Doing something small but meaningful

Post-US election, I’ve seen some advice on how to have impact (mostly focused on political impact) through small but meaningful actions, and do so sustainably. I wanted to start collecting such resources here.

A friend wrote on how to be more politically involved without burnout:

1. I know donating money doesn’t feel like doing a lot, but it’s often the most effective and efficient way you can help people or push for change. Setting up automatic monthly donations to your organizations of choice is extremely helpful because it allows them to plan effectively over the longer term rather than trying to figure out what to do with a sudden windfall or figure out how to make up an unexpected shortage. Check whether your employer has a matching program for extra leverage!

2. I looked at my weekly schedule and found a few places I reliably have time to make phone calls and do research (to figure out what I need to be making phone calls about and be sure I have enough background information)….

3. I am trying out a few local volunteer opportunities, and I’ll see what sticks in the long term.  If [the first thing I try] doesn’t seem sustainable for me I’ll look for a different opportunity. When you are considering volunteer opportunities, look for things you will enjoy. Do you like talking to people? Do you enjoy manual labor? Would you like your volunteering better if you brought some friends with you, if you worked alone, or if you got to meet lots of new people?

4. Connecting with an organized group is a fantastic way to avoid reduplicating a lot of effort. I’m using the spreadsheet at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/174f0WBSVNSdcQ5_S6rWPGB3pNCsruyyM_ZRQ6QUhGmo/htmlview?usp=sharing&sle=true# to guide my calling efforts and short-circuit my dithering about how to rank the many important issues I could be working on….

6. Don’t think too hard about where to put your efforts. There are lots of different things you could be advocating for, donating to, or helping with. You don’t have to find the very best one! It’s really easy for me to get caught up in trying to figure out what the very most important issue is, and how I specifically can be the very most effective helper I can, but every minute devoted to trying to figure out what to do is a minute you aren’t actually doing the thing. Pick a set time to research — “I am going to find and compare organizations working to help people register to vote for the special elections in North Carolina for 30 minutes” — and then go from there. ( http://nc-democracy.org/give/ — they’re currently organizing, so they know money will help and they’ll be contacting me later in the month or in February to let me know what else I can do from out of state)…

More good advice at the link.  And I like that a lot of the advice also applies well to any cause (burnout is always an issue), which also giving concrete examples and resources for people who share the author’s causes.  Also, I miiiight be the kind of person frequently subject to analysis paralysis. ;)  So the last point is well taken.

Do Something, courtesy of Crooked Media, also has a bunch of resources with specific suggestions for actions.  Most very specifically are related to electing more Democrats and/or fighting Trump.  If those are your causes, check their links out.  (To be clear about my own biases: I am mostly aligned with those causes, but try to keep this blog less partisan and more focused on effective solutions to specific issues.)  I’ve bookmarked the Indivisible Guide to dive into more later.  The subtitle is “Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen” — it looks like it’s got a lot of broadly applicable advice for getting things done within the US political system.

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Some actual good news from 2016

If you’ve read my past charity evaluations, you’ve seen that Innovations for Poverty Action has rated at or near the top of my rec lists for effective charities.  They perform scientific research on how to effectively help large numbers of people out of poverty, and into healthier, happier, lives.  They focus on identifying high impact, scalable solutions.  Their results impact policies and actions worldwide.

IPA just shared in the Washington Post some of the brighter spots from their last year of research, as well as some takeaways for future giving, in an article entitled, Why 2016 was actually one of the best years on record.  I’m quoting it very extensively here so I can add my own bolding, but it’s worth clicking through and reading the whole thing, particularly if you’re interested in more relevant studies and details:

Between 1990 and 2013 (the last year for which there is good data), the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half, from 1.85 billion to 770 million. As the University of Oxford’s Max Roser recently put it, the top headline every day for the past two decades should have been: “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday.” At the same time, child mortality has dropped by nearly half, while literacy, vaccinations and the number of people living in democracy have all increased.

….Here are four things we’ve learned in 2016:

First, give the poor cash. Studies in Kenya and elsewhere show that the simplest way to help is also quite effective…. More and more research shows that when the poor come into a windfall, they spend it on productive things — sending their children to school, fixing the roof that’s letting in the harsh weather or investing in a business….

