Showing posts with label The Local Maximum Problem. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Local Maximum Problem. Show all posts

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Most Charity is a Failure


I know you want to do good, and I know you want to think that wanting to do good combined with doing something results in doing good. Unfortunately, you are very likely and in most cases completely wrong. 

I suspect that most people will either reflexively disagree with and disregard my position on this or accept it at face value as a necessary consequence of human social failure. I also suspect that most people who have extensively studied this area as well as most people deeply involved in this realm will either strongly agree or disagree with me. 

For this post I imagine each of these four constituencies as potential audiences. 

First of all understand that charity isn’t always about doing good as Robin Hanson would tell us. Often it is a bundled good which combines a desire to dream altruistically and be recognized as altruistic with little connection to outcomes.

Second of all note that government action (i.e., forced collective action) is usually worse in all regards. At the very least with a failed charity we can more easily delude ourselves that what we are doing is on net beneficial and not resource or happiness destructive. And then there is the side benefit that we did it basically through voluntary agreement and persuasion rather than the threat of ultimately deadly force. 

Third of all let us distinguish between charity and other not-for-profits.* A charity is looking to benefit an underserved beneficiary. There are other not-for-profits that are actually just tax-favored gifts to one's own hobbies and personal enjoyments. The focus of this post is charities as commonly understood.

The problem with not-for-profits in general is that they are responsive to donors rather than customers as Arnold Kling elaborates

Donors and customers both have desires they want met. To understand if they are satisfied the donor is presented the answer while the customer largely gets to judge for himself. The marketing to donors strongly tends to be aspirational and promise-based whereas customers have to consider the actual outcome and experience. Additionally, donors have two biases at play further constraining their willingness and ability to be critical: selection bias (they already are supportive of the cause ex ante) and confirmation/endowment bias (they want to believe they made good choices).

Sam Harris makes great points in this podcast like how charities don’t stop existing often enough—they can be failing or have completely succeeded but they still are in operation, which implies they are wasting resources.

Just like in the fine art market where no participant has a strong reason to discover much less publicize a forgery and does have powerful incentives to suppress such information, participants in the not-for-profit sector are incentivized to self-promote and cross-promote the whole edifice as being successful. 

The challenge for charities are the classic problems of the seen versus the unseen, moral hazard, conflicts of interest, and the law of unintended consequences. 

This TED talk on African orphanages has elements of all four problems. 

ProPublica has been reporting for years on the failings of the American Red Cross.

TOMS Shoes has faced forceful criticism about its charitable program of donating a pair of shoes to a poor child for each pair of shoes purchased. In a rare case of reversal TOMS now donates 1/3 of its profits directly to "grassroots" efforts. This may be much better than their prior famous-cum-infamous program that had the unintended consequence of displacing development in poor countries. 

New York not-for-profit hospitals asking their patients for donations makes one wonder just how not-for-profit they really are. 

There are unintended consequences for heartwarming charities like Make-A-Wish, et al. When resources are directed to one thing, they cannot also be used in any other area. There are always tradeoffs.

Add to the classic problems listed above the simple element that good intentions are not sufficient for successful solutions. Case in point would be food drives where the obvious need is not the obvious solution.

It is possible to bring strong doubt to the ultimate value of any charitable organization. The fact is most do not stand up to scrutiny.

Yet we want to do good; so what is a good doer to do?

