Doing Good Better

by on July 27, 2015 at 7:25 am in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

William MacAskill is that rare beast, a hard-headed, soft-hearted proponent of saving the world. His excellent new book, Doing Good Better, is a primer on the effective altruism movement.

Doing Good Better opens, just as you would expect, with an uplifting story of a wonderful person with a brilliant idea to save the world. The PlayPump uses a merry-go-round to pump water. Fun transformed into labor and life saving clean water! The energetic driver of the idea quits his job and invests his life in the project. Africa! Children on merry-go-rounds! Innovation! What could be better? It’s the perfect charitable meme and the idea attracts millions of dollars of funding from celebrities like Steve Case, Jay-Z, Laura Bush and Bill Clinton.

Then MacAskill subverts the narrative and drops the bomb:

…despite the hype and the awards and the millions of dollars spent, no one had really considered the practicalities of the PlayPump. Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they’ve gained sufficient momentum–that’s what makes them fun. But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted.

The women whose labor was supposed to be saved end up pushing the merry-go-round themselves, which they find demeaning and more exhausting than using a hand-pump. Moreover, the device is complicated and requires extensive maintenance that cannot be done in the village. The PlayPump is a disaster.

MacAskill, however, isn’t interested in castigating donors for their first-world hubris. MacAskill, a frugal Scottish philosopher, doesn’t like waste. Money, time and genuine goodwill are wasted in poorly-conceived charitable efforts and when lives are at stake that kind of waste is offensive. MacAskill, however, is convinced that a hard-headed approach–randomized trials, open-data, careful investigation of effectiveness–can do better. As MacAskill puts it:

When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective.

Of course, there are systematic problems with charitable giving. Most importantly, the feedback mechanism is never going to work as well when people are buying something to be consumed by others (as Milton Friedman explains). That problem, however, doesn’t explain why people do invest large amounts of money and their own time on wasteful projects. A large part of the problem is cultural. MacAskill asks us to consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine, for example, that you’re walking down a commercial street in your hometown. An attractive and frightening enthusiastic young woman nearly assaults you in order to get you stop and speak with her. She clasps a tablet and wears a T-shirt displaying the words, Dazzling Cosmetics…she explains that she’s representing a beauty products company that is looking for investment. She tells you about how big the market for beauty products is, and how great the products they sell are, and how because the company spends more than 90 percent of its money on making the products and less than 10 percent on staff, distribution, and marketing, the company is extremely efficient and therefore able to generate an impressive return on investment. Would you invest?

MacAskill says “Of course, you wouldn’t…you would consult experts…which is why the imaginary situation, I described here never occurs” Actually it’s even worse than that because what he describes does occur. It’s what the boiler rooms do to sell stocks (ala the Wolf of Wall Street). Thus, charities raise money using precisely the techniques that in other contexts are widely regarded as deceitful, disreputable and preying on the weak. Once you have seen how peculiar our charitable institutions are, it’s difficult to unsee.

Fortunately, effective altruism doesn’t require Mother Theresa-like levels of altruism or Spock-like level of hard-headedness. What is needed is a cultural change so that people become proud of how they give and not just how much they give. Imagine, for example, that it becomes routine to ask “How does Givewell rate your charity?” Or, “GiveDirectly gives poor people cash–can you demonstrate that your charity is more effective than cash?” The goal is not the questioning. The goal is to give people the warm glow when they can answer.

1 The Engineer July 27, 2015 at 7:45 am

This is why capitalism, i.e. PROFITS, is superior to altruism. Profits are the feedback mechanism whereby providers learn to serve the needs of customers. Without that feedback loop, altruism is far less efficient.

Somebody tell the Pope! I nominate Bono to lecture him on this simple fact.

2 prior_approval July 27, 2015 at 7:59 am

‘This is why capitalism, i.e. PROFITS, is superior to altruism.’

Wise words for parents to apply when looking at their children.

3 TMC July 27, 2015 at 9:12 am

PA, so now you are a child of the State.

4 Slocum July 27, 2015 at 11:26 am

Do you believe it’s an appropriate analogy to think of foreign aid recipients as children?

5 Joe Torben July 27, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Unfortunately, he does. Even more unfortunately, he’s not alone.

6 Who are Cuckservatives? July 27, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Cuckservatives are altruistic for non-Whites, not for Whites. this is not left vs right, GOP vs Dems, Socialism vs liberty. This is war on White people.

Why do hostile elite defend Israel as a Jewish ethnostate with Jewish only immigration, but ravage White majority Europe/North America into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Gulag with non-White colonization?

The world is 91% non-White, only 9% White. But non-White colonizers are aggressively advancing their agenda to annihilate gullible Whites, just as Chinese annihilate Tibet.

How long will gullible Whites cuckold for murderous anti-White elite, who suppress our fertility, confiscate our guns, infiltrate/subvert our banks/FBI/CIA, indoctrinate White kids in academia/mass media, plunder White jobs/wages, & butcher White soldiers in bankrupting wars?

“Native” Americans invaded from East Asia. Yellow & Brown races committed 10-times more genocide, slavery, imperialism than Whites. Since Moses, Whites have been victims of Jewish/Crypto-Jewish, Muslim, N.African imperialism, slavery, genocide.

