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John Quiggin suggests that we could feed everyone a high-meat diet and reduce climate change to boot by shifting from livestock to chickens:

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands [fn1].

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year.

That would give an average of 62kg [meat consumption] per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present.

This may all be correct, but far from being an unachievable utopian vision it sends a shiver down my spine. Brian Tomasik has crunched some numbers and estimated that the direct animal suffering caused by each kg of chicken meat produced is probably an order of magnitude greater than the suffering per kg of beef produced. This is because chickens are much smaller than cows and because their lives on factory farms are worse, being confined to tiny cages as they are.

If we were looking to paint utopian food scenarios, I could do better than envisage an explosion in the number of broiler chickens. We could see a shift towards vegetarianism, which the article implicitly observes requires fewer resources than meat-based diets. We could learn to grow meat or other meat substitutes the same way we grow plants, removing the need for all the suffering and inefficiency of incarcerating actual animals. Or at least we could develop the conscience not to torture chickens in this way in order to save small amounts of money.

A common folk explanation for the triumph of capitalism over communism goes along these lines:

Communism has some lovely notions about sharing wealth between people in proportion to their needs and ideally we would indeed live that way. But people are not motivated to work under such egalitarian conditions. Humans are somewhat pro-social and do make some sacrifices for others, especially close friends and family. But that just isn’t enough to keep people working hard and productiviely in big, anonymous, industrial economies year in, year out. The economic system has to go with the grain of human nature and appeal to people’s greed by offering private rewards for work hard and risk-taking. That is why market economies have become rich and centrally planned ones have stagnated. Communism was a triumph of idealism over the realities of human nature.

If this really is the reason capitalism has been so successful, I’m afraid the future doesn’t look so good for capitalism.

In that caricature, capitalism is only the best economic system given the constraints imposed by human nature. Human nature has turned out to be harder to mould than 19th century idealists had hoped, but it will not remain fixed in that way forever. Over thousands of years evolution can and will change human nature, leaving us free to choose from a broader range of social structures.

Long before ‘natural selection‘ has much impact I expect that ‘human directed selection’ will take off. Initially children will be chosen for things like beauty, intelligence and health, but eventually our personalities will also become a parental or social choice. It will then be within our power to take the pro-social behaviour that humans currently display to only a small in-group of close friends and family, and direct it towards larger groups of our choosing. Communism could get a second run, only this time it wouldn’t have to work against a human nature that evolved to serve our hunter-gatherer ancestors!

Communist communities whose members are selected to cooperate selflessly among themselves could turn out to be more productive and gradually out-compete individualistic or capitalist communities. These communities might resemble hyper-social super-organisms like ant or bee colonies.

The competitive dynamics of such a scenario are a challenge to imagine. There would be lots of ways such cooperation could be undermined but it might also be possible to sustain. Excluding and punishing free-riders within the community will be an option for people as it is for insects.

Such communities might still choose to use markets and prices to solve the economic calculation problem but then redistribute what they produce in a very egalitarian way. Or future technologies might allow them to dispense with markets altogether.

Though I am personally quite an individualist and enjoy the classically liberal way of life, I am not so horrified by the thought of human or post-human societies being very different in the future. The members of such a future ‘communist’ society would not necessarily share my individualistic preferences and so might not suffer to live as slaves to giant communities as humans today do. The desirability of this scenario was discussed by Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen a few years ago:

Cowen: Let’s try some philosophical questions. You’re a philosopher, and I’ve been very influenced by your writings on personal obligation. Apart from the practical issue that we can give some money and have it do good, there’s a deeper philosophical question of how far those obligations extend, to give money to other people. Is it a nice thing we could do, or are we actually morally required to do so? What I see in your book is a tendency to say something like “people, whether we like it or not, will be more committed to their own life projects than to giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint”. I think we would both agree with that, but when we get to the deeper human nature, or do you feel it represents a human imperfection? If we could somehow question of “do we in fact like that fact?”, is that a fact you’re comfortable with about human nature? If we could imagine an alternative world, where people were, say, only 30% as committed to their personal projects as are the people we know, say the world is more like, in some ways, an ant colony, people are committed to the greater good of the species. Would that be a positive change in human nature or a negative change?

