Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We're Here, We're Queer, Get Used to It: A Lesson the Animal Rights Movement Could Learn

This fall, I've been listening in on a course I always intended to take as an undergraduate, U.S. Gay and Lesbian History by George Chauncey, and I've had to pinch myself for the last week or two as I read my way through Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D'Emilio to remind myself that I'm not reading about the animal rights movement. The debate is so similar to, and the rhetoric so evocative of, the modern animal rights movement that it's impossible for someone in this movement to miss. So I've decided I should share some of the most interesting parallels in the book with a wider audience.

The book covers the early (pre-Stonewall) movement for gay and lesbian rights, particularly centering around the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, two 1950s groups. The movement was known as the homophile movement in those decades. I don't think many of these examples are that biased by D'Emilio's own perspective, as the previous book we read, The Lavendar Scare by David K. Johnson, had a chapter on these groups that left me with a very similar sense and the same conclusions. Here are the parallels I see.

The overall parallel is this: the movement was divided between those who wanted to educate and integrate individuals and militant direct action for political change.

These terms (education, individuals, direct action, militant) are terms we frequently hear in discussion of animal rights strategy. I didn't take them from there - I took them from right out of the pages of D'Emilio's book.

1. A growing debate over whether activists should be likable and professional - and the less likable ones seem to have won.

In the animal rights movement, it's often said that we should appear as normal as possible, including wearing professional dress for protests. I don't want to dismiss this idea out of hand - there's little question that if I am trying to persuade someone one-on-one looking good and looking like them will probably help. I just want to note for now that the resemblance to the attitudes of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis is striking. See, for instance, this excerpt from the Daughters of Bilitis' description:

Appearing normal was not simply a matter of dressing nice. It meant, all too often, accepting psychiatric theories of homosexuality as a mental disorder and welcoming religious figures who denounced homosexuality as a sin. I'm not making this up - the Mattachine Society at several points welcomed figures - psychiatrists and theologians - who would be considered hate-mongers today. This was a gay rights group, though, and it's important to realize that they undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the modern gay rights movement by creating a community of advocates for the first time that could then be tapped into by other groups.

Compare the DOB's self-description to this passage from the Vegan RD:

"We vegans eat (and live) in a way that is very different from the rest of the population. For some of us, it’s not a big deal. For those who value feeling normal, it might bring considerable discomfort regarding their vegan lifestyle. We can’t change the desire to be normal, but we can take steps to 'normalize' veganism."

Nick Cooney relays the story of an environmental organizer making big asks of activists to great admiration until he makes the biggest ask of all: cut your hair. The lesson is that, as activists, we must be willing to leave our identities at home in order to appear normal.

There is a difference between these two movements: as animal rights activists, it is our goal to have people accept animals, not us. But what is the same is that we face a tension between the social norms by which we live (and would like the world to live) and the social norms under which the world operates. We all want to be normal, and the common solution is to make ourselves normal. But in fact we can change the desire to be normal, at least some of us and at least briefly. That realization points another route forward - to force society to acclimate to our norms.
Texas Ranger article about Randy Wicker

In the gay rights movement, likability and professionalism came increasingly into question in the 1960s. In New York City, a man named Randy Wicker scandalized the Mattachine Society by taking public action and ultimately offering publications tours of the gay underworld, including bars and bathhouses, in an effort to capture publicity. Upon arriving in New York, he described:

"I couldn't understand why every homosexual did not actively support gay groups. . . . [Instead,] I was belittled. 'There's Miss Mattachine,' they would say. They didn't want to hear about it."

In Washington D.C., gay federal employees took to picketing outside the State Department which viciously persecuted gay men and women during the Cold War despite cautions from others that
Picketing the White House in Washington, D.C.
it would expose them to risk and make them look bad. The new militants also took on social norms rather than try to blend in with them, infuriating the old guard by rejecting their "Alcoholics Anonymous" approach to homosexuality.

New York, Washington, and other cities where militants had a substantial presence were where things really began to take off - both in terms of generating public dialogue (major, and positive, press hits in Harper's, The New York Post, The Village Voice, and Playboy in New York and several prominent court cases and an alliance with the ACLU in Washington) and in terms of building up the activist network (previously stagnant numbers doubled in New York in the year after "The Wicker Basket" as it was called and soon quadrupled while Washington was similar).

There's such variation in strategies across cities in this period that I think we can draw some lessons, and the biggest lesson that cries out is that seemingly obnoxious activism worked. It got people's attention, both outside of the movement and within.

Collectively Free, a grassroots animal rights network, protests outside Chik-fil-A
2. A stubborn determination that the movement needs to focus on education before it can push for broader social change.

In the excerpt from "What about the Daughters of Bilitis?" you can see repeated references to education. In fact, when Frank Kameny, now lionized as a hero in the gay rights movement, proposed taking on the government bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., which had led a crusade against homosexuals including extensive spying and invasive interrogations, the Mattachine Society's founders advised against it, saying we needed to focus on education first before pushing for change that was then seen as radical. Kameny pushed ahead and achieved the first legal win against a decades-long campaign of persecution and harassment of homosexuals by the federal government when a court ruled against the Civil Service Commission's firing of a homosexual government employee. The legal battles Kameny pursued also developed the support of the Washington chapter of the ACLU, which ultimately lobbied the national ACLU to overturn a 1957 ACLU statement in support of sodomy bans and federal security statues against homosexuals. It looks like in the most successful cities, the push came first, education second.

