Epistemic status: Quick thought.

I was just feeling vexed yet again about how I e.g. want serious public funding of research into covid vaccines (and efforts to speed their availability, etc.), but do not want preschoolers stuck wearing masks.  (Like, it would be nice to get the most cost-effective interventions, because covid in fact has large continuing costs year on year, but not to totally suspend life as we know it or pay costs with little upside.  Which is neither team “exaggerate the risks and keep everyone wearing masks always” nor team “let’s all stop thinking about it and say it’s no big deal.”)

And… then I started daydreaming a bit about an activist movement or political coalition that was about “amounts matter” or “let’s actually do cost-benefit analysis” or “let’s do useful things and not pointless things, without getting stuck on flags or political banners.”

To be clear, "amounts matter" is the usual EA stance already; EA already has this particular piece of sanity.  (Thank goodness!) But a lot of people don’t, including some who might enjoy organizing around this and not around EA.

(In addition to rallying *for* vaccine research but *against* mask requirements for young children, such a group could e.g. rally against paper straws.  Everybody hates paper straw requirements.)

I… suspect this doesn’t actually make sense to do, given that starting brands is hard.  But from time to time, people discuss various brands or political coalitions under which it might be easier to connect particular sets of people or do particular pieces of good (e.g. EA vs longtermism vs progress studies vs etc.).  So I'm throwing this one into the brainstorming mix.  Especially since covid response seems to offer a better than usual opportunity for allowing an "amounts matter" movement to have a flag people care about.  Maybe somebody could build a cool blog and small brand and be cited in newspaper articles and so on?  (Or maybe this is already mainstream economics departments, and there’s no need for more?)  (If this was useful enough to be worth doing, the upside would be in either letting good people find each other, or raising this basic part of general sanity in public; not in re-allowing plastic straws per se.)

Anybody have a good name/slogan idea for this, that is better than “Amounts matter”?




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Thanks for posting this.

“amounts matter” or “let’s actually do cost-benefit analysis” [...] To be clear, "amounts matter" is the usual EA stance already

I think EA is still overemphasizing high benefit-cost ratios, but it's now better to find high benefit minus cost interventions. In other words, it used to be the case that we wanted to find a way to fill a $1m funding gap to save 1000 lives, and save a life for $1k, but now even though these small funding gaps still exist it's quite hard to find them at scale, and we might rather want to find a billion dollar funding gap that saves lives at only $10k, but then save 100k lives which is better since amounts matter as you say.

In contrast to a movement trying to push high B/C interventions like EA, an 'amounts matter' / B-C movement would have much higher popular appeal as it would directly and personally affect many more people.

A few things that this movement might highlight (all 'big, if true'):

There are some public health things probably roughly on a similar level (smoking, obesity, etc.). 

On some level, politics is already doing this, but I think there's still a lot of scope insensitivity and not concrete focus on these issues.

I think it is wrong to say that Syrian refugee crisis might have cost Germany 0.5T. My source: https://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/refugees-in-germany-2/. To be fair though I have not found a posterior analysis, and I am far from an expert.

Thanks for the link - I think the economists surveyed were not unanimous in saying that it's a slam dunk win, and as I wrote 'might' and 'big, if true' - also note that I'm citing a link from the very left-wing think tank associated with the German Green party. 

Also see that while the case for immigration boosting the economy in the long-run is strong based on economic theory, there might still be upfront cost that could have bad effect such as displacing traditional aid:


It could also be that, a la David Autor's China shock literature, while the  average economic effects of migration are positive some low-skilled domestic workers might have increased competition, which can cause populism. For instance, immigration can predict Brexit votes.

Again: big, if true and there should be more analysis. The main lesson here is if you're dealing with trillion dollar numbers, it might be very important.

Thanks for the answer. The problem is that this is likely pointing in the wrong direction. Immigration has by itself quite large benefits for immigrants and almost all studies of the impact of immigration find positive or no effect for locals. From "Good economics for hard times" by Duflo and Barnejee there is only one case where locals ended up worse off: during the URRS, Hungarian workers were allowed to work but not live in East Germany, forcing them to spend their money at home. Overall, it is well known that open border situations would probably boost worldwide GDP by at least 50%, possibly 100%. I sincerely think that criticising Germany for this policy requires being only worried about very short term costs, which seems more like an ideological response than a reasonable choice.

Here's how I'd put your suggestion in my own words:

Currently, political debate weighs policy options by whether or not they "help" or "harm" certain reference classes. A reference class is any symbolic, social, or physical thing that we care about. 

Examples of a reference class could include "patriotism," "community health," "jobs," or even something as concrete and small-scale as the view from an individual person's deck.

Hence, political debate is currently about defining which reference classes we should care about, and how important they are, and then weighing the policy by whether it "helps" or "harms" each.

As such, current policy debate can take in the scale of the impact only according to how important the references classes are. The importance of the reference class is ambiguous, and lumps together both the physical consequences and the moral weight people attach to it.

The Amounts Matter movement would advocate that, instead of considering only the importance of the reference classes and whether or not the intervention "helps" or "harms" them, policy debate focus on how much the intervention "helps" or "harms" them. It would seek to make people have a genuine gut sense of missing some important information when policy debate does not include information on "how much" the intervention helps or harms.

In practice, it might cause debate to shift from this:

"We should make preschoolers wear masks because it helps protect our state from COVID-19."

"No, we shouldn't make preschoolers wear masks because it harms children's language development."

To this:

"We should make preschoolers wear masks because it helps protect our state from COVID-19 by preventing about 100 deaths per year."

"No, we shouldn't make preschoolers wear masks because it harms children's language development by delaying it by about 6 months."

The result is that debate can now take place not about whether or not the reference classes matter, or whether or not the policy "helps" or "harms" them, but in terms of how much the policy "helps" or "harms" each item.

I tend to think the reason this is not done is partly because adding more information expands the attack surface for a motivated opponent. In addition, it's inherently easier to claim that X "helps" or "harms" than it is to specify how much it "helps" or "harms."

The underlying problem here seems to be that anticipation of a hostile, non-truth-seeking response leads people to be less specific in their claims.

So you could do a few things:

  • Incentivize the provision of scale information during political debate
  • Disincentivize using scale information as a target for hostile criticism
  • Disincentivize making claims about "help" and "harm" if scale information is not included

I could see some sensible ways for doing this. For example, a formal political debate could make it a rule that all claims about policies must include a piece of scale information. Or critiques of political agendas could be produced that drill into the absence of scale information and use this as an occasion for ridicule.

On the whole though, any such movement would be participating in the blood sport of politics, and I would expect it to get bloody.

I've often heard the phrase "numbers matter" but not sure if I prefer it. The concept reminds me of (the inverse of) the quote attributed to Stalin that "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic." In the EA for Christians community we have sometimes used the phrase "love thy statistic" as a slogan to counter this.

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