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A few months ago I wrote about how cleanliness was often an unhelpful addiction:

I am skeptical of cleaning, beyond that required to stay organised and avoid disease, for the same reason most people are nervous about drug habits. People differ enormously in how much cleanliness they expect. When someone catches the ‘cleanliness bug’, I doubt they are left any better off than someone with low expectations. They could easily be worse off if they have to incur the cost of cleaning just to maintain their original level of well-being. That is to say, I think cleaning exhibits strong dependency and addiction.

Quiggin has a similar take on social expectation for housework and how we could alter our attitude to them to save ourselves the trouble:

That still leaves a number of inescapably physical and essentially crappy jobs, for which technology has yet to offer a solution. The obvious examples for me are cleaning (surfaces, baths, toilets etc) and ironing (not such a problem if, unlike me, you can do it while watching a video/TV). Something these tasks share, and which is true of a lot of crappy jobs, is that we do a lot more than is actually necessary. Social standards inherited from the days of cheap servant labour dictate much more cleanliness than is required for hygiene, and practices like ironing for which there is no need at all.

So, a final part of my idea of utopia would be the institution of social norms that frown on unnecessary crap-work. In my utopia, a freshly ironed shirt would attract the same kind of response that is now elicited by a fur coat or an ivory brooch – a mixture of anachronistic admiration with disapproval of the process by which it was produced, with the latter element predominating over time.

I am willing to do my part – or perhaps I should say not do my part – to push social norms in this direction!

A few weeks ago I did a cost benefit analysis of flossing to work out whether it was worth the time. Though time spent flossing does add up to a lot over a lifetime, if you want to save serious time you’ve got to find efficiencies in actions that take up a lot of your time. Commenter Pattie-oh for instance made a good observation:

Showering less frequently would save more time for most people while having no negative health consequences. In the US, many people shower every day (sometimes more than once a day). Skipping a shower probably saves about seven minutes, as opposed to two minutes saved by not flossing.

Showering every second day could be a good time saver if you live in a cold place and don’t particularly enjoy showers. I shave every only second day because I find it quite time consuming and my work doesn’t especially care.

But these are still only small matters in comparison to the thing you spend the most time on every day: sleep. Even minor improvements in the efficiency of your sleep can save a lot of time.

This post over at Reddit has a number of suggestions for how to sleep better, with the author claiming to have reduced the time they need to spend sleeping by 20%, which would essentially increase their waking lifespan by 6% (HT Hugh). A few of the ideas, like the climate controlled room, are expensive, but most of them are simple. They would certainly be worth doing if they could save anything like an hour a day as suggested. One of the suggestions is taking melatonin pills, which is analysed in detail on LessWrong.

I am going to work through these ideas and keep an eye out for a better sleeping environment when I next move house.

For many years during my undergraduate degree I was living on a scholarship alone and so learned to be a very frugal person. As computers and mobile phones got cheaper, I would always take advantage of that to get cheaper rather than better models when upgrading. Last year for instance I bought a basic smartphone for $100 and a netbook for $250. This year on the sage advice of Luke Muehlhauser I changed my approach and splurged on a MacBook and higher end Android phone. Having experienced both I realised that buying the cheap electronics was a false economy and that if I had thought about the decision properly I would have worked that out much earlier.

The reason is simple.

A high quality laptop cost me $1100 while a comparable low quality one would have cost me $500. I use my laptop an average of about 2 hours a day, and expect it to last around two years. Over its lifetime then I should expect to use it about 1400 hours. A high end laptop then costs $0.42 an hour over a low end one. I estimate that the MacBook’s design and reliability boost my productivity by at least 10%. Do I value a 10% productivity boost at $0.42 an hour? Given my wages and the importance I place on getting things done – definitely. And then there is the pleasure and serenity I get from using a well designed product on top of that.

Likewise, a good phone cost $200 more and I use my phone about half an hour a day and also expect it to last for two years so it comes to about 55c extra each hour of use. While I don’t use the phone as much, it is particularly valuable to be able to do what you need to do on your mobile quickly, for example when you are trying to find an event, some piece of information or a person you a meeting. The faster processor and better software on the expensive phone allow me to perform most tasks almost twice as quickly as on the cheap phone. This is certainly worth the cost.

