From Yvain's 'proposal' to measure money in dead children:

According to Population Services International, a respected charity research group, it costs between $650 and $1000 [1] to save one child's life through charity. You've probably heard lower numbers like twenty cents somewhere. The lower numbers are wrong. Yes, maybe an anti-measles vaccine for a kid in Africa only costs twenty cents, and measles can be fatal. But there's a lot of overhead, and you have to immunize a lot of people before you get the one kid otherwise destined to die of measles. I find the $650-$1000 figure much more believable. Let's round it off to $800.

So one dead child = eight hundred dollars. If you spend eight hundred dollars on a laptop, that's one African kid who died because you didn't give it to charity. Distasteful but true. Now that we know that, we can get down to the details of designing the currency itself. It should be a big gold coin, with a picture of a smiling Burmese child on the front, and a tombstone on the back. The abbreviation can be DC.

This makes sense to me, to a limited extent. You can spend money for your own benefit or to help others elsewhere, and there really are people who wouldn't have to die if you would forgo some luxuries. Making this tradeoff more explicit ("we're looking for an apartment costing no more than six dead children annually") might lead some people to greater generosity. It's a way of abstracting compassion.

Two things worry me, though. The first is that there's a big focus on spending here [2], but increasing earnings deserves more focus: getting a raise or a new job that added $10K to my salary would let me keep more children from dying than would reducing my spending on myself to zero. [3] The second is that thinking of all your purchases in terms of dead children is likely to make you miserable. Not just that, but miserable to little gain: you still probably spend almost as much money on yourself, you just feel more guilty about it. Much better, I think, is to pick a rule for how much to give and then apply it to money as it comes in. That way each purchase has no effect on the number of deaths you're averting.

(Note: I also posted this on my blog)

[1] The current number is probably closer to $2K.

[2] Maybe this is because it sounds weird to talk about salary in terms of dead children? ("I wonder what job earns me the most dead children?") Perhaps for earning the unit should be the "undead child"?

[3] In 2011 Julia and I lived on $18K for the two of us, not including taxes or health insurance.

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I'll point out that "saving lives" is actually a pretty weird unit, and the more seriously people start to take it the more important that weirdness gets.

For example, suppose there are a thousand people who suffer from Invented Syndrome, a congenital condition that causes periodic life-threatening pulmonary arrests. Suppose I have two treatments available: treatment A ends the pulmonary arrest, saving the person's life, but does not prevent subsequent arrests. Treatment B not only ends the arrest, but also cures the condition, ensuring that no subsequent arrests occur.

If I'm counting saved lives, it seems I end up favoring treatment A, since each use of it saves a life... I predict more lifesaving events if I manufacture and distribute A than B.

Which, you know, is fine... if that's what I value, that's what I value. But I suspect most people who claim to value saving lives wouldn't actually go for that. (Nor would they go for the middleman-eliminating version where I put a thousand people in a warehouse and forego pressing the button that kills them every few seconds. Heck, I can sell you saved lives at much much cheaper than $800 a head at that point.)

And while they might not admit it, I bet they'd also prefer to save an otherwise healthy seven-year-old with an expected future lifespan of 70 years than an otherwise healthy eighty-year-old with an expected future lifespan of 7 years.

Perhaps what they actually value is human observer-moments?


If you want something that you can use as a metric, the disability-adjusted life year (DALY) would be better. The main problem with the DALY is that it's not intuitive, combining so much that an estimate can be off by 100x without anyone noticing for years.

What I actually value is something like "human observer-moments * happiness", or total utility.

The main problem with the DALY is that it's not intuitive, combining so much that an estimate can be off by 100x without anyone noticing for years.

That was not the conclusion I reached when I read that post. If you want to write something arguing for that claim, I'd be interested to read it, but it seems to me that there is a much simpler explanation that people just don't care enough about saving lives or years to bother to do calculations correctly. They are only interested in justifying the programs they are already attached to. I suppose you could say that the very idea of quantifying charity is unintuitive, but this doesn't distinguish DALYs from the Other Dave's criticism of "lives saved."

Edit: For example, a widely quoted Peter Unger footnote is off by 3 orders of magnitude. But he never asks himself how Unicef is able to save a billion lives each year.

Given some plausible assumptions, increasing the probability of a future trans-humanist utopia populated by an unimaginably large number of humans should be much higher return in terms of observer moments:

I think it would be fun to rename the dollar to the "lifeless galaxy cluster". (Though there are potential caveats here about things like aliens and simulations.)

The Dead Child thing isn't morbid enough. We should figure out how many punches to the face are equal in moral badness to one death. Then if it's say a thousand, we could rename the dollar to the punch-to-the-face.

