Photo of the day

In honor of Sarah and I attending a Foxes class at our local nature center today (from Telegraph’s animal photos of the week):

A fox was spotted strolling down in Downing Street in London

A fox was spotted strolling down in Downing Street in LondonPicture: Joe Pepler/REX

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Whom to give to?

A few years ago I heard Peter Singer’s argument about charitable giving and it definitely made an impact on me.  That, along with several other writers advocating against giving to already wealthy institutions (e.g., my undergraduate alma mater), as well as some really interesting reporting on organizations like Givewell has really influenced my own charitable contributions.  In fact, thanks to Givewell, I spent my New Year’s eve giving to Give Directly, the Fistula Foundation, and Living Goods.  Anyway, in light of that, I was intrigued by Eric Posner’s Slate article suggesting that perhaps I should have given to Duke or some local disadvantaged kids.

First, his summary of the compelling Singer augment:

But the idea that one should contribute one’s excess wealth to the poor is only one prong of effective altruism. Singer elaborates on the other prong in a new book calledThe Most Good You Can Do.

After you resolve to donate your excess wealth to the poor, Singer says, you have an additional ethical obligation to ensure that the money is used in the most effective way possible. This might seem like an obvious idea, but it isn’t. Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

Posner, though, finds some reasons to doubt Singer’s admonitions:

GiveWell does not say that the other charities are worthless but typically declines to recommend them because they do not supply enough information for GiveWell to evaluate their programs. GiveWell declined to recommend Oxfam, for example, because Oxfam does not publish “high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website” and implements many programs that GiveWell does not think are particularly effective. So how do we know that Oxfam does any good? Yet this is a charity that Singer has extolled many times.

Academic research on foreign aid has painted a similarly bleak picture. There is little evidence that the trillions of dollars donated to developing countries has helpedthem develop…

Aid is often lost to corruption, or misused because donors do not understand foreign cultures. Aid can even stoke conflict and damage institutions, as groups compete for access to foreign funds. Well-intentioned aid efforts frequently illustrate the law of unintended consequences. A good illustration is the poster child for aid, the malaria net, which is a cheap and effective way of saving lives. As the New York Timesreported, many net recipients use them as fishing nets, which kill fish, destroy fisheries, and poison water sources, because malaria nets are treated with insecticide. Of course, not everyone misuses malaria nets, but the story illustrates an old finding in the foreign aid literature, which is aid interventions that seem obviously good frequently go awry…

So what’s an effective altruist to do? The utilitarian imperative to search out and help the people with the lowest marginal utility of money around the world is in conflict with our limited knowledge about foreign cultures, which makes it difficult for us to figure out what the worst-off people really need. For this reason, donations to Little League and other local institutions you are familiar with may not be a bad idea. The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much.

That’s a little too easy.  Sure, much of foreign donations may go awry.  But even if 90% of your donation for a charity for starving Haitian orphans goes awry, I would argue that there’s still more benefit to that then getting a poor kid in America a baseball bat.  Not to be holier than thou, as I still give plenty to charities that surely don’t make Givewell or Singer’s cut, but I’m under no illusions as to the relative merit.  For that matter, imagine how much good I could do with poor, staring 3rd world orphans just by giving up HBO and sending them the money (which I actually try not to think about).

Quick hits (part I)

[This was supposed to auto-publish this morning, as usual, but somehow didn’t]

1) Since it’s been Ted Cruz week, here’s a nice piece putting him into context of the Paranoid Style in American politics.

2) I’d read that redheads are typically more susceptible to pain, but I had not read before that it is tied to a particular genetic mutation in about 70% or redheads.  Not that I’m tough or anything, but I think I am in the other 30%.

3) Nice piece from Bill Ayers on how to make sense of scientific controversies.  Suffice it to say, that an understanding of the scientific method (yeah, social science in addition to “real” science) helps.

4) Nice to see at least one prosecutor who erroneously convicted an innocent man of murder feels bad about it.  Now, prosecutors need to read this and think about being more careful before it’s too late.

5) Totally deserving of it’s own post, but as you’ve noticed, I’ve had a hard time getting to things this week.  Any way, the way police handle the mentally ill in this country is just appalling.  Police were dispatched and told they were dealing with a mentally ill person.  Then, he basically seems to get shot (there’s a video) for carrying a screwdriver.  Worst part, the way police endlessly defend this action.  Whether legally justified or not, for this situation to end up with a man dead, is just horrible policing.

6) Adam Davidson on the myth of job-stealing immigrants.  My favorite part about this is that most of what Davidson does is summarize the research of mainstream economists from across the political spectrum, but oh boy does that enrage the commenters.

7) Some interesting research on receptiveness to scientific expertise.  So apparently, it’s not the Republicans are resistant to listening to science, just that Democrats are particularly receptive.  (Hmmm, something seems weird about that formulation).  Also, the religious not liking science so much.

8) Dogs can actually know the difference between words, not just tone of voice.  Cool.

9) A trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail cut in the form of a modern thriller.  Fun.

10) Enjoyed this NYT editorial on the coal industry versus the Clean Air Act.  For some reason I don’t really trust the coal industry’s preferred interpretation of the coal industry.

11) One of my great recent regrets?  That I got an episode behind on the Jinx and had the stunning, stunning ending ruined for me by the news coverage.  That was some ending even knowing it was coming.  Enjoyed this story about Durst’s younger brother.

12) Loved this essay from a Biology professor on what it’s like teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

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