Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deciding where to give

I kept delaying writing this post because I'm not entirely sure where I'm donating over the coming year. I tend to spread donations out throughout the year, so I don't feel a particular rush in December. But, since the end of the tax year is a lot of people's giving season, I want to share my thoughts.

My previous favorite, the Against Malaria Foundation, is not looking so good lately due to problems distributing their mosquito nets. I'm not super concerned about this – I think it's likely that they'll get their act together in the next six months or so and resume distributing nets. But I don't plan to donate to them until that happens. (This is the kind of thing I'm really glad GiveWell is here to tell me about – as a donor, I would never have picked up on the problem.)

My parents usually make a donation as a Christmas present to me, and they asked where they should make it.  I asked them to give to Give Directly.  I think the just-give-cash method makes a lot of sense, given the evidence that recipients choose quite well what they need, and I hope this idea will catch on.  The organization itself seems quite transparent and sensibly run.  I also found it encouraging that so many GiveWell staff are making their personal donations there.

I can see advantages to donating later, especially given the fact that the Against Malaria Foundation (which looked like the strongest contender for a good while) may catch up again soon.  So I'll probably hold most of my donations for about six months and see how things look then.

If I were holding off longer, like years, I would probably put my donations in a donor-advised fund like GiveWell's or Giving What We Can's.

I also plan to donate some to organizations like GiveWell, Giving What We Can, or 80,000 Hours (I haven't decided on the breakdown yet).  I think this is an important time both for exposing more people to the idea of effective altruism and for developing better knowledge about where to give.  I need to look more specifically into what those organizations would do with more funding.

Lastly, I'll make some feel-good donations to causes that aren't the most effective (a fundraiser for a friend's business, my Quaker meeting, etc.) These donations come out of my personal spending budget, not my charity budget.

One obvious question is: why divide up money rather than giving all to one place? Giving What We Can makes some good points in their recent post about why to donate all to one charity.  But I'm also persuaded that we should act how we want other people to act, and I wouldn't want the whole effective altruist community to donate to only one place.  So I'm okay with dividing things up a bit.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

669 lives

In 1938, a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton was about to go on skiing vacation in Switzerland when a friend asked him to come to Prague instead. He arrived at a Czech refugee camp instead of his planned ski trip. The camp was filled with Jewish families trying to escape before the Germans arrived. In Winton's words, “I felt compelled to do something.”

He spent the next nine months using his money and organizational skills to arrange for hundreds of children to be evacuated by train and fostered by British families. He was 29 years old. He saved 669 children that year.  And afterwards, he didn't tell anyone what he had done.

50 years later, his wife discovered his journals in a briefcase in the attic. The children's names were in a scrapbook he had kept.  Here's footage of Winton realizing he's sitting next to dozens of the now-grown children:

We talk about “lives saved.” Mentally, I know that this year my donations will save several people's lives, and keep many more from getting sick. But it's so different to actually see those people assembled in a room.

Winton is still alive at age 104, and the children he saved are themselves old. One became a member of Parliament, another a groundbreaking geneticist, another a journalist and author. And most of them went on to do nothing especially remarkable except grow up, go to school, work, get married, have children, and generally do the things people enjoy doing when they don't die at age 6.

Recently someone asked me if it wasn't rather limiting, not getting to do as much travel as I might if I didn't donate. It's hard to imagine that Nicholas Winton regrets giving up his ski trip.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

But what will my friends think?

This week I talked to some students about what life is like for my husband and me as people who give away a lot of our income.  Some of them seemed worried about the social consequences: what happens when your friends all have expensive houses and cars? Won't you feel left out? Won't people think you're strange?

I don't remember exactly what my answer was at the time, but here are some better-thought-out ones:

A lot of our friends are also on small budgets.
The bartender? The grad student? The novelist? The one whose job you can't really describe, but it involves postmodernism?  They're not rolling in cash. Unless you actually reach a point when all your friends are corporate lawyers, you probably won't be the only one living frugally.

A lot of our friends are a little weird, too.
We have a friend who commutes to work by unicycle. Another friend believes bacon is a health food and eats it in according quantities. Another friend is a professional blacksmith. Maybe it's just living in the neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, but there are a lot of eccentric people around. I don't mind being one of them.

