All of Halstead's Comments + Replies

Economic policy in poor countries

Yes, that seems like the main thing we disagree about. It also seems like we disagree about the likely impact of deworming. 

  1. I would also like to do that but I don't have time to do that properly unfortunately - my time is now focused on longterm relevant stuff. 
  2. I think the point here is that the growth decelerations don't seem like they would be big enough to make the back of the envelope calcs on the world bank, IMF and all economists in mine and Hauke's post lower than RCT stuff. 
  3. Thanks for clarifying. First, (this is not a criticism of yo
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3rootpi15dAnother point of agreement: the economics profession currently focuses too much on empirical work. Meanwhile my own personal view is that people like Esther and Chris B are slightly 'too far' in the pro-RCT camp, and that people like Lant (and you) are 'too far' in the anti-RCT camp. But I don't see anyone in this discussion as being extreme (except possibly Lant...); healthy disagreement is to be expected and encouraged. Note that Esther and Abhijit's most recent book [] tackles macro issues like migration, trade, climate change, and yes growth - using RCTs when possible / relevant but also plenty of other results (including lots of theory! Abhijit started life as a theorist, like I did). Meanwhile Chris has a forthcoming book on war and peace [] (macro level! no easy RCTs) for which he uses other approaches like machine learning []. You can find all sorts of quotes, but the proof is in the pudding. Final point on this is that one can easily combine RCTs with admin data, ML, etc, and researchers (including me) are doing more and more of that, which imo is great - it's not always one or the other. As you say, the efficacy of deworming seems to be a point of disagreement between us. Again pulling back somewhat, you link to Eva's paper as supporting your claim that RCTs have minimal external validity, but her paper is about all forms of impact evaluation (and she notes in the conclusion that the subset of RCTs aren't special). So this would be extremely damning for economics if true, but her results don't support your claim. For instance she notes that bednets and conditional cash transfers seem to do very well on this front. More relevantly, her point (as I read it) is to see how much of the nominal variation in effect sizes can be explained by other contextual varia
Economic policy in poor countries
  1. You seem here to be eliding the claim that we didn't find any leads with the claim that we didn't recommend anything. We found many  leads. FP found 7 different organisations that we thought it might be worth investigating if we had control of money. In Hauke's appendices to our post,  he lists several organisations and interventions that would be worth investigating. So, there are many plausible examples of things that are worthy of further study. If I put 3 months into a climate change report, I wouldn't argue that the failure to recommend a cl
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1rootpi19dI'm going to try to step back first and speculate where we actually disagree, in hopes of getting at what you actually think should be happening differently, if anything. You seem to be arguing to some extent against things that do not exist, and in particular that neither I nor others are saying. I think we agree that (i) 1-5% of work in economics should be RCTs; (ii) RCTs are not the right approach for many, indeed most, questions in social science; (iii) there exists lots of policy-relevant and actionable information from non-RCT sources; (iv) intuitions can be a useful input, as long as one is transparent that that's what they are; (v) the EA community should be spending resources studying policy interventions, including around growth but also imo health (e.g. lead paint, tobacco); and (vi) economists do more good than harm in the world. Where I think we disagree is that your intuition is that with another three person-years of effort, the EA community will find growth policy funding opportunities (not based on RCTs...) that are far more effective than the current top GW charities, and my intuition is that we won't (but that I still think we should look, as I've said many times, because the uncertainty is high and we might find them!). Neither of us knows for sure, as this hasn't been done yet. Is it more than that? 1. You're right that finding leads but not making recommendations could cause one to update upward, downward, or not at all (depending on one's prior) so I shouldn't have suggested that it was necessarily a bad signal. However I didn't see anything quantitative (I did look at the appendices, but I believe the only quantitatively worked-out example was the incorrect and retrospective ICRIER one in the main text). This makes it very hard to meaningfully compare against current top interventions. I would love if you would be willing to go on the record, with as many caveats as you want, and pick one or two of the ones
Economic policy in poor countries


  1. My view is that I  think it is very likely (>95% chance) that one would find something better than  GiveWell's top charities if one were to put in 4 person-years of time into the project, which was the claim in my original post. My team put in about 6 months of person time on the project. Hauke and I put in a few months writing up our post, which wasn't about trying to find donation opportunities but just to make the case that there is reason to think we would find something if we tried. I don't know how much time Lant has put in to actu
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  1. Fair enough that not all of that time (much less all of Lant's career) was spent trying to come up with a good example here. I still think that if after a nontrivial amount of cognitive resource spent on this by very smart people (e.g. Lant is in an excellent position to have run across something and at least mentioned it), no one has even come up with a single plausible example that's worthy of further study, that's discouraging in a bayesian sense. I fully agree it's worth more research; I simply doubt that anything fantastic will appear after four years
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This Can't Go On

Another point is - how much economic value can you extract from an atom? I have no idea how you would go about answering that question without making some other substantive arguments about the limits to growth. This suggests that the atoms argument is a weak steer on limits to growth. 

