TLDR; The movement behind removing technical and regulatory barriers to supplying enough essential goods and services to everyone* is worth funding. (*This submission is America-centric)

What's the problem?

In the past couple decades, the prices of consumer goods have risen with or at a lower rate than inflation, while essential goods and services like healthcare, housing, and food have had their prices go up above inflation.

Figure screenshotted from A Simple Plan to Solve All of America's Problems

Decreasing affordability of essential goods decreases quality of life. People aren't getting more for these higher prices (think housing and college education) – prices are going up because of restricted supply.

What is the abundance agenda?

First termed in Derek Thompson's A Simple Plan to Solve All of America's Problems, the abundance agenda is about finding ways to increase accessibility of essential goods by increasing supply. This concept has been discussed by other political pundits such as Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias as supply-side progressivism, but that's a terrible name for a movement. The abundance agenda is in contrast with typical progressivism, where the government is pressured to provide subsidies to cover the cost of essential goods (e.g. baby formula[1] or housing). Ensuring access to essential goods through subsidies is important and increases productivity and decreases crime.[2] However, subsidizing costs while the supply is restricted leads to cost-disease socialism (termed by Steven M. Teles, Samuel Hammond, and Daniel Takash in their report of the same name), where essential goods become increasingly unaffordable and the root of the problem is never addressed.

Pushing an abundance agenda means working towards a world where everyone expects business and government decisions to prioritize the supply of essential goods and services.

Marks of a successful abundance agenda movement would look like:

  • Reducing regulatory barriers to supply, such as restrictive zoning that prevents housing from being built in areas of high demand
  • Increasing enforcement of anti-monopoly laws, to prevent corporations from restricting supply or reducing quality more than would naturally happen in a less-monopolized market
  • Proactive investment in improving quality and choice, reducing costs, and increasing scale of essential goods and services
  • Generating awareness and agreement throughout academia, industry, and the general public that the above three points are important

Philanthropy-driven movement building is a high risk venture done over decades long time horizons. Done well, it involves spread-betting on a broad variety of strategies, with feedback mechanisms to re-allocate money when necessary even when outcomes are diffuse. Examples of things a philanthropist backing the abundance agenda might fund are:

  • Multiple think tanks to work on aspects of the abundance agenda, including think tanks across the political spectrum
  • University programs aligned with the abundance agenda, for example, new schools of economics and political science
  • Research from other related interests, such as regulatory organizations, to understand shortages
  • Organizations that run events and do other activities to build the professional network of people for the abundance agenda, e.g. Lawyers for Abundance, Republicans for Abundance etc.
  • Backing abundance-aligned politicians at county, state, and federal levels
  • Running campaigns and lobbying politicians around evidence-based abundance-aligned policies
  • Litigating when supply of an essential good is cut due to a company or governmental organization breaking the law
  • Media outlets that put out content about some aspect of the abundance agenda
  • Direct investment in R&D or scale up of technologies that would increase the supply of essential goods, e.g. pre-fab tech to make building apartments cheaper

Why is it important to solve this problem in high-income countries?

  • In terms of dollars, production of goods worldwide is mostly under the control of people and corporations in high-income countries
  • High-income countries provide an example for low-income countries to work towards. Low-income countries sometimes skip intermediate developments, such as skipping landlines and going straight to mobile phones, and good policy may provide similar benefits. High-income countries directly influence low-income countries through conditional lending via the World Bank and International Money Fund, who have unintentionally given bad advice in the past and actively prevented countries from developing.[3]
  • Innovations developed in high-income countries may have more impact in low-income countries. For example, renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc) was developed in high income countries. But because of energy scarcity, investment in renewable energy has actually been higher in low and middle income countries than in high-income countries, since 2015. (see the Wikipedia article on renewable energy in developing countries)
  • By measures of health[4] and income inequality[5], the USA looks like a high-income country with a low-income country inside of it. It's true that it's more expensive to help individuals in a high-income country, but since the country is already relatively rich, money spent adjusting the system to make government spending and government tax collection more effective (and promoting the public perception that such efforts are paramount) can prevent poverty within the high-income country into the future.

Examples of applications

Abundance agenda thinking can be applied to any essential good or service that is in short supply, from housing to covid tests to ocean freight. Here are some examples.

