Do Investors Put Too Much Stock in the U.S.?

Summary: Investment advisors typically recommend that you put somewhere between 50% and 75% of your stock investments into US stocks and the rest into international markets. Most individual investors have 70% or more of their stock money in the US or their home country, a phenomenon that’s aptly called home country bias. But there are reasons to believe that even 50% is too much, and most people should really have more like 0-30% of their stock investments in the United States12.

Disclaimer: I am not an investment advisor and this should not be taken as investment advice. Please do your own research or seek professional advice and otherwise take reasonable precautions before making any significant investment decisions.

The global market portfolio

Let’s start from the efficient market hypothesis3. That means the prices of financial assets fully reflect their intrinsic value. In an efficient market, there’s only one “free lunch”: diversification. If you don’t own a globally diversified portfolio, you’re taking on unsystematic risk, and you could reduce your risk by diversifying.

If we take this to the limit, how do we get the most diverse possible portfolio? Simple: buy some of every asset in the world. In particular, buy each asset in proportion to its total market value. That would give your portfolio something like 20% US stocks, 20% international stocks, 50% bonds, and 10% real assets such as gold and real estate.

If we look at just the stock portion of your portfolio, you’d have 50% in US stocks and 50% in foreign stocks (as of early 2017–these percentages will likely change over time). So if we simply follow the efficient market hypothesis, we should aim for about a 50/50 split.

Not everyone buys this. Here’s a quote from the popular personal finance blogger Mr. Money Mustache:

What about International stocks? Some people like to get fancy and buy international index funds, which can do well when the US is hurting (as it has been recently). This is fine, as long as you understand that it’s just another form of trying to outsmart the basic stock index. When you do this, you are stating that you believe the stock markets of the other countries are more undervalued relative to future growth, than the US market is.

But that’s exactly the opposite of how it should work! You don’t start with 100% investment in US stocks and then require justification for diversifying globally. If you accept the efficient market hypothesis, you should start with the global market portfolio and demand a justification for deviating from that–and a disproportionate allocation to US stocks qualifies as a deviation. You should buy the whole world instead of privileging the United States over other countries.

Why you should overweight international stocks

If you buy the global market portfolio, you will have about half your stocks in the US and half in other countries. But we have several convincing reasons for decreasing our US allocation and buying more stocks in foreign countries.

Income diversification

You don’t only depend on your investments to get by. You probably have a job in the United States4, and if not, you will probably have one at some point in the future.

If you work in the United States, your salary moves up and down for many of the same reasons that the US stock market moves up and down. If a big recession hits, the US stock market could lose most of its value and you could lose your job. You can think of your job as a major human-capital investment into the United States, and you should take that into consideration when you’re deciding how to allocate your monetary investments5.

If you want to be really precise, you could estimate how much money you will put into savings throughout the your future career and consider that as part of your investment portfolio6. Then take that into account when determining what your allocation should look like.

For example, if you currently have $250,000 in savings and you estimate the discounted value7 of your additional future savings at $250,000, you might reasonably put all your investments into foreign countries (perhaps including bonds as well as stocks). That way you’ll have a 50/50 allocation to US/international assets after accounting for the future value of your career earnings. Or if you have $1 million today and value your future savings at $500,000, you could invest $250,000 in the US and $750,000 internationally, effectively giving you $750,000 both in the US and in foreign assets.

Most people below the age of maybe 40-50 will deposit a lot more money into their savings throughout their career than they have right now–most of their money will come in the future. The book Lifecycle Investing uses this fact to argue that young people should leverage their investments. You could make a similar argument that young people should leverage their international investments in particular. I won’t go into the specifics of this argument, but Lifecycle Investing discusses similar topics, so it’s a good read if you want to think more about this.

Valuation

Although we started with the assumption that you can’t beat the market, we can actually find a few cracks in the efficient market hypothesis. One such crack is the value premium: cheap companies (as measured by price to earnings, price to book, or some similar price-to-fundamental ratio) outperform expensive companies in the long run.

This applies across countries as well: cheap countries tend to outperform expensive ones8.

Star Capital has a site comparing countries on several valuation metrics. No matter what metric you choose, the United States looks expensive relative to most other countries in the world, which suggests that it will probably see weaker returns over the next few years than the world as a whole. Research Affiliates predicts that US stocks will have real returns of about 1% per year over the next 10 years, compared to 5% for EAFE and 7% for emerging markets. They could be wrong–we can’t perfectly predict what markets are going to do–but it’s a good bet that the US will perform poorly compared to the global stock market.

