How accurately does anyone know the global distribution of income?

World income distributionHow much should you believe the numbers in figures like this?

People in the effective altruism community often refer to the global income distribution to make various points:

  • The richest people in the world are many times richer than the poor.
  • People earning professional salaries in countries like the US are usually in the top 5% of global earnings and fairly often in the top 1%. This gives them a disproportionate ability to improve the world.
  • Many people in the world live in serious absolute poverty, surviving on as little as one hundredth the income of the upper-middle class in the US.

Measuring the global income distribution is very difficult and experts who attempt to do so end up with different results. However, these core points are supported by every attempt to measure the global income distribution that we’ve seen so far.

The rest of this post will discuss the global income distribution data we’ve referred to, the uncertainty inherent in that data, and why we believe our bottom lines hold up anyway.

Will MacAskill had a striking illustration of global individual income distribution in his book Doing Good Better, that has ended up in many other articles online, including our own career guide:
 
 

 
The data in this graph was put together back in 2012 using an approach suggested by Branko Milanovic,

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5 reasons not to go into education

First published June 2015. Updated February 2017.

When we first speak to people interested in doing good with their careers, they often say they want to get involved in education in the US or the UK. This could mean donating to a school, doing education policy work, or becoming a teacher.

However, we haven’t prioritised careers in education at 80,000 Hours. We don’t dispute that education is a highly important problem – a more educated population could enable us to solve many other global challenges, as well as yield major economic benefits. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be very easy to solve or neglected (important elements of our problem framework). So, it looks harder to have a large impact in education compared to many other areas. In the rest of this post, we’ll give five reasons why.

The following isn’t the result of in-depth research; it’s just meant to explain why we’ve deprioritised education so far. Our views could easily change. Note that in this post we’re not discussing education in the developing world.

1. It’s harder to help people in the US or UK

Everyone in the US or UK is rich by global standards: the poorest 5% of Americans are richer than the richest 5% of Indians (and that’s adjusted for the difference in purchasing power, see an explanation and the full data).

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80,000 Hours has a funding gap

Over the past three years, we’ve grown almost 36-fold, more than tripling each year. This is measured in terms of our key metric – the number of impact-adjusted significant plan changes each month. At the same time, our budget has only increased 27% per year.

Given this success, we think it’s time to take 80,000 Hours to the next level of funding.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be preparing our full annual review and fundraising documents, but here’s a preview.

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Overall, the 2017 target is to triple, measured in terms of impact-adjusted significant plan changes per month (which will mean over 3,000 over the year). We’ll do this by continuing to improve the advice, and starting to scale up marketing, with the aim of becoming the default source of career advice for talented, socially-motivated graduates.

Concretely, here’s some priorities we could pursue:

  • Dramatically improve the career reviews and problem profiles, so we have in-depth profiles of all the best options. This will help our existing users make better changes, and bring in more traffic.
  • Upgrading – develop mentors and specialist content for the most high-potential users, such as those who want to work on AI risk, policy, EA orgs and so on. We now have a large base of engaged users (1300+ through the workshop, 80,000+ on newsletter), so there’s a lot of follow-up we could do to get more valuable plan changes from them.

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Should you work at GiveWell? Reflections from a recent employee.

The following are some reflections on what it’s like to work at GiveWell written by one of our readers. We’re posting their thoughts because we’ve written about GiveWell as a high-impact career in the past, and are keen to share more information about it. The opinions below, however, may not reflect our views.

I worked at GiveWell from August 2014 to May 2016. This piece is a reflection on my time there, on things I think GiveWell does well as an employer, on things I think it could do better, and why I decided to leave.

I envision two functions for this piece: (1) as an exercise to help me process my time at GiveWell, and (2) as a resource for people considering working at GiveWell. When I was considering taking a job at GiveWell, I found Nick Beckstead’s reflection on his internship at GiveWell to be very helpful. Outside of Nick’s piece, there isn’t very much substantive information available about working at GiveWell. Many people consider employment at GiveWell; I hope some of those people find this reflection to be useful.

Some background

I learned about GiveWell in Spring 2014, after reading Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality in a college ethics class and encountering related topics on the internet. By the time I took the ethics class, I knew that I did not want to go to graduate school immediately after my undergraduate, but I was very taken by academic ethics and wanted to continue serious thinking about the topic.

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The rent is too damn high – should you work on reforming land use regulations?