Gullible Whites should reject subversive ideologies- libertarianism, feminism, liberalism- & hostile slanders of racism. Peace to all humanity, but White people must organize to advance their interests, their fertility, their homelands. Spread this message. Reading list: , , ,

7 Mr ed. July 27, 2015 at 9:26 pm

Isn’t there somewhere else you could post this nonsense.

8 E. Harding July 27, 2015 at 10:00 pm


9 JD Ripper July 28, 2015 at 1:55 am

How long will gullible Whites cuckold for murderous anti-White elite, who suppress our fertility…?

I love women, Mandrake. I just deny them my “essence”… 🙂

10 Just Saying July 27, 2015 at 8:00 am

Ugh. Just ugh.

11 C-dawg July 27, 2015 at 9:49 am

Of course. Profits are flawless. Nobody has ever lied in the quest for profit. It would be inefficient in the long run, so therefore it never happens. Case closed. Also, nepotism could be hurtful to a corporation so that never happens either. Glad we had this talk. Good talk guys.

12 Albigensian July 27, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Well, As Adam Smith pointed out, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Idealists insist that potable water must never, ever become a mere commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace, yet you’re still far more likely to obtain it if someone can profit by supplying it to you.

Which is to say, there’s a lot to be said for pragmatism. Rights talk sells better than talk of profits, yet charities can and often are more inefficient and corrupt than even governments. If and when capitalism (and its handmaiden, marketing) is effective in providing what people need then it surely is unwise to shut it down with cries of “People before profits!” or other ideological objections.

13 Ricardo July 27, 2015 at 1:59 pm

Adam Smith famously went on to observe “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

“Idealists insist that potable water must never, ever become a mere commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace…”

Who, exactly, insists on this? The point that seems to have escaped some people is that very poor people in inaccessible parts of the world are not a viable market for most entrepreneurs.

14 ZZZ July 27, 2015 at 2:49 pm
15 Urso July 28, 2015 at 10:21 am

“Idealists insist that potable water must never, ever become a mere commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace”
I can make stuff up too.

16 TMC July 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm

Lying and nepotism are not unique to capitalism.

17 ZZZ July 27, 2015 at 2:53 pm

How exactly does nepotism hut the case for capitalism? If nepotism is that harmful to a corporation it would lose money, allowing more efficient organizations to accumulate capital.

18 Canadian July 27, 2015 at 10:14 am

Yes – this is why the free market is spending billions of more dollars on finding a cure for male baldness than for malaria. Unbridled capitalism is unquestionably flawless!

19 Slocum July 27, 2015 at 12:03 pm

“…this is why the free market is spending billions of more dollars on finding a cure for male baldness than for malaria”

Is that even true? And even if it were so, why assume that spending on baldness research crowds out malaria spending? Why not complain that free markets spend billions more dollars on cars, smart phones, craft beers, hair-styling, higher-education, fine art, movies, etc, etc than on malaria? But then, you might ponder — where exactly does the wealth come from to support malaria research? Could it…conceivably…be all the economic activity produced by all of the above? When you’re done with that, maybe move on to thinking about the ~2 billion people who’ve moved out of extreme poverty in recent decades and the relative importance of capitalism vs altruism in that process.

20 Canadian July 27, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Yes, according to that low-intellect, anti-capitalist scallywag Bill Gates –

“Our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives,” Bill Gates said. “The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need. But it gets virtually no funding. But if you are working on male baldness or other things you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria.”

I used the baldness example instead of countless other more relatively frivolous (in my opinion) consumer items or sectors because I only needed one example to make my point and didn’t feel like spending the time making an exhaustive list of everything else I’d consider less urgent than malaria research. And of course because I was plagiarizing Gates.

I never said baldness research crowds out malaria research (it doesn’t….which is why I never made such a claim) – my point was just to highlight what I (and my close pal BG) think is a shortcoming of global capitalism. I would genuinely like to hear the defenders of global capitalism as it exists right now explain why this ISN’T a shortcoming of the system that should be remedied, and that in fact it is morally defensible and appealing for baldness to get more research dollars than malaria.

(In my opinion, the malaria/baldness example is a flaw of global capitalism that can be remedied quite easily and without abandoning the really excellent things values and dynamics that capitalism brings to society. I am not saying this example should cause us to abandon the idea of capitalism and anything related to it.)

21 Derek Lowe July 27, 2015 at 12:25 pm

As a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry, I know of a lot more people who have worked on malaria than have ever worked on baldness. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is. Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it’s also worth noting that malaria is actually scientifically more interesting, in many respects, than baldness is, too.

22 Slocum July 27, 2015 at 12:32 pm

“I would genuinely like to hear the defenders of global capitalism as it exists right now explain why this ISN’T a shortcoming of the system that should be remedied, and that in fact it is morally defensible and appealing for baldness to get more research dollars than malaria.”

I’m still waiting for the first link to demonstrate that baldness actually IS getting more money than malaria (just because BG repeats a meme doesn’t make it true).

But that aside, the defense is easy — over the past 2 centuries, capitalism has permanently, sustainably lifted most of the world’s billions out of the subsistence-level poverty that persisted throughout human history. The only kinds of planning that could re-allocate spending ‘rationally’ as you seem to suggest would pose real threats of destroying or at least damaging the capitalist system that has produced (and continues to produce) such unprecedented benefits. The likelihood of doing more harm than good in attempting to ‘rationalize’ capitalism is high.