The United States represents about 50% of the global stock market right now, but if the market were fairly valued, it would probably represent a substantially smaller fraction. There’s no single way to decide what the US market’s “true” valuation should be, but one reasonable approach is to use GDP weighting. The United States represents about 20% of global GDP, so we could put 20% of our stock investments into the US and 80% into the rest of the world.

I haven’t given a serious justification for why value investing works because that wouldn’t fit in this essay. For more, see the book Global Value by Meb Faber.

Account restrictions

In some cases, some of your money may have restrictions on how you can invest it. For example, if you have a 401(k) plan with your employer, you can only put money into the funds that your employer provides. A lot of the time, these funds don’t give you a lot of options when it comes to international holdings. (My own 401(k) provider gives seven choices for investing in US stocks or bonds, and only one choice for investing internationally.) If that’s the case, perhaps you should put your restricted accounts into US assets, and invest relatively more of your discretionary money into other countries to balance things out.

Do be careful about this–you could end up in a situation where your regular brokerage account declines a lot while your 401(k) stays stable, but you can’t withdraw from your 401(k) without paying a penalty. Sometimes that’s a risk worth taking, but be aware that it could happen.

Common justifications for home country bias, and why they’re wrong

“The United States is a big country.”

(This one only works if you live in the US; residents of other countries don’t have this excuse.)

The United States represents a big chunk of the global market cap, so you could maybe justify holding about 40-50% of your stock investments in the US on that basis. But even then you still couldn’t justify holding 70+% of your stock investments in the United States, as many people do.

“I should buy what I know.”

People often argue that they understand the United States, so they should buy the companies that they understand. (Or they take this a step further and say they should buy the industry that they work in.) While it’s true that they probably do understand some companies better than others, the problem is that everyone else does too. There are plenty of people in the market who know more than you do even about your area of expertise, so you should not usually expect to find undervalued stocks in an area just because you understand it. The real question is, do you understand it better than the hedge funds who research their investments full time? Which you don’t. So you probably can’t rely on this excuse.

“The United States has the strongest economy in the world.”

Every reasonable investor knows that the United States has a strong economy. If people believe the US stock market will perform better than other countries’ markets, they will pour money into the US until it stops being underpriced. That means you can’t outperform the global market by buying US stocks.

If anything, you should invest in countries that have relatively weak economies. People tend to put too much money in strong economies and not enough money in weak ones, so weak economies are underpriced on average and you can make more money by putting money into them8. “Underpriced market” and “weak economy” don’t always mean the same thing, but they often align.

Conclusion

Most people put way too much money into US stocks. More than that, conventional investment advice too heavily favors US stocks over international stocks. Americans should hold at most 50% of their stock investments in the US. We should probably hold less than that if our salary is tied to the US economy; and we should probably hold less still because the US stock market appears overvalued relative to other global markets. Exactly how much US stock you want to hold depends on your individual circumstances, but I personally aim to have about 25% of my stock holdings in the United States and 75% in other countries.

Notes

  1. If you don’t live in the United States then most of the reasoning in this essay applies to you in the same way, and the rest of it applies even more strongly. US investors can at least sort-of justify putting lots of their money in the US based on the fact that it covers a huge chunk of the global market capitalization, but people in other countries can’t make the same excuse.

  2. This post mostly talks about people’s stock investments, and not their overall investment portfolios. We could perhaps argue that people also ought to hold more foreign bonds or foreign real estate. I believe this is true; but it’s probably not as important, and it introduces some complexities into the argument, so it’s beyond the scope of this essay.

  3. We have some good reason to doubt the efficient market hypothesis, but even so, it makes sense to assume markets are efficient as a starting point and go from there.

  4. Apologies to my homies in other countries. I care about you too.

  5. For the same reason, you may want to avoid investing in the same industry that you work in. For example, if you work at Ford, you might not want to put any money into automobile stocks.

  6. The book Lifecycle Investing uses this concept to argue that young people should leverage their investments. Another book, Are You a Stock or a Bond?, explores the concept in more detail, although I haven’t read it.

  7. You need to apply time discounting to your expected future earnings. Having $100 twenty years from now doesn’t count for as much as having $100 today. So when I talk about having a discounted value of $100, I mean that you expect to have some amount of money in the future that’s worth as much as $100 today. The discounted equivalent of $100 today might be $105 a year from now, or $250 twenty years from now.

