to a government-funded research institute", "Give the money to the Mexican government", "Give the money to someone called Norman", etc.

note the incidental misandry!

I don't see any misandry there. There would likewise be no misogyny if Benito had written "... a father and child starving to death". In either case, you could argue that there's some sort of misplaced gender asymmetry going on, but I don't see that it's misanythingy. Regardless, is there some point you were making ("people who want to give money to poor people in Africa are sexists!" or something), or was this just a tactical shot aimed at making someone who disagrees with you look bad?

comment by dankane · 2015-06-05T23:24:53.677Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

OK. So suppose that I grant your claim that donations to sub-Saharan Africa will not substantially affect the size of the future economic pie, but that other investments will. I claim that there may still be reason to donate there.

I grant that such a donation will produce fewer dollars of value than investing in capitol infrastructure. On the other hand dollars is not the objective, utils are. We can reasonably assume that marginal utility of an extra dollar for a given person is decreasing as that person's wealth increases. We can reasonably expect that world GDP per capita will be much higher in 100 years, and know that GDP per capita is much higher in the US than in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, even if an investment in first-world infrastructure produces more total dollars of value, these dollars are going to much wealthier people than dollars donated to people today in sub-Saharan Africa, and thus might well produce fewer total utils.

comment by drethelin · 2015-06-08T06:00:06.854Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think the vast majority of utils created in sub-saharan africa are a byproduct of wealth created elsewhere.

comment by dankane · 2015-06-08T06:20:21.849Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That may be true (at least to the degree to which it is sensible to assign a specific cause to a given util). However, it is not very good evidence that investment in first world economies is the most effective way to generate utils in Africa.

comment by satt · 2015-06-08T23:26:13.444Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think the vast majority of utils created in most nations are a byproduct of wealth created elsewhere, given current international trade.

comment by tomtim · 2015-06-20T14:18:01.996Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Would it be fair to summarise your post thus: "aid to the poorest people on earth is an ineffective way to create utils, it is better to invest in western businesses" ?

Now I must say that this is a very long-standing debate. One way this debate has taken place is between Jeff Sachs and William Easterly. (Easterly basically takes the same position as you in this post.) Sachs and Easterly have been writing books on this for years. You provide a link to one general economic history book, and a link to an RCT evaluation of GiveDirectly. This is a good start, but I don't think it brings any new insight, let alone warrant a 90% confidence in your beliefs. The rise of RCT in developement economics came out of the observation that the Sachs-Easterly debate was targeting unanswerable grand questions instead of limited and specific ones. There is now an extensive literature trying to answer the exact question "Can aid interventions create utils? How much?". GiveWell try to answer the same question. I don't think providing some standard arguments from the Easterly camp is advancing the discussion much.

edit: added links

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-21T10:39:47.590Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Would it be fair to summarise your post thus: "aid to the poorest people on earth is an ineffective way to create utils, it is better to invest in western businesses" ?

The first half of your "summary" is a utilitarian framing, and the second half is a recommendation of investment in the West. Neither are anywhere in the post. So no, this is not a fair summary.

My two-sentence summary would be:

Effective methods rely on a tight feedback loop between action and results, which is best provided by a market. Wealth is a function of productive capacity, which requires investment, which requires consumption to be foregone, so the route to a richer tomorrow is through consuming less, not more, today.

You'll note that all these concepts are mentioned in the post, rather than surreptitiously snuck in from outside.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-06T22:38:50.312Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

However, if investment in capital is foregone consumption, then consumption is foregone investment. If I invest in the stock market today (altruistic), then in ten years' time spend my profits on a bigger house (selfish), then some of the good is undone. So the true altruist will not merely create capital, he will make sure that capital will never get spent down. One good way of doing that would be to donate to an institution likely to hold onto its capital in perpetuity, and likely to grow that capital over time. Perhaps the best example of such an institution would be a richly-endowed private university, such as Harvard, which has existed for almost 400 years and is said to have an endowment of $32 billion.

Capital that goes unspent forever is a meaningless piece of paper, or eventually, just constitutes power over other people. In the limit, an economy which has most of its productive power tied up as liquid capital undergoes a deflationary collapse due to general-glut conditions.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-07T13:01:29.132Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Capital that goes unspent forever is a meaningless piece of paper, or eventually, just constitutes power over other people.

If I invest money into a startup and make a return of my investment I keep my capital but the investment isn't meaningless.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-07T18:58:20.990Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

That wasn't unspent. It was, somewhere down the line, manifested as actual commodities (ie: whatever the "startup" actually makes).

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-08T11:58:43.594Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Harvard doesn't put his money in the mattress, they invest it. If you count invested money as spent, than they spend it.

comment by shminux · 2015-06-05T17:17:16.973Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Effective altruists should be applauded for trying to bring evidence and reason to a subject that is plagued by far-mode thinking. But taking their ideas seriously quickly leads to a much more radical approach.

Feels like your sentence got cut off there, it should be followed by a colon and a summary of the approach. But I don't think that

So the true altruist will not merely create capital, he will make sure that capital will never get spent down.

is quite the approach you recommend.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-16T05:58:43.455Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

ds

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-05T22:48:54.461Z · score: -2 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Unfortunately, no-one knows how to turn poor African countries into productive Western ones, short of colonization.

short of colonization.

uhhhh

comment by homunq · 2015-06-06T15:50:17.224Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

I think that it's worth being more explicit in your critique here.

The OP suggests that colonization is in fact a proven way to turn poor countries into productive ones. But in fact, it does the opposite. Several parts of Africa were at or above average productivity before colonization¹, and well below after; and this pattern has happened at varied enough places and times to be considered a general rule. The examples of successful transitions from poor countries to rich ones—such as South Korea—do not involve colonization.

