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Concerns with ACE's Recent Behavior

Thanks very much for this comment, and for correcting my mistaken assumption.

EA Forum feature suggestion thread

An approach some forum use is the ratio of up and downvotes: -38+40 is not the same as +2 ! This allows you to have a smooth measure of the degree of controversy rather than a binary classification.

EA Forum feature suggestion thread

I would consider something to reduce the karma users can get from commenting on controversial posts. Right now it seems easy to get very high scores by making not really that great comments in such places.

As an example, I think this comment I made is decent. It makes a true and relevant point that no-one else had mentioned . But it's not great; the topic of that thread is not that important, and the all the comments in it, let alone mine alone, do not resolve the issue. Most importantly, that comment is definitely not over 50% as good as this article I wrote. I would say the article is at least a thousand times more important, and took at least a thousand times longer to write.

I'm not sure how exactly you would do this though, as all the most obvious methods have significant drawbacks.

If Bill Gates believes all lives are equal, why is he impeding vaccine distribution?

This struck me as a catastrophic move, turning a vaccine developed by a nonprofit institution into a way to make a company lots of money, with no clear upside. (I think if Oxford stuck to their original plan, they could control the IP and require that their manufacturing partner sell the vaccines at cost). 

Both AstraZeneca and J&J have agreed that they will sell the vaccines at cost during the pandemic; this is mentioned in one of the articles you linked.

Unfortunately, this agreement has had major downsides. By preventing AstraZeneca from making a profit, it has undermined their ability to invest in capacity, and is one of the causes of the numerous production setbacks we have seen. I think it would have been much better if AstraZeneca was allowed to charge higher prices to incentivise them to produce more! If there is a shortage, that suggests that prices are too low, not too high.

Companies that own rights to vaccines developed with enormous public investment and massive guaranteed government contracts are fighting any efforts to share the knowledge that could be used make more vaccines in more parts of the world. 

AstraZeneca signed a voluntary licensing agreement with various Indian manufacturers to allow them to produce its vaccine. This fact was pointed out to you when you wrote about this subject on facebook.

In fact, the novel technology at the heart of the Moderna vaccine, for example, was developed partly by the National Institutes of Health using U.S. federal funds. Moderna then received a total of some $2.5 billion in taxpayer money for research support and as preorders for vaccines; by the company’s own admission, the $1 billion contribution it received for research covered 100 percent of those costs.

Given you highlight Moderna, why did you not mention that they have in fact agreed not to enforce their vaccine IP rights during the pandemic?

As it happens, I doubt this will be that important a move. Manufacturing mRNA vaccines is a very advanced business that requires a lot of expertise; these are not small molecule drugs! Even with the IP waiver I suspect most others would struggle to do what Moderna and Pfizer have achieved. There just is not a huge amount of currently idle capacity in this supply chain. For more detail on the manufacturing details, I recommend reading this article.

In practice, pharma companies are far more focused on boosting their share price than on developing new drugs. For example, in 2018, "the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies spent nearly 170 percent of their net income (tapping cash reserves and borrowing) on payments to shareholders and executives through stock buybacks and dividends".

Developing new drugs and 'boosting the share price' are not in opposition. If a company develops a promising new drug, the expectation of future profits will cause the share price to increase. This is why biotech companies can see their share prices go up even if they are not doing any cash return at all.

I also think you have misunderstood how accounting works. Net Income is after R&D expense. The more a company spends on R&D, the lower Net Income will be. The fact that Net Income is low compared to cash return doesn't mean that the company isn't doing R&D.

As an example, take a look at Pfizer. In 2020 they spent about $9.4bn on R&D vs Net Income of around $9.6bn. This exceeded their dividends and buybacks, which were around $8.4bn. And we should probably also included M&A, which is basically indirect R&D. This is lumpy but large - e.g. over $10bn for 2019 for example.

I actually think that it is a major problem how low the prices for the vaccines have been. These drug companies have provided us with a way out of the pandemic that many people thought was impossible - and very few expected as quickly as this. For this they should have been richly rewarded - we want to incentivise companies to work on the world's biggest problems for the future! Unfortunately, if you look at the share prices of Pfizer or AstraZeneca and compare them to the broader market, you can see this was not the case. Given the amount these companies have been attacked by politicians, I think it is plausible that AstraZeneca leadership might regard this entire endeavour as a mistake.

As an EA, Should I renounce my US citizenship?

Do you currently have significant assets? I am not an expert in this but historically the US has imposed exit taxes on people who renounce their citizenship, to try to recoup the taxes they think you 'should' have paid.

College and Earning to Give

While I previously suggested students get married so their parents' finances wouldn't be considered, schools that do this kind of price discrimination request the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA, which does include finances for parents of married students.

