Can we drive development at scale? An interim update on economic growth work 2020-10-27T11:14:44.017Z
How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? 2020-04-29T13:40:38.361Z


Comment by smclare on [Podcast] Suggest a question for Jeffrey Sachs · 2021-06-15T13:07:04.967Z · EA · GW

This might not be a very original question, but how have his views about Big Push approaches to poverty reduction evolved over time? I'd find it interesting to hear a discussion of how (or if) he consciously updates his views as new and often conflicting evidence about such theories emerges over time.

Comment by smclare on Looking for more 'PlayPumps' like examples · 2021-05-28T10:41:54.855Z · EA · GW

For data on employment programs in poor countries, check out section 2 of this very good review by Blattman and Ralston. They review evaluations of job training programs, a very popular development intervention, and generally find very small or null effects:

“Training” is probably one of the most ubiquitous employment interventions. What is striking, however, is that there are very few examples of evaluated programs that have had positive effects, at least on men. It is even more difficult to find any that pass a cost-benefit test, for men or women. [p. 8]

You could probably look through some of the citations there to find specific examples of programs that didn't have an impact, e.g.:

at least 4.5 million people in 100 countries have taken part in the ILO’s Start & Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme alone. Unfortunately there is little evidence these programs have any effect where they matter most: on sales or profits. [p. 9]


The fact that so many people decline opportunities to participate in these programs, or dropout after starting, is especially concerning. An interesting example comes from Pakistan’sSkills for Employability program. Even among poor households who expressed interest invocational skills, more than 95% did not enroll when given a voucher [p. 10]

I'll just note that it's not all bad news: some of the specific programs they review had positive effects. In particular, programs that provide beneficiaries with capital goods, either instead of or in addition to training, seem to be more positive. 

In contrast to skills training programs, such capital-centric programs are relatively rare—so rare, in fact, that none appeared in a recent text analysis of all employment interventions in the World Bank. Yet the evidence from more and more program evaluations is that capital-centric programs can stimulate self-employment cost-effectively. [p. 13]

This is a big reason why Founders Pledge recommends the Graduation approach, a capital-centric job training program, in our Women's Empowerment report!

Comment by smclare on RCTs in Development Economics, Their Critics and Their Evolution (Ogden, 2020) [linkpost] · 2021-04-06T14:07:31.522Z · EA · GW

Ogden works with Innovations for Poverty Action (and, incidentally, is on GiveWell's board). I'm not sure he'd identify as a randomista but seems very likely he's favourable to RCTs.

Comment by smclare on Campaign to protect 0.7% of UK GNI for global poor. · 2021-02-19T13:28:34.697Z · EA · GW

Hi Natasha, I'm really glad you guys are working on this! Thanks for the time and effort you've put in so far.

I wondered if you've discussed things people can do other than emailing MPs - maybe donating to orgs advocating against this change, or getting together to write an op-ed with a public figure?

I bet many people reading this post live in more liberal/urban areas with MPs who are already likely to vote against this measure (e.g. I'm in an incredibly safe Labour seat). I'm also struck and dismayed by the data that a majority of voters from each UK party support cutting the aid budget. Makes me think that efforts to sway public opinion might be important, too.

Comment by smclare on What is going on in the world? · 2021-01-18T09:57:58.311Z · EA · GW

Some things worth adding might be:

  • Several Asian economies are growing rapidly, and China is on track to become a major world power sometime this century (worth including since you mention the apparent decline of the US/West)
  • There is massive global inequality, and while many lower income countries are now growing more steadily they are not projected to narrow the north/south wealth divide anytime soon
  • Humans are raising billions of animals for food in very poor conditions
Comment by smclare on Mid-Career Professionals: Impact Landscape - Request for Feedback · 2020-12-18T11:40:35.788Z · EA · GW

Nice work Devon! This is a great collection of resources. I like the clarity and directness of the document. 

I understand that you want to meet people where they are and not push a particular view too hard, but I don't think it would hurt to put more emphasis on the things you think are most impactful. In particular, my guess is that getting a small number of people to change jobs or donate more is more important than getting a larger number of people to become mentors or something like that. So I think it would be good to add a couple of sentences in the career change and donating sections just emphasizing how much good one can do by taking these actions. Another way to do this without coming across too strongly could be to use concrete examples. Perhaps 80K has some go-to stories of people who have changed careers. You can also talk a bit about specific charities to make the idea of "doing good" more tangible.

I would also combine the "Take a Pledge" section with the earlier section about donating.