You can have fun with your friends for cheap.  
  • A lot of our friends are from the folk dance scene.  It doesn't cost much money, and participants tend to come from a wide variety of income levels.  It's not that easy to pick out who's a psychiatrist and who's an art teacher.  
  • I enjoy cooking, so we often have people over for dinner rather than going to a restaurant.  
  • Jeff and two of his college roommates have a standard arrangement whenever their wives are out of town: the bachelor-for-a-day invites the others over, and they play board games their wives don't like.  
Your friends aren't always into conspicuous consumption.
Jeff works as a computer programmer, and in his thrift-store work clothes he actually looks less scruffy than most of his coworkers.

There are lots of metrics to compare people on.
I have a partner I love. My parents are alive and healthy. I have all my teeth. There are lots of ways you can compare yourself to other people   you'll come out ahead on some, and behind on some. That's true no matter your income.

Some of your friends will follow you.
We've heard friend say they admire us for following our principles.  And some of them say they've changed because of us  looking for more effective charities, giving more, or asking people to donate instead of giving them birthday presents.  I love hearing that.

We've met some awesome people through giving.
Since we started meeting other people who are interested in effective altruism, we've really clicked with some of them. After college I missed being able to talk ideas with people, and effective altruism has brought that back into my life.  (The downside: you have to get over your stage fright about talking to people with impressive credentials. It turns out most of them are regular people.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Book review: Reinventing Philanthropy

Eric Friedman's book Reinventing Philanthropy: A Framework for More Effective Giving came out this month.

The book opens with an example that I find particularly compelling. Friedman gives the example of two sick children, one who received world-class care at an American children's hospital, and the other who perished for lack of basic care at an underfunded clinic in Angola. Both healthcare facilities are “good causes,” and donors might feel proud of supporting either one. But one is funded to the tune of millions of dollars a day, and the other lacks basic supplies. Rather than patting themselves on the back for supporting the state-of-the-art American hospital, Friedman suggests donors should consider funding the Angolan clinic that would be able to save far more children with the same money.

The book emphasizes the difference between giving to feel good and giving to do good (or, as he calls it, the “do-gooder approach” and the “do-bester approach.”) He argues that too much charitable giving is focused on making the donor feel good, regardless of what their money is actually accomplishing. But he proposes that it's possible to have both – to choose effective giving strategies while feeling the warm glow of knowing you helped others the best you could.

I'm sure there are donors out there who will not be persuaded by Friedman's approach – if their mother had Parkinson's, they will devote their charitable giving to Parkinson's research. In fact, the whole industry of charitable fundraising is built around this type of donor preference – show the donor giving opportunities within their chosen area of interest, but don't suggest that they consider some other area, even if they could help more people elsewhere.

But I think others will be compelled by Friedman's questions: what are you actually trying to combat? Is it Parkinson's disease in particular? Is it grief at watching a loved one grow ill and die? Is it human suffering in general? And if what you actually care about is preventing human suffering, shouldn't you fund whatever cause will best accomplish that goal?

Reinventing Philanthropy also provides sections on choosing charities to donate to, choosing whether to restrict your donation to a particular fund within a charity, and choosing to fund innovation vs. proven approaches. It also touches on ways to use your time to help, whether that's working or volunteering for a nonprofit, choosing a career that lets you donate more, or just talking to other people about how you make giving decisions.

Parts of the book are aimed at donors giving substantial amounts of money – for example, those giving a few hundred dollars won't be able to meet with the leadership of nonprofits they are considering, as Friedman advises. But the book's principles are sound, regardless of how much you donate.  By putting in some thought and research, donors at any level can be "do-besters."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why I'm glad other people will do research for me

Popovers are a little tricky to make, so when I want to bake them, there's only one cookbook I go to: Cook's Illustrated New Best Recipe. Unlike most cookbooks, which maybe test a recipe once or a few times, Cook's Illustrated goes through dozens of variations and puts them through a taste-test panel. Is a popover better with pastry flour or a higher-protein flour? Skim or whole milk? Should you leave the oven at a steady temperature or bump the temperature down after an initial blast of heat? Honestly, I'm not going to take the time to figure these things out on my own.  But I'm glad someone else did.

