Can EA leverage an Elon-vs-world-hunger news cycle?

by Jackson Wagner3 min read2nd Nov 202143 comments

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Summary: Elon Musk promises to donate six billion dollars if the UN can explain how this would truly solve world hunger (it would probably be much more expensive). Regardless of whether the donation happens or not, a major news cycle about the cost-effectiveness of international charitable donations seems like a great opportunity to raise the public profile of effective altruism.

Details of The Billionare-Bashing Drama

US senators are currently debating a large bill that will probably include some form of tax increase on the rich. Elon Musk, now the world's richest man, voiced his opposition to a proposed tax on unrealized capital gains. He framed his oppositon specifically in terms of government inefficiency, saying:

"Who is best at capital allocation -- government or entrepeneurs -- is indeed what it comes down to."

More recently, a recent CNN headline asserted that just 2% of Elon Musk's ~$300B net worth could "solve world hunger" by feeding the 42 million people who suffer from malnutrition -- people who are otherwise "literally going to die".

Inevitably, this claim turns out to be somewhat hyperbolic/innumerate -- 6 billion dollars divided by 42 million people is around $140 per person, which would be a lot lower than givewell's most effective interventions (around ~$5000 per life saved). Maybe this billionare-bashing CNN interview is revealing an astounding, hithero unknown charitable opportunity. But more likely, most of the people are not literally going to die and/or the effort to alleviate the problem would cost much more than $6 billion (at the very least, if we need to keep giving people food each year, the real cost would be $6 billion repeating annually). I haven't yet looked into the details of the situation too closely.

Now, Elon has offered to indeed donate $6 billion, on the (presumably impossible) condition that the UN provide a realistic plan for how the problem of world hunger could legitimately be solved on that budget. For scale, six billion dollars devoted to EA cause areas would represent more than a 10% increase on the ~$42B total funds currently committed to the movement. Right now, EA organizations are spending spend about $0.2 billion on GiveWell-style global health charities each year.

This Seems Like A Good Time For EA To Shine

This conversation is already distinct from most billionare-related discorse for its focus on cost-effectiveness and international aid for the world's poorest, rather than the usual arguing over the fairness of allowing rich people to exist at all and the desire to increase taxes in order to fund more social services in the developed world.

In short, for a brief moment in time, a major news cycle is focused on how one can do the most good to save the most lives per dollar. This obviously seems like a great time to introduce the ideas of effective altruism to more people. I can only imagine that Kelsey Piper is already busily drafting up an article about this for Future Perfect. But what else can EA do to capitalize on this news cycle? Should Givewell try to outline how they would attempt to spend six billion dollars? Surely their current top charities would run out of room-for-more-funding? Would it be wiser to stay on-message with a relatively simple theme, like promoting Givewell's expertise in cost-effective global health and development spending? Or should we try to fire off a bunch of thinkpieces climbing the counterintuitiveness ladder from typical disaster aid to growth economics, and from there onwards to longtermism, x-risk reduction, etc? What should EA's general strategy be around these news cycles -- the movement generally tries to avoid political polarization, but surely some events are good opportunities to promote the movement's ideas without too much political/reputational downside risk.

Either way, news cycles are short, so anybody hoping to leverage this opportunity should act soon.

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More generally I think EA should have an all or nothing approach to news cycles

I don't think we should care most of the time, but occasionally there comes a news cycle which is close enough to our work to warrant quick blog publications, op-eds, media appearances.

To me, this feels like one of those. 

I am confused that I'm not seeing EA articles on this topic. If we don't push for the "how to best spend $6Bn to combat global povery" which news cycles do we act on?

Some theories:
- Perhaps noone wants to rush and make mistakes. That's certainly why I'm not talking about it. But EAs are literally the experts on this. 
- Perhaps it's mainly on twitter. But lots of articles are being written. (https://www.google.com/search?q=elon+musk+6bn&oq=elon+musk+6bn&aqs=chrome..69i57.4031j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8) now is the time to publish meta takes "how we would spend 6Bn" 

Lots of EAs, myself included, did nontrivial actions during covid. I expect many of us will act again in once-in-a-decade news cycles that correlates strongly with expected real changes on the real world.