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on reform of how land is used in cities.

Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, which drives up prices, especially in a few large high-wage urban areas. The increased prices transfer wealth from renters to landowners and push people away from centres of economic activity, which reduces their ability to get a job or earn higher wages, likely by a very large amount.

An opportunity to tackle the problem which nobody has yet taken is to start a non-profit or lobbying body to advocate for more housing construction in key urban areas and states. Another option would be to try to shift zoning decisions from local to state governments, where they are less likely to be determined by narrow local interests, especially existing land-owners who benefit from higher property prices.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that working on land use reform is among the best uses of your time.
  • How to use your career to make housing in prospering cities more accessible to ordinary people.

Read our full profile on land use reform.

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New report: Is climate change the biggest problem in the world?

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on the risks posed by extreme climate change.

There is a small but non-negligible chance that unmitigated greenhouse emissions will lead to very large increases in global temperatures, which would likely have catastrophic consequences for life on Earth.

Though the chance of catastrophic outcomes is relatively low, the degree of harm that would result from large temperature increases is very high, meaning that the expected value of working on this problem may also be very high.

Options for working on this problem include academic research into the extreme risks of climate change or whether they might be mitigated by geoengineering. One can also advocate for reduced greenhouse emissions through careers in politics, think-tanks or journalism, and work on developing lower emissions technology as an engineer or scientist.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that the ‘tail risks’ of climate change are a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How climate change scores on our assessment rubric for ranking the biggest problems in the world
  • How to use your career to lower the risk posed by climate change.

Read our full profile on the most extreme risks from climate change..

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How and why to use your career to make artificial intelligence safer

We’ve released a new ‘problem profile’ on the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

Many experts believe that there is a significant chance we’ll create artificially intelligent machines with abilities surpassing those of humans – superintelligence – sometime during this century. These advances could lead to extremely positive developments, but could also pose risks due to catastrophic accidents or misuse. The people working on this problem aim to maximise the chance of a positive outcome, while reducing the chance of catastrophe.

Work on the risks posed by superintelligent machines seems mostly neglected, with total funding for this research well under $10 million a year.

The main opportunity to deal with the problem is to conduct research in philosophy, computer science and mathematics aimed at keeping an AI’s actions and goals in alignment with human intentions, even if it were much more intelligent than us.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that the future risks posed by artificial intelligence are a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to reduce the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

Read our full profile on the risks posed by artificial intelligence.

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The case for and against using your career to combat smoking

We’ve released a new problem profile on reducing tobacco use in the developing world.

Smoking takes an enormous toll on human health – accounting for about 6% of all ill-health globally according to the best estimates. This is more than HIV and malaria combined. Smoking continues to rise in many developing countries as people become richer and can afford to buy cigarettes.

There are ways to lower smoking rates that have been shown to work elsewhere, such as informing people who are unaware about how much smoking damages their health, as well as simply increasing the price of cigarettes through taxes. These are little used in developing countries, suggesting there is a major opportunity to improve human health by applying the World Health Organization’s recommended anti-tobacco programs.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that smoking in the developing world is a highly pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to reduce the health damage caused by smoking.

Read our profile on tobacco control in the developing world.

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Why and how to work on cause prioritisation research

We’ve released a new problem profile on global priorities research based on our investigation of the area in 2014.

Governments, charities, intergovernmental organisations, and social enterprises spend large amounts of money to improve the world but there is currently little research to guide them on what priorities they should focus on at the highest level.

Global priorities research seeks to use new methods to determine in which causes funding to improve the world can have the biggest impact, and make a convincing case about this to people in a position to redirect large amounts of money.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that global priorities research is a highly pressing topic to work on.
  • How to use your career to make progress in this research area.

Read our profile on global priorities research.

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Is global health the most pressing problem to work on?

Every year around ten million people in poorer countries die of illnesses that can be very cheaply prevented or managed, including malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and diarrhoea.

In many cases these diseases or their impacts can be largely eliminated with cheap technologies that are known to work and have existed for decades. Over the last 60 years, death rates from several of these diseases have been more than halved, suggesting particularly clear ways to make progress.

In our full ‘problem profile on health in poor countries’ we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that this is the most pressing problem to work on.
  • How to use your career to combat diseases of poverty.

Read our profile on health in poor countries.

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Why and how to use your career to work on biosecurity

We’ve released a new profile on biosecurity.

