All of sbehmer's Comments + Replies

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

Thanks! Both the Atkinson article and the Sen interview are very interesting. I would like to see some actual data on the teaching of welfare economics/public economics. People seem to agree that it's declined, but I'm not sure I would agree that it has "disappeared" (anecdotally, I know many people who were exposed to models of optimal redistribution during undergrad. Some of these people were exposed through a required course, and others chose to take a public finance elective). My impression that welfare economics teaching is more common at European universities is also just based on anecdotal evidence. Some actual data would be helpful.

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

I agree that this is an important topic. Economic welfare analysis is a widely used method for cause prioritization, and a lot of it looks very different from the kind of cause prioritization work that 80k or Open Philanthropy would do. So it's useful to look into why that is.

That said, a lot of the economics literature goes beyond the simple "maximize surplus" approach that you highlight. The main subfield to look at is public economics (or a narrower subfield called public finance). That's where you find professors who understand welfare economics the mo... (read more)

5Pablo3moThank you for this informative answer! I vaguely recall hearing an economist say that welfare economics ceased to be part of the undergraduate curricula in American universities at some point in the past. I wonder if it might be worth tracing down the history of this development and examine it as a potentially instructive case study. Quick googling uncovers an interview with Amartya Sen [https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-economics-020520-020136] in which the Indian economist recommends Tony Atkinson's The strange disappearance of welfare economics [https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6435.00148] as the "best article on that sad neglect".
Improving Institutional Decision-Making: a new working group

This seems like a very good initiative. It's great to see this cause area moving forward.

Now, like some of the other commenters, I'm having some trouble understanding what kind of work IIDM includes. I agree with the earlier comment which said that the framing of IIDM so far has emphasized improving decision-making a lot more than improving institutions. The original 80k article focused mainly on the possibility of correcting cognitive biases (the kind that people would learn about in cognitive science or psychology classes). There was no mention of the la... (read more)

2Vicky Clayton6moThanks for the comment, and apologies that I've just seen it now. Similarly to Ian (see the comment [https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/94QtuT4ss3RzrfH8A/improving-institutional-decision-making-a-new-working-group?commentId=h5SAb7d6GjiYq4ELQ] above) I was originally drawn to the area because of the focus on decision-making but have since updated that improving institutions is also about the broader landscape of the design of institutions and how they interact with each other. As you mention, they are currently pretty different (at least academic) fields. I can imagine that there would be some crossover where identifying problems within the existing systems at a lower down level help identify what new systems need to do better but I think, as with a lot of these kind of open questions, it'll be about starting these conversations and seeing whether they are useful. Thanks again.
Long-Term Future Fund: Ask Us Anything!

What is the LTFF's position on whether we're currently at an extremely influential time for direct work? I saw that there was a recent grant on research into patient philanthropy, but most of the grants seem to be made from the perspective of someone who thinks that we are at "the hinge of history". Is that true?

7Jonas Vollmer9moWhether we are at the "hinge of history" is a gradual question; different moments in history have different degrees of influentialness. I personally think the current moment is likely very influential, such that I want to spend a significant fraction of the resources we have now, and I think on the current margin we should probably be spending more. I think this could change over the coming years, though.

I think this century is likely to be extremely influential, but there's likely important direct work to do at many parts of this century.  Both patient philanthropy projects we funded have relevance to that timescale-- I'd like to know about how best to allocate longtermist resources between direct work, investment, and movement-building over the coming years, and I'm interested in how philanthropic institutions might change.

I also think it's worth spending some resources thinking about scenarios where this century isn't extremely influential.

At least for me the answer is yes, I think the arguments for the hinge of history are pretty compelling, and I have not seen any compelling counterarguments. I think the comments on Will's post (which is the only post I know arguing against the hinge of history hypothesis) are basically correct and remove almost all basis I can see for Will's arguments. See also Buck's post on the same topic.

Introducing LEEP: Lead Exposure Elimination Project

This looks great and thanks for posting! One question: how come those other organizations working in this space, who as you note have a track record of success in other countries, haven't expanded to countries like Malawi? In other words, why is lead exposure reduction in Malawi neglected by other actors?

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks, this is a very good comment. I mostly cited that article for the literature review, which includes a few papers that argue for a causal connection between learning economics and free-riding. However, I looked into it more today, and it seems like the entire body of work is inconclusive on this question. Here's a more recent literature review on that.

I'll edit that part of the post to be more accurate.

Common ground for longtermists

Thanks for the post. One question on the background: is there any data (from the EA survey or elsewhere) about the percentage of EAs who lean towards suffering-focused ethics?