Comment by smclare on Can we drive development at scale? An interim update on economic growth work · 2020-12-04T17:00:13.812Z · EA · GW

Thanks for this great comment! I agree with you on neglectedness, I think the field is so broad that by looking at high-level funding we're probably counting a lot of stuff that isn't relevant directly to the question of "would there by impactful work that's currently unfunded?", which is waht we actually care about.

Agree also our list of potential orgs working in the space is a bit random and probably misses some good, relevant funding opportunities. Thanks for the info about ODI and IDinsight, too.

My concern with wading into specific evaluations is less about establishing a credible/plausible causal link, and more about collecting enough data to build a proper counterfactual. My impression is that substantial policy changes often involve many different organisations, departments, and people, and it's hard to work out whose presence made a difference. Our decision to stop short at this time was based heavily on our colleagues' evaluations for climate organisations, which required a huge investment to confidently work out whose impact was truly counterfactual.

In any case, I'd love to speak more about your experience in the field if we take this work further - if you're interested in that, please feel free to DM me so we can keep in touch.

Comment by smclare on Introducing High Impact Athletes · 2020-12-03T09:39:43.912Z · EA · GW

 Hi Marcus, congratulations on the launch of HIA! It looks like you've sourced some of your climate recommendations from us (Founders Pledge). This is great and we're excited for you to use our research, of course! It's worth noting that our 3 current climate recommendations are CATF, Carbon 180, and TerraPraxis. I just want to make sure you're using our most up-to-date research rather than the old report, which is a bit out of date now.

Please do reach out if you have any questions about this, or any of our other recommendations! If you'd like to speak more about how we think about pledging, including thresholds, escalating pledges, etc., I also might be able to help with that.

Comment by smclare on £4bn for the global poor: the UK's 0.7% · 2020-12-02T12:30:54.819Z · EA · GW

Hi Sanjay, agree this is important. I'll be curious to hear what the NGOs you've reached out to think is the best way to infuence this decision. Given the large Tory majority we'd have to flip quite a few individual MPs to defeat the vote - I wonder if media outreach would also be useful.

I can also think of a few people who are sympathetic to EA, supportive of aid, and might have ideas about waht strategy is best. e.g. might be worth reaching out to Sam Bowman for ideas.

Comment by smclare on Can we drive development at scale? An interim update on economic growth work · 2020-10-29T10:01:24.122Z · EA · GW

I think that's a bit too pessimistic! Founders Pledge has made some progress on this (link goes to pdf) and I think we can do pretty well by taking a kind of journalistic approach. For example, we can speak to charities, experts, and government officials and see if the charity's claims about who they spoke to and when are true, if the timelines match up, and if it seems like the government would have made changes anway. Check out pp. 8-10 of the linked doc.

I do recognize that this is much more difficult than looking at the results of an RCT. We'll never be as sure that the effect is causal and it takes a lot of time from both us and the organisation we're looking at. These costs are the main reason we're not continuing our growth work at this time.

Comment by smclare on Can we drive development at scale? An interim update on economic growth work · 2020-10-28T09:49:41.042Z · EA · GW

Thanks for this thoughtful comment! Thinking about x-risk reduction as giving us more time to grow the economy and alleviate poverty is really interesting.

While I agree the long-term effects are highly uncertain, I think it's important to distinguish catch-up growth from frontier growth. Most growth accelerations in low-income countries bring them from "super poor" to "still pretty poor". People in these countries live more comfortably, but they're usually not getting rich enough to develop geopolitical ambitions that increase x-risk. (China and maybe India being notable exceptions.)

I'm actually not sure it's true that "most of us have accepted longtermism." As we say in this post, the Global Health and Development Fund is still the biggest EA Fund. Last year's EA survey found that Global Poverty was still the most popular cause, and only 41% of respondents would choose the Long Term Future if they had to focus on one cause.

In any case, we might want to continue to have some EAs working on things other than longtermism in order to diversify in the face of moral uncertainty. And, as you say, having something useful and interesting to say about more mainstream causes is important for PR and movement growth. I thought the discussion of this point in the comments of this post was good.

Comment by smclare on Factors other than ITN? · 2020-09-28T12:46:02.148Z · EA · GW

I think it's probably the case that good heuristics for making career decisions are different than good heuristics for making donation decisions. We shouldn't necessarily expect a framework (ITN or otherwise) to be ideal for both.

If someone today decides to work on a certain cause, they strengthen the pipeline of good funding opportunities in that cause. But there's a time lag. Pivoting to work on biosecurity might be a great career decision right now. However funding a person to do that work might not be a great donation until a few years down the road, when they've gained the skills and credentials needed to make an impact.