In the animal rights movement, to be fair, there are groups pushing for political change, such as bans on certain industrial practices. These do not generally have the grassroots component or the strong messaging that the campaign in Washington had. My sense is that it's common in the animal rights movement for us to feel that we need more people on our side before we can push for broader social change. In the 1950s and 60s homophile movement, it looks like a broad push was actually a critical first step before winning people over.

3. Numerous occasions in which backlash led to growth and public support.
The response to a raid on San Francisco's Black Cat Bar
In the early 1960s, the San Francisco homophile movement began developing relationships with local clergy members inspired by 1960s activism and religious social justice work. The clergy members attended a ball one night that was raided by the police. That raid may have been the best thing that ever happened to the San Francisco homophile movement, as overnight the clergy members created an uproar and a scandal, holding a press conference to accuse the police department of "deliberate harassment and bad faith" and "intimidation, broken promises and obvious hostility." In another case, a San Francisco mayor instituted a crackdown on homosexuals for fear after being savaged as immoral in a brutal mayoral race. While Mattachine and DOB did little, the event led to the rise of the first open homophile political organizations in San Francisco.

This backlash dynamic has played out in the animal rights movement. Most notably, ag gag laws to ban recording in agricultural facilities have humiliated animal agriculture. In other examples, prosecutions of animal rights advocates routinely net public sympathy and increase the profile of the cause. It's not particularly novel to note that the backlash effect happens. What's remarkable is what a crucial role it seems to have played in the gay rights movement, particularly at key turning points.

Now obviously, as I've said, there's a key issue with the analogy, which is that with the early gay rights movement, it was largely the oppressed class - homosexuals - who were doing the activism, whereas with the animal rights movement, it's allies. But the parallels are so striking, not just in situation but in language, and the strategic considerations are extremely similar: how to transmit a message to U.S. society that is not yet accepted but that, at its core, reflects many individuals' fundamental values.

People often draw conclusions from history about current social movements, and they're often sloppy or gloss over serious issues. When drawing on history to try to infer causality and figure out best practices for a modern movement, it's important and extremely difficult to take account of all sorts of biases. Less memorable events, such as failed social movements, are less likely to show up in the historical record. With history, there's no counterfactual - you can't see the alternate universe where something didn't happen - and it is generally very hard to find a situation that is close to identical, which is the next best option. What's interesting in the pre-Stonewall gay rights movement is that you can see a great variety of tactics and strategies in different cities and with different timing, so I think you can get a better sense than with most cases of which strategies worked best. In this case, it seems pretty clear that the adoption of more confrontational political action led to greater success in public dialogue generated, pressure placed on institutions, and mobilization of activists.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Complex Bullshit of Meat Foodie Culture

It's commonplace for American food commentators to discuss the contradictions and nuances of meat. From "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to "The Compassionate Carnivore," authors maintain that meat's moral ambiguity makes it delectable and interesting to ponder. Grist spent this summer on a pedantic expedition into the controversies around "meat." The Wall Street Journal held a panel which I attended on "the culinary and cultural aspects of meat." This past Friday the Yale Sustainable Food Project made its annual pig roast more comfortable for attendees by embedding it in a scholarly conference.

In toasting the pig, organizers read a poem documenting the sexual violence of meat as an example, apparently, of the way our lives are mired in webs of moral quandaries. With chuckles and raised glasses, professors and students toasted and then ate the body of a pig, newly aware of the complexities behind that pig's arrival at the table.

The complexities of "meat" are all the rage. Authors admit to the cognitive dissonance involved in eating animals in the hope of inner peace and a stable and pleasant outcome.

But not only is this a woeful way to approach a moral issue: "meat" - and animal agriculture - is not really all that morally complicated.  It only seems complex because of the way it's been built up, because of the massive cognitive architecture erected to assuage our moral fear, because, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has powerfully argued, humans are not rational but rationalizing creatures, and we have rationalized the hell out of "meat." Animal liberation, in a glaring example of projection, is often held to be a highfalutin intellectual philosophy when at its core it actually rests on the rejection of false complexities: a denial of the moral categorization of the world by species in favor of the far simpler idea that we are all equal. It is the "meat" eater who introduces complexity by trying to build ever more complex excuses for an injustice.

Politicians often hide behind an illusory complexity to avoid taking an indefensible position. I'm thinking of the now go-to line among Republican candidates that marriage equality is a difficult issue on which reasonable people can disagree or that the existence of anthropogenic climate change is a scientifically challenging issue where only scientists are equipped take a position. In fact, there are very few moral philosophers who even study same-sex marriage because it's so lacking in philosophical interest and the question of whether man-made climate change is happening is fairly settled. And the morality of meat is one more area of remarkable consensus.

A false complexity creates emotional distance from an uncomfortable issue. People use big words and complicated euphemisms when talking about issues that make them uncomfortable (think of how Scalia talks about "homosexuals" rather than "gays"). We've evolved to confabulate to cover up our mental errors, creating a thicket of weeds for anyone trying to correct us. In the case of "meat," it is a comforting act of mental masturbation over an animal's dead body.