I am a weak proponent of effective altruism. It is a way to distinguish between what works and what does not. To quote admirable, strong effective altruism advocate Peter Singer, "Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can." He goes on to explain:
Effective altruism is notable from several perspectives. First, and most important, it is making a difference to the world. Philanthropy is a very large industry. In the United States alone there are almost one million charities, receiving a total of approximately $200 billion a year, with an additional $100 billion going to religious congregations. A small number of these charities are outright frauds, but a much bigger problem is that very few of them are sufficiently transparent to allow donors to judge whether they are really doing good. Most of that $200 billion is given on the basis of emotional responses to images of the people, animals, or forests that the charity is helping. Effective altruism seeks to change that by providing incentives for charities to demonstrate their effectiveness. Already the movement is directing tens of millions of dollars to charities that are effectively reducing the suffering and death caused by extreme poverty.
Second, effective altruism is a way of giving meaning to our own lives and finding fulfillment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. Effective altruists directly benefit others, but indirectly they often benefit themselves.
Third, effective altruism sheds new light on an old philosophical and psychological question: Are we fundamentally driven by our innate needs and emotional responses, with our rational capacities doing little more than laying a justificatory veneer over actions that were already determined before we even started reasoning about what to do? Or can reason play a crucial role in determining how we live? What is it that drives some of us to look beyond our own interests and the interests of those we love to the interests of strangers, future generations, and animals?
Finally, the emergence of effective altruism and the evident enthusiasm and intelligence with which many millennials at the outset of their careers are embracing it offer grounds for optimism about our future.
It would be nice to have a roadmap and a good introductory guide. Given all of this, effective altruism seems like the way to go. So, why am I only a weak proponent?

Well, it turns out the world and its problems aren't quite so simple. Consider Peter Singer's famous thought experiment on the drowning child from his book The Life You Can Save (taken here from a Vox interview):
Imagine you’re walking across a park. Somewhere in that park there’s a pond. You know the pond is quite shallow, but you see something splashing in the pond. When you look closer, you’re shocked to find that it’s a small child who seems to have fallen into the pond and is flailing around because it’s too deep for this small child to stand. So, you look around for the parents or the babysitter, but there’s nobody. There seems to be only you and the child. Your next thought is, I better run down to the pond, jump into the pond, and grab the child. Not hard to do. No risk to me because the pond is shallow.
But then it does occur to you that [saving the child] is going to ruin your most expensive shoes. You’ll be up for some hundreds of dollars to replace them and other clothes you might ruin. So, you think, why shouldn’t I just walk away and not have to go to the expense of replacing my shoes? Now the question for everybody is: If somebody did that, would you think that was really the wrong thing to do? Would you think that you had done something seriously wrong in leaving the child very probably to drown? Most of the people who I ask this of say that would be an awful thing to do — it would be terrible to allow a child to drown because you didn’t want to go to the expense of buying new shoes, even if they were expensive ones.
The point of the thought experiment is to then switch to the situation that we really are in. We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provision for the future. We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable causes and there are effective organizations that would gladly accept a donation from you that would increase their ability to save some of these children. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?
This is a compelling story and a powerful argument in an of itself. However, there is something bigger going on here. Why is this child drowning? As an analogy for children suffering, dying in fact, on a daily basis, where are the parents? Why are these children dying when they could so easily be saved? Why are they repeatedly falling into the pond to drown? The deeper question becomes what is the institutional, societal, cultural failure that has brought this about. 

Effective altruism has a blind spot. It does not do much more to seek to correct the underlying causes of problems than do all the other na├»ve approaches to charity. It may have a better rate of attaching bandages to wounds, but they are still just bandages. 

Perhaps that is too uncharitable. I don't mean it to be so harsh. Yet the fact remains too often organizations that pass the effective altruism test are not addressing underlying causes of problems. 

It is an illusion that lives can be bought like cars. For a start, the evidence is nearly always in dispute. The alleged effectiveness of the Deworm the World Initiative—which, at the time of this writing, ranked fourth in GiveWell’s list of top charities—runs contrary to the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that compiles medical research data. Maybe Cochrane is wrong, but it is more likely that the effectiveness of deworming varies from place to place depending, among many other things, on climate and on local arrangements for disposing of human waste.
More broadly, the evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.
However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse. The dedicated people who risked their lives to help in the recent Ebola epidemic discovered what had been long known: lack of money is not killing people. The true villains are the chronically disorganized and underfunded health care systems about which governments care little, along with well-founded distrust of those governments and foreigners, even when their advice is correct.
I consider effective altruism as a second-best solution. What would the first best be? Something as unpalatable to most as it is highly effective: economic growth through a pro-business environment that embraces free trade of all kinds and open borders in all places. 

