The Thing You Can Change

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Everyone wants to make a difference. But it so often seems impossible. So much of the world appears intractably broken. There are wars you cannot stop, diseases you cannot cure, wrongs you cannot avert, pain you cannot relieve, people you cannot persuade, problems fueled by sheer overwhelming inertia. And it is easy, faced with a world broken in a million, million ways, to despair.

But –  if you’re reading this, there is probably something in the world you can change. Something big.

You have a secret power that you can start using immediately.

You can save someone.

And you can do it yourself.

You can do it right now.

And you won’t be alone.

You’ll be joining a legion of people who have also uncovered this power hidden in plain sight, pooling their resources in a global effort to defy the natural order and protect their fellow humans.

This power goes by many names: tithing, donation, charity. It can transcend space, spreading your will to protect to where it’s needed most, even if it’s thousands of miles away. It can be fueled by any profession. Waiting tables, creating art, constructing buildings, programing, driving, performing surgery, practicing law, plumbing, cleaning, performing – all of it can be converted into protection, into hope, into life by the alchemical process of donating money.

Between now and January 10th, hundreds of people are going to take the Giving What We Can Pledge: 10% of their future earnings to save, protect, defend, rescue those who need it. To enable them to live their lives and follow their dreams and overcome the million million evils of this world. And, if you so choose, you can join them. You can fight back against everything that is broken in the world.

I know that not everyone can do this. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. But if you’ve been fortunate too, you can start spreading that fortune to others. I took the pledge last year and gave 10% of my pre-tax income in 2014. This year, I gave 17%. And most of the time, I didn’t think about it. I woke up, I went to work, I struggled with frustrations, I talked to friends, I learned, I played, I made mistakes, I loved, I lost – I lived my life. But always, in the background, that pipeline, and the comfort of knowing that however broken the world was, there are people working on making it better, and I’m a part of that global effort. In 2016, I’m aiming for 20%.

According to Givewell, approximately every $3000 donated to the Against Malaria Foundation saves another human life. An. Entire. Human. Life. Decades of living, hoping, dreaming, friendships, love, learning, beauty, art, mistakes, laughter, tears – an entire life, instead of the sorrow and emptiness of a life cut short. If you can donate that much or more a year, then you can save someone. Every. Single. Year.

Maybe this isn’t something you can do right now. And that’s okay. But – if you can, and it you want to – then you can change the world right now. You can choose to live in a world where one fewer person dies for want of a bednet. You can tip the scales just a little bit more in humanity’s favor.

You don’t need to wait.

You don’t need to ask for permission.

You can fight back against everything that is broken and wrong in this world, right now, and protect that which would have otherwise have been lost.

You can make a New Year’s Resolution whose effects will be felt across the globe for decades to come.

You can change the world.

You are filled with determination.


Foes Without Faces

I. The Bargain

Imagine a fantasy world inhabited by both humans and ancient, unspeakable evils. The ancient evils ravage hundreds of kingdoms every generation, taking countless millions of lives year after year. Eventually, the humans learn to protect themselves, lessening their casualties, driving the ancient horrors back. Some are even vanquished entirely. But it is slow, and uneven, and a single mistake can undo decades of grueling progress. Millions still perish, but fewer each year, and bit by bit humanity inches towards victory.

One day, a band of human renegades attacks the kingdom, slaughtering thousands of innocents. The kingdom retaliates and hunts the renegades across the world for years, dedicating a substantial fraction of their resources to wiping the enemy out. But the leader eludes them – even years later, when the renegades have been all but completely crushed, the once-leader still taunts them from the shadows, and the citizens cry out for vengeance.

One of the Ancient Horrors, on the brink of total annihilation, hears of this, and senses an opportunity. From corrupted shadow, a broken whisper hisses in the ears of the kingdom’s leaders: “I offer you this exchange, mortals of the kingdom: I will give you one chance to annihilate your sworn enemy, the one whose blood you so crave – and all I ask in exchange is that your clerics lower their defenses in the human lands where I yet remain.”

The leaders confer among themselves.

“Er, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” says one. “This horror has killed millions, far more than the mere criminal we hunt, and we are so close to wiping them out entirely. Best case, we lose years of progress and hundreds of victims that we could have saved. Worst case, we’ll risk a full resurgence and millions of deaths if the horror comes back into its full power. Do I even have to say this? It’s obviously not worth allying ourselves with an ancient unspeakable evil whose voice is the essence of death just to kill one lousy human, no matter how awful they are. Right? We all agree, that’s just obviously stupid, right?”