"Powerful people have a spat on Twitter", while occasionally important, are usually part of the same phenomenon that other fake news cycles come from, and it's probably more important for us to focus on the things that matter in normal reality, with some distance away from social reality.

EDIT: tbc, "fake" is meant to modify "news cycles" and not "news", so I'm referring to fake news cycles, and not fake news cycles.

I agree. For me this was a news cycle to act on rather than pass but I I could be wrong.

I imagine we agree that most news cycles should be ignored. 

An advantage of 80k not seeing itself as a traditional news org is that it doesn't chase news cycles and make a fool of itself. I think that's a good thing.

Agreed. The proper approach is probably to develop a playbook for rapidly evaluating whether or not a news cycle is worth thinking about at all, and then executing on a specific pre-determined plan when it is.

EDIT: I wrote a pitch and sent it to the Guardian's op-ed page. Given how quickly news cycles change, I think time is of the essence, but I'm also wary of reputational risks to EA, so I'd be happy to work with comms professionals about the best way to approach this, should they decide to run the piece. 

I'm a freelance journalist and previously worked in fundraising at GiveDirectly. I may be able to write a draft tomorrow, or at least an op-ed pitch. If people have concerns/ideas, feel free to comment or DM me. 

I've written for lefty outlets before and was thinking that the Guardian may be a good place to try to run this. It's still likely to be rejected because these things are competitive. Worst case, I could write something on Medium that could go up quickly.  

The general idea would be to agree that the $6B to solve world hunger claim is problematic, and pivot to filling the funding gaps of the GiveWell charities. GiveDirectly has the most room for funding, and could scale up a lot if needed (we went from ~$50M per year to $320M in 2020). Musk also donated $~15k in doge coin to GD while I was there. Trying to move into other cause areas is likely to be confusing and overreaching IMO. I had a short discussion of a similar idea in a past piece I wrote.

Relevant quote: 

"We can learn a bit more about Koch by examining some of his claims in the interview. In response to the above question, Koch says: 

I don’t like the term capitalism, that assumes that what we’re after is a system where certain people have a lot of capital. That’s not what we’re about. What we’re after is a system where everybody has the opportunity to realize their potential, including those who start with nothing. And businesses should only profit to the extent that they’re helping other people improve their lives… And polluting and making people sick, killing people shouldn’t profit. They should bear a cost for that…our biggest failures in our mind are safety problems. When there’s an accident and people die, I mean, that’s monstrous. Job one is keeping people safe and job two is protecting the environment. In the last 5 years, the EPA has ranked us either number one or two of US companies in pollution reduction initiatives.

There’s a lot to unpack here. If Charles isn’t “about” a system where certain people have a lot of capital, then why does he have over $47 billion? If he wanted to prove how not about capitalism he was, he could give away his capital. There is certainly no shortage of social problems that could be addressed by $47 billion. With the interest on his fortune, Charles could fully prevent and treat neglected tropical diseases that affect more than a billion people annually. With his principal, he could end extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 per day) for a year in all of Nigeria, Brazil, India, China, and Angola. Now this level of giving is not sustainable even for Mr. Koch, but that’s okay, because he’s not “about” anyone having that much money."

I had a short discussion of a similar idea in a past piece I wrote.

Your pieces on Charles Koch is pretty ungenerous to him - it's almost entirely criticism, accuses him of acting in bad faith, etc. Is this what you were thinking of doing with Musk? I'm not sure attacking him would be the best method of persuading someone who his already sympathetic to EA (and his followers).