  8. Meb Faber. Global Value: How to Spot Bubbles, Avoid Market Crashes, and Earn Big Returns in the Stock Market. 2

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Ideas Too Short for Essays

Ever since I’ve been writing essays, I have always accumulated many more essay ideas than I end up actually writing. I frequently have an idea, write a paragraph or two, and then realize I have nothing left to say. Rather than leaving these unpublished, I am trying an experiment. This post contains a compilation of some of these ideas that were too short for essays.

In this issue, we discuss:

  • putting your money where your mouth is
  • the linguistics of swear words
  • cause prioritization
  • religion
  • more cause prioritization, because that’s obviously been my favorite topic recently

People should make bets on charities

It’s really important that we make good decisions about which charities to support and how to direct our altruistic endeavours. Unlike in the for-profit sector, we have no direct incentives to make optimal donation decisions1, so we have to hope that we come up with the right thing to do just by trying really hard.

Sometimes we can improve our incentives by putting our money where our mouths are. We obviously can’t make bets about which charity will do the most good because we have no direct way to measure that, but we can make related predictions. Some examples of useful bets one could make:

People should make bets because:

  1. If you make bets on outcomes that relate to charities’ effectiveness, you have direct personal incentives to get the answers correct. I bet with Nick Beckstead on clean meat technology because I believe he’s overly pessimistic, and I want him to have a personal stake in the matter since he has the power to provide the field with millions of dollars of funding. At the same time, I’m funding an organization that supports clean meat (among other things), so I should have a personal stake in the matter as well.
  2. Winning a bet provides (weak) evidence that you have a stronger ability to make predictions. If donors make bets with each other, over time the best predictors will make the most money. Better predictors probably make better donation decisions on average (although other factors, like personal values, matter a lot too), which means money gets donated more effectively overall.

On “Bullshit”

As far as I can tell, “bullshit” is the only swear word with a unique meaning.

Take the word “fuck”. There are certainly situations where you’d rather use the word “fuck” than any other word because it’s more emphatic; but you could always replace it with another word without much changing the meaning of the statement. When you’re using it as a verb you can usually replace it with “screw”. If you use “fucking” for emphasis, you can replace it with “freaking” or “damn” or “bloody”. A lot of times “fuck” merely serves as a stronger version of an alternative phrase, e.g., “What the hell?” -> “What the fuck?” or “I don’t give a damn” -> “I don’t give a fuck”.

But “bullshit” refers to a certain specific type of lying and there’s no other word that means the same thing. In Harry Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit”, he initially talks about “bullshit” and then says in the interest of professionalism he will refer to it as “humbug” instead. But if he had a book called “On Humbug”, nobody would know what he was talking about because humbug is a weird word that nobody uses (except for Scrooge, I guess). Heck, he wrote a professional work of philosophy that’s titled “On Bullshit” because that’s the best way to describe what the book is about2. In contrast, there’s no reason why a philosophy book ever needs to say “fuck” in the title (unless it’s about the work “fuck” itself).

Some notes I took at Effective Altruism Global 2016

These are comments various other people made that I found insightful.

  • People can become influential by being the first to make a novel attempt at something, even if the attempt is rough.
  • Many effective organizations don’t need funding right now because they’re scaling up, but they will need more funding in 2-3 years.
  • The best way to debias is to practice.
  • We need to improve the quality of questions but we haven’t figured out how.
  • At large events, we should assign a designated critic who is responsible for criticizing everyone else’s ideas.
  • It’s likely easier to shift the probability of outcomes with near 0.5 probability than outcomes with probability close to 0 or 1.

On religious agnosticism

Some people say that no one should call themselves atheists–they should call themselves agnostics, because they can’t know for sure that there is no god.

When I say “There is no god”, I don’t know that there’s no god, in the sense that I’m not 100% certain that I’m correct. But I shouldn’t feel the need to tell anyone that, because of course I’m not 100% certain. When I say “I had cereal for breakfast this morning”, I’m not totally certain that I did: maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe what I thought was cereal was actually really weird tiny waffles. There is no need to qualify my statement as “Perhaps I had cereal for breakfast this morning, but no one can ever truly know such a thing.” For the same reasons, I can reasonably claim without qualification that that there is no god (and especially that the gods of the major religions do not exist).

You should give either all or none of your money to mainstream politics

Altruists should maximize expected value. That means we shouldn’t diversify our donations for the sake of reducing risk; we should only diversify if we can extract more expected value by donating to multiple causes, perhaps because we fund one cause until it has enough funding and no longer looks like the best place to donate, and then switch to a different cause. (I discuss similar ideas in a previous essay.)