Economic policy in poor countries

Hello, yes this was in part a response to the arguments there where he suggested that policy is in the same ballpark as GiveWell top charities, which I don't think can be true given other things he says. 

"Yeah, I think that’s totally right. And I think, again, if you had more of a dominance argument, where it’s like, look, the returns to the policy are just always going to outweigh the returns to evidence-based aid, then I think you would end up with more back and forth and debate between them. But when you see the arguments for cost effectiveness act... (read more)

Economic policy in poor countries

Hello, thanks for this and thanks for assisting with our report on that!

To clarify, it's not the case that the FP report didn't have any recommendations because we didn't find anything good. We stopped because we couldn't guarantee that we could move enough money to the area to make it worth our own time and that of the organisations we evaluated. We didn't discover anything that made me think we wouldn't find something better than deworming if we were to put a couple of person-years into it. 

On your tldr - the point of my post is that I don't see how... (read more)

1rootpi23dAnd thanks for your reply! I hope that you are now satisfied, since the issue is being discussed :) More seriously I really am glad you brought it to the fore again, because it deserves it, and I'm being [sincerely] critical only because I take it seriously and respect it. Re the FP report: so did it find anything promising or not? My reading (could be wrong, obviously, so let me know) was that they/you didn't in fact find anything to point to; that they/you believe such a thing does exist; but that it would take a lot of time and effort to find it. This is not especially encouraging, given that between them and the experts and you and Lant, at least one person-year has been spent on this already. If all you want is more discussion / research, as I said upfront I agree 100%. If you want to convince me that it is likely to succeed, you need to point to something more than intuition (in part because even the numbers you have thrown around are somewhat suspect). There still seems to be an apples-to-oranges comparison here. You can criticize specific RCTs, sometimes validly and sometimes not (I'm happy to share the 10+ page report I wrote for GiveWell which on the whole validated the deworming results, and David Roodman's extensive research [] came to a similar conclusion). But it's not helpful to compare a single intervention (note that GiveWell has multiple charities with similarly high estimated ROIs) to "whatever it is that caused [those countries] to grow" which neither you nor the best macroeconomists seem to uncontroversially agree on even in retrospect. My claim is that if deworming had been added to their policy mix (and other aspects had adjusted however they adjusted), that would have been a good thing. Sure you can run an RCT on allowing foreign investment: subsidize it in some regions and not others. Same for immigration: encourage it in some places (or times) and not others. Same for roa
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Is it sufficient for it to be good to vote for EAs to be better than the median voter? (which I think is probably true.)

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I think there is a typo in the bit about Weyl?

The interesting thing about the Weyl proposal is that it is an alternative to private property that could potentially produce better social outcomes from a consequentialist/utilitarian/social welfare point of view. The reason for this is that it overcomes the tragedy of the anti-commons, such that holdouts can extract rents, sometimes at huge expense to society. If Weyl's proposal would produce better outcomes, would you be in favour of it

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Given the non-identity problem, doesn't the requirement that future people benefit more than they lose allow us to leave future generations with quite a bad situation? eg emitting fossil fuels changes the identities of people in the future, and we could feasibly make the world >10C hotter which would leave lots of tropical countries in a bad state but it would not harm them since they would not have existed had we not emitted

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

The point he is making is about worker cooperatives, rather than firms in general. A widely recognised problem with worker cooperatives is that there are disincentives to scale because adding more workers is a cost to the existing coop owners. So, the point doesn't apply to privately owned companies because adding workers do not get a share of the business

2Linch25dAs presented, the efficiency claims seem to be agnostic about firm structure, while the worker coop-specific parts are about credit/profit allocation. (As usual, I could of course be misreading)
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I think almost all critiques of capitalism rest on a failure to understand what capitalism actually is. Capitalism is private ownership of the means of production. Socialism is public or common ownership of the means of production. Capitalism is not greed. Socialism is not benevolence and love. They are systems of ownership. Once you see this, a lot of criticisms of capitalism melt away. 

