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The effective altruism movement seems to be taking off. It is not at all hard to understand the appeal. Many of us (not me of course, I don’t care) struggle every day with the notion of trying to live a good life and as part of that life we want to have a positive impact on the world. Faced with the constant struggle of trying to evaluate just what are some of the good (best?) ways to do this, we just sort of go through a mish-mash of efforts and hope they work. Maybe we were inspired by a book (such as Room to Read) or a story from a friend about a particular place she visited. But how do we know that our efforts, large or small, are doing any good? Don’t we want to know given our limited time and resources here on Earth, whether our contributions are helping others? Furthermore, many of us know the long history of political efforts to promote development has been checkered, certainly not universally successful and in some cases it is thought that foreign aid and other development projects have actually made things worse by unleashing unintended consequences or entrenching vile dictators whose sole purpose is to extract as much as possible from his people while keeping them mired in lives of poverty.

Layer on top of this the fact that many of the world’s citizens now find themselves unconscionably wealthy by world standards, and that human well being can be improved, theoretically, very cheaply, in those places that have yet to develop, and there is a real opportunity for people to think harder about “doing good better.” In other words, people are thinking hard about the marginal benefits and marginal costs of their various forms of charitable giving. The effective altruism movement therefore is not merely a movement to encourage more people to give and to give more and to earn more to give more … but it promotes research into best giving practices, so we can be sure that we get the most poverty alleviation bang for the buck.

And as far as I can tell from a few interviews, the founder, Will MacAskill, is an admitted person of the left, and former participant in the typical college-type socialist workers meetings and such, and he seems to have fully embraced this economic way of thinking about the problem of poverty and charity. And as far as I can tell, the Effective Altruism movement seems to be supported across the political affiliation spectrum – I certainly do not get the sense that the progressive left is appalled at this sort of thing (wholly aside from the issue of whether governments should or should not also be doing this, I am talking about the movement itself).

So what now really puzzles me is why when the very same ideas and tools are applied outside of the Effective Altruism movement, not only are they ignored, they are sometimes vigorously attacked. I’ve yet to read a criticism of MacAskill on the left that accuses him and the movement of being paid lackeys for crony capitalists, or that the “economist-y” tools he is employing somehow are not appropriate or diminishes what he is doing. But good lord, if you do the exact same thing MacAskill is doing when it comes to public health triage in America, or environmental issues in America or around the world, then you are actually the devil.

Don’t believe me? Go look at what has happened to people like Bjorn Lomborg, whose book I read a decade and a half ago and really got me started thinking more seriously about environmental issues. He basically has encouraged hundreds of people to come together to evaluate some of the world’s most pressing problems, many environmental, and come up with a ranking of where we will get the most improvement for our efforts at alleviating the problems. For lack of a better description, he is broadly applying efficiency analysis to many environmental and health issues. And he has been absolutely been nailed as a pariah, lackey, etc. He was even “forced” to not accept a new faculty position in Australia because people simply didn’t like the work he was doing. Now, go look at the excellent book, “How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World” or the original idea from whence all of this grew, “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and read them without knowing about the current hatred for him and without knowing anything about him. My reading is that you’d think he was an extremely thoughtful social scientist, worried about lots of things, with a strong progressive streak that wishes to see government action working on these things. I certainly don’t think you’d get, “Man, how much did Continental Resources pay this dude to write this book!?!?”

But that’s where we are. Mr. MacAskill applies very sensible tools to the issue of global charity, the very basic tools economists use, and he combines it with an emotional message that we CAN do more to help others and that we SHOULD do more to help others, and he seems to me to be the flavor of the month. When Bjorn Lomborg, or really anyone for that matter, applies the very same tools with a slightly less strong (though still somewhat emotional) appeal to do more and to do better, he is completely scorned, an outcast, evil, and so on. This, to me, is not only disastrously inconsistent, but extremely cold-hearted to not just the people doingwork like Lomborg, but to the billions of people whose lives would be improved if folks like this were paid attention to.

I typically ask this question to my environmental economics students (not original to me):

A company chairman is told a new project will increase profits, but it will definitely cause harm to the environment.

He says, “I don’t care about harming the environment. Let’s start the new project. I just want to make as much profit as possible.”

He proceeds with the project.

