20

AlyssaVance comments on Contra the Giving What We Can pledge - Effective Altruism Forum

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (80)

You are viewing a single comment's thread. Show more comments above.

Comment author: AGB 04 December 2016 09:52:26PM *  20 points [-]

I can think of ok arguments against the pledge, but many of these arguments seem a bit soft/poorly-informed to me. The biggest weakness, which runs throughout the piece, is the lack of a suggested alternative. Should we have no pledge? A pledge that scales with income? Some modifying to account for other substantive ways of contributing to the world (e.g. time)? Or something else entirely?

In general, without a counterfactual in the background all criticism is meaningless, except insofar as it helps point you in the right direction when you do go searching for alternatives.

Apart from that though, on the content itself:

First, and most obviously, the pledge recommends a flat 10% donation, regardless of a person's income.

This is only half-true. I pledged 20%. Some people, esp. those closer to the core of EA, have taken the further pledge (which mandates donating above some level) instead. 10% is the baseline though, and I certainly grant it's the most-talked-about number.

an American congressman's salary is $174,000, but their votes in Congress are so important that even an 0.1% improvement in voting skill outweighs a $17,400 donation; hence, spending even a tiny amount of effort donating the 10% is likely not worth it.

Citation needed? But if your time really is so incredibly valuable, then you shouldn't spend time doing this yourself, you outsource it to people you trust, like your spouse, close friends, children, or an organisation like Givewell. However, in principle you should still give your money, just not your time. Indeed, as you point out towards the end of your piece, this is basically Givewell's initial model. Once you've made the one-off decision of who to trust (which you can do early in working life when your job is almost certainly not so important, or even while still in education), the marginal effort is roughly 0.

Given the high human capital and low income of the median effective altruist, my guess is that for many people here, the best percentage is <1%...

Very confused by this part. Are we including students here? The 10% doesn't apply to them. If we're not including students, what's your source for thinking effective altruists are 'low income'? Low relative to what?

It might be OK to use GWWC pledge count as one metric, measuring one aspect of EA, along with a suite of other metrics that captured what it missed. However, as far as I know, those other metrics more-or-less don't exist right now

Again, surprised to read this. You used two examples from (a) GWWC's page itself and (b) CEA updates, GWWC's parent organisation, and used this to conclude the other metrics don't exist? What metrics do you think 80k/REG/EAF/FHI/CSER/MIRI/CFAR/Givewell/any-other-EA-org are using? It's very likely not number of GWWC pledges. On the other hand, It seems entirely appropriate for GWWC (or, since the merger, CEA's outreach division), to keep a close eye on the pledge number while being aware of the caveats you gave. And we know that CEA is aware of the possible issues with being too focused on this to the exclusion of all else because they said exactly that here* on the forum.

So yeah, I think you're just arguing for the status quo here.

http://effective-altruism.com/ea/12s/cea_updates_august_update/

*

Our current core metric is number of new GWWC members. We’re in the process of developing a broader set of metrics that can represent the work of the Community and Outreach Division as a whole, allowing us to monitor both the new people we get interested in the movement and the ways in which we support current EAs to do more. Once these are finalised we’ll add them to these updates.

Of course, I don't speak for GiveWell, but my impression is that the initial GiveWell focus was on upper-middle-class people making four-figure donations every holiday season. This has a bunch of implications...However, the GWWC audience is intrinsically different...

An upper-middle class person might earn 75k USD and donate 1.5k USD. An upper-middle class person who has taken the GWWC pledge might donate 7.5k instead. I don't see how that difference is going to be on a par with your Nevada/Alaska comparison; the best place to donate 1.5k is very likely the best place to donate 7.5k.

Given those assumptions, it makes much more sense to do a lot of research yourself, rather than "outsourcing thinking"

As you pointed out yourself, this is very dependent on the individual. I suggested earlier that someone like a congressman doing directly important work with comparatively little to donate should probably outsource thinking or at least not think too much, because their time is valuable and their money is not. And someone with a lot of money might still want to outsource thinking in the sense of bringing in other people's expertise to make decisions; this is basically what Good Ventures and the Gates Foundation are doing. There is some middle ground where you have a decent amount of money (but not enough to employ people to decide how to spend it) and yet you have spare time to work out how to donate it. I'm in that middle-ground position, but I suspect it's smaller than you are implying.

And since taking the pledge is still relatively "weird", the average pledge taker will be much less risk-averse.

I don't necessarily disagree with this point, but I don't necessarily agree either. I didn't really follow the argument being made here; how does the second point follow from the first?

