Economic Possibilities for Ourselves

May 2 JDN 2459335

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote one of the greatest essays ever written on economics, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” You can read it here.


In that essay he wrote:

“I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”

US population in 1930: 122 million; US real GDP in 1930: $1.1 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $9,000

US population in 2020: 329 million; US real GDP in 2020: $18.4 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $56,000

That’s a factor of 6. Keynes said 4 to 8; that makes his estimate almost perfect. We aren’t just inside his error bar, we’re in the center of it. If anything he was under-confident. Of course we still have 10 years left before a full century has passed: At a growth rate of 1% in per-capita GDP, that will make the ratio closer to 7—still well within his confidence interval.

I’d like to take a moment to marvel at how good this estimate is. Keynes predicted the growth rate of the entire US economy one hundred years in the future to within plus or minus 30%, and got it right.

With this in mind, it’s quite astonishing what Keynes got wrong in his essay.


The point of the essay is that what Keynes calls “the economic problem” will soon be solved. By “the economic problem”, he means the scarcity of resources that makes it impossible for everyone in the world to make a decent living. Keynes predicts that by 2030—so just a few years from now—humanity will have effectively solved this problem, and we will live in a world where everyone can live comfortably with adequate basic necessities like shelter, food, water, clothing, and medicine.

He laments that with the dramatically higher productivity that technological advancement brings, we will be thrust into a life of leisure that we are unprepared to handle. Evolved for a world of scarcity, we built our culture around scarcity, and we may not know what to do with ourselves in a world of abundance.

Keynes sounds his most naive when he imagines that we would spread out our work over more workers each with fewer hours:

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Plainly that is nothing like what happened. Americans do on average work fewer hours today than we did in the past, but not by anything like this much: average annual hours fell from about 1,900 in 1950 to about 1,700 today. Where Keynes was predicting a drop of 60%, the actual drop was only about 10%.

Here’s another change Keynes predicted that I wish we’d made, but we certainly haven’t:

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

Sadly, people still idolize Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk just as much their forebears idolized Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. And really there’s nothing semi- about it: The acquisition of billions of dollars by exploiting others is clearly indicative of narcissism if not psychopathy.

It’s not that we couldn’t have made the world that Keynes imagined. There’s plenty of stuff—his forecast for our per-capita GDP was impeccable. But when we automated away all of the most important work, Keynes thought we would turn to lives of leisure, exploring art, music, literature, film, games, sports. But instead we did something he did not anticipate: We invented new kinds of work.

This would be fine if the new work we invented is genuinely productive; and some of it is, no doubt. Keynes could not have anticipated the emergence of 3D graphics designers, smartphone engineers, or web developers, but these jobs do genuinely productive and beneficial work that makes use of our extraordinary new technologies.

But think for a moment about Facebook and Google, now two of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. What do they sell? Think carefully! Facebook doesn’t sell social media. Google doesn’t sell search algorithms. Those are services they provide as platforms for what they actually sell: Advertising.

That is, some of the most profitable, powerful corporations in the world today make all of their revenue entirely from trying to persuade people to buy things they don’t actually need. The actual benefits they provide to humanity are sort of incidental; they exist to provide an incentive to look at the ads.

Paul Krugman often talks about Solow’s famous remark that “computers showed up everywhere but the productivity statistics”; aggregate productivity growth has, if anything, been slower in the last 40 years than in the previous 40.

But this aggregate is a very foolish measure. It’s averaging together all sorts of work into one big lump.

If you look specifically at manufacturing output per workerthe sort of thing you’d actually expect to increase due to automation—it has in fact increased, at breakneck speed: The average American worker produced four times as much output per hour in 2000 as in 1950.

The problem is that instead of splitting up the manufacturing work to give people free time, we moved them all into services—which have not meaningfully increased their productivity in the same period. The average growth rate in multifactor productivity in the service industries since the 1970s has been a measly 0.2% per year, meaning that our total output per worker in service industries is only 10% higher than it was in 1970.

While our population is more than double what it was in 1950, our total manufacturing employment is now less than it was in 1950. Our employment in services is four times what it was in 1950. We moved everyone out of the sector that actually got more productive and stuffed them into the sector that didn’t.

This is why the productivity statistics are misleading. Suppose we had 100 workers, and 2 industries.

Initially, in manufacturing, each worker can produce goods worth $20 per hour. In services, each worker can only produce services worth $10 per hour. 50 workers work in each industry, so average productivity is (50*$20+50*$10)/100 = $15 per hour.

Then, after new technological advances, productivity in manufacturing increases to $80 per hour, but people don’t actually want to spend that much on manufactured good. So 30 workers from manufacturing move over to services, which still only produce $10 per hour. Now total productivity is (20*$80+80*$10)/100 = $24 per hour.

Overall productivity now appears to only have risen 60% over that time period (in 50 years this would be 0.9% per year), but in fact it rose 300% in manufacturing (2.2% per year) but 0% in services. What looks like anemic growth in productivity is actually a shift of workers out of the productive sectors into the unproductive sectors.

Keynes imagined that once we had made manufacturing so efficient that everyone could have whatever appliances they like, we’d give them the chance to live their lives without having to work. Instead, we found jobs for them—in large part, jobs that didn’t need doing.

Advertising is the clearest example: It’s almost pure rent-seeking, and if it were suddenly deleted from the universe almost everyone would actually be better off.

But there are plenty of other jobs, what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”, that have the same character: Sales, consulting, brokering, lobbying, public relations, and most of what goes on in management, law and finance. Graeber had a silly theory that we did this on purpose either to make the rich feel important or to keep people working so they wouldn’t question the existing system. The real explanation is much simpler: These jobs are rent-seeking. They do make profits for the corporations that employ them, but they contribute little or nothing to human society as a whole.

I’m not sure how surprised Keynes would be by this outcome. In parts of the essay he acknowledges that the attitude which considers work a virtue and idleness a vice is well-entrenched in our society, and seems to recognize that the transition to a world where most people work very little is one that would be widely resisted. But his vision of what the world would be like in the early 21st century does now seem to be overly optimistic, not in its forecasts of our productivity and output—which, I really cannot stress enough, were absolutely spot on—but in its predictions of how society would adapt to that abundance.

