March 2016 Open Thread

In keeping with our quarterly GiveWell open threads, we wanted to host a separate open thread for questions related to the Open Philanthropy Project.

Our goal is to give blog readers and followers of the Open Philanthropy Project an opportunity to publicly raise comments or questions about the Open Philanthropy Project or related topics (in the comments section below). As always, you’re also welcome to email us at [email protected] if there’s feedback or questions you’d prefer to discuss privately. We’ll try to respond promptly to questions or comments.


Tony Boyles writes on the GiveWell blog on March 10, 2016 at 2:32 pm: “I’ve been curious about life-extension research as a possible target for funding. The hard cap on human lifespan seems like a really obvious target for increasing QALYs. If the research is too speculative at the moment to provide sufficient confidence for a GiveWell recommendation, that itself would be fodder for an interesting and important discussion.”

Durbrow writes on the GiveWell blog on March 10, 2016 at 9:54 pm: “What ever happen to Givewell’s consideration of climate mitigation/climate engineering pilot studies? What about the one run by U Washington?”


Geoengineering interventions to reduce global warming or its impacts on the climate remain an area of interest for the Open Philanthropy Project, though lower priority than its focus areas. This means we may sometimes take opportunities that arise to make grants, but the space isn’t a top priority for us.

Last month, we published a write-up of our grant to the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMI) for their work in this cause.

We last discussed the thinking behind our prioritization in the Open Philanthropy Project’s most recent update, published in September. You can also read our medium-depth overview of the issue here.

Michael Dickens writes on the GiveWell blog on March 11, 2016 at 5:13 pm: “Almost all animal suffering isn’t caused by humans, but occurs in the wild. Right now we don’t have any idea what to do about it, but this seems like an area where Open Phil is uniquely positioned to have an impact. You could request grant proposals on reducing wild-animal suffering and probably do a good job of motivating more much-needed work in this area. Have you thought about this?

Obviously I’m not claiming that we will immediately know how to solve wild animal suffering after making a few grants. But it doesn’t seem particularly harder to solve than, say, AI safety, which is an area that’s getting some attention from Open Phil. And no one else right now has the funding necessary to motivate more research, so you’re uniquely positioned to make something happen.”

It is clear to me how to support GiveWell, as I am able to donate to their programs directly. So my question is, how do I support the work of OPP? Do unrestricted donations to GiveWell go here, or would it be better to support the organizations created by OPP.

Or perhaps OPP is not the best giving opportunity for small donations and is focusing primarily on grant procurement?

Just wondering how to help!

Chris, thanks for your offer of support!

Unrestricted donations to GiveWell (donations to support GiveWell’s operations) do support the Open Philanthropy Project. The Open Philanthropy Project currently accounts for approximately 70 percent of GiveWell’s overall budget. More in the December 2015 update on GiveWell’s funding needs.

The Open Philanthropy Project is generally focused on identifying opportunities for large, institutional donors (rather than individual donors), and so the current best option if you’re interested in “supporting the work” of the Open Philanthropy Project is to donate to GiveWell’s operations. That said, based on interest from individuals outside of the organization, Open Philanthropy Project staff have made some suggestions for individual donors who want to support the organizations the Open Philanthropy Project has come across in its work.

We plan to make GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project separate organizations financially in the next year, after which point donations to one will not support the other.

Is there like a Subscribe button? I see a form at the bottom of the page but I think that's for Open Phil in general, not just for the open thread.

Thanks for the comments, all!

Tony, we are interested in life extension as a neglected goal, and we have looked into it to some degree, but we haven’t gotten to the point of having a public writeup or much of a bottom line yet. We think there is a fair amount of money going into relevant research and the issues are complex, so we want a better understanding of the issue. We will be giving a general update on where we stand on our scientific research work sometime in the next month or so.

Michael - in initial conversations, we haven’t seen much sign of potential high-impact interventions that we’d be interested in to reduce wild animal suffering. We are potentially interested in spurring more dialogue and thought on this issue, in order to generate more ideas and see whether that changes. We think the best person to lead and prioritize this work is Lewis Bollard, who works on farm animal welfare; he is currently exploring a variety of possible priorities, including this one, and I’d guess that it will end up neither at the very top of the priority list nor off the list. I expect that we’ll know more in the next few months.

Did my previous comment get eaten by the spam filters?

Linch - It doesn’t appear so. Would you mind posting your comment again?

Darn! It was a very long comment.

Well, basically the question is:

What is OPP's current position on using gene drives in general, and eradicating the mosquito species that are disease vectors in particular?

In theory, we can completely eradicate malaria and other neglected tropical diseases within a decade. This might well be more valuable on the margins than LLINs and other current methods to prevent/treat malaria.

Linch - we’re actively investigating this topic and expect to put up something public about our take by the end of the year.

