Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

12/25/14 #2: A Nontrivially Improved Future

One of the problems with being an avowed altruist is that it's hard to talk about it with other people without coming across like you're trying to claim you're better than them.

One of the problems with being an aspiring effective altruist is that it's hard to talk about it with other people without coming across like you're trying to claim you're better than everyone else, including other avowed altruists, and definitely including non-altruistic plebes.

(This, I think, is something of a barrier to effective altruism becoming a more popular thing, and I'd like to see it change.)

But if I can't write about this in the locus of the interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can't write about it at all, and that would be really quite sad for me, so here goes. I really, really don't mean to brag or guilt-shame anyone else -- I am trying to normalize talking casually about altruism, because I think a world where we can talk about it without awkwardness is a better world than this.

My brother asked me the other day: "What do you want for Christmas? Give me two things, one which someone could reasonably buy you, and another which you'd ask for from a wish-granting genie who popped out of a lamp."

My answer for the first was an Oculus Rift; my answer for the second was that malaria be eradicated tomorrow.

Now, of course I would actually ask a genie that all communicable diseases be eradicated tomorrow, or that all humans be as healthy as they could wish for, or that no sentient being need die ever, or for something even more complex, but those seem a bit big for a Christmas present. (Yes, I'm being silly, but do humor me here.) No, Santa, if you're listening, all I want for Christmas is for people to stop dying of plasmodium falciparum, p. vivax, p. ovale, p. knowlesi, &c., the way we stopped dying of smallpox.

But of course, good things are already happening in the world, and it didn't even make the Top Five that we, as a race, managed to prevent half the malaria deaths that could have happened in the past twelve years. One generation ago, it was crazy to think that we could kill this disease, and now, Bill Gates thinks that our generation can see a world without it. We've saved 3 million lives, and we can save the rest, from this disease, forever.

Right, right, talk is cheap; actions speak louder than words; it's easy to talk the talk, &c. And why do I care so much about this problem, specifically? Did someone I know die of malaria while traveling abroad, leading me to pledge their vengeance against this deadly parasite? Well, I'll admit it here and now: The reason is completely mercenary. I'm only interested in this particular issue because supporting it is the easiest way to get the thing I really want -- saving as many (healthy, fulfilling) lives as possible.

Why do I say it's the easiest? Because charity researchers at GiveWell have spent a lot of time trying to figure out which projects do the best at saving lives, how much each costs, and which can, for a thousand dollars, do the most good. After all, the amount of money I'm going to donate to charity this year (or in my lifetime) is decidedly finite, and I'd rather direct it where it can do the most good. (Based on what I think "good" means -- not some harsh, faceless utilitarian calculus, but a very simple count of how many people live healthy, happy lives with the opportunity to work for better outcomes for them and their loved ones.)

Scott Siskind has a fantastic writeup of what I mean:

Imagine you are setting out on a dangerous expedition through the Arctic on a limited budget. The grizzled old prospector at the general store shakes his head sadly: you can't afford everything you need; you'll just have to purchase the bare essentials and hope you get lucky. But what is essential? Should you buy the warmest parka, if it means you can't afford a sleeping bag? Should you bring an extra week's food, just in case, even if it means going without a rifle? Or can you buy the rifle, leave the food, and hunt for your dinner?

And how about the field guide to Arctic flowers? You like flowers, and you'd hate to feel like you're failing to appreciate the harsh yet delicate environment around you. And a digital camera, of course - if you make it back alive, you'll have to put the Arctic expedition pics up on Facebook. And a hand-crafted scarf with authentic Inuit tribal patterns woven from organic fibres! Wicked!

...but of course buying any of those items would be insane. The problem is what economists call opportunity costs: buying one thing costs money that could be used to buy others. A hand-crafted designer scarf might have some value in the Arctic, but it would cost so much it would prevent you from buying much more important things. And when your life is on the line, things like impressing your friends and buying organic pale in comparison. You have one goal - staying alive - and your only problem is how to distribute your resources to keep your chances as high as possible. These sorts of economics concepts are natural enough when faced with a journey through the freezing tundra. (...)

So malaria. Because GiveWell believes that the Against Malaria will make the most good happen in the world with my donation, and I trust them when they say that. I've considered donating to education in inner-city Boston, or national programs to support gender diversity in computer science, or to the Center for Talented Youth, the summer program that changed my life when I was in middle school, but ultimately, I decided -- donating to these things costs money that could be used to save people's lives, and that's not a cost I can take lightly.

Besides, when I write on this blog in thirty years that malaria has finally been declared extinct, I want to be able to say that I helped, not that I stood by and was a cheerleader for the movement. No, I believe that I can choose to make that day come sooner, and so I will! This, to me, is genuinely exciting, and I'm getting ahead of myself a bit, but hey -- Christmas is a time to talk about hope.

