Economics of giving to charities #

It's that time of year when lots of people are giving to various charities, and I've been thinking about, if I decided to give, how I would decide. My mental economic model for businesses is that businesses engage in trade. Trade is the exchange of one thing for a more valuable thing. On both sides. From that I've tried to build a model for charities and philanthropy.

Economics of trade

Suppose you (running a business) have a sandwich that you're selling for $2. It's very likely that the sandwich is worth less than $2 to you. If it was worth more than $2, you'd rather keep the sandwich, so you wouldn't be selling it. So let's say it's worth $1 to you. Now suppose I have $2 and decide to buy a sandwich from you. It's very likely that the sandwich is worth more than $2 to me. If it was worth less than $2, I'd rather keep $2 than buy the sandwich. So let's say it's worth $3 to me. Both of us have chosen to trade something less valuable for something more valuable. Before the trade, the sum total of what we had was $1 (your sandwich) + $2 (my money) = $3. After the trade, we have $2 (your money) + $3 (my sandwich) = $5. Trades generate value out of thin air. The world is now $2 richer because of this trade. Free markets make for wealthy countries because people aren't prevented from trading.

Model for Gifts

If you think about trades, they work because both sides have the right incentives. When they both choose to trade, the world is better off. When either chooses not to trade, there's no harm done. Yes, there are some cases where the world is better off if they trade, but they don't both choose to trade, but in those situations a change in price will enable the trade, and both will end up benefiting.

With giving gifts, not only charities but also Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, etc., the person paying and the person receiving the sandwich are not the same. It's much harder to ensure that the trade is actually increasing wealth in the world. Suppose I buy you a sandwich, and I paid $2 for it. I don't know how much it's worth to you. You could say that it's worth $5 to you, but since it's not your money on the line, there's no incentive for you to say the true value. Suppose it's worth nothing to you. So before the trade, the seller has $1 (sandwich), I have $2 (money), and you have $0, a total of $3. After the trade, the seller has $2 (money), I have $0, and you have $0 (sandwich), a total of $2.

Gift giving opens up the possibility that a trade makes the world worse off economically. There are other reasons to give gifts of course, but just keep in mind that economically they're not so good.

Christmas and Birthday gifts are rare; the most common source of economic loss from giving is kids (and to a lesser extent, spouses). Kids might say they really want the $150 pair of shoes, but since they're not the ones working 20 extra hours to buy those shoes, they have no incentive not to make the trade. They make that sad face, or whine, or tell you that all their friends have those shoes, or nag you a great deal. They know how to manipulate parents. Lots and lots of inefficient trades are made by or for kids, causing parents to struggle to make ends meet.

These inefficient trades also can occur with charities. If you're giving to a charity and they “do good” with that money, you don't know whether what they did was worth more than what you gave. You end up judging based on how good it makes you feel, which means charities have an incentive to make you feel good, through special events (seeing lots of people involved in a “special event” makes you much more likely to give money), pictures of needy people (seeing a few people makes that emotional connection that you don't get if you read about helping millions), and other tactics. My view of charities, until recently, has been that there's a high potential for inefficiency and emotional manipulation, just as with kids. I've been trying to form a model that would help me make decisions about whether to give, and to whom, that isn't just to make me feel good, but something that will actually do good.


There's something I left out of the model of trades. There's more than just the two parties involved. Maybe the business polluted to make that sandwich. Maybe I littered instead of throwing the sandwich wrapper away. The trade didn't take into account these “externalities” — effects on the rest f the world outside the seller and the buyer.

The standard solution to this is to estimate those effects and charge people for them. Let's take an extreme example, with $5 of pollution for a sandwich. (I think this is extreme for sandwiches but there are probably other industries for which it's reasonable to say the damage to the environment is higher than the value of the product.) Before the trade, there was $1 (your sandwich) + $2 (my money) + $5 (rest of world) = $8, and after the trade there was $2 (your money) + $3 (my sandwich) + $0 (rest of world) = $5. Although the seller and buyer are better off, the trade made the world worse. If we could charge the seller $5 for polluting, the price of the sandwich would be $7 instead of $2. And at $7, I wouldn't buy the sandwich, since it's only worth $3 to me. The trade would be stopped, which is just what we wanted here. To make money, the business needs to figure out how to reduce pollution.

I like the charging-for-pollution solution better than laws against pollution, or trade-and-cap systems (I'll have to make another post about that). With a law, the business's incentive is to fight the law, doing as little as possible, because they still make more money if they pollute. Whereas with charging, the businesses makes more money by not pollution. Since profit motivates business, I want the system to give more profit when the business pollutes less. However it's often impractical to measure the impact of pollution, and that's why we have simplistic black-and-white laws in place.

Model for Philanthropy

We have this artificial line between business and charity. We even call the charities “non-profits”, to distinguish them from businesses (even though some businesses don't make a profit). And there's the sense that charities do good for the world and businesses are bad. I think the world is more complicated than that. There's a whole set of potential projects that have both business and philanthropic aspects. For example, microfinance can generate profits and help lots of people at the same time. Tesla Motors might not ever make money, but it could jump-start the market for cleaner cars. Neither counts as a charity; you're not just handing out money. But there's the potential for it to do more good than a charity. The tax laws in the U.S. encourage giving to charity over investing in a “socially reponsible” business that does good things for the world.