I decided against writing a piece, but I think I actually engage honestly with Koch's claims. I think there's a strong case that Charles Koch has done more harm than almost anyone alive in the last 40 years, which I make in the piece. If you'd like more evidence for this, I recommend the book Dark Money

If you can point to specific things you think I got wrong, I'd be happy to hear them. If we can't be honest about the impact and motivations of people as odious as Charles Koch, I think we should reevaluate some things.

I wouldn't have approached writing about Musk in the same way for a few reasons:

  1. I wasn't writing the CA piece in the hopes that Koch would read it and change his ways.  
  2. Musk has been sympathetic to EA ideas in the past and seems more genuinely motivated to help others (in his own way) than Koch
  3. His core business may actually be net positive, while Koch's is almost certainly not.

To be fair, that article was written for Current Affairs, not exactly a news outlet widely known for accuracy or nuance. I hope the Guardian is better.

Is that a defence? (Like, assuming arguendo that we agree with Larks's characterisation, does the fact that one was published in a mean uncharitable magazine reduce the badness of writing a mean uncharitable article?)

I think so, at least a little. If I learned that someone wrote a bombastic/uncharitable/inaccurate article in a magazine otherwise known for levelheadedness/charitabilty/accuracy, this seems more blameworthy than if the value-above-replacement is 0. 

This is a very similar argument to why we at least in part judge historical figures "for their time" and not entirely based on modern sensibilities.

I'm less interested in the blameworthiness angle, and more in the question of how one should use this sort of evidence when deciding how to interact with / relate to a given writer in the future. (For this and other reasons this seems quite different to the historical figure case to me.)

There are some defences I could see reducing the size of the update I would make on seeing that someone wrote something I find mean/uncharitable/otherwise unvirtuous – for example, "I wanted to reach that audience on some key issue, and needed to write in a nastier style to do that", or "journalism work is hard to come by, sometimes you have to hold your nose and jump in the mud". But these seem like pretty small counter-updates relative to the first-order evidence that someone wrote something mean and uncharitable.

Hmm, thinking personally, my tweets are definitely more off the cuff and don't live up to the same standard of rigor as my academic papers. I think this is reasonable, since that's what people are expecting from tweets vs academic papers, so I expect the audience will update differently based on them. Also, it's probably good for society/the marketplace of ideas for there to be different venues with different standards (eg., op-eds vs news articles; preprints vs peer-reviewed papers, etc). The case here seems potentially* somewhat similar (let's say, hypothetically, that we're 75% sure that Koch is acting in bad faith; I wouldn't want CNN then saying that he's probably acting in bad faith, but it seems reasonable for a piece in CA to do so).

*note I haven't actually read the piece in question, but I think the general point stands

"the EPA has ranked us either number one or two of US companies in pollution reduction initiatives"

This kinda makes me laugh, because the only way to be the company that reduces their pollution the most is to be polluting a ton in the first place. This is like saying "I know I'm a hero, because in the past year I've reduced the annual number of people I've killed more than anyone else".

Reminds me of Nixon's famous invocation of the third derivative:

When campaigning for a second term in office, U.S. President Richard Nixon announced that the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing, which has been noted as "the first time a sitting president used the third derivative to advance his case for reelection."

Yeah, the whole interview is filled with fun stuff like that. 

If Guardian doesn't accept the pitch, will you still write the actual article? (I don't know how journalism works.)

In any case, I want to note that I'd like to read any article you do end up writing on this even if you don't manage to get it published in Guardian, etc.

There are EA groups working on food security as a system, such as ALLFED, however while some of the work looks at today's systems, much is concerned about future crop losses in the 5-10% range, up to nuclear winter and wars. It may be something to consider in the context of his tweet and your article, however it is more abstract than food aid today, more about designing ethical and resiliant ways to manufacture foods and the social systems needed to feed everyone in shocks - where the food equivalent of a bank run commonly occurs.

Candidly, I'm not super informed on global food insecurity and would try to avoid getting too bogged down in engaging deeply with Beasley's claim (which seems pretty unlikely to be true, as OP spelled out nicely). But if there is a good EA write up on the topic, I might be able to bone up while writing the piece (assuming it gets assigned). 