Second, innovative health-care delivery can dramatically improve outcomes…. [In Uganda, NGOs have tried training women who do Avon-style door-to-door sales to also] perform basic health checks for children to look for symptoms that warrant getting the child to a clinic. One randomized evaluation released this year concluded that taking this health care to people’s homes reduced child mortality (for those younger than 5) by an astounding 27 percent and infant mortality (less than a year old) by 33 percent.

Third, access to mobile money may lift people out of poverty in large numbers.…. Research from this year shows that as [Kenya mobile money system] M-Pesa became more available in a local area, households became less poor — particularly households run by women. The study estimates that 185,000 women changed professions from subsistence agriculture to business and retail and that 194,000 households were lifted out of extreme poverty.

Finally, mobile phone technologies are leapfrogging the reach of traditional telecom infrastructure, and text message reminders are proving to be effective at helping people follow through on things they want to do. One study found that they helped the poor save money. [Others found they can help patients finish taking antimalarial drugs, help educate girls about reproductive health, and reduce student dropout rate.]

The size of the impacts in the cited studies are very impressive, as are the overall numbers for the past ~2 decades.  (It’s a bit silly for the headline to imply that 2016 is one of the best years on record in terms of poverty reduction, though, given that we won’t be able to get good data for a bit — but these are definitely some great research results that will presumably steepen the decline of poverty going forward.)  I’m also encouraged, as someone who hears a lot of well-intentioned suggestions from the tech sector about how tech can take on problems like poverty, to hear that some mobile solutions are actually substantially effective in this problem space.

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Donation recommendations… for 2017?!

Wow, I’m way on top of my game this year!  … Sort of. :)

I did a lot of research on where I should donate this year that I didn’t end up using — that is, I decided in the end to donate to the same orgs I’ve donated to in the past.  Why?  Because getting on even more organizations’ mailing lists is a pain, and I’ve decided that I’m going to donate anonymously via a donor-advised fund in the future so that I can avoid the mailing lists.  But that means I have to set it up first. :P

The good news, though, is that my donation research mega-spreadsheet should still be applicable in ~10-11 months when I am next donating.  And for everything subjective, I tried to document everything I was thinking along the way so that others (and future me) can adjust the conclusions according to taste or according to anything that’s changed.  I’ll reshare it on various social networks when it’s “giving season” again.

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Notes and caveats:

  1. You may not agree with the list of charities I’ve evaluated so far (in which case I’d love to hear what you think I left out — though please see my To Evaluate and Didn’t Make the Cut tabs).
  2. You may also not agree with my criteria or weighting (heck, I’m not sure agree with those :) ), and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on that as well!  I’ve tried to clearly document my thoughts, in any case, so that if your priorities are different, you can change your rankings accordingly.
  3. I scored and ranked the organizations (to be taken with a large grain of salt! mostly it’s not the rankings but the other info that’s useful), but I’m not quite sure how I’m going to use this info to allocate funds.  Some charities that score really well in terms of excellence might not actually get the most money… I’m still pondering how score and amount should relate. And still considering what other factors should perhaps be going into my rankings.

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Tote bags vs. plastic bags, and the overall impact of consumer plastic use

In response to my post on the effects of plastic bag bans (Edit: which addresses various different types of environmental impact, like pollution), reader Veronica Skowronski pointed me at this Atlantic article on whether tote bags are good for the environment (Edit: which is focused on energy consumption in particular).  The article cites various evidence that reusable grocery tote bags often don’t get reused enough to save more resources than they consume — especially the fancier ones that have gotten popular recently.  In fact, tote bags have gotten more ubiquitous, to the point that people are accumulating and even throwing them away, but polls show they’re very rarely used.  And plastic bags do actually have the smallest footprint to produce and distribute — compared to paper or various tote materials — even though they’re slowest to biodegrade.  The article’s conclusion?

So long as their owners don’t throw them away, [tote bags’] negative impact remains minimized, at least—they might yet be used 327 times. Ecologically speaking, the best practice for tote bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all.

