Harrison D


Is EA just about population growth?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems you are ultimately arguing that "life" (whether that is measured in population, QALYs, or something else) is not the only "goal of life," correct? If by "goal of life," you are referring to a concept like morality/goodness/utility, then I think I would totally agree that population/QALYs are not the only relevant measure, and I imagine that a lot of other people would similarly agree. 

Where people do disagree is what all else counts, and what things weigh more than others. Broadly speaking, people often refer to utility as a theoretical "all-encompassing" metric of goodness/wellbeing, oftentimes referring to the (slightly) less-theoretical concept of "happiness" (e.g., pleasure vs. pain). I must admit that I'm not deeply intellectually familiar/concerned with some of the arguments over different ways to approach/interpret utility (e.g., preferential utilitarianism vs. hedonistic utilitarianism), nor do I have a strong stance on average utilitarianism vs. aggregate utilitarianism (again due mainly to a lack of perceived importance for my decision-making to choose one over the other), but I want to highlight these as concepts/debates to further explore.

To address the specific example of "woman with a good career" vs. "having more children": first, I was a bit confused by the part that says to compare the woman having a career to "saving three lives from death"; it seems like you just meant "causing three lives to exist when they would not have," correct? (There's a big difference there at least under average utilitarianism). Second, one of the reasons that "maximize the population" is not intuitively/necessarily moral is because that does not account for problems from overpopulation, including increased suffering on others who do exist. Additionally, a woman with a career might be able to save more lives by donating income to effective charities, thus increasing life by not directly having children.

Notes: Stubble Burning in India

Again, I'm not super knowledgeable of the situation and/or the proposals, but to draw on a bit of economist/libertarian thought by cross-applying concepts from other, similar situations (e.g., pollution externalities): I would be hesitant to describe many of the (likely-impactful) solutions as truly "win-win." Proposals 1 and 2 clearly (and sort of/potentially proposals 3 and 5) are subsidies that help farmers at the expense of everyone else. Yes, it may be the case that the "city folk" would benefit from less pollution, but they would have to bear a (likely heavy) portion of the tax burden to fund that--all to stop pollution which is imposing non-consensual, uncompensated harms on them in the first place. So, it might be true if proposal 1 works at reducing pollution it's a "better-better" situation than doing nothing, but (to put it dramatically) that's vaguely akin to saying "paying off the mafia for protection is a win-win, since the mafia makes money and they don't smash stores." 

Toning it down a bit: that's not to say they are necessarily bad proposals, or that such solutions (even when less than ideal) are not the best politically feasible options. But I am slightly curious to see more evidence about the market dynamics of the situation: if political feasibility were not a limitation, what would be the optimal response? Starting with the simple, econ 101/102 approach: If stubble burning is really so bad for the farmers, it begs the question why they don't just cease the practice on their own. It seems the obvious answer is "because those benefits are still less than the cost of not burning"; as a matter of 101/102-level (i.e., simplistic) economics, the response to that should be "raise prices and either compensate people for the damage you impose on them through pollution or stop doing the pollution." This I think is where market failures probably step onto the stage to wrinkle things... but I only have a narrow slice of experience with ag policy, and it isn't this topic, so I'll just leave my rambling at that.

Notes: Stubble Burning in India

I know almost nothing about this (aside from having heard programs mention the problem, and now having read this and a few sources on it), but I'll just semi-casually remark that it seems like a major/central problem here is that a negative externality is not priced into the market whereas if it were priced in via taxation (perhaps to partially fund a rebate similar to the first proposal mentioned) the problem would be largely fixed--but that political resistance prevents such a standard economic policy response, to the net detriment of the country/people. Thus, a lot of the solutions seem to be about how to find ways around that political resistance, even if not so explicitly.
But I could be wrong, and that's where I wanted to ask/clarify: are there also substantial problems with enforcement/verification? Are there other market failures (e.g., a bloated supply with poor people that would struggle deal with frictional unemployment and/or who are not really skilled enough to get work elsewhere)? 

Ultimately, I just wonder if the most efficient solution would be primarily just "tax and (partial) rebate"; if the barrier to that is "farmers are a major voting block and thus can impose costs on others", is it not possible to just find a political compromise (e.g., are there any similar situations where non-farmers impose externalities on farmers)?

(I'm absolutely not knowledgeable on Indian politics, I'm just curious/thinking)

Is foreign aid effective?