If you have lots of money, you might want to give to multiple causes because you fill the most important funding gaps in one cause and then move on to the next one. But if you can’t fill the funding gap for the best cause, you should give all your money to it.

Some people give money to mainstream politics because they believe it’s the most effective cause. Some people give money to mainstream politics and also to global poverty charities like GiveDirectly with lots of ability to absorb funding. But mainstream politics3 also has lots of ability to absorb funding. If you prefer donating to political campaigns over GiveDirectly, it’s really unlikely that you could donate enough money to politics to make GiveDirectly look better on margin, and vice versa. Therefore, if you want to do the most good with your donations, you should probably only donate to one or the other, not both4.

Notes

  1. Or decisions about which charities to work for, or to volunteer for, or to do whatever else we do that benefits them.

  2. On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be as well-known if he had called it “On A Particular Specific Type of Lying” or whatever. On the other other hand, he’s not particularly well-known among lay audiences anyway.

  3. I distinguish mainstream politics from niche politics because niche politics may have limited room for more funding, so the same reasoning doesn’t always apply.

  4. The United States has individual campaign contribution limits, but you can get around these by donating to many campaigns or by donating to PACs.

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Good Ventures/Open Phil Should Make Riskier Grants

The Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) aims to follow what it calls hits-based giving, which means it makes risky bets and many of its grants may end up failing. I agree with this idea and I believe that donors should generally be less risk averse. Good Ventures, the foundation that financially backs Open Phil, behaves more conservatively than a “hits-based” approach would predict, and it probably ought to take greater risks in the interest of doing more good.

What do risk-averse and risk-neutral approaches look like?

Let’s begin by talking about investing. Suppose you’re an investor with a billion dollars. You’re risk-averse: if you could take a bet with a 75% chance of doubling your money and a 25% chance of losing it all, you wouldn’t take it, even though this bet has a high expected value–you value your first billion dollars a lot more than you value your second billion. So how do you invest?

  • Put some of your money into bonds, which provide a safe and stable (but small) return on investment.
  • Put most of your money into riskier ventures like stocks, real estate, and private equity, but buy many different assets to ensure good diversification.

In contrast, a risk-neutral investor is someone who doesn’t care about risk–they don’t care whether they have a billion dollars, or a 50% shot at two billion with a 50% chance of nothing at all. Not everyone agrees on what risk-neutral investors should do, especially because essentially no investors don’t care about risk1, but it involves atypical behaviors like buying stocks with leverage.

Similarly, suppose you’re a risk-averse donor with a billion dollars: all else equal, you prefer to do more good, but you also want to make sure that you have a guaranteed positive impact. What do you do with your money?

  • Give some of your money to safe bets that have a high probability of doing good–things like GiveDirectly and the Against Malaria Foundation.
  • Give most of your money to many riskier ventures with high expected value. Many of them will fail, but you can support lots of projects, so you have a high chance of doing a lot of good–more than you would just by giving all your money to GiveDirectly.
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Where I Am Donating in 2016

Part of a series for My Cause Selection 2016. For background, see my writings on cause selection for 2015 and my series on quantitative models.

Introduction

In my previous essay, I explained why I am prioritizing animal advocacy as a cause area. In this essay, I decide where to donate. I share some general considerations, briefly discuss some promising organizations I did not prioritize, and then list my top candidates for donation and explain why I considered them. I conclude with a final decision about where to donate.

This year, I plan on donating $20,000 to the Good Food Institute (GFI), which primarily works to foster the development of animal product alternatives through supporting innovation and promoting research. I believe it has an extraordinarily large expected effect on reducing animal consumption and contributing to improving societal values.

My writeup last year persuaded people to donate a total of about $40,000 to my favorite charities; if I move a similar amount this year, I believe GFI will still have substantial room for more funding even after that.

I will donate a few weeks after publishing this, so you have some time to persuade me if you believe I should make a different decision. Another donor plans to contribute an additional $60,000 AUD (~$45,000 USD) to GFI and is also open to persuasion.

This essay builds on last year’s document. Usually, unless I say differently here or in one of my previous writings, I still endorse most of the claims I made last year. Last year, I discussed my fundamental values and my beliefs about broad-level causes plus a handful of organizations, so I will not retread this ground.