This is one important contribution that Jason Brennan has made to philosophy - (read more)

Insomnia: a promising cure

I tried that book and didn't find it helpful. Last time I checked there wasn't much evidence that the method he proposes works

1newptcai1moIt probably depends on each person's situation. When I read it, I was very worried about sleep. I had a very elaborate ritual to help me to fall asleep, which did not work that well. I think reading the book helped to me to adapt a more accepting attitude to insomnia. Now I actually do not think about insomnia much, but only follows some common sleep hygiene measures, like avoiding screen, sleeping on time and getting up on time, etc. It works reasonably well.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

What do you make of Glen Weyl's argument for a common-ownership self-assessed tax? In general, do you think people have strong rights of self-ownership? Do you think that people have strong ownership rights over the natural world, or do you think there are strong egalitarian restrictions on that? where do you stand on left-libertarianism vs right-libertarianism?

6Jason Brennan1moI don't find arguments for common world ownership very persuasive. It'd take too long to go through all the arguments to explain why here, so I'll just leave my general worry: Common world ownership means we all have a say on everyone else, and it tends to make the world somewhat zero sum. Every new person is an incursion on my ownership rights and dilutes my claims. I prefer institutional mechanisms that create positive sum games. I really Weyl agrees and thinks his proposal gets around this. As for self-ownership, I think of course we own ourselves, but this doesn't do much work philosophically. Here's an excerpt from a paper I wrote with Bas van der Vossen: Self-Ownership: Almost Uncontroversial We own different things in different ways. The bundle of rights that constitutes ownership varies from thing owned to thing owned. The strength of these rights also varies. We can own a cat and a car, but our ownership of the cat—which is real ownership—doesn’t allow us to do as much with it as with our ownership of a car. The way we own cats is different from how we own cars, which is different from how we own a guitar, which is different from how we own a plot of land, and so on. Morally-speaking, not just legally speaking, the kinds of rights we have over these various things varies. But we really can own each of them. If you prefer to say that ownership is “more extensive” when we have the full bundle of rights with no moral constraints on use, that’s fine. But even if there is more or less extensive ownership, it’s still ownership. Your cat is your cat. You are not allowed to torture it, neglect it, or have sex with it, but that’s not because the cat is partially society’s or anyone else’s. Nor is it because you don’t really own it. Different kinds of moral arguments—such as Kantian deontological principles, or claims about what it takes to realize certain moral powers, or arguments from a privileged “original position”, or reflections on Strawsonian reactive a
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Do you think making the moral case for capitalism could be a very important thing to do? My impression is that the case for it seems to have been lost among the young, which could have important effects down the line

9Jason Brennan1moI am a bit split on the data from polling younger people. Quite a bit of that data shows that they prefer the word/label "socialism" to "capitalism". If you ask them whether socialism is better than capitalism, they say yes. But if you give them more specific things, such as asking whether the government should own all productive property or whether we should have markets, they tend to reject socialism in favor of capitalism, though not by a huge amount. Also, you see the memes going around where people use "socialism" to refer not to socialism, but to government-funded public goods and welfare policies. Still, if people are confused, then demagogues can take advantage of them or they might end up voting for the wrong things. I think the case for capitalism must be made not merely because some form of it works better than the alternatives, but because the empirics on immigration show that open borders with global market economies is the best and most effective solution to world poverty. Immigration beats both intra- and international redistribution in terms of its distributional and welfare effects. However, socialism and open borders don't mix well, because once you turn a society into a giant workers' co-op, adding new members always comes at the expense of the current members.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

You have written about the importance of economic growth - what do you make of Lant Pritchett's arguments on that topic?

8Jason Brennan1moEconomic growth is vital. Here's why: PPP-adjusted GDP/capita is about $16,000 right now. Imagine I waved a magic wand that magically redistributed all of this in the form of consumable income, with equal shares for all. That'd mean everyone on earth lives on $16,000 a year. Better than what we currently have for most people, but, still, a lot worse than what we see in, say, Appalachian USA. But this is misleading because this isn't even possible. Lots of that GDP is in the form of government or capital expenditures. We need some money not to be consumed but to be invested in public goods, capital, etc., so we can produce next year. Empirically, maybe only about half of that at most could in principle be consumed as income. So, perfect egalitarianism gets us to maybe $8000 per person right now. Still better than what many experience, but not real security or comfort. Growth > equality when it comes to welfare for this reason. We need to make more pie so that everyone has enough; right now there is not enough pie for everyone to have a good slice, even if we gave everyone an equal slice.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

What is your view of population ethics? What do you make of longtermism?