Posting again since it looks like my previous comment got skipped: is there a way to subscribe to comment threads on individual blog posts? I know how to do this on the GiveWell blog but I don't see an option here.

It would be great if there were a way to edit posts.

Michael -- There is not currently a way to subscribe to comment threads on blog posts, but we plan to add a feature next week that will allow individuals who have commented on a post to be notified of subsequent comments on that post.

Unfortunately, we do not currently plan to enable editing on blog comments, as that would ​likely​ require having an individual login system.

You could use something like Disqus which allows people multiple login options and is extremely easy to add to a website.

It would be great if comments supported Markdown, a la reddit or Stack Overflow.

Has GiveWell or the OPP looked into Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index? If so, how useful is it as a starting point for studying Subjective Well-being(SWB)? If not, does the OPP believe other ways of looking at SWB are better, or simply that SWB is not as marginally worthy of studying as the other OPP cause areas?

Open Phil has some interest in subjective well-being, but we haven’t yet made that investigation a priority. The only things we’ve published on the topic so far are the conversation notes from my conversations with Louis Tay, Joel Hektner, and Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My sense at this point is that current measures of subjective well-being (both for momentary affect and for overall life satisfaction), including those used in national accounts of subjective well-being such as Bhutan’s, have psychometric deficits that make it hard for me to trust their validity when they are used to compare subjective well-being across cultures or across years of time. But this early impression could easily change if and when we investigate the topic more closely in the future.

If you want to learn more about measures of subjective well-being, the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being are a decent place to start.

I appreciated your writeup on the new $1,000,000 FedUp grant and what was done with the last one. The concerns I’d had about the original grant:

1) The Fed’s prioritization of inflation over unemployment is better understood as being about mitigating downside risk; OpenPhil believes marginal unemployment is more bad from a humanitarian perspective than marginal inflation, and discusses this grant as if the Fed either does not understand this or is unable to act on it due to external pressure (whereas the Fed is probably not thinking about marginal unemployment vs marginal inflation, but rather about downside risk of serious inflation). If OpenPhil is doing calculations about serious downside risk, those aren’t part of their explanation of why they want rates low; this impacts their credibility with people in the field who are reading their explanation.

2) The Fed perhaps has an institutional bias in favor of managing inflation, because it is why they were created and their central mandate. On the other hand, what the Fed is doing is sort of smoke and mirrors - they can’t affect long term interest rates, and they can affect short term interest rates to some degree insofar as everyone believes they can. In that case, the incentive to maintain their priorities might be way more complicated than “they think of themselves as being about inflation”.

3) OpenPhil hand waves most of FedUp’s immediate goals - pushing for more public input and a more democratic process for the appointment of Fed regional governors - as “not very valuable from a utilitarian perspective but probably a good thing”. It seems to us like they are all probably a bad thing, as we’d expect that a more public and populist process makes it less likely that the most competent people end up in charge, and we expect that having less competent people at the Fed will be in expectation negative for the economy.

4) FedUp seems concerned specifically with the effects of unemployment on Black citizens and one of their major goals is getting more Black Fed governors. I understand why OpenPhil is shying away from comment on whether this is a valuable policy priority, but given the emphasis on it in the briefing from FedUp I think it’s clearly a major concern of FedUp’s. I would expect that there’s significant values divergence between “pursue the best global humanitarian policy” and “more Black American representation”, and while they might currently coincide in lower interest rates, if they don’t coincide in general then it seems unlikely the goals of FedUp and OpenPhil will be the same in the long run, which is where any impact could be expected.

5) Several people working at hedge funds said that those already lobby the Fed a lot (and are currently lobbying for lower interest rates). This is something we’d like to examine further because it affects both the apparent neglectedness of the field and might suggest some ideas about which avenues of lobbying other lobbyists consider effective. On the other hand, it somewhat obviates concerns that FedUp will normalize lobbying the Fed and invite bad results that way.

My thoughts on the update:

It sounds like FedUp is pursuing their goals well and taking reasonable steps toward them; I can’t think of anything they did that seems obviously not pursuant to their objectives, and they’re building capacity.

“We believe the call for greater transparency and public engagement in the selection of regional Federal Reserve bank leadership is more unambiguously positive and also more likely to succeed, though we do not have much sense of the humanitarian impact of such a change.”

That’s our concern 3), and it’s still unclear to me why OpenPhil thinks that more public engagement in the selection of regional Fed chairs is unambiguously positive.

“we see the negative humanitarian impact of a point of unemployment as significantly greater than the humanitarian impact of a point of inflation,26 and accordingly worry that the Fed has been persistently too tight in recent years”.

That’s our concern 1), and I think phrasing the tradeoff this way is off-putting to experts in the field, who generally do not think about inflation in terms of the negative impact of one point but in terms of increased risk of a very bad outcome.