It seems that most people still aren’t quite ready to give up on a world built around jobs. Most people still think of a job as the primary purpose of an adult’s life, that someone who isn’t working for an employer is somehow wasting their life and free-riding on everyone else.

In some sense this is perhaps true; but why is it more true of someone living on unemployment than of someone who works in marketing, or stock brokering, or lobbying, or corporate law? At least people living on unemployment aren’t actively making the world worse. And since unemployment pays less than all but the lowest-paying jobs, the amount of resources that are taken up by people on unemployment is considerably less than the rents which are appropriated by industries like consulting and finance.

Indeed, whenever you encounter a billionaire, there’s one thing you know for certain: They are very good at rent-seeking. Whether by monopoly power, or exploitation, or outright corruption, all the ways it’s possible to make a billion dollars are forms of rent-seeking. And this is for a very simple and obvious reason: No one can possibly work so hard and be so productive as to actually earn a billion dollars. No one’s real opportunity cost is actually that high—and the difference between income and real opportunity cost is by definition economic rent.

If we’re truly concerned about free-riding on other people’s work, we should really be thinking in terms of the generations of scientists and engineers before us who made all of this technology possible, as well as the institutions and infrastructure that have bequeathed us a secure stock of capital. You didn’t build that applies to all of us: Even if all the necessary raw materials were present, none of us could build a smartphone by hand alone on a desert island. Most of us couldn’t even sew a pair of pants or build a house—though that is at least the sort of thing that it’s possible to do by hand.

But in fact I think free-riding on our forebears is a perfectly acceptable activity. I am glad we do it, and I hope our descendants do it to us. I want to build a future where life is better than it is now; I want to leave the world better than we found it. If there were some way to inter-temporally transfer income back to the past, I suppose maybe we ought to do so—but as far as we know, there isn’t. Nothing can change the fact that most people were desperately poor for most of human history.

What we now have the power to decide is what will happen to people in the future: Will we continue to maintain this system where our wealth is decided by our willingness to work for corporations, at jobs that may be utterly unnecessary or even actively detrimental? Or will we build a new system, one where everyone gets the chance to share in the abundance that our ancestors have given us and each person gets the chance to live their life in the way that they find most meaningful?

Keynes imagined a bright future for the generation of his grandchildren. We now live in that generation, and we have precisely the abundance of resources he predicted we would. Can we now find a way to build that bright future?

2020 is almost over

Dec27 JDN 2459211

I don’t think there are many people who would say that 2020 was their favorite year. Even if everything else had gone right, the 1.7 million deaths from the COVID pandemic would already make this a very bad year.

As if that weren’t bad enough, shutdowns in response to the pandemic, resulting unemployment, and inadequate fiscal policy responses have in a single year thrown nearly 150 million people back into extreme poverty. Unemployment in the US this year spiked to nearly 15%, its highest level since World War 2. Things haven’t been this bad for the US economy since the Great Depression.

And this Christmas season certainly felt quite different, with most of us unable to safely travel and forced to interact with our families only via video calls. New Year’s this year won’t feel like a celebration of a successful year so much as relief that we finally made it through.

Many of us have lost loved ones. Fortunately none of my immediate friends and family have died of COVID, but I can now count half a dozen acquaintances, friends-of-friends or distant relatives who are no longer with us. And I’ve been relatively lucky overall; both I and my partner work in jobs that are easy to do remotely, so our lives haven’t had to change all that much.

Yet 2020 is nearly over, and already there are signs that things really will get better in 2021. There are many good reasons for hope.


Joe Biden won the election by a substantial margin in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

There are now multiple vaccines for COVID that have been successfully fast-tracked, and they are proving to be remarkably effective. Current forecasts suggest that we’ll have most of the US population vaccinated by the end of next summer.

Maybe the success of this vaccine will finally convince some of the folks who have been doubting the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in general. (Or maybe not; it’s too soon to tell.)

Perhaps the greatest reason to be hopeful about the future is the fact that 2020 is a sharp deviation from the long-term trend toward a better world. That 150 million people thrown back into extreme poverty needs to be compared against the over 1 billion people who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in just the last 30 years.

Those 1.7 million deaths need to be compared against the fact that global life expectancy has increased from 45 to 73 since 1950. The world population is 7.8 billion people. The global death rate has fallen from over 20 deaths per 1000 people per year to only 7.6 deaths per 1000 people per year. Multiplied over 7.8 billion people, that’s nearly 100 million lives saved every single year by advances in medicine and overall economic development. Indeed, if we were to sustain our current death rate indefinitely, our life expectancy would rise to over 130. There are various reasons to think that probably won’t happen, mostly related to age demographics, but in fact there are medical breakthroughs we might make that would make it possible. Even according to current forecasts, world life expectancy is expected to exceed 80 years by the end of the 21st century.

There have also been some significant environmental milestones this year: Global carbon emissions fell an astonishing 7% in 2020, though much of that was from reduced economic activity in response to the pandemic. (If we could sustain that, we’d cut global emissions in half each decade!) But many other milestones were the product of hard work, not silver linings of a global disaster: Whales returned to the Hudson river, Sweden officially terminated their last coal power plant, and the Great Barrier Reef is showing signs of recovery.

Yes, it’s been a bad year for most of us—most of the world, in fact. But there are many reasons to think that next year will be much better.

The Race to the Bottom is not inevitable

Jul 19 JDN 2459050

The race to the bottom is a common result of competition, between firms, between states, or even between countries. One firm finds a way to cut corners and reduce costs, then lowers their price to undercut others; then soon every firm is cutting those same corners. Or one country decides to weaken their regulations in order to attraction more business; then soon every other country has to weaken their regulations as well.