Is the aim here to generate a bunch of PR for EA, or to actually convince Elon Musk to do more EA-aligned giving?
 

If the latter, I doubt trying to publicly pressure him into donating to an EA global poverty charity as part of a twitter debate is the best way to do it. (In fact, he already knows several EAs and has donated to EA orgs before.)

 

The 'get PR' angle (along the lines of what Fin is saying below) seems more promising – in that ideally we'd have more 'public intellectuals' focused on getting EA into the media & news cycle. This is mainly because the main candidates are doing things that seem even higher value, but I would like to fix this.

I suggest the aim should be PR.

Do you have any thoughts on the route to being a public intellectual?

80k has some (short) pointers here: https://80000hours.org/2020/08/ideas-for-high-impact-careers-beyond-our-priority-paths/#become-a-public-intellectual

I understood it like this: Elon wants to embarrass the bad take on CNN, but he’s actually not averse to donating the money to do something awesomely good (and attention grabbing). If there’s a way to spin a story where he is using a money in a superior and big way, such that it will maybe end up as one of the great things he did in his life, I wouldn’t be shocked if it happens. Without any pressure. 

FWIW this seems like a reasonable idea to me and I would be pretty sad if no one at e.g. Givewell had even considered it.

Was literally coming here to write a shortform post on this.  I suggest an EA org writes how much good they think could be done with $6Bn.  Mostly I think this will get shared a lot. However there is a small chance musk might see it and reach out in some way.

Thanks for writing this. Here's one way this could look:

  • No, probably $6 billion isn't quite enough to end world hunger. Here are the facts about food scarcity/security over time, and here are ways to address the problem that you might not have considered (e.g. fortifying food with micronutrients, malnutrition isn't just about inadequate calories)
  • Turns out there is a community of people thinking about what you could achieve with that kind of money, and they're thinking about causes beyond food scarcity/security. Often the best ways to spend it aren't what you might initially think.
  • And here's the elevator pitch for what a range of EA orgs could do with $6 billion, starting with a couple which are closest to 'solving world hunger'.
  • Here's a ladder to more longtermist/growth-focused/risk-focused interventions, and what $6 billion could achieve on that front, and why you might also care about them if you cared about the world hunger stuff.
  • Here's a call to action for EA in general.

Definitely possible to mess up, and should be pitched as an interesting/relevant bit of popular writing about EA rather than anything actually aimed at getting Elon/other billionaires to pay attention.

Thoughts on whether this is worth pitching to a couple media outlets? Thoughts on which person/org might be well-placed to write it? My guess is someone from OWID could be especially good.

Yes, I think this is worth drafting for CapX or pitching elsewhere (but CapX looks to have a decent readership, and it seems most important to have something published somewhere quickly that looks professional and can be easily shared).

I'd be very conservative about the "growth-focused/risk-focused interventions" part (would not mention AI risk at all, for example). I think the important thing for people to take away is "this problem is hard, here are people who treat it as such, come read their stuff", and moving away from "here are good, concrete ways to spend money" seems like it could detract from that. (But I do like e.g. bringing up the tiny budget of the Biological Weapons Convention, and other things that are easier to understand.)

If you draft a piece, I'll gladly read over it and help you flesh out any sections you're unsure about, as soon as I can — if that would help. I'm not free to write an entire article myself now, but I want to do what I can to increase the likelihood of something being written.

Thanks, this all sounds reasonable!

So I have at least one small media outlet that would publish (CapX). I think the question is who would write it. I can't see flaws in your outline.

Addendum: I think it's plausible that Elon ends up making a big Givewell-style donation at the end of this, even if it's not six billion dollars big. (Maybe a six billion dollar pledge spread out over a long time, like the Bezos climate pledge? Or maybe founding a new EA organization like how he helped found OpenAI -- Elon likes to be in charge of his various efforts.) It would probably look pretty stingy and mean to start a big fight over this and end up giving away nothing, just sticking to your "charity is ineffective, I deserve to keep all of my money" guns.