When Jeff and I were first trying to pick a charity to donate to, I spent a couple evenings browsing the internet. I found a charity that seemed to match our values and had a good reputation. I tried to find dirt on them and couldn't find anything significant. So for the next few years, we donated there.

But this was kind of the equivalent of developing your own popover recipe. You'll probably wind up with something pretty good. But someone giving the task 40 hours a week, year in and year out, is almost certainly going to do better.

Which is why I'm glad there are professional charity evaluators out there. I'm glad the J-PAL Poverty Action Labs and Innovations for Poverty Action exist to do impact evaluations on different interventions that might help people. I'm glad the Copenhagen Convention exists to advise policy makers on how to tackle the world's most important problems.  I'm glad GiveWell exists to recommend specific charities to donors. I'm glad the Cochrane Collaboration compiles the best evidence on health in a format I can (usually) understand. I'm glad that randomized controlled trials of interventions seem to be catching on more. offers 179 popover recipes. By looking at them, I have no idea which ones are duds and which produce perfect, airy results. Most charity evaluation sites rank thousands of charities, also pretty inscrutable to a casual viewer. I don't want 179 recipes or thousands of charity ratings. I just want the best.

There's probably a better popover recipe out there. There are almost certainly better charities out there than the ones I know about, and better ones that could be invented. But in the amount of time I'm willing to give the task, I'm not going to find them. So I'm glad there are people smarter and more dedicated than I am whose job it is to work on these hard problems.

(Want a popover?  The recipe's here.  Eat them with butter and jam.)

Photo: Jeremy Noble [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Malaria, one-trick ponies, and lasting change

It's a summer afternoon, and I'm reading the latest debate about narrow vs. systemic charitable interventions.  Scratching a mosquito bite, I'm reminded of a public health intervention that took place in my own country.

When my grandparents were growing up, the American South was still plagued by malaria (or ague, as it was often called.)  And what was the effect of the disease?
“While there is good land in the Southern United States as in the North, the land in the North sells at about 12 to 20 times the price, the difference being mainly due to malaria.”  - Carter, 1922, quoted here
“The diseases due to all four species of malaria parasite share the characteristic febrile episodes with their tendency to regular periodic paroxyms with chills, rigors, and sweating. They also have many symptoms in common with other infectious illnesses, including body aches, headache and nausea, general weakness, and prostration. . . . Lethargic and with sunken and sallow features, spindly limbs, and hard swollen belly is the general description of the condition. In this state the affected individual succumbs to diseases or other hardships that would scarcely threaten a person in reasonable health.” - Carter and Mendis, Evolutionary and Historical Aspects of the Burden of Malaria

The disease had been lessening over the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to better housing (glass and screens for windows) and the use of quinine.  But in the 1940s, the government took matters into its own hands.

During World War II, troops were succumbing to malaria on bases in the Southern US.  The Office of Malaria Control in War Areas was founded in 1942 to protect the areas around military bases. After the war it became the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC) and took on the task of eliminating the disease from the entire nation.  By 1951, the disease was eradicated from the United States.

Woman in rural Georgia, 1941.  Note the wooden shutter - no glass or screen.

This is the type of intervention that I've often heard criticized for its narrow focus.  I've heard single-issue medical interventions called "one-trick ponies", "short-sighted", "kicking the can down the road."  And to be sure, the eradication of malaria in the US was a top-down intervention carried out by a government agency without much community involvement.  There was not an attempt to change the social and economic conditions that prevented people from buying their own windowscreens and DDT. It just dealt with actual disease transmission.

Instead of narrowly-focused efforts, proponents of broad social change advocate "lasting solutions," "systemic change," "a new operating system." Which is great when it happens. But if public health interventions are difficult to carry off well, systemic change is even harder.

And yet it does happen. Interestingly enough, the Civil Rights movement sprang up in the South just as malaria was ending. The newly-formed CDC, located in Atlanta to be near the most malarial areas, declared the disease eliminated from the United States in 1951. That same year Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from seminary. American blacks still bore the burdens of political disenfranchisement, inadequate education, poor access to health services, violence, and daily acts of hate and humiliation. But they no longer ran the risk of illness or death with every mosquito bite.

