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updates on donating money

Thanks to everyone who’s given feedback on the previous post!  A few updates on donating criteria, literacy, and global family planning:

1. One reader wrote:

I like a lot of what you wrote, but here’s a criterion I didn’t see there, but which makes sense to me: if huge funding sources are already available to a project (e.g. Gates Foundation) I’m pretty sure my impact will not be that significant. It might make more sense to focus on organizations that do not (or do not yet) have such resources available to them.

I think this is a very good point.  I think it’s likely that a lot of organizations without funding from large foundations may not have funding because they don’t have much evidence of effectiveness.  But that’s surely not always true, and all other things being equal, your contribution will go much further in an organization that doesn’t have huge grants.

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where should I donate money?

As the year draws to a close, I am trying to decide where to donate money, and feeling grateful that my company is generous enough to match my donations.

There are lots of guides for how to give wisely out there: (e.g., GiveWell’s basic, advanced, and now vs. later analysis; GivingWhatWeCan’s tipsCharityNavigator — caveat: why effectiveness, not efficiency, should be the focus of donations).  Many experts and evaluative organizations have also made  endorsements for where to give (e.g., GiveWell’s top three charities, Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy’s list of social programs that workPhilanthropedia’s top charities in many categories).  Effectivism has also covered methods for evaluating charities multiple times. Despite these tips, I’ve spent probably around 30 hours in the past few months trying to decide where and how to donate money this year.

I decided to show my work in case it’s useful for anyone else who’s trying to prioritize.  I’m not saying anyone else should have the same principles or choose the same charities.  But perhaps my thinking will help you with your own.

First, my criteria for choosing causes: » Continue reading “where should I donate money?”

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getting rid of junk mail: follow up

After my last post, I spent a couple months using the PaperKarma app, and saw depressingly little reduction in junk mail.  It’s a neat idea, and it definitely had some effect, but a lot of catalogs just ignored it, as did all the circulars.  US Airways took me off their mailing list — and sent me a nice snail mail letter to confirm.  :)  I think a number of charities have taken me off their mailing list, but so many charities solicit me (and sell my address to yet new charities, or to the old ones who had me off their list for a while) that it’s hard to tell.  The app is too much effort to use given this.  Okay, you basically just have to take a photo of each piece of mail using your smartphone, but I get a lot of mail.  You also have to check that it recognized the mail correctly.

After giving PaperKarma a few months, I tried getting rid of circulars directly: Valpak, Pennysaver, and Redplum.  Sure enough — after about 6 weeks — I stopped getting their bulky ads.  This was excellent news!

I just used YellowPagesOptOut to opt out of 6 local phonebooks (theoretically — not confirmed yet).  I also opted out of credit cards for 5 years at OptOutPrescreen (as recommended by the FTC) — they also offer a permanent opt-out for people who want to print and mail a form, but I’m hoping that by the time 5 years are up, I’ll be able to do it online.  ;)  I tried DMAchoice (for catalogs, magazines, and other mail offers), but found it too onerous — they give you (sometimes inaccurate) contact info for each company.

Next, I’m going to try 41pounds, which costs $35 for 5 years.  Although I wanted to first evaluate the free options on behalf of everyone who would rather spend time than money, I have run out of patience with bad websites, and also with killing trees.  $7/year is definitely worth it to me if effective — and their self-reported impact is large.  I’m going to have to list all the catalogs and charities who solicit me — fortunately, PaperKarma keeps a record of my requests which will help me remember.  I’ll report back.

I’m still curious to hear the results of anyone else who has tried any of the measures I suggested — or anyone who knows of other good resources!

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Green cleaning

My bathroom drain is getting a bit slow, and I was wondering whether I could avoid using caustic chemical cleaners such as Drano to unclog it.  My first thought was to wonder whether Seventh Generation or some such “green” brand has a drain cleaner.  And then it occurred to me to wonder just how eco-friendly brands such as Seventh Generation really are.

I’ve been told by friends and cleaning sites alike that one can use baking soda and vinegar for almost all household cleaningwith additional help from kosher salt, lemons, club soda, and other non-harsh products. (NB:  these household cleaners are not as effective as ethanol or some commercial cleaners in tests of rapid disinfectants — so don’t go trying to get rid of polio virus using baking soda and vinegar.)

So far, I’ve preferred to buy an off-the-shelf cleaning product like Seventh Generation (though this is purely a matter of laziness rather than principle).  One of these days, I’ll probably make the switch to using these household items for my cleaning — in the meantime, am I doing harm to the environment, or are allegedly green commercial cleaning products actually eco-friendly?

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Occupy Wall Street: unexpected effects

Just over a year ago, I covered the Occupy movement.  At the time, my assessment was that the movement was garnering a lot of attention initially, but didn’t seem to have very coherent goals.  I was a bit skeptical, but interested to see what happened next.