Comment author: AlyssaVance 04 December 2016 10:57:57PM 2 points [-]

"In general, without a counterfactual in the background all criticism is meaningless"

This seems like a kind of crazy assertion to me. Eg., in 1945, as part of the war against Japan, the US firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. (The bombs were intentionally designed to set cities on fire.) Not being a general or historian, I don't have an exact plan in mind for an alternative way for the past US to have spent its military resources. Maybe, if you researched all the options in enough detail, there really was no better alternative. But it seems entirely reasonable to say that the firebombing was bad, and to argue that (if you were around back then) people should maybe think about not doing that. (The firebombing is obviously not comparable to the pledge, I'm just arguing the general principle here.)

"This is only half-true. I pledged 20%."

The statement was that the pledge recommended 10%, which is true. Of course other people can choose to do other things, but that seems irrelevant.

"Citation needed?"

The exact numbers aren't important here, but the US federal budget is $3.8 trillion, and the US also has a great deal of influence over both private money and foreign money (through regulations, treaties, precedent, diplomatic pressure, etc.). There are three branches of government, of which Congress is one; Congress has two houses, and there are then 435 representatives in the lower house. Much of the money flow was committed a long time ago (eg. Social Security), and would be very hard to change; on the other hand, a law you pass may keep operating and directing money decades into the future. Averaged over everything, I think you get ~$1 billion a year of total influence, order-of-magnitude; 0.1% of that is $1 million, or 57x the $17,400 personal donation. This is fairly conservative, as it basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options.

"But if your time really is so incredibly valuable, then you shouldn't spend time doing this yourself, you outsource it to people you trust"

The orders of magnitude here aren't even comparable. This might reduce the net cost to your effectiveness from 5% to 2%, or something like that; it's not going to reduce it to 0.0001%, or whatever the number would have to be for the math to work out.

"However, in principle you should still give your money, just not your time."

In practice, there is always some trade-off between money and time (eg. here discusses this, along with lots of other sites). The rate varies depending on who you are, what you're doing, the type of time you're trading off against, etc. But again, it's not going to vary by the orders of magnitude you seem to implicitly assume.

"Indeed, as you point out towards the end of your piece, this is basically Givewell's initial model."

The initial GiveWell audience was mostly trading off against personal leisure time; that obviously isn't the case here.

"the marginal effort is roughly 0"

It seems extremely implausible that someone making a middle-class salary, or someone making an upper-middle-class salary but under very high time pressure and with high expenses, could give away 10% of their income for life and literally never think about it again.

"If we're not including students, what's your source for thinking effective altruists are 'low income'? Low relative to what?"

Relative to their overall expected career paths. In upper-middle-class and upper-class career tracks (finance, law, business management, entrepreneurship, etc.), income is very back-weighted, with the large majority of expected income coming during the later years of the career.

"You used two examples from (a) GWWC's page itself and (b) CEA updates, GWWC's parent organisation, and used this to conclude the other metrics don't exist?"

I can't prove a negative. If they do exist, where are they? If you link to some, I'll happily add them to the post, as I did for 80K's metrics.

"What metrics do you think 80k/REG/EAF/FHI/CSER/MIRI/CFAR/Givewell/any-other-EA-org are using?"

The GWWC pledge count is used as a metric for EA as a whole, rather than for any specific org like MIRI, CFAR, etc. (Also, AFAIK, many of the orgs mentioned don't really even have internal metrics, except things like "total annual budget" that aren't really measures of efficacy.)

"And we know that CEA is aware of the possible issues with being too focused on this to the exclusion of all else because they said exactly that here* on the forum."

That's cool, but as far as I know, these metrics don't yet exist. If they do exist, great, I'll link them here.

"I don't see how that difference is going to be on a par with your Nevada/Alaska comparison"

The important difference isn't the donation amounts (at least for that example). The important differences are a) this is a public commitment, while most GiveWell-influenced donations are private; b) the commitment is made all at once, rather than year-by-year; c) the commitment is the same income fraction for every year, rather than being adjustable on-the-fly; d) the standard deviation of income for pledgers is almost certainly much higher than for GiveWell's initial audience; e) the standard deviation of human capital is higher; f) the standard deviation of amount-of-free-time is higher; g) pledgers now have very different, and much higher-variance, ideas about "the most good" than a typical GiveWell donor in 2009 (though this is somewhat of an "accident of sociology" rather than intrinsic to the pledge itself).

"I didn't really follow the argument being made here; how does the second point follow from the first?"

There's a selection effect where pledge-takers are much less likely to be the type of people who'd be turned off by donating to a "weird" charity, taking a "weird" career, etc., since people like that would probably not pledge in the first place.

Comment author: Paul_Crowley 05 December 2016 12:09:50AM 5 points [-]

You have a philosopher's instinct to reach for the most extreme example, but in general I recommend against that.

