How to Increase Effective Altruism

Caviola, Schubert and Greene have a good review of the reasons why effective and ineffective altruism attract donations. First, they note the large gains from making altruism more effective.

A US$100 donation can save a person in the developing world from trachoma, a disease that causes blindness [1]. By contrast, it costs US$50 000 to train a guide dog to help a blind person in the developed world. This large difference in impact per dollar is not unusual. According to expert estimates, the most effective charities are often 100 times more effective than typical charities [2].

…Most research on charitable giving focuses on the amounts that donors give [4]. However, if the societal goal of charitable giving is to improve human (or animal) well-being, it is probably more important to focus on the effectiveness of giving….you can double your impact by doubling the amount that you give to typical charities, but you can multiply your impact by a factor of ten, 100, or even 1000 by choosing to support more effective charities [2].

The authors then consider a number of cognitive factors or biases that allow or encourage ineffective altruism. For example, people tend to give to charities that they are emotionally connected with regardless of effectiveness and they also like to split donations across multiple charities in part because they have scope neglect (“a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” to quote Stalin who correctly identified the principle even though he was more concerned about how to get away with killing millions than saving millions).

One particular feature of the paper that I like is that instead of simply advocating overcoming these biases they think about ways to use them. For example, you can’t stop people giving to ineffective but emotionally attractive charities but because people like to split and don’t pay attention to scope you can get them to split their donation with an effective charity.

…people tend to support charities that are emotionally appealing, paying little attention to effectiveness. However, there is evidence that many people do care about effectiveness and that information about effectiveness can make giving more effective [2,21]. Combining these insights suggests a new strategy to increase the effectiveness of charitable giving: many donors may be amenable to splitting their donations between an emotionally appealing charity and a highly effective charity, especially if provided with effectiveness information.

This strategy can work especially well if you combine it with matching funds or funds to “cover overhead” which are given by a relatively small number of rich people who can be swayed by philosophical arguments in favor of effective altruism.

Hat tip: Steve Stewart-Williams.

Regional personality variation across the United States

Here is a fun piece for Bloomberg, I would say you should take Five Factor personality theory somehow seriously, but not too seriously.  Excerpt:

Let’s consider extraversion. The least extroverted states in the country are Maine, Washington and Oregon, which fits my stereotype that a disproportionate number of the residents of those states are seeking some kind of isolation. Wisconsin has the most extroverted population, with Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska coming in next. The Midwest seems to be a friendly and outgoing place. That is to me also no huge surprise, though I would not have picked Wisconsin to be No. 1. The southern states come in at about average, while New Mexico, Nevada, Vermont and Montana do not measure as very extroverted, relative to the rest of the country.


The data on conscientiousness run counter to stereotype. My expectation was that the Midwest would win out here, but the Southeast ranks the highest. Coastal California fares poorly, as do scattered parts of the Midwest and West, again non-obvious or unexpected results. If it restores your faith in stereotypes, the area surrounding New Orleans, perhaps the most licentious city in the South, also rates low in conscientiousness.

Overall, the two strongest correlates of conscientiousness were Republican share of the vote, and share of married individuals in the population.

When it comes to emotional stability, fans of “The Sopranos” or “Seinfeld” will not be surprised: The Northeast, stretching down through Appalachia, ranks the lowest by a noticeable amount. There’s a reason George Costanza and Tony Soprano fit right in.

Markets in everything

A Louisiana widow is left horrified at the news that her deceased husband was dissected in front of a live, paying audience after she donated his body to scientific research.

Elsie Saunders had carried out the wishes of her late husband, David Saunders, who wanted his body donated to help advance medical science, according to The Advocate. David Saunders, a World War II and Korean War veteran, died of COVID-19 on August 24 at the age of 98. Donating his body was his last act of patriotism, Elsie Saunders said.