So I’m waiting for the explanation of why it’s morally defensible to re-engineer a system that has produced such astounding benefits while there remains a ‘bottom billion’ who are eagerly anticipating sharing in those benefits.

23 TMC July 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Well, and Gates should know this better than anyone, at the end of the day, it is capitalism that’s going to pay for all the research and cures to malaria.

24 AIG July 27, 2015 at 5:00 pm

“other more relatively frivolous (in my opinion) consumer items”

There’s the key. Your opinion.

No one cares about your opinion.

Malaria is one of those “feel good” causes that is both pointless and stupid. Get much malaria in the developed world? No? Why is that? There’s your answer.

25 Urso July 28, 2015 at 10:24 am

The ‘cure’ for malaria is draining fetid water and spraying for mosquitoes. There were (inflation adjusted) billions & billions spent researching these issues in the first part of the 20th century. The issue is not one of research but of infrastructure.

26 Someone July 28, 2015 at 2:43 pm

As a highly pro-capitalism effective altruist, it’s weird to hear capitalism and effective altruism pitted against each other as though they’re opposed. Capitalism works great as a way to distribute goods and services to people who have money. The problem is that not everyone has money, and that’s why people propose other systems like socialism (which have the side effect of fucking up the incentives necessary for capitalism to run properly). GiveDirectly solves the “some people don’t have money” problem in a way that doesn’t require taxation at gunpoint or distorting capitalist incentives. If anything, pro-capitalists should be pro-effective altruism–it fulfills the same role that socialism is supposed to fulfill but in a much more effective way, and for people who are in the third world.

27 Brenton July 27, 2015 at 3:19 pm

It’s a brave new world, folks. Fine art, movies, hair-styling, and craft beer generate wealth. Buying a luxury car is better for the planet than paying for malaria research.

28 Slocum July 27, 2015 at 7:33 pm

Missing the point by a mile — letting market economies continue to work to pull the world’s poor out of poverty is FAR better than some (unspecified) process by which ‘we’ determine the moral merit of all possible uses of money and override the results of the market. There is nothing at all wrong with altruistically spending money on Malaria research, but there is something profoundly wrong with the argument that because markets don’t automatically produce the preferred result, they are to be treated with suspicion and disdain and should be restrained and rationalized. That is a well-proven recipe for disaster.

29 AIG July 27, 2015 at 4:49 pm

We found a “cure” for malaria decades ago. Do you have malaria in Canada, by any chance?

30 Tongue In Cheek July 28, 2015 at 2:50 am

Being black?

31 E. Harding July 30, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Or South Korea (except on the northern border)?

32 Galos Gann July 28, 2015 at 8:54 am

On the contrary, the first effective treatments for malaria were identified by the church and developed by the free market. But it was found that malaria is a very difficult to disease to actually cure, which led the free market has determined that prevention is a more effective, efficient, and humane approach. Unfortunately basic disease prevention is a field largely controlled by governments and quasi-government organizations who are corrupt and insular and have no particular incentive to be effective, efficient, or humane. So they block what they regard as distasteful and ideologically troublesome prevention techniques and spend their money on impractical and unworkable vaccines instead.

Meanwhile, the free market makes money from baldness cures to help fund the development of less profitable drugs. Shame on them.

33 Nom de Blog July 28, 2015 at 9:11 am

The cure for malaria was invented. Leftists demanded it be removed from the marketplace because of a poorly researched book that made false claims about threats to birds.

Bring back DDT and malaria is solved.

I am happy to solve supposed conundrums as you encounter them

34 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 10:48 am

The real purpose of altruism is to make the altruist feel good about themselves. Any benefit to the person being helped is incidental.

35 Bernard Yomtov July 27, 2015 at 10:52 am

The real purpose of capitalism is to make money for the capitalist. Any benefit to the customer is incidental.

36 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 10:56 am

Really? I believe the whole point of the original comment is that the capitalist *can’t* make money without benefitting the consumer.
Consumers are voluntary actors and won’t buy the capitalist’s products if they don’t benefit them.

37 Mike July 27, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Ah, but that is only true under certain circumstances, e.g. when consumers have perfect information about the product. How often is that condition satisfied?

38 Slocum July 27, 2015 at 2:39 pm

No — consumers don’t need perfect information. Nobody is claiming that consumers never make mistakes or that every voluntary transaction they expect to be beneficial turns out that way. In fact, perfect information wouldn’t even assure that (the world is stochastic after all — statistically good bets fail all the time). But unless you think consumers are completely clueless idiots, their track record in knowing their own wants and needs and in making voluntary deals to satisfy them is much, much better than chance — wouldn’t you agree?

39 Seth July 27, 2015 at 6:14 pm

Mike – How often do you buy stuff without perfect information? How often are you satisfied?

40 Cooper July 27, 2015 at 1:01 pm

I can give money to a crappy charity and feel good about myself. My good feeling is independent of the outcome of the charity.

If I’m a greedy Capitalist operating in a competitive market and all of my customers HATE my product…I’m not going to be a rich capitalist for long.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t market failures, monopolies, distortionary government interventions, etc. just that it’s typically harder for a bad company to stay in business than an ineffective charity.

41 Brenton July 27, 2015 at 3:21 pm

I suppose that is how a sociopath would define altruism. Have you ever experienced sincere love in your lifetime? I feel really bad for you.