Comment by smclare on How Dependent is the Effective Altruism Movement on Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna? · 2020-09-26T18:42:28.160Z · EA · GW

As another data point, this OECD report says that from 2013-15, half of all philanthropic funding for international development came from the Gates Foundation ($12 billion out of $24 billion total).

Comment by smclare on Foreign Affairs Piece on Land Use Reform · 2020-09-15T11:50:54.940Z · EA · GW

Hey Bryan, agree that this is a really interesting cause area in high-income countries. I've written a report on UK planning reform for Founders Pledge. We've recommended London YIMBY, who are working to strengthen Johnson's proposed reforms and design politically-palatable proposals that will actually get through Parliament.

As you know, proper land use reform could have very large welfare benefits so I'm excited to see more work bringing attention to the issue! Now the trick is finding policy proposals that overcome the huge political barriers to reform. I'm glad you think Biden's proposals are decent.

Comment by smclare on Planning my birthday fundraiser for October 2020 · 2020-09-14T09:49:47.754Z · EA · GW

NTI is a great choice! I also ran a birthday fundraiser this year. I think there are positive benefits to running public donation campaigns. I'm also a fan of "normalizing" giving by running small fundraisers like this.

Comment by smclare on How to think about an uncertain future: lessons from other sectors & mistakes of longtermist EAs · 2020-09-07T09:52:52.295Z · EA · GW

Hey Sam, thanks for this. I always appreciate the critical, reflective perspective you bring to these discussions. It's really valuable. I think you're right that we should consider the failure modes to which we're vulnerable and consider adopting useful tools from other communities.

I think perhaps it's a bit premature to dismiss the value of probabilistic predictions and forecasting. One thing missing from this post is discussion of Tetlock's Expert Political Judgement work. Through the '90s and '00s, Tetlockian forecasters went head-to-head against analysts from the US military and intelligence communities and kicked their butts. I think you're right that, despite this, forecasting hasn't taken over strategic decisionmaking in these communities. But as far as I know Tetlock has continued to work with and receive funding from intelligence projects, so it seems that the intelligence people see some value in these methods.

I think I'd agree with other commenters too that I'm not sure longtermist grants are that reliant on expected value calculations. The links you provide, e.g. to David Roodman's recent paper for Open Phil, don't seem to support this. Roodman's paper, for example, seems to be more of a test of whether or not the idea of explosive economic acceleration this century is plausible from a historical perspective rather than an attempt to estimate the value of the future. In fact, since Roodman's paper finds that growth tends to infinity by 2047 it's not actually helpful in estimating the value of the future.

Instead, it seems to me that most longtermist grantmaking these days relies more on crucial considerations-type analysis that considers the strength of a project's causal connection to the longterm future (e.g. reducing ex risk).

P.S. If you ever feel that you're struggling to get your point across I'd be happy to provide light edits on these posts before they go public - just message me here or email me at work (stephen [at] founderspledge [dot] com)

Comment by smclare on If a poverty alleviation intervention has a positive ROI, (why) isn't anyone lending money for them? · 2020-08-27T08:27:45.272Z · EA · GW

It could be and I know there's at least one non-profit working in this space (Taimaka Project). One Acre Fund also provides loans to farmers. However I don't think this intervention seems likely to be much better than cash transfers, and could be worse (because less targeted and involves a lot more overhead).

Oh, also Tyler Cowen and Esther Duflo sort of discuss this question in their Conversation (ctrl + f "invest" or "return" to find the discussion). Duflo says:

So there are some people with very high rates of return, as you were saying, 50 percent or 60 percent. But there are not very many. I think that is why the . . . First of all, there are not very many, and they are not necessarily the one that have access to money. That’s one of the big reasons why the cost is lower, is that there is a mismatch between the investment opportunity and who has the money. And that’s what my colleagues call misallocation.
Comment by smclare on If a poverty alleviation intervention has a positive ROI, (why) isn't anyone lending money for them? · 2020-08-25T09:47:40.992Z · EA · GW

This is a really important question, and I agree a bit of a puzzle. Burke, Bergquist, and Miguel sort of address it in "Sell Low and Buy High". Burke et al. test the effect of providing credit to farmers in Kenya. They find that with access to credit, farmers are able to save more of their harvest and sell it at a different time when local prices are higher, raising their income and allowing them to pay back the loan. The return on investment is 29%.