My instinct without doing the numbers was that ‘to be frugal is a virtue’, but in order to save my money I was inadvertently a spendthrift with my time. In future I will divide the price of durable items like laptops into hourly costs as I have done above in order to make it easier to work out the best decision.

The power of exponential growth seems to make a compelling case for effective altruists to delay their donations. An average 5% return on investment (ROI) would turn one dollar into ten in 50 years time. If saving a life costs $2000 now and similar opportunities will exist in the future it would cost just $200 to save a life in 2062 – a relative bargain! Sadly things aren’t so simple. Whether we really should delay depends on specifics of the activities we are funding and difficult predictions about the future. Here I’ll summarise the most important uncertainties as a roadmap for future posts.

Our goal can be summarised as choosing the time t which maximises

(1 + Return on investment)t × Cost effectiveness of donation

× Probability of donation actually being madet.

Unless you are a multimillionaire, the relevant expected ROI is the highest one available without regard to risk. Giving $2m will do about twice as much good for the world as $1m, so to maximise your expected impact you should just maximise your expected donation. Note that if your favourite charity would be able to use money now to attract donations at a rate faster than you expect your investments could return profits then donating would have to be better.

The second and more challenging issue is how cost effective your donation will be in the future relative to now. If you thought basic health would be the optimal cause this would involve anticipating things like

  • the extent of poverty
  • the cost of delivering health services
  • how much other donors will be funding the low hanging fruit.

The last point is especially relevant for those like me thinking of funding existential risk reduction because a few billion from governments or philanthropists could make a big impact on the value of further funding in that area.

In evaluating cost effectiveness we must factor in that any good charity will have impacts that propagate through time and so offer its own ROI. For instance, combatting contagious diseases now rather than in 2062 should lead to fewer people becoming infected in the meantime and so result in a richer and healthier population in 2062. Similarly, spending on existential risk reduction draws attention, money and researchers to that issue. Giving now leaves your donations more time to have this snowball effect during the window of greatest extinction risk.

On the other hand delaying leaves you more time to identify cost-effective targets for donations. Personally, I am investing rather than giving mostly because I expect groups like 80,000 Hours to give me a much better idea of how to best reduce existential risk within the next decade.

Finally you must assess the risk of your donation never being made, for example due to a catastrophe which eliminates your savings. If you can’t bind yourself through a trust fund, you must also worry about changes to you or your life which result in you deciding not to give.

If you are like most people I know, you don’t feel you floss enough. Each time you go to the dentist you get scolded for not flossing at least once a day. You promise to be a good patient but after a week or two go back to flossing every few days, if that. The last time I went to the dentist however I had two cavities and am supposedly at risk of more. The unpleasantness and cost of the experience got me thinking seriously about flossing every day, and for the last six months I have stuck to it.

But maybe I was right when I couldn’t be bothered flossing. What evidence do I actually have that flossing regularly is worth it, given the frequent if small inconvenience it involves?

Whether or not you floss on any particular occasion is a minor decision, but whether you do so over your whole life is a significant one. The cost of dealing with fillings, root canal surgery and decaying teeth can easily run into hundreds or thousands of dollars a year – tens of thousands over a lifetime. On the other hand, if you floss every day for the next sixty years, taking two minutes each time, that would come to around 730 hours, or some 90 eight-hour work days spent flossing! It’s tempting to follow instinct, dentist advice or habit but I don’t see why any of those would be reliable guides in this case. Given the substantial costs and benefits at stake it’s worth looking at the evidence and making a considered decision.

For some reason though it looks like I’m one of the first people to want a cost benefit analysis of flossing. Google and Google Scholar turned up nothing. Economist Bryan Caplan wanted to produce one but didn’t get very far. Tim Harford laughed at the idea. An hour’s search couldn’t even provide me any figures on how much flossing could be expected to reduce the appearance of cavities! There must be research out there but it isn’t easy to find.

But uncertainty is no reason not to run some numbers. Guesses about the individual parts of the overall equation will be better than guesses about the final result. If we put in some reasonable numbers and end up with a strong conclusion (that is floss a lot, or don’t floss at all) we will some guidance as to what we should do.

