The GiveWell Blog

Notes from November convening on our policy priorities

Last November, we held a day-long convening in Washington, D.C. to discuss possible priorities for Open Philanthropy Project work on U.S. policy.

Our main goal was to present our picture of several policy issues, as well as to receive input to inform upcoming decisions about which issue(s) we should focus on. For each issue, we laid out what sort of change we’d like to see, why we find the issue especially promising for philanthropy, what the current landscape looks like (including other funders), and what possible strategies might look like. We sought feedback on all of these points, as well as ideas for promising issue areas and promising strategies that haven’t occurred to us.

We’ve now posted a summary of points raised at the convening, a partial list of participants, and the briefing materials for the convening here:

Page on Nov. 10 policy convening

Many points were raised at the convening, and it served as an input into our overall strategy setting on U.S. policy (which we will be writing more about). Some of the highlights, from our perspective, were:

  • We had a fair amount of discussion of active vs. passive funding. Our discussion reinforced the importance of finding people we’re comfortable giving unrestricted support to if possible, while being willing to make compromises and engage in some degree of “active funding” on particular issues.
  • Reactions to the causes we’re considering varied considerably. Participants were generally quite positive on macroeconomic policy (feeling that aspects of it are under-attended to) and criminal justice reform (seeing, as we do, a window of opportunity). By contrast, there was a much more mixed and hesitant reaction to some other causes we’re considering, such as labor mobility. We aren’t necessarily inclined to favor the causes that received a more positive reaction, since we see a great deal of value in working on issues whose value isn’t widely recognized. However, hearing the different reactions helped us understand which of our potential causes might present particular challenges in terms of communications and coalition building.
  • We discussed the goal of strengthening the general community that shares our policy priorities (in particular, prioritizing both economic efficiency and global humanitarianism). One idea that came up in this regard was that of funding scholarships and fellowships, in order to encourage people to get interested in issues we consider important early in their careers. However, the convening also reinforced our view that this sort of goal will probably be easier to work on after we’ve done more concrete work and gained experience, strengthened our networks, etc.
  • We got many suggestions for potential causes to look into.


  • Carl Shulman on February 19, 2015 at 3:08 pm said:

    It was interesting to contrast the number of website conversation notes with this figure:

    “We have probably had between conversations with between 100 and 200 experts in the field about this topic [criminal justice].”

    Participants advised “communicating in English” rather than in foundation jargon. Do you have a sense of the cause of excessive foundationspeak?

    “Federal excise taxes on alcohol were last increased in 1991, and have declined significantly in real terms since then. The CDC’s estimate of the social cost of excessive alcohol consumption amounts to more than a dollar a drink, while current state and federal taxes are below ten cents a drink (and proposals for increases are usually for less than an additional dime a drink)…The CDC’s estimates of mortality and social costs due to excessive alcohol consumption are high, and seem reasonably likely to be overstated, perhaps by a wide margin.”

    I hadn’t seen GiveWell’s interest in alcohol come up before, except as a mention in a conversation with Mark Kleiman. Those are intriguing numbers for a Pigovian tax.

    “The alcohol industry is the biggest source of opposition to increases in alcohol taxes, and is perceived as influential in many state legislatures. In addition, some Republicans and libertarians are likely to oppose any tax increases.”

    Revenue-neutral tax reform? Cut income taxes for high earners to please Republicans while raising alcohol excise taxes?

    I wonder if this would be a good issue for a ballot initiative.

    One risk of tax increases that I do not see mentioned is the contribution to smuggling revenues and organized crime. Smuggling of untaxed cigarettes is already significant, and Prohibition resulted in very high crime. This is less of an issue for small increases to low base taxes, but becomes much more of a worry for high rates, depending on enforcement strategies.

  • Alexander on February 25, 2015 at 7:04 pm said:

    Hi Carl, thanks for the thoughts!

    I don’t have much to offer on the foundationspeak issue. On conversation notes: because they take a lot of time, we try only to do them in particularly high-value cases; our standard for when to do notes tends to fluctuate.

    On alcohol, we’ve had several other public conversations:

    David Roodman has also been working on a review of the literature on morbidity and mortality impacts of alcohol taxes, which we hope to publish in the next few weeks.

    And I agree that increased smuggling is a risk from very high excise taxes, but I don’t think the tax levels that are currently discussed (a few cents or a dime a drink) would lead to significant illicit trafficking.

Comments are closed.