Let’s first consider individual firms. Suppose that you run a business, and you are an upstanding, ethical person. You want to treat your employees, your customers, and your community well. You have high labor standards, you exceed the requirements of environmental regulations, and you make a high-quality product at a reasonable price for a moderate profit.

Then, a competitor appears. The owner of this company is not so ethical. They exploit their workers, perhaps even stealing their wages. They flaunt environmental regulations. They make shoddy products. All of this allows them to make their products for a lower price than yours.

Suppose that most customers can’t tell the difference between your product and theirs. What will happen? They will stop buying yours, because it’s more expensive. What do you do then?

You could simply go out of business. But that doesn’t really solve anything. Probably you’ll be forced to lower your standards. You’ll treat your workers worse, pollute more, reduce product quality. You may not do so as much as the other company, but you’ll have to do it some in order to get the price down low enough to still compete. And your profits will be lower than theirs as a result.

Far better would be for the government to step in and punish that other business for breaking the rules—or if what they’re doing is technically legal, change the rules so that it’s not anymore. Then you could continue to produce high-quality products with fair labor standards and good environmental sustainability.

But there are some problems with this. First, consider this from the point of view of a regulator, who is being lobbied by both companies. Your company asks for higher standards to improve product quality while protecting workers and the environment. But theirs claims that these higher standards will push them out of business. Who will they believe?

In fact, it may be worse than that: Suppose we’ve already settled into an equilibrium where all the firms have low standards. In that case, all the lobbyists will be saying that regulations need to be kept weak, lest the whole industry fail.

But in fact there’s no reason to think that stricter regulations would actually destroy the whole industry. Firm owners are used to thinking in terms of fixed competitors: They act in response to what competitors do. And in many cases it’s actually true that if just one firm tried to raise their standards, they would be outcompeted and go out of business. This does not mean that if all firms were forced to raise their standards, the industry would collapse. In fact, it’s much more likely that stricter regulations would only moderately reduce output and profits, if imposed consistently across the whole industry.

To see why, let’s consider a very simple model, a Bertrand competition game. There are two firms, A and B. Each can either use process H, producing a product of high quality with high labor standards and good sustainability, or use process L, producing a product of low quality with low labor standards and poor sustainability. Process H costs $100 per unit, process L costs $50 per unit. Customers can’t tell the difference, so they will buy whichever product is offered at the lowest price. Let’s say you are in charge of firm A. You choose which process to use, and set your price. At the same time, firm B chooses a process and sets their price.

Suppose choose to use process H. The lowest possible price you could charge to still make a profit would be a price of $101 (ignoring cents; let’s say customers also ignore them, which might be true!).

But firm B could choose process L, and then set a price of $100. They can charge just one dollar less than you charge for their product, but their cost is only $50, so now they are making a large profit—and you get nothing.

So you are forced to lower your standards, in order to match their price. You could try to undercut them at a price of $100, but in the long run that’s a bad idea, since eventually you’ll both be driven to charging a price of 51 and making only a very small profit. And there’s a way to stop them from undercutting you, which is to offer a price-matching guarantee; you can tell your customers that if they see a lower price from firm B than what you’re offering, you’ll match it for them. Then firm B has no incentive to try to undercut you, and you can maintain a stable equilibrium at a price of $100. You have been forced to used process L even though you know it is worse, because any attempt to unilaterally deviate from that industry norm would result in your company going bankrupt.

But now suppose the government comes in and mandates that all firms use process H, and they really enforce this rule so that no firm wants to try to break it. Then you’d want to raise the price, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to raise it all that much. Even $101 would be enough to ensure some profit, and you could even maintain your current profits by raising the price up to $150. In reality the result would probably be somewhere in between those two, depending on the elasticity of demand; so perhaps you end up charging $125 and make half the profit you did before.

Even though the new regulation raised costs all the way up to the current price, they did not result in collapsing the industry; because the rule was enforced uniformly, all firms were able to raise their standards and also raise their prices. This is what we should typically expect to happen; so any time someone claims that a new regulation will “destroy the industry” we should be very skeptical of that claim. (It’s not impossible; for instance, a regulation mandating that all fast food workers be paid $200 per hour would surely collapse the fast food industry. But it’s very unlikely that anyone would seriously propose a regulation like that.)

So as long as you have a strong government in place, you can escape the race to the bottom. But then we must consider international competition: What if other countries have weaker regulations, and so firms want to move their production to those other countries?

Well, a small country may actually be forced to lower their standards in order to compete. I’m not sure there’s much that Taiwan or Singapore could do to enforce higher labor standards. If Taiwan decided to tighten all their labor regulations, firms might just move their production to Indonesia or Vietnam. Then again, monthly incomes in Taiwan, once adjusted for currency exchange rates, are considerably higher than those in Vietnam. Indeed, wages in Taiwan aren’t much lower than wages in the US. So apparently Taiwan has some power to control their own labor standards—perhaps due to their highly educated population and strong industrial infrastructure.

However, a large country like the US or China absolutely has more power than that. If the US wants to enforce stricter labor standards, they can simply impose tariffs on countries that don’t. Actually there are many free-trade rules in place precisely to reduce that power, because it can be easily abused in the service of protectionism.

Perhaps these rules go too far; while I agree with the concern about protectionism, I definitely think we should be doing more to enforce penalties for forced labor, for instance. But this is not the result of too little international governance—if anything it is the result of too much. Our free trade agreements are astonishingly binding, even on the most powerful countries (China has successfully sued the United States under WTO rules!). I wish only that our human rights charters were anywhere near as well enforced.

This means that the race to the bottom is not the inevitable result of competition between firms or even between countries. When it occurs, it is the result of particular policy regimes nationally or internationally. We can make better rules.

The first step may be to stop listening to the people who say that any change will “destroy the industry” because they are unable (or unwilling?) to understand how uniformly-imposed rules differ from unilateral deviations from industry norms.

How we measure efficiency affects our efficiency

Jun 21 JDN 2459022

Suppose we are trying to minimize carbon emissions, and we can afford one of the two following policies to improve fuel efficiency:

  1. Policy A will replace 10,000 cars that average 25 MPG with hybrid cars that average 100 MPG.
  2. Policy B will replace 5,000 diesel trucks that average 5 MPG with turbocharged, aerodynamic diesel trucks that average 10 MPG.