People tomorrow matter. We cannot simply imposes costs upon them. As Feinberg argued long ago, if I left a time bomb underground that would explode in 200 years, when it kills people, I am a murderer.

Still, we have good reason to think overall that people in the future will be much better off than we are. That doesn't license us to hurt them for our benefit, but we can take steps that impose costs upon them IFF doing so is part of a reasonable risk-sharing scheme from which they benefit more than they lose. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

What do you make of Rob Wiblin's post on the value of voting -

1Jason Brennan1moI answered this before and it didn't post. I'll try again. If voting matters, we have to treat it like matters. EAs warn people, "Don't just donate $500! Be careful. Learn what works and what doesn't. Make sure you give to an effective charity rather than an ineffective or harmful one. Be aware that you are biased to make bad choices!" But all that applies to voting. If voting can be like donating $50,000, it can also be like robbing a charity of $50,000. But oddly I see EAs telling everyone to vote and telling them to guesstimate, even though our evidence is that people are much worse at judging politics than charities, and even though guestimating a presidential candidate is orders of magnitude more difficult than judging a charity.
7Jason Brennan1moIf voting is serious business, we need to treat it as such. Right before the US 2020 election, Gelman argues that PA voters have a 1 in 8.8 million chance of breaking a tie. TX was 1 in 100 million. DC 1 in 240 trillion. Showing some votes have high expected utility means showing those same votes can have high expected disutility. It's weird that Wilbin and MacAskill will be like, "Hey, careful! Before you donate $50, make sure you are doing good rather than wasting the money or worse, harming people. We are beset by biases that make us donate badly and we need to be careful." But then when it comes to voting, they often advise people to just vote, or to guesstimate effects, when in fact the empirical work shows that are much more biased and terrible at judging politics than almost anything else. Most people do not know enough to vote well, and voting well is hard. Believing it is easy is itself evidence of bias--that's what the political psych shows. (Partisans downplay difficulty and think they are obviously right.) So if some people's votes matter, rather than advising them to vote, period, we should advise them to be good EAs and be very careful about their votes.
AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Do you think that any political or institutional reform projects could be highly impactful? What would you recommend - would it be Garret Jones 10% less democracy-type stuff or something more radical?

6Jason Brennan1moI work on stuff I think would be high impact if leaders acted on it: immigration liberalization, criminal justice reform, kidney and organ markets. Jones is probably right but he's not calling for much reform. He's trying to get readers to not go more radically democratic than they already are.
Economic policy in poor countries

Thanks for engaging with me so deeply on this. To avoid misunderstandings, the comments about my desire for a debate were not meant as a criticism of you. I suppose I am a bit disappointed that no-one from GiveWell or Open Philanthropy has responded to Lant's arguments. When I mentioned the upvotes mine and Hauke's post got, I wasn't trying to blow my own horn (much as I like doing that), I was just trying to say that there is at least a case to answer. But two years on, no-one has engaged with the post. A lot is at stake here - I think we're leaving an aw... (read more)

Economic policy in poor countries

Hi there

On your first question - what am I proposing? 

The main thing I am proposing is quite weak - I am proposing that there be some public discussion of the arguments. Hauke and I published our piece summarising Pritchett's argument two years ago. It is the second most upvoted post in EA Forum history, which suggests that lots of people in the community found the post persuasive. On the face of it, Lant is worth taking seriously: he has a PhD in economics from MIT, has been a professor of development at Harvard and Oxford, and worked at the World Ba... (read more)

3GMcGowan1moOff topic, but I didn't realise you'd left Founders Pledge. May I ask what you're up to now?

Thanks for the reply. I'll have to answer it... it was supposed to be short, I really didn't have the time, but then I started enjoying it. But I have a TL;DR.
TL;DR: I guess we’re not understanding each other very well, as you seem to be responding to other people (unfortunately, because I’m a big fan). I don’t see why you categorize me as a skeptic. I think we actually agree (i) RCT shouldn’t be the main path for dev-eco researchers, and (ii) there should be more research focused on developing countries. But: (iii) development economics is more complex th... (read more)

Towards a Weaker Longtermism

I do think it is important to distinguish these moral uncertainty reasons from moral trade and cooperation and strategic considerations for hedging. My argument for putting some focus on near-termist causes would be of this latter kind; the putative moral uncertainty/worldview diversification arguments for hedging carry little weight with me. 

As an example, Greaves and Ord argue that under the expected choiceworthiness approach, our metanormative ought is practically the same as the total utilitarian ought.