Housing

As anyone who lives in a big city knows, housing production is artificially constrained by regulations and the supply is overwhelmed by the demand. Limiting the number of people that can live in or near cities where there is a high concentration of job opportunities is not only bad for employees[6] and employers, it's also bad for the GDP. Researchers estimate that American GDP would be 9% higher if housing production were not constrained,[7][8] and that the GDP would be 4% higher (so, almost a trillion dollars) if building regulations were relaxed in just New York City, San Francisco, and San Jose.[9]

YIMBY

The Yes-In-My-BackYard movement has been making great inroads on introducing the idea that we should build more housing to the collective consciousness, based on evidence that this increases housing affordability. When they started in San Francisco, the city was considering an 18 month moratorium on building housing in the popular Mission neighborhood, because of the false belief that building more housing would increase rents. That was 7 years ago, and the movement has grown enough that such a policy isn't politically viable today. YIMBY currently consists of two organizations: YIMBY Law, which sues counties for not following regulations that require them to build more housing, and YIMBY Action, which builds political power for pro-YIMBY government representatives.

Secondary education

There's no doubt that a top tier college allows low-income people to achieve higher incomes. However, admissions to top tier colleges has been shrinking as a proportion of total admissions, and the admission of low-income students is on a downward trend.[10] Applying an abundance agenda to secondary education would mean finding ways of incentivizing more admissions capacity in elite colleges, as well as increasing the quality and decreasing the price of secondary education generally. This could include increasing the prevalence and availability of vocational education.

Energy

Leaps in human progress are associated with energy abundance.[11] An abundance agenda applied to energy means more energy, especially clean energy. As it stands, the USA has closed more nuclear power plants than it's opened this century,[12] and new clean energy production facilities often get mired down by environmental reviews,[13] while oil and gas drilling is mostly exempt.[14]

Healthcare

The US is famous for having the most expensive healthcare, while providing a low ratio of value per dollar compared to other high income countries. There are many reasons why, and here are a few examples related to the abundance agenda

  • Negative financial incentive for increasing the practice of preventive medicine
  • Shortage of primary care providers due to limited physician training residencies. There's also incentive to become a specialist instead of a primary care provider. The US has fewer physicians per capita than other high-income countries.
  • Market concentration in pharmacies resulting in less access in rural areas, higher prices, and lower quality of service,[15] notably in the vaccine rollout

Medical supplies

In 1910, the first Group Purchase Organization was formed to buy hospital supplies in New York. At the time, these worked like cooperatives, where hospitals could team up to leverage greater buying power to get better prices. In 1987, a law was passed that allowed GPOs to be exempt from anti-kickback regulations. The logic was that hospital supplies could be cheaper if manufacturers paid the administrative fees of the GPO instead of hospitals. After the law passed, GPOs merged and morphed from many smaller cooperatives into an oligopoly.[16] This market concentration leads to more market concentration, where GPOs contract with big manufacturers, and it's hard for new products and new companies to break in, even if they have something innovative. A famous case emerged in the 90s where a syringe manufacturer bribed a GPO a million dollars to prevent a safer retractable syringe from entering the market (there's a movie adaptation of this story starring Chris Evans). Market concentration of suppliers also contributes to, for example, uncomfortable hospital beds. The manufacturer with the biggest share of hospital beds was sued in 1995, 2006, and 2015 for being anti-competitive. The world is likely missing out on significant medical supply innovation due to the American medical supply buying monopoly.

Drugs

The FDA published a report last year about how monopolistic medical supply buyers contribute to shortages of generic drugs, by forcing prices down and reducing incentive to manufacture.

Shipping

Shipping companies are organized into 3 alliances, which control nearly 90% of the world's transportation. When shipping patterns changed markedly during COVID and caused shortages, there wasn't much incentive to increase supply. Prices skyrocketed while service deteriorated. (Vox has a nice explainer including a bit on Biden's efforts to control this.)

Immigration

Compared to moving within the United States, immigration from another country has even greater potential to increase income and social class for the immigrant, as well as increase innovation and productivity for the country through imported talent. Currently immigration is heavily restricted by regulatory quotas. One common criticism of increasing immigration is the idea that it might depress native workers' wages. This isn't true whether the immigrants are highly skilled[17] or not. Matthew Yglesias writes in One Billion Americans that Florida became the subject of an unintentional mass low-skilled immigration experiment when Fidel Castro suddenly allowed Cubans to leave (back then, the USA accepted anyone fleeing from Cuba). During a 6 month period 125,000 Cubans left port Mariel and arrived in Florida. This large influx of low-skilled labor (a 7-8% increase) caused a lot of stress to city infrastructure, but no decrease in the wages of natives.[18] Matthew Yglesias talks about how this is because increasing the number of immigrants increases the quality and variety of goods and services available, instead of competing for native workers' jobs. Furthermore, adding low skilled labor can increase the supply of higher skilled labor by increasing the economic productivity of college-educated moms, through the increased availability of hired help.