Singer: Of course, if you have the image of an ant colony everyone’s going to say “that’s horrible, that’s negative”, but I think that’s a pejorative image for what you’re really asking …

Cowen: No, no, I don’t mean a colony in a negative sense. People would cooperate more, ants aren’t very bright, we would do an ant colony much better than the ants do. …

Singer: But we’d also be thinking differently, right? What people don’t like about ant colonies is ants don’t think for themselves. What I would like is a society in which people thought for themselves and voluntarily decided that one of the most satisfying and fulfilling things they could do would be to put more of their effort and more of their energy into helping people elsewhere in need. If that’s the question you’re asking, then yes, I think it would be a better world if people were readier to make those concerns their own projects.

Below is a scene from the movie Schindler’s List. It is one of the most haunting exchanges I have ever seen on the screen.

We all find ourselves in the same circumstance as Schindler: confronting unending opportunities to save lives at low cost. Indeed it is easier for us to save lives than it was for Schindler. None of us faces the risk of arrest and execution by the SS.

We may not weep for those we fail to save because we never see them, but they are just as real.


Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his
Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his
wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach.
The rabbi hands him some papers.

We’ve written a letter trying to explain
things. In case you’re captured. Every
workers has signed it.

Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the
typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets
it, this new list of names.

Thank you.

Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler’s hand. It’s
a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an
inscription inside it.

It’s Hebrew. It says, ‘Whoever saves
one life, saves the world.’

Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods
his thanks, then seems to withdraw.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more out …

Stern isn’t sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him,
from his wife, from the car, from the workers.

(to himself)
I could’ve got more … if I’d just … I don’t
know, if I’d just … I could’ve got more…

Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who
are alive because of you. Look at them.

He can’t.

If I’d made more money …I threw away
so much money, you have no idea.
If I’d just …

There will be generations because of
what you did.

I didn’t do enough.

You did so much.

Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The
look on Schindler’s face as his eyes sweep across the faces of
the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for
not doing more.

This car. Goeth would’ve bought this car.
Why did I keep the car? Ten people,
right there, ten more I could’ve got.
(looking around)
This pin –

He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel
and holds it out to Stern pathetically.
Two people. This is gold. Two more people.
He would’ve given me two for it. At least one.
He would’ve given me one. One more. One
more person. A person, Stern. For this.
One more. I could’ve gotten one more person
I didn’t.

He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he’s
been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him.

They killed so many people …
(Stern, weeping too,
embraces him)
They killed so many people …

From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below,
trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and
Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls
out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.

This is a question I repeatedly find myself asking especially in evaluating the desirability of Hanson’s Malthusian upload scenario, or increasing the number of wild animals. Here’s one piece of evidence:

Early in Katherine Boo’s unforgettable book, a boy from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, rushes into his makeshift school, bleeding. The classroom is nothing more than a single room in a neighbor’s hut, but it is the only place he can go for medical attention after being hit by a car. No sooner has the teacher begun treating his wound than his mother surges into the hut, wielding a large piece of scrap metal and screaming: “No car will kill you! No god will save you! You went in the road, roaming loose like that, and now you will die at my hands!” After receiving a beating, the boy is rescued by his teacher. Prior to departing, his mother threatens to “break his legs and pour kerosene on his face.” For this boy, an injury could mean financial catastrophe. “If the driver had hurt you worse, how would I have paid the doctor?” the mother asks her son while striking him. “Do I have one rupee to spend to save your life?”

More than one hundred pages later, a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over her head and lit a match; her face and hair exploded in flames. The reader has long since known that the deceased—a vindictive woman whose life was full of pathos and bitterness—performed this act for other reasons. But her widowed husband is desperate to deny the idea that his wife had been depressed, let alone suicidal. As proof, he offers up the observation that when their two-year-old daughter drowned in a pail, her death did nothing to shake his wife’s composure.

