I am currently interning at an economic consultancy firm in London. Some of my colleagues are aware that I'm involved in Effective Altruism and I've briefly tried to explain EA to some of them. Consequently, I've been asked by my manager to make some proposals about how the firm could use its work to do good.

The firm has previously conducted pro bono work in civil liberties cases in the US, and every year donates money to multiple charities. However the charities have to be US or UK focused and all pro bono work I'm aware of has been US focused.

I want to make suggestions that would be as effective as possible and also somewhat likely to be followed through on by the firm. I was wondering if anyone would have any suggestions?

For more background, the firm primarily produces expert reports for court for the defence of companies in litigation. Most of the staff are Econ graduates or Econ PhDs. My first thought would be doing economic analysis for effective charities however I'm unsure how to recommend the firm could go about doing this.

Any ideas or guidance is much appreciated, thank you.




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I'm not sure if it would fall into your wheelhouse but some of the folks at Charity Entrepreneurship (including myself) are looking into effective taxation models starting with tobacco and I'm sure we could find a place for some econ help. Happy to chat at joelburke2014@gmail.com - more info about tobacco taxation and why it's effective here http://www.charityentrepreneurship.com/blog/tobacco-taxation

Based on a quick read, it doesn't seem like you take into account the consumer surplus from smoking tobacco? This might not be a small factor:

  • Many smokers report enjoying the experience of smoking.
  • Many people choose to smoke despite knowing about the health effects.
  • Newer forms of tobacco consumption, like vaping, have significantly lower health side-effects.

Indeed, few consumer products will look positive if we ignore the consumer surplus they produce.

Hi, when you say I don't seem to take that into account, do you mean something on the blog post I shared? That's not my research, just some of what I'm using as the basis for considering an intervention into taxation but happy to comment on what I can or at least link to other studies I've read that have been useful too if you're interested. It depends on your perspective I suppose, and if you think that regulating/taxing anything is paternalistic and believe that everyone is rational, not addicted, truly knows the health effects, etc. then I agree there would be a percentage of the population where consumer surplus would be taken into account and who enjoy smoking (although this population who says they enjoy smoking today may not say that X years later). But given how many people try to quit many times after starting, how many smokers say they wouldn't mind taxes being increased, how many people wish they never started, etc., for this product in particular I think it'd be relatively low. For other products like alcohol, sugar, etc. for non heavy users I think it's a less clear cut case. On newer forms of tobacco consumption, again it depends. On an individual level it seems like vaping is net positive for health if you're switching from smoking, but may be a net negative to the world if it leads many people who never would have started smoking to get addicted. But overall I'm a fan of innovation in the sector and much less pessimistic about things like vaping than it seems like the global health community is (I'm generalizing but from what I've seen the prevailing wisdom is that it isn't worth the risk of 1) new smokers 2) unknown long term effects 3) playing ball with notoriously bad actors like the big tobacco companies who are offering products in this space as they try to diversify their product portfolio). I personally think probably the thing that would do the most good is a product that mimics the effects (social, chemical, etc.) of smoking but has none
I think you might be mistaken on several counts: 1) not all taxes are paternalistic (e.g. pigouvian taxes), but tobacco taxes almost definitely are. wikipedia: rather, the debate is about whether or not paternalism is justified (in this instance). In both this comment and the grandparent I've implicitly assumed that paternalism can be justified, but you're right that there are libertarian arguments that paternalism is essentially always wrong. You might also enjoy Robin's recent writing on paternalism, though it doesn't directly bare on this argument; unsurprisingly he concludes it is primarily about status. 2) People don't have to be fully rational for their decisions to have information about welfare. If full rationality were required then no decision ever would satisfy! While it seems clear that humans are not 100% rational, there is still some logic to people's actions. Indeed, models of rational addiction have been around for decades; it is definitely not true to say that addiction invalidates any inference about consumer welfare. See for example Becker and Murphy (1988). 3) 'truly knows the health effects' is again not required. For example, if people had noisy but unbiased estimates of the health impacts, some would over-consume and some would under-consume, and on average, tobacco taxation would not be welfare enhancing. If lack of knowledge is the issue, the appropriate response is to provide the information, not to tax it. 4) Consumer surplus should be taken into account for everyone regardless of whether or not on the whole smoking is optimal. It is an element in the cost-benefit calculation (probably the largest on one side of the equation). It might be larger or smaller for different people, in different circumstances, etc., but that is something that must be estimated and taken into account, not simply ignored.
Tobacco taxes are pigouvian under state sponsored healthcare.
Just wanted to write that I've seen your comment, I'm on the road and don't have time to respond well now but will try in the next week or so.

I run http://sogive.org, which produces analysis on charities. We have run many volunteer events by now, occasionally in-house in a company when the company wants to run a team/group volunteering event. We teach them the SoGive method of analysing charities, and then get them to work through a bunch of charities. If you think this might be of interest to you, feel free to contact me on sanjay [at] sogive.org

I would suggest at least 2 things:

  1. If you can get people doing research for a concerted period of time then consider contacting someone like the Global Priorities Institute to see which research areas they recommend. Incentive for the firm is that they would get their employees published which they could use for project proposals
  2. I think pro bono economics are always looking for people to help perform impact analyses so you contact them too to get some of your employees helping on their projects. Less of an incentive for the firm here but it develops data management and analysis skills and is less time-intense than taking on a research project https://www.probonoeconomics.com/about