I've also heard that a strategy is to have your kids get adopted, but as I look into it I'm not sure why this would work, as it seems the CSS profile would then look at your child's adoptive parent's assets. I guess you could have your children be adopted by someone with low income/assets. (I'm also not sure if this strategy is legal)

Concerns with ACE's Recent Behavior

Having written a similar post in the past, it's worth keeping in mind the amount of time they take to write is huge. Hypatia seems to have done a very good job expressing the facts in a way which communicates why they are so concerning while avoiding hyperbole. While giving organisations a chance to read a draft can be a good practice to reduce the risk of basic factual mistakes (and one I try to follow generally), it's not obligatory. Note that we generally do not afford non-EA organisations this privilege, and indeed I would be surprised if ACE offered Connor the chance to review their public statement which pseudonymously condemned him. Doing so adds significantly to the time commitment and raises anonymity risks[1], especially if one is worried about retaliation from an organisation that has penalized people for political disagreements in the past.

 

[1] As an example, here is something I very nearly messed up and only thought of at the last minute: you need to make a fresh copy of the google doc to share without the comments, or you will reveal the identity of your anonymous reviewers, even if you are personally happy to be known. 

Concerns with ACE's Recent Behavior

Thank you for writing this extremely detailed and thoughtful post on a very concerning topic.

If I pay my taxes, why should I also give to charity?

I'm glad you wrote this article, as I think this is a common objection, especially among more conservative people, so it is good to have a stock response. However, I think it could be significantly improved by first building up a steel-man of the 'myth' and then precisely targetting the response.

Most people around the world pay 20–40% of their income in taxes to support government services.

This link goes to a table of top quoted marginal income tax rates. However, this is an over-estimate, because the average is below the marginal. It is also an under-estimate, because it does not include sales taxes, property taxes, VATs, inheritance taxes, corporation taxes, payroll taxes, petrol taxes, tobacco taxes, mandatory insurance purchases, licence fees, utility taxes or import tariffs. I would recommend looking at total government spending / GDP instead.

This obligatory and often large payment can feel like the end of our civic duties — the culmination of our "fair" contribution to society, nullifying the need for further charitable giving.

I think this is a bit of a straw-man; I would expect people making this objection to also regard voting, jury duty, educating their children, national service, not committing crimes etc. to also be part of their civic duties.

Also if your point is that charity is different from taxes I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about 'further' charitable giving.

While lower-income countries suffer from an overall lack of funding, wealthier countries are liable to misallocate the funding they have.

This seems like a strange argument. Yes, small countries would benefit from more funding, but so would rich countries. Similarly, while rich countries are liable to spend on wasteful things, so are poor countries. The correct argument is not 'need vs misallocation', it is about diminishing marginal utility of money.

Also, the citation you provided seems rather niche. There are many major examples of government waste in the first world - extremely inefficient procurement being a very clear and non-partisan example. In contrast, the fact that some authors argue that too much climate change research funding has gone to research climate change seems like a relatively small and not obviously compelling example.

Political mobilization can influence governments' budgetary spending and help correct such misallocations,

This does not seem obviously non-trivially the case to me. There are many examples of political campaigns pushing for increasing in spending on something, but I struggle to think of many examples of similar successful campaigns to cut spending. And on average I would generally expect populist campaigns to reduce the average efficiency of spending, even if they 'could' in theory improve it.

Rather than viewing taxes as charity, think of them as payment for services that benefit you and your fellow citizens. Infrastructure and social services are important!

I'm not sure why you are pushing this view, it seems very confused to me:

  1. If they are a 'payment for services that benefit you' it is a very strange sort of payment. The amount of taxes you pay is not very closely linked at all to the amount of benefit you get, and you have almost no ability to opt out. Indeed, many people will pay taxes that go to fund the government hurting them.
  2. If the taxes really are a payment for services to benefit your fellow citizens, this seems somewhat like charity. In this case, why shouldn't I treat taxes to fund a fellow citizen's education as being similar to donations to a domestic education charity?
  3. Only a relatively small fraction of taxes go towards infrastructure. Even Biden's recent 'Infrastructure Bill' is mostly non-infrastructure spending.
  4. Public serves are a larger component of spending, but are still often dominated by welfare spending of one kind or other.
  5. This section takes an unnecessarily political view that risks alienating some readers despite making no difference to the core argument. Even if taxes were 100% waste there would still be a strong argument to give to charity.

Paying your taxes is the right thing to do, but paying your taxes alone is not sufficient to significantly improve the lives of others.

Similarly, I'm not sure what argument this is trying to make. The idea that we have an obligation to pay taxes is not uncontroversial, but to the extent people believe it, it is largely because they think doing so makes people better off. A lot of people probably believe that if they were excused from paying taxes that would significantly improve their life; if paying taxes doesn't significantly help anyone else, but it does hurt them, why should paying be the right thing for them to do?

But again, this seems extraneous. Giving to charity is a good idea regardless of whether paying taxes significantly improves the lives of others, and regardless of whether it is the 'right thing to do'.

"Insider giving" - An unfortunate donation strategy used by corporate insiders to avoid losses

Interesting theory!

certainly inflates donation figures

Presumably this effect would be significantly reduced if charities sold the stock as soon as they received it, as they would also sell at the 'inflated' price?

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