Natural pandemics and new scientifically engineered pathogens could potentially kill millions or even billions of people. Moreover, future progress in synthetic biology is likely to increase the risk and severity of pandemics from engineered pathogens.

But there are promising paths to reducing these risks through regulating potentially dangerous research, improving early detection systems and developing better international emergency response plans.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that biosecurity is a highly pressing problem.
  • How to use your career to work on reducing the risks from pandemics.

Read our profile on biosecurity.

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Why and how to use your career to end factory farming

We’ve released a new problem profile on factory farming.

50,000,000,000 animals are raised and slaughtered in factory farms globally each year. Most experience extreme levels of suffering over the course of their lives. But there are promising paths to improving the conditions of factory farmed animals and to reducing meat consumption.

In the profile we cover:

  • The main reasons for and against thinking that factory farming is a highly pressing problem.
  • How to use your career to work on ending factory farming.

Read our profile on factory farming.

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We can learn a lot from Tara, who left pharmacy to work in effective altruism

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Tara saved lives working as a pharmacist in Bhutan – no really we checked, and she totally did – but she nevertheless left to try to find something better.

This is part of our series of profiles of people who changed their career in a major way in order to have more impact because of their exposure to 80,000 Hours.

Today Tara Mac Aulay is the head of operations in the Centre for Effective Altruism. But just two years ago she was working as a pharmacist. How and why did she make this transition? Her career path is sufficiently fascinating it’s worth telling the story form the start.

Tara was extremely conscientious and hard-working from a very young age. As a result she was able to finish high school and start studying at university at the young age of 16, rather than the usual 18 or 19. She managed to do this while at the same time i) redesigning the staff and inventory management for an Australian restaurant chain, then, because this saved them so much money, being promoted to a more senior role to ii) travel around the country to make major changes to failing stores to save them from closure. As a teenager! Needless to say, this entrepreneurialism and ambition allowed her to develop a wide range of professional skills at a young age.

At the age of 15 she applied to study pharmacy,

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Plan change story: interview with Dillon Bowen, founder of Effective Altruism group at Tufts University

I recently interviewed Dillon Bowen, who runs the EA student group at Tufts University, about how his career plans changed as a result of interacting with 80,000 Hours. Dillon’s original plan was to do a Philosophy PhD and then go into philosophy academia. After going to a talk at Tufts by our co-founder Will MacAskill and receiving career coaching from 80,000 Hours, he started taking classes in economics, now intends to do an Economics PhD instead.

More details of the key points from the interview are below.

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Is now the time to do something about AI?

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The Open Philanthropy Project recently released a review of research on when human level artificial intelligence will be achieved. The main conclusion of the report was we’re really uncertain. But the author (Luke Muehlhauser, an expert in the area) also gave his 70% confidence interval: 10-120 years.

That’s a lot of uncertainty.

And that’s really worrying. This confidence interval suggests the author puts significant probability on human-level artificial intelligence (HLAI) occurring within 20 years. A survey of the top 100 most cited AI scientists also gave a 10% chance that HLAI is created within ten years (this was the median estimate; the mean was a 10% probability in the next 20 years).

This is like being told there’s a 10% chance aliens will arrive on the earth within the next 20 years.

Making sure this transition goes well could be the most important priority for the human race in the next century. (To read more, see Nick Bostrom’s book, Superintelligence, and this popular introduction by Wait But Why).

We issued a note about AI risk just over a year ago when Bostrom’s book was released. Since then, the field has heated up dramatically.

In January 2014, Google bought Deepmind for $400m. This triggered a wave of investment into companies focused on building human-level AI. A new AI company seems to arrive every week.

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Even if we can’t lower catastrophic risks now, we should do something now so we can do more later

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Does that fit with your schedule Mr President?

A line of argument I frequently encounter is that it is too early to do anything about ‘global catastrophic risks’ today (these are also sometimes called ‘existential risks’).

For context, see our page on assessing the biggest problems in the world, evaluation of opportunities to lower catastrophic risks and our review of becoming an AI safety researcher.

This line of argument doesn’t apply so much to preventing the use of nuclear weapons, climate change, or containing disease pandemics – the potential to act on these today is about at the same level as it will be in the future.

