Hm... pretty similar here. I also don't have much of a media presence. I haven't tried EA forums yet, mainly because I consider myself intellectually more aligned with LW, but in any case I'm open to looking. This is looking to be a more personal conversation now. Would you like to continue in direct messages? Open to hearing your suggestions, I'm just as clueless right now.
Likely a good suggestion. I'm in a few communities myself. But then, I'm unsure if you're familiar with how discord works. Discord is primarily a messaging app with public server features tacked on. Not the sort of community for posts like this. Are you aware of any particular communities within discord I could join? The general platform has many communities, much like reddit, but I'm not aware of any similar to lesswrong.
Many thanks for the kind words, I appreciate it.
You're probably right. I mainly started on lesswrong because this is a community I'm familiar with, and a place I can expect to understand basic norms. (I've read the sequences and have some understanding of rationalist discourse). I'm unsure how I'd fare in other communities, but then, I haven't looked either. Are you familiar with any? I don't know myself.
Thanks for your reply!
Yes, you're right, I realize I was rather thin on evidence for the link between institutional weakness and corruption. I believe this was like mind fallacy on my end, I assumed the link was obvious. But since clearly it was not allow me to go back and contextualize it.
Disclaimer: It's late and I'm tired, prose quality will be lower than usual, and I'll be prone to some rather dry political jokes.
To understand the link between institutions and corruption, I think it's helpful just to use simple mental models. Consider this simple question: what causes corruption? The answer seems fairly straightforward. People are corrupt, they want money, etc etc. But clearly, this isn't everything. Humans in different countries coming from similar racial, social, and class backgrounds tend to be varying levels of 'corrupt', but even countries with similar backgrounds often have wildly varying corruption levels. Take North and South Korea, for one example. Both were unified states emerging from occupation post WWII, but they took wildly different paths in their development as countries.
South Korea eventually transitioned from a military dictatorship to a free market democracy who know today. North Korea, however, remained a military dictatorship. This resulted in stark differences in corruption handling on both sides. In the global corruptions perceptions index, South Korea ranks 31st, while North Korea ranks an appalling 171st. Why was this?
The answer, I think, is institutions. South Korea, having developed a free market system and accountable mode of governance, is able to check the power of it's political and economic elites. If the president of North Korea decides he wants to abuse his power, the people have no recourse. If the president of South Korea decides to abuse their power, they end up in prison. (See the 7 korean heads of state that ended up in jail, quite impressive for a 40 year period. We had 4 years with Trump and only managed a mugshot.)
Memes aside, strong institutions typically have a variety of methods to align their leaders with the needs of the people and stave off corruption. Understanding that those in power tend to abuse said power unless restricted in some way, most democracies have institutions in place to ensure no one person dominates the system. Typically, the most straightforward answer is elections. In democracies, a leader can be corrupt to the extent the public tolerates it. Be too corrupt and you end up losing elections, or serving prison time (cough cough South Korea). There is also much greater public oversight and freedom of information, which creates a drive towards transparency. If the CCP is corrupt there's no real way to hold them accountable. The secret police will arrive to have a word with you. Xi Jinping can do as he likes and nobody has a say about it. If the American president tried to do the same we would see the news awash with headlines of scandal. The other political party would cackle, and voters would scramble to find a more reliable candidate.
These mechanisms of alignment, as I'd call them, are far from perfect. Even in liberal democracies like the US it's common knowledge most congressmen are multi millionaires, and for individuals with modest state salaries they sure have an uncanny knack for obtaining huge sums of wealth. (Perhaps Pelosi should give day trading a try, she sure seems to have talent) However, the fact remains that corruption tends to be discouraged as a general rule, and instances of corruption tend to be far less overt and damaging. We don't see, for instance, the head of state winning a state run lottery. Or Congress passing themselves a 10 billion dollar pay raise. Backroom deals, cushy corporate jobs, insider trader and the like are acceptable. Outright raising land rents like a feudal lord to fund direct salary increases is not. Our leaders are, in the end, constrained by law. This allows regular citizens to do the work of making money... mostly. Corruption will hurt, but it isn't crippling as there's at least some accountability.
Case in point, many of the worst offenders are simply convicted of federal corruption charges. Our last president was impeached twice and is currently on trial for, among other things, fraud and corruption. Imperfect as they are, these are still methods to keep the guy in charge accountable. This does not exist in countries with weak institutions. Many times, in fact, the institutions end up bolstering corruption.