There's a pretty simple counterfactual: don't take or promote the pledge.

Comment author: Kit 05 December 2016 09:05:51AM 2 points [-]

Haven't you just chosen precisely the most extreme counterfactual? Now you have to defend the view that Giving What We Can, run by very smart people who test what they're doing, is causing net harm in expectation.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 05 December 2016 10:18:00PM 2 points [-]

Re. firebombing, I think that the force of the argument there rests on the idea that everyone agrees that there were lots of reasonable alternatives that were better - - that it was unusually bad.

I don't think you think that's true in the case of the GWWC pledge?

Comment author: AGB 05 December 2016 07:37:16PM *  2 points [-]

This seems like a kind of crazy assertion to me. Eg., in 1945, as part of the war against Japan, the US firebombed dozens of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. (The bombs were intentionally designed to set cities on fire.) Not being a general or historian, I don't have an exact plan in mind for an alternative way for the past US to have spent its military resources. Maybe, if you researched all the options in enough detail, there really was no better alternative. But it seems entirely reasonable to say that the firebombing was bad, and to argue that (if you were around back then) people should maybe think about not doing that. (The firebombing is obviously not comparable to the pledge, I'm just arguing the general principle here.)

We may have an intractable disagreement here and it's pretty tangential to the point at hand, but for posterity I'll state my general position below anyway*.

More to the point at hand though, if you could actually spell out what you think should be done instead of the GWWC pledge, that'd really help direct the discussion. 'Maybe there should be no pledge at all' is a completely fine response, and for the avoidance of doubt I'm being completely not-sarcastic there.

The exact numbers aren't important here, but the US federal budget is $3.8 trillion, and the US also has a great deal of influence over both private money and foreign money (through regulations, treaties, precedent, diplomatic pressure, etc.). There are three branches of government, of which Congress is one; Congress has two houses, and there are then 435 representatives in the lower house. Much of the money flow was committed a long time ago (eg. Social Security), and would be very hard to change; on the other hand, a law you pass may keep operating and directing money decades into the future. Averaged over everything, I think you get ~$1 billion a year of total influence, order-of-magnitude; 0.1% of that is $1 million, or 57x the $17,400 personal donation. This is fairly conservative, as it basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options.

The orders of magnitude here aren't even comparable. This might reduce the net cost to your effectiveness from 5% to 2%, or something like that; it's not going to reduce it to 0.0001%, or whatever the number would have to be for the math to work out.

I did do the fermi myself. 0.1% improvement seemed crazy high to me for the time someone might spend deciding their annual donation, so I wouldn't exactly call your calculation 'conservative', but I certainly concede its not crazy.

Re. outsourcing, your own calculation suggested a x57 difference. I had a x2 difference. rohinmshah elsewhere had a x3 difference. Given that I don't see why I need to cover more than a couple of orders of magnitude with outsourcing, and we both seem to think that outsourcing can credibly do that. I wouldn't expect outsourcing to help once we're above x50-ish and didn't mean to imply otherwise. So I think we basically agree on the limits of what outsourcing can do, you just seem to have a implied multiplier well in excess of x1000 (otherwise I don't know where 0.0001% and the 'orders of magnitude' comment come from), which I wasn't at all anticipating. Taking that for granted though, your position seems reasonable.

Let's compromise by not promoting the GWWC pledge to congresspeople or anyone else who can credibly influence billions of dollars?

I think the average federal dollar you can influence is quite a bit worse than Give Directly FWIW, though in my fermi I assumed they were equivalent as well.

It seems extremely implausible that someone making a middle-class salary, or someone making an upper-middle-class salary but under very high time pressure and with high expenses, could give away 10% of their income for life and literally never think about it again.

Why not? Seriously. It's not uncommon for people to move countries in the developed world and incur a 10% higher tax rate in the process. I really doubt most people in that situation ever think about that again after the first couple of years.

I can't prove a negative. If they do exist, where are they? If you link to some, I'll happily add them to the post, as I did for 80K's metrics.

Ok, sure. Givewell, money moved: http://www.givewell.org/about/impact REG, money moved: https://reg-charity.org/reg-second-semi-annual-report-on-money-moved-2015/

There's also a whole bunch of metrics in the EA Survey that people often reference: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/zw/the_2015_survey_of_effective_altruists_results/

The GWWC pledge count is used as a metric for EA as a whole, rather than for any specific org like MIRI, CFAR, etc.

Ah, this is interesting. Can you clarify what you mean by 'a metric for EA as a whole'? Do you not think that, e.g., Givewell's money moved numbers fill a similar function? If not, why not?

There's a selection effect where pledge-takers are much less likely to be the type of people who'd be turned off by donating to a "weird" charity, taking a "weird" career, etc., since people like that would probably not pledge in the first place.