That would create an interesting schelling point for torts of assault.

Worth noting that the dead baby value is very different from the actual amount which most Westerners regard the lives of white, middle-class people from their own country as being worth. In fact, pretty much the whole point of the statistic is that it's SHOCKINGLY low. I suppose we could hope that Dead Baby currency would result in a reduction to that discrepancy... although I think in the case of the actual example given, the Malthusians* have a point where it would dramatically increase access to life-prolonging things without increasing access to birth control much, resulting in more population and thus more people to save.

*To clarify: I actually agree with the Malthusian ecology- it's just a basic fact of ecology, I'm amazed that anyone seriously disagrees with it- but not to the objection to charitable donations on that basis; anyone who actually thinks that would go "you should instead give money to provide birth control".

If the demographic transition continues, I'm not too worried about Malthusian scenarios. It seems that people who are less worried about their children being wiped out by disease have fewer children.

Another option is interventions that improve lives without saving them, such as deworming.


The big problem for me is the children down the line. You save some children, boys and girls, they grow up and have more children, who die after terrible suffering (in 10 years time so no singularity yet, but the oil is seriously running short with all the consequences).

I actually have suffered malnourishment as a child for several years (fall of soviet union related). Today i'm making good income by western standards - i have been very lucky. So I kind of see this issue from both sides.

As terrible as it sounds, I'd rather donate for a scheme where the child that is saved is sterilized. Otherwise the donations may indeed be measured in dead children at a discount rates - the children who die after severe suffering thanks to your donation making them exist in the first place. You can't just throw nutrients into ecosystem and expect a morally good outcome.

You're arguing that keeping children from dying now is not actually very valuable because of other problems. Then take your argument farther toward DH7 and consider the same idea but with a charity that's working towards making the world better in whatever way you thinks the most sense (perhaps SIAI). The main idea, that by spending money on yourself you are paying a cost in reduced progress of whatever world-improving efforts you most support, still stands.

Well, I was more commenting on the choice of dead children as the currency. I do think that it is possible to improve the world, just the issue is quite complicated.

edit: with regards to AI i do plan to contribute directly... I am currently earning my money doing independent game development but my main talents lie elsewhere (engineering). I was thinking over a dramatically cheap mosquito zapping laser (putting as much of the complexity into software rather than high precision hardware). High IQ is similar to being that strong AI - I can solve problems that only few people can, and there's shortage of those people and abundance of problems to solve.

I can't say I care a whole ton though - it's not my fault the world is naturally a hell-hole. Think about it, the condition of suffering has evolved because it is very useful to prodding you forward - in the natural conditions you suffer a lot, the pain circuitry gets a lot of use. No species can just live happily, the evolution will make such species work harder at reproducing and suffer.

I was thinking over a dramatically cheap mosquito zapping laser (putting as much of the complexity into software rather than high precision hardware).

I don't understand this sentence. Is this something that you were contemplating doing personally? The Gates Foundation has already funded such a project.

I can't say I care a whole ton though - it's not my fault the world is naturally a hell-hole.

I agree with the second clause but don't think that it has a great deal to do with the first clause. Most people would upon being confronted by a sabertooth tiger would care about not being maimed by it despite the fact that it's not their fault that there's a possibility that they might be maimed by a saber tooth tiger. A sense of bearing responsibility for a problem is one route toward caring about fixing it but there are other routes.

Nevertheless, sadly I can relate to not caring very much.

Think about it, the condition of suffering has evolved because it is very useful to prodding you forward - in the natural conditions you suffer a lot, the pain circuitry gets a lot of use. No species can just live happily, the evolution will make such species work harder at reproducing and suffer.

Any reason to think that negative feelings are a more effective motivator than positive feelings? If not, is there any reason to doubt that it's in principle possible for a species to have motivational mechanisms consisting exclusively of rewards?

Any reason to think that negative feelings are a more effective motivator than positive feelings?

The Happiness Hypothesis, I book I recommend, addresses this. A long string of good decisions/rewards will keep us alive, while a single bad decision/punishment will kill us. E.g. if you do eat that mushroom it might kill you, but if you don't you probably won't starve right away and can probably find something else to eat. Thus avoiding pain is a better policy than pursuing rewards.

However, we're smart and can decide when to override this instinct. For example, my reptile brain just tells me to save all my resources for me and mine. But my more rational mind tells me how much I have in my bank account and that I can afford to help strangers.

The Gates foundation project for mosquito zapping AFAIK started in 2007 and still didn't get anywhere practical despite more than sufficient investment. It's not so simple to make something that actually works and is cheap to build. In principle it can be as cheap as a DVD writer, but look, you wont have same effort put into this as DVD writer had. It's not so much about money as about having someone who'll actually work on the device productively. In programming there is this phenomena: good programmers are 5..10x more productive than average.