It's tricky because the paper on strong longt... (read more)

Towards a Weaker Longtermism

I agree that it would be good to have a name for a less contentious form of longtermism similar to the one you propose, which says something like: the longterm deserves a seat at the top table with other commonly accept near-term priorities. 

I suspect one common response might be that due to normative uncertainty, we don't put all of our weight on longtermism but instead hedge across different plausible views. I haven't yet seen a defence of that view that I would view as compelling, so I think it would be valuable to have a less contentious version that we would be willing to stand behind in public

5Davidmanheim1moNewberry and Ord's paper on moral parliamentarianism [] , originally proposed by Bostrom, seems like a reasonable way to arrive there. (Which seems almost ironic, given that they are key proponents of strong longtermism.)
Economic policy in poor countries

I do think it is a key pillar of EA that there is open public discussion of arguments for and against different positions. I haven't seen much engagement with the case for focusing on economic growth. 

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

On the last point, during the early Pliocene, early hominids  with much worse technology than us lived in a world in which temperatures were 4.5C warmer than pre-industrial. It would be a surprise to me if this level of warming would kill off everyone, including people in temperate regions.  There's more to come from me on this topic, but I will leave it at that for now

Economic policy in poor countries

Hello! I will attempt to clarify, let me know whether this helps

  1. Yes you're right that it is the percentage increase that matters for welfare - roughly each doubling of income  produces the same amount of welfare, according to GiveWell. Let me put it another way. You can actually donate to Americans through GiveDirectly. Open Philanthropy currently doesn't do this, but it does donate to US policy work. This must be because of leverage. Exactly the same arguments apply in Kenya.
  2. Immigration reform and housing reform in SF seem pretty intractable to me! The former is the most controversial policy issue in contemporary US politics.
This Can't Go On

To push further on this... a natural response is to say "it only seems implausible that Bezos' liver could have this economic value because you're considering an organ in the abstract. But once his liver is combined with the rest of his Bezos and the influence he can have on the rest of the world, it stops being implausible". This is true but then the same point applies to collections of atoms. I don't know of a non-question begging way round this.

What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

i was just referring to the last bullet re climate change. eg in the last IPCC report, it would have been reasonable for govts to believe that there was a >10% chance of >6C of warming and that has been true since the 1970s, without having any impact. The political response to climate change seems to be influenced by most mainstream media coverage and public opinion in some circles which it would be fair to characterise as 'very concerned' about climate change.  An opinion poll suggests that 54% of British people think that climate change threat... (read more)

4HaydnBelfield1moInteresting first point, but I disagree. To me, the increased salience of climate change in recent years can be traced back to the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15), and in particular the meme '12 years to save the world'. Seems to have contributed to the start of School Strike for Climate, Extinction Rebellion and the Green New Deal. Another big new scary IPCC report on catastrophic climate change would further raise the salience of this issue-area. I was thinking that $100m would be for all four of these topics, and that we'd get cause-prioritisation VOI across all four of these areas. $100m for impact and VOI across all four seems pretty good to me (however I'm a researcher not a funder!) On solar geo, I'm not an expert on it and am not arguing for it myself, merely reporting that its top of the 'asks' list for orgs like Silver Lining. I actually rather like the framing in Xu & Ram - I don't think we know enough about >5 °C scenarios, so describing them as "unknown, implying beyond catastrophic, including existential threats" seems pretty reasonable to me. In any case, I cited that more to demonstrate the lack of research thats been done on these scenarios.
What EA projects could grow to become megaprojects, eventually spending $100m per year?

I don't climate research as very valuable. The value of information would only be high if this research would change how people act. Climate inaction seems to be mainly political inertia, not lack of information about potential catastrophe. 

7HaydnBelfield1moDo you mean just the fourth bullet, or do you think this about all four? The 1980s nuclear winter and asteroid papers (I'm thinking especially Sagan et al [], and Alvarez et al []) were very influential in changing political behaviour - Gorbachev and Reagan explicitly acknowledged that on nuclear, the asteroid evidence contributed to the 90s asteroid films and the (hugely successful!) NASA effort to track all 'dino-killers'. On the margin now, I think more scary stuff would be motivating. There's also VOI in resolving how big a concern nuclear winter is (eg some recent papers are skeptical) - if it turned out to not be as existential as we thought, that would change cause prioritisation for GCRs. On geoengineering (sorry 'climate interventions'(!)), note 'getting more climate modelling' is a key aim for e.g. Silver Lining []. On the fourth one, on the margin, I think more research - especially if it were the basis for an IPCC special report - would be influential. There's also VOI for our cause priotisation. It just is really remarkable how understudied it is! [] []
This Can't Go On

Fair cop on the access to atoms numbers. 