Obviously there was a lot more to the Civil Rights movement than a lack of malaria. But it was one of the factors that helped. How likely is someone with “body aches, headache and nausea, general weakness, and prostration” to make it to the polls, to school, or to work? How likely are they to march on Washington?

It's easier to dream big from behind a windowscreen. Easier when you're not hungry. When you're not sick.  When you're not weakened from parasites and malnutrition.  And for those of us who would love to see systemic change, the "one-trick ponies" may be a good way forward.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


As a young person, I was extremely struck by the realization that my choice to donate or not meant the difference between someone else’s living and dying. A lot of decisions started to look very starkly wrong.

I remember telling my dad that I had decided it would be immoral for me to have children, because they would take too much of my time and money away from better causes. “It doesn't sound like this lifestyle is going to make you happy,” he said.

“My happiness is not the point,” I told him.

A few years later, I was deeply bitter about the decision. I had always wanted and intended to be a parent, and I felt thwarted. It was making me sick and miserable. I looked at the rest of my life as more of an obligation than a joy.

So Jeff and I decided that it wasn't worth having a breakdown over. We decided to set aside enough for our personal spending that we could reasonably afford to raise a child. Looking back at my journal entries from before and after the decision, I'm struck by how much difference it made in my outlook. Immediately after we gave ourselves permission to be parents, I was excited about the future again. I don't know when we'll actually have a kid, but just the possibility helps me feel things will be all right. And I suspect that feeling of satisfaction with my own life lets me be more help to the world than I would have as a broken-down altruist.

I've attended Quaker meeting for the last ten years. The founder, George Fox, gave his followers this advice in 1658: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing.”

Quakers have tended to emphasize the part about “that of God in everyone,” with its implication about equality: how can it be right to keep slaves, for example, if the slave has an element of the divine in her?

But my favorite part is that word “cheerfully.” Fox was a man who had been jailed and beaten for his religious beliefs – surely he had a right to be bitter. Quakerism later developed a stern and dour style, but George Fox was not about that.

Some things I can do cheerfully. It turns out that giving up children was not one of them. Other people would have no problem giving up parenthood, but I suspect that everyone has something that would cause an inordinate amount of pain to sacrifice.

So test your boundaries, and see what changes you can make that will help others without costing you too dearly. But when you find something is making you bitter, stop. Effective altruism is not about driving yourself to a breakdown. We don't need people making sacrifices that leave them drained and miserable. We need people who can walk cheerfully over the world, or at least do their damnedest.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What's it like to give half?

It's been a while since I ran the numbers on how much Jeff and I give.  Recently we figured out what we gave in 2012: it was about half our income.  In 2012, Jeff was working as a computer programmer and I was mostly in grad school, then starting a job as a social worker towards the end of the year.  In the interest of transparency, here's what we did with the money:

(Note: it's surprisingly tricky to figure out what counts as income and donations  for example, if I do a job for someone and ask them to donate instead of paying me, does that count as me donating or the other person donating?  For simplicity's sake, this post will use the income and donations from our 2012 tax return.  More detailed information on Jeff's website.)
  • Donations: This was our best year yet for donations.  If we earn more in the future, we'll be able to give more.
  • Taxes: Our taxes are lowered because of donating.
  • Savings: We're saving for a house, children, and retirement.
  • Housing: Our costs were unusually low because we're renting from Jeff's parents.  This will go up soon when we buy a house.
  • Food, clothes, transit, etc.: We spend about $200 a month on groceries.  We pay $70 each for a monthly public transit pass.  We each get about $40 a week in spending money, which covers clothes, cell phones, gifts, vacations, meals out, etc.
  • Medical: Jeff's work pays for most of our health insurance, but we pay for some of the insurance and some out-of-pocket expenses.
These numbers are atypical, because Jeff earns more as a computer programmer than most people do.  (He's an example of the earning to give model  if you want to be able to donate more, seek a higher-paying job.)  We also save on living expenses because we're two people living together.