Assume that both cars and trucks last about 100,000 miles (in reality this of course depends on a lot of factors), and diesel and gas pollute about the same amount per gallon (this isn’t quite true, but it’s close). Which policy should we choose?

It seems obvious: Policy A, right? 10,000 vehicles, each increasing efficiency by 75 MPG or a factor of 4, instead of 5,000 vehicles, each increasing efficiency by only 5 MPG or a factor of 2.

And yet—in fact the correct answer is definitely policy B, because the use of MPG has distorted our perception of what constitutes efficiency. We should have been using the inverse: gallons per hundred miles.

  1. Policy A will replace 10,000 cars that average 4 GPHM with cars that average 1 GPHM.
  2. Policy B will replace 5,000 trucks that average 20 GPHM with trucks that average 10 GPHM.

This means that policy A will save (10,000)(100,000/100)(4-1) = 30 million gallons, while policy B will save (5,000)(100,000/100)(20-10) = 50 million gallons.

A gallon of gasoline produces about 9 kg of CO2 when burned. This means that by choosing the right policy here, we’ll have saved 450,000 tons of CO2—or by choosing the wrong one we would only have saved 270,000.

The simple choice of which efficiency measure to use when making our judgment—GPHM versus MPG—has had a profound effect on the real impact of our choices.

Let’s try applying the same reasoning to charities. Again suppose we can choose one of two policies.

  1. Policy C will move $10 million that currently goes to local community charities which can save one QALY for $1 million to medical-research charities that can save one QALY for $50,000.
  2. Policy D will move $10 million that currently goes to direct-transfer charities which can save one QALY for $1000 to anti-malaria net charities that can save one QALY for $800.

Policy C means moving funds from charities that are almost useless ($1 million per QALY!?) to charities that meet a basic notion of cost-effectiveness (most public health agencies in the First World have a standard threshold of about $50,000 or $100,000 per QALY).

Policy D means moving funds from charities that are already highly cost-effective to other charities that are only a bit more cost-effective. It almost seems pedantic to even concern ourselves with the difference between $1000 per QALY and $800 per QALY.

It’s the same $10 million either way. So, which policy should we pick?

If the lesson you took from the MPG example is that we should always be focused on increasing the efficiency of the least efficient, you’ll get the wrong answer. The correct answer is based on actually using the right measure of efficiency.

Here, it’s not dollars per QALY we should care about; it’s QALY per million dollars.

  1. Policy C will move $10 million from charities which get 1 QALY per million dollars to charities which get 20 QALY per million dollars.
  2. Policy D will move $10 million from charities which get 1000 QALY per million dollars to charities which get 1250 QALY per million dollars.

Multiply that out, and policy C will gain (10)(20-1) = 190 QALY, while policy D will gain (10)(1250-1000) = 2500 QALY. Assuming that “saving a life” means about 50 QALY, this is the difference between saving 4 lives and saving 50 lives.

My intuition actually failed me on this one; before I actually did the math, I had assumed that it would be far more important to move funds from utterly useless charities to ones that meet a basic standard. But it turns out that it’s actually far more important to make sure that the funds being targeted at the most efficient charities are really the most efficient—even apparently tiny differences matter a great deal.

Of course, if we can move that $10 million from the useless charities to the very best charities, that’s the best of all; it would save (10)(1250-1) = 12,490 QALY. This is nearly 250 lives.

In the fuel economy example, there’s no feasible way to upgrade a semitrailer to get 100 MPG. If we could, we totally should; but nobody has any idea how to do that. Even an electric semi probably won’t be that efficient, depending on how the grid produces electricity. (Obviously if the grid were all nuclear, wind, and solar, it would be; but very few places are like that.)

But when we’re talking about charities, this is just money; it is by definition fungible. So it is absolutely feasible in an economic sense to get all the money currently going towards nearly-useless charities like churches and museums and move that money directly toward high-impact charities like anti-malaria nets and vaccines.

Then again, it may not be feasible in a practical or political sense. Someone who currently donates to their local church may simply not be motivated by the same kind of cosmopolitan humanitarianism that motivates Effective Altruism. They may care more about supporting their local community, or be motivated by genuine religious devotion. This isn’t even inherently a bad thing; nobody is a cosmopolitan in everything they do, nor should we be—we have good reasons to care more about our own friends, family, and community than we do about random strangers in foreign countries thousands of miles away. (And while I’m fairly sure Jesus himself would have been an Effective Altruist if he’d been alive today, I’m well aware that most Christians aren’t—and this doesn’t make them “false Christians”.) There might be some broader social or cultural change that could make this happen—but it’s not something any particular person can expect to accomplish.

Whereas, getting people who are already Effective Altruists giving to efficient charities to give to a slightly more efficient charity is relatively easy: Indeed, it’s basically the whole purpose for which GiveWell exists. And there are analysts working at GiveWell right now whose job it is to figure out exactly which charities yield the most QALY per dollar and publish that information. One person doing that job even slightly better can save hundreds or even thousands of lives.

Indeed, I’m seriously considering applying to be one myself—it sounds both more pleasant and more important than anything I’d be likely to get in academia.

The cost of illness

Feb 2 JDN 2458882

As I write this I am suffering from some sort of sinus infection, most likely some strain of rhinovirus. So far it has just been basically a bad cold, so there isn’t much to do aside from resting and waiting it out. But it did get me thinking about healthcare—we’re so focused on the costs of providing it that we often forget the costs of not providing it.

The United States is the only First World country without a universal healthcare system. It is not a coincidence that we also have some of the highest rates of preventable mortality and burden of disease.

We in the United States spend about $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, the most of any country in the world, even as a proportion of GDP. Yet this is not the cost of disease; this is how much we were willing to pay to avoid the cost of disease. Whatever harm that would have been caused without all that treatment must actually be worth more than $3.5 trillion to us—because we paid that much to avoid it.

