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The Goldilocks Approach to Doing Good
Why focusing on the medium term is the best way to help the world.
The GPI was started because, as we wrote in our first post, “to the challenge of raising living standards, we know of only one solution: economic growth.” Of course, we are not alone in this view. New fields such as ‘progress studies’ are starting to emerge and the entire field of development economics has been quite concerned with economic growth for, well, a while at least. Underpinning this ‘growth is good’ philosophy is the thought that people are pointlessly living in poverty and things can be done, and done faster, to stop this suffering.
In recent years the ideas of Effective Altruism (EA) have been gaining interest. Inspired by the work of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, EA is essentially about how people can maximise the amount of good they do in the world. This simple premise motivates many, including some of the people behind the GPI, to shift charitable donations to higher impact charities, to change careers, or even to move continents.
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East vs West, System 1 vs System 2 thinking, Ronaldo vs Messi; our world is often spilt into dichotomies. In recent years the EA community has been similarly divided: into the short-termist and the long-termist camps. While it’s not exactly the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, the split between the groups has one side focusing on “short term causes”; stopping malaria, giving cash to poor people, and the other on “long term causes”; AI safety, existential risk etc. Both share the same aim: the greatest good for the greatest number of people. They just differ on how to achieve this. Unfortunately, both camps might just be wrong.
We write a bit about missing middles here at the GPI. We’ve written about the missing middle management, we’ll very likely write about the missing middle of firm sizes at some point, and we even wrote about development baked goods missing their middles. We think that the good people of the EA community are missing the middle-termists.
Let’s start with the short-termists. Despite being lumped with a slightly pejorative sounding name, the short-termists have their eyes set on very laudable and, they would argue, tractable problems. Get mosquito treated bed nets into more places they are needed to prevent malaria infections. Distribute more unconditional cash transfers to poor households in developing countries. Get deworming tablets into the bellies of more kids so they can attend school more often and learn better when they are there. These are problems with (more or less) known solutions. Mobilise resources (nets, cash, tablets) and distribute, ideally as effectively as possible. However, they also all share a solution in common; economic growth.
Malaria wasn’t eliminated in Europe by the mass distribution of bed nets until all the mosquitoes died or just gave up. It was eliminated by large scale government drainage programs and commercial agricultural practices which countries could only afford once they were moderately wealthy1. China didn’t move 800M people out of poverty by giving them all a cash transfer of $1,000 each. Extreme poverty in China was almost wiped out by a massive expansion of industrial manufacturing. Economic growth is upstream of everything the short termists want to see happen in the world. It just takes 5 to 30 years to see the results but then it’s done. The short-termists are missing the middle-term perspective.
The long-termists swing the other way. Whatever we do now or in 30 years pales into insignificance when compared to the vast infiniteness of the future. Ensuring people are alive in the future is of paramount importance because your species can only go extinct once. It’s all a bit pointless to save someone’s life from malaria now if in 10 years they are just turned into a paperclip by our new AI robot overlords, or so the argument goes. Beyond just being a bit callous to the millions of people who currently live in extreme poverty, the 1 in 10 children in sub-Saharan Africa who still die under the age of five, or the 600,000+ people who die of malaria each year, it is quite possibly just wrong that focusing on moving people out of poverty faster today, is not the best way to reduce our risk of species level existential risk in the future.
The world writ large developed and manufactured COVID-19 vaccines in record time because we had many wealthy nations dedicating a lot of resources at the problem. Our wealth gave us resilience. We did what people thought was impossible because we had the great fortune of having built flourishing, wealthy societies ready to have the resources mobilized on a global scale. Well, almost global. Low-income countries didn’t particularly contribute that much to the creation of the various vaccine regimes. Not because they didn’t want to. They just didn’t have the financial or human capital available. When the next global challenge is upon us, having more resources and more people with high levels of education to solve the problems can only be a good thing.
By 2070 there will be 3 billion Africans. This is a huge amount of potential human capital the world could need in a crisis. Focusing primarily on ameliorating the symptoms of poverty is a Sisyphean task, however worthy it may be. Not seizing the opportunity to nurture this human capital because we thought we could predict the calamities that will afflict us in 100 years and believed we had sufficient ingenuity to solve them now, is a large and hubristic gamble.
None of this is to belittle the suffering people are experiencing each and every day nor the fact that humans are so myopic that the latest global pandemic was basically the exact pandemic experts had warned us about for years. But it's all about emphasis and priorities. Aristotle wrote of the golden mean. When it comes to maximising human well-being, he might have been onto something. Being too short-termist and seeing only the immediate condition is not the most effective way to help the most people. Give them a job and a stable income and they will develop themselves and their children right out of poverty within a few years. Being too long-termist misses the wood for the trees. Human brains are our greatest resource, investing in them now helps us all in the future. The sooner poor countries can achieve broad-based sustainable economic growth, the sooner short and long termist goals will be achieved. That means working for the medium term.
Debates within the EA movement are often fierce, and for good reason. As Economist Robert Lucas remarked on development, “the consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.” Maybe we all need to start thinking about the missing middle term.
Governments also used massive amounts DDT which clearly wasn’t fantastic when all said and done. But regardless, they needed money to do it.