Production vastly outworks charity. That is the way to escape poverty of all dimensions. 

It is a big world with complex and complicated problems. There is a role and a need for charity. Part of that is the moral and spiritual benefit bestowed upon the giver. Part of that is the actual good delivered to the beneficiary. 

We should strive for charity that is effective and efficient--that accomplishes the goal and does so without an unnecessary use of resources. A very big part of that is properly defining the goals long before and continually as we evaluate the options, analyze the progress, and retire the accomplished. 

The natural state of man is abject poverty. Charity does not and cannot solve that. Charity is funded from production to smooth out that which production illuminates as a temporary and undesirable shortcoming. Put another way: Charity fills the gaps we can at least hope to fill by virtue of production until production can eliminate them altogether. 


P.S. Alternatively, perhaps you're interested in ineffective altruism?


*In the debate between the terms 'not-for-profit' and 'nonprofit' I think I believe nonprofit (or non-profit) is the worse term as all entities earn profits, or at least they should. The critical distinction is what the entity can do with the profits earned and if profit is the ultimate goal.  A for-profit firm is and should be ultimately concerned with maximizing profit (we can litigate another day how Milton Friedman was completely right on this). A not-for-profit is not primarily driven to generate or maximize profit. It is driven to achieve outcomes but do so in an efficient manner (not destroy more resources than it creates). Being nonprofitable is prima facie bad since that organization is more explicitly in the pursuit of achieving particular outcomes without doing so profitably. 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Seductive Allure of Socialism

The more local something is the more essentially socialistic it becomes. I think the best way to describe this is that size/complexity has a positive relationship with the net benefits of the market (free market principles and market incentives, etc.) while size/complexity has a inverse relationship with the net benefits of socialism (yes, there are benefits). Simply put: the bigger or more complex something is, the more you want/need markets and not central planning to do the heavy lifting.

Intelligent people recognize that they know things and understand how to solve problems much better than most other people. They see this in action locally where it works or seems to at least. Thus, their belief is reinforced. This leads them down a bad path to an unreasonable conclusion that they can guide the world.

Keep in mind that what distinguishes a person as being "intelligent" can be local knowledge rather than pure IQ. Therefore, a local shop keeper may be orders of magnitude more intelligent about running her shop than would be a team of McKinsey consultants. 

Art Carden gives a model, salient version of this. For example, consider the family, the firm, and especially small and midsize towns. The local banking relationship in these places illustrates this nicely. 

The key skill of a banker today is not financial acumen. It was once upon a time at least to the degree of assessing credit risk. But large firms, algorithmic models, and risk spreading have largely supplanted that need. It is still important--vitally important for the bank itself--but it is not primarily dependent on the skill of individual banker. I believe financial risk assessment is a quality of secondary importance.

Rather the key skill of a banker today is relationship building. That is what makes a great banker. Hence, bankers are deeply involved in their communities. Again, this is not new, but it is now the primary attribute rather than a secondary one as it was in decades past.

It is strange then that a bank and its bankers, the stereotypical image of a capitalist (think of the board game Monopoly) are in fact the leading proponents of a road to local socialism. 

Here is how it unintentionally works. First, bankers are deeply interested in current customers' wellbeing and credit soundness. They have made loans, and they want them paid back. Second, they want to make future loans. These same customers would be the easy way to accomplish that goal. This gives them an all-too human impulse to favor the known and familiar as opposed to the new and (perceived) extra risky. 

Certainly bankers are interested in growth and new development. It is just that the unseen has a built-in bias against it. 

