Ben_Todd comments on My Cause Selection: Michael Dickens - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Ben_Todd 24 September 2015 05:34:51AM 2 points [-]

Hey Michael,

It's better to look at the evaluations rather than the list of studies if you want to get a systematic picture of career changes.

e.g. here: https://80000hours.org/2014/05/plan-change-analysis-and-cost-effectiveness/#what-were-the-changes

The most common changes are:

  1. More people earning to give
  2. More people setting up or working in effective altruist charities
  3. More people building career capital
  4. More people working on xrisk

These are things people very unusually do otherwise, so it's very unlikely they would happen without effective altruism or 80,000 Hours. Of course, it's hard to untangle 80k's impact on career choices from the rest of the EA movement, but it seems likely that 80k gets a substantial fraction of the impact. First, we're the main group doing career stuff within the movement. Second, we've done a huge amount to boost the EA movement (e.g. we were the first org to use the term publicly), so if the EA movement has a lot of impact, then a significant fraction is due to us.

Note that a similar objection applies to the other charities you propose: e.g. if REG / Charity Science / GWWC / GiveWell didn't exist, much of the impact would happen anyway eventually because the other groups would eventually step in to compensate. But that doesn't mean none of them are having much impact.

If 80K claims credit for money donated by people who are now earning to give, then it should also subtract money not donated by people who now aren't earning to give. The value of a career change isn't from the value of the person's career but from the marginal difference between their current career and their counterfactual career.

Of course, we address this in the evaluation.

In short, I think in many of the cases the effectiveness boosts are very large, so when you subtract the impact they would have had anyway, it's less than 10%. It depends on your view of how good "standard career choice" is.

On 3), if you believe most of 80K's impact comes from helping start new effective charities (which you sort of imply I should believe when you claim that ACE and REG would not exist without 80K), then we should expect this effect to get a lot weaker in the future.

I'd say our impact comes from giving people better information about how to have a social impact in their career, and so redirecting them into higher impact career paths.

You can try to quantify a component of that by looking at additional donations due to our members, number of new organisations founded, or other measures.

So, new organisations founded is just one component of our impact that's relatively tractable to analyse. More often, people assess us in terms of extra donations for charity raised from more people pursuing earning to give. Our estimate is that those earning to give will donate an extra $10m+ of counterfactually-adjusted funds to high-impact charities within the next 3 years because of us. I think either of these methods mean we've been very cost-effective in the past (historical financial costs are under $500k), and that's ignoring over half the plan changes.


even if it did, creating new effective charities has rapidly diminishing marginal returns. The space of possible highly-effective charities (i.e. ones that are much more effective than top global poverty charities) is not that big.

It seems really unclear to me how close we are to that margin. Bear in mind explicitly effective altruist funding is under 0.04% of total US philanthropy. It seems like we could expand the number of organisations a great deal before hitting substantially diminishing returns. In particular when you consider how little research has been done, relatively speaking, it's unlikely we discovered the best things already.

If we did run out of ideas for new organisations, 80k could move its focus to scaling up existing orgs. (Many people who've changed plans due to 80k have gone to work at existing EA orgs rather than found new ones). Or we could just encourage everyone to earn to give and donate to top global poverty charities.

Also, why you do you expect entrepreneurial-talent in EA to hit diminishing returns faster than donations? If anything, I expect we'll hit diminishing returns to additional donations faster than with talent, because funding gaps are so much easier to resolve than talent-gaps (e.g. one billionaire could flood EA with money tomorrow). And that means REG also doesn't have as much upside as it looks because in the future they won't be able to direct the money as effectively as well.

There's a huge gulf between "We don't yet have all the money we could ever use" and "Giving us more funding would let us continue to be as effective as we have been with current funds."

Of course. I actually think we're going to be more effective with future funds because we're getting better and better at changing plans, so our cost per plan change is falling. This is because our main focus in the past was learning and research, which is only just starting to pay off. There's a lot more to say here though!

Comment author: Denise_Melchin 24 September 2015 11:04:09AM 7 points [-]

"More people building career capital" ... "These are things people very unusually do otherwise"

Why do you think it's unusual for people to build career capital?

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 October 2015 07:00:28AM *  3 points [-]

True, that one's an exception. The other 3/4 are unusual otherwise though.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 24 September 2015 06:06:14PM 0 points [-]

It feels like we're getting off track here. You originally claimed that 80K played a large role in creating REG and ACE (the implication presumably being that I should donate to 80K). Now we're talking about the strength of evidence on how 80K has changed people's career paths.

Although its evidence is weaker than I'd like, I'm still fairly confident that 80K has a positive impact, and I'm glad it exists. I just don't see that it's the best place to donate. Are you trying to convince me that 80K's activities are valuable, or that I should donate to it? If it's the former, I already believe that. If the latter, you need to:

  1. show why 80K has a higher impact than anything else
  2. do more to make the strength of evidence supporting 80K more robust
  3. demonstrate that 80K can effectively use marginal funds

Now that's a pretty high bar, but I'm donating a lot of money and I want to make sure I direct it well.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 October 2015 07:13:25AM 2 points [-]

Nitpick: robust evidence doesn't seem necessary - weak evidence of high upside potential should also count.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 06 October 2015 07:10:01AM *  2 points [-]

Hi Michael,

In the original document you say next to 80k "unclear whether it has a positive effect". So I was starting there.

REG and ACE are relevant because they're examples of the value of the plan changes we cause. If you think 80k is changing plans such that more high impact organisations are created, then it's likely 80k is also effective. (Though may of course still not be worth funding due to a lack of RFMF, but that's not what you said initially).

The closest we've got recently to publicly arguing the case for 80k is here: https://80000hours.org/2015/08/plans-for-the-coming-year-may-2015/

Of course there's a lot more to talk about. I'm always happy to answer more questions or share details about how marginal funds would be used via email.