I sort of get this argument, it was when you said 'risk-averse' that I got stuck. To clarify, is this specific to the GWWC pledge or would any "weird" behaviour do? To take a slightly silly example, would you expect people who shower very irregularly (a 'weird' behaviour) to be more risk-seeking on similar grounds?

*

  1. For firebombing to even happen, someone had to think it was the best of the available options. In fact, probably lots of someones had to think that. Those someones probably know lots more about the US military options than you or I. So to argue that firebombing is bad in the face of that probably-superior expertise, providing a concrete alternative (or set of alternatives) seems like the bare minimum you need to do.

  2. Note that I said you need a counterfactual in the background. That caveat was there precisely to pre-empt cases like the one you gave, where the counterfactual is clearly and directly implied by the criticism. But as soon as you make multiple criticisms implicitly suggesting different counterfactuals, as you have here, it's worth spelling out exactly what alternative you are suggesting. Discussions get terribly confusing otherwise.

  3. The above points are practical rather than technical. But on a technical level, criticism is clearly meaningless in cases where there is no choice. Nobody criticizes gravity for pulling you to your death if you step off a cliff. So to criticize something you need to establish that it is not like gravity; it can be fixed/improved/eliminated. Put another way, meaningful criticism is not 'this is not perfect', rather it is 'this is not optimal'. Which in turns requires a counterfactual, albeit potentially an implicit one.

So yeah, in short I'm generally pretty comfortable with the 'all unconstructive criticism is meaningless' approach. I consider it both technically true and practically useful.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 05 December 2016 12:04:12AM 2 points [-]

I disagree with your calculation, I independently made the same calculation below (before seeing yours), and mine comes out with $40,000, which is less than 3x the $17,400, and my confidence interval certainly would include $17,400. (It first came out with $10,000, but your calculation made me realize that I neglected an important factor.)

In addition, it seems like a big assumption that you could improve voting skill by 0.1% with a "tiny amount of effort", I disagree pretty strongly there (again, more details in the other comment thread).

"It basically assumes that all you're doing is appropriating federal dollars to GiveDirectly or something closely equivalent; there are probably lots of cleverer options."

Say what? If I'm understanding you right, it would be better to donate to the US government than to donate to GiveDirectly?

Comment author: Kit 05 December 2016 09:32:57AM 1 point [-]

GWWC is not firebombing anything, happily. War crimes are obviously bad and need no counterfactual spelled out. The principle you outline does not apply to the pledge because many people (citation) don't think the pledge is obviously bad. To engage these people in productive discourse you need to suggest at least one strategy which could be better.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 05 December 2016 05:25:32PM *  1 point [-]

The principle you outline does not apply to the pledge because many people (citation) don't think the pledge is obviously bad.

AlyssaVance isn't outlining a principle. AGB made a general claim about criticism being useless without a counterfactual. AlyssaVance's mention of firebombing was meant as a counterexample to that generalization.

Comment author: JoshYou 05 December 2016 02:25:48AM 1 point [-]

I'm still pretty confused about why you think donating 10% has to be time-confusing. People who outsource their donation decisions to, say, Givewell might only spend a few hours a year (or a few minutes, depending on how literally we interpret "outsourcing) deciding where to donate.

Comment author: Paul_Christiano 20 December 2016 03:11:03AM *  5 points [-]

I think that donor lotteries are a considerably stronger argument than GiveWell for the claim "donating 10% doesn't have to be time-consuming."

Your argument (with GiveWell in place of a lottery) requires that either (a) you think that GiveWell charities are clearly the best use of funds, or (b) by "doesn't have to be time-consuming" you mean "if you don't necessarily want to do the most good." I don't think you should be confused about why someone would disagree with (a), nor about why someone would think that (b) is a silly usage.

If there were low-friction donor lotteries, I suspect that most small GiveWell donors would be better-served by gambling up to perhaps $1M and then thinking about it at considerably greater length. I expect a significant fraction of them would end up funding something other than GiveWell top charities.

(I was originally supportive but kind of lukewarm about donor lotteries, but I think I've now come around to Carl's level of enthusiasm.)

Comment author: Julia_Wise 05 December 2016 11:48:57AM 5 points [-]

One reason would be if you think the people should spend the money on saving themselves time.

Comment author: BenHoffman 14 December 2016 10:36:54PM 3 points [-]

Look out in the world and you'll see lots of people excited about things that don't work or don't do what they say they'll do. Anyone can say they're evidence-backed etc. On outside view, if you only spend a few minutes on your donations each year, how much of the optimization pressure influencing your donations should you expect was marketing skill on the part of the recipient or their patron, vs selecting for actual impact?