Let's return to the example of Mexico. Recall how Carlos Slim was able to build a tele-networking monopoly to plunder the wealth of the people. You might wonder how in the world he managed this, surely the law wouldn't stand for such overtly criminal business practices? The issue is, not too surprisingly, that the law is on Slim's side. Recurso de Amparo, originally a law designed to protect the constitutional rights of citizens, has been exploited by Slim's lawyers to shield his business practices. See how Slim was able to dodge a record fine. This was the very same law Slim attempted to fall back on when he attempted his monopolistic practices in the US, only it didn't exist. American law, in it's infinite magnanimity to the rich and powerful, still managed to slap Carlos Slim with a fines for his comparatively much more minor transgressions. The tactics which Slim used to succeed in Mexico failed utterly in the US. Mostly if not completely due to the nature of the US' institutions. For all it's faults, the modern US is no longer in the gilded age. Overt monopolies are no longer allowed.
It's not just that weak institutions favor the businesses of oligarchs either. Weak institutions actively give businesses to oligarchs. Consider post Soviet Russia, which saw previously state owned companies auctioned off to political cronies at bargain prices. Or post Soviet Hungary, which likewise handed billions to unscrupulous businessmen willing to play political games of power. Slim himself was an example of such a politically created oligarch in Mexico, having acquired his telecommunications company with shady backroom deals. Lacking any oversight, corrupt government officials stole like there was no tomorrow, happily selling the public good for private benefit. These are the structures who create men like Carlos Slim, Sandor Csyani, and Sergei Shoigu. All of whom received their wealth, not through aptitude, service, or innovation, but rather, political machinations.
How is the normal businessman meant to succeed, in an environment like this? The question is rhetorical. Of course they don't. You do not compete with Carlos Slim's megacorporation in Mexico. You do not attempt to create rival banks against Sandor Csyani in Hungary. You don't invest in quality as a Russian procurement company, you invest in another mansion for Sergei Shoigu. In all examples listed we see the same problem. People will be corrupt if there is no institutional safeguards, much like they would commit crimes if there was no police force. Being corrupt, they naturally move to stifle free market competition and forcibly seize the assets of anyone who is successful but lacks a powerful political patron. There is no point in trying. There is no point in innovating. There is no point in trying to create jobs or lift people out of poverty. Now, playing politics and kissing the Supreme leader's arse? That's where the money is.
Having said all this, we find ourselves full circle back where we started, once again at institutions. As I illustrate, much of the problem with corruption (and yes, this applies to war also) is essentially an alignment issue between the ruler and ruled. The ruler(s) doesn't need to care about their subjects, because they're the damn ruler, they can do whatever they like. Corruption can leave schools underfunded and famine relief nonexistent. Wars can devastate families and tear lives to pieces. But the almighty Shepard cares nothing for the suffering of his sheep. Why should he? There is, after all, nothing stopping him.
I hope this was a coherent narrative to your satisfaction. Feel free to ask for elaboration or provide critiques. I'll apologize in advance for the poor quality, but it's late on a school night so I'll have to get going. Hope you enjoyed, and look forward to your response!
Yes, they are. In the main post my only quote blocks are direct copy/pastes from the web version of the book.
In my head I rephrased that thesis as poor institutions and practices can impair efficiency totally, which I found as unsurprising as a charity add turns as not entirely accurate. So if you target readers who find this controversial I may just not be the right reader for the feedback you seek.
Right, that makes sense, and it was part of the angle I was taking. When I said controversial I was mainly referring to the more general claim that aid tends to be ineffective in reducing long term poverty, with few exceptions. (the implication being that aid fails to address institutional issues) The idea that monetary resources plays a small (or as I argue, largely negligible role) in addressing long term issues seems to me like it would be controversial to many EAs. But then, this mostly semantical and hardly the main point. Let's get into the heart of the issue.
Still, I gave some time thinking at: What could you do to make me update? Instead of mere illustration of failures when your thesis was ignored, can you also present cases where following this very thesis did make a success?
A very insightful question. I was initially a bit dubious myself. Where has my thesis been followed by aid organizations? Certainly I don't recall any charities focusing on reforming government institutions! But then, on second thought, that was almost the entire point. It wasn't aid programs reforming governments, but rather, people.