I produced a spreadsheet that uses the following personalised inputs (my preferences/guesses in parentheses)

  • Annual discount rate (0%)
  • Age (25)
  • Life expectancy (85)
  • Financial and non-financial cost of getting a filling ($300)
  • Average lifetime of a filling (8 years) [1]
  • Unpleasantness of having a filling ($50 per filling per year)
  • Value of time ($20 per hour)
  • Attention-adjusted time taken to floss (1 minute)
  • Unpleasantness of flossing ($0.20 each time)
  • Cost of 50m of floss ($4)
along with guesses about
  • frequency of new cavities, depending on the frequency of flossing

to produce a dollar ‘loss’ from the costs you incur both due to flossing and dental work. You can try various combinations, and see which minimises your loss.

Based on past experience and the advice of my dentist, I have guessed that with occasional flossing I will get a new cavity roughly each four years. This will probably vary a lot between people; some teeth stay good no matter how much people abuse them. If I floss daily though, I expect to get a new cavity only each 8 years. With these numbers I come out about $15,000 ahead over my lifetime from flossing daily relative to flossing once a week. Sounds like a good idea!

Unfortunately the result is not very robust. If flossing takes two minutes of my undivided attention, and a high wage makes me value each hour at $40 rather than $20, then flossing looks like a bad idea. Of course, with a higher income I might also be willing to pay more to have nicer teeth and not endure fillings. The other key determinant of the outcome is age. The older someone gets the less valuable continued flossing is as they will not have to deal with any additional damage to their teeth for as long.

Overall however it looks like someone who is young and has teeth that are vulnerable to decay should probably floss regularly.

I encourage you to try out the calculator, suggest improvements and work out your own estimates.

Improvements to the model I would like to make, and would appreciate help with are:

  • Find clearer figures on how expected tooth decay varies a) with flossing b) between people
  • Consider other kinds of treatments one might end up needing (e.g. false/missing teeth)
  • Factor in changing costs and preferences over someone’s life
  • Include other benefits of flossing, such as better breath or gum health
  • Determine how cavities actually increase over a lifetime rather than using linear growth (you will probably run out of high-risk spots for new cavities over time)
  • Expand for use with mouthwash, brushing, cleaning, etc.

There are four possible effects a habit can have on someone’s preferences that I would like to distinguish. For convenience I have labelled them appreciation, satisfaction, dependency and addiction. For my purposes, appreciation is where you gradually achieve a higher level of welfare doing something the more that you do it. Likely examples would be meditation or watching a lengthy TV series. Satisfaction is where an activity leaves you sated, and therefore better off even if you stop doing it. Pleasant investments in yourself, such as studying something you enjoy, could be an example of this. Dependency is where the gain from doing a fixed amount of something delivers a lower welfare boost over time, with the (net) benefit possibly falling to zero or going negative. Most drugs show some level of dependency. Finally, addiction is when the more you do something, the worse off you will be if you stop doing it. A lot of drugs also have this effect, as do other things you get ‘used to,’ like exercising or having money to spend. These are all shown on the figure below. Many habits exhibit two of these effects or affect different people in different ways.

I have found this framework to be helpful in clarifying my thinking about which habits I should and should not take up.

We should be enthusiastic to accumulate habits that are characterised by appreciation and satisfaction. The stronger the effect the better. Dependency is undesirable, but you can still be better off from the habit if the effect isn’t too strong. Intense dependency is no good because eventually you will end up gaining nothing or losing from the habit. Addiction is not a problem so long as you will always want and be able to continue with the habit. If you will eventually stop, due to dependency, cost or unavailability, addiction will hurt you.

Appreciation and satisfaction combined is the ideal because you win out whether you continue the habit or not.

Addiction on top of serious dependency is the worst case because you will eventually be worse off whether you continue or not. These are the most problematic habits.

Appreciation and addiction together is fine, so long as you don’t expect to have to give up the habit for some reason. If you will, it will be a judgement call as to the initial gain and expected loss later on.

Satisfaction and dependency isn’t perfect but you can’t lose out overall. Even if dependency means you no longer gain from continuing the activity, you will continue to gain for having done it in the past.

The matrix below puts the above into a colourful tabular format.