Boo’s book, which traces the lives of a dozen or so characters in Annawadi between 2007 and 2010, so accustoms the reader to scenes such as this that the widower’s testimony does not quite register, at least initially. None of the witnesses at the trial are reported as reacting to what would generally be considered a damning appraisal of a dead woman’s character. (Unlike those in the court, we have reason to suspect that The One Leg killed her own daughter.) But what does it mean for a husband to state proudly that his wife had not been affected by the death of their child? What does it mean, in a separate incident, for a boy to lose his hand in a plastic shredder and shed tears not from the pain but from the fear of losing his job?

The current and potential future suffering of ‘wild’ animals is one of the most serious problems a utilitarian must confront. In spite of that it is basically ignored, even by most smart and compassionate people. Fortunately the number of people concerned with the matter is growing, though from a low base.

There are three new resources available for those who would like to spread the word. The Felicifia wiki offers a nice compendium describing the issue and what might be done about it.

Utilitarian Essays now hosts a detailed pamphlet called Life in the Wild, which aims to persuade people who are already concerned with captive animal welfare to offer the same empathy to wild animals.

It isn’t new, but Tyler Cowen’s paper Policing Nature offers responses to some common arguments against giving ethical consideration to wild animals, both from utilitarian and other perspectives.

Finally, Oscar Horta is looking for “a graphic designer and a web designer for a project aimed at spreading the word about animal suffering in the wild and animal ethics.”

Hopefully the stock of research and publications on the issue will continue to grow.

jkaufman over at LessWrong has been good enough to post a transcript of an interview between Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer on ethics. It had a big influence on my thinking when I first heard it several years ago. Below is a highlight. The whole thing is worth reading.


Cowen: Let me ask you a question about animal welfare. I have been very influenced by a lot of what you’ve written, but I’m also not a pure vegetarian by any means, and when it comes to morality, for instance, my view is that it’s perfectly fine to eat fish. There may be practical reasons, like depleting the oceans, that are an issue, but the mere act of killing and eating a fish I don’t find anything wrong with. Do you have a view on this?
Singer: There’s certainly, as you say, the environmental aspect, which is getting pretty serious with a lot of fish stocks, but the other thing is there’s no humane killing of fish, right? If we buy commercially killed fish they have died pretty horrible deaths. They’ve suffocated in nets or on the decks of ships, or if they’re deep sea fish pulled up by nets they’ve died of decompression, basically their internal organs exploding as they’re pulled up. I would really … I don’t need to eat fish that badly that I need to do that to fish. If I was hungry and nothing else to eat I would, perhaps, do it but not given the choices I have.
Cowen: But now you’re being much more the Jewish Moralist and less the Utilitarian. Because the Utilitarian would look at the marginal impact and say “most fish die horrible deaths anyway, of malnutrition or they’re eaten or something else terrible happens to them”. The marginal impact of us killing them to me seems to be basically zero. I’m not even sure a fish’s life is happy, and why not just say “it’s fine to eat fish”? Should it matter that we make them suffer? It’s a very non-Utilitarian way of thinking about it, a very moralizing approach.
Singer: You would need to convince me that in fact they’re going to die just as horrible deaths in nature, and I’m not sure that that’s true. Probably many of them would get gobbled up by some other fish, and that’s probably a lot quicker than what we are doing to them.
Cowen: You have some good arguments against Malthusianism for human beings in your book. My tendency is to think that fish are ruled by a Malthusian model, and being eaten by another fish has to be painful. Maybe it’s over quickly, but having your organs burst as you’re pulled up out of the water is probably also pretty quick. I would again think that in marginal terms it doesn’t matter, but I’m more struck by the fact that it’s not your first instinct to view the question in marginal terms. You view us as active agents and ask “are we behaving in some manner which is moral, and you’re imposing a non-Utilitarian theory on our behavior. Is that something you’re willing to embrace, or something that was just a mistake?
Singer: Look, I think economists tend to think more in terms of marginal impact than I do and you may be right that is something I may need to think about more. Look, Tyler, I have to finish unfortunately, I’ve got another interview I’ve got to go to, so it’s been great talking to you, but I think we’re going to have to leave it at that point.