” in former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s memoir, he reports that the Fed considered and rejected the possibility of adopting a nominal GDP target, in part because of concerns about being able to credibly commit to such a target when it would be vulnerable to Congressional override.”

This is a good point in FedUp’s favor: the case for “the Fed is not able to pursue what it thinks best due to public and Congressional hesitance” has fewer assumptions built in than the claim the Fed has wrong priorities.

Yet another feature suggestion: it would be super helpful if we had the ability to link directly to individual comments.

Kelsey, thanks for the thoughts. Some responses:

On 1) - It seems to me that our original writeup addressed this point head on, in the appropriate place - see the first bullet point (the same one that originally raises the question of the costs of inflation) and also our comments after the bulleted list. Also see this comment from a few months ago, where Alexander further elaborates on our take on this point. If you have a specific place in mind where you feel we gave the impression that we weren’t considering the downside risk of serious inflation, I’d appreciate if you could provide a link and/or quote.

Re: “the Fed is probably not thinking about marginal unemployment vs marginal inflation, but rather about downside risk of serious inflation.” While there are certainly some people on the FOMC who seem to be particularly focused on the risk of de-anchoring inflation expectations, Janet Yellen, for instance, has previously spoken about “optimal control” approaches that explicitly weigh marginal tradeoffs in unemployment and inflation.

On 2) - I don’t follow the argument about “smoke and mirrors”: I believe that (as with many market prices) there is a degree to which perceptions and expectations regarding the Fed’s effectiveness can be self-fulfilling, but I don’t see why this dynamic should undermine any particular argument we have made.

On 3) - We disagree here. I agree that there are imaginable processes that are public/populist in problematic ways, but I agree with the original writeup’s position that the current selection of regional presidents seems hard to justify because of how much of the selection power sits with people elected by member banks. There are many ways to increase transparency and invite more public comment while retaining a process that selects strong technocratic expertise (for example, regulatory agencies invite public comment but do not ultimately subject their rulings to a vote). The current process of selecting regional presidents seems systematically biased toward the interests of particular institutions whose interests seem misaligned with the general public’s, while the existing example of the Board of Governors, whose members are appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress, seems to provide an example of how to have both more accountability and transparency and still select outstanding experts.

I would also note that we do not label this goal “unambiguously positive” - we call it “more unambiguously positive” than the substantive policy goals - and we agree that there are conceivable implementations of the campaign’s principles that could lead to worse outcomes.

On 4) - I don’t see reason to expect a significant systematic divergence over time between the two goals, and I see some reason to expect a systematic convergence relative to the current setup given that the interests of disadvantaged citizens should probably be weighed more heavily than they currently are. That said, we do see it as possible that Fed Up might continue to advocate for lower rates at a point where we think it would no longer be helpful, and noted that as a risk in our most recent writeup.

Michael, thanks for the suggestion. We plan to add that feature.

I agree with Holden’s reply on the Fed Up grant and would just add that (a) it is not the case that the Fed was created to manage inflation (see e.g. Peter Conti-Brown’s recent book on the history of the Fed or the Wikipedia page on the history of the Fed) and that (b) their current statutory mandate does not make inflation control any more central than maximum employment.

The [report](…) on cultured meat cites three estimates of the cost of cultured meat. The report questions the most optimistic estimate but does not address the most pessimistic estimate (by Vandenburgh) even though it looks much more dubious. Vandenburgh’s estimate is taken from a paper in which the author cites a personal conversation with Vandenburgh, and doesn’t give detailed reasoning on how he arrived at his estimate of $5 million/kg.

More importantly, we *know* this estimate is wrong because Mark Post already produced a cultured hamburger for $325,000 (including labor costs); the burger weighed five ounces ([source](, so this equates to about $1 million/kg, a factor of five less than Vandenburgh’s estimate. One could trivially reduce this cost via economies of scale. Cultured meat has already been produced for much more cheaply than this, but I can’t quickly find any good sources on this so suffice it to say that Vandenburgh’s estimate is definitely too pessimistic.

Michael, I agree with your argument that Vandenburgh’s estimate is too high, and his estimate was not an input into our conclusion that it would be very challenging to make cultured meat cost-competitive with conventional meat. We discussed the other estimates more because it seemed to us that they had more potential to be persuasive on the question of whether cultured meat costs could get sufficiently low, and we learned more from thinking about them.

Hi ,
I praise the kind of work you are doing for the community, very noble and humane since it uplifts the living standards, also request that you clear the air (in the villages) on money given to people especially in Nyanza region. I have been in Oyugis and Rachuonyo in the last few months and people seems not to understand where this money is coming from, this then means the poorest of the poorest refuse to take this money due to misconception around the give direct money.

Nairobi, Kenya.

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