How is this a slippery road to socialism? I am not proposing that it formally leads to socialism, but it is central planning friendly. Most directly it runs the same risks of all central planning whether at the household, firm, or governmental level: decisions are made that suffer from the knowledge problem and are subject to the local maximum problem

Bankers are deeply imbedded within their communities for good reason: they want the business relationships and they want to stay close to the credit--all the better to monitor the risk. Yet this presents a sort of capture risk similar to formal regulatory capture. The bankers can easily be persuaded to support their customers' desires at the expense of their customers' competition. 


P.S. When I was in college I had a righteous disdain for kids wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, etc. They were "old enough" to know better. As the great P.J. O'Rourke explains, that is no longer true of kids these days, who are now the same ages as those who I rebuked back in the day.

P.P.S. Iain Murray's The Socialist Temptation explores this topic in depth. For a good discussion on it I recommend this recent episode of Jonah Goldberg's The Remnant




See this for more on the source for the above image and related story.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Local Maximum Problem

Ever since being introduced to this concept, I’ve been intrigued by it and see examples of it more and more throughout life, business, and public policy. This is the problem that occurs when people get stuck in a situation that is the best near-term or near-possible outcome but is not the best possible yet reasonable long-term outcome. 

The analogy is to imagine four people playing a game that has them blindfolded and linked arm-in-arm in a square configuration. Each member of this team is responsible for one of the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). Their goal is to locate the highest point possible. They experiment by taking steps to see if a step in that direction is up or down. If the step is down, they don’t take it. If the step is up, they take it. They keep walking until none of the four can make a step that is in the upward direction. This point is the conclusion of their game by reaching the local maximum. However it is most likely not the highest point on the surface where they’re walking. They just can’t reach (or detect) a higher point by virtue of their own rules. 

I believe governments are particularly susceptible to this problem. The rewards for experimentation that drive one out of a local maximum are very dispersed or completely irrelevant to those bearing the costs of experimentation. This is more than just people not wanting their cheese moved or having their apple cart disrupted. This is the very legitimate concern that an ambitious idea is going to have significant negative outcomes or the potential rewards will not accrue to those bearing the risk. It is an acute combination of asymmetric risk-reward and principal-agent problems.

The many, many public and private failures in the COVID pandemic are vivid examples. Perhaps the most costly in the United States were the CDC and FDA's insistence on using their own developed testing (staying with the controllable and familiar) and as important if not more so the refusal to allow challenge trials to speed the vaccine development process. Sadly this list goes on and on from "pausing" the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to not approving AstraZeneca's. 

The position those in power have taken are understandable but completely inexcusable. And we have ourselves to blame as these mistakes are just the latest examples of how the FDA works against medical advancement and is a deep net cost to society. 

To be sure individuals, firms, and other organizations are also susceptible to the LMP. Notice, though, the degree to which these entities are somewhat or greatly better structured and incentivized to resist and correct it.  

As a general rule, the more insulated and protected an entity is from competition, the more vulnerable they are to a local maximum. Hence, traditional banks are more vulnerable than are start-up fintech firms. 

To whom a firm or organization is held responsive has strong implications for its fragility to local maximums. As a firm is more responsive to those who reap rewards proportional to risk taken, it will better prevent the LMP. Hence, non-profits (highly responsive to donors rather than customers) are more at risk than are profit-seeking firms (highly responsive to owners and customers). 

Within a firm the dominant force becomes existing and entrenched stakeholders who are in comfortable, conventional positions. Hence, no one in marketing will ever suggest the firm experiment by not running ads

The degree to which a person faces public scrutiny or cannot capitalize on public adoration, the more they will rest once finding the local maximum. Hence, a public figure with a lot to lose/little to gain will tend to play it safe. 

Risk bearing requires compensation in the form of return, and this risk-return should be commensurate, symmetrical, and willfully accepted. Those are tough hurdles to achieve. All the more so when we are relying on force rather than persuasion. 


P.S. I believe Arnold Kling deserves credit for introducing me to this concept.