If I'm going to do something with money that I don't need, I want to put it into a place that gives the highest return on investment. But in the case of philanthropy, in that return I need to consider not only what I get back, but also what good it does for the world. Externalities are a way of looking at this. Normally an externality is something negative. But there are also positive externalities. If I invested in a business that makes less profit than other businesses, but generates a lot of good in the world, that's a positive externality. The return on investment for me might be low, but the return to the world could be high. Whether it's classified as an investment or a charity isn't relevant (except there are tax implications that affect the return on investment); I want to find things that have a high rate of return. There's also regular shopping. Just as I might avoid “sweatshop“ products, I might favor products that have positive externalities.


Unfortunately, I haven't found much that can guide me to high-return philanthropy. Businesses report cost and revenue but not externalities. Charities report costs and donations but not the effects they have. I started following GiveWell a while ago because they seemed to be the only ones that came even close to what I was looking for. I was pleased to see they got mainstream press recently. They tend to pick things that are more tangible, and they seem to consider “saving lives” separately from economic benefit, but in general I like what they're saying and doing. I like that they focus on benefits more than cost efficiency, and they're trying to compare different approaches to see what's most effective. I'm also following Acumen Fund, which tries to help people through investments rather than charity.

Businesses looking for customers use emotions, marketing, sales tactics, and they come to you. When they get investors they use numbers, and you tend to go to them. I want to see the numbers side of philanthropic organizations. I don't want them contacting me to tell me how they're “doing good”. I assume almost all of them are doing good. What I'm really trying to decide, by building an economic model, is where to invest. It may be giving to a charity; it may be investing in a business; it may be buying products. It'll probably be all three. The main problem I see is that there isn't enough information, for businesses or charities, and that there's this artificial line drawn between the two. There should be a unified way of thinking about business and charity that finds the best of both, and allows for new types of organizations that don't fit into the current system. Good information about externalities would change the world.

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Verizon and an open network #

The Verizon announcement, and Kindle, are making me think we might actually see a revolution in wireless communication technology.

Back in the early days of electric companies, they were light companies. They sent electricity to your house just for lights, and later offered other services at different prices. They gave away light bulbs and made it back in monthly charges. But eventually they made electric outlets that would accept lots of things. Once lots of electric products were developed, people used electricity for a lot more things. And they stopped subsidizing light bulbs. The electric companies made more money not by charging more for the existing light bulbs but because people did more with electricity.

Cell phone companies have built a huge infrastructure that's only for cell phones. They sell a very small number of services (voice, SMS, web, GPS), all at different prices. They practically give away cell phones and then charge you monthly to make up for it. Just as with electric companies, there's no way the phone company's going to come up with all the possible things you'll want to do with wireless communications. If they open it up I think they'll make a lot more money, because there will be lots more products that work on their networks. I want my thermometer to send me data wirelessly. I want my microwave to read the current time wirelessly instead of me having to set it. I want my car to send a message to my air conditioning system to turn itself on when I'm getting close to home. I want the rain sensor in my yard to send a message to my car windows to close themselves. My cell phone company will never produce every product, but if they sell access to the network, someone will develop some cool products that use the network. Kindle is an example of such a device.

I've seen some complaints on the blogs that this is a big scam for Verizon to make more money by charging per byte. I think they should be charging by the byte. When they control the service, they are able to control the byte-to-service ratio. They average the cost of the bytes across customers and give you a single price for “unlimited” voice. But then they and the ISPs hate you if you use more than average. But I think consumers are better off in the long run paying by the byte. And I think consumers are better off if the phone companies stop giving away the cell phones, and instead lower the monthly charges. I think voice-only folk will end up paying less, because the money will come from the higher bandwidth products that people come up with. Just as with electricity or shipping/mail, it makes little sense to offer unlimited service for a fixed fee. That will lead to overconsumption and hard limits (like Comcast shutting off consumers who use a lot of bandwidth). I'd rather have people pay for bandwidth, so that we choose what to use and not worry about being shut off. Does FedEx stop shipping your packages if you ship lots of them? No! They treat you even nicer! In a world where people pay per byte, the ISPs will want customers who use a lot. This is the “fat head” of data transmission. Other devices can use very little, without making it too expensive. I'm not going to buy a cell phone plan at $20/month for my thermometer or microwave. If I only paid by the byte, it'd be incredibly cheap to transmit the time and temperature once in a while, and those devices will become feasible. This is the “long tail” of data transmission.

I also wanted to mention that when people talk about “3G” they are thinking about the higher bitrate. But it also provides always-on service that can be used simultaneously with voice. I suspect (just as with broadband) that always-on is what will change society more than higher bandwidth. Phone companies thought videophones (high bandwidth, not always on) would be the big thing, but it turned out SMS text messaging (low bandwidth, always on) was what was really took off. Twitter and IM are going to be used more than Second Life or World of Warcraft. Flash games in your web browser are being played more than Playstation 3 games.

I think it's reasonable for electric companies to initially offer only a small set of products, like lighting. It's the low hanging fruit. And it lets them build out their system and make sure everything works. Once the infrastructure is there, it makes sense to open it up. I think the same is true for the cell networks. It makes sense to start with something more limited, so you can work out all the details and build the infrastructure. Once it's established, it's time to open it up to even more products, so that you can make even more money. I'm happy to see Verizon's announcement (I haven't seen details yet). I hope they've thought about the history of electric companies, and are thinking about a world in which every device uses the network, and cell phones are just one of many.