7Jonas Vollmer1yI think David Moss has data on this (can you tag people in EA Forum posts?). I've sent him a PM with a link to this comment as an FYI, though I'm not sure he has time to respond.
John Halstead: Is impact investing impactful?

Thanks for the talk and the report. I think this it's a very interesting topic and an important one to work on, given how many socially-minded people seem to care about impact investing.

I have a few more questions in addition to the one about perfectly elastic demand curves:

1. You note that if public markets are efficient then it will take nearly the entire population of investors to divest for the divestment movement to impact stock prices. This seems to make sense: it only takes a small group of socially-neutral investors to drastically increase the... (read more)

John Halstead: Is impact investing impactful?

Thanks for the reply.

You're right that the paper I posted doesn't present direct evidence. I just thought it was important that in their literature review they claim that prior studies show that demand curves are not perfectly elastic (at least in theory. They aren't citing empirical papers).

On the empirical side, I'm surprised to hear you say that there seems to be agreement that long-run demand curves are perfectly elastic. On page 18 of the founder's pledge report, you seem to say that there is expert disagreement on this, and ... (read more)

John Halstead: Is impact investing impactful?

It seems like you are fairly confident from your research that impact investing will tend to have little impact in publicly traded markets. I briefly looked into the theoretical literature on this, and I'm not seeing why we should be so confident in that idea. For example, this paper from 2019 claims:

"In general, systematic screening of assets based on investors’ preferences leads to a return premium on the screened assets, in equilibrium, and such return differences cannot be arbitraged away by 'neutral' investors".

They th... (read more)

8Halstead1yHi, Thanks for this. There seems to be agreement that demand curves are perfectly elastic on the 6 month timeframe. I looked at the paper you sent and it doesn' present any of its own evidence but cites some other papers, which I don't have time to look at. Our report on impact investing goes into this in more detail.
Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks for the comment. If differences in careful thinking are the main sources of differences in people's altruistic behavior and those differences can be easily eliminated through informing people about the benefits of thinking carefully, then I agree that the ideas in this post are not very important.

The reason that the second part is relevant is because as long as these differences in careful thinking persist, then it's as if people have differences in values (this is the same as what I said in the essay about how there are a lot of differenc... (read more)

Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors

Thanks, it's a very nice article on an important topic. If you're interested, there's a small literature in political economy called "political selection" (here's an older survey article) . As far as I know they don't focus specifically on the extreme lower tail of bad leaders, but they do discuss how different institutional features can lead to different types of people gaining power.

1David_Althaus1yThanks for the pointer!
Effective Altruism and Free Riding

First, the only strong claim that I'm trying to make in the post is that the standard EA advice in this setting is to free-ride. Free-riding is not necessarily irrational or immoral. In the section "Working to not Destroy Cooperation" I argue that it's possible that this sort of free-riding will make the world worse, but that is more speculative.

As far as who the other players are in the climate change example, I was thinking of it as basically everyone else in the world who has some interest in preventing climate change, but the most i... (read more)

7reallyeli1yGotcha. So your main concern is not that EA defecting will make us miss out on good stuff that we could have gotten via the climate change movement deciding to help us on our goals, but rather that it might be bad if EA-type thinking became very popular?
Effective Altruism and Free Riding
I'd be up for being convinced otherwise – and maybe the model with log returns you mention later could do that. If you think otherwise, could you explain the intuition behind it?

The more general model captured the idea that there are almost always gains from cooperation between those looking to do good. It doesn't show, however, that those gains are necessarily large relative to the costs of building cooperation (including opportunity costs). I'm not sure what the answer is to that.

Here's one line of reasoning which makes me thi... (read more)

Effective Altruism and Free Riding
I'd still agree that we should factor in cooperation, but my intuition is then that it's going to be a smaller consideration than neglect of future generations, so more about tilting things around the edges, and not being a jerk, rather than significantly changing the allocation.

For now, I don't think any major changes in decisions should be made based on this. We don't know enough about how difficult it would be to build cooperation and what the gains to cooperation would be. I guess the only concrete recommendation may be to more stro... (read more)

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

One more example to add here of a cause which may be like a "public good" within the EA community: promoting international cooperation. Many important causes are global public goods (that is, causes which benefit the whole world and thus any one nation has an incentive to free-ride on other nations' contributions), including global poverty, climate change, x-risk reduction, and animal welfare. I know that FHI already has some research on building international cooperation. I would guess that some EAs who primarily give to global poverty would be willing to shift funding towards building international cooperation if some EAs who normally give to AI safety do the same.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

I agree with your intuition that with what a "cooperative" cause prioritization might look like. Although I do think a lot more work would need to be done to formalize this. I also think it may not make sense to use cooperative cause prioritization: if everyone else always acts non-cooperatively, you should too.