II. Revealed Preferences

The US spends $16.6 billion on counterterrorism efforts every year. This only counts federal spending, within the intelligence agencies, explicitly marked “counter-intelligence”. It does not count, for example, increased costs from waiting in TSA lines and missing flights, increased costs, injuries, and fatalities from people driving instead of flying, wars, or any military spending. The actual number is probably much higher. Terrorism, in turn, kills fewer than 10 people in the US most years. Once every…actually, just once, there’s a 9/11, which kills 3,000 people.  But maybe this is misleading (it’s probably not) – maybe all that counter-terrorism money is incredibly effective at countering terrorism, and stops one 9/11 every single year. That comes out to about a bit over five million dollars per life saved.

Motor vehicle accidents have killed more than 30,000 people in the US each and every year since 1945usually way more. The entire budget of the National Highway Traffic Administration is $815 million. That’s for specifying, inspecting, and approving every car part and every stage of manufacturing, shipment, delivery, and maintenance. Let’s say that all of those things – all the crash tests, all the inspections, the entire license plate system, reduce the number of traffic casualties by 1/10 of what they would otherwise be, and that there are no other positive effects from this agency, and we’ll use the lowest recorded number of fatalities since WWII as the baseline. That comes out to about $250 thousand per life saved.

I’ve tried to bias these estimates towards counterterrorism effectiveness as much as possible, but I still ended up spending 20x as much per life saved on terrorism rather than traffic safety. It seems like we treat being killed by terrorism as at least 20x worse than being killed in a traffic accident.

Why? What makes us so much more determined to fight terrorism than traffic accidents?


III. Anthropomorphism

Enemies are fun.

Fun might not be quite the right word – but enemies are certainly more interesting.

We have a cultural rule that stories almost always have to have an antagonist to root against. Oh, that guy gained spider powers and can now swing around the city stopping crime and improving the world? I guess that’s pretty interesting, but it’s not really worth seeing unless you also have an insane scientist with giant metal octopus arms to fight against. We’re wired to find enemies to be fun. Protagonists fighting against something that’s broken isn’t nearly as engrossing as protagonists fighting against evil. That’s why we get really into sports rivalries. That’s why outrage addiction is a thing.

It’s easy to imagine a good game-theoretic reason for this. When we do have enemies, we want them to know that hurting us is a bad idea. One way to do that is to make them believe that if they attack us, we will fight back way out of proportion compared to how we would handle other threats – their belief that we will overreact is useful to us. And the best way to make people believe that is for it to be true – to really be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to fight back against and thwart our enemies.

And beyond that, having enemies is memetically adaptive. But there’s more than just a feedback loop between two social groups going on – you can get similar effects with an enemy that doesn’t actually exist.


IV. The Enemy That Wasn’t There

You know how humans tend to see faces on everything, even when there isn’t one?

Coffee Face Martian_face_viking_cropped marytoast

It’s because we’re all walking around with these hyper-sensitive face-detectors in our heads, and it’s really easy to give them a false positive. Detecting faces was and is a key part of surviving as a human. And so for enemies: Knowing that someone is out to get us is an incredibly important skill to get by day to day. And sometimes we’ll get false positives on that, too. If it happens constantly, we call it “paranoia”. The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980s gave millions of people a horrifying, if imaginary, enemy to unite against, and it was extremely effective. The entire “Witch Hunt” pattern is basically this – desperately seeking out an enemy who you believe just has to be there.

Having extremely-sensitive-enemy-detectors in our brains makes sense: Enemies are motivated to conceal themselves, so we put extra effort into detecting them – and early humans who were bad at detecting the growing conspiracy to cast them out of the tribe probably didn’t have amazing life expectancies.

Combine this with the aforementioned adaptive overreaction, and things can go very wrong very fast. There’s no amount of overreaction you can give to scare off an imaginary enemy. And this gets way worse when your enemy detector is dealing with a miniscule signal-to-noise ratio, as in an outcast arms race.

So, in a shocking twist for this blog, I’m claiming that a lot of things are broken.

How can we put this to work for us?


V. Giving the Enemy a Face

If we could ask knowledgeable experts in human behavior modification how to get people to pay attention to a neglected area, what would they say?

The “Mayhem” series has won over 80 advertising awards, Since launching in mid-2010, Allstate’s stock has more than doubled.

This blog’s thesis is that our truest, worst enemies do not have faces. They are the incentives and systems that optimize for things that we don’t care about. It’s disease and coordination problems and maladaptive thought patterns. It’s bad defaults and broken perceptions. The enemies that hurt us most, we pay the least heed to – as evidenced by our stories and our budgets.