Appreciation Satisfaction Dependency Addiction
Appreciation Good
Satisfaction Ideal Good
Dependency Impossible Can’t lose Ambiguous
Addiction Ambiguous Impossible Ambiguous but risky Ambiguous

The hard challenge is knowing which habits have which effects and with what intensity, but this framework at least allows you to ask the right questions and know what to do when you get the answers. It also makes it easy to understand and categorise the claims other people make about their habits.

For instance, someone who thinks it is worth ‘getting into’ fine food might claim that fine food is about appreciation. Someone like me who is skeptical of fine food, might think it is actually about dependency and/or addiction. I have in fact been going out of my way to buy cheap clothes, food, wine and beer lately in order to see if any dependency I currently have gradually disappears. If so I will be able to save money buying cheap goods for the rest of my life and be no worse off. I’ll let you know how it goes.

What got me thinking about all this was cleaning up my house on the weekend. I am skeptical of cleaning, beyond that required to stay organised and avoid disease, for the same reason most people are nervous about drug habits. People differ enormously in how much cleanliness they expect. When someone catches the ‘cleanliness bug’, I doubt they are left any better off than someone with low expectations. They could easily be worse off if they have to incur the cost of cleaning just to maintain their original level of well-being. That is to say, I think cleaning exhibits strong dependency and addiction. Amirite?

Last year I gave a few thousand dollars to the charity Village Reach, which performs vaccinations in rural Mozambique, on the recommendation of charity evaluator GiveWell. The bottom line of the recommendation is that Village Reach can prevent a childhood death for around $400-$800 – very cheap indeed.

A natural response might be to ask what value there is in saving someone’s life in such a poor country. Though I don’t know a great deal about quality of life in rural Mozambique, living in a country with “one of the lowest GDP per capita, one of the worst human development index and amongst the highest inequality in the world” presumably isn’t great. Anywhere that you can save lives for a few hundred dollars would have to be pretty rough! Given this, the justification for vaccinations has to rest on more than just averting death. It must also be about improving people’s quality of life.

Population effects aside, reducing the rate at which people die is a significant way to improve quality of life. Being sick and dying is painful for the person involved and those who care for them. Further, raising kids only to have them die in infancy uses up resources in a community that has no resources to waste. Childhood disease reduces the intelligence and health of survivors and depresses school attendance. A high risk of a child dying discourages investment in human capital and encourages large families, both of which are probably bad for economic development.

If we want to do as much good as possible with health interventions we should aim to not only avert direct suffering from disease and death. The treatments that will most effectively improve quality of life in the long run will also spur on the economic development that allows people to support themselves.

What’s more, for someone who wants to maximise ‘total welfare’, the impact health spending has on population is not a second-tier issue. If Village Reach improves health without increasing incomes or reducing fertility, then it may just result in more people living in abject poverty, which is a questionable achievement. On the other hand folks who are optimistic about the quality of life of people living in poverty will not be so enthusiastic about fertility falling unless the population decline does a lot to improve average quality of life.

It is much harder to quantify these flow on effects on development and population, which is why they usually get short shrift. Education, health and development all cause one another with different intensities and lags, and unravelling the chains of causation between them is extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the absence of randomised experiments. A charity like Village Reach could randomly allocate villages to treatment and non-treatment groups and collect data on incomes and fertility in addition to health. Tracking these effects would require collecting data for an extended period of time, but would be a very valuable research project in its own right.

GiveWell has chosen to focus on health and nutrition interventions over others in large part because many more of them are cheap and have proven impacts. [1] Strong evidence of cost effectiveness is key for GiveWell, as a large part of what they are trying to achieve is a shift the culture among NGOs towards thorough data collection and evaluation of projects. [2] Given the current low standards of evaluation for most charities, this is a creditable goal.

A manageable improvement given this constraint would be to look at which kinds of disease do the most to depress education and productivity. A long lasting tropical parasite, childhood diarrhoea, chronic illness or fatal adult disease could all have different impacts on family structure and capacity for education and work. Likewise some countries may be in a better position to advance economic development in response to improved health than others. These flow on effects may be as important, if not more so, than the number of deaths averted per dollar.

[1]  An education program which can’t demonstrate an impact on education presumably isn’t doing much for quality of life, population or development either, so it is fair enough to ignore it.