Globally, the disease burden is about 30,000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) per 100,000 people per year—that is to say, the average person is about 30% disabled by disease. I’ve spoken previously about quality-adjusted life years (QALY); the two measures take slightly different approaches to the same overall goal, and are largely interchangeable for most purposes.

Of course this result relies upon the disability weights; it’s not so obvious how we should be comparing across different conditions. How many years would you be willing to trade of normal life to avoid ten years of Alzheimer’s? But it’s probably not too far off to say that if we could somehow wave a magic wand and cure all disease, we would really increase our GDP by something like 30%. This would be over $6 trillion in the US, and over $26 trillion worldwide.

Of course, we can’t actually do that. But we can ask what kinds of policies are most likely to promote health in a cost-effective way.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest improvements to be made are in the poorest countries, where it can be astonishingly cheap to improve health. Malaria prevention has a cost of around $30 per DALY—by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation you can buy a year of life for less than the price of a new video game. Compare this to the standard threshold in the US of $50,000 per QALY: Targeting healthcare in the poorest countries can increase cost-effectiveness a thousandfold. In humanitarian terms, it would be well worth diverting spending from our own healthcare to provide public health interventions in poor countries. (Fortunately, we have even better options than that, like raising taxes on billionaires or diverting military spending instead.)

We in the United States spend about twice as much (per person per year) on healthcare as other First World countries. Are our health outcomes twice as good? Clearly not. Are they any better at all? That really isn’t clear. We certainly don’t have a particularly high life expectancy. We spend more on administrative costs than we do on preventative care—unlike every other First World country except Australia. Almost all of our drugs and therapies are more expensive here than they are everywhere else in the world.

The obvious answer here is to make our own healthcare system more like those of other First World countries. There are a variety of universal health care systems in the world that we could model ourselves on, ranging from the single-payer government-run system in the UK to the universal mandate system of Switzerland. The amazing thing is that it almost doesn’t matter which one we choose: We could copy basically any other First World country and get better healthcare for less spending. Obamacare was in many ways similar to the Swiss system, but we never fully implemented it and the Republicans have been undermining it every way they can. Under President Trump, they have made significant progress in undermining it, and as a result, there are now 3 million more Americans without health insurance than there were before Trump took office. The Republican Party is intentionally increasing the harm of disease.

Tithing makes quite a lot of sense

Dec 22 JDN 2458840

Christmas is coming soon, and it is a season of giving: Not only gifts to those we love, but also to charities that help people around the world. It’s a theme of some of our most classic Christmas stories, like A Christmas Carol. (I do have to admit: Scrooge really isn’t wrong for not wanting to give to some random charity without any chance to evaluate it. But I also get the impression he wasn’t giving a lot to evaluated charities either.) And people do really give more around this time of year: Charitable donation rates peak in November and December (though that may also have something to do with tax deductions).

Where should we give? This is not an easy question, but it’s one that we now have tools to answer: There are various independent charity evaluation agencies, like GiveWell and Charity Navigator, which can at least provide some idea of which charities are most cost-effective.

How much should we give? This question is a good deal harder.

Perhaps a perfect being would determine their own precise marginal utility of wealth, and the marginal utility of spending on every possible charity, and give of your wealth to the best possible charity up until those two marginal utilities are equal. Since $1 to UNICEF or the Against Malaria Foundation saves about 0.02 QALY, and (unless you’re a billionaire) you don’t have enough money to meaningfully affect the budget of UNICEF, you’d probably need to give until you are yourself at the UN poverty level of $1.90 per day.

I don’t know of anyone who does this. Even Peter Singer, who writes books that essentially tell us to do this, doesn’t do this. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to do this. Indeed, I’m not even so sure that a perfect being would do it, since it would require destroying their own life and their own future potential.

How about we all give 10%? In other words, how about we tithe? Yes, it sounds arbitrary—because it is. It could just as well have been 8% or 11%. Perhaps one-tenth feels natural to a base-10 culture made of 10-fingered beings, and if we used a base-12 numeral system we’d think in terms of giving one-twelfth instead. But 10% feels reasonable to a lot of people, it has a lot of cultural support behind it already, and it has become a Schelling point for coordination on this otherwise intractable problem. We need to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be there.

As Slate Star Codex put it:

It’s ten percent because that’s the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

I think it would be also reasonable to adjust this proportion according to your household income. If you are extremely poor, give a token amount: Perhaps 1% or 2%. (As it stands, most poor people already give more than this, and most rich people give less.) If you are somewhat below the median household income, give a bit less: Perhaps 6% or 8%. (I currently give 8%; I plan to increase to 10% once I get a higher-paying job after graduation.) If you are somewhat above, give a bit more: Perhaps 12% or 15%. If you are spectacularly rich, maybe you should give as much as 25%.

Is 10% enough? Well, actually, if everyone gave, even 1% would probably be enough. The total GDP of the First World is about $40 trillion; 1% of that is $400 billion per year, which is more than enough to end world hunger. But since we know that not everyone will give, we need to adjust our standard upward so that those who do give will give enough. (There’s actually an optimization problem here which is basically equivalent to finding a monopoly’s profit-maximizing price.) And just ending world hunger probably isn’t enough; there is plenty of disease to cure, education to improve, research to do, and ecology to protect. If say a third of First World people give 10%, that would be about $1.3 trillion, which would be enough money to at least make a huge difference in all those areas.

You can decide for yourself where you think you should draw the line. But 10% is a pretty good benchmark, and above all—please, give something. If you give anything, you are probably already above average. A large proportion of people give nothing at all. (Only 24% of US tax returns include a charitable deduction—though, to be fair, a lot of us donate but don’t itemize deductions. Even once you account for that, only about 60% of US households give to charity in any given year.)

Good for the economy isn’t the same as good

Dec 8 JDN 2458826

Many of the common critiques of economics are actually somewhat misguided, or at least outdated: While there are still some neoclassical economists who think that markets are perfect and humans are completely rational, most economists these days would admit that there are at least some exceptions to this. But there’s at least one common critique that I think still has a good deal of merit: “Good for the economy” isn’t the same thing as good.