Consider all the wealthiest nations in the world. With few exceptions, the richest nations are the ones with strong institutions, particularly representative, democratic ones. Although there are exceptions, they tend to be few and far between (see Singapore with an authoritarian technocracy that's ruthlessly efficient, or Qatar with their absurd amounts of oil wealth. Meanwhile, nations with defunct or nonexistent institutions (see North Korea, The Congo, Mexico, South Africa) invariably face poverty and destitution on a mass scale. Even in China, one of the great economic success stories, we still see defunct instructional inheritances like the hukou system result in situations like 25% of the Chinese workforce being trapped in subsistence agriculture (compared to around 2% in the US, mostly industrial farmers).
In that sense, I believe I can answer your question about precision.
What’s the minimal institutions before charity get efficient? How much efficiency do we gain for what progress in institutions? Could you find if institutions explain more variance than, say, war and corruption?
I would liken institutions to a force multipliers in the military sense. One soldier with a gun >>> one hundred soldiers with spears. In the same way, powerful institutions enhance the ability of monetary and other resources to address poverty. Consider the following example, Mexico. Mexico has 44% of it's population living in below subsistence conditions, with about 9% in extreme poverty. Part of the reason for this is stark inequality. In 2021, the wealthiest 10% of households held nearly 80% of household wealth. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% have less than 5% of the wealth, and the figure has only decreased over the years. Even among the top 10%, inequality is appalling, with top ranking businessmen like Carlos Slim making billions through corrupt business practices that plundered the country's wealth and gutted it's government.
What difference does more money even make, in a situation like this? Even if household wealth were to double tomorrow the poorest households would still be teetering on the precipice of starvation as kleptocrats like Slim make billions. The problem is not inherently lack of food, of resources, of technology or productivity. But rather, deeply rotten, unfair institutions which favor businessmen like Slim at the expense of the bottom millions.
I could probably continue for hours on the one example of Mexico, but I don't think I need to. Kraut has already done a long, several hour long series on the development of Mexican corruption and institutions.
(1) The Mexican American Border | From War to Wall - YouTube
The bottom line is that institutions matter, not just as a sidenote enabling aid but the chief driver of prosperity in nations. Strong market and regulatory institutions in the US created the incentives necessary to create world renowned innovators and technologies. Gates with Microsoft computers, Jobbs with Apple phones, and now openAI with GPT. Even beforehand the countless explosions of patent technologies and industrial growth was one of the chief drivers of American wealth. This is not merely the case now, but throughout all of history. When our strongest companies and businesspeople succeed we can hope to enjoy (at least partially) increased tax money, social benefits, and increased income and jobs. Though these institutions aren't perfect, Americans can share or at least coexist with the benefits of growth. The same is not true in Mexico, where a zero sum game sees people like Slim win at the expense of everyone else.
In that sense, I find this question rather misguided.
Could you find if institutions explain more variance than, say, war and corruption?
As I illustrate with Mexico, institutions do not explain more variance than war and corruption. Rather, they are the very causes of war and corruption. Lack of institutional safeguards and transparency create situations where the elite can plunder the wealth of the commons. You will notice that Slim did not successfully get away with his business practices in the US. Institutional safeguards like a (mostly) functioning legal and justice system forced him out with countless fines. Meanwhile, many others like Slim may steal from the Mexican people with impunity. They are the reason why the Mexican government colludes with cartels. They are the reason why crime stays at appalling highs. They are, in short, the reason Mexico is poor. To date there are more rich Mexican Americans than there are rich Mexicans. How comically tragic is that?
Then there is war. We have to remember that lack of checks on autocratic power is often what causes this problem in the first place. See Putin in Ukraine, the countless warlords in Africa, or, most famously, Hitler in Europe. Fundamentally we see how lack of constraints on warmongering dictators allows wars of conquest, genocide for national or ethnic grandeur. Actions that would be unthinkable in democracies are a fact of life in dictatorships, simply because the dictator has power and their personal interests do not align with the interests of the state.
The issue of institutions are not unique to Mexico. Rather, we see them all throughout the world. The best comparison I can think of is the difference between Poland and Hungary, both former Soviet bloc states from similar beginnings which eventually saw a massive shift in institutional development. From similar beginnings, they took dramatically different paths. Poland, following the devastation of Soviet rule, was able to reconstruct following lines of western institutional development, with free markets, fair elections, and checks on elite power. Hungary, meanwhile, followed a very different path, echoing the plunder of formerly state owned companies by Russian Oligarchs. To date, Hungary is the most corrupt country in the EU, a country ran by a select business elite with connections to dictator Victor Orban. And make no mistake, he is a dictator. Now, years later, the economy of Poland is projected to overtake the UK. Meanwhile, despite generous EU subsidies, 20% of Hungarians face risk of poverty or social exclusion.