Thanks for the post. First, I think it’s important to clarify that UN didn’t say anything: it was David Beasley, director of the World Food Programme - WFP (a branch of UN), who tweeted this “challenge” and later on was interviewed about it; second, his original tweet was about U$ 6.6 bn to prevent 42 million people from starving – only when interviewed he was more emphatic and said “they are literally going to die”. After the CNN interview spread, they changed their original piece, and now the website states that “An earlier version of this story's headline incorrectly stated that the director of the UN's food scarcity organization believes 2% of Elon Musk's wealth could solve world hunger. He believes it could help solve world hunger.” To me, this implies Beasley backed from what he said / implied in the interview - but not from his original tweet.

My conjecture: maybe what we are seeing is a politician (Beasley is a member of the Republican party and was Governor of South Carolina) getting lost with numbers, mistaking something like the amount necessary to lift people beyond the poverty line (U$1,90) for what would be necessary to prevent (first) starvation and (second) death. Or maybe someone just did a regression using what WFP spends per person – and I’m actually surprised they could feed an additional person with only U$0,43 a day (= 6.6 bn / (365 * 42 mi)), and scale it up to 42mi. Either way, it’d not justify the bold (counterfactual) claim that people are "literally going to die" – though it’d justify the straightforward claims such as “we could feed up to additional 42 million people, or lift them from extreme poverty”. Even then, I’m quite surprised with that, and would like to see someone analyze their data.

However, I tend to disagree that this would be a peculiar opportunity for (most) EA orgs – unless one could do this without becoming one more of Moloch’s tools. I’m afraid this type of news driven by Twitter debate and suspicious analysis (like the Institute for Policy Studies and Americans for Tax Fairness published) is precisely what EA is usually trying to avoid.

I think the idea would not be to pile onto the billionare-bashing and try to nag Elon into donating (that would be too politicizing as you say, and we wouldn't want to alienate Elon who is already fairly EA-aligned in his own unique way), but rather to publish a bunch of "well, actually..." type posts explaining how we think six billion dollars could most effectively be spent to reduce human suffering. Hopefully the effect would be to help raise the profile of EA while raising the sophistication / sanity level of the surrounding conversation at the same time.

I mostly agree with you, but I think that "raising the sophistication" here might be harder than most people think, and I strongly believe our current media environment (plus social networks) is not conducive to such sophistication.

Plus, I was intrigued by this sentence:

... Elon who is already fairly EA-aligned in his own unique way

I was wondering what made you say this, then I googled it up a bit, and decided to share some references, if anyone else ever needs to justify such a claim:

Elon Musk To Address 'Nerd Altruists' At Google HQ

Dear Elon Musk: Here’s how you should donate your money

Why I Stan Elon Musk

But notice we now apparently agree that Elon Musk is well aware of EA-thinking, so I'm not sure if there's any additional value in getting Musk's attention to EA - which makes me even more suspicious about what could be our benefit from stepping into this "6 bn" debate.

Agreed! Honestly, it seems strange to me that there aren't more EA resources dedicated to getting ultra-wealthy people to contribute to EA causes. Perhaps it's that it isn't very tractable, or that it requires a highly specific skillset, or maybe even that it's bad PR with too much potential for backfiring to be so blunt about it--but this seems like a HUGE opportunity that's currently neglected. EA has been pretty successful from getting buy-in from a decent number of high earners--where "high-earner" is defined relative to the average American income (think tech folks earning to give). And there are a few ultra wealthy folks on board (e.g. the open phil funders). But getting even one or two more ultra-high net worth folks on board could have a monetary impact equivalent to thousands of people earning to give. Are people familiar with EA initiatives working on this? Or am I missing other downsides?

