Today's post, "Can't say no" Spending was originally published on 18 October 2007. I decided to include it based on feedback in the open thread. It is a very short entry so there is no real need for a summary:

The remarkable observation that medical spending has zero net marginal effect is shocking, but not completely unprecedented.

According to Spiegel in "Too Much of a Good Thing: Choking on Aid Money in Africa", the Washington Center for Global Development calculated that it would require $3,521 of marginal development aid invested, per person, in order to increase per capita yearly income by $3.65 (one penny per day).

The Kenyan economist James Shikwati is even more pessimistic in "For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!":  The net effect of Western aid to Africa is actively destructive (even when it isn't stolen to prop up corrupt regimes), a chaotic flux of money and goods that destroys local industry.

What does aid to Africa have in common with healthcare spending? Besides, of course, that it's heartbreaking to just say no -

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

This post is part of the Rerunning the Sequences series, where we'll be going through Eliezer Yudkowsky's old posts in order so that people who are interested can (re-)read and discuss them. The previous post was Superexponential Conceptspace, and Simple Words, and you can use the sequence_reruns tag or rss feed to follow the rest of the series.

Sequence reruns are a community-driven effort. You can participate by re-reading the sequence post, discussing it here, posting the next day's sequence reruns post, or summarizing forthcoming articles on the wiki. Go here for more details, or to have meta discussions about the Rerunning the Sequences series.


New Comment
13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:30 PM

This post was already rerun in September.


Sorry. I thought someone would have mentioned that when I brought it up in the open thread.

I probably wouldn't have even noticed myself if I hadn't posted a comment on the original repost!

I think some of the comments in the original hit the nail on the head. I, personally, am skeptical about these arguments because they sounds too convenient by half: both for those who are ideologically anti-aid and those who feel bad about not giving. I notice that I used to not give money to charity before I found this out, but that I have sometimes thought this is why I wasn't giving money since I found it out. Which makes me suspicious. People in general are very happy to believe things that replace a moral tension with an intellectual argument.

On the other hand, a lot of me is tempted to say that aid does help because those devoted to helping are generally pro-aid. But that's obviously a self-selecting issue: you're not going to set up a charity to help if you don't think help HELPS. Also, in general, I think people get mixed up about sincerity. They tend to think that those with access to power and information are either right or deliberately doing the bad thing (on everything from global warming to dealing with the economic crisis). I think a more realistic view of how business and political leaders actually act and think suggests that the way they reach decisions is far nearer to the way that others do than we assume, and we can assume cock-up over conspiracy at any given time. So if aid doesn't work, I don't think that governments do it cynically for effect: I think they think it does work and tend to weigh evidence suggesting it does more heavily than evidence it doesn't.

But that's obviously a self-selecting issue: you're not going to set up a charity to help if you don't think help HELPS.

Imagine two charities, one devotes nearly all its resources to helping, the other devotes much of its resources to making itself look appealing to donors. Which one is going to get more donations and thus become bigger? The problem is that donating to charity is the ultimate credence good since the donor frequently has no way to tell whether or how much the donation is helping?

I think I agree with this: though it's different to the one I was making, which is that if we ask 'what do the most charitable think' we will see that they believe in charity. As in many areas, you only become expert if you think that the area is worthwhile.

On your point: very possibly true, though you would hope that the best way to look appealing involves helping, plus the individuals involved will actually want to help. Just as politicians' success is 'getting re-elected', businessmen's success is 'getting promoted' and arguably people's social success is 'being liked', but hopefully these aims are partially or largely pursued through the more positive side of what they're meant to do: help the country, help the company and being a good friend.

It should be obvious that the proper reaction to "Charity sucks" is to find a non-sucky charity; even if none exists (which the argument doesn't say!) then do something guaranteed to help more than harm, like covering random strangers' medical expenses. Anyone who uses it not to give to charity is insincere or very stupid. And I've never heard anyone say "Aid hurts, therefore I buy video games instead", whereas I've heard lots of people say "You shouldn't say 'Aid hurts', because people will use it as an excuse to buy video games instead".

I'd assume that arguments suggesting medical spending doesn't help would apply to covering a stranger's medical expenses: e.g. increasing prices, encouraging continuing unhealthy behaviour, whatever.

And people don't often declare they're not giving to charity, so your second point is hard to test. But people often use the fact that aid isn't always effective as a reason to oppose or believe in reduction in government spending on aid (last week's Question Time in the UK is a case in point). It's used to muddy and close off a line of thought, just like 'well we probably can't stop global warming anyway', 'loads of diets don't work', whatever. While they may not state it, I think it's VERY common for people to give up on an objective because of a lack of a clear path to it, and furthermore to seek such lack of clarity as an excuse for abandoning the objective.

(I dunno how the rerun system works, but I'd really like to see a discussion of this post.)

It is odd to read all this old stuff. There was such a great cognitive disconnect between me and Eliezer back then.

I'll have to check back and see what people think of it now.

They being reposted in chronological order, so you'll have to wait 2 weeks for that rerun to come around. (EDIT: No, I lie, not only is this specific rerun out of order, but I had the years wrong too... so it's more like 8 months. Oops)

How about letting folks repost whatever articles they want as a separate thing, maybe with a [REPOST] tag?

Personally, I'd prefer that the reruns were the extent of reposted sequence articles. But there is nothing to stop people commenting on the original posts (and others will notice it in the recent comments section), or bringing it up in an open thread.

New to LessWrong?