I’ve read literally dozens, if not hundreds, of articles on economics, in both popular press and peer-reviewed journals, that all defend their conclusions in the following way: “Intervention X would statistically be expected to increase GDP/raise total surplus/reduce unemployment. Therefore, policymakers should implement intervention X.” The fact that a policy would be “good for the economy” (in a very narrow sense) is taken as a completely compelling reason that this policy must be overall good.

The clearest examples of this always turn up during a recession, when inevitably people will start saying that cutting unemployment benefits will reduce unemployment. Sometimes it’s just right-wing pundits, but often it’s actually quite serious economists.

The usual left-wing response is to deny the claim, explain all the structural causes of unemployment in a recession and point out that unemployment benefits are not what caused the surge in unemployment. This is true; it is also utterly irrelevant. It can be simultaneously true that the unemployment was caused by bad monetary policy or a financial shock, and also true that cutting unemployment benefits would in fact reduce unemployment.

Indeed, I’m fairly certain that both of those propositions are true, to greater or lesser extent. Most people who are unemployed will remain unemployed regardless of how high or low unemployment benefits are; and likewise most people who are employed will remain so. But at the margin, I’m sure there’s someone who is on the fence about searching for a job, or who is trying to find a job but could try a little harder with some extra pressure, or who has a few lousy job offers they’re not taking because they hope to find a better offer later. That is, I have little doubt that the claim “Cutting unemployment benefits would reduce unemployment” is true.

The problem is that this is in no way a sufficient argument for cutting unemployment benefits. For while it might reduce unemployment per se, more importantly it would actually increase the harm of unemployment. Indeed, those two effects are in direct proportion: Cutting unemployment benefits only reduces unemployment insofar as it makes being unemployed a more painful and miserable experience for the unemployed.

Indeed, the very same (oversimplified) economic models that predict that cutting benefits would reduce unemployment use that precise mechanism, and thereby predict, necessarily, that cutting unemployment benefits will harm those who are unemployed. It has to. In some sense, it’s supposed to; otherwise it wouldn’t have any effect at all.
That is, if your goal is actually to help the people harmed by a recession, cutting unemployment benefits is absolutely not going to accomplish that. But if your goal is actually to reduce unemployment at any cost, I suppose it would in fact do that. (Also highly effective against unemployment: Mass military conscription. If everyone’s drafted, no one is unemployed!)

Similarly, I’ve read more than a few policy briefs written to the governments of poor countries telling them how some radical intervention into their society would (probably) increase their GDP, and then either subtly implying or outright stating that this means they are obliged to enact this intervention immediately.

Don’t get me wrong: Poor countries need to increase their GDP. Indeed, it’s probably the single most important thing they need to do. Providing better security, education, healthcare, and sanitation are all things that will increase GDP—but they’re also things that will be easier if you have more GDP.

(Rich countries, on the other hand? Maybe we don’t actually need to increase GDP. We may actually be better off focusing on things like reducing inequality and improving environmental sustainability, while keeping our level of GDP roughly the same—or maybe even reducing it somewhat. Stay inside the wedge.)

But the mere fact that a policy will increase GDP is not a sufficient reason to implement that policy. You also need to consider all sorts of other effects the policy will have: Poverty, inequality, social unrest, labor standards, pollution, and so on.

To be fair, sometimes these articles only say that the policy will increase GDP, and don’t actually assert that this is a sufficient reason to implement it, theoretically leaving open the possibility that other considerations will be overriding.

But that’s really not all that comforting. If the only thing you say about a policy is a major upside, like it or not, you are implicitly endorsing that policy. Framing is vital. Everything you say could be completely, objectively, factually true; but if you only tell one side of the story, you are presenting a biased view. There’s a reason the oath is “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” A partial view of the facts can be as bad as an outright lie.

Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect you to present every possible consideration that could become relevant. Rather, I expect you to do two things: First, if you include some positive aspects, also include some negative ones, and vice-versa; never let your argument sound completely one-sided. Second, clearly and explicitly acknowledge that there are other considerations you haven’t mentioned.

Moreover, if you are talking about something like increasing GDP or decreasing unemployment—something that has been, many times, by many sources, treated as though it were a completely compelling reason unto itself—you must be especially careful. In such a context, an article that would be otherwise quite balanced can still come off as an unqualified endorsement.

What if the charitable deduction were larger?

Nov 3 JDN 2458791

Right now, the charitable tax deduction is really not all that significant. It makes donating to charity cheaper, but you still always end up with less money after donating than you had before. It might cause you to donate more than you otherwise would have, but you’ll still only give to a charity you already care about.

This is because the tax deduction applies to your income, rather than your taxes directly. So if you make $100,000 and donate $10,000, you pay taxes as if your income were $90,000. Say your tax rate is 25%; then you go from paying $25,000 and keeping $75,000 to paying $22,500 and keeping $67,500. The more you donate, the less money you will have to keep.

Many people don’t seem to understand this; they seem to think that rich people can actually get richer by donating to charity. That can’t be done in our current tax system, or at least not legally. (There are fraudulent ways to do so; but there are fraudulent ways to do lots of things.) Part of the confusion may be related to the fact that people don’t seem to understand how tax brackets work; they worry about being “pushed into a higher tax bracket” as though this could somehow reduce their after-tax income, but that doesn’t happen. That isn’t how tax brackets work.

Some welfare programs work that way—for instance, seeing your income rise high enough to lose Medicaid eligibility can be bad enough that you would prefer to have less income—but taxes themselves do not.

The graph below shows the actual average tax rate (red) and marginal tax rate (purple) of the current US federal income tax:

Average_tax_rate
From that graph alone, you might think that going to a higher tax bracket could result in lower after-tax income. But the next graph, of before-tax (blue) and after-tax (green) income shows otherwise:

After_tax_income

All that tax deductions can do is reduce your taxable income. Thus the tax deduction benefits you if you were already donating, but never leaves you richer than you would have been without donating at all.