People often say to me that certain actions, outcomes or policies are ‘good’. Something I usually try to establish right away is ‘compared to what?’ There are three common responses: relative to nothing, relative to the status quo and relative to anything else. In most circumstances the first two comparisons are red herrings; the standard we should usually instinctively apply is the last.

In personal decisions this is clear enough. If you are trying to decide what to do and are going through programs you could watch on television, there is no use comparing each program to staring at a blank TV screen, to whatever channel it happens to be tuned to now, or to sitting and doing nothing. The fact that a show is better than a blank screen is irrelevant to your decision. Instead you should compare watching each program to the best alternative activity you can think of and only watch it if it is better.

When someone says that giving money to a charity is ‘a good thing to do,’ for some reason that standard tends to be relaxed. They ought to compare that charity to the best way to spend that money, not just to destroying it or spending it on themselves. For some reason wastefully spending the money on oneself is the standard comparison in this case. Similarly, when we consider a government policy, we should compare it to the best policy in that area that we can think of, not to doing nothing at all or continuing to do whatever we are already doing.

That’s not to say you should never consider other more limited comparisons. For example, we might restrict our comparison to ‘other charitable acts we would actually be willing to do’, or ‘other policies that would be able to get through parliament.’ If someone else thinks that doing nothing is the best option, then in a conversation with them we may want to use that as the comparison for the sake of argument. However, when we want to make a more limited claim we should ensure everyone understands what comparison we are drawing and why we have chosen that counterfactual.

I’ve heard a lot of conversations over the last few years about the merit or lack thereof of the Australian Government’s National Broadband Network rollout. Many people evaluate the network compared to ‘changing nothing’. Most others evaluate it relative to ‘the best alternative broadband policy I can think of,’ or ‘the best way to spend that money.’ [2] Needless to say, the people who draw the first comparison tend to judge the NBN positively, while those who apply the latter standards are more likely to evaluate it negatively. [1] To my mind the first comparison would only be interesting if doing nothing were the likely alternative, which I’m pretty sure is not the case. We should at least ask whether the NBN is ‘good’ compared to other broadband policies, and ideally whether it is good relative to all the other things the government could spend that money on.

[1] I am taking no position on the merits of the NBN.

[2] If we are spending money to achieve some goal, at a minimum we should compare that expenditure to the best alternative way of achieving that goal we can find. This is called cost-effectiveness. Ideally we would go further and compare spending money on that goal to the best way we could spend money to achieve any goal. That is usually much more difficult to do, and requires agreement not only about whether that goal is desirable, but how important all goals are relative to one another. So if we going to dedicate some resources to achieving that original goal, it can be useful to search for the most cost effective way to do so without comparing it to all possible alternatives.

Here I will unpack another common offered but dubious part of William Isdale’s argument that permitting families to spend extra on their children’s education is inefficient and immoral. Isdale asks us to imagine the following situation:

“Imagine you are about to finish high school and would like to study medicine. You are bright and you’ve worked hard. But unfortunately for you the university you’d like to attend, instead of admitting students on the basis of their grades or talents, has decided instead to auction off such opportunities to the highest bidders. Consequently, less talented and less hard working students with wealthy parents have an advantage bought for them. Surely we would have good reason to object to such a system; it would constitute not only a very serious injustice to you, but it would also be hugely inefficient for society; it would seriously distort the rising of talent and ensure we had a society of second rate doctors.”

If extra education spending helped people gain entry to a fixed number of professional positions but did nothing to improve their ability of course that would be undesirable. But that is a very strong claim. More expensive primary or high schools may well help their graduates, but presumably that is because the training they offer makes them better students and employees. Universities and employers would learn to ignore such education if that weren’t so. Further, if primary and high schools really did nothing to enhance the skills of students, neither the rich nor the poor should have their education subsidised because all that would matter is someone’s underlying (and unalterable) talent!

Even if it were true that private schools provided unmerited advantage to their alumni, the blame for that would lie with universities and employers for using inappropriate selection criteria, not with the student for attending a private school. If university entrance criteria accurately selected people based on how equipped they were for a career or course of study, families would be able to purchase useful classes for their kids rather than force them to jump through useless and expensive hoops to get admitted.