QUES: Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

Typically, we see around 40% of the class suggest that yes indeed this person did intentionally harm the environment. We can talk about the psychology and sociology of that later, especially as compared to the number of students that typically say yes to the next question about unintended good. But my point today is a on the political-consistency side. Suppose instead we reframed the question this way:

The President of the U.S. or your local Congressperson is told a new program will increase promote job creation, but it will definitely cause harm to the environment.

She says, “I don’t care about harming the environment. Let’s initiate the program , our economy is in too much trouble not to do so.”

She proceeds with the project.

QUES: Did the politician intentionally harm the environment?

Do you think 40% of my students would still think this was intentional? Should our response in one scenario differ from the other? Remember, people think profit itself is a “dirty” word (pardon the environmental pun), so is that what is the source of the result here? But as you know, profits are a good thing, and of course there is almost no actual evidence that political programs to create sustainable jobs have actually had much success in the past, would you expect that influence the responses here? What nodes of the brain are most of us employing when answering these questions?

Wished I were clever enough to write a post combining those topics, here are a few papers that caught my eye:

  1. Toilets CAN work. Lest you think that is a trite observation, note that one of the most puzzling aspects of development and global charity for decades has been the understanding of the importance of good sanitation, the seeming inexpensive approaches to dealing with it, and the frustrating lack of success in rolling out programs. Disclaimer: I was a Lord Jeff with Dr. Guiteras.
  2. What do economists know about the effectiveness of school voucher programs? I like the approach here, appears to have the appropriate level of humility and evenhandedness – fodder for all sides of the “debate” to consider, should they care. Disclaimer: Dr. Urquiola was a professor of mine (albeit briefly) when I was a Big Red student.
  3. Major capital projects at K12 schools do not generate improvements in student outcomes. While the result is unsurprising, I would have bet that selection effects and unobservables would have generated strong positive correlations in the levels, though not the changes. Disclaimer: my biases may have led my eye to focus more on this paper than otherwise.
  4. What is the optimal structure of progressive taxation and education subsidies? Long-time readers know of my distaste for estimates of “optimal” social policy – simply because there are many goals. In any case, this seems to be a case for increased higher education funding. Note that if this were the path to go down, the form of subsidy clearly matters. Two more points. First, I wished policymakers would focus much harder on the marginal tax “rates” implicit in our various social programs. Second, I think the focus on “higher education” as it exists is probably not right. Disclaimer: note my own and the authors’ obvious conflicts of interests as employees in the field.

Why We’re Doomed

This one is due to folks on “my side.”

You’ll see much written by folks either for or against unions. Fine. Let’s not go there. But what really does a disservice to serious engagement is the need to use a data point to make a larger point that may not warrant it, and to continue using it as a talking point.

Without naming anyone, there is some discussion about whether so called, “Right to work” states are those with better job growth and stronger economies. At best this requires a good deal of statistical work to untangle, but my thinking here is:

1. The share of private workforce that is unionized today is so small that I think any effects, should they be there, are not going to be easily measurable nor do I think they would be that relevant to begin with.

2. To invoke the goodness of right to work because as an idea it sounds good disturbs me. The notion of right to work that is attractive is that no person should be forced to pay union dues and join a union if they do not wish to. I certainly would prefer that as a rule. But that’s not how some right to work laws work … they go much further than that and enact prohibitions on forming unions at all. That’s not exactly something to celebrate or brag about.

Consider how I might present data knowing that this is actually how those laws are written: States with restrictive labor regulations grow faster and have stronger labor markets than those that don’t.

A lot of what I read gets perilously close to that.

Count me out of that crowd … sadly for some reason I get grouped in with it.

the absolute global sea level rise is believed to be 1.7-1.8 millimeters/year

Source here.

This is equivalent to 1.8 centimeters per decade (about 2/3 of an inch)

This is equivalent to 18 centimeters per century (about 7 inches)

That trend is believed to have begun a while ago.

In other news, my students are being told to, “not listen to half of what economists say.” That’s professional.

Imagine we celebrated, “Entrepreneur Day,” in celebration of the risk taking, passion and drive of thousands of entrepreneurs who contribute to our remarkable existence.

But in the spirit of the holiday. ..


How do you feel about the increasingly popular meme of “Rich People Problems” or “Rich Country Problems?” I tend to be sympathetic to the intention of the meme – that the things we complain about or worry about are extraordinarily trivial when compared to the problems of people-times that were not as well-off as we are, even those of us who are not wealthy by American standards. I get it, and I am perhaps partly to blame for this idea becoming popular, after all I spend a disproportionately large chunk of my time telling students how great they have it today.