But instead of being delivered to a research facility, David Saunders’ body ended up in a Marriott Hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon, where held an “Oddities and Curiosities Expo.” At the October 17 event, members of the public sat ringside from 9 am to 4 pm—with a break for lunch—to watch David Saunders’ body be carefully dissected. Tickets for the dissection sold for up to $500 per person…

Elsie Saunders learned of the dissection from a Seattle-based reporter at KING 5, who was investigating the event and tracked her down. A photojournalist who attended undercover for KING 5 had noted that the body had a bracelet with the typed name “David Saunders.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s horrible, unethical, and I just don’t have the words to describe it,” Elsie Saunders told The Advocate. “I have all this paperwork that says his body would be used for science—nothing about this commercialization of his death.”

Are medical students allowed to pay tuition?  Is “science” allowed to balance the books?  Here is the full story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Addendum: Under other circumstances, it has been common to use donated bodies for crash test dummies.

Sunday assorted links

1. Satirical short film about the Cuban peasantry and the Revolution.

2. There is no great New Zealand potato stagnation.

3. New edition of Ilya Somin’s Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

4. Derek Lowe on the new Pfizer pills.

5. Should you value tokens like countries?  And here is Tascha on DeFi.

6. Ethiopia update, better and more detailed story than most.

7. More on the discretionary DOT fund embedded in the new bill.

Half Doses of Pfizer Work Well

New paper published in Vaccines from Polish group showing that half doses of Pfizer generate strong immune responses.

In the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, using a half-dose schedule vaccination can help to return to normalcy in a cost-efficient manner, which is especially important for low and middle-income countries. We undertook a study to confirm that in adults up to 55 years old, the humoral response to the half-dose (15 µg, 35 participants between 18 and 55 years old) and to the recommended dose (30 µg, 155 participants) in the two-dose three-week interval schedule would be comparable. Antibody levels were measured by the Elecsys Anti-SARS-CoV-2 S assay (Roche Diagnostics, upper detection limit: 2570 BAU/mL) on the day of dose 2 of the vaccine and then 8–10 days later to assess peak response to dose 2. The difference in proportions between the participants who did and did not exceed the upper detection limit 8–10 days after dose 2 was not statistically significant (p = 0.152). We suggest that a half-dose schedule can help to achieve widespread vaccination coverage more quickly and cheaply.

See my previous piece A Half Dose of Moderna is More Effective Than a Full Dose of AstraZeneca.

Mobile internet and political polarization

So far this paper is my favorite of the job market papers I have seen this year, and it is by Nikita Melnikov of Princeton.  Please do read each and every sentence of the abstract carefully, as each and every sentence offers interesting and substantive content:

How has mobile internet affected political polarization in the United States? Using Gallup Daily Poll data covering 1,765,114 individuals in 31,499 ZIP codes between 2008 and 2017, I show that, after gaining access to 3G internet, Democratic voters became more liberal in their political views and increased their support for Democratic congressional candidates and policy priorities, while Republican voters shifted in the opposite direction. This increase in polarization largely did not take place among social media users. Instead, following the arrival of 3G, active internet and social media users from both parties became more pro-Democratic, whereas
less-active users became more pro-Republican. This divergence is partly driven by differences in news consumption between the two groups: after the arrival of 3G, active internet users decreased their consumption of Fox News, increased their consumption of CNN, and increased their political knowledge. Polarization also increased due to a political realignment of voters: wealthy, well-educated people became more liberal; poor, uneducated people—more conservative.

My read of these results (not the author’s to be clear!) is that the mobile internet polarized the Left, but not so much the Right.  What polarized the Right was…the polarization of the Left, and not the mobile internet.

And please do note this sentence: “This increase in polarization largely did not take place among social media users.”  It seems that on-line versions of older school media did a lot of the work.

Here are further papers by Melnikov.