42 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 4:28 pm

I’m not talking about how it’s defined. I’m talking about how it generally works out in practice.
And how many people feel “sincere love” for starving people in Africa? Not very many. I dare say, not even the missionary nuns who live their lives there. People generally become nuns because they have some sort of martyr complex and it makes them feel holy to dedicate their lives to God. Not because they love poor people in third world countries. People donate to charity because it makes them feel that they are good people, not because they feel universal blortherly love for the poor.

43 Someone July 28, 2015 at 2:44 pm

So why is effective altruism becoming so popular then?

44 Agra Brum July 27, 2015 at 2:32 pm

What if you are a villager in Africa, without the means to pay for a proper piece of equipment, and due to the general poverty of your area, where there is no market for the products you need?
I agree that sharp practices – those encouraged by capitalism – are needed. Improving that village will not happen by a church potluck in America funding a merry-go-round pump. It takes the accountants eye for what is effective and efficient. Something the BG Foundation is trying to apply. It could also use a governmental (US) clearinghouse of information on best aid practices to help the well meaning, but inefficient / dumb, NGOs.

45 er July 27, 2015 at 7:46 am

effective altruism begins at home

46 norman.carton July 27, 2015 at 7:54 am

Many of the charity problems would be removed if donations were not tax-deductible.

47 Axa July 27, 2015 at 7:56 am

The most valuable resource here is the knowledge on how to discover, use and protect groundwater resources. However, knowledge is more difficult to share than a machine.

48 prior_approval July 27, 2015 at 7:57 am

‘the feedback mechanism is never going to work as well when people are buying something to be consumed by others’

Yep, parents are well known for using Milton Friedman to provide insights when it comes to raising children.

49 Tarrou July 27, 2015 at 8:19 am

Pure PA, glib and substance-free. The parents don’t need to “use insights”. Anyone who ever got a knock-off toy from their dad can tell you that gifts from others are rarely what they wanted.

50 eccdogg July 27, 2015 at 9:05 am

So are the poor children that we are raising?

Also like Tarrou says as a child I would always prefer money that I could spend on exactly what I wanted as a gift.

51 Urstoff July 27, 2015 at 11:18 am

Good to see that you don’t consider the poor as adults with their own fully developed preferences and autonomy.

52 AIG July 27, 2015 at 4:51 pm

You don’t seem to understand the most basic concept here. Adam Smith discussed it in both his books.

Somehow, how one deals with their children in their household is a…BIT…different from interacting with people one doesn’t know.

53 Tarrou July 27, 2015 at 8:15 am

The best way to get people to do terrible things and further immiserate the developing world is to show them a bunch of pictures of children in dire straits and convince them that they have a duty to do something about it! Haiti has been the fly-blown poster child for US charity for decades. Public opinion forced a military intervention and various charities and the US government and subsidiaries have spent untold billions there, and the result? Conditions there are certainly no better and arguably worse than they were under Papa Doc.

54 Dude July 27, 2015 at 10:59 am

Are you suggesting an approach like GiveDirectly to citizens in Haiti would provide no benefit to Haitians?

Or is your comment a critique of NGOs?

55 Tarrou July 27, 2015 at 5:54 pm

I am suggesting that until a people can get their shit together enough to institute a coherent set of civil organizations and a general structure of society that works, no amount of aid will help them. And after that, it can boost them a little, but is largely unnecessary.

56 Dude July 27, 2015 at 10:03 pm

I can understand this to a point. What if wealthy people (like me) increased the economic standing of the average poor Haitian via a channel like GiveDirectly. Do you not think that would help them “get their shit together” and institute a general structure of society that works? At least, one better than the current shitty structure?

I personally don’t believe in giving to organizations like the Red Cross, but giving cash to poor people seems highly leveraged to create more peace and liberty in the world. I could be wrong.

57 Christine July 27, 2015 at 8:29 am

I want to read this so hard.

58 Linch August 2, 2015 at 4:19 pm

Two economists came across a Ferrari dealership. One of them pointed at a shiny car and said, “Damn I want that.” As they walk past the dealership, the other replied, “Apparently not.”

Jokes aside, the book is extremely well-rated on Amazon and within the EA movement. I would highly recommend it.

59 asdf July 27, 2015 at 8:34 am

So this charity didn’t create more Africans, but it made busybody white people feel satiated enough to stop bitching about Africa. Sounds like it was extremely effective.

60 Jonathan July 27, 2015 at 8:36 am
61 pongogogo July 27, 2015 at 9:09 am

is efficient giving better than giving?

62 TMC July 27, 2015 at 9:16 am

Depends if you want to actually help anyone, or just feel good about yourself.

63 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 9:51 am

All giving is efficient. The question is “Is giving under a particular theory better than giving under another theory?” The answer is yes, if you value the theory, and no otherwise.

64 jon July 27, 2015 at 9:17 am

true charity can only be done with socialism.(Europe)

65 MOFO. July 27, 2015 at 9:43 am

Waiter! Waiter! Ah, yes, waiter, this rhetoric is stale. Do you have something from this century.

66 Hedonic Treader July 27, 2015 at 9:45 am

Clearly, cash transfers are better than PlayPumps.

But the real drivers of misery are bad culture and policies. For example, a (religious) culture that encourages high birth rates, but not enough liberty to incentivize these addional people to better themselves and have positive externalities on the rest. Neither are there incentives in place to limit reproduction to reasonable levels, that is, painful child deaths are accepted without repercussions, even though they would be preventable if people had only the number of children they could afford at least to get through early childhood safely.

