Tyler Cowen Speaking at Google On Prizes And Charity
Speaking at Google Marginal Revolutionary Tyler Cowen gave a recent talk about the trade-offs between the use of prizes and grants. It is about 50 minutes long and worth a listen.
The occasion for Tyler to speak about Prizes was Google's announcement of a prize to send a robotic vehicle to the Moon to cruise around. My own negative reaction to that Google moon rover prize was strengthened by listening to Tyler's talk. First off, note Tyler's comments about how advancing science is probably the most productive way to use prizes (and I concur). Well, Google's moon rover prize will not advance science in areas which provide large benefits to the public by much if at all. The prize motivates engineering work which will mostly involve integration and use of existing technologies. The prize won't spur developments into cheaper and more reliable launch vehicles. The prize won't push nuclear propulsion forward for interplanetary travel. The prize won't improve Earth monitoring technologies. But it does help Google's popular image.
Tyler refers to people who argue that prizes should set goals achievable in 4 to 8 years. Well, I think that longer term goal prizes have benefits that are less immediately apparent. For example, an undergraduate or high school student could be persuaded to go into a field of science to achieve some goal in their 30s and 40s and beyond. Also, a prize could offer a series of cash pay-outs for successive goals in a general direction. For example, imagine a prize for photovoltaics where scientists get $1 million or $2 million per additional 1 percent increase in efficiency of light conversion into electricity. I'd really like to see such a prize.
Tyler also observes that if you give to a charity but only do so rarely you will cause them to put you on their mailing list and that could end up costing them more from the repeat mailings than the amount you initially gave. This is an argument for either anonymous giving or at least donation via a method that doesn't give them a mailing address. Also, if you want to save a charity money then contact them and ask them to take you off their mailing list.
Tyler argues that prizes are underfunded because donors don't get as much satisfaction out of sponsoring prizes as from donating grants. So if you want to donate then probably you should donate to a prize rather than to a foundation that gives out grants. If you do not want to grow old and die then donate to the Methuselah Mouse Prize. That prize will accelerate advances that will eventually convince the general public that the defeat of aging is an achievable scientific and biotechnological goal. Pursuit of rejuvenation therapies and the defeat of aging is an area where prizes can make a big difference. If you are interested in both promoting these advances and learning more about this goal then donate $100 to the Methuselah Foundation and get an autographed copy of Aubrey de Grey's book Ending Aging.
Tyler expects donations for prizes to gain at the expense of giving to universities. I think that is a good development. In my view the $34.9 billion Harvard University endowment is a terrible waste of money. The donors are making bad decisions when they give to Harvard. Harvard's endowment keeps growing very rapidly each year due to both great investment managers and large donations. But the same money spent on prizes and grants for research could deliver much bigger benefits.
Tyler makes a great point about the mantra we hear about "caring".
Often the exhortation is to "Care more, care more, care more". But I think that this is often counterproductive. We're just not capable of caring more. We're self-focused. Its often more useful just to admit to yourself "I don't always care that much" and just say to yourself "hey, I don't always care". What happens then. Once yo make that admission charity then becomes an area you can think about again. Because if you're always telling yourself "I must care, I must care" and you don't then thinking about charity makes you feel bad. What you do is you decide not to think about charity very much and and then you don't give a whole lot. So wake up in the morning and say to yourself "I don't care that much". That's the first step toward giving more. That's counter-intuitive. But I think it works.
I've always found the "care, care, care" message obnoxious and somehow dishonest. Most people who tell us this aren't making the level of personal sacrifice I'd expect from people who really believe that caring about the rest of the world is the secret to huge differences in behavior. I do not see them giving all their money to charities. I do not see them deciding to live in a box only big enough for a bed and toilet while they use all their wealth to help others. I do not see them switching into jobs where they can work 80 to 90 hours a week trying to create scientific and technological solutions to all the problems that cause human suffering. Mostly I see them trying to manipulate the rest of us to achieve goals they want to see achieved. That doesn't suggest they think the problems of the poor are so important that they should pay a personal heavy price. So they don't seem so caring about the world's poor as they try to pretend.
More profoundly: I'm skeptical about the efficacy of caring. Sure, some caring helps some amount. But most of the progress that has lifted humans out of short nasty lives has come due to curiosity, desire for fame, desire for higher status, desire for wealth, and other basically quite selfish desires. A focus on encouraging caring seems wasteful because it amounts to trying to tap into the wrong emotion. If your goal is to encourage people to engage in activities that will alleviate human suffering then appealing to their selfish desires and the construction of incentives that will appeal to what really motivates them seems a much more productive approach.