Reasons Open Philanthropy should fund the abundance agenda

Altruistic philanthropy-driven movement building is neglected in the context of active for-profit philanthropy-driven movement building

Philanthropy-driven movement building is the process by which rich people strategically change public opinion and policy. Some famous examples you may have heard of are the John M. Olin Foundation, and more recently, the Koch brothers. These philanthropists are motivated to movement-build to increase public acceptance of their conservative worldview that government shouldn't mess with business through regulations (for example environmental or anti-monopoly regulations), and that taxes should be decreased, including decreased government-funded social welfare.

By disbursing 370M over fifty-two years, the John M. Olin Foundation nurtured the law and economics movement, grew the Federalist Society, and funded "scholars, think tanks, publications, and other organizations" that "shaped the direction and aided the growth of the modern conservative movement that first sprang into visibility in the 1980s." (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_M._Olin_Foundation)

measured in terms of the penetration of its adherents in the legal academy, law and economics is the most successful intellectual movement in the law of the past thirty years, having rapidly moved from insurgency to hegemony. – The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement by Steven M Teles[19]

As the organizations the foundation seeded grew into institutions, they were able to counter the liberal professional establishment, and made the government much more conservative than it was before. The movement normalized the idea of considering economic implications (with a free-market conservative bent) wherever law was practiced. The John M. Olin foundation ran for one generation to prevent its values from shifting, and closed shop in 2005.

This type of movement-building has real world effects. With less anti-monopoly regulation, general progress or innovation is made more difficult, and sometimes even regresses. And the movement grows on: In 2010, the Supreme Court removed limits on corporate and personal lobbying, giving rich people and business interests even more outsized influence over the government than members of the general public.

There are many altruists doing direct work on building a movement for a particular cause area, but I don't know of any altruistic funder who has successfully built the kind of movement that shifts public opinion and policy. Historically, conservative think tanks have enjoyed much more funding than left-leaning organizations.[20] Though the funding gap has been closing in the two decades, left-leaning funders tend to focus their efforts on elections and issue-specific activism rather than long term movement building.[21] Altruistic funders with a ton of money need to learn the high-risk, difficult-to-measure art of strategic movement-building. By only focusing on helping people in measurable ways, we miss the big picture. Profit-protection interests are continually building their own movements to reduce direct and indirect government support to generate more and more people unable to help themselves.

The abundance agenda is the most viable movement

The ideal movement to build would have:

  • High impact if successful
  • Good reason to be widely supported by the general public
  • Low potential to be partisan

For point 1, I've already laid out the impact that this movement would have. For point 2, I think that "accessible essential goods" is something that the public is generally down for. The biggest risk for the abundance agenda is point 3, that it would be associated with one party and rejected by the other. But as movements go, this one is probably doing the best, with support at different angles from Ezra Klein (definitely progressive), Matthew Yglesias and Derek Thompson (kinda centrist?) and the Niskanen Center (a center-right think tank).

Open Philanthropy has already funded initiatives aligned with the abundance agenda

A comprehensive commitment and strategy to building widespread public and political support for the abundance agenda would complement OpenPhil's current focus areas.

  • Land use reform is one of Open Philanthropy's current focus areas ** Open Philanthropy was the first institutional funder of YIMBY, seeding the organization with half a million dollars[22] *** The amount of influence YIMBY has had on the public consciousness is pretty incredible for how scrappy they are. YIMBY Action only spends 1.6M per year for its national operation. They only have 8 full time staff. Imagine if they had more money. They could be grooming new candidates in addition to lobbying or volunteering for existing candidates. They could be facilitating more technical assistance with writing and negotiating policy.
  • They already fund the Institute For Progress, which is basically an abundance agenda think tank
  • Other than the Institute for Progress, OpenPhil has given out 2 grants related to immigration policy
  • Open Philanthropy has funded research towards COVID vaccines, testing, and treatment, presumably to increase the abundance of these essential goods

Reasons Open Philanthropy might not want to fund the abundance agenda

  • Strategically building movements to change public opinion and policy isn't the type of work that appeals to them
  • They want to avoid politics
  • They disagree with the ideology (for example, some philanthropists in the tech world disagree with anti-monopoly enforcement)

Further reading


  1. 50% of baby formula is paid for by the governmental Women, Infants and Children program. In a misguided attempt to reduce prices, WIC only covers one formula manufacturer per state which exacerbated the industry monopolization that made the recent formula shortage so dire. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-05-20/baby-formula-shortage-shows-risk-of-us-industry-concentration ↩︎