For example, if you have an income of $700,000, you would pay $223,000 in taxes and keep $477,000 in after-tax income. If you instead donate $100,000, your adjusted gross income will be reduced to $600,000, you will only pay $186,000 in taxes, and you will keep $414,000 in after-tax income. If there were no tax deduction, you would still have to pay $223,000 in taxes, and your after-tax income would be only $377,000. So you do benefit from the tax deduction; but there is no amount of donation which will actually increase your after-tax income to above $477,000.

But we wouldn’t have to do it this way. We could instead apply the deduction as a tax credit, which would make the effect of the deduction far larger.

Several years back, Miles Kimball (an economist who formerly worked at Michigan, now at UC Boulder) proposed a quite clever change to the tax system:

My proposal is to raise marginal tax rates above about $75,000 per person–or $150,000 per couple–by 10% (a dime on every extra dollar), but offer a 100% tax credit for public contributions up to the entire amount of the tax surcharge.

Kimball’s argument for the policy is mainly that this would make a tax increase more palatable, by giving people more control over where their money goes. This is surely true, and a worthwhile endeavor.

But the even larger benefit might come from the increased charitable donations. If we limited the tax credit to particularly high-impact charities, we would increase the donations to those charities. Whereas in the current system you get the same deduction regardless of where you give your money, even though we know that some charities are literally hundreds of times as cost-effective as others.

In fact, we might not even want to limit the tax credit to that 10% surcharge. If people want to donate more than 10% of their income to high-impact charities, perhaps we should let them. This would mean that the federal deficit could actually increase under this policy, but if so, there would have to be so much money donated that we’d most likely end world hunger. That’s a tradeoff I’m quite willing to make.

In principle, we could even introduce a tax credit that is greater than 100%—say for instance you get a 120% donation for the top-rated charities. This is not mathematically inconsistent, though it is surely a very bad idea. In that case, it absolutely would be possible to end up with more money than you started with, and the richer you are, the more you could get. There would effectively be a positive return on charitable donations, with the money paid for from the government budget. Bill Gates for instance could pay $10 billion a year to charity and the government would not only pay for it, but also have to give him an extra $2 billion. So even for the best charities—which probably are actually a good deal more cost-effective than the US government—we should cap the tax credit at 100%.

Obvious choices for high-impact charities include UNICEF, the Red Cross, GiveDirectly, and the Malaria Consortium. We would need some sort of criteria to decide which charities should get the benefits; I’m thinking we could have some sort of panel of experts who rate charities based on their cost-effectiveness.

It wouldn’t have to be all-or-nothing, either; charities with good but not top ratings could get an increased deduction but not a 100% deduction. The expert panel could rate charities on a scale from 0 to 10, and then anything above 5 gets an (X-5)*10% tax credit.

In effect, the current policy says, “If you give to charity, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you gave; but all of your other taxes still apply.” The new policy would say, “You can give to a top-impact charity instead of paying taxes.”

Americans hate taxes and already give a lot to charity, but most of those donations are to relatively ineffective charities. This policy could incentivize people to give more or at least give to better places, probably without hurting the government budget—and if it does hurt the government budget, the benefits will be well worth the cost.

Migration holds together the American Dream

Sep 29 JDN 2458757

The United States is an exceptional country in many ways, some good (highest income), some bad (highest incarceration rate), and some mixed (largest military). But as you compare the US to other countries, one thing that will immediately strike you is how we are a nation of migrants.

I don’t just mean immigrants, people who moved to the country after being born here—though we certainly are also a country of immigrants. About 99% of the US population descends from immigrants, mostly European—there aren’t a lot of countries that can even say the majority of their population migrated from another continent. Over 45 million Americans are foreign-born, which is not only the highest in the world; it is almost one-fifth of all the immigrants in the world. We experience a net inflow of immigrants averaging over 1 million people per year, by far the highest in the world. Almost half of the increase in our workforce over the last decade was due to immigrants.

But the US is full of migration in another way, which may in fact be even more important: Internal migration, from country to city, from one city to another, or from one state to another. Every year, about 12.5% of Americans move somewhere; about 10% move to a different state. No other country even comes close to this level of internal migration. According to the US census, about two-thirds of moves are within the same county, and yet each year there are ten times as many Americans who moved to a different county as there are immigrants to the United States. There are more cross-state migrants to California and Texas alone than there are immigrants to the entire country. There are about as many people who move each year within the United States as there are foreign-born individuals total.

This internal migration is central to the high productivity of the American economy. Internal migration is central to the process of urbanization, which drives a great deal of economic development. It is not a coincidence that the United States is one of the world’s most urbanized countries as well as one of the richest, nor that the ranking of US states by urbanization and the ranking of US states by per-capita income look very much alike.

Income_Urbanization

On average, increasing a state’s urbanization by 1 percentage point increases its average per-capita income by $270 per year (in chained 2009 dollars); since most of that increase is going to the people who actually moved, this means that the average income increase as a result of moving from the country to the city is likely over $20,000 per year. To put it another way, if Maine could become as urbanized as California, we would expect its per-capita income to increase from about $39,000 per year to about $54,000 per year—which is just about California’s per-capita income.

Indeed, migration is probably the one thing holding up our otherwise dismal level of income mobility, which still trails behind most other First World countries (and far behind Denmark and Norway, because #ScandinaviaIsBetter). Canada also does extremely well in terms of income mobility, and Canada also has a high rate of internal migration, with almost 1% of Canadians moving to a new province in any given year. Canada is probably what the US would look like with a European-style social safety net; our high internal migration rate might actually get us better income mobility than is currently achieved by say France or Germany.

Indeed, migration may be the main reason there is still some vestige of an American Dream. It’s not what it used to be, but it isn’t yet dead either. Two-thirds of American adults have more real (inflation-adjusted) income than their parents. Intergenerational income mobility in the US grew quickly in the 1940s and 1950s, grew more slowly in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been stagnant ever since. While the odds of moving to a different income bracket have remained stable, income inequality has increased over the last 40 years, which means that the differences between those brackets have become larger.

