2-week summer course in "economic theory and global prioritization": LMK if interested!

by trammell2 min read19th Nov 202113 comments

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Global priorities researchEffective altruism educationEconomics
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Background: I'm an economics DPhil student at Oxford and research associate at GPI.

I thought some people might find it valuable if I organized a 2-week course, at the beginning or end of next summer (to avoid overlap with internships/etc), on methods and topics in economic theory that

  • seem especially useful for "global priorities research" purposes,
  • aren't necessarily covered by a standard undergrad or grad economics curriculum, and
  • I happen to know about.

It would take 10-25 students, primarily late-stage undergrads or early-stage grad students in economics. It would be in person, with lectures and problem sets and all the rest of it. If it goes well, it might serve as a basis for developing more polished and scalable educational materials.

The exact syllabus isn't finalized, but we would try to spend a few days each on what to my understanding are particularly relevant and not-generically-covered topics in

  • growth theory, such as
    • AI and growth (esp. [1]),
    • considerations bearing on the relationship between growth and x-risk (e.g. [2]), and
    • long-term implications of population growth or decline (e.g. [3]);
  • philanthropic strategy, such as
    • my patient philanthropy nonsense ([4]) and
    • the game theory of replaceability / crowding out more generally;
  • finance, such as
    • impact investing and
    • mission hedging ([6]); and
  • mechanism design, such as
    • quadratic funding ([7]) and
    • the mechanisms behind international climate agreements, and how they might apply to other global public goods.

I would also try to squeeze in a few words about dead-ends that EA-minded econ theory students often seem to wander down (like why trying to understand and make something x-risk-relevant out of these papers is a waste of time!).

The course would probably be funded and sponsored by Forethought. It would probably be in Oxford, but I could look into doing it in the Bahamas, if people prefer (what with FTX being there now and keen to sponsor EA activity there). Transportation and accommodation would be provided.

If something like this sounds like it could be appealing to you, please fill out an expression of interest, so I can gauge how much demand there would be and reach out to those interested if it goes ahead. And comment below or reach out to me with any questions or suggestions.

Thanks!

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I'd probably watch/listen to recordings if they'd exist, and I'd ask questions (mainly making sure I understood), if I could.

If you'd consider doing this, the main thing that would help me is paying attention to the audio quality (probably having a microphone connected to you. I'd be happy to order you one, if that would help).

My ECON background is pop "econ 101" / efficient-market stuff, and my understanding of macro is really really limited

Good to know, thanks!

Video recordings are among the "more polished and scalable educational materials" I was thinking might come out of this; i.e. to some extent the course lectures would serve as a trial run for any such videos. That wouldn't be for a year or so, I'm afraid. But if it happens, I'll make sure to get a good attached mike, and if I can't get my hands on one elsewhere I'll keep you in mind. : )

I would also try to squeeze in a few words about dead-ends that EA-minded econ theory students often seem to wander down (like why trying to understand and make something x-risk-relevant out of these papers is a waste of time!).

Can you elaborate on this? 

This is a sincere question—I think your thoughts will be useful and interesting.

Sure. Those particular papers rely on a mathematical trick that only lets you work out how much a society should be willing to pay to avoid proportional losses in consumption. It turns out to be different from what to do in the x-risk case in lots of important ways, and the trick is not generalizable in those ways. But because the papers seem so close to being x-risk-relevant, I know of like half a dozen EA econ students (including me) who have tried extending them at some point before giving up…

I’m aware of at least a few other “common EA econ theorist dead ends” of this sort, and I’ll try making a list, along something written about each of them. When this and the rest of the course material is done, I’ll post it.

Thanks for putting this together; I might be interested!

I just want to flag that if your goal is to avoid internships, then (at least for American students) I think the right time to do this would be late May-early June rather than late June-early July as you suggest on the Airtable form. I think the most common day for internships to start is the day after Memorial Day, which in 2022 will be May 31st. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong.)

Glad to hear you might be interested!

Thanks for pointing this out. It's tough, because (a) as GrueEmerald notes below, at least some European schools end later, and (b) it will be easier to provide accommodation in Oxford once the Oxford spring term is over (e.g. I was thinking of just renting space in one of the colleges). Once the application form is up*, I might include a When2Meet-type thing so people can put exactly what weeks they expect to be free through the summer.

*If this goes ahead; but there have been a lot of expressions of interest so far, so it probably will!

I think late May is too early for most European students.

I’d be interested in these materials. I’ve wanted for a while to help integrate this into an open source web textbook. (Something like THIS, but more EA oriented)

Cool! I was thinking that this course would be a sort of early-stage / first-pass attempt at a curriculum that could eventually generate a textbook (and/or other materials) if it goes well and is repeated a few times, just as so many other textbooks have begun as lecture notes. But if you'd be willing to make something online / easier-to-update sooner, that could be useful. The slides and so on won't be done for quite a while, but I'll send them to you when they are.

Yes, it makes sense to first play with this in a flexible way, to figure out what works best and holds together best.

But I would love to see your notes and think about ways to incorporate and organize them. (For me 'markdown syntax raw text' files are best ... but whatever you can share is great).

By the way, I assume you are familiar with DRB's reading syllabus - An introduction to global priorities research for economists

I am, thanks

Please make the curriculum open to everyone or, if possible, record the curriculum for us to see!

Yup, I'll post the syllabus and slides and so on!

I'll also probably record the lectures, but probably not make them available except to the attendees, so they feel more comfortable asking questions. But if a lecture goes well, I might later use it as a template for a more polished/accessible video that is publicly available. (Some of the topics already have good lectures for online as well, though; in those cases I'd probably just link to those.)