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Dedicated Donors May Not Want to Sign the Giving What We Can Pledge

The Giving What We Can pledge serves as a useful way to commit to donating 10% (or more) of your income, and probably also helps show by example that donating this much money is a reasonable and achievable thing to do. I believe it serves as a useful way to commit yourself to donating if you suspect that your commitment might waver. But there are some considerations against signing the pledge, and these considerations look particularly persuasive if you already have a strong commitment to helping the world.

Some of this might be obvious, but I think it’s worth discussing—people often talk about why you should take the pledge but rarely talk about under what circumstances you shouldn’t, and the pledge isn’t the right choice for everyone. These counterpoints I raise don’t cover everything; I’m mostly drawing on my own personal experiences, and I’m sure other people have experiences that I haven’t had.

Losing flexibility

The more you donate, the less money you have to spend on other things, and the tighter your budget becomes. Maybe you’re earning more money than you need, in which case you can donate all your spare income with no trouble.

But it’s important to remember how your money needs will change over time. Maybe you will have no problem keeping up your donations for the next few years, but things could change. You might decide to have children, which will dramatically increase your expenditures (although some people with kids still donate a lot). You might start a startup or a non-profit, or take a job at a non-profit where you won’t be making much. Many people consider pledging in college, when it’s hard to anticipate your expenses as a young adult, and anyone at any age can have unexpected medical expenses or life-changing circumstances. Before you commit to donate some amount of money, make sure you will still be able to afford it in the future.

Most people’s expenditures increase throughout their lives but their income increases as well, so they shouldn’t have a problem keeping up the same rate of donation. That said, do consider whether you expect your income to increase as much or more than your spending.

People might be reluctant to take a job doing direct work if that would compromise their ability to fulfill their pledge. Since there are a lot of opportunities to do good in direct work that may be more valuable than donating 10%, we wouldn’t want to discourage the former in pursuit of the latter.

Overjustification effect

I recently caught myself following this chain of reasoning:

  1. I would like to donate a sizable chunk of my income in 2017 because donating money helps the world.
  2. I pledged to donate 20% of my income, so I need to donate at least $25,000.
  3. Therefore I will donate $25,000, because I pledged that I would.
  4. If I donate $25,000, max out my 401(k), and exercise my stock options, I will have negative cash flow for 2017. That is bad.
  5. Of these three big expenditures, the pledge is the least important, since keeping my word on something like this doesn’t matter as much as being able to retire comfortably. So maybe I should donate less.1

This reasoning obviously doesn’t make sense—I initially wanted to donate because I thought it would help the world, not just because it’s what I said I would do. But after I promised to donate 20% of my income, I forgot my original motivation and only thought about the pledge.

This is a version of the overjustification effect: if you get an extrinsic incentive to do something, it reduces your intrinsic motivation. I saw this happen to myself when taking the pledge reduced my intrinsic motivation to donate. Fortunately, I figured out what happened and reminded myself that donating money has inherent value and it’s not only about keeping a promise.

So even though you give yourself an external incentive to increase your commitment to doing a good thing, sometimes it can paradoxically decrease your commitment by reducing your intrinsic motivation. This could even reduce how much you donate—perhaps you would have donated 15%, but since you pledged to donate 10%, now you only donate the amount that you committed to.

Conclusion

I believe that people usually should take the Giving What We Can pledge. Most people in the effective altruism community donate less than 10% of their income—if more people took the pledge, we would see more donations, which would help the world. If you suspect that your future commitment to doing good may waver, you could take the pledge as a way to keep yourself on track. But before you do take it, consider some relevant factors:

  1. Are you going to need a lot of money at some point in the future, such that it will become harder for you to keep donating as much?
  2. Might you want to focus a lot of time on doing good in some way that prevents you from making much money, such as starting a non-profit; and if so, would you be able to continue donating the same percentage of your income?

I expect most people should be able to donate 10% of their income (although I’m not in a great position to judge since I have been lucky enough never to have to live on a low salary). I pledged to donate 20% of my income, and while I expect that I will always be able to donate that much, it does substantially limit me in some ways—most obviously, it makes it harder for me to switch to a job that pays a low salary. I regret pledging to donate this much, and perhaps I should not have pledged at all. I do place high value on keeping my word, so the Giving What We Can pledge could potentially help keep me committed; but I was already committed to donating and probably would have donated as much if I had not signed the pledge, so signing it only imposed limits on me without providing any benefits.

Some readers may be in a similar position to where I was before I signed the Giving What We Can pledge. If so, you should consider what benefits the pledge provides you and how it might hurt you, and decide if it makes sense given your personal circumstances.