As someone who has studied history and modern politics as a hobby, I can point you to any number of examples. Success in Botswana. Failure in Haiti. Famine in Russia, in China, in India. Economic miracles in South Korea, in Japan, and in Taiwan. I could craft 3 separate posts worth of content and it would still not be enough. But I think this is sufficient to underscore my point.
I will concede that there are still exceptions. The Gulf Arab monarchies survive off natural resources soon to fade into irrelevancy. Singapore and China off efficient (or at least supposedly efficient) models of governance that we already see failing in China. But they are tiny, with unique circumstances, whereas the modern liberal democracies are almost without fail rich and well developed.
In that sense, I'm led to believe Fukuyama was right in some aspects. Though it may not be the end of history, Western liberal democracy certainly is a contender for one of the greatest innovations humanity has ever made, with it's strong institutions, rule of law, free markets and respect for human dignity. It has, more widely and more consistently than any other method, driven out poverty and raised nations to prosperity.
Does this make you update? Regardless of whether you do or don't, I'd appreciate your thoughts. Thank you for the question! It forced me to think deeper about my beliefs and justify them more coherently. I'm unsure if this is helpful in the realm of aid specifically, but I believe it does provide ample evidence for my thesis and raise it's coherency.
(Do you want to prove EA is doom to fail? I don’t think so but that’s one way to read the title.)
Hm... right. That would make sense. I think I can see how people might misread that. No, I had no intention of doing anything like that. I was trying to address the shortcomings of charity, particularly in the realm of structural and institutional rot (and the other myriad causes of poverty). EA charity faces many of the same issues in this regard, but 'doomed to fail' is hardly the point I would like to make. (If anything I try my best to advocate the opposite by making a donation myself) I was merely trying to point out that foreign/charity aid in general cannot hope to solve ingrained root causes of poverty without substantial, unsustainably large investments.
Part of the issue may have to do with my writing style. I try to aim for emotionally evocative, powerful posts. I find that this is a good way to get people engaged and generate discussion. (It also tends to be more fulfilling to write) This seems to have gotten in the way of clarity. Given the weight and circumstances of the subject matter (millions of people living in misery) I thought it was more than appropriate to amp up my language. Of course, this is still no excuse for being unclear. I should probably re-examine my diction.
That said, do you think I could change the title or edit in a disclaimer? The title itself was largely a stylistic choice, while I certainly could've said 'aid to the poor has certain practical limitations' I feel like that's hardly interesting nor conductive towards sparking a discussion. I am ultimately still presenting what I believe is a more controversial thesis, and I thought my title should reflect that.
Thanks so much for your comment!
Hm... yes, upon further reflection your summarization seems accurate, or at least highly plausible. I am not too sure what the mindset of the average LWer or EA looks like myself. (although I've frequented the site for some time, I'm mainly reading random frontpage posts that pique my interest, I don't attend meetups, participate in group activities, or much other things of that nature) It's not merely reading like I haven't engaged much in their world. The truth is I simply haven't, I have no intention of hiding it. I tagged the post EA because my points on aid address charities in general quite broadly, and so I thought it would be of interest to EA adjacent individuals. I also hoped that they might be able to enlighten me a bit on the many parts of EA I still don't fully understand. The post was never meant to critique or even focus on EA.
This may have gotten lost in everything else I was attempting to do in the post, but one of the central motivations was to disprove a point I saw in a RA fundraiser that unconditional cash transfers could 'eradicate' global poverty. I found the initiative commendable, but unrealistic for a variety of reasons, many of which I detailed in the post. I never meant to say the aid wouldn't help, but rather, it was likely insufficient to meet their goal of ending long term poverty.