  2. Examples are food stamps and high quality early childhood education. Read about in Supply-Side Economics, but for Liberals by Neil Irwin ↩︎

  3. In the 80s, the World Bank and IMF gave shockingly bad advice (free markets and open borders) that actively prevented countries from developing. Low-income countries are better served by protectionist policies that allow local industry to get better, before attempting to compete globally. Reference: Studwell, J. (2013). How Asia works: Success and failure in the world's most dynamic region. Open Road+ Grove/Atlantic. (Entertaining-but-long book summary by Scott Alexander and much shorter summary by Bill Gates) ↩︎

  4. America Was in an Early-Death Crisis Long Before COVID by Ed Young via The Atlantic ↩︎

  5. 6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S. - Pew Research Center The US has a lot of money, but it does not look like a developed country - Quartz ↩︎

  6. moving is related to increase in income Kennan, J., & Walker, J. R. (2011). The effect of expected income on individual migration decisions. Econometrica, 79(1), 211-251. ↩︎

  7. The Economic Implications of Housing Supply ↩︎

  8. Some believe that building new housing creates "luxury housing" that increases housing prices, but this is demonstrably false (and also hilariously satirized on Jeff K's blog). ↩︎

  9. Home ownership is the West’s biggest economic-policy mistake ↩︎

  10. The Myth of American Universities as Inequality-Fighters, via The Atlantic ↩︎

  11. Yglesias, Matthew (October 7, 2021). "The case for more energy". Slow Boring. ↩︎

  12. Thompson, Derek (2022-01-12). "A Simple Plan to Solve All of America's Problems". The Atlantic. ↩︎

  13. Yglesias, Matthew (November 2, 2021). "Energy innovation needs more than R&D". Slow Boring. ↩︎

  14. Statutes, M. E. (2007). The Oil and Gas Industry’s Exclusions and Exemptions to Major Environmental Statutes. ↩︎

  15. same can be said about hospitals ↩︎

  16. https://americancompass.org/essays/on-antitrust-enforcement/ ↩︎

  17. Peri, G., Shih, K., & Sparber, C. (2015). Foreign and Native Skilled Workers: What Can We Learn from H-1B Lotteries? (No. w21175). National Bureau of Economic Research. ↩︎

  18. Yglesias, Matthew. One Billion Americans (p. 114). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩︎

  19. Teles, Steven M.. The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: 110 (Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives) (p. 216). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. Quoted in Luke Muehlhauser's Some case studies in early field growth. ↩︎

  20. Kallick, D. D. (2002). Progressive Think Tanks: What Exists, What’s Missing. Report for the Program on Governance and Public Policy. Open Society Institute. ↩︎

  21. Callahan, D. (2021, January 29). Neera Tanden on building a progressive think tank and influencing policy. Blue Tent. ↩︎

  22. Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Holden Karnofsky ↩︎

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26 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:52 PM
New Comment

Thanks for your post.

I think promoting the abundance agenda has positive expected value.

But it still seems very unlikely that the expected value can compete with most other Open Philanthropy grants, or even compete with GiveDirectly, largely because of the logarithmic utility of money described by other commenters.

While second order effects of the abundance agenda will probably help the world’s poorest too, I don’t think this would be near enough to meet expected cost effectiveness bars used by EA funders.

thanks for your comment! I'm sure a lot of people reading this are thinking the same thing. Effective altruism in general is biased against systemic change due to it being difficult to measure and outcomes being diffuse. From my post

Pushing an abundance agenda means working towards a world where everyone expects business and government decisions to prioritize the supply of essential goods and services.

This isn't a list of policies, this is a cultural shift. Sure, I've listed a bunch of directly positive effects in my examples, but if this goal was actually achieved, it would mean a restoration of democracy[1] and trust in government. This is mitigating future harm done when business interests propose policy that stalls innovation and leads to shortages. And lack of trust in government and other public institutions is one of the big reasons it has been so difficult to fight this pandemic. You would never be able to calculate the value of building the kind of movement that reflects a change in public opinion in of QALYs. But I think it's really important that this work be done, especially in the context of people who are doing large scale movement building for non altruistic reasons, continually eroding democracy and trust in government. Without willingness to accept these kinds of diffuse outcomes, the scale of change that effective altruism can accomplish is limited.