But, as you say, 29% is a big return - why aren't local lenders already providing this opportunity? From the very end of the paper (p. 838-9):

What our results do not address is why wealthy local actors—for example, large-scale private traders—have not stepped in to bid away these arbitrage opportunities. Traders do exist in the area and can commonly be found in local markets. In a panel survey of local traders, we record data on the timing of their marketing activities and storage behavior but find little evidence of long-run storage. When asked to explain this limited storage, many traders report being able to make even higher total profits by engaging in spatial arbitrage across markets (relative to temporal arbitrage). Nevertheless, this does not explain why the scale or number of traders engaging in both spatial and intertemporal arbitrage has not expanded; imperfect competition among traders may play a role

So, yeah, they don't really know. Lenders have other good opportunities, and maybe discount future returns enough that they would rather engage in spatial rather than temporal arbitrage. As Larks wrote, too, risk aversion and fixed costs could make these very small loans to people in extreme poverty unattractive.

Comment by smclare on Animal Welfare Fund Grants – August 2020 · 2020-08-14T15:24:04.198Z · EA · GW

I'm really happy to see the Animal Welfare Fund is still getting lots of donations. I also think the range of organisations receiving grants is pretty awesome!

I'd be curious to hear someone from the Fund talk a bit about the rationale for providing smaller grants to a large number of organisations, rather than larger grants to a smaller number of the most promising projects. Apologies if this has been addressed before.

Comment by smclare on Center for Global Development: The UK as an Effective Altruist · 2020-08-11T14:50:34.772Z · EA · GW

The FCO-DFID merger seems pretty anti-EA to me. The stated motivation was to allow the government to leverage the UK's aid budget to advance British interests. In contrast, presumably, an independent DFID was more free to pursue poverty allevation and development as an end goal. It's odd to me that this angle isn't really discussed in the piece.

I also think it would probably be really bad for Cummings to become associated with EA given that he's such a controversial and disagreeable person. And while I've seen him linked with us multiple times, I can't actually find any material where he's discussed, supported, or even mentioned EA.

Comment by smclare on I'm Linch Zhang, an amateur COVID-19 forecaster and generalist EA. AMA · 2020-08-10T14:27:25.660Z · EA · GW

Yeah, I don't blame Linch for passing on this question since I think the answer is basically "We don't know and it seems really hard to find out."

That said, it seems that forecasting research has legitimately helped us get better at sussing out nonsense and improving predictions about geopolitical events. Maybe it can improve our epistemic status on ex risks too. Given that there don't seem to be too many other promising candidates in this space, more work to gauge the feasibility of longterm forecasting and test different techniques for improving it seems like it would be valuable.

Comment by smclare on Informational Lobbying: Theory and Effectiveness · 2020-08-04T09:40:16.392Z · EA · GW

Thanks for this! Something that came to my mind as I was reading this was that it might be time for an update of CEA's list of good policy ideas that won't happen (yet).

You wrote that "It seems like, given an already-existing basket of policies we'd be interested in advocating for, we can make lobbying more cost-effective just by allocating more resources to (e.g.) issues that are less salient to the public." This made me think it might be useful be to make a list of EA-relevant policy ideas and start organizing them into a Charity Entrepreneurship-style spreadsheet. Something I'll keep musing on!

I'm also curious about what motivated you to take on this project, and what you're planning to work on next?

Comment by smclare on Informational Lobbying: Theory and Effectiveness · 2020-07-31T15:49:07.393Z · EA · GW

Wow, this is really fantastic work! Thank you for the effort you put into this. Overall I think this paints a more optimistic picture of lobbying than I would have expected, which I find encouraging.

To follow up on a couple specific points:

(1) Just in terms of my own project planning, do you have an estimate of how long you spent on this? If you had another 40 hours, what uncertainties would you seek to reduce?

(2) Your discussion of Bumgartner et al. (2009) is super interesting. You write "Policy change happens over a long time frame." I wonder if you could expand on this briefly. Do you mean that it takes a lot of lobbying over years before a policy change happens, or do you mean that meaningful policy change happens through incremental policy changes over time?

(3) Your finding that lobbying which protects the status quo is much more likely to be effective seems particularly actionable. I mean, once put into words it seems obvious, but it's a point I hadn't thought about before. I notice, though, that your list of ideas seems to consist of positive changes rather than status quo protection. I wonder if it would be worth brainstorming a list of good status quo issues that might be under threat. Protecting these would be less exciting than big changes, but for exactly the reasons you outline here more likely to work!