Regarding whose fault the world is, I meant that if it was my fault that other people are in hellhole, I would care more. For extreme example, consider some alien species whom are going extinct because they are extremely nasty to each other, they all are, not a single one is nice. In this case its basically 'their' fault.

With regards to the positive feeling-only motivated beings... how do you impose soft limit on joint movement for example upon damage of that joint? Make that being ecstatic happy except when the joint is off limits? I don't think this scales to all types of 'software' restrictions that needs to be imposed for survival. And even if it does, that state must be possible for evolution to arrive at, and must be reasonably stable when the species evolve further. Right now if someone is mutated not to feel pain, that person typically dies young even with all the intervention and help.

I just want to say that even though I generally disagree with these objections to donation*, I really love the "You can't just throw nutrients into ecosystem and expect a morally good outcome." bit and will try to remember/save that in the future. It's rather interesting that Malthusianism is completely accepted without comment in ecology and evolution, but seems to be widely hated when brought up in political or social spheres, so maybe phrasing it in ecosystem terms will make people more liable to accept it. Probably be best to introduce the concept that way first before suggesting any policies derived from it.

*Not the objection, but the bit where people conclude "So I'm going to keep my money for myself" rather than "So I'm going to give to a charity to distribute birth control instead". Which to be fair you don't seem to be entirely doing, so you're not actually one of those people.

I took these ideas quite seriously a few years ago when I posted on the topic, and I still do, but my attitude has changed somewhat. I used to see extreme frugality as an extreme moral imperative. Since then, I realized that as you mention, high income is probably more important than low expenses. I realized that I only had a limited amount of willpower to work with, so I chose to apply my optimization pressure in favor of increasing my income rather than decreasing my expenses. (I'm still quite frugal, but it's mainly to keep my burn rate low. If things go well, I won't be like this forever.) I also realized that I was experiencing a great deal of internal turmoil from complaints from my selfish side. So I began to act on an average of the impulses from both sides: my life's purpose didn't really change, but I'm much more open to making concessions to my own self-interest.

Of course, if D_Malik is to believed, it's possible to develop quite a high level of willpower in oneself through progressively higher willpower expenditure:

Clearly this is a complicated issue. People may differ, and it's all about understanding and exploiting your brains spaghetti code. I'm thinking of messaging D_Malik and getting him to teach me his method. Then maybe once he's made it communicable one of us will write a less wrong post about it.

To end on a somewhat sad note, I've noticed a trend towards greater selfishness as I grow older. It's too bad that the trend doesn't go the other way, since old people have all the money.

"I only had a limited amount of willpower to work with, so I chose to apply my optimization pressure in favor of increasing my income rather than decreasing my expenses."

This is very sensible.

The personal value I assign to the life of a random child is much less than $800 and I expect that that is true of almost everyone (revealed preference) and will continue to be so even if it's made more explicit.

Humans' "revealed preferences" are frequently not consistent, and given that our psyches are hacked together from separately evolved heuristics developed for different domains, there's no particular reason to expect them to be consistent. I doubt that if our currency were habitually measured in Dead Children, human behavior would be entirely unchanged.

Inspired by Yvain's proposal, I have picked a student wearing jewelry in my introductory microeconomics class and asked her in front of the class how much the jewelry costs. After she gives me a dollar amount I say something like "No, I meant in terms of dead African children not dollars." Thanks Yvain. It's a great way of teaching about opportunity costs. Boredom is the true mind-killer.

As a matter of pedagogy, I think you would be better off telling them how many children had to die so you could have your house, or your car, or your last vacation. What you are doing seems too much to me like singling someone out for embarassment which I would imagine would alienate many students rendering you relatively useless as a teacher.

I think you would be better off telling them how many children had to die so you could have your house, or your car, or your last vacation.

No -- It's better to show how economics relates to their lives than mine.

singling someone out for embarrassment

No, because they know I could have done the same to anyone.


No, because they know I could have done the same to anyone.

For better or worse, this is not psychologically reassuring to the student picked for the example. It's a cognitive bias, but that doesn't mean that singling out a student was low-risk. That said, you were there, and thus had a better sense of whether the benefit was worth the risk.

Interesting, does the bias have a specific name?

It probably does, but I tend to call it the "Why Me?" mode of thinking, people looking for an underlying reason for the bad things that happen to them by pure chance.


I'm not sure if the dynamic I was referencing has a specific description. But it is the case that in ordinary society, X can be true, everyone can know X is true, and someone declaring X is true will receive negative feedback. Cognitive-behavioral therapy might call it a part of the avoidance dynamic.