So let's look at how I might budget if it were just me. This hypothetical budget is based on my earnings as a social worker from the past year, including four months when I was unemployed.  My total income was around $38,000 (close to median personal income in the US).

This assumes:
  • Saving 15% of income, which is pretty standard financial advice
  • $800/month rent and $100/month utilities, which is doable in the Boston area in a small apartment or an apartment shared with friends
  • $150/month on groceries, $80/month for public transit and $45/week on other personal spending, which are all more than I currently spend
  • My employer might pay 60% of my health insurance, so I would pay $250/month for insurance and out-of-pocket medical spending
  • Leaving $8,500, or 22%, for donations.  Not bad!
So even on a modest salary, it's possible to give a significant amount.  You don't even have to live in a cardboard box, I promise.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Beware false economy

A classic “false economy” is when you get something cheap that turns out to cost more than you thought – a car that breaks down all the time, shoes that fall apart quickly.  But cheap things can cost you not only money, but also time and the goodwill of others.

As a teenager I was suspicious of adults because they seemed less idealistic than young people. I didn't want to become like them. But now I see that it wasn't just that people become more selfish as they age, but also that they have a better understanding of false economies. Some sacrifices that seem noble to adolescents are recognized by adults as wasteful.

I was talking to a friend who gives away a lot of his money but who bit the bullet and got himself a good suit.  He realized that there were circumstances where he needed to talk to important people about these ideas, and having a good suit was part of being credible. Part of him resisted spending the money, but there are times when spending money lets you do a lot more good than donating it.

Saving money may be a false economy if it costs you time.  If you would be doing something worthwhile with the saved time, it may be better to take faster, more expensive methods of transit.   (If you wouldn't be doing anything worthwhile with your time, maybe you should find something.)  An easy-to-use phone and laptop are another good investment. 

Look out for "savings" that tax your relationships with other people. I spent a summer as a houseguest at a stage when I was very concerned about the fuel it takes to heat water, and the family I was staying with found it bizarre that I wanted to wash the dishes in cold water. I should have just done things their way to avoid the conflict – maintaining good relationships probably allow you to do more good than saving a bit of fuel or whatever you're trying to avoid.

I tell myself all this, but I still find false economies hard to avoid.  (Years of skinflintery are hard to overcome!)  I keep telling myself I'm going to spend some money and get decent versions of things I use all the time, like socks and pens. Then I succumb to finding the cheapest ones and usually end up dissatisfied. I think I need to set some kind of price floor before looking. Or maybe have a rule that I can only buy ones I wouldn't be embarrassed to give to a friend.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The ones we choose to mourn

Last week, my city erupted (literally and figuratively). Two bombs exploded, five people died in the bombings and subsequent shootings, and many more were wounded.

Boston has talked of nothing else. The victims' names are everywhere. Their pictures and mundane details of their lives are in the papers. Billboards memorialize them. There are memorials on street corners. We know their names, where they lived, their favorite sports teams.

The next day in Baghdad, 50 people were killed in a wave of bombings.  I had to look that up, because that's a pretty normal day in Iraq. 

Part of me wants to say, “Why are we treating some people's lives as so precious because of the particular way they died? Where are the memorials for the 89 Americans who die in car accidents every day? For that matter, where are the memorials for the 50 Iraqis who were blown up last week? Or the 4,000 people a day who die from unsafe water?”

But I also understand.  When someone you love is hurt or gone, when the loss is not a statistic but a real person, it really does feel like the world should stop and take note. What's remarkable is that we're actually doing it this week (albeit for a small and strangely selected number of people).

I don't think we can actually go around in a perpetual state of mourning. While we're alive, the best we can do is enjoy life and work hard to be sure other people get to enjoy their lives.

But I'm taking this week as a reminder that human lives really are precious. It's harder to think about the larger, ongoing disasters. But every one of those is made of actual, precious people with faces, families, and favorite sports teams. The girl next door. Someone's son. Someone's best friend. They are priceless.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Talk to each other

At first, I didn't realize I could just talk to anyone in this movement. I knew there were other people interested in effective altruism, and I was really glad about that, but I figured they were too busy and important to talk to me.