Notes

  1. For the record, I am not going to break my pledge in 2017 and I have no intention of ever doing so.

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Is Preventing Global Poverty Good?

This essay could perhaps be called, “is improving people’s economic station good?” because all the arguments presented here apply just as well to people in the developed world as to people in the developing world. But my readers generally don’t spend a lot of effort trying to make people in developed countries wealthier, and lots of them do do a lot to make the globally poor better off.

When people calculate the effects of efforts to alleviate global poverty, they tend to report figures in terms like QALYs/dollar. I believe this is misleading; it gives a reasonably precise measure of the direct first-order effects, while ignoring the other complicated consequences of interventions. These other complicated effects include some negative and some positive ones, but they tend to significantly outweigh the first order effects. Instead of evaluating global poverty interventions by the magnitude of their first order effects, we should look at their indirect effects as well.

Let’s divide the effects into three categories: direct, medium-term, and long-term. We have the most certainty about direct effects, but long-term effects matter most.

Direct effects

Donating to global poverty1 has one important direct effect: the people you’re donating to are better off. In the case of GiveDirectly, this happens because they have more money; for deworming charities, people are better off because they don’t have worms anymore, which likely substantially improves their quality of life2. We have better evidence about these direct effects than about anything else, and when people talk about the benefits of GiveWell top charities, they almost exclusively talk about these effects.

Medium-term effects

Global poverty interventions have some indirect effects that are still easier to quantify and reason about than their long-term effects on economic or technological progress (which I discuss in “Long-term effects” below).

  1. Making people wealthier causes them to eat more factory-farmed animals.
  2. Making people wealthier causes them to consume more environmental resources, reducing wild animal populations.
  3. Making people wealthier worsens climate change, increasing existential risk.
  4. Global poverty interventions (probably?) decrease fertility.

Kyle Bogosian’s calculations suggest that increasing someone’s income in the developing world by $1000 causes about 15 days of land animal suffering, which probably means that a donation to GiveDirectly does more harm via creating factory farming than it does good via making a human financially better off. His calculations rely on uncertain estimates and I do not consider it robust, although it does draw on some hard data and it would probably be possible to substantially reduce the error bars on this estimate.

Additionally, making people wealthier causes them to consume more environmental resources. This has lots of effects, but the most direct one is that it reduces wild animal populations. If wild animal lives are net negative on balance, we should want to reduce the number of wild animals. I have not seen any adequate estimates of the effect size here so I cannot say how much it matters, but I suspect that it outweighs both the direct effect of making humans wealthier and the effect of increasing factory farming.

At the same time, if people consume more environmental resources, that contributes to climate change. This has an unclear effect on wild animal suffering but certainly increases the risk of extinction from severe runaway global warming.

Global poverty interventions probably decrease fertility. Unlike the other topics discussed in this section, lots of research has actually been done on this question, although I haven’t read it so I can’t make any confident claims about it. But what I know suggests that making people healthier and wealthier probably causes them to have fewer kids, which reduces population size after a generation. This could be good or bad for all of the many reasons that people existing could be good or bad. Most directly, this means that fewer people get to live decent lives, which is bad. But it also means more suffering on factory farms. Fewer people possibly means less converting wild habitats and therefore more wild animal suffering, but at the same time, wealthier people consume more environmental resources, and I’d expect the increased-wealth factor to matter more than the reduced-population factor (wealthy countries consume way more environmental resources than poor countries).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, promoting global poverty attracts more interest in effective altruism and possibly has spillover effects into other cause areas. Many people get into effective altruism by learning about how much good they can do by donating to global poverty efforts, and later

Long-term effects

Improving people’s standard of living has lots of potential long-term effects. Of the plausible effects I’ve thought of, these look the most important3:

  1. It could increase international stability by reducing scarcity/competition.
  2. It could decrease international stability by adding more major actors, making coordination more difficult.
  3. It probably increases research on dangerous technology4.
  4. It probably increases research on beneficial technology.
  5. It becomes harder to make differential intellectual progress.
  6. It causes humans to consume more environmental resources.
  7. It could decrease international stability by making arms races more likely.

Increasing international stability could be beneficial or harmful. Greater international stability reduces the chance of war, which reduces existential risk from nuclear or biological weapons (or other existentially threatening weapons of war that have yet to be developed). In a more stable world, nations probably have an easier time creating cooperative agreements to avoid arms races. Additionally, increasing stability probably increases technological research, which could be beneficial or harmful.