(4) I'm interested in thinking a bit more about uncertainty about policy implementation. This is something that we're currently grappling with in our models of policy change where I work (Founders Pledge). On the one hand, the Tullock Paradox suggests that we should expect lobbying to be extremely difficult (otherwise everyone would do a lot more of it). On the other hand, we've noticed that very good policy advocates seem to quite regularly affect meaningful policy changes (for example, it seems like the Clean Air Task Force regularly succeeds in their work).

In your model you write that "the change in probability of policy implementation lies with 95% confidence between 0 and 5%, and is distributed normally." I'm not sure about this, but I imagine the distribution of "chance of affecting policy success" over all the possible policies we could work on is much flatter than this. Or perhaps it's bimodal: there are some issues on which it is near impossible to make progress and some issues where we could definitely get policies implemented if we spent a certain amount of money in the right way.

Perhaps we want to start with a low prior chance of policy success, and then update way up or down based on which policy we're working on. Do you think we'd be able to identify highly-likely policies in practice?

(5) I found this post super helpful, but overall I think I'm still quite puzzled by the Tullock Paradox. If anything I'm more confused now, given that this post made me update in favour of policy advocacy. I think perhaps something that's missing here is a discussion of incentives within the civil service or bureaucracy. A policy proposal like taking ICBMs off hair-trigger alert just seems so obvious, so good, and so easy that I think there must be some illegible institutional factors within the decision-making structure stopping it from happening. I don't blame you for excluding this issue considering the size of this post and the amount of research you've already done, but it seems worth flagging!

Thanks again for a great post! I'm really excited about more work in this vein.

Comment by smclare on What questions would you like to see forecasts on from the Metaculus community? · 2020-07-31T12:17:45.987Z · EA · GW

Some fun, useful questions with shorter time horizons could be stuff like:

  • Will GiveWell add a new Top Charity to its list in 2020 (i.e. a Top Charity they haven't previously recommended)?
  • How much money will the EA Funds grant in 2020? (total or broken down by Fund)
  • How many new charities will Charity Entrepreneurship launch in 2020?
  • How many members will Giving What We Can have at the end of 2020?
  • How many articles in [The Economist/The New York Times/...?] will include the phrase "effective altruism" in 2020?

Stuff on global development and global poverty could also be useful. I don't know if we have data to resolve them, but questions like:

  • What will the global poverty rate be in 2021, as reported by the World Bank?
  • How many malaria deaths will there be in 2021?
  • How many countries will grow their GDP by more than 5% in 2021?
Comment by smclare on How do i know a charity is actually effective · 2020-07-17T16:57:53.979Z · EA · GW

I'm slightly confused by the part where you say you're struggling to understand effectiveness on an "emotional" level. Are your doubts about the state of our knowledge about charity effectiveness, or are you struggling to feel an emotional connection to the work of the charities we've identified as highly effective?

Comment by smclare on I'm Linch Zhang, an amateur COVID-19 forecaster and generalist EA. AMA · 2020-06-30T22:38:31.495Z · EA · GW

Lots of EAs seem pretty excited about forecasting, and especially how it might be applied to help assess the value of existential risk projects. Do you think forecasting is underrated or overrated in the EA community?

Comment by smclare on I'm Linch Zhang, an amateur COVID-19 forecaster and generalist EA. AMA · 2020-06-30T22:36:19.308Z · EA · GW

Most of the forecasting work covered in Expert Political Judgement and Superforecasting related to questions with time horizons of 1-6 months. It doesn't seem like we know much about the feasibility or usefulness of forecasting on longer timescales. Do you think longer-range forecasting, e.g. on timescales relevant to existential risk, is feasible? Do you think it's useful now, or do you think we need to do more research on how to make these forecasts first?

Comment by smclare on I'm Linch Zhang, an amateur COVID-19 forecaster and generalist EA. AMA · 2020-06-30T22:30:56.921Z · EA · GW

Good forecasts seem kind of like a public good to me: valuable to the world, but costly to produce and the forecaster doesn't benefit much personally. What motivates you to spend time forecasting?

Comment by smclare on Antibiotic resistance and meat: why we should be careful in assigning blame · 2020-06-19T18:00:36.275Z · EA · GW

Great post, thanks for this. I'll stop chucking in "antibiotic resistance" as a reason to reduce factory farming. I'll focus on stronger reasons. I think a longer post on this topic would be useful.

On horizontal gene transfer, you write "This last mechanism could potentially be the most important one, but we do not know how common such transfer is or what share of the resistance burden for humans it causes." Without more information this is not particularly reassuring for me. Do we truly know nothing about how common or potentially important this is? I'd love to see you give a sense of your intuitions here, even if they're based on theorizing, speculating, or very weak evidence.