  1. legislators disproportionality responsive to economic elites and business lobby that influence of average citizen is zero. Paper: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B Washington Post article responding to criticisms: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/05/23/critics-challenge-our-portrait-of-americas-political-inequality-heres-5-ways-they-are-wrong/ ↩︎

I think it’s fair to contend that EA is “biased” towards high-legibility, quantitative outcomes, but I don’t think that it is very bad on balance. Importantly, EA is fairly open to attempted quantification of normally-hard-to-quantify concepts, but it requires putting in some mental legwork and making plausible quantifications/models (even loose ones) of how valuable this idea is.

If you could describe in a step-by-step (e.g., probability X impact) manner a variety of plausible pathways or arguments by which this approach could have really high expected value, I would be interested to see such a model. For example, if you can say “I believe there is a P% chance that spending $R would lead to X outcome(s), which has an F% of producing U QALYs/[or other metric] relative to the counterfactual, creating an expected value of Z QALYs/benefits per dollar spent,” where Z seems like a plausible number (based on the plausibility of the rest of the model), then it probably isn’t something that EA will just dismiss. This is heavily related to Open Philanthropy’s post about reasoning transparency, which (among other benefits) makes it easier for someone else to dissect another person’s claims.

I do think it may be difficult to show really high yet plausible expected value for this intervention, but I’d still be open to seeing such an analysis, and personally I think that should probably be an initial, unrequested step before complaining about EA not being willing to consider hard-to-quantify ideas.

I don't think it's possible to do an analysis that makes sense at all, given that outcomes are so high variance and depends so much on the skill and strategy and luck of the people working on it. That doesn't mean no one should work on it. Open Philanthropy and the FTX future fund are uniquely positioned to be able to get effective at this kind of work and drive the kind of results no one else can

And I think they know this and have been trying; OpenPhil has done work in land use reform and criminal justice reform, for example. I'm not complaining about what people choose to do or not do, but I think my original statement about EA being biased against difficult-to-measure things is correct and makes sense with an evidence-based ideology

I'm a bit confused on where you stand on this: on the one hand, you seem to be suggesting that it's not possible to derive a decent estimate on the likelihood of success, but on the other hand you are still suggesting that you think it is worth funding.

I don't dispute that it can be hard to do "accurate" analysis—e.g., to even be within an order of magnitude of accuracy on certain probability or effect-size estimates—but the key behind various back-of-the-envelope calculations (BOTECs) is getting a rough sense of "does this seem to be at least 10:1 expected return on investment given XYZ explicit, dissectible assumptions?" 

If the answer is yes, then that's an important signal saying "this is worth deeper-than-BOTEC-level analysis." Certain cause areas like AI safety/governance, biosecurity, and a few others have passed this bar by wide margins even when evidence/arguments were relatively scarce and it was (and still is!) really hard to come up with reliable specific estimates.

Explicating your reasoning in such ways is really important for making your analysis more legible/dissectible for others and also for yourself: it is quite easy to think "X is going to happen/work" before laying out the key steps/arguments, but sometimes by explicating your reasoning you (or others) can identify flawed assumptions, outright contradictions, or at least key hinge points in models.

Systematic change can be hard to predict, but (I suspect that) arguably everything can be given some kind of probability estimate in theory, even if it's a situation of pure uncertainty that leads to an estimate of 1/n for n possible outcomes (such as ~50% for coin flips). These don't have to be good estimates, but they need to be explicit so that 1) other people can evaluate them, and 2) you can use such calculations in your model (since you can't multiply a number by "?%").

One thing that might be useful in this situation is to establish some kind of "outside view" or reference class: how often do these kinds of social movements/reforms work, and how beneficial do they tend to be? Once you have a generic reference class, you can add in arguments to refine the generic class to better fit this specific case (i.e., a systemic change being pushed by people in EA).

On a separate, more specific, but less important note: I especially take issue with the idea of "luck" being factored into the model. I suspect you don't actually mean "luck" in the more superstitious sense (i.e., a cosmic quality that someone has or doesn't have), but it's exactly this kind of question/uncertainty (e.g., the likelihood that the environment will be favorable or that people will be in the right place at the right time) that needs to be made more explicit.

I'm a bit confused on where you stand on this: on the one hand, you seem to be suggesting that it's not possible to derive a decent estimate on the likelihood of success, but on the other hand you are still suggesting that you think it is worth funding.

i think any estimate would have a confidence interval so wide that it would be useless. (I said "variance" before; maybe that's a less well known term)

how often do these kinds of social movements/reforms work

I think I've cited a pretty good example with the conservative legal movement. My belief is that with a good strategy and the right movement, it will work IF there are people obsessed with getting it done over their lifetime. This is obviously a difficult belief to prove true or false.

I especially take issue with the idea of "luck" being factored into the model... it's exactly this kind of question/uncertainty (e.g., the likelihood that the environment will be favorable or that people will be in the right place at the right time) that needs to be made more explicit.

