Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Putting money where my mouth is

To be clear: I have a huge problem with the fact that John Paulson convinced my school to deface its name for his own gratification; I don't actually have a huge problem that he gave $400M to Harvard SEAS instead of leaving it in his other sundry investments. (And I don't have a problem with the fact that he earned the money on Wall Street.) This post is a continuation of my thoughts, in something of a stream of consciousness.


Lots of other people do have a problem with the donation, though. Matt Levine, writing at the Bloomberg View with his tongue firmly in-cheek, sums them up without taking much of a side:

It's possible that there's a secret club of billionaires competing to give tons of money to the philanthropies that make people angriest. The Koch Brothers and George Soros could be co-presidents, and John Paulson shot to the top of the league table in 2012 when he gave a $100 million tax-deductible donation to his backyard. But he was recently eclipsed when Steve Schwarzman gave $150 million to Yale for a student center, apparently to get back at Harvard for rejecting him. Dylan Matthews at Vox conceded that Schwarzman's gift was "definitely better than using the money to set up a private island upon which to hunt man for sport," but otherwise the reviews were pretty negative.

But yesterday Paulson jumped back into the lead with a $400 million donation to Harvard, the "most lavishly endowed university in the world," to rename its engineering school after himself. My Bloomberg View colleague Noah Smith conceded that there are worse things that Paulson could have done with his money, like "pay an army of slaves to fan him with palm fronds, or bankroll a war in a third-world country," but otherwise the reviews were pretty negative. Malcolm Gladwell said mean things about Paulson on Twitter. Dylan Matthews pointed out that "Literally any other charity is a better choice."

On the other hand, maybe there are positive secondary effects? There are more than 323,000 Harvard graduates in the world. Let's estimate that the Paulson news will persuade 100,000 of them to smugly refuse to give money to Harvard, 1,000 to write about it on the Internet, and 50,000 to actually give the money they would have given to Harvard to some more deserving charity. Then each of them will only have to divert, hmm, $8,000 from Harvard to African mosquito nets to make Paulson's gift break even.

Of course there might be negative secondary effects, as other members of the billionaire angry-philanthropy club will feel pressure to up their game and donate a billion dollars to, like, the NFL, but it's possible that some members of that club would otherwise have been hunting man for sport, so even this might be a net societal benefit. (...)

There are plenty of specific examples (including more than a few from Malcolm Gladwell and Dave Matthews, both of whom we heard from yesterday) I could cite, but I won't, for the simple reason that we shouldn't be beating people up because they take money out of their bank accounts and give it to Harvard.

Those who think that we should argue that, in not giving to a more effective charity, the gift represents a $400M chunk that's taken out of the reach of the global poor, and instead locked up in the coffers of the global rich. Some among them will say that $400M wasted, in terms of net effectivenes, is on the order of a hundred thousand lives lost [~3.5x number of students across all the Harvard schools], and that, in utilitarian calculus, we should regard John Paulson as a hundred-thousand-times-over murderer. And I think it goes without saying that many, many more strongly disagree.


I'm in the former group. I consider John Paulson a mass murderer.

I believe that when he failed to sign a $400M check in support of public health for the global poor, he as good as doomed dozens of thousands human beings to die of preventable illnesses, and that makes him, if not an actively evil person, at least a person doing bad things in the world. And so, when I hear that he did so, I chose to do exactly what I would if he were a mass-murderer in a more direct sense: everything in my power to make sure he doesn't do it again.

For new readers of the blog, though: I am firmly opposed to retaliatory justice, even for the basest of criminals. "Everything in my power" begins with "don't actually go on record outright calling him a murderer" (okay, I kind of messed that up) and "don't take the opportunity to ingrain in the public consciousness the sense that effective altruism is the sworn enemy of people who donate money to Harvard" (I'll say again: It's not.). It certainly doesn't involve unloading my entire capacity for vitriol on the man.

After all, while I think that choosing to do less good, rather than more good, is a morally horrendous choice, I've previously written against the drive for purity in altruism, a stance by which I still stand by. Basically, if it makes people happy to give their money to Harvard, then well, it is better than literally lighting the money on fire, and we should remember that. It's worse than lifting people out of poverty, but still nontrivially better than buying a similarly-priced yacht. Let's not forget that.

I do believe that Paulson's vanity costs real people their health and their lives, but even so -- they won't be saved because I have hate in my heart for the man. And so getting past rage, to reason, is the first step to making the world a better place. Righteous anger is fun, but fun isn't what's called for here. It's counterproductive, and selfish.


And let's go back to the fact that Paulson is getting more crap (re: why didn't you donate somewhere better?) for his donation than he would be for not making a donation at all. I think this is actually badly incorrect on the part of the entire Internet Outrage Machine.