But what about new technologies that don’t exist yet: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, atomically precise manufacturing, and others we haven’t thought about yet? There’s a case that we should wait until they are closer to actually being developed – at that point we will have a much better idea of:

  • what form those technologies will take, if any at all;
  • what can be done to make them less risky;
  • who we need to talk to to make that happen.

Superficially this argument seems very reasonable. Each hour of work probably does get more valuable the closer you are to a ‘critical juncture in history’.

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How to pursue a career in research to lower the risks from superintelligent machines: a new career review.

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This is a summary of our full career review on artificial intelligence risk research.

Have you read the profile and think you want to contribute to artificial intelligence risk research? Fill out this form and we’ll see if we can help.

Many people we coach are interested in doing research into artificial intelligence (AI), in particular how to lower the risk that superintelligent machines do harmful things not intended by their creators – a field usually referred to as ‘AI risk research’. The reasons people believe this is a particularly pressing area of research are outlined in sources such as:

Our goal with this career review was not to assess the cause area of AI risk research – on that we defer to the authors above. Rather we wanted to present some concrete guidance for the growing number of people who want to work on the problem.

We spoke to the leaders in the field, including top academics, the head of MIRI and managers in AI companies, and the key findings are:

  • Some organisations working on this problem,

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Working at effective altruist organisations: good or bad for career capital?

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Working in effective altruism directly is a good way to build career capital in some respects, and a bad way in others. How about on balance?

Many people in our community are interested in working at “effective altruist” (EA) organisations, which I define as organisations whose leaders aim to do the most good on the basis of evidence and reason, and explicity identify as part of the effective altruism movement (see a list).

These jobs are often seen as higher-impact and more fulfilling than alternatives, but there’s a common worry: they’ll provide worse career capital, putting you in a worse position in the long-term.

I argued here that career capital might not be a strong enough consideration to outweigh the additional impact.

In this post, I’ll explore whether the career capital you get from working at EA orgs really is worse than the alternatives. I’ll outline arguments give for and against, arguing the career capital is better than is often assumed.

Arguments against working in effective altruist organisations for career capital
Less prestige

The jobs are less prestigious – few people have heard of organisations like GiveWell or the Center for Effective Altruism – and so these jobs don’t provide as impressive general-purpose credentials as working at a brand name employer like Google or McKinsey.

Less concrete career progression

The jobs don’t come with an obvious career path.

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One of the most exciting new effective altruist organisations: An interview with David Goldberg of the Founders Pledge

It’s my pleasure to introduce David Goldberg to those who in the effective altruism community who don’t yet know him. He’s behind the Founders Pledge, which in just 8 months has raised $64 million in legally binding pledges of equity, is growing fast, and has got some very exciting (but currently confidential) plans in the works. I met him when I was representing 80,000 Hours at the Founders Forum conference earlier this year and introduced him in more depth to the idea of effective altruism, which he’s now built into the core of the Founders Pledge’s mission.

Tell us about your background

I did my undergraduate work at UCLA in Political Science and Public Policy and then continued with postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge focusing on International Relations. My plan was to get a PhD and then stay in academics and shape International Security policy. However a year in, I realised that the practical impact of my work would be marginal at best, so I finished with a Master’s degree and began to look for opportunities that would actually have a discernible effect on the world. I got involved with Founders Forum For Good — the precursor to what I do now with the Founders Pledge — where I focused on helping social entrepreneurs build and scale businesses. Before all that, I spent a couple years in finance in the US, started and sold a business in Europe, and ran a chain of Segway dealerships in California.

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In case you missed it: Open Phil would like to fund a science policy think tank

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It appears to us that the strongest scientific funders have little interest in policy analysis and advocacy, while the strongest funders of policy analysis and advocacy tend not to take interest in the scientific research issues discussed in this post. We’re interested in the idea of combining – in a dedicated organization – great scientists and great policy analysts, in order to put in the substantial amount of work needed to develop and promote the best possible proposals for improving science policy and infrastructure. It would be a high-risk, potentially very high-return project to attempt. We aren’t aware of any attempts to do something along these lines at the moment, and we think it could be a risk worth taking.

So far, we haven’t been able to find a person or organization who seems both qualified and willing to lead the creation of the sort of organization described in this post. We plan to continue looking for such a person or organization, while continuing to discuss, refine and reflect on these ideas.

If you might be able to get into a position where you’ll have the right expertise in a couple of years, that could be a good option to pursue. Check in with Open Phil to learn more about what they’re looking for.

Read more.

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