Migration and labor restrictions in developed countries further reduce the comparative advantage of these additional people in the world economy.

The religion-driven suicide prohibition is the final nail the the coffin; once born, every poor person is condemned to suffer. They can’t even choose to exit life without agony because of coercive policies that make all suffering mandatory in the name of religion.

Sure, cash transfers are better than nothing, but the real problem is bad governance, bad culture, and perverse incentives.

67 Saint_Fiasco July 27, 2015 at 10:03 am

Birth rate goes down when families get more money. Hopefully, education increases also.

68 gregor July 27, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Many countries have bad institutions and policies for sure, but it seems doubtful that your apparent population control and anti-religion hobby horses are the real issue. Consider Haiti. Per capita GDP below $2K and general basket case. But the fertility rate of 2.7 doesn’t seem particularly “unreasonable,” and the religion is primarily voodoo-infused Catholicism which probably isn’t the main driver of the fertility rate.

69 Horhe July 28, 2015 at 9:57 am

People forget average IQ.

70 Dude July 27, 2015 at 11:01 am

Perhaps the cash transfers can enable people to change these?

> …. the real problem is bad governance, bad culture, and perverse incentives.

71 Hedonic Treader July 27, 2015 at 11:14 am

I don’t know. I don’t see anything automatic about such a secondary effect.

72 Dzhaughn July 27, 2015 at 1:47 pm

It is a myth that the poor do not greatly value their lives. The origin of this myth is rich and powerful people who do not value the poor’s lives.

There is ample evidence that attempting to impose a culture and theory of government often fails to control bad governance.

73 Hedonic Treader July 27, 2015 at 2:30 pm

>It is a myth that the poor do not greatly value their lives.

It is also a myth that “the poor” are one amorphous mass who shares all value judgments 100%. That’s where individual liberty comes in, and that’s what bad culture fails at. Not just in developing countries, mind you.

What is the point of making more children than you can feed, clothe and buy malaria nets for? What child would choose to be born just to die in pain again?

As for the adults, the less liberty they have, the more poverty hurts them. Option values are a form of political wealth, which is why the combination of poverty and oppression is so toxic.

74 Horhe July 28, 2015 at 9:58 am

Niger is shaping up to be one of the future most miserable countries in the world. Unless they export their misery to Europe.

75 Urso July 28, 2015 at 10:26 am

We should improve their lives by killing them! Or at least ensuring they aren’t born in the first place.

76 Hedonic Treader July 28, 2015 at 12:18 pm

I know you think you have some fantastically smart sarcasm here, but you really don’t.

First of all, we already are killing people in various military conflicts. This is a consequence of too many people being born into poverty combined with bad culture and bad governance. This is why we are forced to be at war with radical Islam.

Second, is there any doubt that children who are born just to die painfully in early childhood are harmed by it? Of course such children should not be born in the first place.

Finally, I didn’t claim we should kill the poor. I pointed out – correctly – that they don’t even have the legal and social liberty to exit life without suffering and shaming. This too is a direct consequence of bad culture and bad governance.

77 Urso July 28, 2015 at 1:53 pm

“you have some fantastically smart sarcasm here”
Thanks! I was pretty pleased with it myself.

78 Mike July 28, 2015 at 3:39 pm

I agree with you about the need for family planning education and access. That said, can you elaborate on

“This is why we are forced to be at war with radical Islam.”


79 dearieme July 27, 2015 at 9:52 am

“MacAskill, a frugal Scottish philosopher”: no true philosopher is of any other sort.

80 Dzhaughn July 27, 2015 at 1:47 pm

Scottish much?

81 Nathan July 28, 2015 at 8:51 am

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all beg to differ.

82 Jim Hunt July 28, 2015 at 5:52 pm

I saw what you did there, even if the other repliers didn’t.

83 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 9:55 am

What happens when Givewell and charity’s beneficiaries disagree on what the greatest good is?

84 Dan Weber July 27, 2015 at 10:27 am

Thus the strawman that effective altruism is after the “one great charity.”

This is silly. There are, however, more and less effective charities within each category.

85 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 10:40 am

Okay, I have a follow-up question then: What happens when Givewell and the beneficiaries of charity within any category disagree on what the greatest good is?

86 Dan Weber July 27, 2015 at 11:49 am

There is no attempt to find “the greatest good.” They don’t compare getting rid of malaria in Africa to raising the test scores of poor American children.

There is an attempt to find “the best known way to achieve X” for many different values of X.

87 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

The Atlantic‘s article, to which AT linked, is entitled “What is the greatest good?” If I used language that seemed appropriate to me in context, you’ll have to forgive me if it doesn’t perfectly encapsulate your top-of-mind phrasing.

But now that we’ve gotten all the semantic objections out of the way, would you care to address my actual question? What happens when benefactors – even those trained in an intellectual model of efficiency popular among Bayesian Rationalists – disagree with beneficiaries about what is the preferred course of charitable action?

88 Dan Weber July 27, 2015 at 12:13 pm

I have no idea where Derek Thompson got that idea or who wrote that headline for The Atlantic, but it’s his mistake, not Givewell’s.

What happens when benefactors … disagree with beneficiaries about what is the preferred course of charitable action?