All I'm really trying to say is that college students who lack self-reflection can be giant pains for college professors. And someone upset by being singled out (per your example) has a reasonable justification for the emotional reaction, which the idiot the link discusses definitely does not.

the depressing reality is that the child in the emperor's new clothes would have been lynched.

The specific story described is perfectly plausible, because it involves political pressure rather than social, and (due to the technology level and the like) the emperor's guards can't kill everybody in the crowd, so once everyone starts laughing they're safe. However, as a metaphor for social pressure it certainly is overly optimistic by a long shot.

I would really like to know the name for that dynamic if it has one, because that's very useful.

Expensive jewelry is normally a gift from someone else. So you would be singling someone out for an expense she didn't even choose. (Although I did once hear a college classmate remark, "Dan knows if he ever bought me a diamond, I'd punch him in the face." So it's not as though recievers have no input on the matter...)

You are the first person I've seen reacting appropriately to Yvain's "proposal". The default reaction is to take it dead seriously, which is not appropriate at all.

It seemed like a modest proposal to me....

Do you really do this? Do the students get really defensive about it? How does the conversation tend to go from that point on? I certainly can imagine how vividly it gets their attention.

Do you really do this?


They find it amusing. We then continue to discuss opportunity costs.

Interesting. I could imagine some students reacting very, very negatively to being invited to consider every act of consumption in such ... moral terms.

My own reaction was to wonder 'gosh, I hope he doesn't do only the females and their jewelry...'

I teach at a women's college.

Yeah, I'm surprised that didn't turn into screaming or tears, or at least a dropped class.

How does the person singled out react?

I ask if anyone is wearing gold jewelry.

I don't see the relevance of your response to my question, care to elaborate?


Fine I think. It happens very quickly unlike later in the semester when I insist that a student trade me her jewelry for a glass of water.

To illustrate the fact that the value of goods is determined by their scarcity/abundance relative to demand?

I wrote some more on the Dead Child Currency idea.

My suspicion is that you (and Yvain) suffer from the typical mind fallacy, if you think that an image of a dead child would keep an average person from buying a laptop, or even tilt the balance toward charity vs consumption. Might even cause a backlash. On the other hand, some might be swayed by an image of the solar system tiled with smiley faces, or the Earth savaged by an asteroid impact, or cockroaches surviving a nuclear war or a deadly manufactured virus.

I personally am not suffering from typical mind fallacy, because this doesn't keep me from buying things and I have yet to donate a single cent to charity my entire life (in my defense, I'm currently a college student and all my savings are a few thousand dollars that I earned on a paper route, but still). Just wanted to mention from that fact that I still support this proposal, because even a tiny portion of income put towards this by the average person would save countless lives- and also reduce the moral burden of this on people like myself, who are aware of it anyway, because once you save all the easy-to-save lives that laptop isn't equal to a full dead child anymore.

Hmm, I wonder what all these silent downvotes indicate.

I didn't downvote you but I suspect that the reason for the downvotes is the combination of your claim appearing dubious and the absence of a supporting argument.


Archived version of the original article:

Pretty much all the links are broken.

fixed; thanks!

All the links to your blog are broken.

(e.g. "abstracting compassion" leads to "" instead of "")

fixed; thanks!

I'd personally like to very, very strongly argue in favor of this as an actual currency redesign, precisely because of the primary argument used in these conversations: that thinking this way doesn't put much money towards dead children, but makes you very miserable. The thing is that, if EVERYONE thought this way, or just everyone in a large developed country like the United States, even if they only devoted 0.1% of their income (at least 1%, probably more, sounds more reasonable), the price of a dead child would DRAMATICALLY rise. That would result in proportionately less misery brought on by thinking this way- which is EXCELLENT news for someone who already either thinks like this or feels like they ought to, like me.

With regards to 2: Something like "Child's Life", or perhaps simply "Life" or "Human life", would probably be a more useful term as currency.

I'd also like to point out that this has other major advantages besides getting people to donate more of their income, in economic and similar discussions. The main thing is for purposes like government budget: it would make it outright IMPOSSIBLE to say things like "how can you put a dollar value on human life", because you'd literally be saying "how can you put a Human Life value on human life?". You could still say "how can you say this person's life is worth less than 100 Human Lives?" or the like, but then at least you'd be making a clear and logical non-utilitarian assertion, rather than confusing people.

I do however think that Dmytry's complaint that it puts too much focus on saving raw numbers of immediate lives, and not enough on things like scientific research or the like. In fact, as with organized religion and the like, it might actually hurt publicly- or charitably-funded scientific research thanks to people saying "how can we spend X Human Lives on this?", although hopefully that would be averted for research areas where there's an obvious direct connection to future lives saved.