It’s hard to change how minds work.

It’s much easier to change our narratives.

Meditations on Moloch names the perverse incentives that chip away at happiness and freedom and everything we truly value – and gives it a face. What was an abstract conception of broken systems becomes the evil god who will give you a slight momentary advantage if you just sacrifice what you cherish most. By trapping the abstract evil in a (metaphorical) anthropomorphic form, we can level all of our mental enemy-attacking machinery at it, confronting it as the monster it is.

The pattern is known. I’m just making it more explicit, and asking you to apply it to the problems you find in the world. Does your opinion or approach to a problem change when you face it as an enemy? Are you facing the vast and formless villains of the world with the same resolve you reserve for mere mortals?

Would the plan to compromise polio eradication to hunt down Bin Laden have gone forward if our leaders treated faceless enemies with the same weight they afford human enemies?

Think of someone you really, truly despise. Someone who has hurt people, who makes the world a worse place. Now imagine they killed 600,000 people every year, injuring hundreds of millions more – and you knew how to defeat them. Would you ignore it – or would you…


VI. Fight Back

The enemy is out there. The enemy does not know love, or hope, or anything of what it is to be human. The enemy does not mourn its countless victims. The enemy has outlived a thousand empires, and never paused in its ceaseless campaign of suffering and despair. The enemy murders children.

The enemy can be weakened.

The enemy can be killed.

You have this power. You have this choice.

Fight. Back.

There Is A Button

There is a button. Bright red.

The button is on a phone.

There is a screen.

There are rules.

Everyone knows them.

You look at the screen again. It still shows one Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missile bearing down on your country. You remember that American Minutemen ICBMs carry three warheads of up to 500 kilotons each. You think of your family.

You’re a just a lieutenant colonel. You’re a software engineer. This was supposed to be a boring post. It’s 12:30 am and this is just another night shift. Two minutes ago your biggest decision was whether to shave tonight or tomorrow. THIS SHOULD NOT BE YOUR DECISION TO MAKE.

Time refuses to stop.

You think about the software. The satellites. Could it be a glitch?

Three weeks ago your government shot down a Korean civilian airliner and no one knows why. The United States is in an anti-Soviet fervor. Maybe Reagan really is that crazy. Maybe one missile got launched early by accident. Maybe you only have a short window before they realize their mistake. Every second you wait, the opportunity to strike back and stop the missiles before they destroy your home slips further away.

But…one? How could there be only one? The Americans aren’t that incompetent. A real attack would be hundreds, thousands of missiles. Even if they accidentally fired one early, they wouldn’t wait this long to fire the rest.

You breathe. Oko is about ten years old now – there was bound to be a glitch sooner or later. There will be no war. Everything is fine.


Four more missiles appear on the screen, all heading towards your homeland. Fifteen warheads. Seven megatons. Are they launching in waves?

You think about your career. You think about duty. You know exactly what you are supposed to do in this situation.

The button waits.

Even if it is a glitch, disobeying orders will ruin any chance of promotion. You might need to leave the army. You don’t know where else you could go. You wouldn’t know what to do when you got up in the morning.

Five missiles. Still doesn’t make sense. Could be a glitch. Americans still aren’t that dumb, to make the same mistake twice.

You’re not sure. But you have your orders. Your job is not to make decisions. Your job is to press the button and let someone else make the decision.

You know that your government’s stated policy is “launch on warning”.

You look at the glowing warning on the screen again.

Not your decision – except you know what the decision will be.

You think about how to deal with life after the army. You think about your home in ruins. You think about your cousins, screaming. Why are these thoughts even in the same mind at the same time? No sane world would allow that.

You do not live in a sane world.

Five lights, glowing in the night.

One button.

Five billion people.

All your comrades know what the right thing to do here is. Everyone knows. It’s simple.

There are procedures in place.

There are children in bed.

The world balances on a stupid, cheap, red plastic button.

Could be a glitch.

Five missiles wouldn’t destroy the entire Soviet Union. In strategic terms, it would be barely a blip.

You imagine thousands of mothers crying. A blip.

You imagine the world screaming in its final hours, a cacophony of hopeless wishes echoing until they’re silenced. “If only…!”

You decide.

You will not play your assigned role in the end of the world. You will probably be scorned, laughed at, even if you’re right. If you’re wrong, you will be the hapless fool who let his countrymen burn out of cowardice.

You don’t press the button.

The world doesn’t end that night.