Those who wish not to face a stark reality fetishize complexity. There is a cottage industry around doing this for meat, but this aloof pondering of animals' moral status over a plate of their dead flesh is not simply a pleasurable activity - it is an intellectually untenable and deadly choice.

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Something remarkable happened last night at Direct Action Everywhere Mass Connecticut's Day of Action. As we stood holding candles outside Chipotle sharing words about the horrors that happen to animals of other species, a man stepped out of the passing crowd and came up to me. "I love animals. Where do I have to sign?" he asked. Our chapter member Joe and I were confused before realizing he thought we were asking for a petition.

"No, nothing to sign, but you can join in," we told him as Lauri handed him a candle.

"I'm homeless," he told me, "got kicked out of my parents' house and lost my dog. I love animals. it's horrible what we do to them. I want to stand with you." I felt and could sense others' discomfort given the stereotypes and toxic prejudices our society teaches us about homeless people. He stayed with us as we rounded the corner to stand outside a Buffalo Wild Wings. Tiffany, Lauri, and Joe all said a few words as passersby asked us the question they'd asked repeatedly: "you care about animals when people are dying?"

Finally, Charlie, our new participant, spoke. I could feel people hold their breath. "Animals are skinned alive and killed for no reason," he said, "Eating their flesh is no different from human flesh. Eating them is just like eating the dogs and cats in your own home." When the action concluded, Rachael, Tiffany, Joe, and I got him dinner and helped him find a shelter since he had been repeatedly turned down, he said. We exchanged phone numbers and invited him to our future events, official or unofficial, if he needed a meal.

He took a stand, we later learned, despite still eating animals, because he knew the same truth we knew. Pointedly, this victim of repeated abuse and discrimination at the hands of humans, including us, made clear that violence is still violence even when it happens to animals. His conviction in the face of an overwhelming personal struggle is a potent reminder of the real affinity we all feel for animals and the often ignored universality of this fight.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Framing Criticisms of Effective Altruism

This has been said, and better, by Rob Wiblin and others, but I'm restating it here to draw attention to its implications. Many criticisms of effective altruism (even the excellent ones in this Boston Review forum) go like this:

1) X is important (or Y is unimportant).
2) Effective altruism ignores X (or gives undue weight to Y).
3) Therefore, effective altruism is flawed.

If the goal is to criticize the fundamental idea of EA, then I think these criticisms miss the mark. If (1) is really true, then all that implies is that EA should focus on X. If the goal is to criticize the EA community, then these criticisms are more on point, though there's a question of whether a community is defined by what its members do or by the fundamental ideas that unite them.

But similar points have been made by others, so I'd like to focus on two reasons why the framing of these criticisms matters.

1) If they consciously adopted the role of internal critics to EA, those in favor of institutional reform, for instance, could be part of a serious debate within EA over whether focusing on policy advocacy is effective. This would not just be a more precise statement of the criticisms - it could improve EA more than an external criticism. More importantly, it could fill a gap in research on the effectiveness of policy advocacy, something that would be edifying not just for EAs but for anyone who cares about evidence.

2) Framing the debate in this way could lead those who favor a systemic approach to realize their significant ability to impact the world. People who call for focusing on institutions often, it seems, take it as an excuse not to do much to address global problems. If it turns out that we can do more by focusing more directly on institutions than we can by donating to charity, this should call for those who care about policy to follow the EA movement in making a serious personal commitment to change the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

There Is No Moral Case for Meat

The non-profit environmental magazine Grist is doing a month-long feature on the future of meat. Monday's piece considers the morality of meat. There's not nearly the same sort of sophistry in the piece I've come to expect from foodie writing. Nonetheless, it merited a reply.

In Monday's piece, Nathanael Johnson argues that "we should strive to do better by animals, but that doesn’t mean we should condemn ourselves for eating meat." We should treat vegetarianism "the way religious traditions treat virtues" - as something to strive for but not to condemn ourselves for failing. Interestingly, this proposal by philosopher Paul Thompson fails by the philosopher's own standard that we "should also be prepared to apply it to humans." Would we be okay treating cannibalism in this way? No, because we know that eating someone is such a bad, easily avoidable harm that committing it is reprehensible. If this is Jesus-level sacrifice, as the the piece suggests, then our population is at least 2% Jesus.

The arguments that the piece essentially admits are irrefutable - from Singer to Scully - do not just argue that vegetarianism is nice. They argue that eating animals should be condemned, and their arguments are, as the author more or less admits, correct. So if you want to lump vegetarianism into the category of nice but not morally required things (the official term is supererogatory), you have to say where those arguments go wrong. This is not some philosophical pipe dream - there are real lives at stake here - such as the resilient, affectionate, and elegant hen who died yesterday of complications from having been bred for food.

The problem is perhaps a motivational one - it's just hard to give up the taste even if it's wrong. This I must say I find deeply troubling as a gay man who can remember countless times in my childhood that people expressed blatant homophobia, as is common, on the basis of thinly rationalized disgust, an emotion that shares a psychological and linguistic kinship with taste.