¹Note that I'm considering the triangular trade as a form of colonization; even if it didn't involve proconsuls, it involved an external actor explicitly fomenting a hierarchical and extractive social order.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-06T20:22:27.122Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Several parts of Africa were at or above average productivity before colonization

Evidence? Seriously what on earth are you talking about?

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-06T20:39:11.638Z · score: 2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It would be nice if you'd avoid downvoting people just because you disagree with them, yeah?

Colonialism was really big, so it's hard to describe with sufficient detail all the things it messed up, but here is a start for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_Africa#Colonial_era

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-08T02:32:48.729Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Colonialism was really big, so it's hard to describe with sufficient detail all the things it messed up

Your claim wasn't about what colonialism did or didn't mess up, it was about the state of Africa before colonialism.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-08T04:12:42.236Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No, my claim was about what colonialism messed up. However, by describing what colonialism messed up, my link also necessarily describes a bit of what Africa was like before colonialism, so I don't understand your complaint anyways.

If you'd like to learn more about Africa prior to colonialism than what that section described, there's this tool on your mouse called a scroll wheel. It's really neat and you should try it! OTOH, if your complaint is that there's not enough information on the wikipedia page about what Africa was like prior to colonialism, this is why I made the caveat that "colonialism is really big, so it's hard to describe with sufficient detail all the things it messed up", stating that the Wikipedia link was just a starting point.

I am kind of flabbergasted by your comment because it makes no sense on several different levels.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-09T02:44:51.457Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, my claim was about what colonialism messed up. However, by describing what colonialism messed up, my link also necessarily describes a bit of what Africa was like before colonialism, so I don't understand your complaint anyways.

Yes, in particular it appears to have been comparable to bronze age Eurasia. There were remarkably few states in sub-Saharan Africa pre-colonialism, even fewer if we ignore Arab/Persian colonialism.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-08T04:10:24.486Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

lurn2read

comment by Jiro · 2015-06-06T21:28:09.036Z · score: 3 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Note that I'm considering the triangular trade as a form of colonization; even if it didn't involve proconsuls, it involved an external actor explicitly fomenting a hierarchical and extractive social order.

If you redefine colonization, you can get the results you wish.

Also, South Korea (and Taiwan) were colonized by Japan and while their main success happened after the end of colonization, if you're going to blame Africa's after-colonization state on colonization, you need to credit these countries' after-colonization state to colonization as well.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-06T22:10:18.153Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not interested in proving colonialism was always economically inefficient, just in pointing out that OP's aside was troubling. That said, your appeal to consistency isn't correct, it overlooks all nuance. Colonialism has clear and unambiguous ties to the problems that exist in Africa today, but it has no such ties to the successes in South Korea or Taiwan.

comment by Jiro · 2015-06-09T19:54:50.907Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Colonialism has clear and unambiguous ties to the problems that exist in Africa today, but it has no such ties to the successes in South Korea or Taiwan.

Yes it does. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korea_under_Japanese_rule#Economy_and_modernization

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-14T18:09:17.507Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks! I wasn't aware of that; I'd always believed the myth cite 71 refers to, that Korea's economy didn't improve significantly until after the Cold War.

In that case, I am willing to give credit to colonialism for Korea's good economy. However, I still stand by my claim that the appeal to consistency is not compelling by itself. It's the details of each situation that matter, as different implementations of colonialism can vary wildly. As can the aftermath of colonialism; if Africa became stable and productive tomorrow, that wouldn't change the fact colonialism had once hurt it; if Korea's economy were to crash later this week, it would still be true that Japanese imposed policies had once improved their productivity.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-08T02:39:38.334Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Note that I'm considering the triangular trade as a form of colonization; even if it didn't involve proconsuls, it involved an external actor explicitly fomenting a hierarchical and extractive social order.

If you redefine colonization, you can get the results you wish.

Note that here homunq's stipulation actually makes his claim more false. After all the parts of Africa benefiting from the triangle trade were some of the richest and most well off parts of Africa (not for the Africans being sold obviously) before colonization proper started.

comment by 27chaos · 2015-06-06T20:21:21.870Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Also, it's reprehensible. I would probably be willing to accept reprehensible policies, very reluctantly, if they actually did result in productive countries. But when neither means nor ends are good, and the results of past failed attempts still cause massive suffering today, giving even passing credit to colonialist ideas is an enormous red flag. It's in the same realm as Holocaust denial imo. I don't think OP was seriously endorsing colonialism, but I'm also not highly confident he wasn't; neoreactionaries frequent this site, after all.

Just so the intensity of my position is clear, the hopefully-not-an-endorsement of colonialism alone wouldn't have motivated me to downvote, I'm usually pretty good at avoiding that armchair online-activist failure mode, but I found the main argument pretty weak as well. Had either one of those flaws not been present, I'd have been willing to overlook the other.

comment by homunq · 2015-06-15T20:57:35.994Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Note that my post just above was basically an off-the-cuff response to what I felt was a ludicrously wrong assumption buried in the OP. I'm not an expert on African history, and I could be wrong. I think that I gave the OP's idea about the level of refutation it deserved, but I should have qualified my statements more ("I'd guess..."), so I certainly didn't deserve 5 upvotes for this (5 points currently; I deserve 1-3 at most).

comment by Salemicus · 2015-06-21T10:20:02.031Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The OP suggests that colonization is in fact a proven way to turn poor countries into productive ones.

Nope. Provide a quote or retract.

What I actually said was that nothing short of colonisation is known to work.

comment by homunq · 2015-07-12T23:01:55.933Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When you say "Nothing short of X can get you to Y", the strong implication is that it's a safe bet that X will at least not move you away from Y, and sometimes move you toward it. So OK, I'll rephrase:

The OP suggests that colonization is in fact a proven way to turn at least some poor countries into more productive ones.