Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our worst subjects

“I prefer to give to local organizations.” I've heard this a lot.

Imagine a high school student who sits down to study for exams. Her chemistry book is lying closest to her on the desk, so she decides to study chemistry. Her father points out that since she has an A in chemistry and a D in history, studying history might help her grades more. “But that book is all the way over there in my backpack,” the student points out; “I prefer to study locally.”

If you were her parent, you probably wouldn't let her get away with this. All things being equal, she would benefit most from studying the subjects where she's most behind. Even though she hasn't learned all the chemistry there is to know, a few hours of studying history will get her farther than spending the same hours on chemistry.

Even within rich countries, we don't have straight As on our report card. Homelessness, environment, prisons, health, schools – we're behind where we should be in lots of areas. As a social work student, I've seen many of these problems first hand. It hurts to see, and I can't help wanting to fix them.

But these are not our worst subjects. The fact that millions of people every year die of easily preventable diseases, and billions live in grinding poverty – that is a much worse failure. Only it's not happening right here next to us; it's happening far away.

The good news is this: the same amount of effort goes a lot farther on our worst subjects. For a few hundred dollars, I can save a life somewhere in the developing world. There’s no local charity (local to me in the United States) where that money will accomplish anywhere near as much.

I'm not saying we should neglect local causes altogether. If our own society falls apart, we’ll be less able to help. But we should put most of our effort – and money – toward areas where we’re failing.

A version of this post appeared earlier on 80,000 Hours.


  1. That's a great way to put it Julia -- I'm consistently impressed by your posts.


  2. One of my favorite posts!
    Keep up the good work :D