The piece concludes, bizarrely, that the "the black and white strategy hasn’t gotten many people to become vegan." Our culture is replete with articles calling for better treatment of farmed animals, improved welfare, and modified farming facilities. Animal welfare, not animal rights, is the prevailing dogma. It's rather odd to conclude that the black-and-white approach has failed, when it has barely even been tried.

(Besides, there is far more to a strategy than its message - there is also the delivery, which has thus far not included the strong grassroots work that has carried the day for past movements. The issue extends beyond the content of the message.)

In announcing this special journal series, Grist announced that "We're asking the tough questions on meat." That may be the case, but, like many environmentalists, they do not appear prepared to offer the tough answers. There is one tough question they have not asked: why is it okay to kill someone who does not want to die?

The Loss of a Voice

Today, the animal rights movement lost a hero. I'm sharing a link to the eulogy written by her caretaker. Mei Hua survived a Whole Foods "Certified Humane" cage free facility only because she was rescued.


A common worry within and without the animal rights movement is that nonhuman animals lack the ability to speak for themselves - making animal rights activists "a voice for the voiceless." Past movements relied on the voices of the oppressed - from Sojourner Truth to Cesar Chavez to Harvey Milk.

Mei Hua was an answer to this worry. Though I never met her, it feels as if I have after watching her escape from the jaws of death and hearing her rescuers speak of her. She was full of life. Though Mei Hua's caretaker writes that she was scarred by her past, she staged a resilient comeback, fell in love, and developed friendships. Her story inspired hundreds of thousands, including many of my friends and family.

Sadly, Mei Hua died today of ovarian cancer - a disease brought on by deliberate breeding by humans so that she would produce as many eggs as possible. I didn't think hearing of her passing would bring tears to my eyes, but it did. Today is a day of mourning, because tomorrow the urgent fight resumes to ensure that this violence stops.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Comment on the "Dismal Science"

Howie Lempel pointed out that my post yesterday described "today's economics" in overly broad strokes. There are indeed many economists, for example, comparing outcomes between persons. Anytime an economist argues for a policy on the basis of some averaging or aggregating metric is comparing outcomes across persons. Using the effect on GDP per capita to determine the value of a policy, for instance, implies that the gain from an additional dollar is equal regardless of who is gaining the extra dollar. Though Piketty and Saez's work on inequality is largely descriptive, it clearly implies that distribution matters. Similar things can be said for the work of organizations, like my employer, that study global poverty. Many scholars of public choice theory and welfare economics propose ways to evaluate outcomes across persons. So there is a more recent history of work with an eye toward a more robust conception of justice.

More precisely, what concerns me are the following:

1) A lot of economic theory and undergraduate instruction in economics sweep distributional concerns under the rug. It would be good to see views like those mentioned above that take comparisons of outcomes seriously be more central and explicit. Even in the examples above, many of the implied comparisons are hidden. Popular economics often separates concerns about "efficiency" from concerns about "equity." The assumption that equity can be separated out from efficiency is itself a moral claim, as my former professor John Roemer frequently pointed out. This too-common overlooking of moral claims is problematic (there is evidence that economics instruction even makes students more selfish). I do not think it lives up to the heritage of earlier economic theorists who, as I noted in my original post, supported the moral equality of nonhuman and human animals.

2) The claim that interpersonal comparisons of utility are unintelligible is philosophically ludicrous. It should give way to more reasonable approaches that perhaps acknowledge the inability to compare utility perfectly without flat out rejecting comparisons. It may be possible to reject comparisons when utility is taken as representing superficial preferences, but as soon as utility becomes a way to judge an economic outcome, as it often does, it takes on a different character. It is good for the sake of intellectual debate when views take as their basis more reasonable assumptions.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Dismal Science Could Not Be So Dismal

This weekend the Library of Economics and Liberty has a nice piece on why economics is often called the "dismal science." According to the post, the phrase originated not in a debate over economic growth, as is commonly believed, but in a debate over slavery. John Stuart Mill, one of economics's foundational thinkers, strongly supported emancipation because "economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty."

It's interesting to note the contrast between the strong morality in John Stuart Mill's economics and the flaccid morality of today's economics, which is restrained by its rejection of any comparison between two persons' outcomes (one exception might be todays' economists' broad support of open borders).

One way this bears itself out is the treatment of animals in modern economics. John Stuart Mill's intellectual forbears and descendants are notable for supporting basic equality for animals. The claim is different from the human slavery case because Mill's criticism of slavery invoked the equality of ability, whereas criticisms of animal husbandry rest more simply on the moral equality of animal suffering and human suffering. Nonetheless, the implication is strikingly similar: that viewing animals as property without any intrinsic value is untenable. Today's economics ignores this simple and just claim. Modern economic analysis regards a dog or a pig no differently from a sofa, with the scant literature on the subject determining their value entirely by the decisions of the consumer. It would be good to see economics reclaim its moral heritage and begin regarding animals' well-being as having a value in its own right, independent of humans'.

(It should go without saying that I do not wish to compare black slaves of the nineteenth century to nonhuman animals, especially given the potentially violent results of such comparisons. What I am saying is that there is a similarity in the desire to draw an arbitrary line of moral consideration, and that economics should reject this.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Where have I seen this before?

