Comment author: Khorton 03 December 2017 02:07:32AM 0 points [-]

I'd find this pretty surprising based on my knowledge of the Canadian (Albertan) & British education systems. Does anyone have evidence for standardized exams decreasing "corruption"? (Ben, I'm not sure exactly what you meant by corruption here - do you mean grades that don't match ability, or lazy teaching, or something else?)

Comment author: BenHoffman 05 December 2017 06:31:01PM 1 point [-]

One simple example:

More generally, things like the profusion of makework designed to facially resemble teaching, instead of optimizing for outcomes.

Comment author: jamie_cassidy 02 December 2017 02:01:41PM 1 point [-]

Very interesting and I like the central point that cash transfers aren't an automatic win and are therefore worth studying, which I hadn't considered to the same extent before. On the education stuff, it seems like a lot of these problems could be solved if jobs were allocated based on the results of a standardized exam rather than years of schooling or some similar metric. I'm not talking about one run by schools, because it's likely the process wouldn't be trustworthy, I'm talking about when you advertise a job that requires reading, writing, or filing skills, you test for these skills with a written exam. Encouraging governments and other large employers to act in this way would surely encourage students (and parents) to actually learn rather than simply attend school as a box-ticking exercise.

Comment author: BenHoffman 02 December 2017 09:58:43PM 2 points [-]

We should also expect this to mean that countries such as Australia and China that heavily weight a national exam system when advancing students at crucial stages will have less corrupt educational systems than countries like the US which weight locally assessed factors like grades heavily.

(Of course, there can be massive downsides to standardization as well.)

Comment author: Gondolinian 02 December 2017 03:00:12PM 2 points [-]

Hmm. I wonder how to reconcile this post with this TED talk:

Basically, the TED talk argues that more bureaucracy is very important for economic development because it allows people to invest in various ways with higher confidence that they will actually see the returns. However, as this post describes, bureaucracy can also fall into various rent-seeking traps that waste resources without any real benefit.

Perhaps one way of reconciling is holding that meta-bureaucracy is important, such as standardized testing, performance evaluations, etc.?

Comment author: BenHoffman 02 December 2017 09:56:36PM 1 point [-]

I think the thing to do is try to avoid thinking of "bureaucracy" as a homogeneous quantity, and instead attend to the details of institutions involved. Of course, as a foreigner with respect to every country but one's own, this is going to be difficult to evaluate when giving abroad. This is one of the many reasons why giving effectively on a global scale is hard, and why it's so important to have information feedback of the kind GiveDirectly is working on. Long-term follow-up seems really important too, and even then there's going to be some substantial justified uncertainty.

Comment author: ThomasSittler 02 December 2017 03:13:18PM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for the post! There's actually a lot of existing literature on these topics.

Regarding the effect of cash on happiness, Haushofer, Reisinger & Shapiro (2015) have a paper called "Your Gain Is My Pain: Negative Psychological Externalities of Cash Transfers".

If you are in fact skeptical of the meaningfulness of your income as a metric, you should be similarly skeptical of the meaningfulness of variations in income of people in poor countries

Maybe I misunderstand you, but the whole point of cash transfers is that money matters more for quality of life when you are poor. See 80,000 Hours' review.

The (lack of) productivity effects of (primary) education in developing countries have also been studied, although I'm less familiar with that literature. However, Haushofer & Shapiro (2016) find that as a result of the cash transfers, "education expenditures increase by USD 1 PPP", while overall expenditure on non-durable goods increases by 36 USD PPP. (Table V).

Comment author: BenHoffman 02 December 2017 09:53:42PM 1 point [-]

There's an implied heuristic that if someone makes an investment that gives them an income stream worth $X, net of costs, then the real wealth of their society increases by at least $X. On this basis, you might assume that if you give a poor person cash, and they use it to buy education, which increases the present value of their children's earnings by $X, then you've thereby added $X of real wealth to their country.

I am saying that we should doubt the premise at least somewhat.

Comment author: BenHoffman 02 December 2017 09:50:20PM 5 points [-]

For some balance, see Kelsey Piper's comments here - it looks like empirically, the picture we get from GiveDirectly is encouraging.