This is difficult for me to swallow because "luck" is a huge factor in how getting things done in politics works. Something happens in the news and suddenly your cause area becomes super easy or super hard to advance. I'm not sure how this can be made more explicit in a model. Here's an example in criminal justice reform that I was recently reading about: ALEC is a big conservative think tank. You would never think that they would be for criminal justice reform. But some outreach from pro-reform conservatives over time PLUS media outrage about their "Stand your ground" law that people blamed for the killing of Trayvon Martin made it possible.

Curious where the crux of our disagreement is: Would you agree that some things that can't be measured are still worth doing? And is your belief also that pushing the abundance agenda can't possibly be more cost-effective than donations to AMF?

i think any estimate would have a confidence interval so wide that it would be useless. (I said "variance" before; maybe that's a less well known term)

I am aware of what you mean by variance, but I don't think this challenges my point: I dispute the idea that you can both say "we can't make any useful estimate on the likelihood of success" and still claim "it's worth funding (despite any opportunity costs and other potential drawbacks)."

As the rest of this comment gets into, even a really wide (initial/early-stage) confidence interval can be useful as long as the other variables involved are sufficiently large that you can credibly say "it seems very likely that the probability is at least X%,  which is enough to make this very cost effective in expectation." 

(This line of reasoning is very pronounced in longtermism)

 

Curious where the crux of our disagreement is: Would you agree that some things that can't be measured are still worth doing? And is your belief also that pushing the abundance agenda can't possibly be more cost-effective than donations to AMF?

I think one crux/sticking point for me is: I believe that you could make a highly-simplistic but illustrative 3-variable plausibility model involving the following questions:

  • How much funding/resources should be devoted
  • What is the probability of achieving X outcome if we devote the above-given amount of resources
  • How valuable is X outcome (e.g., in terms of QALYs).

This is obviously oversimplified (the actual claims are more distributions rather than point estimates), but it requires you to explicate/stake claims like "even under conservative assumptions X, Y, and Z,  the expected value of this intervention is still really large." Relatedly, it allows you to establish breakeven points. Consider the following: 

  • Let's suppose you claim achieving some policy agenda outcome would produce somewhere between $1T and $10T of value.
  • Suppose you argue that spending $100M on some kind of movement/systemic change campaign would increase the likelihood of achieving that outcome by somewhere between 0.1% and 10%.

Those confidence intervals are rather large (the probability estimate spans two orders of magnitude), but even with such wide confidence intervals you can claim that a conservative estimate of the expected value is "at least $1B," which is "at least a 10x return on investment." And that's a claim that I and others can at least dissect.

However, my concern/suspicion is that upon explicating these estimates, the "conservative estimate" of expected value will actually not look very large—and in fact I suspect that even my median estimate will probably be lower than global health and development charities.

Would you agree that some things that can't be measured are still worth doing?

I would push back against the focus on the word "measured" here: "measured" typically is used to refer to estimates which are so objective, verifiable, and/or otherwise defensible that they get thought of as this special category of knowledge, like "we've empirically measured and verified that the average return on investment is X." 

I wholly agree that some things which can't be "measured" are still worth doing, nor are measurements infallible. It's not about measurements, it's about estimates. Going back to the point I made at the beginning, the problem I see with your stance is that (based on my limited interaction here) you seem to both be asserting that no reliable estimates can be made, yet asserting a claim that your estimate finds it is worthwhile. But I'm unclear on what your estimate is, and thus I can't evaluate it.

 

Regarding "luck," I will just redirect back to my claim about breakeven points and reference class estimations: does the reliance on "luck" (fortunate circumstances) set the overall likelihood of success at something like 1%? 0.1%? 

What is the breakeven point? And does a quick review of the historical frequency of such "luck" produce an estimate which exceeds that conservative breakeven point?

Although I think the supply-side progressive agenda is great (and have been involved in it in the past), I no longer prioritize it because I think that global poverty is more important. Most EAs are familiar with logarithmic utility of money, but this post by Toby Ord convinced me that the marginal utility of money likely diminishes faster than logarithmic utility.[1] So interventions to grow developed economies need to clear a very high bar to be more cost-effective than developing-world poverty reduction.