The economics of medical procedure innovation

Important NBER work from David Dranove, Craig Garthwaite, Christopher Heard, and Bingxiao Wu on an understudied intervention:

This paper explores the economic incentives for medical procedure innovation. Using a proprietary dataset on billing code applications for emerging medical procedures, we highlight two mechanisms that could hinder innovation. First, the administrative hurdle of securing permanent, reimbursable billing codes substantially delays innovation diffusion. We find that Medicare utilization of innovative procedures increases nearly nine-fold after the billing codes are promoted to permanent (reimbursable) from provisional (non-reimbursable). However, only 29 percent of the provisional codes are promoted within the five-year probation period. Second, medical procedures lack intellectual property rights, especially those without patented devices. When appropriability is limited, specialty medical societies lead the applications for billing codes. We indicate that the ad hoc process for securing billing codes for procedure innovations creates uncertainty about both the development process and the allocation and enforceability of property rights. This stands in stark contrast to the more deliberate regulatory oversight for pharmaceutical innovations.

Here are ungated copies.

Cognitive sentences to ponder

The main conclusions are that, although children’s intelligence relative to their peers remains associated with social class, the association may have weakened recently, mainly because the average intelligence in the highest-status classes may have moved closer to the mean.

Here is the paper by Lindsay Paterson, British data, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

“America Needs a New Scientific Revolution”

That is the title of the new Derek Thompson piece in The Atlantic.  Here is one excerpt:

The existing layers of bureaucracy have obvious costs in speed. They also have subtle costs in creativity. The NIH’s pre-grant peer-review process requires that many reviewers approve of an application. This consensus-oriented style can be a check against novelty—what if one scientist sees extraordinary promise in a wacky idea but the rest of the board sees only its wackiness? The sheer amount of work required to get a grant also penalizes radical creativity. Many scientists, anticipating the turgidity and conservatism of the NIH’s approval system, apply for projects that they anticipate will appeal to the board rather than pour their energies into a truly new idea that, after a 500-day waiting period, might get rejected. This is happening in an academic industry where securing NIH funding can be make-or-break: Since the 1960s, doctoral programs have gotten longer and longer, while the share of Ph.D. holders getting tenure has declined by 40 percent.


First is the trust paradox. People in professional circles like saying that we “believe the science,” but ironically, the scientific system doesn’t seem to put much confidence in real-life scientists. In a survey of researchers who received Fast Grants, almost 80 percent said that they would change their focus “a lot” if they could deploy their grant money however they liked; more than 60 percent said they would pursue work outside their field of expertise, against the norms of the NIH. “The current grant funding apparatus does not allow some of the best scientists in the world to pursue the research agendas that they themselves think are best,” Collison, Cowen, and the UC Berkeley scientist Patrick Hsu wrote in the online publication Future in June. So major funders have placed researchers in the awkward position of being both celebrated by people who say they love the institution of science and constrained by the actual institution of science.

Much of the rest of the piece is a discussion of Fast Grants and also biomedical funding more generally.

Friday assorted links

1. “Using hand-collected data on birthplaces of US-born CEOs, we provide robust evidence that CEOs born in frontier counties with a higher level of individualistic culture promote innovation performance.

2. Photo trip to the Faroe Islands.

3. Tungsten cube sells for 250k.  It’s heavy.

4. What happened in Virginia.

5. NYT Anthony Downs obituary.  “Drawing from his stash of some 200 joke books, he would inject, on average, one witticism into his prepared remarks every six minutes.”  And he wore two extra wristwatches.  And it is also striking how the NYT writer cannot fathom that the median voter theorem is…mostly correct.

Daddy’s girl?

That is the title of a new paper by Maddelena Ronchi and Nina Smith:

We study the role of managers’ gender attitudes in shaping gender inequality within the workplace. Using Danish registry data, we exploit the birth of a daughter as opposed to a son as a plausibly exogeneous shock to male managers’ gender attitudes and compare within-firm changes in women’s labor outcomes depending on the manager’s newborn gender. We find that women’s relative earnings and employment increase by 4.4% and 2.9% respectively following the birth of the manager’s first daughter. These effects are driven by an increase in managers’ propensity to replace male workers by hiring women with comparable education, hours worked, and earnings. In line with managers’ ability to substitute men with comparable women, we do not detect any significant effect on firm performance. Finally, we find evidence of rapid behavioral responses which intensify over time, suggesting that both salience and direct exposure to themes of gender equality contribute to our results.