Comment by smclare on Million dollar donation: penny for your thoughts? · 2020-06-18T19:10:15.392Z · EA · GW

One thing to note about the bounds of the FP cost-effectiveness estimate is that they aren't equivalent to a 95% confidence interval. Instead they've been calculated by multiplying through the most extreme plausible values for each variable on our cost-effectiveness calculation. This means they correspond to an absolute, unimaginably bad worst case scenario and an absolute, unfathomably good best case scenario. We understand that this is far from ideal: first, cost-effectiveness estimates that span 6+ orders of magnitude aren't that helpful for cause prioritization; second, they probably overrepresent our actual uncertainty.

On TaRL specifically, the effects seem really good--whether or not we can get governments to implement TaRL effectively seems to be where most of the uncertainty lies.

Comment by smclare on Million dollar donation: penny for your thoughts? · 2020-06-18T19:04:06.779Z · EA · GW

Nice work! This seems like a pretty great overview of our current understanding of a whole range of international development interventions, at least on the micro end of the spectrum. Useful not just for your donors, but the community as a whole.

Two quick points. First, in your appendix you write that it would be interesting to see a rigorous evaluation of Jeff Sachs' Millenium Village Project. DFID did fund a big evaluation of that project which returned pretty negative results. Marginal Revolution discusses that here, plus there's a paper by Gelman et al. cited at the end of the MR post.

Second, I do think there's a bit of tension between the part where you write "the donors are comfortable with impact within the next 1 to 20 years or so, but not keen on options like R&D and policy advocacy which may or may not have an impact at all" and your recommendation of TaRL. As you note, it's completely possible that J-PAL's work to scale up TaRL across Sub Saharan African will fail. The line between policy advocacy and policymaking support is pretty blurry.

I don't want to discourage you from recommending TaRL because I think it's great! And of course you can't evalute everything. But I'd be interested in your thinking about what differentiates TaRL advocacy from advocacy for better health or macro policies, which you've largely excluded.

Comment by smclare on [updated] Global development interventions are generally more effective than climate change interventions · 2020-06-02T17:32:21.315Z · EA · GW

The assumption is that a policymaker will use these results to shape how strict climate policy is. Stricter climate policies will reduce present-day consumption in the policymaker's jurisdiction. The goal is to have a climate policy that is just strict enough to balance the future utility gain from improved climate with current utility loss from reduced consumption.

For most real world applications it is convenient to have marginal damages expressed in monetary terms, rather than in utility units. In a final step, the marginal damage estimate therefore must be converted into monetary units. In principle one would just divide the marginal damage estimate expressed in utility units by marginal utility of income or consumption in the present to convert from utility to monetary units. Income inequality in the present however implies that the marginal utility of income is difference between regions and therefore the conversion depends on the choice of the reference or normalization region. Unless potentially very large transfers equating marginal utilities are allowed this yields different monetary values for different reference regions of the aggregated marginal damages as shown in Anthoff et al. (2009a)

(Anthoff and Emmerling, 2016, p. 5, emphasis added).

I think it's conventional in the literature to use the US as the reference region: "In order to make the numerical results comparable with previous studies we take the US as reference region x throughout this paper" (ibid).

My current understanding of how we should interpret a social cost of carbon of $y is:

“Given certain assumptions about future climate effects, emissions trajectories, how utility scales with consumption, and how much we discount future utility, a utilitarian policymaker in country x should be willing to reduce current consumption in his country by up to $y in order to abate 1 ton of carbon emissions”

This also means that, due to assumptions about diminishing marginal utility, the choice of reference region majorly affects the SCC. For example, Anthoff and Emmerling show how reference region affects their results. (Remember that this, like all SCC estimates, is subject to lots of assumptions about the effects of climate change and discounting.)

(Sorry for the huge image)

If the SCC estimate is low enough it can actually be negative for some regions, meaning that any reduction in present-day consumption in those countries to mitigate climate change would reduce utility.

I wanted to jump in here while the discussion is active, but I'll also flag that John, Johannes and I are working on this and should have a post on comparing climate vs. global health/development interventions in the not-too-distant future.

Comment by smclare on Climate Change Is Neglected By EA · 2020-05-28T17:56:37.059Z · EA · GW

This is perhaps a bit off-topic, but I have a question about this sentence:

I do actually think there is value on poverty-reduction like work

Would it be correct to say that poverty-reduction work isn't less valuable in absolute terms in a longtermist worldview than it is in a near-termist worldview?