It turns out to have been a false alarm – sunlight glinting off clouds. The sunlight that almost ended the world.

The questioning and interrogations go on for weeks. Endless paperwork, and you’re reprimanded whenever you miss a single slip. You receive no reward. The failure of the early warning system is embarrassing, and to recognize that you were right to distrust it is to invite scrutiny and blame. You are quietly reassigned to a post of absolutely no importance where you can’t make any trouble. With no hope of advancing your career, you retire from the army.

Sometimes you still think about that night. You can’t talk about it with anyone. No one knows that you…did nothing.

You suffer a nervous breakdown for a while, but you get better.

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to save up to buy a vacuum cleaner.

The world keeps going.

For now.

Happy Stanislav Petrov Day

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics says that you can have a particle spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time – until you look at it, at which point it definitely becomes one or the other. The theory claims that observing reality fundamentally changes it.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

In 2010, New York randomly chose homeless applicants to participate in its Homebase program, and tracked those who were not allowed into the program as a control group. The program was helping as many people as it could, the only change was explicitly labeling a number of people it wasn’t helping as a “control group”. The response?

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”

On March 11th, 2012, the vast majority of people did nothing to help homeless people. They were busy doing other things, many of them good and important things, but by and large not improving the well-being of homeless humans in any way. In particular, almost no one was doing anything for the homeless of Austin, Texas. BBH Labs was an exception – they outfitted 13 homeless volunteers with WiFi hotspots and asked them to offer WiFi to SXSW attendees in exchange for donations. In return, they would be paid $20 a day plus whatever attendees gave in donations. Each of these 13 volunteers chose this over all the other things they could have done that day, and benefited from it – not a vast improvement, but significantly more than the 0 improvement that they were getting from most people.

The response?

IT SOUNDS LIKE something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

There wouldn’t be any scathing editorials if BBH Labs had just chosen to do nothing – but they did something helpful-but-not-maximally-helpful, and thus are open to judgment.

There are times when it’s almost impossible to get a taxi – when there’s inclement weather, when a large event is getting out, or when it’s just a very busy day. Uber attempts to solve this problem by introducing surge pricing – charging more when demand outstrips supply. More money means more drivers willing to make the trip, means more rides available. Now instead of having no taxis at all, people can choose between an expensive taxi or no taxi at all – a marginal improvement. Needless to say, Uber has been repeatedly lambasted for doing something instead of leaving the even-worse status quo the way it was.

Gender inequality is a persistent, if hard to quantify, problem. Last year I blogged about how amoral agents could save money and drive the wage gap down to 0 by offering slightly less-sexist wages – while including some caveats about how it was probably unrealistic and we wouldn’t see anything like that in reality. So of course less than a week after I wrote that Evan Thornley says :

“There’s a great arbitrage there, we would give [women] more responsibility and a greater share of the rewards than they were likely to get anywhere else and that was still often relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.”

While Mr Thornley said he wasn’t advocating that the gender pay gap should be perpetuated, he said it provided “an opportunity for forward thinking people”.

A number of online commentators, as well as Australian start-up blogs, have since said Mr Thornley’s comments were sexist.

Mr. Thornley improved on the status quo – but in the process he interacted the problem and was thus caught up in it. This is a strategy which, if widely embraced, would practically eliminate many forms of wage discrimination overnight simply by harnessing something we have way too much of already: greed. So of course it was denounced.

Last year the city of Detroit began to crack down on unpaid water bills, and thousands of poor people suddenly faced the prospect of having their water shut off. The vast majority of people did nothing to help them whatsoever. PETA did offer conditional help: If a family went vegan for 30 days, PETA would pay off their water bill, and throw in a basket of vegan food to boot. This was strictly more helpful than what 99.99999% of humanity was doing for Detroit residents at the time, as it didn’t make anything worse and offered a trade for anyone who valued 30 days of not-being-vegan less than however much they owed on their water bill. For marginally improving he situation instead of ignoring it, they were denounced as “the worst”.

Peter Singer has a famous thought experiment about a child drowning in a pond. I’ll let Philosophy Bro explain:

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.


What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

The difference is that the drowning child has been definitively noticed, and thus her moral weight bears down on us and we have to save her. But children thousands of miles away? Not noticed!

I think this might be where a lot of the discomfort with talking about things we can do to alleviate suffering comes from. If you implicitly believe in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, then to confront the scope of suffering in the world is to make it your fault, and then if you don’t throw everything you have at the problem you’re as “bad” as PETA or Mr. Thornley or Uber or BBH Labs.