Initially, there were camps, protests, port shutdowns, and confrontations between the protesters and city officials & police.  But eventually, most of the Occupiers stopped inhabiting physical spaces like Zuccotti Park (in many cases because they were forced out).  However, the community built by OWS has remained strong, and has focused on many other ventures.  For instance, many Occupiers have shown solidarity with various unions during strikes, which is the kind of action I was imagining would happen, based on the movement’s roots.

Less expectedly, » Continue reading “Occupy Wall Street: unexpected effects”

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preschool has a whoppingly huge impact on disadvantaged children

[UPDATE: I think I was not skeptical enough in this post, and relied on too few sources (see comments for some useful caveats).  I hope to do some follow up posts eventually and delve into both Tough’s work and other work on early childhood interventions and educational interventions some more.]

Planet Money recently had a story on the radical effectiveness of preschool at changing the lives of poor and at-risk kids, lasting long past preschool.  A few examples of how kids’ lives improved if they’d attended preschool vs. if they hadn’t:

  • teen pregnancy rates were far lower
  • arrest rates were far lower in kids
  • employment rates and income were substantially higher
  • the story also implied that homelessness rates were lower.
The show transcript isn’t up yet, so I don’t have the exact numbers, but the changes were really impressive — I think that there was as much as a 50% decrease in the rates of bad things happening later in life for kids who attended preschool.
This American Life expanded on this theme in another recent show.  They talked to Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough explained that preschool teaches children “soft skills” — “qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control”, which then allow them to do better in all sorts of aspects of life.  You can also teach people these skills later in life, but starting early means they’re less likely to fall behind in school or get in trouble.

An economic analysis cited by Planet Money indicated that making sure kids go to preschool (or presumably otherwise learn “soft skills” early on) is one of the most effective ways you can improve a child’s life, on many surprising dimensions.  It also seems to be one of the best ways to have broader impacts on society as well, given the large effects on the above issues.  As a billionaire investor said, investing in preschools is a good way to treat some of the causes of issues rather than just the symptoms.

Has anyone read Paul Tough’s book?  I’m interested, but not sure whether or not there’s substantially more to it beyond the coverage I’ve already heard.

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link roundup

  • I continue to have a huge blog crush on Do The Math, especially the analyses of how to reduce personal energy use.  While some of his findings are shocking (shrimp are one of the least energy efficient foods?  Say it ain’t so!), many of his methods for measuring and drastically reducing energy use are inspiring.  I’m not currently willing to take some of the steps he does (e.g., solar panels, or completely turning off my heat), but many of his methods can be applied in moderation, and I’m a big fan of his emphasis on starting by measuring where your big expenditures are.
  • Freakonomics had a recent podcast about the effectiveness of herd mentality in persuading people to make changes such as reducing energy consumption or water usage.  Telling someone, “Most of your peers are doing it,” is often one of the best ways to influence people’s behavior.  Conversely (and counterintuitively), telling people, “Please don’t do X, because lots of people are doing X, with terrible consequences,” often encourages people to also do X.
  • Slate asks: what happens to the clothes we donate?   “Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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getting rid of junk mail: tips & call for volunteers

Tired of the hassle and waste of junkmail?  Want to help me test some methods of cleaning up your mailbox?

I’m testing out an app called PaperKarma (free for a limited time – requires your address/phone/email). It is supposed to unsubscribe you from much of your junk mail — you just take a photo on your smartphone and it should do the rest.  I started this experiment by collecting all my mail from the last couple months and entering it all in a spreadsheet (43 pieces of mail in May, a quarter of which were bulky circulars from Pennysaver and the like).  PaperKarma actually tracks for you the pieces of mail you’ve entered and when you entered them — but with a spreadsheet I can more easily track how much my mail volume decreases over time (and compare categories of mail).

So far, I’m reasonably impressed with the ease of use of PaperKarma and its recognition abilities.  I took photos from various angles, of mail that was sometimes crumpled.  Sometimes I shot just a portion of the flier/envelope (the address or logo of the company), and sometimes the whole thing (which was sometimes a full-page ad with minimal company-identifying info).  In almost all cases, it dealt with these variations without trouble. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to identify some local businesses (e.g, some dentists who bulk-mailed me) despite my photographing the address very clearly.

There are a number of other methods for reducing junkmail.  I would love some help testing them out.  You don’t need to be as thorough as I am unless you want to.  Most of the methods are, in fact, probably less time consuming than using PaperKarma (even without additionally creating spreadsheets).