It's pretty obvious (to me) that he deserves less outrage today than if he had kept his money locked in his bank account instead. Donations to Harvard are not actually ceteris paribus bad, and to be tragically honest, his money wasn't particularly likely to end up helping the global poor anyway. The world did get better, and the only reason why we are angry now is because we weren't paying attention to how bad it was before. So that's kind of on us.

The obvious-to-me response is the following:

Everyone who started the year with >$1,000M in assets, and hadn't, by the fourth of June, managed to donate at least $400M of it to do seriously good things in the world, should feel personally bad for being a greedy miser (...and then actually do it, and then stop feeling bad). This includes John Paulson, sure, but he's just one among many. Let's not single him out just because he stuck his neck out -- if anything, that gives the rest of them the feeling that they're not implicated, too.

In fact, thanks, John, for reminding us that you're all a bunch of scrooges. Seriously, what jerks.


Meanwhile, something Matt Levine said stuck in my head:

On the other hand, maybe there are positive secondary effects? There are more than 323,000 Harvard graduates in the world. Let's estimate that the Paulson news will persuade 100,000 of them to smugly refuse to give money to Harvard, 1,000 to write about it on the Internet, and 50,000 to actually give the money they would have given to Harvard to some more deserving charity. Then each of them will only have to divert, hmm, $8,000 from Harvard to African mosquito nets to make Paulson's gift break even. (...)

Wait, this is actually really cool! I can be in all three of those groups! Yesterday, I haughtily declared that Harvard had lost the $20.16 I'd otherwise probably have donated to the Senior Gift drive. But Matt's math gives me an even better framework to think about this in.

So, here publicly, I'm committing to directing the next $8,000 that I would otherwise be inclined to donate to my alma mater to GiveWell's unrestricted funds instead. I don't hold the illusion that this act is anything but symbolic, but I do think that there's something important (and fun!) about the symbolism of being 1/50,000th of an anti-Paulson. (I hereby dub this: 20 microantipaulsons) Fortunately for humanity, a microantipaulson (i.e. $400 diverted from JAPSEAS to an effective charity) actually represents a real amount of good in the world (more than a thousand kids protected from parasitic worms!), and I encourage my friends and fellow students at JAPSEAS to join me in the counter-Paulson donation movement, one microantipaulson at a time.

To be clear, I don't have any particular plans to donate anywhere near $8,000 to Harvard or SEAS in the imminent, or even medium-term future, but the odds are pretty good that, at some point in my life, I would eventually have done so. And note that, in order to actually mean anything, this isn't just some idle bookkeeping -- I'm not changing my plans to donate to effective charities, and this $8,000 number only starts rolling when I actually find myself wanting to give to Harvard instead of anything else, at which point I'll have to stop, not do that, and instead respect the wishes of 2015!Ross who made this precommitment. I mean, strictly speaking, I won't have to, but consider this post an open letter to future!me, asking it as a favor to me now. (If this sounds weird to you, I promise to someday write about how I decided to start treating my future self as a different person. I actually have plenty of thoughts on the topic.)

I feel pretty good about this, in a grim-resolve sort of way. Even if it doesn't teach Harvard a lesson that sticks (though it easily could, if a few thousand of us are loud enough about it!), I still feel better for having decided on it. And that's really what charitable donations are about, right?


Anyway. I stand by everything I said yesterday about aesthetic taste, and the apparently-disregarded cost of suborning the dignity of our academic enterprise to a rich man's vanity. I think it's beneath Harvard, and insofar as the school appears to disagree with me, I honestly do take it as a distressing sign that I don't fit in at SEAS. The free-markets thing to do, then, is to go somewhere else, in order to help drive the system to an equilibrium where schools are disincentivized to give out naming rights left and right -- but even so, it makes me sad.

I really like SEAS, I really do. I'll be sad to leave; I'll be sad if I don't ever come back; but perhaps more than anything, I'm sad right now that (for really the first time) this school feels like a "them" and not an "us". And if I've lost that us-ness in all this, I really am sad about it all, because it means I lost something that felt special.

Maybe I am too attached to aesthetics. Perhaps I'm overreacting in the moment. Or maybe I'm in the process of coming to grips with the not-so-rosy future of academia. But if that's actually the case, then I see less and less reason, by the day, to seek a career in the ivory tower, rather than the garden of industry. My impression at the moment is that my summer employer actually has more pride in its self-image than does Harvard. And if that's important to me (and it is!), maybe I should work there?

There's a definite irony here: that the industrialists, pursuant to their amoral acquisition of wealth, seem to have won more of, as the hymn goes, "freedom to think, / and patience to bear, / and for right ever bravely to live..."

I really don't know what to think about that.