This is an excerpt from my post on Data Secrets Lox, which I was advised to post here.


The next author was a man who looked around thirty years old. He was dressed in a black hoodie and had pale skin and a slight, brown beard. He introduced himself to Kelly as Frank Donoghue. His book was entitled “The Effective Altruist Case for Shorttermism.”

“Shorttermism, what’s that mean?” Kelly asked.

“It's the idea that effective altruism should focus more on the short term. Most economists believe in the declining marginal utility of money. Effective altruists commonly accept the idea and take it to its logical conclusion, that the best use for the donor’s dollar is to help the person experiencing extreme poverty in the third world. Short-termism is another logical outcome of this idea. People in the future should be expected to be richer than people in the present. Ergo, we should direct more of our charitable efforts toward the present.”

Paul thought about it for a few seconds. “Okay, give me a concrete example. How should altruists behave differently, informed by this theory?”

“Many wealthy people plan to give their money away after they die. But consider this. In 1990, there were 2 billion people living in extreme poverty. Now, it’s 700 million. In East Asia, that number has gone from nearly a billion to almost zero. India’s making slower but still steady progress. By 2030, if you believe the forecasts, almost all extreme poverty will be concentrated in Africa. If Africa makes the same progress, by 2050, there may be nobody experiencing extreme poverty. So if you’ve got money you’re saving to donate, you should donate now, you are certain there are people in extreme poverty you can help, rather than save it for the future where there might be people you can help.”

“Convincing,” Paul said. “But then, I fear this may not be a very popular message. I bet many of those who say they are saving to donate are actually thinking, ‘I might donate, but on the other hand, this can also be my rainy-day fund.’ They won’t want to hear this message.”

“Right. But many will want to hear the next message, for it gives them a ‘principled’ reason for doing what they wanted to do anyway.”

“And what is that?”

“Consider carbon emissions. Now, I’m not convinced that the costs of a warming world will exceed the benefits. But even if they will, that doesn’t mean we are obligated to reduce carbon emissions. Consider this. Median household income in the US is around 70K a year. If you assume a real economic growth rate of 1.5% a year, our descendants a hundred years from now will have 4.4 times what we do. Suppose that reducing our carbon emissions would cost us each 2K a year. It will save our descendants 8K a year because they won’t have to ‘clean up our mess.’ Should we really go from 70K a year to 68K a year so that someone else can go from 300K a year to 308K a year? Seems like redistribution in the opposite direction, don’t you think?”

“But aren’t our descendants owed a non-polluted world? I recall a quote somebody said, ‘the planet is not something your ancestors have given you. It is something you have borrowed from your descendants.’”

“Borrowing implies an agreement made voluntarily by two sides. I never signed any such agreement. Of course, if we are giving them a horribly polluted biosphere, one in which they could barely breathe, then yes, that’s a real moral dilemma. But carbon dioxide is not that. At the still-minute concentrations we are spewing into the atmosphere, it has no negative impacts on human health. It makes the world slightly warmer and floods a tiny amount of beachfront land, which is hardly a problem considering how underpopulated the world is.”

“So what we owe the future is … not much?”

“Yes. Consider what happened when you were born. Did the world say, ‘welcome to existence, human being; here’s a basket of stocks and bonds and land?’ No. Of course, many do inherit assets from their parents, but we don’t consider it something they are entitled to. Why should we consider someone born a hundred years ago entitled to some beachfront land that we could cause to flood? Why is it important for him to have it, to go with his flying car, robot servant, and cancer cures? Seems like we ‘need’ it more.”

“I see a problem here. You’re only focusing on the developed world. Yes, our descendants may be fabulously rich. But what of people in the developing world? They are the ones who will be screwed by this climate change stuff.”

“Maybe. But consider they, too, will be richer than their grandparents. Rather than spend our money on green energy subsidies, why not send the money to people living in the third world now? Again, we may never again get the chance to help people in extreme poverty.”

“There’s no possibility for graft and crony capitalism with pure cash transfers.”

“Yes, but we could have the government buy things and then ship them to the third world. We could ally ourselves with big Ag, big pharma, and the fossil fuel industry. I expect Exxon to pay people to shill this book.”





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