Technological research both increases our ability to avert catastrophes and increases the potential danger arising from of powerful technologies. I suspect that improved technology generally increases the probability of an existential catastrophe. Right now our greatest existential threats arise from technologies developed by humans, and our technological development has done comparatively little to alleviate natural existential risks. I would expect this trend to continue.

If we increase global technological development, that probably makes it harder to make differential intellectual progress, which means that we have a more difficult time accelerating existential risk research to the point where it moves faster than research that increases existential risks. Helping poor people in countries like Malawi and Kenya probably doesn’t have much effect on technological development, but we should expect it to have at least small effects in the long run, at least in expectation.

Consuming more environmental resources could be either good or bad. As discussed before, it reduces habitats which reduces wild animal suffering, and this is a good thing if wild animals’ lives are net negative. (Although climate change could increase wild animal populations.) It probably reduces existential risk by reducing the chance of runaway global warming, which is probably but not definitely good.

Confidently claiming that global poverty has either good or bad long-term effects requires making conjunctive claims about uncertain effects: for global poverty reduction to be beneficial, it must increase international stability and this must reduce arms races and the chance of a major nuclear war and preventing human extinction must be good; or it must reduce international stability and this must slow technological development and it must be beneficial to slow technological development (and, again, preventing human extinction must be good); or it must increase climate change and this reduces wild animal populations without substantially increasing existential risk and wild animal lives are net negative; etc. Claiming that global poverty does long-term harm requires making similarly complex conjunctive arguments.

Although I cannot make any confident claims here, I lean toward expecting these effects, in order of confidence:

  1. Global poverty alleviation accelerates dangerous technology more rapidly than beneficial technology, which is bad.
  2. Global poverty alleviation increases international cooperation, which is good.
  3. Global poverty alleviation increases climate change, which is bad.

I tend to think that this first effect outweighs the second and I am more confident that it occurs, so I am weakly confident that making people wealthier has net negative effects in the long run.

Conclusion

Alleviating global poverty has second- and third-order effects, some of them good and some of them harmful; these effects are significant and hard to quantify. Without serious engagement with the long term effects of global wealth, we cannot confidently claim that global poverty interventions do net good or harm.

The evidence tends to point weakly toward the conclusion that making people wealthier does net harm. This makes me wary of supporting efforts to alleviate global poverty. On the other hand, the evidence is nowhere near strong enough to justify trying to prevent people from helping the global poor. Any arguments in this essay about the long-term effects of global poverty should be treated as highly speculative. Nonetheless, this suggests that we cannot confidently claim that global poverty prevention helps the world in the long run.

Notes

  1. When I talk about donating to global poverty, I’m mostly talking about GiveWell top charities, because that’s what readers primarily donate to.

  2. For GiveWell’s other top recommended charity, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), people primarily tout its life-saving benefits, but I believe these are severely overstated. Still, AMF does prevent people from getting non-fatal cases of malaria which improves their quality of life, although I don’t know how valuable this is compared to cash transfers or deworming.

  3. I’m sure I’m missing lots of important effects. I don’t believe people address these sorts of issues enough, so I expect there exist lots of significant long-term effects that haven’t been explored.

  4. Developing countries currently have meager research output compared to wealthy nations, but this changes as countries become richer.

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Why I'm Prioritizing Animal-Focused Values Spreading

Part of a series for My Cause Selection 2016. For background, see my writings on cause selection for 2015 and my series on quantitative models.

The last time I wrote about values spreading, I primarily listed reasons why we might expect existential risk reduction to have a greater impact. Now I’m going to look at why values spreading—and animal advocacy in particular—may look better.

When I developed a quantitative model for cause prioritization, the model claimed that effective animal advocacy has a greater expected impact than AI safety research. Let’s look at some qualitative reasons why the model produces this result:

  • Animal advocacy has lower variance—we’re more confident that it will do a lot of good, especially in the short to medium term.
  • Animal advocacy is more robustly positive—it seems unlikely to do lots of harm1, whereas the current focus of AI safety research could plausibly do harm. (This is really another way of saying that AI safety interventions have high variance.)
  • The effects of animal advocacy on the far future arguably have better feedback loops.
  • Animal advocacy is more robust against overconfidence in speculative arguments. I believe we ought to discount the arguments for AI safety somewhat because they rely on hard-to-measure claims about the future. We could similarly say that we shouldn’t be too confident what effect animal advocacy will have on the far future, but it also has immediate benefits. Some people put a lot of weight on this sort of argument; I don’t give it tons of weight, but I’m still wary given that people have a history of making overconfident claims about what the future will look like.
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Altruistic Organizations Should Consider Counterfactuals When Hiring

Counterfactuals matter. When you’re taking a job, you should care about who would take the job if you didn’t, and how much worse a job than you they’d do.