It’s the benefactors’ money, so they get to decide what to do with it. I’m not sure why this would ever be in doubt. I guess the beneficiaries could try suing because someone stopped giving them money.

89 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Thanks, Dan. Now we’re getting somewhere. I just wanted to make sure I understood the EA paradigm correctly, and it sounds like I did. They decide what’s good for recipients, not the recipients themselves. That makes it pretty similar to cost-effectiveness decisions in healthcare systems, and suggests that it may have problems shared by all forms of centralized decision making.

But that’s just my opinion.

90 Dan Weber July 27, 2015 at 12:27 pm

You act as if the pre-Givewall system was run by recipients instead of by donors.

But one of Givewell’s top recommendations is for “GiveDirectly” which. . . well, I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with letting the recipients spend the money the way they want.

91 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 2:51 pm

I’m sorry if I apparently “acted as if” something. That wasn’t my intention. I’m skeptical of “effective altruism” as a concept, even though I agree with the thrust of its purpose. I’m also skeptical of any system of giving that grades itself on anything other than providing generosity toward the recipients according to the recipients’ own values.

If a recipient would rather be paid in saltine crackers, even if the benefactor believes that a direct cash transfer is more efficient, I myself would favor the saltine crackers. That puts me at odds with EA, generally speaking. I do not require that we part ways in agreement with each other. 🙂

92 Robert Wiblin July 27, 2015 at 7:43 pm

This is one approach for comparing different benefits for different people:

93 Mike July 27, 2015 at 10:02 am

I lead a non-profit that operates in East Africa. I see, and hear about, things like the Play Pump constantly. We as Westerners highly value problem solvers, and we assume folks around the world feel the same way. I hope the founder learned his lesson and won’t quit entirely–that would be a shame. I hope, next time, he will listen to the Africans–particularly the women–before he “helps.” I look forward to reading his book. Having done multi-variable testing (Deming) in the corporate world prior to moving into the non-profit space, I love seeing folks take approaches like that to solutions. Again, the critical piece is that the locals drive what is actually needed, and even more ideally with local resources. Brian Fikkert’s “When Helping Hurts” is another good resource showing how much of our charitable efforts actually hurts the ones we’re trying to serve. He’s an economist too.

I agree with Alex’s comment regarding how some (many?) charities raise funds in a boiler-room type environment. It’s shameful and it hurts all of us in the space. Many of us would like more educated donors who look for results and methodology, not simply our G&A to Program ratio. In the NP space we feel pressure for that ratio, which leads to the cosmetics analogy.

The feedback loop is improving with social media and better connectivity.

94 Al July 27, 2015 at 12:06 pm

…charities raise money using precisely the techniques that in other contexts are widely regarded as deceitful, disreputable and preying on the weak. Once you have seen how peculiar our charitable institutions are, it’s difficult to unsee.

I see this all the time where I live, whether it’s door to door soliciting for causes (which may be truly charitable or may be fraudulent for all I know) to soliciting outside store fronts for cash and personal information. This approach to charitable giving is hard for an honest person to support. Who knows what they’ll do with the money and personal info they collect?

I like this article. Nice one, Prof. Tabarrok.

95 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

Most playground merry-go-rounds spin freely once they’ve gained sufficient momentum–that’s what makes them fun. But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted.

So, nobody tested this with actual children so see if they would actually use it? They just barreled full steam ahead into spending million of dollars on something that nobody had actually tried in a pilot project?

96 Thiago Ribeiro July 27, 2015 at 10:59 am

And it would have worked if it were not for those meddling kids!

97 required July 27, 2015 at 12:24 pm

It is the pilot project. It cost millions for a pilot project.

98 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm

That’s another problem.

99 required July 28, 2015 at 2:15 am

Most pilot projects don’t have follow up study so they are not research. Research requires multiple follow up studies.

100 Mike July 27, 2015 at 4:12 pm

I see a more basic issue. All this device does is transfer the work from mothers to children. Children will need to consume more calories to perform the extra work without starving. More calories requires more food and growing more food requires more water.

101 Hazel Meade July 27, 2015 at 4:33 pm

The basic issue is that nobody checked to see if kids would actually find it fun or not.

102 Mike July 28, 2015 at 3:43 pm

That is less basic than thermodynamics. Thanks for playing!

103 Dan Lavatan July 27, 2015 at 6:19 pm

They implemented it wrong. The correct design uses the merry go round as an alternator, and then uses the battery to pump water. It does not require continuous running. Also when I was in charge of the merry go round I insisted my staff run continuously in order to reach ever higher speeds. They can use it to train for a marathon which every one in Africa can win anyway.

104 Keith July 27, 2015 at 10:49 am

I like the idea of an independent rating group like but they seem to have stopped rating charities. I looked at Big Brothers Big Sisters and this is the message I see:

A note on this page’s publication date

The last time we examined the charities working primarily in the U.S. was in 2010. As of 2011, we have de-prioritized further work on this cause.

The content we created in 2010 appears below. This content is likely to be no longer fully accurate, both with respect to what it says about the organization and with respect to what it implies about our own views and positions.

105 Mike July 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

This one’s not bad:

106 Dan Weber July 27, 2015 at 12:17 pm

That shows you how much money they are pushing at their goal, but doesn’t tell you whether the money they are pushing is doing any good.

Ranking charities based on “overhead” is dumb. I’m going to link, of all places, to Cracked:

107 Robert Wiblin July 27, 2015 at 7:41 pm

No, GiveWell is still very active and recommends new charities each year.