(thinking aloud a bit here) An analogy might be that Jeff Bezos has 78 organs. His net worth is $200bn. So there is $3bn of output for each of his organs. I just don't know at what number it becomes implausible that his average organ could sustain a certain level of output.  And this generally seems like a weird way to think about the limits on Bezos' output. This seems structurally similar to the atoms point. 

3Halstead1moTo push further on this... a natural response is to say "it only seems implausible that Bezos' liver could have this economic value because you're considering an organ in the abstract. But once his liver is combined with the rest of his Bezos and the influence he can have on the rest of the world, it stops being implausible". This is true but then the same point applies to collections of atoms. I don't know of a non-question begging way round this.
This Can't Go On

Yeah I would think with VR and digital minds, it's a lot less clear whether there are diminishing returns from matter to subjective wellbeing.

This Can't Go On

Very interesting post. I'm interested in this argument about atoms and growth.

  • "Let's say the world economy is currently getting 2% bigger each year.5 This implies that the economy would be doubling in size about every 35 years.6
  • If this holds up, then 8200 years from now, the economy would be about 3*1070 times its current size.
  • There are likely fewer than 1070 atoms in our galaxy,7 which we would not be able to travel beyond within the 8200-year time frame.8
  • So if the economy were 3*1070 times as big as today's, and could only make use of 1070 (or fewer) ato
... (read more)
3Halstead24dAnother point is - how much economic value can you extract from an atom? I have no idea how you would go about answering that question without making some other substantive arguments about the limits to growth. This suggests that the atoms argument is a weak steer on limits to growth.
3Michael_Wulfsohn1moMy interpretation of the argument is not that it is equating atoms to $. Rather, it invokes whatever computations are necessary to produce (e.g. through simulations) an amount of value equal to today's global economy. Can these computations be facilitated by a single atom? If not, then we can't grow at the current rate for 8200 years.
7WilliamKiely1moAnecdotally [] , I've found this connection between GWP and atoms to be an effective intuition pump. Nearly everyone I've talked to seems to intuitively agree that "sustaining multiple economies as big as today's entire world economy per atom" is unrealistic (whether on a solar system or galactic scale), and that the real limit imposed by the laws of physics is likely lower. The only concrete exception I'm aware of is Bryan Caplan in the Limits to Growth [] post you linked me to [] last month. That said, that this is intuitive to people doesn't show that the physical limits on the size of the economy are indeed below this point. For example, in the Overcoming Bias comment section, Toby Ord pointed out [] (in 2009): Point 2 seems important, since it seems plausible that there are economies of scale with consciousness, where e.g. an optimal digital mind that uses a million times as much computation as an optimal digital mind that uses as much computation as the human brain could have much, much greater than a million times as much welfare as the smaller digital mind. (Note that I say this is plausible, but I don't know whether I should put ~10% or ~90% credence to this being true and would love to know more.) And while point 3 seems unlikely to me, what do I know--I'd guess we don't know enough to definitely rule this out. So with all this said, I too would like to identify better ways to estimate the limits on the physical limits to size of the economy. Surely there are better ways to estimate this than just thinking about "economies as big a
6Owen_Cotton-Barratt21moWhat does "have access to" mean? There are >10^37 atoms making up human bodies. And dollars can buy physical stuff, and you might expect this to be somewhat weighted in PPP adjustments between now and the distant future. I agree that it's not quite clear how to interpret these things, but I don't think it's as nonsensical as you're implying.
This Can't Go On

Yeah I crunched the numbers on this and the majority of human life years came after about 1300 (obviously very roughly)

Book recommendation -- The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard

Yep - that's a key argument and I think he is right. Offsetting is likely harmful in my view.

Book recommendation -- The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard

One important thing he argues for is the political economy barriers to carbon pricing. Jaccard himself worked to set up carbon pricing in Canada, but is very sceptical that it is the best thing to advocate for given political economy constraints. I think EAs sometimes miss this point and advocate for carbon pricing as the first best solution. Unfortunately, we are in the nth best world .