[2]  While GiveWell’s evaluation style is likely to be biased towards interventions that have easily measured, short-term outcomes, this isn’t a problem necessarily. While GiveWell may miss highly effective charities, something which can’t be measured can’t be targetted.

ImageThere is a principle in finance that obvious and guaranteed ways to make a lot of money, so called ‘arbitrages’, should not exist. It has a simple rationale. If market prices made it possible to trade assets around and in the process make a guaranteed profit, people would do it, in so doing shifting some prices up and others down. They would only stop making these trades once the prices had adjusted and the opportunity to make money had disappeared. While opportunities to make ‘free money’ appear all the time, they are quickly noticed and the behaviour of traders eliminates them. The logic of selfishness and competition mean the only remaining ways to make big money should involve risk taking, luck and hard work. This is the ‘no arbitrage‘ principle.

Should a similar principle exist for selfless as well as selfish finance? When a guaranteed opportunity to do a lot of good for the world appears, philanthropists should notice and pounce on it, and only stop shifting resources into that activity once the opportunity has been exhausted. This wouldn’t work as quickly as arbitrage on financial markets of course. Rather it would look more like entrepreneurs searching for and exploiting opportunities to open new and profitable businesses. Still, in general competition to do good should make it challenging for an altruistic start-up or budding young philanthropist to beat existing charities at their own game.

There is a very important difference though. Most investors are looking to make money and to them a dollar is a dollar, whatever business activity it comes from. Competition between investors makes opportunities to get those dollars hard to find. The same is not true of altruists, who have very diverse preferences about who is most deserving of help and how we should help them; a ‘util’ from one charitable activity is not the same as a ‘util’ from another. This suggests that unlike in finance, we may able to find ‘altruistic arbitrages’,  that is to say ‘opportunities to do a lot of good for the world that others have left unexploited.’

The rule is simple: target groups you care about that other people mostly don’t, and take advantage of strategies other people are biased against using.  The rule  is the root of a lot of advice offered to thoughtful givers and consequentialist-oriented folks. An obvious example of the rule is that you shouldn’t look to help poor people in rich countries. There are already a lot of government and private dollars chasing opportunities to assist them, so the low hanging fruit has all been used up and then some. The better value opportunities are going to be in poor, unromantic places you have never heard of, where fewer competing philanthropist dollars are directed. Similarly, you should think about taking high risk-high return strategies. Most do-gooders are searching for guaranteed and respectable opportunities to do a bit of good, rather than peculiar long-shot opportunities to do a lot of good. If you only care about the ‘expected‘ return to your charity, then you can do more by taking advantage of the quirky, improbable bets neglected by others.

Who do I personally care about more than others? For me the main candidates are animals, especially wild ones, and people who don’t yet exist and may never exist – interest groups that go largely ignored by the majority of humanity. What are the risky strategies I can employ to help these groups? Working on future technologies most people think are farcical naturally jumps to mind but I’m sure there are others and would love to hear them.

This principle is the main reason I am skeptical of mainstream political activism as a way to improve the world. If you are part of a significant worldwide movement, it’s unlikely that you’re working in a neglected area and exploiting how your altruistic preferences are distinct from those of others.

What other conclusions can we draw thinking about philanthropy in this way?

I’m going to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on ‘local food’ and then later ‘fair trade’ to explain why I don’t think they are worth putting much effort into. I hope it will inspire you to do the same for whatever approaches you currently use to make the world a better place.

As you probably know, local food or locovorism is where people aspire to buy food made near to where they live. On a recent trip to the States I was astonished at the size of the local food movement. Everywhere I went people would beam with pride about how nearby their food was produced. There are several proposed benefits of local food [1] but probably the most common one is wanting to reduce the environmental damage caused by food transport, so called ‘food miles’. For this to be the best thing for someone to dedicate their attention to a few things need to be true:

  • environmental degradation and climate change would need to be valuable things to direct attention to on the margin;
  • reducing your personal environmental footprint would need to be an effective thing to do about those problems;
  • buying food produced near you would need to be a cost-effective or effort-effective way to achieve that.

Let’s assume for the moment that environmental degradation were the most important problem to work on. Reducing the effect of your personal consumption would be only one way to direct your effort. Others would include working to change environmental regulations, convincing others to do more themselves, expanding humanity’s ability to adapt to environmental degradation (for instance through poverty alleviation, migration or geoengineering) or assisting researchers developing green technology. Intuitively I expect all of those to pack a bigger punch per hour than trying to change your own consumption habits. But let’s say my instinct is wrong about that.