In my all-knowing, expert opinion [based on having taken 1 undergraduate class on international development], I would say this seems like a fairly good review. In all seriousness, I felt like it does a good job of not just saying "well, there are arguments for and against; the evidence is mixed; maybe *shrug*". I might be a bit biased since I mostly agreed with the conclusion going into this,  but I do like that you go a bit deeper by talking about challenges/pitfalls with conducting and interpreting empirical research, as well as how you not only highlight that dichotomies (aid bad vs. aid good) are inaccurate but also provide examples of specific lessons that can be learned/applied.

The funnel or the individual: Two approaches to understanding EA engagement

I think this touches on some good points, such as the "willingness to coordinate" being influenced by motivation/perceived value in coordination. I am a bit confused/unclear about what you mean by "suitable opportunity structure" and/or how it relates to action alignment; does it refer to ideas/questions like "do the opportunities/platforms/networks that are necessary for coordination exist (such as Slack, narrow-topic groups, etc.)?" (It's probably clearer in the context of the larger post/writing, I just wasn't 100% sure here.)

More broadly, does this model employ a community-centered decision approach along the lines of "1) Does the community want to coordinate; 2) Is the community able to coordinate?" I mainly ask for clarification but also because it vaguely reminded me of a simplified rational-actor-centric decision model I know/like, which basically focuses on three main factors: beliefs, values/preferences/goals, and options/capabilities. Would I be correct in thinking that "beliefs" is similar to 1b, "values" is similar to 1a, and "options" is similar to 2?

The other question/comment I had was with regard to 1c. When trying to figure out "why don't people want to coordinate," I think that's a good point to include in a shortlist of questions to ask for troubleshooting. If I were to go a bit deeper, though, and look at it on a semi-rational-actor choice level (as I like to do), I think 1c strikes on / could be expressed as an alternate motive for coordination: "to what extent do people enjoy coordination for the process/journey (e.g., socializing with others, performing/affirming my values) as opposed to just the outcome/destination (i.e., success)?" --The contrast being that 1a/1b are more focused on "what is the outcome: how likely is it and how much do I value it?" In contrast, I think one key factor/dampener for coordination (at least on the individual-choice level) are the drawbacks in terms of opportunity cost, stress, financial or other resources (perhaps), etc. Thus, I was wondering if you were planning to include such "coordination costs" as part of the model?

The funnel or the individual: Two approaches to understanding EA engagement

Thanks for writing this; I found it interesting (especially with the diagrams)!

I can't seem to find a comment/message I wrote some time ago (perhaps on the EA Organizers Slack), where I talked about the two-pyramid model, which emphasizes the potential disconnect between someone's beliefs and actions (and that stronger beliefs/actions tend to be less common). I wanted to bring it up so as to expand on it and apply it to the discussion here.

Maybe this is overly simplistic, but it seems that two of the most important goals/targets of community leaders/organizers tends to be "persuading and supporting people to engage in more-effective actions" and "growing the community (mainly to indirectly support the first goal)." Given that, and partially  in building off of/in regards to the individual model, I was wondering if you have considered some kind of model that emphasizes the shifts in an individual's different characteristics in relation to EA/the EA community?

For example, one characteristic could be "belief in/alignment with EA principles": to what extent does a person believe the research/arguments regarding cause prioritization and/or the ability to reasonably estimate impact? This could importantly be different from a characteristic like "Action alignment with EA principles": to what extent does a person actually act on EA principles (e.g., donating to effective charities, pursuing high-impact careers)? This could also be different from something like "level of engagement/interaction with the EA community," such as "to what extent do they attend events, etc.?" I make that distinction particularly because I have organized a group where some people would attend somewhat regularly largely for the social-intellectual atmosphere (and, probably, the free pizza) but did not seem to really express noteworthy changes in belief or enthusiasm for action. Additionally, one could assess a characteristic like "action to support the community": to what extent do they help recruit others, support events in financial/facility/planning/execution/etc. terms, and so on. 

It seems that all of these characteristics can be present to varying extents: there are probably some meaningful correlations between the first two (EA belief and EA action), but they may not always align. Additionally, someone may have EA beliefs and take EA action (with regards to career and philanthropic choices), but not be very involved in terms of the latter two characteristics (community engagement and community support)--and further research may find this to be related to relevant trends like value drift, etc. You might also just have some people similar to what I had: low interest in EA beliefs or actions, but some engagement. And so on.

Ultimately, I definitely can see this as being more complex/noisy, but I think it could potentially be a helpful "background/advanced tool" to have in conjunction with an easier model like the one you describe. Of course, I'm not engaged in the community organization literature (so I hope this post isn't totally duplicative or missing the point), but I would be interested to hear your thoughts!