8newptcai2moAnother important argument from the book that I forgot to mention is that buying carbon offsetting is almost always wrong. Here is a podcast making the same argument -- []
5Halstead2moOne important thing he argues for is the political economy barriers to carbon pricing. Jaccard himself worked to set up carbon pricing in Canada, but is very sceptical that it is the best thing to advocate for given political economy constraints. I think EAs sometimes miss this point and advocate for carbon pricing as the first best solution. Unfortunately, we are in the nth best world . []
How large can the solar system's economy get?

It is clear that energy consumption cannot continue to grow exponentially for much more than 1000 years. But it might be argued that we can continue to extract ever more economic value from less and less energy, especially with VR. This is discussed in the debate between Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan, and Toby Ord in the comments. 

See the comment here by Max Daniel:

"there are limits in how much value (whether in an economic or moral sense) we can produce per unit of available energy, and (ii) we will eventually only be able to expand the total amount ... (read more)

Issues with Using Willingness-to-Pay as a Primary Tool for Welfare Analysis

I agree that this is a problem and had previously raised the question in a post on the Forum, (though it is my lowest scoring post ever so evidently lots of people disagree with my argument!) 

This issue became especially clear in early attempts by economists to put a value on the life of people across countries. Since people in poor countries took on greater risk for less money, their lives were valued at a fraction of those in rich countries. 

Another example is tickets. Suppose that we are selling tickets to the final of Euro 2020 and that Warre... (read more)

Climate change questions for Johannes Ackva and John Halstead

Victor and Cullenward - Making Climate Policy Work  is good.

On the science side, for an overview, I would recommend just reading the summary for policymakers or technical summary of the IPCC 2013 Physical science basis report. 

For long-termist/ex-risk takes the following are good

King et al Climate Change a Risk Assessment

Hansen et al, Climate Sensitivity, sea level and atmospheric CO2

Clark et al, Consequences of twenty-first-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change

Climate change questions for Johannes Ackva and John Halstead


I agree that climate change is not neglected but I view that as a bit of a weak steer when deciding whether to work on it, for reasons I outline here. Neglectedness is one determinant of how cost-effective it is to work on a problem, but there are many others. Taking the example of AI safety - it is more neglected than climate change, but I have almost no idea how to make progress on this problem, whereas with climate change there is quite a clear path to making a difference. It also might be true that certain solutions within climate are less neglec... (read more)

1JamesOz3moGreat - thanks for clarifying (and for the great talk)! For what it's worth, I definitely agree that whilst climate might not be neglected, the urgency, scale and tractability (in some cases) of the issue makes it a reasonable problem to work on. I asked the question above because I thought you specifically said that you didn't agree with people who said climate wasn't neglected and I assumed you meant you thought that climate was neglected in some sense.
Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’

Hi Aaron, I appreciate this and understand the thought process behind the decision. I do generally agree that it is important to provide evidence for this kind of thing, but there were reasons not to do so in this case, which made it a bit unusual.

Insomnia with an EA lens: Bigger than malaria?

I have written up the instructions for CBT-i here for those interested -

Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’

Simon Beard is providing the foreword for his forthcoming book, and Luke Kemp has provided a supporting quote for it.

Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’

I'm pretty surprised and disappointed by this warning. I made 3 claims about ways that Phil has interacted with me. 

  1. I didn't share the facebook messages because I thought it would be a breach of privacy to share a private message thread without Phil's permission, and I don't want to talk to him, so I can't get his permission.
  2. I also don't especially want to link to the piece calling me a racist, which anyone familiar with Phil's output would already know about, in any case.
  3. There is a reason I didn't share the screenshot of the the paedophilia/rape accu
... (read more)
Aaron Gertler4moModerator Comment43

(Since I drafted the original message, and it was only reviewed and approved by other moderators, I’ll use “I” in some parts of this thread.)

I owe you an apology for a lack of clarity in this message, and for not discussing my concerns with you in private before posting it (given that we’d already been discussing other aspects of the situation).

“Warning” was the wrong word to use. The thing we were trying to convey wasn’t “this is the kind of content that could easily lead to a ban”, but instead “this goes against a norm we want to promote on the Forum, an... (read more)

I appreciate that these kinds of moderation decisions can be difficult, but I also don't agree with the warning to Halstead. And if it is to be given, then I am uncomfortable that Halstead has been singled out - it would seem consistent to apply the same warning to me, as I supported Halstead's claims, and added my own, both without providing evidence.

Avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion is not necessary for population ethics: new many-author collaboration.

