Ben_Todd comments on Triple counting impact in EA - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Ben_Todd 03 June 2018 10:24:44AM 2 points [-]

I'm interested in what norms we can use to better deal with the practical case.

e.g. Suppose:

1) GiveWell does research for a cost of $6 2) TLYCS does outreach using the research for a cost of $6 3) $10 is raised as a result.

Assume that if GiveWell didn't do the research, TLYCS wouldn't have raised the $10, and vice versa.

If you're a donor working out where to give, how should you approach the situation?

If you consider funding TLYCS with GiveWell held fixed, then you can spend $6 to raise $10, which is worth doing. But if you consider funding GiveWell+TLYCS together, then you can spend $12 to raise $10, which is not worth doing.

It seems like the solution is that the donor needs to think very carefully about which margin they're operating at. Here are a couple of options:

A) If GiveWell will definitely do the research whatever happens, then you ought to give. B) Maybe GiveWell won't do the research if they don't think anyone will promote it, so the two orgs are coupled, and that means you shouldn't fund either. (Funding TLYCS causes GiveWell to raise more, which is bad in this case) C) If you're a large donor who is able to cover both funding gaps, then you should consider the value of funding the sum, rather than each org individually.

It seems true that donors don't often consider situations like (B), which might be a mistake. Though sometimes they do - e.g. GiveWell considers the costs of malaria net distribution incurred by other actors.

Likewise, it seems like donors often don't consider situations like (C). e.g. If there are enough interactions, maybe the EA Funds should calculate the cost-effectiveness of a portfolio of EA orgs, rather than estimate the ratios for each individual org.

On the other hand, I don't think these cases where two orgs are both 100% necessary for 100% of the impact are actually that common. In practice, if GiveWell didn't exist, TLYCS would do something else with the $6, which would mean they raise somewhat less than $10; and vice versa. So, the two impacts are fairly unlikely to add up to much more than $12.

Comment author: Halstead 11 June 2018 07:33:36PM *  0 points [-]

In case B, it looks to me like the donor should give to TLYCS, in certain conditions, in others not.

(a) Suppose: Because you gave to TLYCS, GiveWell does the research at a cost of $6, fundraising from an otherwise ineffective donor, and getting $10 to GW charities. In this case, your $6 has raised $10 for effective charities minus the $6 from an otherwise ineffective donor (~0 value). So, I don't think causing GW to fundraise further would be bad in this case. Coordinating with GW to just get them to fundraise for donations to their effective charities is even better in this case, but donating to TLYCS is better than doing nothing.

(b) Suppose: Same as before, except GW fundraises from an effective donor who would otherwise have given the $6 to GW charities. In this case, giving to TLYCS is worse than doing nothing because you have spent $6 getting $10 to GW charities, minus what the effective donor would have given to had you not acted (-$6 to GW charities), so you've spent $6 getting $4 to effective charities. Doing nothing would be better, as then $6 goes to effective charities.

This shows that the counterfactual impact of funged/leveraged donations needs to be considered carefully. GiveWell is starting to do this - e.g. if govt money is leveraged or funged they try to estimate the cost-effectiveness of govt money. Outside that, this is probably something EA donors should take more account of.

Another case that should be considered is causing irrational prioritisation with a given amount of funds. Imagine case (a) above except that instead of fundraising, GiveWell moves money from another research project with a counterfactual value of $9 to GW charities because they have not considering these coordination effects (they reason that $10>$9). In that case, you're spending $6 to get $10 to GW charities minus the $9 that would have gone to GW charities.

Regarding C, this seems right. It would be a mistake for the EA funds to add up its impact as the sum of the impact of each of the individual grants it has made.