A while ago, I read a claim about effective altruism that seemed unrealistic to me. I didn't want to publicly argue with the writer in the comments section, so I did nothing. It literally didn't occur to me that I could just email him and say, “How did you get that number? It doesn't sound right to me.” A year later, I was having a beer with him. That's how small a world it is.

I've seen this reluctance to communicate go pretty wrong in some cases – people making public critiques of organizations without bothering to get good information from the organization in question. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they made the mistake I did, which was to assume that people won't write you back. So let this be an announcement: you really can write to them, and in my experience they really do write back.

Talking to each other isn't just about correcting mistakes. It's also about getting support.

In most of the communities I'm part of, there are elders. In the world of folk dance and music, there are old men who know fiddle tunes you've never dreamed of and gray-haired women who have been organizing dances for decades. If you're a young dancer or musician who wants to learn how to make things happen, there are older people who want to teach you.  I think it's similar in many communities.

But in this circle, we have hardly any elders.  Peter Singer is probably the closest.  In a way, this is kind of cool – the effective altruism movement is growing and changing quickly, and it's mostly made up of young people. That's exciting, but it also means there's not much experience to go on.  A lot of us are isolated and having one-way interactions (reading) rather than back-and-forth conversations.  And a lot of us are probably struggling with problems that others have already dealt with.

Okay, Peter Singer probably really is too busy and important to talk to most of us. But I'm continually surprised by the people who write to me and want to connect.  It makes me very happy.

If you have questions about effective altruism, please ask.  You can ask me – I might not know the answer, but I probably know someone who does. I might know people in your area that you can meet in person.  Write to any of the organizations: GiveWell and Giving What WeCan for charity evaluation, 80,000 Hours for career stuff, The Life You Can Save, Effective Animal Activism, Leverage Research, Center for Applied Rationality.  What is there to lose?

Monday, March 11, 2013

It doesn't have to be hard

I worry that the effective altruism movement scares people off because it seems hard.  As one friend put it, "It sounds very dreary, living on rice and beans and never going out to a movie."

Wait, guys.  That's not it.

I have been guilty of some cheaper-than-thou, more-self-sacrificing-than-thou posting.  But at this point, I don't think that's what we should focus on.  There are easier ways.

If you want to help more people, I would suggest the following order:

1. Give some money.  
Maybe not that much.  $50 a year?  That would treat 63 kids with parasites.

Why money rather than volunteering? Depending on your skills and income, it's probably easier to accomplish good with your money than your time.  $50 is about two hours of my workday.  I would be hard-pressed to volunteer two hours of my time in a way that would accomplish anything close to deworming 63 kids (which doesn't just make them healthier, but increases school attendance as well).

2. Choose carefully where to give. 
Assuming you're giving any money at all, the next thing you can do to increase your impact is not to give more  it's to choose where you give.  Some interventions just work a lot better than others, and picking a good organization will help your money go a lot farther.

I think GiveWell's charity recommendations are a good starting point.  They take a concrete, better-safe-than-sorry approach, but there are more theoretical options out there if you want.

3. Earn more.
If you want to donate more, this might be the easiest way to do it.  There's a lot of "You should become a banker so you can donate a lot" rhetoric going around among some effective altruist types.  I'm not sure this is a good example, because most altruist-identifying people gag when they hear that.

Personally, I considered the higher-earning careers I had any interest in (doctor, entrepreneur, lawyer) and they still made me gag.  So I stuck with social work, which I enjoy.  I do wish I had given more consideration to being something like a nurse practitioner, and maybe I'll change careers at some point.

But I think some idealists lean away from high-earning careers that they would actually enjoy because they feel they should be doing something more hands-on.  I grew up with the hippie teaching that high salaries were suspect and low salaries mean you're doing something virtuous.

But money is a tool that you can use for good.  If you're working in a preschool for low-income kids and you get a great idea for a business, you might do more good by pursuing the business.  Or maybe you're actually interested in law or medicine or computer science.  Go for it!  You might be able to accomplish far more for the world as a computer programmer than you could as an organic grocer.