So, this morning as I was preparing for class, I was using our school’s course management system (it shall remain nameless, it is a horrible piece of software and the fact that I haven’t designed my own course websites offends my best senses). I had posted an announcement to the class and sent it off. It remains “sticky” to my announcements page after the message is sent out, which is nice. Sometimes however I want to save those messages as reminders for things to do in future courses, or to put it in some class notes or recitation notes for my TAs to know what I am sending to the class in the future, and so on. The simple point is that (and this is not the first time) I navigate over to the announcement section on my course page, I hover my mouse over the section of the announcement that I wanted to copy, clicked down on the mouse expecting to copy the desired text and … and … and … my screen just starts scrolling up.

Ugh! Argh! The horror! Now, I am sure you’ve had this happen with various protected documents, but this can be really annoying. So I could either take a screen capture of everything I had already written once, or I could go into the text editor and copy from there, close out the editor and be done – making sure that when I close out the editor I don’t re-send the entire announcement as an e-mail again, lest my students think I am dumber than they already think I am.

How annoying. So I added it to a long list of “wishes” I had that would be corrected or improved upon should our school ever move to new software or have the ability to tell this provider that some things could be improved upon. Before I get to my lesson, this would be a great starting point for what I see as a major economic problem. Our course management sorftware seems to have been designed by people, at least in part, who have never had to use the software either as students and certainly not as content creators/professors/TAs. It is entirely clunky and not at all responsive to the new media and technologies that are out there today, or to the best way to engage students (and course creators) with the lesson/course materials. It is almost astonishing. Think about how many times you’ve said something like this: “this locker room must have been designed by someone who never needed to shower after a workout!” And so on. Is this problem worsening or become less bad as technology and information and specialization march apace? Will the advent of 3D printing and other smart technologies enable creators of final products (such as my courses) to have better command of their inputs – to help us vertically integrate in a 21st century sort of way? Or with every small item of our lives be outsourced to a specialist?

OK, back to the point. My reaction to my whining about the lack of copying ability on the website was, “shut up Wintercow! Your grandfather died at the age of 60 from debilitating silicosis because he spent his life breathing in dust from his job as a tomb stone carver!” I initially said that for some perspective, but think a little more deeply about the implications of my thoughts. Yes, of course, it is “nice” to be able to complain about my small insignificant job inconveniences, my grandfather neither had the luxury nor the ability to do that. But does this mean my feedback about the website should not have been provided? Does it mean that such feedback should be ignored?

I am going to claim, without writing 10 more paragraphs, that such feedback should not be dismissed. This feedback is part of an enormous amount of information that entrepreneurs can and do respond to in order to make our lives better, and it is the process of engaging with the minute details like this that set the institutional stage for accepting feedback and making improvements in more consequential areas. I might even go as far as to say that making small adjustments and responding to feedback like this are themselves much maligned but overlooked improvements in our lives and perhaps even necessary components for future progress.

Before you entirely agree, note too that what also should be stated is that there is some possibility that the web developers have good reason to not allow me to easily copy this text. Whether I agree or not, before going internally (or externally) bananas, it is always worth asking that question.

The Wind Crop

From the various places I go to learn about how wind energy works, it seems to be accepted that the maximum amount of wind power that can be generated at any moment on a square kilometer of land is 1 Megawatt. For reference, that is about enough power to power up somewhere between 750 and 1,000 homes. Let’s assume away any environmental problem with windmills involving the use of rare earths, large amounts of cement and metals and emissions required for construction, their limited lifetime, requirements for backup generation, impact on wildlife, impact on wind patterns (after all, remember the First Law of Thermodynamics), etc. and just look at its scaleability (we’ve done these calculations here before).

The U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that the U.S. collectively uses about 3.7 trillion Megawatt-Hours of electricity over the course of a year – which in a perfect world would require, with 24-7 unimpeded generation capacity, an installed capacity of over 400,000 megawatts. In reality we need much more than this.

OK, so given the best case scenario for wind, how many acres of the U.S. would have to be planted in wind farms in order to power the U.S. solely with wind? This is of course a straw-manish idea, no one is proposing to go all wind, but the thought experiment does help give a sense of the scale we are talking about. Optimistically, wind can generate 8,760 Megawatt-Hours of electricity per year on a square kilometer – scaling this up to be able to produce electricity for the entire country’s demands would require 104 million acres to be planted in windmills.

How big is that?