This matters from the other side too: employers should consider counterfactuals when deciding who to hire. Suppose you’re an employer and considering hiring a promising employee. What would a prospective employee do if you didn’t hire them? How good is it compared to working for you?

If a particular candidate cares a lot about improving the lives of sentient beings, they’d probably do something valuable even if they didn’t get hired, and this should count as a consideration against hiring them.

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Why the Open Philanthropy Project Should Prioritize Wild Animal Suffering

Like the last time I wrote something like this, my suggestions here could apply to any large foundation. But most large foundations don’t care at all about what I say, and the Open Philanthropy Project cares at least a tiny bit about what I say, so I’m going to focus on Open Phil.

The Open Philanthropy Project ought to prioritize wild animal suffering (WAS). Here’s why:

  1. WAS is important and neglected.
  2. WAS is not tractable for most actors, but it’s tractable for Open Phil.

(Previously I discussed some of my issues with the importance/neglectedness/tractability framework, but I believe it works reasonably well for our purposes here.)

Why wild animal suffering matters

The problem of wild animal suffering has enormous scale. There exist far more sentient wild animals than there do humans or factory-farmed animals. Wild animal suffering dwarfs all other problems that currently exist. Some other problems (such as existential risk) may matter more, but WAS is certainly the biggest problem that’s happening right now.

Additionally, wild animal suffering is neglected: hardly anyone cares about this problem, and of the people who care, hardly any of them are trying to do anything about it. Animal Ethics is the only organization spending non-trivial time on the problem of wild animal suffering, and it’s a small organization with limited staff time and narrow focus–I see room for much, much more work on reducing suffering in the wild than what Animal Ethics does currently.

Why Open Phil should prioritize wild animal suffering

For people who care about animals, their biggest objection to reducing wild animal suffering is that it’s intractable. But this is mistaken: we can do lots of things right now to work toward reducing wild animal suffering. (If you doubt that we can do anything about wild animal suffering, please, please read my essay on this subject, and if you disagree, leave a comment explaining why.)

Even given the sad state of WAS research, we already have some concrete proposals for how to reduce wild animal suffering without risking big negative side effects. For example, Brian Tomasik has suggested paying farmers to use humane insecticides. Calculations suggest that this could prevent 250,000 painful deaths per dollar. This intervention alone looks much more cost-effective than GiveDirectly even if we heavily discount insects’ capacity for suffering. And this is just an initial idea; surely there exist much more effective interventions than this, and we could find them if we spent more time looking.

Reducing suffering in the wild is probably much more tractable than most people tend to think. That said, if you want to work on wild animal suffering, you either need specific relevant skills (which are rare and hard to develop) or you need to fund an organization doing relevant work; and right now Animal Ethics is the only such organization. We have something of a coordination problem here where people won’t work on wild animal suffering because they can’t get funding, and people don’t want to fund it because so few people are working on it.

What we need is a large, committed source of funding to jump-start the cause. If the Open Philanthropy Project began funding work on wild animal suffering, it could stimulate new research efforts or small-scale interventions by offering grants. Specifically, Open Phil should probably create a new focus area for wild animal suffering and possibly hire dedicated staff. This problem has such large scale, and so many possible interventions, that it absolutely deserves to be a dedicated focus area. Open Phil might consider lumping WAS under its farm animal welfare program, but this would excessively constrain its budget and limit the amount of staff time that it could receive. Wild animal suffering is a massive problem, and easily deserves as much attention as most of Open Phil’s other focus areas.

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Evaluation Frameworks (or: When Importance / Neglectedness / Tractability Doesn't Apply)

Let’s look at how we use frameworks to prioritize causes. We’ll start by looking at the commonly-used importance/neglectedness tractability framework and see why it often works well and why it doesn’t match reality. Then we’ll consider an alternative approach.

Importance/neglectedness/tractability framework

When people do high-level cause prioritization, they often use an importance/neglectedness/tractability framework where they assess causes along three dimensions:

  1. Importance: How big is the problem?
  2. Neglectedness: How much work is being done on the problem already?
  3. Tractability: Can we make progress on the problem?

This framework acts as a useful guide to cause prioritization. Let’s look at some of its benefits and problems.

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