And even if schools had no way to use extra funding to offer better classes, improved selection criteria would not spell the end of expensive schools, because parents are not concerned exclusively with academic success. Private schools offer diverse extracurricular, personal and cultural services which attract parents and students. Prohibiting families from spending money on schooling is a bad substitute for addressing bad university entrance criteria, because in order to discourage wasteful classes and bad students getting an advantage, it would also hit the useful courses and extra services families want to buy from private schools.

Notice also that for his conclusion to hold, Isdale has had to assume that each extra student who enrols in a course displaces another student. Fortunately this is not longer true in Australia’s demand-driven higher education system, at least for professions without anti-competitive guilds or ongoing shortages of teaching staff.

Finally I would note that to call the situation he describes a ‘serious injustice’ Isdale must believe that it is just (and not just efficient) for those who happen to inherit talent but not money to profit from their talent, but unjust for those who inherit money but not talent to profit from their money. This is a common attitude, but the reason has never been obvious to me. It seems more sensible to target equity after all of someone’s advantages in life have been taken into account, and not just one of them.

Next I’ll look at the main reason Government’s allow parents to contribute to education expenses and present what I think is a stronger foundation for seeking equality in school funding.

N.B. All opinion here are exclusively my own, and I am not taking a position on school funding, simply critiquing the models in the original post.

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’.

Recently the Australian Government produced a large report into its school funding arrangements. William Isdale over at Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog has examined the review and argued that it neglects the harm of funding private schools even when parents are making big contributions to those schools.

He could well be right that we should target a greater share of funding on disadvantaged children, but he takes us through some common silly arguments to get us there. I’ll look at them across a few short posts.

First Isdale notes that,

“…there are in fact reasons to subsidise private education in some instances. One reason is that education is a public good; a society of well-educated people is better than one where people are never afforded those opportunities.”

Reasonable enough. On the other hand,

“…education is a positional good as well as … one with public benefits. Access to rewarding jobs is to a large extent (but not wholly) a zero-sum game. If someone lands a great job, someone else misses out. Since education is one of the main ways in which we land such jobs and win out over others, there are good reasons for believing that its advantages should be based on talents and not money. Not doing so is not only unfair, but it’s bad for society.”

This substantially underestimates the extent to which education is a positive sum game in a dynamic economy like our own. At the individual level when one person becomes more educated and takes a highly skilled job from another person, it looks as though one person’s gain has been another person’s loss. But if you look across countries and times you see some places where the vast majority of workers are poorly skilled and most jobs require few skills, and others where most of the population is highly educated and the economy has adjusted to make use of most of those skills. As their population became more educated the Swedes for instance didn’t just redistribute a fixed share of professional jobs between themselves – businesses that demanded professional employees opened and expanded. Jobs that had previously been done by those those with low skills were now done by machines and immigrants, and in some cases those jobs disappeared altogether (for example, it’s rare to hire housemaids or shoe-shiners today). Most people in a country can have high skilled and high paying jobs if they have the required talent and education, and employers are given time to adjust to make use of the skills they have. I would reverse the order and say that access to rewarding jobs is to a large extent (but not wholly) a positive-sum game.

To be fair to Isdale, while access to rewarding jobs is positive sum, the status associated with being a wealthy professional is more of a positional (or zero sum) good. A wealthy engineer will feel less special when 10% of the population are wealthy engineers than when 1% of the population are. Discouraging education spending to defuse this zero-sum competition might would sense if people would then redirect their efforts to other more positive-sum activities. However I don’t see what those other activities are meant to be. Most things people can do with their time, even overall helpful ones, have some competitive element to them. Becoming more skilled and educated seems about as useful for society as anything most people do.

On the face of it Isdale’s case contradicts itself. If having the people around you become better educated is overall a negative externality as he seems to suggest, then we should be taxing education rather than subsidising it. But Isdale wants us to subsidise it more, at least for disadvantaged groups! We can make sense of his position if we assume that education spending for an individual is initially a positive externality for the rest of society, but then as the spending goes up, becomes a negative one. This could be true if education spending is initially about learning skills, but at higher levels just serves to help students signal their distinguished pedigree to future teachers and employers. Unfortunately he never gets around to making that case. My understanding is that we struggle to measure the externalities from education at all, so it would be hard to convincingly mount an empirical case for such a precise claim.