If you wanted to reduce the environmental impact of your own consumption, would buying food produced nearby be an effective approach? Let’s get some indication of the good you could hope to do:

Desrochers and Shimizu cite a comprehensive study done by the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which reported that 82 percent of food miles were generated within the U.K. Consumer shopping trips accounted for 48 percent and trucking for 31 percent of British food miles. Air freight amounted to less than 1 percent of food miles. In total, food transportation accounted for only 1.8 percent of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions.

In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture, which means that food transport is responsible for about 1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

So if we assume that buying local food eliminated all emissions from food transport you could hope to cut 1-2% of your total greenhouse gas emissions. Then there are some offsetting effects. A strong preference among consumers for local food would tend to drive agriculture towards places where it is otherwise less efficient, requiring more machinery, labour or land to produce the same food. This would also be bad for the environment. On top of this, as indicated in the quote above, retail-to-home transport has about the same impact as farm-to-retail transport. If someone drives further to the farmers’ market to buy local, they could end up producing more food miles overall. How significant these offsetting effects are will vary depending on the person and the food they are buying, but they suggest that 2 per cent is a generous upper bound.

What would be the rough value of a 2 per cent reduction in your emissions? Let’s say you are a big polluter and produce 20 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year. Let’s also take a high value of emissions reductions of $100 per tonne. This is several times the current marginal cost of reducing emissions and is probably more than enough to get us climate stabilisation at 450 CO2e, but let’s use it anyway. A 2% reduction in your emissions would then be worth $40 of good to the world (20 tonnes * $100 * 2%). This seems small to me for a year’s work buying local food, and that is the best case scenario. Insulating your home, not eating livestock or holidaying by plane, or buying up and ‘retiring’ carbon credits in carbon markets are likely to offer much more bang for buck.

Could eating local still be worthwhile? Sure. If you would eat food produced nearby for selfish rather than altruistic reasons, or are tossing up between a local and foreign item it’s little or no difference to you to choose the local one, go ahead. But if your goal is to effectively convert your time and money into good outcomes for the world it would be very surprising if ‘eating local’ were something worth making a fuss about.


[1] Other reasons I’ve heard offered are ‘I enjoy having a relationship with the farmer/land or helping small growers’ or ‘I like knowing how the animals/land are treated’. Insofar as you are eating local food because you enjoy it more you can disregard this post. As for being more informed about the effects of the farming techniques employed, or wanting to support small scale farming over big the same considerations apply. Does this really offer a high return on your effort? My other question would be: should you really have to eat locally to know how your food is produced? It seems like a less elegant solution than certification labels like ‘organic’ or ‘free range’.

For the last two years whenever I have felt charitable, rather than directly give away the money – to VillageReach incidentlaly – I have offered to match donations made by my Facebook friends 1:1. Initially I could only raise a few hundred dollars in matching donations, but most recently attracted almost $2000 with little effort. I always kept the maximum amount I was willing to match above what I expected would be forthcoming, so that matchers were apparently inducing me to donate more. Is all this a good thing to do?

The obvious answer is yes. By matching donations I am inducing others to donate more than they otherwise would. As long as I can find enough people to match that I don’t donate much less than I otherwise would, I’m increasing the additional effect of my donation. This is probably right. That said, it’s likely that many of those other folk were planning to give some money away anyway and reduced their other donations in order to match mine. For this reason I don’t believe that I was really causing two dollars to be donated for each dollar that I gave. The additional impact was probably quite a bit less.

An outside possibility is that donation matching not only doesn’t induce extra donations but rather ‘crowds them out’. This would be the effect if the people who matched my donation reduced their other donations by more than one dollar for each dollar they matched for me. Why would that happen? It could if they were targetting a certain amount of charitable donations each year and counted each dollar they matched for me as more than one dollar given, because the considered themselves partially ‘responsible’ for my donation as well. Having given $X, they feel like they have given $2X and cut back on $2X donations in the rest of their life. Thinking through human psychology I doubt this happens much, but it’s possible.