Strictly speaking, I'm not actually planning on putting all of my eggs in one basket. As per GiveWell's recommendations, I'm splitting my money between four different organizations: the Against Malaria Foundation, the Deworm the World Initiative, GiveDirectly, and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. They're all small, forward-thinking, highly-transparent, and base their intervention strategies on evidence-based results, rather than speculation or sales pitches, or however else badly-thought-out charity plans are cooked up. So if you're looking for charities to donate to this holiday season, I believe that they are all fine candidates.

I'm splitting my donation in the proportions recommended by GW, since they've thought about this matter more than I have, and their goals align well enough with mine that I trust just taking their judgments. But of course, that's leaving out one critical question: How much?

Scott Alexander, on his own Slate Star Codex, recommends ten percent. (long post; I'm referencing a part about halfway through section II) More specifically,

"Even if I give a lot of charity, am I a bad person for not doing all the charity?"


There’s no good answer to this question. If you want to feel anxiety and self-loathing for not giving 100% of your income, minus living expenses, to charity, then no one can stop you.

I, on the other hand, would prefer to call that "not being perfect". I would prefer to say that if you feel like you will live in anxiety and self-loathing until you have given a certain amount of money to charity, you should make that certain amount ten percent.

Why ten percent?

It’s ten percent because that is the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of "No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it," then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say "You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more," then many people will give ten percent or more. (...)

I'm giving ten percent because I can, and it's a nice round number. It's a number that I can be proud of and say to other people without feeling bad or awkward about when they say a different number, be theirs higher or lower. It's a number that I don't lose too many weirdness points by admitting to. It's a number that I can afford, and a number that makes me, personally, feel like I'm making a nontrivial contribution to building a better world.

Well, ten percent...ish. I spent most of yesterday thinking about how I want to deal with things I earned (but still have savings from) before this year, and other such details, and decided upon the following specification:

  • I will donate ten percent (before tax) of what I earned by working before this year, by rough estimate.
  • I will donate ten percent (before tax) of what I earned by working this year.
  • I will not donate out of cash gifts given to me by my close family, nor the support they are providing for my tuition (out of respect for their very clear wishes, in both cases).
  • For tax reasons, I will perform all donations in FY 2015 -- half on or before January 7, and the other half within seven days of receiving my tax refund, in April or early May. (That's like when taxes happen, right?)
  • I'll give, via GiveWell's consolidated one-click page, divided in accordance with their recommendations. Since I'm indebted to them for doing so much good work in finding charities well-aligned with my interests, I am following their request that I give 10% of my donation to support their operations in researching further charities, staying up-to-date with their currently-recommended choices, and reaching out to widening circles of people in support of evidence-based giving.
  • I will talk about my giving here, on this blog, and when it comes up in personal conversation. In the former, at least, I will use actual numbers. I will not directly pressure other people to do likewise, but I do want to show that I'm serious about this, provide an example of what (some) students can do, avoid vague-humble-bragging about what exactly I'm doing here, &c.

I'm under no illusions that what I'm doing here is the One True Way that I expect all of my friends to follow -- I'm just presenting my choices here as an example for other prospective givers in circumstances suspiciously similar to mine who would benefit from having a model to follow.

At the end of the day, all this means that, in about a week and a half, I'll be making the following donations:

  • $1,200 to the Against Malaria Foundation
  • $240 to the Deworm the World Initiative
  • $240 to GiveDirectly
  • $120 to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative
  • $200 to GiveWell, for unrestricted operational expenses

I expect this donation to support:

  • about 105 long-lasting insecticide-treated bednets
  • about 890 school-age children treated for parasitic worms
  • at least an additional 40 student-years of education from deworming alone
  • about $215 in direct-cash transfers to recipients living in poverty in rural areas of developing nations, supporting about 2.5 months of one family's annual one-time grant
  • $200 in operational support for GiveWell itself

This Christmas season, I've been making a conscious effort to ask "Why is this happening to me? It's so unfair!", and this is what I've decided to actually do about it. So, Merry Christmas to some child I'll never meet, a third of the way around the world. Christmas is a time to hope, and this is my offering of hope for a nontrivially better world.

If you're interested in the idea of effective altruism, Ben Kuhn has a great compilation of introductory-reading links at Ben Kuhn | Effective altruism reading for busy people. You can find out more about GiveWell at their site, more about specific charities from their Top Charities page (which includes four more "standout charitites" I didn't mention here), and donate (either to their top charities, to them directly, or a 90/10 mix like I did) on their one-click donation page.

You can read more about Giving What We Can and the Ten Percent Pledge at the obvious links. You can read more about giving on the excellent blogs of Ben Kuhn, Julia Wise, and Jeff Kaufman -- the first of whom is a recent-grad and my former summer roommate, and the latter two of whom are a Boston-area married couple with a ~1-year-old daughter. GW and GWWC also run blogs, the former of which is quite good, and the latter of which I only just found in writing this post.

For students who think that this is an absolutely insane time of our lives to consider giving, Julia Wise has a great post which says, among other things, maybe you're right; here are some other things you can do to help yourself and others in the mean time.

Happy holidays all, and may you always have kindness in your life, and in the lives of those around you.