One reason that poverty-reduction is great is because returns to income seem roughly logarithmic. This applies to both worldviews. The difference in a longtermist worldview is that causes like x-risk reduction gain a lot in value. This makes poverty reduction seem less valuable relative to the best things we can do. But, since there's no reason to think individual utility functions are different in long- and near-termist worldviews, in absolute terms the utility gain from transferring resources from high-income to low-income people is the same.

Comment by smclare on Climate Change Is Neglected By EA · 2020-05-27T20:36:24.509Z · EA · GW

Thanks for sharing that. It's good to know that that's how the message comes across. I agree we should avoid that kind of bait-and-switch which engages people under false pretences. Sam discusses this in a different context as the top comment on this post, so it's an ongoing concern.

I'll just speak on my own experience. I was focused on climate change throughout my undergrad and early career because I wanted to work on a really important problem and it seemed obvious that this meant I should work on climate change. Learning about EA was eye-opening because I realized (1) there are other important problems on the same scale as climate change, (2) there are frameworks to help me think about how to prioritize work among them, and (3) it might be even more useful for me to work on some of these other problems.

I personally don't see climate change as some separate thing that people engage with before they switch to "EA stuff." Climate change is EA stuff. It's a major global problem that concerns future generations and threatens civilization. However, it is unique among plausible x-risks in that it's also a widely-known problem that gets lots of attention from funders, voters, politicians, activists, and smart people who want to do altruistic work. Climate change might be the only thing that's both an x-risk and a Popular Social Cause.

It would be nice for our climate change message to do at least two thing. First, help people like me, who are searching for the best thing to do with their life and have landed on climate because it's a Popular Social Cause, discover the range of other important things to work on. Second, help people like you, who, I assume, care about future generations and want to help solve climate change, work in the most effective way possible. I think we can do both in the future, even if we haven't in the past.

Comment by smclare on Climate Change Is Neglected By EA · 2020-05-27T00:34:17.131Z · EA · GW

It seems to me that this conception of neglectedness doesn't help much with cause prioritization. Every problem EAs think about is probably neglected in some global sense. As a civilization we should absolutely do more to fight climate change. I think working on effective climate change solutions is a great career choice; better than, like, 98% of other possible options. But a lot of other factors bear on what the absolute best use of marginal resources is.

Comment by smclare on Climate Change Is Neglected By EA · 2020-05-25T20:06:48.994Z · EA · GW

Will and Rob devote a decent chunk of time to climate change on this 80K podcast, which you might find interesting. One quote from Will stuck with me in particular:

I don’t want there to be this big battle between environmentalism and EA or other views, especially when it’s like it could go either way. It’s like elements of environmentalism which are like extremely in line with what a typical EA would think and then maybe there’s other elements that are less similar [...] For some reason it’s been the case that people are like, “Oh, well it’s not as important as AI”. It’s like an odd framing rather than, “Yes, you’ve had this amazing insight that future generations matter. We are taking these actions that are impacting negatively on future generations. This is something that could make the long run future worse for a whole bunch of different reasons. Is it the very most important thing on the margin to be funding?"

I agree that, as a community, we should make sure we're up-to-date on climate change to avoid making mistakes or embarassing ourselves. I also think, at least in the past, the attitude towards climate work has been vaguely dismissive. That's not helpful, though it seems to be changing (cf. the quote above). As others have mentioned, I suspect climate change is a gateway to EA for a lot of altruistic and long-term-friendly people (it was for me!).

As far as direct longtermist work, I'm not convinced that climate change is neglected by EAs. As you mention, climate change has been covered by orgs like 80K and Founders Pledge (disclaimer, I work there). The climate chapter in The Precipice is very good. And while you may be right that it's a bit naive to just count all climate-related funding in the world when considering the neglectedness of this issue, I suspect that even if you just considered "useful" climate funding, e.g. advocacy for carbon taxes or funding for clean energy, the total would still dwarf the funding for some of the other major risks.

From a non-ex-risk perspective, I agree that more work could be done to compare climate work to work in global health and development. There's a chance that, especially when considering the air pollution benefits of moving away from coal power, climate work could be competitive here. Hauke's analysis, which you cite, has huge confidence intervals which at least suggest that the ranking is not obvious.

On the one hand, the great strength of EA is a willingness to prioritize among competing priorities and double down on those where we can have the biggest impact. On the other hand, we want to keep growing and welcoming more allies into the fold. It's a tricky balancing act and the only way we'll manage it is through self-reflection. So thanks for bringing that to the table in this post!