But what if – what if noticing a problem didn’t make it any worse? What if we could act on a problem and not feel horrible for making it just a little better, even if it was an action that benefited ourselves as well? What if we said that in these instances, these groups weren’t evil – it’s okay to notice a problem and only make it a little bit better. If everyone did that, the world would be a vastly better place. If everyone “exploited” opportunities where they could benefit and alleviate people’s suffering at the same time, we’d all be better off.

Everyday Superrationality

You just can’t help yourself: whether it’s robbing banks or embezzling funds, crime is just your thing. Luckily, you have a partner who thinks just like you. Unluckily, you’ve both been apprehended by a team of crack detectives.

In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.
In retrospect, your plan to scare people away from the stolen gold by posing as a ghost werewolf may have been ill-conceived.

The Authorities make you an offer – and down the hall, you know your partner is hearing the same thing. Turn in your partner and you walk away scot-free while she’ll do five years behind bars. If you both rat out the other, you’ll get three years each. If you both keep quiet, you’ll both be out in six months.

She talks, you talk: She does three years, you do three years.
She talks, you stay quiet: She goes free, you do five years.
She keeps quiet, you keep quiet: She does six months, you do six months.
She keeps quiet, you talk: She does five years, you go free.

No matter what your partner chooses, it’s better for you to talk. So you’re going to tell the cops everything. Might as well – you have nothing to gain by staying quiet (did I mention that you don’t care about your partner at all? You suffer from Thought Experiment Induced Sociopathy. There’s a support group, they meet down by the trolley tracks.).

Anyway, you’re going to talk. And, you realize, she’ll do the exact same thing.

After all, you two think alike.

You two…think…alike.

…if you two really do think alike, then an outside observer would predict that both of you will make the same choice.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’s thinking the same thing right now.

…if you two really do think alike, then she’ll pick whatever you pick, even with no way to communicate, no matter what you pick. Because the process that’s driving your choice is the process that’s driving her choice.

…if you two really do think alike, you’re not choosing between talking and staying quiet – you’re choosing whether you’ll both do six months or five years.

…if you two really do think alike, then you can both be out of here in six months.

This is, of course, a silly toy example of a contrived situation that doesn’t actually happen to people ever.

Your friend has posted a kickstarter for a film Prisoners in Theory. You’d totally want to see this film if it came out! But do you want to back it? The Kickstarter says it if they get the money to make the movie, it will be released for free on YouTube. The other rewards for donating don’t interest you at all, you just care about the movie getting made. Realistically, you’re not going to donate more than $5. And what are the odds that that they Kickstarter will fall short by less than $5? Miniscule. And even if it is that close someone will pitch in the last few pennies. It’s definitely better for you to keep your money for other things and just wait and see whether or not the film gets funded. Either there will be enough like-minded fans to fund it, or there won’t be.

Some liberties were taken with the source material.

“Like-minded” – the words echo in your head. Something seems off – are you sure you made the right decision?

Maybe if you want there to be media for you to enjoy, you want the sort of people who enjoy that media to also be the sort of people who tend to pay for that media. When artists and writers are considering what to work on, you want them to look at the sorts of things you would like to see and think “If I make that, I can probably pay rent this month.”

Philip J. Fry, game theory expertPhilip J. Fry, game theory expert

Be the systemic change you want to see in the world.

It’s Election Day, and you’re pretty anxious about the ballot initiative #42 to recognize gay marriages as corporations that can legally sell medical firearms to immigrants. Should you bother to look up your polling place, catch a bus over there, and wait in line in a loud, poorly-lit gymnasium that smells faintly of bored teenager? The odds of a single vote mattering are so miniscule as to be indistinguishable from zero. Elections practically never come down to a single vote – so you can confidently say that the outcome will be the same regardless.

You're not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.
You’re not stuck in democracy, you are democracy.

The electorate will make the same decision, with or without you. Rationally speaking, voting is a waste of time, and there are so many other things you could be doing that you value more than a 0.00000001% chance to sway an election.

If your vote counted extra – if you got 5,000 votes – well, then, maybe it would be worth doing. Lots of elections are within a 5,000 vote margin. But you can’t, so you don’t.

You wonder how many other people feel the same way.

You notice that politicians seems to cater to the irrational people who vote as a block even though each of them could be doing better things with their time.

Maybe you should go. Maybe all of you – all the individuals who are sufficiently similar – should.

The question you have to ask yourself is: Do you feel superrational?

Well, do you, punk?
Well, do you, punk?