N.B. All opinion here are exclusively my own, and I am not taking a position on school funding, simply critiquing the models in the original post.

Earlier today I had the pleasure of a long Skype with Seth Baum about existential risk and how I could best contribute to reducing it. Among other things, Seth studies climate change as a global catastrophic risk at Colombia University. He is taking it on himself to work to help network people studying different aspects of global catastrophic risks across universities, governments and the private sector. He does not accept Nick Bostrum’s quip that “there is more scholarly work on the life-habits of the dung fly than on existential risks.” According to him there is a lot of research on some existential risks, in particular nuclear war and disease pandemics – it is just not organised into a cohesive literature on ‘global catastrophic risk’ as such. One of Seth’s goals is to connect people studying these risks and working in related fields in order to encourage them to study the characteristics and possible solutions they have in common. He is organising the global catastrophic risk symposium at the World Congress on Risk 2012 in July which I am looking forward to attending. Think about coming as well if you will be in the area.

He shared links to a number of organisations that were new to me which I thought I would pass along.

Seth and his colleague Tony Barrett are founding a new organisation, the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. Their hope is to evaluate which existential risks are most important to focus on, and which techniques are most likely to succeed at reducing them, for instance stockpiling food or building bunkers. Unlike GiveWell they will be rating strategies rather than organisations. The effectiveness of different approaches presumably varies by orders of magnitude, so this is incredibly important work. It will be a useful guide to those who become concerned about global catastrophic risk and make a big difference to the universe. Sister organisations, Blue Marble Space and One Flag in Space aim to promote space colonisation in order to reduce the risk of human extinction and conflict between nations, among other reasons.

A similar organisation is Saving Humanity from Homo Sapiens which is attempting to link donors concerned about existential risk with organisations that can most effectively use extra funding. This will hopefully in the future also involve evaluating their effectiveness.

Skill Global Threats Fund is a charitable foundation aiming to support those dealing with a range of catastrophic risks such as climate change and nuclear war. It’s goal is to “work proactively to find, initiate, or co-create breakthrough ideas and/or activities that we believe will have large-scale impact, either directly or indirectly, and whether on cross-cutting issues or individual threats.”

The Tellus Institute engages in future scenario mapping, including potential collapses of humanity and growth into post-human or space-faring civilizations. The paper Great Transitions is an example, though I am yet to read it.

The UPMC Biosecurity is a leading research organisation on catastrophic biosecurity threats. The Cultural Cognition project at Yale is moving into studying duel use problems in technology, including Nanotechnology Risk Perception.

Finally, if you haven’t checked out Nick Bostrom’s personal site then you really should. He has some excellent papers on existential risk, among other futurist issues. I hope to blog about some of the highlights in the near future.

One of the big challenges in life is finding friends and colleagues who support and bring out the best in you. This is especially the case when your goals are unusual and you are less likely to be assisted by the people you already know. I expect that the lack of social networks and esteem are important reasons why few people invest many of their resources into effectively improving the world, even when convinced on a philosophical level that it is the right thing to do. The supportive social networks are so much larger for ineffective forms of altruism that it is no surprise many more people are drawn to them.

For that reason I am very happy to see the growth of the 80,000 Hours organisation, which is a part of the Centre for Effective Altruism. They are collecting people who are researching and writing about how to most effectively make a difference, encouraging folk to commit to doing good, and then providing support for them the meet their giving goals. Their mission statement is to “help you be an effective altruist by providing a supporting community of dedicated members who share their insights and experience.”

Similarly, whatever their imperfections, it is very valuable to have the Less Wrong community and Singularity Institute as magnets for people who are concerned with existential risk, clear thinking and the future, who might otherwise give up from the lack of anyone to talk and work with.

If you haven’t thought much about how you can have a big positive impact on the world, watch the short video below and then the longer presentation underneath and consider taking the 80,000 Hours pledge. By giving a bit of thought to how you can best contribute you can do a lot more good for others at no extra cost to the rest of your life.

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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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