Even if it were true though, I would still use matching donations. The charity that I was donating to, VillageReach, can probably avert an infant death through vaccinations for around $500. That is far more effective than most other chartiable organisations [1]. While the people matching my donations are a clever and discriminating lot, my guess is that any donations I might have ‘crowded out’ would still have gone to less effective causes. It was worth matching just to better direct the funds.

Furthermore, inducing someone to give to VillageReach once, and making them aware of how effective their interventions are, will probably tempt them to give more in future both out of habit and a desire for consistency in their behaviour.

Further still, I was able to splash our giving all over our Facebook profiles, advertising what we were doing to my and their friends. While normally advertising one’s generosity in this way would be gauche, I have a good excuse (I am looking for matching donations!) and so do they (I did it not them, and it’s good to raise awareness!) which makes it socially acceptable. This raises the benefits of giving to us donors, probably tempting us to give more than we would otherwise.

This scheme also changes and raises the standards of what is admirable do-goodery to everyone who happens to be watching: not signing a petition or watching a YouTube clip, but rather giving hundreds or thousands of dollars to an organisation you have properly researched. Maybe this will improve their behaviour too.

The only mystery to me is why matching donations on social networking sites are not more popular. I hope I am just ahead of the rush.

[1] Though not as effective as existential risk reduction I now think. I would say the key downside of using matching donations is that it tempted me to give to familiar ‘African health program’ interventions that would attract matching donations, rather than more unusual but probably more effective animal welfare or existential risk charities.

I wrote this in April 2011 for the ANU student newspaper. Those without an interest in Australian education policy can safely ignore it. Opinions expressed are mine alone.

Last week’s National Union of Students (NUS) ‘Day of Action’ at ANU had the peculiar tagline ‘Say No to a HECS Increase’. I say strange because changes to HECS fees, whether up or down, will have little impact on the welfare of students or the nation relative to most other issues in education policy.


The evidence is clear that changes in HECS fees over time have hardly impacted how many people study or what they study. This is unsurprising because relative to the large increases in income, job interest and quality of life that most students gain from higher education, HECS is a minor consideration. If HECS fees don’t influence enrolments, that means that they are neither preventing students from staying in university forever to milk the system, nor driving them to enter jobs early rather than build up their skills for the good of society. So much for that.

Perhaps HECS fees discourage students from poor backgrounds from attending university because it looks like a lot of money to them? The evidence is in and they don’t – a poor and rich year 12 finisher are equally likely to go to university given the same ENTER score. The problem for poor kids is what happens before their year 12 exams, not after. We should be vigilant that this remains the case, by allowing them to defer most of their costs until after graduation through loans like HECS.

Perhaps it’s unfair to make those disadvantaged people who never get to go to university pay for the privileged minority who do? It would be, but due to our quite progressive tax system, low income earners don’t pay much tax anyway. The unfairness is mostly towards those who make good money without ever receiving higher education.

Maybe HECS has a negative impact on the welfare of people after they graduate and earn over $45,000 a year? It’s unlikely to, as any graduate earning over $45,000 a year and paying back some HECS is probably doing just fine financially. I’ll save my sympathy for those actually struggling to make ends meet, most of them in countries much poorer than our own. In any case, the alternative is that they (and non-graduates too!) pay for university in the form of higher taxes, which would leave them no better off overall.

Might HECS repayments discourage students from working or participating in society? If anything HECS, being a debt you can pay off, would encourage participation and work relative to raising other taxes, which you can never pay off. On average taxes cost the public at least $1.20 for each dollar the government spends. Income tax increases on high earners cost society at a minimum $1.30 for each extra dollar raised. I am confident the overhead with HECS fees is less than 30%, which is why I prefer it. Nonetheless I won’t pretend the difference is huge.

Doesn’t society have a moral obligation to pay students for doing something that benefits everyone? Actually, it should only bother if they aren’t already motivated to study out of self-interest, which clearly isn’t the case. I hope I’m doing good for society when I write for Woroni, but the editors have no obligation to pay me if I enjoy it enough to do it for free!

Don’t HECS fees commercialise universities? If only that were so. I would much rather the priority for Vice-Chancellors was to provide a quality education at a good price to drive up student enrolments, rather than curry favour with politicians and public servants. Maybe we should change the rules so that administrators have to spend most of our fees on our education, but can spend a proportion on their pet projects as a reward for attracting our business.