I'd actually say there's a lot of work done on recruiting HNW donors - it's just mainly done via one-on-one meetings so not very visible.

That said, Open Philanthropy, Effective Giving, Founder's Pledge, Longview & Generation Pledge all have it as part of their mission.

There would be even more work on it, but right now the bottleneck seems to be figuring out how to spend the money we already have (we're only deploying $400m p.a. out of over $40bn+,  under 1%). If we had a larger number of big, compelling opportunities, we could likely get more mega donors interested.

(Note: Wrote this before I saw Ben's comment, so there are some redundancies.)

There are a couple of large (for EA) organizations working on this, but their clientele generally prefer privacy, and they work quietly. Unlike 80,000 Hours or CEA, which have very large potential audiences, an advisory service looking to help ultra-wealthy people isn't necessarily going to be visible to people outside that category (which creates the common and understandable impression that such orgs don't exist).

The organizations in question: Effective Giving and Longview Philanthropy.

Of course, many ultra-wealthy people who are interested in philanthropy stumble over EA at some point, and I'd guess from my experience around the community that many organizations have one or more donors in this category (though again, these donations are often quiet). For a public example, see Melanie Perkins and GiveDirectly.

You can also see the implicit impact of ultra-wealthy donors in public donation statistics — GiveWell presumably didn't double their donations in 2020 vs. 2019 without help from some very wealthy people. Likewise, EA Funds' monthly active donor numbers are rising much more slowly than their monthly donations, implying that a couple of people are donating a lot.

I tend to agree, and I find the world of UHNW individuals quite intriguing (especially because we don't have many reliable stats on them worldwide). But we do have EAs working for orgs that targeted rich people, like Founder's Pledge and Generation Pledge.

For folks employed at universities, theconversation.com is often an easy place to get short pieces (~800 words or slightly longer) picked up, and pieces published there are sometimes picked up by other outlets. They especially like it if your proposal links into something currently in the news. They prefer being pitched first but I have succeeded in the past with a full piece ready-to-go. They will expect you or a coauthor to be an 'expert' in the topic you are writing on, but this is broadly construed; I would just fill out my profile in a way that shows you have some academic background relevant to the topic. (My academic background isn't at all relevant to this topic, unfortunately.) My articles there have averaged 14K unique views each - not amazing but not bad if you've not succeeded with bigger outlets.

A thing I have been thinking about but am not at all an expert on is open-source research into high-yield seed production.

Currently high-yield seeds alone can significantly increase outputs  by something like 25-55

One of the big challenges with improved seeds and agritech is that the current model doesn’t seem to be working for the ~25% of the worlds population who are subsistence farmers. Maybe there is no profit in it. For example subsistence farmers don’t want to be dependent on having to buy seeds every year but want to be able to save seed from their own crops, but seed developers prefer seeds that need to be purchased annually. 

If I was suggesting a $6bn megaproject to end world hunger that would appeal to some ambitious tech entrepreneur it would be something like open-source agritech designed for (and by?) the worlds poorest, not like "hey donate to an EA food charity like Fortify Health or Food Fortification Initiative" (although that would be nice too).

Just mentioning the idea on the off chance it is helpful to the debate, to anyone's op-eds, anyone chatting to Musk or whatever.

Also I can't overstate that news cycles are quick. If you agree and have better connections at an org capable of writing this (GiveWell, one of the philanthropic advisory places, etc) then I suggest sharing this with them. If you wait for them to find it, the opportunity might be gone.

I wouldn't normally push something like this but here it feels genuinely time pressured. 1 of my non EA friends posted Elon's comments in our chat and memes groups. For me that's a signal that for a moment EA concepts are in the mainstream news cycle.  

I have spoken to the editor of CapX who said they'd likely publish an article if the text could get to them in the next day. Judge that opportunity as you will.

Thanks for writing this Jackson.

I really think EA should get involved in trying to answer how to best deploy billions of dollars, and not just focus on the marginal impact of millions USD.

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