Echoing what Max says, I think this paper comes from the assumption that a lot of population ethics is just off down the wrong track of trying to craft theories in a somewhat ad hoc manner that avoid the repugnant conclusion. It is difficult to think of how else these people could try and make this point given that making the same points that others have made before, in some cases several decades ago, would not be publishable because they are not novel. This strikes me as something of a (frustrated?) last resort to try and make the discipline acknowledge t... (read more)

8MichaelPlant5moThank you for your comments, Max and John. They inclined me to be quite a bit more favourable to the paper. I still have mixed feelings: while I respect the urge the move a stale conversation on, I don't think the authors provide new object-level reasons to do so. They do provide a raw (implicit?) appeal for others, as their peers, to update in their direction, but I'm sceptical that's what philosophy should involve.
Julia Galef and Matt Yglesias on bioethics and "ethics expertise"

I think a key point is that bioethics usually involves applying particular moral theories, which is not that interesting an exercise from a philosophical point of view. That's why the best philosophers are often drawn to higher level theoretical questions such as about the truth of otherwise of consequentialism or rights-based theories or whether and how we should respond to moral uncertainty. Consequently, the true ethics experts (if they really exist) are not likely to be studying bioethics. as they say in the podcast it is also weird that bioethics has ... (read more)

Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’

If you agree it is a serious and baseless allegation, why do you keep engaging with him? The time to stop engaging with him was several years ago. You had sufficient evidence to do so at least two years ago, and I know that because I presented you with it, e.g. when he started casually throwing around rape allegations about celebrities on facebook and tagging me in the comments, and then calling me and others nazis. Why do  you and your colleagues continue to extensively collaborate with him? 

To reiterate, the arguments he makes are not sincere: he only makes them because he thinks the people in question have wronged him. 

[disclaimer: I am co-Director at CSER. While much of what I will write intersects with professional responsibilities, it is primarily written from a personal perspective, as this is a deeply personal matter for me. Apologies in advance if that's confusing, this is a distressing and difficult topic for me, and I may come back and edit. I may also delete my comment, for professional or personal/emotional reasons].

I am sympathetic to Halstead's position here, and feel I need to write my own perspective. Clearly to the extent that CSER has - whether directly o... (read more)

I don't have any comment to make about Torres or his motives (I think I was in a room with him once). However, as a more general point, I think it can still make sense to engage with someone's arguments, whatever their motivation, at least if there are other people who take them seriously. I also don't have a view on whether others in the longtermism/X-risk world do take Torres's concern seriously, it's not really my patch.

Response to Phil Torres’ ‘The Case Against Longtermism’

It is  very generous to characterise Torres' post as insightful and thought provoking. He characterises various long-termists as white  supremacists on the flimsiest grounds imaginable. This is a very serious accusation and one that he very obviously throws around due to his own personal vendettas against certain people. e.g. despite many of his former colleagues at CSER also being long-termists he doesn't call them nazis because he doesn't believe they have slighted him. Because I made the mistake of once criticising him, he spent much of the last two years calling me a white supremacist, even though the piece of mine he cited did not even avow belief in long-termism.  

-32Aaron Gertler4mo

Despite disagreeing with most of it, including but not limited to the things highlighted in this post, I think that Torres's post is fairly characterised as thought-provoking. I'm glad Joshua included it in the syllabus, also glad he caveated its inclusion, and think this response by Hayden is useful.

I haven't interacted with Phil much at all, so this is a comment purely on the essay, and not a defense of other claims he's made or how he's interacted with you. 

A quick point of clarification that Phil Torres was never staff at CSER; he was a visitor for a couple of months a few years ago. He has unfortunately misrepresented himself as working at CSER on various media (unclear if deliberate or not). (And FWIW he has made similar allusions, albeit thinly veiled, about me).

Assessing Climate Change’s Contribution to Global Catastrophic Risk

On species extinctions, you cite the Thomas et al estimate that climate change would cause "15-37% of all species to become ‘committed to extinction’ by mid-century". This paper has been subject to an avalanche of criticism. For example, there is a good review here, and strong counter-evidence discussed at length here.  I think it would be useful to the reader to provide this context. 

Also, this is just one study (also the most pessimistic), and I think one would get a better view by providing an overview of the literature. The IPBES report that ... (read more)

Assessing Climate Change’s Contribution to Global Catastrophic Risk

The factors you mention therefore seem to increase vulnerability, but merely in the following sense 

  • Some of the factors don't seem relevant at all (phosphorous depletion)
  • The food system will be much less vulnerable in the future vs today despite these factors.
  • Some other event would have to do 99% of the work in bringing about a global food catastrophe
EA Updates for March 2021

thanks for taking the time to do this!

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