I personally don’t ever invest in buying new totes… I carry around a bunch of tote bags in my trunk that I got at conferences, conventions, or other events where they were giving them away free — they were generally not intended for groceries (and say a funny assortment of things like Grace Hopper, NSF, or Sherlock Seattle :) ), but they serve that purpose fine. I realize this is not an option all shoppers will have access to, but it’s a thought for those of you with spare totes sitting around from similar events.

The Atlantic article also points out that this is far from the only case where the desired goal of helping the environment leads people to do things that are actually less effective — or where people analyze only the small picture and not the whole ecosystem:

This low-grade, unfocused mania for averting impending ecological disaster seems to be more harmful than helpful, which is a problem throughout popular environmentalism. Meat eaters decry the water usage demands of almond groves. Conscientiously piled garbage overflows from public trashcans to rot in the street. Studies show that Kenya-grown roses flown to England have a lower carbon footprint than those grown and shipped from Holland, that it’s less ecologically damaging for Americans east of the Mississippi to import wine from France than from California. Biodegradable plastics proliferate as single-use containers and utensils, greenly filling the demand for disposable goods rather than questioning it. Fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks are considered, barely, but not those of oil tankers, container ships, military escapades, which can produce tens of millions of times the amount of carbon.

With that in mind, I wondered whether or not consumer plastic use (including plastic bags) actually constitutes a very large portion of plastic use overall.  Maybe corporate plastic (re)use renders individual actions relatively small impact?

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Recommendations for donations, 2016 edition

It’s the giving season, and this year I’m trying to learn from previous years and give some advice before everyone else in the world finishes their yearly donations.  :)

To a large extent, the recommendations I made last year still hold.  And I still endorse most of my criteria from a few years back (but see other posts in my donations tag for further updates and caveats).  So mainly, I want to post those links as a resource for anyone giving now or soon.

The truth is, though, the recent US election has changed some of my own giving priorities.  I’m not going to stop giving to the research causes or the worldwide health efforts that I gave to previously, but I’m going to increase some of my domestic giving to causes that I think are now more at risk.  I’ll be posting more of my thoughts and decisions as I do more research into new organizations — and I’d love your input along the way.

I’ve previously supported civil liberties (primarily ACLU), reproductive rights, criminal justice reform, and investigative journalism (primarily ProPublica) [edit: also LGBT rights] — I plan to increase my donations to such causes, but will revisit and update the specific recommendations.  Additionally, I want to evaluate more organizations supporting racial justice, immigrant rights, human rights, and more, before making any decisions or endorsements.

So far my candidates for evaluation include:

» Continue reading “Recommendations for donations, 2016 edition”

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Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen)

I’m still reeling from the recent U.S. election, as I know many are.  But I already see lots of folks mobilizing to start communicating more with Congress.  So I wanted to pass on Former Congressional staff member Emily Ellsworth’s tips on communicating effectively with your Congress peeps.  A few key points:

  • Phone call > letter > email > Facebook or Twitter feedback
  • The most effective way to express your opinion to the staff is to call the state district office (rather than the D.C. office)
  • If you want to talk to your representative in person and have a back and forth discussion, go to a town hall meeting.  They’re usually sparsely attended and just the same faces; big potential impact if you bring friends.
  • A more specialized point: if you do any local advocacy work, invite staffers to your advocacy events.  They will enjoy attending, better understand the situation on the ground, and then treat you as a resource/expert to consult in the future.

If you happen to be in D.C. when Congress is in session, you can also meet with your representatives and senators in person (or in some cases their staffers), just by making an appointment.  Check the tips on how to be effective in such a meeting.

Edit: more specific hints on how such a phone call should go — and a sample script — below.

» Continue reading “Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen)”

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California election research 2016

Here’s my mega spreadsheet of 2016 election research (mostly California ballot initiatives). Sorry for anything that’s hard to read. ;P

I listed my own voting plan and reasoning, but I also tried to give a lot of other info to help people with other priorities/perspectives also make decisions.

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Is rent control effective?