Note that Ronchi is on the job market this year.  Via Jennifer Doleac.  I am not sure of the last part of that last sentence (are other mechanisms possible?  Maybe these fathers simply become better at understanding female talent?), but still this is an interesting result.

ProPublica on FDA Delay

If you have been following MR for the last 18 months (or 18 years!) you won’t find much new in this ProPublica piece on FDA delay in approving rapid tests but, other than being late to the game, it’s a good piece. Two points are worth emphasizing. First, some of the problem has been simple bureaucratic delay and inefficiency.

In late May, WHPM head of international sales Chris Patterson said, the company got a confusing email from its FDA reviewer asking for information that had in fact already been provided. WHPM responded within two days. Months passed. In September, after a bit more back and forth, the FDA wrote to say it had identified other deficiencies, and wouldn’t review the rest of the application. Even if WHPM fixed the issues, the application would be “deprioritized,” or moved to the back of the line.

“We spent our own million dollars developing this thing, at their encouragement, and then they just treat you like a criminal,” said Patterson. Meanwhile, the WHPM rapid test has been approved in Mexico and the European Union, where the company has received large orders.

An FDA scientist who vetted COVID-19 test applications told ProPublica he became so frustrated by delays that he quit the agency earlier this year. “They’re neither denying the bad ones or approving the good ones,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because his current work requires dealing with the agency.

Recall my review of Joseph Gulfo’s Innovation Breakdown.

Second, the FDA has engaged in regulatory nationalism–refusing to look at trial data from patients in other countries. This is madness when India does it and madness when the US does it.

For example, the biopharmaceutical giant Roche told ProPublica that it submitted a home test in early 2021, but it was rejected by the FDA because the trials had been done partly in Europe. The test had compared favorably with Abbott’s rapid test, and received European Union approval in June. The company plans to resubmit an application by the end of the year.

A smaller company, which didn’t want to be named because it has other contracts with the U.S. government, withdrew its pre-application for a rapid antigen test with integrated smartphone-based reporting because it heard its trial data from India — collected as the delta variant was surging there — wouldn’t be accepted. Doing the trials in the U.S. would have cost millions.

Photo credit: MaxPixel.

The teleshock

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one part:

If you have had a relatively comfortable job during the pandemic, it might now be time to worry.

The more culturally specific your knowledge and skills, however, the more protected you will be. Doing math and writing code are universal skills. But if you are a wedding consultant, even an online wedding consultant, you’re probably not going to lose business to a competitor from Zimbabwe, no matter how sharp. On the whole, more people will end up in jobs that feel very “American,” for lack of a better word. Legally protected sectors — law, medicine and other professions requiring occupational licenses — will also get more crowded.

Among the winners will be American managers, shareholders and consumers. Managers will be able to hire the world’s best talent, at least from the English-speaking world, while productivity gains will translate into more profitable companies and better and cheaper products.

Big business will likely benefit more than small business. The larger companies have the networks and the brand names to attract the best overseas talent. And if a worker overseas cannot perform all the functions of a particular job, a larger company can more easily fill in the gaps with other talent.

It will also be very good for American U.S. soft power. The U.S. has a lot of successful, well-known multinational corporations. Think of all the many people around the world who might like to work for Apple, for example. American culture also seems to produce highly talented managers, and U.S. business is used to working with people from many different cultures. (This is in contrast to, say, Japan, which will not benefit as much as the U.S. from the teleshock, while Anglophone-friendly countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands may do well.)

The teleshock is likely to continue for a considerable period of time, perhaps longer than the China shock. It is conventional wisdom that “software is eating the world.” As software and tech become larger and more important, more of their jobs can be outsourced. The process will have no natural end. Furthermore, more people in the world will learn English, including in low-wage countries, so the potential competitive supply of affordable workers will not be exhausted anytime soon.