I'm actually pretty skeptical of the idea that EA tends to fund causes which are widely valued by people as a whole. It could be true, but it seems like it would be a very convenient coincidence. EA seems to be made up of people with ... (read more)

Interesting. My personal view is that the neglect of future generations is likely 'where the action is' in cause prioritisation, so if you exclude their interests from the cooperative portfolio, then I'm less interested in the project.


I'd still agree that we should factor in cooperation, but my intuition is then that it's going to be a smaller consideration than neglect of future generations, so more about tilting things around the edges, and not being a jerk, rather than significantly changing the allocation. I'd be up for be... (read more)

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks a lot for the comment. Here are a few points:

1. You're right that the simple climate change example it won't always be a prisoner's dilemma. However, I think that's more due to the fact that I assumed constant returns to scale for all three causes. At the bottom of this write-up I have an example with three causes that all have log returns. As long as both funders value the causes positively and don't have identical valuations, a pareto improvement is possible through cooperation (unless I'm making a mistake in the proo... (read more)

3Benjamin_Todd1yVery interesting, thank you.
Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks for the clarification. I apologize for making it sound as if 80k specifically endorsed not cooperating.

Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks for the comment. First, I'd like to point out that I think there's a good chance that the collective action problem within EA isn't so bad because, as I mentioned in the post, there has been a fairly large emphasis on cooperating with others within EA. It's when interacting with people outside of EA that I think we're acting non-cooperatively.


However, it's still worth discussing whether there are major unsolved collective action problems within EA. I'll give some possible examples here, but note that I'm very ... (read more)

3sbehmer1yOne more example to add here of a cause which may be like a "public good" within the EA community: promoting international cooperation. Many important causes are global public goods (that is, causes which benefit the whole world and thus any one nation has an incentive to free-ride on other nations' contributions), including global poverty, climate change, x-risk reduction, and animal welfare. I know that FHI already has some research on building international cooperation. I would guess that some EAs who primarily give to global poverty would be willing to shift funding towards building international cooperation if some EAs who normally give to AI safety do the same.
Effective Altruism and Free Riding

Thanks for that reference! I hadn't come across that before. I think the main difference is that for most of my post I'm considering public goods problems among people who are completely unselfish but have different moral values. But problems also exist when people have identical moral values and some level of selfishness. Paul Christiano's post does a nice job of explaining that case. Milton Friedman also wrote about that problem (specifically, he talked about how poverty alleviation is a public good).

Differential progress / intellectual progress / technological development

Thanks for the post!

For people especially interested in this topic, it might be useful to know that there's a literature within academic economics that's very similar called "Directed Technical Change". See Acemoglu (2002) for a well-cited reference.

Although that literature has mostly focused on how different technological developments will impact wage inequality, the models used can be applied (I think) to a lot of the topics mentioned in your post.

Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

Thanks for the comment. I agree that R&D costs are very important and can lead to increasing marginal returns. The HIV example is a good one, I think.

Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

I agree that moving to explicit cost-effectiveness modeling is ideal in many situations. However, the arguments that I gave in the post also apply to the use of neglectedness for initial scoping. If neglectedness is a poor predictor of marginal impact, then it will not be useful for initial scoping.

Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

Thanks for the response. I agree that social norms and politics are areas where increasing returns seem likely.

Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

Thanks for this comment! The links were helpful. I have a few comments on your points:

" Empirically, we do see systematic diminishing returns to R&D inputs across fields of scientific and technological innovation "

After reading the introduction of that article you linked, I'm not sure that it has found evidence of diminishing returns to research, or at least that it has found the kind of diminishing returns that we would care about. They find that the number of researchers required to double GDP (or any other measure of output) has increased over time,

... (read more)
Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

Yes, PITi + ui is supposed to be the real importance and tractability. If we knew PITi + ui, then we would know a cause area's marginal impact exactly. But instead we only know PITi.

Is Neglectedness a Strong Predictor of Marginal Impact?

Thanks for the comment. I agree that considering the marginal value of information is important. This may be another source of diminishing marginal total value (where total value = direct impact + value of information). It seems, though, that this is also subject to the same criticism I outline in the post. If other funders also know that neglected causes give more valuable information at the margin, then the link between neglectedness and marginal value will be weakened. The important step, then, is to determine whether other funders are considering the v

... (read more)
2Flodorner3yI think the argument is that additional information showing that a cause has high marginal impact might divert causes away towards it from causes with less marginal impact. And getting this kind of information does seem more likely for causes without a track record allowing for a somewhat robust estimation of their (marginal) impact.