Promoting inclusive growth in rich countries has flow-through effects that might be enough to make it clear this bar, such as the ones you mentioned. For example:

  • Reducing poverty and inequality in rich countries might reduce their voters' appetite for populism, making it more likely that those countries will adopt pro-global poor policies like immigration and free trade.
  • Similarly, once the developed-world government enacts policies that take care of citizens' basic needs, those citizens might move up the hierarchy of needs to self-actualization, including global awareness and altruism.
  • Growth in rich countries could lead to more growth in poor countries, as those countries would trade with each other and trade volumes would increase.
  • Frontier growth in rich countries involves increasing innovation, which has positive externalities that flow through to poor countries. (For example, when the U.S. invests in clean energy innovation, clean energy becomes more affordable to India, Nigeria, etc.) Also, major technological breakthroughs create benefits that are not captured in GDP statistics.
  • Growth in rich countries increases their capacity to pay for public goods such as climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, and AGI safety, as well as subsidize the growth of poor countries. (Similarly, growth in rich countries gives EAs more disposable income, which they then spend on EA causes. 😏)

However, promoting growth in poor countries also has flow-through effects, which I don't currently have the bandwidth to enumerate.

Let's say that the second-order effects of rich-world growth make it twice as cost-effective as it would otherwise be. Assuming that neglectedness and tractability are the same, it would still be at least 16x more cost-effective to reduce developing-world poverty.[2]

Specific causes that you mention might clear the bar for cost-effectiveness, like increasing immigration and clean energy innovation. Also, increasing housing supply would increase cities' capacity to house immigrants and knowledge workers involved in high-impact innovation. What do you think?

  1. ^

    For example, if Aliya's income is $100 and Baojin's income is $1000, and they both have logarithmic utility, then giving a dollar to Aliya would be 10x as valuable as giving it to Baojin. But if they have isoelastic utility with constant elasticity , then giving it to Aliya is x more valuable. Empirical studies show that  is likely somewhere between 1 and 2.

  2. ^

    Per Toby Ord's essay, the US poverty line (about $6000/person) is about 33x higher than the incomes of typical GiveDirectly recipients (about $180/person).

What do you think of what I wrote in the post about the USA being like a low income country within a high income country when it comes to health and poverty? I think there's value in making that not happen in high income countries , and it seems more tractable to me than developing a low income country because of the money is already there to do it

I think this statement needs to be more precise. The Quartz article you cite states that the US "has the second-highest rate of poverty among rich countries (poverty here measured by the percentage of people earning less than half the national median income)," but this poverty threshold is still much higher than the International Poverty Line (IPL) used by the World Bank ($1.90/day), and in general, rich countries use higher poverty lines. 81% of those living in South Sudan (which is considered a least developed country) live below the IPL, whereas only 1% of Americans live below the IPL.

Also, I'm not an expert on this, but most poor people in rich countries have access to more infrastructure such as electricity and healthcare than poor people in poor countries, so their lives are qualitatively better in many ways even if it's not reflected in their incomes.

Poverty on Native American reservations is especially dire and seems comparable to the kind of extreme poverty we see in low- and middle-income countries. For example, Allen, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, has a per-capita income of $1,539 per year, or about $4.21 per day, which is between the $3.20 and $5.50/day poverty lines often used in international development.

I think I'm convinced that getting low-income countries to develop into high-income countries is more important than the abundance agenda. OpenPhil has so much money that I'm pretty sure they should do both. As far as I know, they aren't doing either. A country is not going to develop through malarial net donations.

the only organizations I know that are trying to get low-income countries to become high-income countries are the World Bank, IMF, and Growth Teams

I think maybe the impact of interventions in rich countries should be mainly measured in how much they improve their ability to help the rest of the world in a stable manner.

While I think I may disagree with Ruth on the specific recommendation (not sure!) I really appreciate this post for a few reasons:

  1. it's introduced a new and novel concept (abundance agenda) that is really interesting in how it is trying to get to the underlying problem of lots of issues
  2. it's outlined several concrete examples in an easy to understand, readable way

I have lots of questions that seem valuable to think about like:

  1. how generalizable is the "skip the landline" model and what is the influence of world bank or IMO on developing countries today ?

  2. what does 5% more GDP for the US actually look like in terms of benefits to metrics we care about (health or well-being)

  3. I appreciate the footnotes for each substantive claim

I would love to see more posts like this on the forum.

I added a new point to the main article relevant to the "skip the landline" model:

  • Innovations developed in high-income countries may have more impact in low-income countries. For example, renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro, etc) was developed in high income countries. But because of energy scarcity, investment in renewable energy has actually been higher in low and middle income countries than in high-income countries, since 2015. (see the Wikipedia article on renewable energy in developing countries)

Thank you Vaidehi! I worked really hard on this and I'm glad it shows :)

Hi ruthgrace,

This is my first post on this forum but I had to jump in.  Pls be gentle, as I'll try also. I'm not directing this at your post as much as trying to collaborate with it.  Hopefully, not making a forum etiquette mistake.