4. Spend less.
This is the one that seems most radical to some people.  Especially for people who grew up without financial stability, the idea of having less money can be scary.

But you don't have to decrease your current spending.  You can stay at your current spending level even when your income increases.  Most young people can expect their income to rise with time.  Over the five years since Jeff and I finished college, our cost of living has stayed pretty much the same - we haven't moved to a bigger place, haven't bought a car, haven't really changed our spending pattern.  But our incomes have increased, so we're now donating about three times as much as we used to.  That's pretty exciting, and it didn't feel hard because we never had to cut back.


You can push your limits.  You can give until it hurts.  If you have the energy for that, great.

But you don't have to.  You can give where it's comfortable, and that will still be so much better than ducking away from the question of what you can do to help.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Cheaper than asteroids!

This week, while everybody was watching videos of a meteor in Russia, a larger asteroid passed by the earth. It might hit us next time it comes around.

Space agencies track the risk from things like asteroids, but it's unclear how much to spend on this sort of thing. The Planetary Society writes:
Near-Earth object surveys have found (we think) 98% of the largest objects that present the most risk, reducing the actuarial risk due to asteroid impacts from 250 fatalities per year to 64 per year. Based on past discovery rates and projecting forward through proposed future projects, over the next 16 years, we should achieve 90% completion of discovery of asteroids larger than 140 meters in diameter. The effect of this 16 years of work -- at a cost of roughly a billion dollars -- will be to reduce the actuarial risk to 33 fatalities per year. If you see asteroid surveys as a form of insurance, then you're spending about two million dollars per fatality avoided.
Is $2 million per life a good price?  It's repellent to even think about putting dollar values on lives, but we do it all the time.  If you buy the cheaper car instead of the safer, more expensive one, for example, you're trading off money and safety.

US government agencies define the “value of a statistical life” somewhere around $7 million. If they're deciding whether to institute new safety regulations on seat belts or air pollution, for example, they want to know whether spending billions of dollars is worth it. “Worth it”, for American lives, is around $7 million.

That's a pretty arbitrary number, and it isn't the same for all lives. What's the dollar value of a life in Haiti or Cambodia? I don't know, but I know the US government sure wouldn't spend $7 million to save one.

GiveWell currently estimates that its top-rated charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, saves lives for about $2,300. That's a pretty great deal, considering. In my whole life, I don't expect to earn $7 million. But I do expect to save hundreds of lives by donating to cost-effective charities.

The nice thing is that economies are not zero-sum. It's not just a question of shuffling money around; sometimes there are win-win solutions.  Some changes (like immigration) create more well-being for everyone, and we should aim for those.

But in the meantime, it's nice to know that you can save people's lives for a lot less than it costs NASA.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

I was interested to hear a friend advocate a tool against world poverty that I hadn't thought of: immigration.

The World Bank estimates that migrants around the world sent home $406 billion dollars last year.   Young people move to rich countries, get jobs that pay far better than they could make back home in India or Mexico, and send some of their earnings back home to their families.  That money amounts to more than twice the global aid to developing countries.

What about the effect on rich countries?  Despite the popular debate among immigration, both liberal and conservative economists mostly agree that immigration is good for the US economy.   When immigration rises, there are more inventions and patents, more companies founded, more taxpayers, and more young people available to care for our large crop of elders.  Some unskilled workers in rich countries do face more competition for jobs.  But in general, immigration is a win-win situation.

I work with immigrants who have been caught without proper paperwork and are detained in jail as they await deportation.  I've met some very brave people there, people who came to the United States to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries.  It seems ludicrous that my government spends about $3 billion a year to catch, detain, and deport people who are mostly otherwise law-abiding construction and farm workers.  They tell me about the years they worked for better lives not just for themselves, but for their families. The wages that paid for diabetes medication for their mother and school fees for their kids.

It's crazy that we're deporting these people.

So I'm excited to see this topic getting more attention lately. Something like an expanded temporary work visa system would allow thousands or millions of poor people to support their families.  Given that it wouldn't cost us anything, and would in fact help our own economy, it seems we should at least allow them to do that.

More on this topic at Giving What We Can's new series and Robert Wiblin's blog.