Cash transfers are not necessarily wealth transfers

Here’s a common argument: The problem with the poor is that they haven’t got enough money. There’s ample empirical evidence backing this up. Therefore, the obviously-correct poverty intervention is to simply give the poor cash. You might be able to do better than this, but it’s a solid baseline and... Read More
Comment author: BenHoffman 09 November 2017 12:18:59AM *  2 points [-]

To support a claim that this applies in "virtually all" cases, I'd want to see more engagement with pragmatic problems applying modesty, including:

  • Identifying experts is far from free epistemically.
  • Epistemic majoritarianism in practice assumes that no one else is an epistemic majoritarian. Your first guess should be that nearly everyone else is iff you are, in which you should expect information cascades due to the occasional overconfident person. If other people are not majoritarians because they're too stupid to notice the considerations for it, then it seems a bit silly to defer to them. On the other hand, if they're not majoritarians because they're smarter than you are... well, you mention this, but this objection seems to me to be obviously fatal and the only thing left is to explain why the wisdom of the majority disagrees with the epistemically modest.
  • The vast majority of information available about other people's opinions does not differentiate clearly between their impressions and their beliefs after adjusting for their knowledge about others' beliefs.
  • People lie to maintain socially desirable opinions.
  • Control over others' opinions is a valuable social commodity, and apparent expertise gives one some control.

In particular, the last two factors (different sorts of dishonesty) are much bigger deals if most uninformed people copy the opinions of apparently informed people instead of saying "I have no idea".

Overall, I agree that when you have a verified-independent, verified-honest opinion from a peer, one should weight it equally to one's own, and defer to one's verified epistemic superiors - but this has little to do with real life, in which we rarely have that opportunity!

Comment author: BenHoffman 21 May 2017 11:29:59PM 4 points [-]

Our prior strongly punishes MIRI. While the mean of its evidence distribution is 2,053,690,000 HEWALYs/$10,000, the posterior mean is only 180.8 HEWALYs/$10,000. If we set the prior scale parameter to larger than about 1.09, the posterior estimate for MIRI is greater than 1038 HEWALYs/$10,000, thus beating 80,000 Hours.

This suggests that it might be good in the long run to have a process that learns what prior is appropriate, e.g. by going back and seeing what prior would have best predicted previous years' impact.

Comment author: BenHoffman 21 May 2017 11:26:35PM *  2 points [-]

Regrettably, we were not able to choose shortlisted organisations as planned. My original intention was that we would choose organisations in a systematic, principled way, shortlisting those which had highest expected impact given our evidence by the time of the shortlist deadline. This proved too difficult, however, so we resorted to choosing the shortlist based on a mixture of our hunches about expected impact and the intellectual value of finding out more about an organisation and comparing it to the others.


Later, we realised that understanding the impact of the Good Food Institute was too difficult, so we replaced it with Animal Charity Evaluators on our shortlist. Animal Charity Evaluators finds advocates for highly effective opportunities to improve the lives of animals.

If quantitative models were used for these decisions I'd be interested in seeing them.

Comment author: vollmer 11 May 2017 07:30:20PM *  5 points [-]

I agree with those concerns.

In addition, some people might perceive the "guide dogs vs. trachoma surgeries" example as ableist, or might think that EAs are suggesting that governments spend less on handicapped people and more on foreign aid. (This is a particularly significant issue in Germany, where there have been lots of protests by disability rights advocates against Singer, also more recently when he gave talks about EA.)

In fact, one of the top google hits for "guide dog vs trachoma surgery" is this:

The philosopher says funding should go toward prevention instead of guide-dog training. Activists for the blind, of course, disagree.

For these reasons, I suggest not using the guide dog example at all anymore.

The above article also makes the following, interesting point:

Many people are able to function in society at a much higher level than ever before because of service dogs and therapy dogs. You would think that’s a level of utility that would appeal to Singer, but he seems to have a blind spot of his own in that respect.

This suggests that both guide dogs and trachoma surgeries cause significant flow-through effects. All of these points combined might decrease the effectiveness difference from 1000x to something around 5x-50x (see also Why Charities Don't Differ Astronomically in Cost-Effectiveness).

Comment author: BenHoffman 13 May 2017 02:22:40AM 1 point [-]

On the ableism point, my best guess is that the right response is to figure out the substance of the criticism. If we disagree, we should admit that openly, and forgo the support of people who do not in fact agree with us. If we agree, then we should account for the criticism and adjust both our beliefs and statements. Directly optimizing on avoiding adverse perceptions seems like it would lead to a distorted picture of what we are about.

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