This year, the USDA estimates that  about 90 million acres will be planted in corn, about 85 million acres planted in soybeans, and 56 million acres in wheat. In other words, we’d need more acres planted in windmills than we would need for the entire corn crop in the United States, most of which is not of course dedicated to feeding people (about half of this goes toward biofuels, it wold be interesting to add this acreage to the windmill acreage and all of the other acreage needs that arise due to refusals to allow more GMO crops, promotion of organic methods, etc.).

Ignoring Alaska, the wind crop would be the third largest state in the Union behind only Texas and barely behind California. An alternative way to compare this crop size is that it would take up about 5.5% of the total land area of the continental United States. How much land is used, collectively, by cities? 3 percent. Imagine doubling the amount of cities that are currently in America, and instead of loading them with skyscrapers, bars, museums and schools, we just lined the city blocks with windmills. It would certainly look cool.


  1. Crowd-sourced beer. Note, this isn’t the traditional crowd-funding to get a brewery started, rather this brewery gets recipes and recipe ideas from customers every month and that is what it brews and sells for that month. One way it is able to do this is that it presells about 80% of all of its beer sold. Its primary means of distribution is shipping packages of bombers to customers in 42 states. For those of you who love the state of American liquor regulation, this might be interesting. The company is not permitted to sell its beer directly to me here in New York. Instead, it has developed a relationship with an Illinois distributor who has managed to obtain a license to sell “Beer of the Month Club” offerings to customers in many states. So, MobCraft brews up a batch, sells most of it to the distributor, who then is legally able to ship to my door.
  2. This link is not at all unrelated to the neat one from above: a new restaurant in San Francisco is fully automated. Now, I have no doubt that the $15 minimum wage idea is not what drove this model, but there is also no doubt that this is not entirely unexpected not just in an era where wages are mandated, but also where benefits are mandated, it is becoming increasingly difficult to fire workers, and to be quite honest, it is hard to find people who take great pride in their work and do a great job at many levels within the wage distribution. Furthermore, you might think to yourselves, “well, at least there are cooks in the back,” … I don’t expect that to last too much longer either.

Certainly there have been some well publicized surveys over the past couple of years both worldwide and in the US that interest in environmental issues is waning. Certainly on a policy level, when people are asked to rank many environmental issues as compared to health or education or jobs issues, the environmental ones come near the bottom or at the bottom of the list. This should come as no surprise as the “environment”, to the extent you can consider it a good, is a very normal good, with a very large associated income elasticity of demand.

My anecdotal evidence for this is the same as well. Sure there are lots of bumper stickers our there, but my sense is that environmental issues are just another flag that politicized tribal members either fly or don’t fly, not because it is particularly important to them, but rather because, well, that’s what members of that tribe are supposed to believe. My other anecdotal evidence for it is that in my many hundreds of conversations with students – both new students and continuing students – I actually can’t remember (outside of my Environmental Economics class TAs) a single time when a student has come to me with a question or observation or article or story about anything environmental related. It’s not like I wouldn’t be a person they wouldn’t bring this up with – after all I do teach the class on it, and my office is well adorned with the paraphernalia you might expect of someone who is interested in it. Despite my interest in it, despite our college pushing a “go green” message very aggressively with the students, despite the proliferation of environmental course and social offerings on campus, if anything over my 8 years, I have seen a decline in interest in the topic. I wonder why this is the case. In addition, while my class enrollments in all of my classes have slowly increased or at least remained steady over my time here, the Environmental class has had enrollments steadily falling – from over 80 in each of my first two years as I recall, now down to 40.

Surely some of the enrollment decline is simply in the fact that I ask students to do a lot of work in the class. Another reason is because the department asks that I clearly publicize the two prerequisites there are for the course. Other reasons for the decline may include the scheduling of other electives at the same class time as mine, and other reasons include a steady gravitation in student enrollments overall toward financial/business classes and a more math oriented schedule. Of course, my crappy teaching ability and the general perception that it is hard to get an A in the courses I teach must have something to do with it as well – though I find the material in this course to be more interesting than any other I teach.

I wonder if enrollments in environmental economics classes elsewhere are robust? Where, among the electives most economics departments offer, the enrollments in their environmental courses rank? As I enter the final year of my contract here, my own interest in environmental issues is strengthening, but it seems like I better get on board with the more financial and mathematical oriented aspects of the field if I want to remain useful in the future – prospects I am not entirely excited about.

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