I love, love the topic of abundance.  It's literally my life's obsession.  I've worked on it for 20 years and started a company towards that end 7 years ago.

You did a great job putting all the info together with sources. I'm fully convinced that abundance is THE future and is actually attainable in a mere 2-15 years, with caveats.  To accomplish this, I've created a plan that's underway but that's for another post.

What most people don't reference about Abundance.

Abundance in many areas drives it in others.  To reach full abundance, where literally everything is abundant (and cheap enough for all to afford), you simply need to make the root drivers abundant.  When things become truly abundant, a few things happen.  The price drops because it's literally too cheap to sell.  The thought of selling grass clippings seems silly but water was too, before it got mopolized became scarce in bottles.  If enough people in a community had the capability to cheaply make excess of a thing, that thing becomes abundant.  All we need to do is foster an environment where thing-making magic boxes became affordable.  The economy will do the rest and policies would quickly fall as public opinion migrated.

What are the root drivers of all abundance?

To drive any group into becoming a civilized community working towards abundance, you only need to give them money and energy.  Making these two pieces abundant to them will drive the rest at the fastest exponential rate they can tolerate.

For example:

Starting with a hypothetical village in Nowhere, Africa...

Should some entity donate and install a mythical factory to build clean energy systems and pay operating costs for a few years, this factory would satisfy both requirements.

The salaries could be extremely low, compared to the developed countries, yet very high for the local cost of living.  This is direct cash to those people which has a huge multiplier effect.  I had placed it around 20x but another comment's referenced link suggests that it may be 100-500x.  Either way, this money is going to create an economy around local goods & services plus importing consumer goods.

What gets imported?  I would suggest that things like kitchen and home appliances, followed by transportation and farming goods would be initial candidates.  Since these require energy, they would propagate from the factory workers first.  However, the benefits would reach others and grow interest.

Second level multipliers would stem from local service providers (food, water, building materials, daycare style support things) which would rise in wages paid. Others would include installation and service work on the appliances imported.  I'm sure the rest of the picture is clear that this eventually builds to a full community, exponentially approaching a developed community.

Once the standard of living rose to where more people than just the employees could afford the energy systems, the parent company of the factory could reduce the discount on the system and begin to break even.  Beyond that, it might take longer to return it's investment or a profit, if that ever became viable.

So what was the resulting multiplier effect of the cost of installing the factory plus the up-fronting of a few years' operating costs?

If said factory cost $10M and the operating cost (including materials) was $5M/yr for 5 years, that would total $35M.  We have our denominator.

But the numerator is much more difficult.  Some may suggest that it's the salaries plus their second level effects.  I don't think that's fair.  I think that we should include every benefit this community received out to the full reach this new commerce reached.  If a local school or university was built nearby after a decade, wouldn't that count?  I could be optimistic here, but I see it literally changing every aspect of everyone's life that's involved... beyond the seeable future.

In other words, our numerator seem undefined or in lay terms, immeasurable. Even if it was only 100x after time, this would be directly beneficial from the day construction began.

Isn't this the goal of EA?

It's for this reason that I'm severely confused as to why EA and other similar entities focuses so heavily on policy, research, awareness and other things that only may lead to some potential future benefit.  To my way of thinking, outlined here, wouldn't this type of path be more desirable?

Upvoted for highlighting this vision, but I think much more attention should be given to differentiating when restrictions on supply aren't necessary and when they are.

For example, restrictions on destroying natural areas for housing may be very important to keep, both inside cities and outside them.

Another example is that building densely may cause problems if not accompanied by planning of the whole region.

appreciate your comment! Thanks for posting

I agree on the natural areas point; I would hope that we can increase density without decreasing the density of parks and playgrounds (though I would definitely be okay with decreasing the size of big ones that don't serve that many people)

I am wary of arguments that we need to do other difficult to do things like improving transit before we can build housing because the practical result is that nothing is going to be done at all, which is worse than if we build more housing and then people had to campaign or lobby to get the transit fixed to accommodate.

I am wary of arguments that we need to do other difficult to do things like improving transit before we can build housing...

I'm not exactly sure if that's what I mean or not. What I mean is that if you build housing with no infrastructure (like kindergartens or clinics or schools etc), maybe people won't actually come to live there. You have to some way make sure to offer actually valuable essential goods and not bad ones.

Yes, this is an interesting problem with new smart/planned cities! Probably not a problem with New York, San Francisco, and San Jose though