How much should we value statistical lives?

June 9 JDN 2458644

The very concept of putting a dollar value on a human life offends most people. I understand why: It suggests that human lives are fungible, and also seems to imply that killing people is just fine as long as it produces sufficient profit.

In next week’s post I’ll try to assuage some of those fears: Saying that a life is worth say $5 million doesn’t actually mean that it’s justifiable to kill someone as long as it pays you $5 million.

But for now let me say that we really have no choice but to do this. There are a huge number of interventions we could make in the world that all have the same basic form: They could save lives, but they cost money. We need to be able to say when we are justified in spending more money to save more lives, and when we are not.

No, it simply won’t do to say that “money is no object”. Because money isn’t just money—money is human happiness. A willingness to spend unlimited amounts to save even a single life, if it could be coherently implemented at all, would result in, if not complete chaos or deadlock, a joyless, empty world where we all live to be 100 by being contained in protective foam and fed by machines. It may be uncomfortable to ask a question like “How many people should we be willing to let die to let ourselves have Disneyland?”; but if that answer were zero, we should not have Disneyland. The same is true for almost everything in our lives: From automobiles to chocolate, almost any product you buy, any service you consume, has resulted in some person’s death at some point.

And there is an even more urgent reason, in fact: There are many things we are currently not doing that could save many lives for very little money. Targeted foreign aid or donations to top charities could save lives for as little as $1000 each. Foreign aid is so cost-effective that even if the only thing foreign aid had ever accomplished was curing smallpox, it would be twice as cost-effective as the UK National Health Service (which is one of the best healthcare systems in the world). Tighter environmental regulations save an additional life for about $200,000 in compliance cost, which is less than we would have spent in health care costs; the Clean Air Act added about $12 trillion to the US economy over the last 30 years.

Reduced military spending could literally pay us money to save people’s lives—based on the cost of the Afghanistan War, we are currently paying as much as $1 million per person to kill people that we really have very little reason to kill.

Most of the lives we could save are statistical lives: We can’t point to a particular individual who will or will not die because of the decision, but we can do the math and say approximately how many people will or will not die. We know that approximately 11,000 people will die each year if we loosen regulations on mercury pollution; we can’t say who they are, but they’re out there. Human beings have a lot of trouble thinking this way; it’s just not how our brains evolved to work. But when we’re talking about policy on a national or global scale, it’s quite simply the only way to do things. Anything else is talking nonsense.

Standard estimates of the value of a statistical life range from about $4 million to $9 million. These estimates are based on how much people are willing to pay for reductions in risk. So for instance if people would pay $100 to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, we divide the former by the latter to say that a life is worth about $1 million.

It’s a weird question: You clearly can’t just multiply like that. How much would you be willing to accept for a 100% chance of death? Presumably there isn’t really such an amount, because you would be dead. So your willingness-to-accept is undefined. And there’s no particular reason for it to be linear below that: Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, the amount you would demand for a 50% chance of death is a lot more than 50 times as much as what you would demand for a 1% chance of death.
Say for instance that utility of wealth is logarithmic. Say your currently lifetime wealth is $1 million, and your current utility is about 70 QALY. Then if we measure wealth in thousands of dollars, we have W = 1000 and U = 10 ln W.

How much would you be willing to accept for a 1% chance of death? Your utility when dead is presumably zero, so we are asking for an amount m such that 0.99 U(W+m) = U(W). 0.99 (10 ln (W+m)) = 10 ln (W) means (W+m)^0.99 = W, so m = W^(1/0.99) – W. We started with W = 1000, so m = 72. You would be willing to accept $72,000 for a 1% chance of death. So we would estimate the value of a statistical life at $7.2 million.

How much for a 0.0001% chance of death? W^(1/0.999999)-W = 0.0069. So you would demand $6.90 for such a risk, and we’d estimate your value of a statistical life at $6.9 million. Pretty close, though not the same.

But how much would you be willing to accept for a 50% chance of death? W^(1/0.5) – W = 999,000. That is, $999 million. So if we multiplied that out, we’d say that your value of a statistical life has now risen to a staggering (and ridiculous) $2 billion.

Mathematically, the estimates are more consistent if we use small probabilities—but all this assumes that people actually know their own utility of wealth and calculate it correctly, which is a very unreasonable assumption.

The much bigger problem with this method is that human beings are terrible at dealing with small probabilities. When asked how much they’d be willing to pay to reduce their chances of dying by 0.01%, most people probably have absolutely no idea and may literally just say a random number.

We need to rethink our entire approach for judging such numbers. Honestly we shouldn’t be trying to put a dollar value on a human life; we should be asking about the dollar cost of saving a human life. We should be asking what else we could do with that money. Indeed, for the time being, I think the best thing to do is actually to compare lives to lives: How many lives could we save for this amount of money?

Thus, if we’re considering starting a war that will cost $1 trillion, we need to ask ourselves: How many innocent people would die if we don’t do that? How many will die if we do? And what else could we do with a trillion dollars? If the war is against Nazi Germany, okay, sure; we’re talking about killing millions to save tens of millions. But if it’s against ISIS, or Iran, those numbers don’t come out so great.

If we have a choice between two policies, each of which will cost $10 billion, and one of them will save 1,000 lives while the other will save 100,000, the obvious answer is to pick the second one. Yet this is exactly the world we live in, and we’re not doing that. We are throwing money at military spending and tax cuts (things that many not save any lives at all) and denying it from climate change adaptation, foreign aid, and poverty relief.

Instead of asking whether a given intervention is cost-effective based upon some notion of a dollar value of a human life, we should be asking what the current cost of saving a human life is, and we should devote all available resources into whatever means saves the most lives for the least money. Most likely that means some sort of foreign aid, public health intervention, or poverty relief in Third World countries. It clearly does not mean cutting taxes on billionaires or starting another war in the Middle East.