No — it’s been well studied, and economists on the left and right seem to agree it’s counterproductive for the people it’s supposed to benefit.

According to The Economist (“Do Rent Controls Work?”):

As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times in 2000, rent control is “among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and—among economists, anyway—one of the least controversial”. Economists reckon a restrictive price ceiling reduces the supply of property to the market. When prices are capped, people have less incentive to fix up and rent out their basement flat, or to build rental property. Slower supply growth exacerbates the price crunch. And those landlords who do rent out their properties might not bother to maintain them, because when supply and turnover in the market are limited by rent caps, landlords have little incentive to compete to attract tenants. Rent controls also mean that landlords may also become choosier, and tenants may stay in properties longer than makes sense. And some evidence shows that those living in rent-controlled flats in New York tend to have higher median incomes than those who rent market-rate apartments. That may be because wealthier households may be in a better position to track down and secure rent-stabilised properties.

And the NY Times (“The Perverse Effects of Rent Regulation,” by Adam Davidson of Planet Money):

[T]hese programs actually make the city much less affordable for those unlucky enough not to live in a rent-regulated apartment, Mayer says. The absurdity of New York City’s housing market has become a standard part of many Econ 101 courses, because it is such a clear example of public policy that achieves the near opposite of its goals. There are, effectively, two rental markets in Manhattan. Roughly half the apartments are under rent regulation, public housing or some other government program. That leaves everyone else to compete for the half with rents determined by the market. Mayer points out that most housing programs tie government support to an apartment unit, not a person. “That is completely nuts,” he says. It creates enormous incentive for people to stay in apartments that no longer fit their needs, because they have had kids or their kids have left or their job has moved farther away. This inertia is a key factor in New York’s housing shortage. One East Village real estate agent told me that only 20 to 30 units are available in the entire area any given month.

This might be acceptable if all the rent-controlled and rent-stabilized units were inhabited by the poor people the programs were designed to help and if most poor people lived in rent-regulated units. But according to data from N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, a majority of people in rent-regulated Manhattan apartments make far above the poverty level.

 

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Would a non-binding proposition to overturn Citizens United have any impact?

(And is that even something we should do?)

This year, California has a non-binding ballot initiative asking CA state lawmakers to do everything they can to overturn Citizens United via a constitutional amendment.  Many other states have had or currently have similar propositions on their ballot.  In trying to figure out how to vote on this strange advisory initiative, I considered these factors:

  1. What has the impact been of Citizens United?  (Is it all negative?)
  2. Is this proposition an effective way to try to overturn it?
  3. Are there other campaign finance reforms we should be focusing on instead?
  4. Should non-binding propositions be discouraged?

TL;DR: an amendment is not likely to be an effective approach for addressing the downsides of Citizens United, because amendments are way too hard to pass. It’s also difficult to craft well, and some organizations like the ACLU oppose such an amendment (others, like the L.A. Times, object to committing to an amendment without knowing the specifics). There are many other campaign finance reforms suggested that seem more plausible, and important. Additionally, this non-binding resolution seems unlikely to be all that effective at persuading CA lawmakers to shift much due to the current political situation.

» Continue reading “Would a non-binding proposition to overturn Citizens United have any impact?”

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What do plastic bag bans do?

What do plastic bag bans actually achieve?  There are a couple California ballot initiatives about a potential statewide ban (I’ll be sharing more research on CA ballot initiatives soon), so I have a pressing reason for curiosity.

I don’t want to contribute to the giant plastic island in the ocean or to the amount of plastic in animals’ stomachs.  And I’d love to decrease local litter while reducing energy & pollution usage (which supporters of bans claim come from making plastic bags).  Do plastic bag bans have these effects (as claimed by supporters) without causing worse side effects?

Short answer: plastic bag bans are very good at one of the things they set out to do (dramatically reducing plastic bag litter), and they mostly get replaced not by paper but by either reusable bags or no bag.  There are predicted substantial energy savings from this shift, but from what I can tell there’s not enough data to be sure of that.  And some of the side effects/potential downsides are not as well quantified.

» Continue reading “What do plastic bag bans do?”

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