  • About to move?  EcoFuture suggests changing your address “temporarily” for less than a year (e.g., 9 months) to stop the USPS from selling your new address to lots of businesses.  (Your mail won’t get forwarded for quite as long, but hopefully long enough for you to identify and contact everyone that you do want to have your new address.)
  • Do a one-stop opt-out: Direct Marketer’s Association Mail Preference Service (US only; UK version here) — I’m especially curious about this one, since it’s an easy step to take, but it’s also voluntary for companies to comply.
  • Get rid of bulk coupons/circulars:  You can do this online at the sites for Valpak, Pennysaver, etc — Wikihow has a collection of links (see Step 6).
  • Tired of credit card offers?  Call1-888-5 OPT OUT and get rid of them for 5 years.
  • Stop getting phone books: See Step 11.
  • Pay for a service like 41pounds.org or Private Citizen.
  • Follow some of the other suggestions here or here.

Let me know if you’re trying (or have tried) any of these methods, and how it works!  I’ll probably use multiple methods after I’ve experimented with just using PaperKarma for a while, but it would be great to have more data.  And I’ll let you all know how effective PaperKarma turns out to be.

Update: see follow up post for results.

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“housing first” approach to homelessness

Politifact (prompted by an appearance of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on The Daily Show)  just did a detailed cost analysis of something I’ve been meaning to cover for some time — the “housing first” approach to helping the homeless:

Pioneered in the 1990s in New York City, it puts street dwellers in publicly subsidized rooms of their own and connects them with drug treatment, job placement and psychiatric services with the goal of stabilizing their lives. Unlike many treatment programs, housing-first initiatives don’t require participants to get sober first.

“Housing first is a kind of ‘come as you are’ approach. We encourage folks to accept services, and as a result people change their behaviors,” said Brenda Rosen, executive director of Common Ground, a housing-first homelessness program in New York City.

The approach succeeds and saves money, advocates say, because it targets the chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or more and commonly suffer from addiction or mental illness. That segment of the homeless population uses expensive public services at very high rates — emergency rooms, police and fire, and courts.

According to Politifact, former homelessness policy czar under George W. Bush, Philip Mangano, analyzed homelessness costs and housing first costs across many cities.

“We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” he said.

Other studies have also shown drastic reductions (up to 80%) in hospital visits, detox visits, and incarceration rates.

What’s more, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that savings increase over time as a person stays housed longer.  Additionally, despite the lack of rules around substance use, alcohol consumption decreases over time.

Housing first programs have a high tenant retention rate — often around 80% for 6 months.  It was largely the push for such programs that led to an impressive drop or 30% in U.S. homelessness rates from 2005 to 2007.

Despite the strong evidence in favor of “housing first”, most cities and programs do not take this approach.  It remains controversial, both from those who think that people who abuse substances don’t deserve housing, and from those who believe it is an impractical approach:

Elizabeth Epstein, research professor at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, disputes that approach. She says alcoholism is an addiction that is not irreversible and that putting people together in a drinking environment makes it much harder for them to quit.

“Honestly, the idea doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “I think that money would be better spent by providing them treatment and not allowing them to drink in their living quarters.”

Based on the evidence of effectiveness, I think there is little doubt that we should lobby for housing first approaches in areas that don’t currently have them, and make sure they are sufficiently well-funded in areas that do.  Housing first improves the lives of people who have been living on the streets, and it saves tax payers money — a rare win-win situation.

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fuel efficiency of electric vs. gas cars

I’ve been considering whether to buy an electric car as my next vehicle.  I found this detailed analysis at Do The Math really interesting and useful.  Key points:

On the surface, electric cars are a lot more efficient than gas-powered cars.

The MPG equivalent of [the Volt, Leaf, and Tesla energy consumption] is approximately 80, 110, and 170, respectively. All are much better deals than gasoline cars deliver, primarily because the electrical drive system is far more efficient than the typical 20% gasoline engine.

However, when charging a car like the Leaf, the source of the electricity is important.

Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

On the other hand, this doesn’t automatically translate to “don’t buy electric”:

I’m not saying that transitioning to electric or hybrid cars is not a good idea. I think it’s animperative, if we want maintain a car culture, given that fossil fuel supplies are going to decline eventually, starting with oil. Obviously, if your power comes from hydroelectric, solar, wind, or even nuclear, you don’t have the same concerns. Also, emissions controls (for things other than CO2) are vastly better for fossil-fuel power plants than for automobiles, so electric cars are less polluting. But if your priority is either reduced resource consumption or climate change and CO2 reduction, let’s focus on getting electricity from carbon-free sources before transforming our fleet of cars to electric—or at least accomplish the two in tandem.

I’ll post more if I find more good resources comparing environmental impact of different car types.  And I suspect I’ll also be sharing more from Do The Math — it looks like my kind of blog.

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