And Charity Navigator was pretty useless when I checked a few years ago.

See this debate between Charity Navigator (arguing against effective altruism!) two years ago:

And the author above voting in favour of checking that things are actually useful:

108 Someone July 28, 2015 at 2:49 pm

Yes, they stopped rating US charities. They’re more focused on international work now. The thinking is that most people in the US are already rich by global standards.

109 Rich Berger July 27, 2015 at 11:34 am

I’m far less concerned with problems with private charity than the massive problems with coerced government charity. With private charity, the money may be wasted, or less likely, lead to actual harm. The government expenditures are far greater and their is an almost total lack of accountability. See the latest great results under Obamacare, as reported by the AP -

110 Andrew M July 27, 2015 at 11:54 am

Infrastructure is often the biggest barrier to bringing people out of poverty; but there are very few charities dedicated to building new highways in the developing world.

111 Bob from Ohio July 27, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Nor ones dedicated to building a factory so as to provide jobs.

112 Ricardo July 27, 2015 at 2:16 pm

The scale of resources required is beyond the reach of most private charities. Foreign aid can and does cover big infrastructure investments and I think that is one of the most defensible examples of foreign aid for the reason you give. Of course, the World Bank and the regional development banks also premise their existence on the idea that they should help poor countries finance big infrastructure projects.

113 Brenton July 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm
114 Horhe July 28, 2015 at 9:55 am

Yeah, that was the article I was mentioning

115 Horhe July 28, 2015 at 9:54 am

Family planning and reduction of the size of families to promote parental investment is also very important to bringing people out of poverty and towards development. However, since the 1970s, when family planning was all the rage in Africa, the subject has become verboten as being racist. Niger still has a TFR of 7, that’s 7 babies per woman in a culture that values large families (meaning any income from development will be spent on larger families), in a country that’s mostly desert.

Regarding high ways, nothing can be done without adequate local institutions. There was an article online on a German charity which built a highway through Congo to enable agricultural products to be shipped to consumers and to ports, for export. The highway was rendered unusable by environmental factors, compounded by a local civil war bisecting its path, preventing profitable use. Also, for maintenance, they tried to introduce village tolls so they could gain money to spend on repairs. The system worked for a bit, but then the money stopped being collected and spent properly. Infrastructure is basically a chicken and egg problem.

116 Bob from Ohio July 27, 2015 at 12:17 pm

We have too many charities in all categories. No ratings group will change that fact.

117 Cooper July 27, 2015 at 1:07 pm


Each charity needs its own group of bureaucrats to administer it. Merging some of the charities together would reduce overhead costs and increase economies of scale.

In the private sector, we see consolidation over time. In the non-profit sector, the impetus to cut overhead costs and merge with “competitors” is lost.

We see a similar problem with local governments. It might make sense for two small towns to merge their police forces or fire departments but we rarely see this happen.

118 rayward July 27, 2015 at 12:44 pm

Who or what is being criticized here, Bill Gates, Barbara Bush (GWB’s daughter), philanthropy? Sometimes markets fail, as Cowen recently reminded readers with regard to public goods (in an essay he wrote in 2008). What’s public goods in one place may not be in others. Moreover, it’s often difficult to determine who is benefited by doing good: is it the direct beneficiaries or the remote beneficiaries. For example, the U.S. provides lots of health care in the undeveloped world, both to ameliorate suffering and to prevent the spread of disease back to the U.S. And the U.S. provides lots of economic assistance in the undeveloped world, both to promote economic development and to discourage extremist ideologies. I am skeptical of private philanthropy, for at least two reasons: the “philanthropist” with an ax to grind and skimming. Yet, NGOs are providing an increasing percentage of total philanthropy. Is it because governments are not providing enough of it even as the need for more continues to grow. Austerity at home is felt the most away from home.

119 Robert Wiblin July 27, 2015 at 2:02 pm

If you want to know more about the effective altruism movement, check out our FAQ here:

120 jseliger July 27, 2015 at 3:08 pm

The goal is to give people the warm glow when they can answer.

That sounds great and I’m for it. In my real life I’m a grant writing consultant, however, and I’m not convinced that more knowledge will help here. For reasons elaborated in “Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer” it’s quite hard to get around or even change the signaling mechanism, and explicitly bringing up the signaling mechanism tends to be. . . let’s just say a real social loser.

121 Mark July 27, 2015 at 3:10 pm

I already do this – I mention CharityNavigator ratings of the charities that I donate to (food banks, mostly) and administrative cost overhead levels in conversation…

But then again, I’m the sort of person who reads Marginal Revolution.

I’ve noticed that in my blue state social circle, people rarely mention giving to charity. I’m not sure why – maybe it is viewed as a sign of having some “extra” money (a great evil! – sarcasm intended) or they simply don’t give to charity (which I am pretty sure is true in many cases).

122 Horhe July 28, 2015 at 9:49 am

Robert Putnam gave a possible answer in his book “Bowling Alone” – the reduction in social capital. In order to give money to your community and (eventually) outside of it, you need not only money, but also some sort of connection that is being diluted by several trends: the stratification of America based on distance between elites and proles and the reduction in social mobility, the modification of the philanthropic culture that WASPs promoted (which is being masked by very successful drives like that of Gates and Buffet) based on heavy immigration which also, without any intentional racism, leads, in normal people, to turtling down and reducing your trust in the community, your politicians, and your neighbors, as well as your sense of belonging. Without that connection especially from the top down, you’re living in a gated community and just don’t know it yet.

