Can EA leverage an Elon-vs-world-hunger news cycle?
Summary: Elon Musk promises to donate six billion dollars if the UN can explain how this would truly solve world hunger (it would probably be much more expensive). Regardless of whether the donation happens or not, a major news cycle about the cost-effectiveness of international charitable donations seems like a great opportunity to raise the public profile of effective altruism.
Details of The Billionare-Bashing Drama
US senators are currently debating a large bill that will probably include some form of tax increase on the rich. Elon Musk, now the world’s richest man, voiced his opposition to a proposed tax on unrealized capital gains. He framed his oppositon specifically in terms of government inefficiency, saying:
More recently, a recent CNN headline asserted that just 2% of Elon Musk’s ~$300B net worth could “solve world hunger” by feeding the 42 million people who suffer from malnutrition—people who are otherwise “literally going to die”.
Inevitably, this claim turns out to be somewhat hyperbolic/innumerate -- 6 billion dollars divided by 42 million people is around $140 per person, which would be a lot lower than givewell’s most effective interventions (around ~$5000 per life saved). Maybe this billionare-bashing CNN interview is revealing an astounding, hithero unknown charitable opportunity. But more likely, most of the people are not literally going to die and/or the effort to alleviate the problem would cost much more than $6 billion (at the very least, if we need to keep giving people food each year, the real cost would be $6 billion repeating annually). I haven’t yet looked into the details of the situation too closely.
Now, Elon has offered to indeed donate $6 billion, on the (presumably impossible) condition that the UN provide a realistic plan for how the problem of world hunger could legitimately be solved on that budget. For scale, six billion dollars devoted to EA cause areas would represent more than a 10% increase on the ~$42B total funds currently committed to the movement. Right now, EA organizations are spending spend about $0.2 billion on GiveWell-style global health charities each year.
This Seems Like A Good Time For EA To Shine
This conversation is already distinct from most billionare-related discorse for its focus on cost-effectiveness and international aid for the world’s poorest, rather than the usual arguing over the fairness of allowing rich people to exist at all and the desire to increase taxes in order to fund more social services in the developed world.
In short, for a brief moment in time, a major news cycle is focused on how one can do the most good to save the most lives per dollar. This obviously seems like a great time to introduce the ideas of effective altruism to more people. I can only imagine that Kelsey Piper is already busily drafting up an article about this for Future Perfect. But what else can EA do to capitalize on this news cycle? Should Givewell try to outline how they would attempt to spend six billion dollars? Surely their current top charities would run out of room-for-more-funding? Would it be wiser to stay on-message with a relatively simple theme, like promoting Givewell’s expertise in cost-effective global health and development spending? Or should we try to fire off a bunch of thinkpieces climbing the counterintuitiveness ladder from typical disaster aid to growth economics, and from there onwards to longtermism, x-risk reduction, etc? What should EA’s general strategy be around these news cycles—the movement generally tries to avoid political polarization, but surely some events are good opportunities to promote the movement’s ideas without too much political/reputational downside risk.
Either way, news cycles are short, so anybody hoping to leverage this opportunity should act soon.