That said, yes, you are right. My evidence does not support the claim that aid is completely ineffective in ending long term poverty. But rather, that aid requires much higher volumes to solve the long term issues, in conjunction with many other things. In my mind this was still meant aid was an inadequate solution since I didn't believe the volumes required to solve the issue would be a reasonable demand upon charity or foreign aid (just look at the enormous price tag of millennium villages). Thinking back, I probably exaggerated a bit in the title and in some of my claims. While the logical points may have been sound, I may have mispresented them in the title and elsewhere. (I realize I sound a bit silly in hindsight, it's easy to see how people might interpret the phrase 'doesn't work' as useless versus inefficient to the point of implausibility)
I think part of my issue with this post is that I'm really just uncertain what my audience believes and how they might react or interpret different things I say. While I have some idea and a few vague guesses, there's no real way to know for certain. I'm also unsure if I would have any way of knowing without simply accruing direct experience, but your thoughts definitely helped me in this regard. I will keep in mind your model of LW when making posts in the future. Thanks once again!
That said, do you have any critiques/questions regarding the post personally? I'd be happy to continue chatting about any potential weak spots or logical errors.
You seem to be relatively unclear about what exact thesis you are arguing for. It's quite possible for aid to be useful and work together with other factors.
Ok, in that case, allow me to clarify.
I believe that while aid can be useful or effective in many instances (note that here I am using a much more limited definition of providing immediate quality of life boosts, as opposed to a long term solution), the effect does not extend to address long term issues that cause poverty. Thus poverty will continue to persist without being eradicated (what I would view as real effectiveness). Basically, while painkillers can help you with a broken leg, your leg is still broken. Painkillers alone, independent of other treatment, will fail to be effective in actually helping you walk again.
Note that I am not comparing the effects of different painkillers. I do not distinguish between scientifically researched painkillers and scientifically unsound homeopathy. That is besides the point of the post. The post is mainly about how painkillers cannot independently solve the problem. This is why I am not researching EA adjacent charities in greater detail. EA is a facet of the post, but not the focus. I have attempted to explain this in both my post and my response.
In plain language, I am saying that interventions may be successful in alleviating the negative effects of poverty (malnutrition, death, disease) over the short term. But they fail to address the long term causes of poverty and thus do not provide a feasible long term solution. Thus while it may 'reduce poverty' in a limited way I do not feel it meets the criteria for a meaningfully sustainable solution. I've already provided a long and exhaustive list of evidence for this, both in my post and my responses. I do not believe you have addressed my evidence properly.
I find that this has become a reoccurring pattern in our conversation. I have outlined many lists of evidence and why I believe it supports my thesis. Are you willing to take the time and examine them? If not, I don't believe it will be productive to continue. In the interest of respecting your time I have done my best to summarize, analyze, and cut out relevant excerpts I believe support my argument. Can you do the same? If not, this will likely be my last response.
You're right, that's probably a good idea. I considered a more comprehensive disclaimer myself when writing, but then opted against it when I realize it was likely to weaken the main point of my post. Even though this post is constrained by being only able to consider past failures (I have no information about the future), the past is still a very strong predictor of how the future turns out. Based off analysis of the past I'm still inclined to believe that foreign/charity aid by itself is insufficient to solve the root causes of poverty. I don't believe altruism is inefficient per se, or that the problem of poverty can't be solved (of course it has been). I am merely seeking to rebut the claim that I have seen in the fundraiser video, which seems to imply that charity aid alone would be enough to eradicate poverty (a claim which I find wildly overblown). I find action worthwhile, but I also find that the predicted resulted don't seem to meet the scale claimed by many people. I thought I was clear enough in this regard.
But then, after a few recent comments I'm inclined to believe I definitely misrepresented my case somewhere, or maybe my language was unclear. However, it's a bit difficult for me to pinpoint where exactly the miscommunication occurred. Could you elaborate on that point? This is my article, so it's quite difficult to see where I goofed up. This is all in my head, so it's quite obvious to me. If you could provide a disclaimer text for me I would be immensely grateful.
Regarding another working hypothesis, I believe I could do that, but I'm unsure if I'll have the time or will to amass the relevant evidence. Proving the negation of a claim is much easier than proving a claim. Institutional economics (a school of thought which believes institutions to be the greatest determinant of economic success) is already the position of many thinkers, and if I were to defend it I would also have to research competing economic theories and many more real world examples to do it justice. Not to mention that I'm not an economist myself. I feel like Poor Economics (which has in it's thesis a focus on individuals) and Why Nations Fail (which studies how institutions affect growth) offer far better analysis than I could hope to, so I'm disinclined to create the thesis. I don't believe it's necessary when other people have already created better sources to study. Instead I'll just point those interested to the relevant bodies of research.
Is your opinion different? I'd be happy to discuss the merits of a separate post or edits to this one.