From today's New York Times Briefing:

President Obama visits the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City today, where he will talk about the need for more humane conditions in prisons.

As with the case of animal agriculture, it's easy to call for humane treatment, but we should really ask ourselves, "why are they locked up at all?" According to the Sentencing Project, nearly half a million of those locked up - about a quarter of the total incarcerated population - are locked up for drug offenses.  Beyond incarceration, half of all drug arrests are for the possession of marijuana.

Among its many consequences, one result of this policy is a staggering number of missing black men.

Humane is better, but what we most need is freedom for people wrongly behind bars. And it bears saying that drug offenses are the low-hanging fruit. The American incarceration problem goes well deeper than that. More broadly, we deal with violent offenses with a view to revenge, something far from the euphemistic term "corrections." That's not just an issue of being humane - it's an issue of justice.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Effective Altruist's Prisoners' Dilemma

A discussion recently erupted with several friends over a tweet about an extra credit question posed by a professor at the University of Maryland:

One of my friends commented that the rational thing to do is to select 6% - unless you happen to be that marginal student whose choice brings everyone down, you can only expect to gain by selecting 6%.

My immediate reaction was that, well no, that's the rational thing to do provided you are egoistic and only care about your own exam score. If you're a rational altruist, though, the rational thing to do may be to select 2%, since in the unlikely event that you are the marginal student, you threaten to lose points for everyone. Depending on the size of the class and the way you value each additional point on the exam, this could easily outweigh the slight chance of getting an extra 4% for yourself.

As is often the case, things are more complicated. The reason is this: what if there is a curve? If there's a curve, then additional points on the exam only serve to set you aside from anyone else, and if you cause everybody to lose their bonus points, you just leave the relative distribution unchanged. From an altruistic perspective, if the value of everybody's exam score is equal, then it's unclear which way to answer this question.

It's more likely that everybody's exam score is not equal, though. If I'm a truly effective, altruistic person and (almost) the rest of the class is not, then I should select 6%, since in the scheme of things, it's better for those who will do good with their credentials to outcompete those who won't.

The irony is that a radically altruistic position leads to the same choice as a radically egoistic one. It seems to me that this is likely the correct assessment. I could see worries that effective altruism could lead to a cutthroat world, but these are easily allayed by the fact that the calculation changes if I know that 10% of the class is likely to be effective altruists.

In fact, this could be somewhat comforting for those who worry about effective altruism requiring some holier-than-thou self-sacrifice. Certainly, a dose of self-sacrifice is called for. But if you want to be not simply altruistic but also effective, the best default way of behaving in many situations may be the rationally egoistic one.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Join, or Die: A Comment

I had a comment raised (by Owen Cotton-Barratt) in response to my post on protests that was important enough I felt I should post it:

... the EPA's estimated net global benefits of climate regulations ($67 billion), this march would, on expectation, yield an expected $201 million in benefits - enough to save 60,000 lives.
Careful. An important fact is that money goes differently far in different contexts, and the figure that you are using for "enough to save 60,000 lives" represents an extremely good use of money. The benefits under discussion will not be distributed so as to all go on such cases. In fact many of them are health benefits which have been converted into a dollar value (I couldn't find the conversion rate on a skim read, but I can guarantee that it will be a lot more expensive than $3,500 per life -- probably between 1 and 3 orders of magnitude more, depending on the country they benchmark from).
My estimate of the impact of the global effect of the Climate March on humans should be significantly lower using the government's impact estimate, though it's difficult to say how much because the estimate is global, so it involves both American lives and African lives, and there's a good argument that a loss from an African economy is likely to be much more damaging to that country's economy than a comparable to the U.S. This is perhaps the crux of the issue with climate change. But I think this should revise the estimated human impact downward by about two orders of magnitudes.

This led me to realize that I neglected the lion's share of the impact of climate change - the impact on wild animals. The impact in this case is again highly uncertain but seems most likely to increase the impact of climate change by several orders of magnitude (see here for an analysis).

So I'm led to conclude that there is even more uncertainty than that which I pointed out in my original post, and I'm inclined to move participation in that particular march from "toss-up" to "ineffective," but I don't think this bleeds over much to other causes and to smaller- and medium-sized marches more in need of support. Moreover, I'm inclined to repeat the cliché that more research is needed in this area.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Join, or Die (Part 2)

In my last long post, I argued that if we can greatly help a promising collective action, we are obligated to do so. I did not argue that any particular protest has or will be effective, although I offered a few illustrative examples. I thank Carl Shulman and Ben Kuhn for their helpful responses to my original post. In this post, I would like to argue that the habit of supporting social movements is a good one to have and offer a few examples.

To start, let's consider a few problems where protesting could likely make a difference. It seems to me protests rely on having a problem that is fairly concrete and direct, with an identifiable institution at fault. Poverty in developing countries strikes me as lacking in a clear target for a protest, and existential risk strikes me as too abstract and, again, lacking in a clear target.

