Monday, August 12, 2013

Money Lab: Good Charity, Good Charity

A New York Times op-ed by Peter Singer ("Good Charity, Bad Charity") was just written that relates directly to the food vs. flowers debate that I previously write about on the blog, and which was one of the main focuses on Money Lab. So I took a pause in my Money Lab statistics evaluation (ongoing!) to write a few thoughts on it.

The article designates health causes as “good charities” and the arts as “bad charities” based on the most specious of analyses. There are so many gaping holes in the particular editorial it is hard to simply pick one, but I shall do my best.

First of all, in order to prove his point, Singer handpicks two examples that he chooses to be representative. To represent the arts, he chooses a museum that is building a new $50 million wing. To represent health, he chooses a theoretical charity seeking to reduce the eye disease, trachoma. This charity, apparently a never-before seen model of efficiency, is able to convert your donation immediately so that each $100 automatically saves someone from the disease.

How can you compare the morality, Mr Singer argues, of giving someone money to cure blindness, compared to the selfish interests of a few frivolous museum goers who want to see more pretty pictures? In fact, he goes so far as to posit a demon that blinds someone every time a certain number of people patronize that new museum wing.

Oh art lovers, know that you are sticking a hot poker into the eye of good health!

Of course, even if you credit his economics (which I will address in a moment), his examples are absurd. If he wants to see examples of companies that do a very lot with a very little, there is no better place to look than the arts. I have not done the totals yet, but I know that the Money Lab workshop cost under $5,000. And yet—every participant was paid for their work (some paid extra due to the patronage auction), and we produced a theater piece that played to sold out houses every performance.

But to think that the benefits end there is to not understand the nature of art. The discussions the show inspired will, I hope, shape the thinking of those who saw the work. That in turn will filter out into the world of ideas, and indeed, I do think that great social change often originates from the smallest of art. I am not trying to be grandiose when I say the intention of Money Lab is to change the world. To me, every art piece does, or should.

And then there is the benefit to the artists. Besides the relatively small monetary benefits, there is the opportunity to practice their craft, to develop, to ready themselves for the next piece of work. Every art piece is merely a gateway to then next ten, the next twenty.

And to me, and to the company—the benefit is incalculable. There is the benefit of spreading the work further, because of the press it has and will receive. But also the benefit of being able to shape and refine my own ideas, which once only resided in my head, and to make them tangible and real. To communicate to others. It is more than a desire that I have to do that, it is a need, for my own happiness. If you told me that I needed to give up my art or face a 1 in 1,000 chance of blindness, is there any question which I would choose?

And yet this workshop cost only $5,000, probably less. A $100,000 donation could fund up to 20 - 30 such workshops. Or a couple of fully realized productions, with all that entails.

Now look at a health foundation. The truth is, most health foundations are relatively inefficient. In a survey of charities, it was found that it was not unusual for 50% of the costs to go towards administration. The Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation was found recently to spend almost all of its money on administration.

But beyond bureaucracy, much of the money is spent on research, and, inevitably, much of the research leads to dead ends. Solutions are in short supply, though when they are found, they can often pay for themselves; there is a reason that drug companies spend so much on research, and the reason is money. This is not to say that one should not give nonetheless, but it should be with the understanding that the $100,000 you give will disappear into a well of $50 million or $500 million, and that the results may be as little as identifying the fact the research should now be directed elsewhere.

Does that make, say, autism or cancer or trachoma a bad charity? Of course not (though perhaps the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation might not be your best bet). You give to what you believe, you help the world how you can. And yes, one of those ways could be towards a museum building a new wing.

It would be unusual for them to ask. Most such developments are actually spurred by one or two large funders. But if asked, maybe you do want your money to go towards that museum. Maybe that new wing will display a new artist, and that support will lead to a career. Maybe that artist will be one of the greats. Or maybe someone walking through the museum will stop, look at a painting, and be inspired. Maybe it will change her life.

Maybe, one day, should she ever grow ill, that memory, the memory of all the art she has seen and experienced, will be her comfort.


Douglass Barre said...

I think he didn't go far enough explaining the motivations and capabilities of the evil demon. I mean, what if for every hundred people who visit the museum, you get to choose who he blinds? Or maybe, because he was posited as an arbitrarily "evil" demon, he blinds the very same people who are visiting the museum, making the whole thing a wash. I think that donating to an exorcism charity might be an overlooked option here.

Theater of Ideas said...

Perhaps they have placed an evil demon at the entrance and a good demon at the exit, as a sort of performance art. Random museum goers are selected to be blinded upon entering and then have their sight restored upon exiting, leaving the art inside a mystery to them forevermore.

Titus Poulose said...

In countering Singer's claim you fall into the same trap you call Singer out for using. By pointing out health charities that waste money and showing a case of a cheap efficient art workshop. Singer isn't encouraging donations to inefficient charities the very name of his movement effective altruism is evidence of this.

CJP said...

Some thoughts:

1)Your pointing out of the existence of "bad" or ineffective charities within the health realm does not at all diminish Singer's argument. He is not arguing for donations to ANY health organizations, but ones which have high leverage, transparency, and the ability to scale up operations with additional funding. I.e., the nod to

2) While surprising, the ability for health interventions in the third world (to prevent/cure blindness in this example) for relatively small sums of money is actually much closer to reality than being a "never-before seen model of efficiency". I believe Singer was alluding to the work of the Fred Hollows Foundation (which is mentioned in his book, The Life You Can Save) and boasts a figure of $25/blindness averted. A bit ironically though, FHF is not a recommended charity by GiveWell.

3) Even if, as you claim, that the value of such art charities is incalculable, donations to effective health charities can still be justified. By allowing fewer people to die from preventable causes, the saved now have the ability to produce art (an incalculable value!) that was absent in a world without a health intervention.

Theater of Ideas said...

Titus: Singer claims that health charities are by their nature more efficient. I am giving two examples that contradict that. I do not make any universality of those two examples, though my experience with small arts organizations is that they tend to be highly efficient. CJP: I would not discourage anyone from donating to health charities. I have donated to them myself. I am simply rejecting Singer's formula, which argues for abandoning the arts in favor of health charities.