The Electoral Consequences of Pandemic Failure Project

This does sound somewhat interesting; I would hope that Congress conducts some kind of post-mortem, although I imagine it would probably have a lot of political bias problems. When I read over this, I generally agreed that such a thing would be nice, but two questions/concerns came to mind which perhaps you could address: 

  1. It seems like it may be rather difficult to objectively determine the extent/effect of certain factors, given that the ratio of N (countries) to relevant control variables (e.g., cultural norms, urbanization/density, levels of government, respect for human rights, economic performance and characteristics) seems really small. I'm not saying a decent analysis/report can't be done, I just think that it will be much harder to be more confident of the findings--and to make the findings persuasive, which plays into the second concern:
  2. I'm worried this kind of organization might do some preaching to the choir, but otherwise struggle to persuade the most important target audience (i.e., people who voted for bad politicians) to actually change their opinions/beliefs, let alone their voting habits (at least in the highly-polarized United States).

As a side note (and as part of the reason why I was particularly interested in reading this), I have long wanted/dreamed of some kind of decently impartial "performance/character evaluation" organization that would rate politicians along certain metrics (e.g., do they lie a lot, do they consult experts), perhaps similar to something like accreditation (or "GiveWell but for politics: VoteWell"). (I know of various scorecard organizations/projects, but I think all the ones I've seen are narrowly focused on a policy area and/or are heavily politically biased.) The underlying reasoning would be something like "it's far more efficient to sample test the organization's analysis and then rely on their credibility when voting than it is to individually evaluate every person you are thinking of voting for." Of course, such a grand project (of the type I'm describing) seems like a total pie in the sky. :/

The Folly of "EAs Should"

I think it’s helpful to just put aside the “EA Budget” thread for a moment; I think what Halstead was trying to get at is the idea/argument “If you are trying to maximize the amount of good you do (e.g., from a utilitarian perspective), that will (almost) never involve (substantive) donations to your local opera house, pet shelter, ...” I think this is a pretty defensible claim. The thing is, nobody is a perfect utilitarian; trying to actually maximize good is very demanding, so a lot of people do it within limits. This might relate to the concept of leisure, stress relief, personal enjoyment, etc. which is a complicated subject: perhaps someone could make an argument that having a few local/ineffective donations like you describe is optimal in the long term because it makes you happier with your lifestyle and thus more likely to continue focusing on EA causes... etc. But “the EA (utilitarian) choice” would very rarely actually be to donate to the local opera house, etc.

Harrison D's Shortform

Thanks for the insight/feedback! I definitely see what you are saying on a lot of points. I’ll be working on an improved post soon that incorporates your feedback.

Harrison D's Shortform

A few months ago I wrote a post on a decision-analysis framework (the stock issues framework) that I adapted from a framework which is very popular/prominent in competitive high school policy debate (which uses the same name). I was surprised to not receive any feedback/comments (I was at least expecting some criticism, confusion, etc.), but in retrospect I realized that it was probably a rather lengthy/inefficient post. I also realized that I probably should have written a shortform post to get a sense of interest, some preliminary thoughts on the validity and novelty/neglectedness of the concept, and how/where people might misinterpret or challenge the concept (or otherwise want to see more clarity/justification). So, I’ll try to offer a simplified summary here in hopes to get some more insight on some of those things I mentioned (e.g., the potential value, novelty/neglectedness, validity, areas of confusion/skepticism).

The framework remarkably echoes the “importance, neglectedness, tractability” (INT) heuristic for cause area prioritization, except that the stock issues framework is specific to individual decisions and avoids some of the problems of the INT heuristic (e.g., the overgeneralized assumption of diminishing marginal returns). Basically, the stock issues framework holds that every advantage and disadvantage (“pro and con”) of a decision rests on four mutually exclusive and exhaustive concepts: inherency (which is reminiscent of “neglectedness,” but is more just “the descriptive state of affairs”), significance, feasibility, and solvency. (I explain them in more detail in my post.) 

Over time, I have informally thought of and jotted down some of the potential justifications for promoting this framework (e.g., checking against confirmation and other biases, providing common language and concept awareness in discourse, constructing concept categories so as to improve learning and application of lessons from similar cases). However, before I write a post about such justifications, I figured I would write this shortform to get some preliminary feedback, as I mentioned: I’d love to hear where you are skeptical, confused, interested, etc.! (Also, if you think the original post I made should/could be improved--such as by reducing caveats/parentheticals/specificities, making some explanation more clear, etc.--feel free to let me know!)

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