Aren’t HECS fees currently set arbitrarily, with law students paying most of the cost of their degree and science students only a small fraction? Yes. When politicians set education prices you can’t expect there to be much rhyme or reason, but that’s no reason for a general increase or decrease. If you want a general principle for setting fees for different areas of study I would suggest this one, which is both efficient and equitable: raise them until they discourage students from enrolling, then stop.

Ultimately though, the level of HECS fees is a second-tier issue in education policy. Ensuring administrators and academics provide quality lectures and tutorials; giving special help to kids who struggle in primary school, before they fall behind; getting degree places to match up with student and employer demand; ensuring income support allows poorer students to attend university without becoming a handout to the wealthy. These are the issues NUS rallies and Woroni opinion pieces should be about.

I wrote this for the Alternative Law Journal some time ago:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society. Why is the audience intended to admire the Na’vi’s complete self-satisfaction and unwillingness to deal with humans despite the fact that it is Na’vi isolationism and idealism as much as human avarice which drive the two groups into conflict?

Thinking about it I realised it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds. But if we were to encounter such uncompromising characters in our families or offices they would strike us as unreasonable lunatics. I am reminded of what Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, was reported to have thought we would call an archetypical, vengeance-fuelled vigilante like Batman in the real world: ‘in short, a nutcase’.

Why is it that rather than celebrate the values of conflict resolution, tolerance and deal-making, which make our advanced societies function so effectively, our favourite stories continue to be about zero-sum conflicts that are impossible to resolve peaceably? From afar, the kind of conflict found in Avatar seems noble. We can easily imagine one side to be all good and the other all bad. There is no need to dwell on the suffering of those extras who die in battle or the problems that go unsolved back on Earth for want of ‘unobtainium’. A quick cut to the next scene is always just seconds away! But in real life, conflict is painful and messy and something we work hard to avoid.

In fact we are so used to finding compromises in our everyday lives that to make his conflict story hang together, writer and director James Cameron is forced to pile absurdity upon absurdity: an intelligent species totally disinterested in trade with aliens and the magical technology they bring; a business that sees fighting interstellar war as a cheaper way to access ‘unobtainium’ than a peace treaty; a race of people willing to reveal all their secrets to conspicuous spies, but unwilling to negotiate or make concessions to humans even in the face of a catastrophic defeat. The crazy plot twists used to make compromise impossible result in a world unlike anything on Earth and as a result the movie is unable to teach us anything useful about how we ought to live.

Finally, we are led to a deus ex machina moment in which the megafauna of Pandora rise up to repel the human colonisers. To my knowledge, a revolt of Gaia is beyond the powers of the hunter gatherer tribes today struggling to coexist with industrial society, so I’m not sure what they can hope to take away from Avatar. The apparent moral of Avatar, ‘fight hard if you’re in the right and Gaia will provide’, is one only someone very isolated from the real challenges of hunter gatherers could put forward. Why does popular fiction so often favour staunch idealism over the central wisdom embodied in modern political systems and their laws: ‘dealism’? We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

An Australian movie with a very similar plot to Avatar is The Castle, in which the Kerrigan family fights the compulsory acquisition of their home for the expansion of Melbourne Airport. Audiences were predictably united in their support for the charming Kerrigan family in their struggle against big business. In real life, I suspect the public would be strongly divided on the fairness of the acquisition, especially if sticking up for the Kerrigan family meant airport delays and fewer discount airlines. We would want to find a deal which left both the Kerrigans better off and allowed for a larger airport by offering them more and more compensation until they voluntarily moved.

Why split our values like this, some for our stories and others for our own lives? I suspect the answer lies in what we subconsciously want our taste in fiction to say about us. Celebrating the Na’vi allows us to signal how much we value loyalty and justice. Denigrating Melbourne Airport allows us to show our suspicion of greedy and powerful people. In real life, when defending our stated values requires that we make serious sacrifices whether or not we are likely to win, we sensibly value the opportunity to compromise. But when a fictional character will do all the fighting for you, why compromise on anything? Though popular fiction will never say it, we know the best fight is not that won by the righteous but the one nobody needed fight in the first place.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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