These are problems that severely affect large numbers of people and are at least somewhat tractable:

-Mass incarceration
-Climate change
-Global institutional reform relevant to poverty
-Immigration and open borders
-Animal agriculture

Now let's look at the costs and benefits of participating in a protest. Carl Shulman writes, "But to be convincing you have to actually show your work that the returns on protesting really are competitive with the opportunity cost of time (e.g. earning and donating some money, studying to advance your career and ability to get things done, doing malaria research, resting up after all of the above)."

Though time is approximately fungible, it seems likely that people sort their time, like money, into budget categories. Given that, we must ask which category protesting is likely to come out of. It seems unlikely it would come out of one's job and more likely to 
come out of either resting up or self-improvement.

A basic economic approach would value leisure time at the amount one could earn in that time, but going to a protest doesn't obliterate leisure time - it simply replaces the alternative activity with going to a protest. This will be costlier for some people than for others. If marching is a chore, this cost could approach or even surpass the

forgone earnings, but if marching is energizing, or even just benign, the cost could be fairly low. The cost will also, of course, depend on how important your being well-rested is - getting less sleep to march in a protest would be quite costly for a life-saving surgeon.

To get more specific, again quoting Carl Shulman, "If the tens of millions of person-hours spent on the protests were spent at minimum wage jobs and the proceeds donated, then tens of thousands of African lives would have been saved; if one can earn higher wages or contribute in other scarce ways, the opportunity 
cost will be larger still."

I assume he is going with GiveWell's estimate that $3,340 given to the Against Malaria Foundation can, on expectation, save one life. 300,000 people at, say, the People's Climate March, had they spent five hours at a minimum wage job instead of marching would have earned enough to save about 3,000 lives. As stated above, I don't think that working is the relevant alternative - protesting would most likely detract from mentally allotted leisure time. Still, even if leisure time is worth 1/10th the amount of time that work time is (and the people marching work minimum wage jobs on average), that march had an opportunity cost of 300 lives that could have been saved, a pretty hefty opportunity cost.

How unfavorable is this comparison? Well let's turn to the benefits.

The benefits of any one action are far more diffuse and less measurable than the sort of interventions effectiveness-minded people like to favor. Clearly, the benefits will vary greatly by protest. Each year there are many, many protests with little effect. As someone who grew up outside of Washington, D.C., I can report that every time I visited the White House, I saw a protest outside for a cause that would likely be forgotten.

Yet every so often there is a protest with a profound effect. I cited the People's Climate March in my original post, and that protest, which appeared on the front page of the New York Times, seems to have catalyzed one of the liveliest student protest movements in years, which has kept climate change in headlines across the country and perhaps led to Senate Democrats' scuttling of a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter marches have made racism in the criminal justice system one of the principal political issues of 2015, and while police in the U.S. kill 1,000 people each year, the U.S. prison population numbers above 2,000,000, which is significant considering the potential tractability of the problem and the misery of being imprisoned, is a worthwhile problem.

But beyond this anecdotal evidence, there is a fairly strong scholarly consensus that protests work, spanning political science, history, and economics. Specifically, political scientists' estimates of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest movements range from 37% to 75% of such movements achieving their goals.

Of course, that protest movements work does not tell us how well they work, which is what we need to compare participation in them to the alternative. A highly rigorous study of the Tea Party movement estimated that an additional protester at a Tea Party rally produced 12 extra votes for the Republican party (the question of whether voting matters may be the subject of a later blog post). There aren't many other estimates like this in the literature.

There are many reasons the Tea Party estimate might be an over-estimate for a standard protest, even more so for a large one. For one, the Tea Party protests were fairly small, so an additional person likely yielded larger returns. For two, there's a case to be made that the Tea Party protests happened at a favorable time politically with the pendulum swinging back from extremely large expectations for the incoming President.

So let's take that estimate and divide it by 10. Suppose each person at the People's Climate March produced an extra 1.2 votes in favor of climate action. That's 360,000 extra votes for climate action. Some very rudimentary back-of-the-envelope math using estimates by Nate Silver of the chance that a vote swings an election yields an estimate of a .6% chance of swinging a Presidential election. If swinging the election improves the chance of climate action by 50%, then this march would increase the chance of climate action by .3%. Now if we use as a ballpark estimate the EPA's estimated net global benefits of climate regulations ($67 billion), this march would, on expectation, yield an expected $201 million in benefits - enough to save 60,000 lives.

Many of my assumptions may have inflated this estimate - chiefly, the assumption that the likelihood of each vote swinging the election is independent. I also based each person's wage on the minimum wage - clearly many people will earn several times the minimum wage. On the other hand, one could argue that I made a conservative estimate of individual impact, and that I assigned to each marcher the average likelihood of swinging an election, which should underestimate the impact since marchers who are from swing states, even if a minority, have a higher chance of swinging the election by more than half an order of magnitude. If the march had 1/200th the impact, it would still outweigh the opportunity cost.

There are some further problems, though. We just looked at aggregate or average impact, rather than marginal impact. It is likely that the 300,000th marcher does not have a marginal impact equal to the average impact. The relationship between marginal impact and number of marchers is quite unclear. It seems most likely to me that marginal impact would have an S-shape: protesting by yourself or with a few of your buddies likely has very little impact because of the strength (or weakness) in numbers. An additional person would probably do much more good for a small- or medium-sized march.

Given this, it seems to me to be roughly a toss up that an average person in the People's Climate March would have much of an expected impact, let alone a high-impact person with potential for higher wages and a steeper opportunity cost. But this march was likely not all that high on the effectiveness scale. For a medium-sized march around a potentially higher-impact issue like, say, open borders or animal agriculture, it seems plausible to me that attendance at a march would be high-impact. Given that we are habit-forming creatures, I think an effective person ought to make a habit of showing support for small- to medium-sized protests around highly important causes.

The case is stronger as one moves higher up on the collective action ladder. Organizing a protest, or helping to organize one, can mean getting many more people out. The opportunity cost is of course larger as well, but turning out a large enough number of people with a fraction of your effectiveness can create a multiplier effect. People within the effective altruism movement have pushed for more movement-building and advocacy for their multiplier effects. There are possible (and promising) alternative proposals to political protests - pledge parties to pledge to donate 10% of one's income with Giving What We Can, for instance - but these seem better for consolidating and utilizing a community than building one. There is something about the raw emotional effect of being part of a crowd united around a cause that can change people in a way more coolheaded activities cannot. Scholars who have studied protest movements speculate that this psychological effect is what helps generate and sustain activists. 
Again, whether I can have a big impact by organizing collective action depends quite a bit on my own attributes. But given that one of the most vital ingredients in a protest is the structure that transforms it from an event into a movement, if I have this ability, I could be doing significant damage by sitting out.

At the end of the day, the question of collective action and its importance comes down to the question of emergence. Many world-changing events have been caused by masses acting together. Few world-changing events have been caused by individuals acting alone. We are individuals, and we cannot directly control anyone but ourselves. But when we look only at the visible results of individual actions, we miss the more diffuse effects our actions have on those around us - the way our actions spread and shape social norms. When you look at the effects of people acting together, though, mass political action may be more effective from a rationalist perspective than it seems at first.

Update: Following dialogue with critics, I was changed my mind on the above post: I was persuaded that participation in large marches on causes that are not the most-pressing does not compare favorably to other effective altruistic endeavors. For smaller and medium-sized protests on causes that are more pressing (likely by orders of magnitude), I believe my above assessment still supports protests and collective action as effective endeavors.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Re: How do people defend eating meat?

Over on his blog, Chris Blattman, a popular blogger and an economist who I deeply respect at the organization where I work, endorses the now commonplace view that we should eat animals, but we should treat them nicely before we do so. He argues that the marginal cost of a little meat is not that high. Given that people reason morally using taboos and the near nonexistence of humane meat (particularly chicken, which inflicts far more misery per serving than beef), I disagree. (This is yet more anecdotal evidence that now that the animal rights movement has gotten animal welfare on the table, the next step is to show that humane meat is a sham.)

I'm cross-posting the response I left on his post:

This vegetarian reader will bite. Not because I’m vegetarian, but because I’ve had dogs my whole life and would never want them to go through what chickens and other animals go through on essentially all farms. That’s the crux of the issue: there’s a scientific consensus rivaling that on climate change (see the Cambridge Consensus on Consciousness) that other animals have feelings, and rather complex ones at that. This is why Richard Dawkins and others like him say that we should be vegetarian. It’s simply untenable, as a Darwinian, to say that it’s wrong to kill or hurt humans but that there’s some bright red line where just because an animal is not of our species, it’s okay.
But let’s get to the notion of favoring reasonable treatment. As a scholar of violence and conflict, you must know how profoundly objectification and desensitization shapes our minds. When you accept that it is okay to kill animals for food, it shapes the way you see them. Do you really think you can view an animal as something to be eaten and as a sentient being with moral worth? Others have made this point far better than I can: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/07/how-conscientious-carnivores-ignore-meats-true-origins/241828/
Moreover, the evidence bears this out. What would you say qualifies as “reasonable treatment of animals”? I would wager that your definition of “reasonable” describes no more than a negligible portion of the market. It’s standard practice at all farms, humane or not, for hens to be debeaked without painkillers (hens use their beaks the way humans use our hands), for baby animals to be separated from their mothers, for animals to be killed as babies, and for slaughter to be frequently botched. This is what investigators at a Certified Humane, cage-free Whole Foods farm found (not very graphic, FWIW): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU4PJCuslD0
But there’s a reason that virtually none of this “humane” farming is actually the humane, pasture-raised images we have in our heads. It’s because feeding over 300 million people with animals living decently is simply not feasible. See, for example, this piece on the sustainability of ethical meat:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html.
Your original post shows signs of the wavering and cognitive dissonance that smart, compassionate people so frequently show when it comes to this issue. It’s not easy to take a stand against such a socially entrenched practice, but it’s the right thing to do.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Join, or Die (Part 1)

In September 2014, 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City to protest inaction against climate change in what was the single biggest demonstration of the last decade in the United States. In the previous month, and in nearly every month since, protests against racism in the criminal justice system have roiled nearly every major U.S. city. This comes in a decade when the national conversation has already been shaped profoundly by the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

It's common to view participation in mass protests as a choice. I want to argue that, sometimes, participation in protests is not a choice: it is wrong not to participate.

I don’t claim that community or solidarity or anything like that has inherent importance. Instead, I want to argue that it may be immoral to stay home from a protest because doing so causes harm.

To start, I offer perhaps the most influential thought experiment of contemporary times – one that has led thousands of people associated with a movement called Effective Altruism to commit their lifetime earnings to addressing extreme poverty. The thought experiment comes from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence and Morality:
If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.
By analogy, Singer argues, we are obligated to save children in developing countries by donating our money, even if it comes at the cost of our own wants.

In More Than Good Intentions, economist Dean Karlan extends this pond analogy. Suppose I don't know how to save the child - I can jump in after him or I can throw something to him in the water. Knowing which is more effective could save his life. By analogy, if we are obligated to help those suffering from extreme poverty, we are obligated to figure out the most effective way to help them. Unsurprisingly, Karlan is the founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit (where, full disclosure, I work) that is dedicated to finding effective solutions to global poverty.

I'd like to extend the pond analogy in a different way. Suppose I am walking past a deep pond and see a child drowning in it. The child is drowning in the middle of the pond, where I would have to swim in to get him. This is not safe - I risk being pulled in by the drowning victim. Instead, I see a large plank of wood that I could throw to the child as a flotation device. With a group of about 10 people, we could throw the wood to the middle of the pond to reach the child. Any less, and we would not be strong enough for it to reach the child. There is no time to run and get any additional people.

If there are nine other people around the lake determined to help, I ought to assist them in throwing the plank of wood. The choice isn't much different from that in the original analogy. If there are eight people, and I really know that we need at least ten to throw it, then it seems I am under no obligation to assist. If there are ten or more, then I am again under no obligation to assist, because they will save the child on their own.

Now the number should not really matter for this decision - if it takes one million people to throw the plank of wood and I am the millionth person, then my obligation is equally strong. Similarly, it should not matter whether the child is in a far away country, living in the far future, or of a different species.

Clearly, this example is both trivial and unrealistic. So we can relax some the assumptions. Maybe I don't know how many people it will take to throw the plank of wood. In that case, if there is still a significant chance I am the threshold person, and I don’t have an equally pressing need to rush off to, I am obligated to help the group.

We can modify the thought experiment in another way: maybe there isn't a sharp cutoff where we can suddenly throw the plank, but each additional person helps get the plank a little bit closer. Again, this modification is easily dealt with - if I significantly increase the chance that the plank reaches the child, I am obligated to assist (and given that a child's life is on the line, I don't need to make much of a contribution for it to be wrong to sit out).

We can modify this hypothetical in further ways, but the basic idea is clear: if collective action can produce major change, and my potential contribution is large enough, it is wrong to stay home. If a collective action’s potential impact is great, even a tiny contribution to it may be morally required.

Singer’s pond analogy makes very salient our individual obligation to those in need. The growing numbers of people – termed Effective Altruists – who take his analogy seriously are changing the world in a meaningful way. I would identify myself as an EA and encourage readers of my blog to join this compelling and rapidly growing movement. Effective Altruists (EAs) are collaborating more and more to build a community. But EAs’ outward engagement with the world tends to focus overly narrowly on ways to act alone. Donating to effective charities and eating a vegan diet are important and necessary ways to relieve suffering, but sometimes, more traditional collective action is required too. I fear a movement centered around doing the most good risks doing far less good for overlooking more traditional forms of protest.

The months following the People’s Climate March saw a new accord between the U.S. and China, the defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S. Senate, and the growth of a vibrant fossil fuelsdivestment movement across the U.S. The #blacklivesmatter marches that have swept the country are leading police departments even in cities untouched by the national spotlight to revise their training. And there is evidence that not just the Tea Party movement but specific Tea Party protests altered the course of national and local politics.

It is far from rare that collective action changes the world. If we can contribute meaningfully to it – which if we cannot do as an individual activist, we almost certainly can as an organizer – we have no choice but to do so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Welcome to the Groff Spot! This will be a blog (for now) about effective altruism, economics, animal liberation and anything at the nexus of numbers and justice. If I feel like it, I might throw in a film review or two (for those of you who don't know, I'm a cinephile). All views expressed in this blog are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer or any organization with which I am associated.

As for me, I'm a recent Yale College graduate working as a Research Analyst at Innovations for Poverty Action, which researches the most effective ways to help the world's poor. I will be applying to Ph.D. programs in economics in the fall. I am anti-speciesist (this includes leaving animals off my plate) and donate 10% of my salary (with an aim to contribute much more later) to highly effective charities.

I'm also a Connecticut organizer for Direct Action Everywhere, a network of animal rights activists that take nonviolent direct action on behalf of farmed animals.

As for what I'll be talking about on this blog, here are some quick ideas for topics I may discuss in the near future:

-Effective Altruism (EA) and collective action problems
-Activism and intellectual detachment
-Social progress and nonhuman animals

Here are some things I've written on other sites:
On Animal Liberation: Why We Fight
How a Former Lonely Vegan Ended up Confronting the Secretary of Agriculture
Youth and Animal Activism

Feel free to comment below on any of these topics or anything else you'd like me to write about. Thank you for visiting!