Comment by smclare on How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? · 2020-05-01T09:16:55.811Z · EA · GW

I agree that this seems important. It also makes me worry about the equilibrium effects. If producer A switches to a more expensive system and producer B doesn't, then I wonder how many consumers just end up buying more cheap eggs from B.

Comment by smclare on How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? · 2020-05-01T09:10:44.057Z · EA · GW

Thanks Jason! Looking forward to reading the new research.

Comment by smclare on How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation? · 2020-05-01T09:09:50.902Z · EA · GW

Nice catch, thanks for the careful read Saulius. I think this is especially important because it means that moral weight considerations creep into our measure of AMF's cost-efficiency even before we try to compare them to THL. GW currently assigns the same value to averting under-5 and age 5+ deaths (100 units), so that's convenient. I'd guess the "Cost per outcome as good as" cell also factors in other benefits from reduced morbidity?

Comment by smclare on How hot will it get? · 2020-04-23T11:08:02.239Z · EA · GW

This is one of those findings that, once it's laid out clearly, seems so simple and important that you wonder why no one did this before. So great science.

Is it right that the AI scenario is an extension in the Guesstimate model, and doesn't connect to your extrapolation of cumulative emissions? To me it seems more likely than not that the rapid growth in the AI scenario would result in part from AI-driven technological progress in a swathe of economic sectors, including energy, and that this could substantially drive down carbon intensity.

Comment by smclare on Why We Think Tobacco Tax Advocacy Could be More Cost-Effective than AMF · 2020-03-06T16:01:18.571Z · EA · GW

The model looks great! I think it's well-formulated and the data are well-researched, so it seems informative.

Substantive things:

-You might want to add pessimistic guesses for the cost of your advocacy. Intuitively, $100k for 5% attribution seems high when I consider travel costs, salaries, lobbying costs, etc. Generally when we assess policy change, we've considered the benefits to be the benefits of an org's most successful campaigns, and the costs to be the org's total costs because it's inherently hard to predict in advance which campaigns will be successful (you can't just use the costs for that campaign).

-Consider adding a note in the sheet explaining what you mean by "Percentage of the consumption decrease due to decreased smoking prevalence" (cell A9) and "Percentage of lives saved due to quitting" (A14). Not sure exactly what those are referring to at the moment.

Some aesthetic things:

-in cells B17:D20 your units are "millions of lives saved", but the outputs are on the order of thousands of lives saved, so it's a bit hard to read. You might want to change that to just "lives saved"

-you generally might want to snip the number of significant figures in the cells because it makes it harder to read. e.g. for the cells showing proportion of smokers per age group, snip it off at 2 sig figs

(I'll come back with some more comments later - just wanted to give quick initial impressions!)

Comment by smclare on Poll - what research questions do you want me to investigate while I'm in Africa? · 2020-03-03T13:08:52.808Z · EA · GW

Hi Katherine, I lived and worked in Rwanda for my previous job, so please feel free to message me if you think I can be helpful. It's a wonderful country. A few thoughts:

I would be careful not to generalize too much from Rwanda --> Africa, as Rwanda's culture, history, geography, and economy are unique.

I would also just stay away from questions about the genocide or violence - these are super sensitive and there are v complex social and political norms around them.

Outside of the city, few people speak English, and in the city English-speakers are much more likely to be wealthier and better-educated. That will bias the sample of who you get to speak with and maybe pushes in favour of looking into animal stuff (do you speak French? Older people are more likely to speak French).

Is this a personal trip during which you're hoping to do some interesting research, or are you going primarily for research purposes?

Edit: One other thing is that, depending on which question you investigate, the Rwandan government might not like this if they hear about it. I knew a team of volunteers who came to Rwanda to perform free vasectomies who got deported after they sent an unauthorized tweet. You'll very likely be fine, but the govt's wariness of outsiders poking around is something to be aware of.

Comment by smclare on Help in choosing good charities in specific domains · 2020-02-21T17:08:36.888Z · EA · GW

Hi, you might be interested in some of our research at Founders Pledge! Specifically, you might like the charities we recommend in our cause reports on education and women's empowerment.

Comment by smclare on Help in choosing good charities in specific domains · 2020-02-21T17:07:55.677Z · EA · GW

[Whoops, I've added this as an answer now]

Comment by smclare on Tackling the Largest Cause of Death Worldwide: Good Policies Update on Tobacco Taxes · 2020-01-29T11:29:41.154Z · EA · GW

This sounds like a promising update! Well done, and I'm looking forward to seeing how things progress in the coming months.