123 Virginia Postrel July 27, 2015 at 4:04 pm

Just a reminder that Marginal Revolution is given away free and largely paid for by a combination of charitable and tax dollars. I don’t mean this as a swipe at MR but as a reminder that a world where every activity depended on either ranking high on GiveWell or making a profit would be a world without many of the diverse cultural, intellectual, and scientific activities currently subsidized by donations.

124 AIG July 27, 2015 at 4:55 pm

A non-profit is not the same thing as a charitable organization. A charity is a form of non-profit, but not all non-profits are charities. GMU won’t give you anything for free.

125 RPLong July 27, 2015 at 5:11 pm


126 Urso July 28, 2015 at 10:31 am

Not to mention the commentors who work for free!

127 AIG July 27, 2015 at 5:13 pm

To be honest, this is why I don’t give any money to charities. Not one penny.

I’ll give money to someone on the street corner, gladly. At least there I know where its going (beer and cigarettes most likely)…and that it’s going directly to the person in need. Or give to churches which have shelters and soup kitchens.

All these other organized charities are too full of feel-goodary and incompetent bureaucrats, with no feedback at all as to their outcomes. Charities that exist in order to perpetuate themselves and to make people feel good are off my list.

128 Art Deco July 27, 2015 at 6:12 pm

To be honest, this is why I don’t give any money to charities. Not one penny.

You’re not being honest.

129 AIG July 27, 2015 at 6:44 pm

How so?

130 Jordan S. July 27, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Presumable the “this is why” part.

131 Robert Wiblin July 27, 2015 at 7:39 pm

Why not give to a charity that has been investigated by a group like GiveWell, and shown to be really good?

132 Mark July 28, 2015 at 1:09 pm

I’m Mark fromt the above comment. I think we share a concern over effective use of our donated money. That’s the logic I use when I donate to food banks. They can buy and provide food much more efficiently than I can on a personal level. So it is multiplying the impact of my donation. This seems like a no-brainer to me.

I realize that you mentioned giving to churches etc so that they can provide meals. I’m simply suggesting that you look at food banks, too. You can see from their reporting that overhead is quite low.

133 Dan Hanson July 29, 2015 at 7:37 pm

How in hell did that ‘PlayPump’ idea ever make it past the ‘interesting thought experiment’ phase? This article is the first I’d ever heard of it, and as soon as I saw the diagram I knew exactly what the problem was going to be. And I’m sure any other engineer who wasn’t financially invested in the concept would have spotted it too. It’s an incredibly stupid idea.

Merry go rounds are fun because they STORE energy. They are made to be as frictionless as possible so they continue to spin after the kids get on it and stop pushing. The fun only happens after the pushing stops. Make them a source of energy, and they turn into a manual water wheel, which is no fun at all. Such devices have been around for centuries, and I’ve never seem them described as a recreational activity.

It would have taken a few hours to test out this concept. Simple math would tell you how much energy would be needed to pump the water. Then a simple friction brake could have been attached to a standard merry-go-round to simulate the load, and kids could have ‘play-tested’ it. Doing so would have rapidly shown that the thing was not going to be fun and in fact was nothing more than a child-sized water wheel which pumps water from energy created from back-breaking child labor.

The fact that no one who was willing to invest millions in this scheme bothered to do even such a rudimentary test (or who ignored the results if they did), speaks loudly about the failures of our current system of aid.

I thought maybe I was missing something, so I Googled the PlayPump and immediately found a quote from a 2008 analysis from UNICEF that said:

” While the first-world audience for the PlayPump might assume from its publicity that the wheel turns with the ease of a conventional roundabout in a playground, this is not the case. “Some primary school children complained of becoming tired very quickly after pushing the pump, particularly as additional torque is required with each rotation to commence the upstroke of the piston”

Anyone familiar with the conservation of energy would have responded, “Duh”. The next question they’d ask is whether the water and food energy expended by the children to pump this water was factored into the calculations, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

And while that tall water tank is meant to buffer the unstable source of energy, it also means that each gallon of water has to be lifted 20 ft higher than a ground-level pump, making the energy efficiency of this even worse.

These problems and many others have apparently been well known for years, but investment continues. And apparently the people who live in the areas served by these things were not even consulted before they were installed, even when, in many cases, the well being used already had a better, more efficient pump serving it. Those pumps were removed to make way for a Rube Goldberg contraption that was less efficient, more expensive, and more prone to maintenance issues. Typical arrogance of western NGOs and governments.

I have a suspicion that the ‘PlayPump’ was designed as much to extract money out of governments and NGO’s than to extract water from the ground.

134 jacob July 31, 2015 at 3:13 pm
135 Tel July 31, 2015 at 10:50 pm

As far as I’m concerned, people who believe in evolution, don’t believe in altruism (not by any conventional definition of what altruism is anyhow), and the reverse holds true: people who believe in altruism don’t believe in evolution.

Having said that, this example shows a failed product, you never know what works and what fails until you try it, regardless of experts. The free market is littered with failed products, just read through some of the old patents. How many of you rushed out and bought an Apple iWatch? None of you? I presume that means Apple must be a failure and needs to be done better or something.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: