Deaccessioning: The good, the bad, and the illegal

Via Sotheby’s

I’ve been clear for some months now that I consider the Berkshire Museum’s current deaccessioning plan to be a very, very bad idea. But is it illegal?

The opponents of the sale would certainly love it to be, and now they have their wish: a lawsuit has been filed (the whole thing is here, if you want to read it for yourself), and it’s as strong as anybody could have hoped.

Which means that now is as good a time as any to revisit the question of when deaccessioning is good, when it’s bad, and when it’s downright illegal.

As Nicholas O’Donnell points out, it can easily seem, when you start looking at deaccessioning, that there’s something of a double standard at play. To take a very germane example: While the Berkshire Museum finds itself in the midst of a national firestorm, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, is a rich and highly-respected institution with no deaccessioning controversy whatsoever. And yet while the Berkshire Museum is selling off 40 works, MoMA is selling off 400!

The difference, of course, is that MoMA is selling from a position of strength, and is putting all of the proceeds into an acquisition fund.

Such deaccessions are going to be necessary at any institution with both a curatorial vision and a steady stream of donations. The donations will never match up perfectly with the vision: there will be works you want and don’t have, and there will also be works you have which you don’t particularly want. Deaccessioning, when it’s done well, turns the irrelevant into the relevant: you’re basically swapping extraneous pieces for art which is going to be central to your program.

That said, O’Donnell has a good point: the pieces being sold by MoMA are leaving the public sphere, in a way that surely was not intended by the original donors. While the deal being done (wanted art for unwanted art) is a good one for MoMA, it’s not a good one when it comes to people who want to see the art being sold. Which is why I’ve long been a supporter of the Ellis Rule, which states that the museum selling the works must “ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access”.

The Ellis Rule would undoubtedly make it harder for museums to sell work they no longer much wanted – but, by the same token, it would also make it easier for the same museums to buy work they did want. Net-net, it would surely be a gain for the system as a whole.

The Ellis Rule would also move museums helpfully towards the views of their curators, and away from the views of their boards and donors. By creating a much more liquid market for museums to effectively swap art between each other, it would make it much easier for museums to be able to curate the kind of collection which makes sense for the institution, rather than simply being saddled with the personal whims of their board members.

Most excitingly, it would even solve the problem of bad deaccessioning. Here’s the rule in full:

You can deaccession and spend the money on whatever you want – a new roof, working capital, education programs, or even a boffo night out with your chums on the board — provided that you ensure that the institution or individual to whom you sell commits in some binding form to equal or higher conservational standards and equal or higher public access.

If Van Shields, at the Berkshire Museum, wants to ruin his institution by selling off its heritage, then that’s bad for the Berkshire Museum – but by the same token, under the Ellis Rule, it would be good for whichever museums ended up with the works being deaccessioned. The Rockwells, for instance, could move up the road to the Norman Rockwell Museum, where they would be on display more often and where they would fit much more neatly into an overall curatorial vision.

It’s also worth noting that the Ellis Rule is entirely consistent with consigning works to Sotheby’s: the auction house could either sell the works privately, under the constraints of the Rule, or it could even, conceivably, run a public auction where all bidders needed to commit ex ante to maintaining public access for the works in question. As for the first half of the clause, meeting that would be very easy: just about any buyer of these works will surely have higher conservational standards than Van Shields’s Berkshire Museum does. It’s a nice advantage for museums with fewer resources: they get to choose from a larger potential pool of buyers.

The current guidelines from the American Association of Museum Directors are not the Ellis Rule: they’re entirely silent on the question of who can or should be able to buy pieces being deaccessioned. Still, they’re a lot better than nothing. Underlying them is a simple principle: You can make your collection better (by swapping works you don’t want for works you do want), but you can’t make your collection worse. And that’s not a bad way to look at deaccessioning more generally: If it makes your collection better then it’s OK; if it makes your collection worse, then you shouldn’t do it.

Museums do break that rule, both in letter and in spirit. It doesn’t have the force of law. But it’s a very useful rule to have, all the same, because breaking the rule comes with non-negligible costs. The more opprobrium that a museum will suffer upon breaking the rules, the higher the bar which needs to be hurdled before the director and the board will sign off on such an action. And when it comes to selling off a museum’s collection, the bar should be high. Sometimes, a director like Van Shields will come along, happy to thumb his nose at the entire museum industry and even refusing to meet with his own state’s cultural council. But most of the time, directors are trying to do the best for their institution and their community. The fact that the AAMD guidelines are simple and easy to understand makes it much more likely that directors will try to work within them, rather than feeling comfortable selling off the family silver whenever they face a budget crunch.

Still, breaking the AAMD guidelines isn’t illegal. So what’s the case that the Berkshire Museum is breaking the law?

The heart of the complaint is to be found in the Massachusetts statute which created the museum in the first place, which says that the museum’s collection must be maintained “for the people of Berkshire County and the general public”. Essentially, the complaint says that the museum is bound by legislation, and that the legislation is stronger even than the AAMD guidelines.

Similarly, the museum is bound by its own contracts: When it commissioned site-specific work from artist Tom Patti, it agreed in writing that it wouldn’t move or alter his works for 20 years unless he gave his express permission to do so. The Berkshire Museum’s plan, however, would certainly involve altering Patti’s works, and therefore it cannot be allowed to go forwards.

The complaint is in the first instance being targeted at the Massachusetts attorney general, who is the only person outside the museum board who really has the authority to suspend the sale. But it should also make for compulsory reading for every member of the board of directors. They can suspend the sale, should they so wish, and they can even pick up a $1 million check for doing so.

It would behoove the directors, then, to get out in front of this issue now, and suspend the sale of the works pending a much more open, public discussion of how the museum should try to get itself onto a sustainable footing. If they start talking about selling off a few pieces in accordance with the Ellis Rule, especially if they stay in Berkshire County, then that would almost certainly satisfy most of their current opponents. Selling off your greatest treasures is never a good look. But some ways of doing it are still much better than others.

His passion is her hobby: The sexist income gap in creative industries

Via Honeybook

The fight against inequality is probably going to be the defining fight of the 21st Century. For all that equality is a noble goal, economies around the world seem to have a natural tendency to become more unequal, rather than more egalitarian. That’s why the Ford Foundation, among others, is focused entirely on inequality.

But while broad societal inequality is becoming more noticed, and while individual companies are starting to measure gender inequality within their ranks, it’s harder to see what is going on in the increasingly atomized way we work today.

Certainly it’s known that if you let the invisible hand allocate resources without any eye to fairness, the resulting inequality can be staggering. Look at bitcoin, for instance: 0.01% of all bitcoin addresses own 20% of all the bitcoin in the world, with the top 0.001% of addresses taking 17.5% of all bitcoin.

But no one needs bitcoin. What about simple everyday employment? You might imagine that in this internet-intermediated world, gender differences in pay would disappear: Male and female Uber drivers perform the same service for the same price. But the fact is that once you go beyond commoditized work and enter a world where payment is negotiated, inequality gets really bad, really quickly.

Honeybook has a new study which has some sobering figures about the creative economy, drawn from an analysis of some 200,000 invoices which were submitted over the past year. Overall, men in creative industries make $45,400 per year: that’s 32% more than the $30,700 earned by women. One particularly depressing part of the reason is that women often end up earning incredibly low wages: 24% of female creatives make $5 per hour or less.

Sexism is to blame, of course. In the world of musicians and DJs, for instance, men earn more than double what women make, largely because the people hiring musicians (who are mostly men) have conscious or unconscious biases against women. In large professional organizations like orchestras, those biases can be addressed. In the world of freelance gig work, they’re more likely to run rampant.

Sexism is also visible in the way that jobs are gendered. Male freelance illustrators just get taken more seriously than female freelance illustrators, and get paid commensurately. More generally, while men and women are equally likely to start a creative business in order to follow a passion, men tend to get rewarded for that (“you’re really devoted and passionate about this, we should pay you more”). Women, on the other hand, get punished. (“You’re really devoted and passionate about this, so you should be willing to do it for that reason alone.”)

A deeper reason for pay inequality is price opacity when it comes to rates and salaries. In industries where no one really knows what anybody else is paid, the people who are most aggressive and shameless about ramping up their fees are the people who will end up making the most money. Photographer Shay Cochrane, in the Honeybook survey, sums it up:

When I transitioned from portrait and wedding photography to commercial photography, I had to understand the extreme value shift of the product that I was creating with essentially the same amount of time and effort. Charging what I was worth took letting go of what seemed “comfortable.”

Then there’s the motherhood penalty. One huge downside to being self-employed is that there’s no paid maternity leave. The financial repercussions of taking time off to have a baby or two, right when one’s pay should be rising most quickly, can reverberate for years, especially in creative industries where it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between one person’s profession and another person’s hobby. When motherhood arrives, it’s easy for creatives and their clients both to switch into looking at the work as something which the woman does “in her spare time,” in a way that doesn’t really happen to fathers.

None of this comes as a great surprise, although the sheer magnitude of the income gap between men and women in creative professions is startling. The tough question is not why there’s a gap, but rather what can be done about it, at a systemic level. All too often, the onus is placed on female entrepreneurs to fix the problem, when they’re the very ones who are being damaged by the current system.

And while there are many ways to move towards greater equality, the single most important one would probably simply be greater price transparency. It’s important in a corporate context, and it’s even more important for the self-employed.

Beyond that, corporations who are serious about income equality should be looking hard not only at their employees but also at their freelance vendors.

The first step, though, is simply understanding that there is a deep and systemic rift here. Honeybook surveyed more than 3,000 creative entrepreneurs, and 63% of them believed that men and women are paid equally in creative industries. Only once they start to understand just how wrong they are, will they ever begin to do something to address the problem.

GiveDirectly comes to Houston

File under “ask and you shall receive”: GiveDirectly is setting up shop in Houston!

When I said that we needed “a Give Directly option” in Houston I didn’t think that GiveDirectly themselves would do it: they’re an organization devoted to fighting extreme poverty in East Africa. But it turns out that the folks at GiveDirectly are nimble enough to see and grasp an opportunity when they see it, and they’re down in the Houston area now. The prepaid debit cards have been ordered, and a starting point has been found: a town about 90 minutes east of Houston, utterly devastated by Harvey, which is small and poor enough that it makes sense to just give every person in the town about $1,500.

I’ve put my own money where my mouth is: if someone set up a system of direct cash transfers in Houston, I said I’d give in a heartbeat, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. Still, my money won’t go all that far, so I’d urge you to give too: here’s the special link which directs your donation to Harvey relief rather than to GiveDirectly’s main poverty-alleviation efforts. (Do consider giving to the main GiveDirectly charity too: they do wonderful work in Kenya and beyond.)

The big prize, however, is sitting in large pools of money that have already been donated. JJ Watt alone raised some $37 million for disaster relief, and it makes eminent sense that some if not all of that money should simply be given out as cash. That wasn’t possible until now, but if I was Watts, I’d be looking very closely at what GiveDirectly is doing, and asking myself hard questions about whether anything else I could do with the money would be as effective.

As the official blog post puts it:

The good news is that generous people around the world have donated tens of millions of dollars. The bad news is most everything else: The money must be converted to goods, which have to be organized, transported, handed out… and then what people get may not be what they really needed. It may not even be clear to donors (or anyone else) how all that money got spent.

Our crazy idea is this: Rather than guess what people need most, why not find those who have been hit hardest, give them the money and let them decide for themselves?

It’s worth being very honest up-front about the fact that this kind of disaster relief has not been tried before in the USA, and no one knows exactly how successful it will be. The Red Cross has tried to give $400 per household to 100,000 households in 39 Texas counties; that effort hasn’t exactly gone smoothly.

But that’s exactly why I’m excited to support GiveDirectly here. I’m getting in early, helping them work out whether this model is something worth replicating in most disasters, what the best way of implementing it might be, and whether it could even be used in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. (You’d need to wait for some kind of electronic payments system to get up and running, but that should happen relatively soon.)

If this doesn’t work very well, then GiveDirectly can go back to doing work which is truly effective, and the community of people interested in unconditional cash transfers will have learned something important, and a few hundred very poor families will have been given money. That’s the downside! The upside is that we might have found a kind of disaster relief which is much more effective than almost anything that existing charities can deliver, and which, to boot, can be scaled much more quickly and easily.

So, if you have cash, think about funding this very good experiment. And if you know someone sitting on money which was given to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey, point them to GiveDirectly. In the overall scheme of things, money given to GiveDirectly in Kenya will do more good than money given to GiveDirectly in Texas. But if there’s a pool of money which has to be spent in Texas, then spending it on GiveDirectly makes all the sense in the world.

The arrogant, unaccountable, and dishonest Berkshire Museum

All of the most valuable art has left the Berkshire Museum. It’s currently in the possession of Sotheby’s, and there’s a very good chance that none of it will ever return to the Berkshires, let alone the museum.

I’ve written about what happened at The New Yorker: the lost masterpieces of Norman Rockwell country. My piece is deeply indebted to the first-rate reporting of the Berkshire Eagle, which has done an absolutely amazing job of staying on top of this story. I would strongly urge you to read Larry Parnass’s investigation, for instance, into what Van Shields got up to in South Carolina when he first let his ambitions get the better of him. Shields is the director of the Berkshire Museum, and he strung Parnass along for weeks, ultimately never granting a long-promised interview.

That kind of arrogance is entirely in character, for Shields: the most telling part of this entire story, for me, was when the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Anita Walker, told WBUR that she had been calling the museum every day, and that they had steadfastly refused to engage with her. The MCC not only represents the state of Massachusetts; it is also one of the museum’s biggest donors, having given some $1.2 million over the past 10 years. Shields won’t talk to them, and he won’t engage with the regional newspaper, and he won’t talk to me, and he generally shows no indication whatsoever that he feels in any way accountable to the community which his museum exists to serve.

Amazingly, Shields is being encouraged in this stonewalling by the board president, Buzz McGraw; by the museum’s lawyer, Mark Gold; and even by the PR professional brought in to crisis-manage the situation, Carol Bosco Baumann. (To give you a flavor of how Baumann works, after telling me that she would be “happy to help” me with my request for an interview, she then immediately turned around and tried to persuade The New Yorkerto take me off the story. Naturally, the interview never materialized.)

This story is very important at a national level. If the Berkshire Museum gets away with its current plan, then it will effectively end up creating a playbook for all other American nonprofits looking to get rich quick. Most would never dream of acting this way, but the dreadful precedent that the Berkshire Museum is setting will redound for decades to come. Donors will never again be able to sure that their wishes will be honored, not after seeing the way in which Norman Rockwell’s clear desire, that his paintings remain in the Berkshires for the benefit of the county as a whole, has been utterly ignored by the museum’s board.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is a uniquely terrible deaccession plan, which effectively sells off all of the museum’s most valuable objects: no other museum that I know of has ever behaved in anywhere near as drastic a manner. On top of that, I can’t think of any other museum which has treated its local community with the utter contempt being displayed by Shields and his cronies. There is no conceivable justification for the museum sending all its most precious art to Sotheby’s before announcing that it was facing fiscal problems and might need to deaccession some works. Unless, of course, the point was not to serve the community as a whole, but rather just to ensure that Van Shields ends up getting the $50 million he has coveted since before he even arrived in the Berkshires.

After all, to give you an idea of how Shields’s vision has barely changed since his South Carolina days, here’s what he was trying to do before he arrived in the Berkshires:

And here’s what he’s trying to do now:

This kind of whiz-bang exhibition concept requires no curatorial vision, no acquisitions policy, and no real connection with the local community. All of which is just as well, seeing as how the museum doesn’t have a curator, doesn’t have an acquisitions policy, and is seemingly doing its best to burn as many bridges as it can with the local community.

Everybody likes to be treated with honesty and respect, and there has been no evidence of either in the Berkshire Museum’s dealing with its neighbors. The consultation process, such as it was, is memorable mainly for the fact that the deaccession plan was never mentioned. That lie of omission allowed the museum to claim some modicum of public support for its plan, but also ensured that no one would trust them any more. After all, it’s deeply dishonest to ask people what they might want in an ideal world, while at the same time failing to mention that you have no ethical way to pay for such things.

Two members have already resigned from the Berkshire Museum board: This decision was clearly not as unanimous as the museum had tried to project. So while it’s highly likely that the sale of the museum’s masterpieces is going to go ahead as planned, there’s still a small chance that it might not. So here’s a message to everybody who still remains on the board: It’s not too late. Stop this while you can. For the sake of the museum, for the sake of your community, and for the sake of all other museums, everywhere else in America.

How DNDI multiplies your donation

After Charles Kenny agreed with me that public-health aid should be run through governments rather than non-governmental organizations acting largely independently, I had a simple question for him. If I want to give money to a public-health charity, what’s the best way of making sure that my money is being spent in alignment with the local government’s priorities?

Kenny couldn’t think of anything, at least nothing in the realm of public-facing charities. (If you’re a billionaire, of course, the opportunity space opens up a lot.) So let me make my own suggestion: DNDI, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

DNDI is not a government; Rachel Cohen, the executive director of DNDI for North America, calls it “a nonprofit R&D organization”. But compared to most non-profits, it has very strong ties to governments in the countries it works in, as well as to the World Health Organization.

For instance, if you look at DNDI’s board of directors, you’ll find representatives from the Kenyan and Indian medical research institutes, as well as from the Malaysian ministry of health. And DNDI’s most ambitious new project, which is designed to bring access to antibiotics to the whole world, has been structured as a joint venture with the WHO.

The basic idea behind DNDI is leverage – that dream of much philanthropy. DNDI researches neglected diseases, and tries to find cures which are suited to often-harsh field conditions where technologies like refrigeration, which many western researchers tend to take for granted, can be hard to find. But it doesn’t act like most single-disease charities, raising funds “for a cure” and acting largely unilaterally. It doesn’t have its own laboratories, it doesn’t have its own manufacturing sites, it doesn’t even employ most of the people doing research on its behalf. “We’re the conductor of a virtual orchestra” is the way that Cohen puts it – and the orchestra includes everybody from pharmaceutical companies to academic researchers to health ministries to development agencies to other nonprofit organizations. (There’s an especially close relationship with Doctors Without Borders, which seeded DNDI with the money it got from winning the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize.)

For a great example of how this works, look at fexinidazole, a new treatment for one of the deadliest diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, sleeping sickness. The standard treatment was historically to literally inject the patient with arsenic. And yes, that’s as terrible as it sounds: many people die immediately, and if you don’t die you will certainly suffer excruciating pain. More recently, the arsenic treatment has been replaced by a newer protocol involving eflornithine, a drug originally developed to prevent facial hair in women. But that involves intravenous infusions four times a day for two weeks, which is simply not practicable for many of the millions of people at risk of the disease, most of whom live very poor lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Finally, however, it looks like a much easier and cheaper treatment is going to be available, in the form of fexinidazole – a drug which can be put into pill form. Just take a course of pills for 10 days, and there’s a very high chance that you’ll be cured. Regulatory approval should be coming in a matter of months, and DNDI isn’t stopping there: an even newer treatment, called oxaborole, is already undergoing real-world testing. Meanwhile, fexinidazole is also being tested to treat Chagas disease, which can have devastating effects mainly in South America. The Colombian health ministry is closely involved in the Chagas program, in a way that’s easily replicable in the rest of the continent.

Fexinidazole will be owned as a treatment for sleeping sickness by the pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, which has worked closely with DNDI for years. The partnership has managed to develop drugs at astonishingly low cost, and DNDI has extended that model to many other companies, including Astra Zeneca, Celgene, AbbVie, and Merck. Local governments are often involved from the very beginning of the process: patients are now being enrolled in a trial at the Mycetoma Research Centre in Sudan, for instance, where the drug fosravuconazole is being used to treat the neglected disease of mycetoma.

And DNDI isn’t just about drug development: it has already screened more than half a million individuals in the DRC for sleeping sickness, and globally it has distributed an astonishing 430 million ASAQ treatments for malaria. Pretty impressive for a small Geneva-based organization with just 178 employees.

DNDI is not one of those charities many people have heard of: it tends to get its donations in very large chunks from large non-profits (the Gates Foundation has given €103.7m since 2003) and governments (led by the UK, which has given €83.5m). Public support has also come from Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, the EU, Germany, France, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, Italy, Colombia, and the USA. But, as ever, more is better. If you give money to DNDI, you will be helping to save lives all over the world, and buying into a proven and extremely efficient model. Most importantly, you will be swimming with the current, rather than against it: your money will be effectively leveraged across many different sectors, including local governments in the affected regions.

Let other medical charities strike their own course in a quixotic attempt to zag where governments zig. This is one area where it’s best to just trust the global experts in the field, and let your money work in concert with dozens of well-funded institutions and governments around the world.

Trump hasn’t hurt Puerto Rico. Yet.

Puerto Rico, today, is in the worst crisis that America has seen in living memory. Millions of Americans on the island are struggling desperately with no electricity, few public services, and severe shortages of food, potable water, medicine, and shelter. It’s a humanitarian disaster, and it’s being woefully undercovered by a news media more interested in whether athletes stand or kneel at sportsball games.

At the same time, however, the federal government is, to a large extent, doing its job. FEMA and the military have swung into action, rescuing individuals, delivering food and water, reopening the airport, and generally doing their job in a professional manner. This is the one small comfort that Puerto Rico’s islanders can take: as Americans, they automatically receive the kind of aid that the mighty American government can provide. They’re not in the situation of an island like Barbuda, all but wiped out in Hurricane Irma, which has to beg the international community for all the help it can get.

Puerto Rico’s governor, too, is doing his job, pushing for as much help as he can while the hurricane is still fresh in people’s minds. For ultimately the scale of the disaster relief that Puerto Rico receives will be governed by Congress, and its willingness to spend the billions the island needs. The only other really important variable is the island’s Oversight Board, which should and probably will declare that Puerto Rico’s creditors are going to have to be willing to accept no kind of interest or principal payments so long as emergency aid is going to those who need it most.

In distant third place comes aid from states like New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo certainly likes the political boost he gets from sitting next to JLo on stage, in front of a backdrop of bottled water and Froot Loops. The few dozen Port Authority staff that he’s seconding to the island, as well as the charitable contributions he’s encouraging, will certainly help at the margin. But they’re not really going to move the needle: a $10,000 donation is going to make very little dent in the context of a storm which caused $10 billion in damage.

Cuomo knows exactly what he’s doing. New York is home to 1.2 million Puerto Ricans, all of whom are desperate to help in any way they can. So Cuomo has set up places where they can drop off batteries and tampons; has told them that they can volunteer with organizations like the United Way; and has even encouraged them to donate money to organizations including what seems to be the official charity for disaster relief. More importantly, many of those Puerto Rican families in New York and other states will be able to provide a place for their relatives from the island to stay, if they have lost everything back home. Almost everybody in Puerto Rico is related to someone on the mainland; those family ties will come in very handy in the weeks and months ahead.

When a disaster hits, and especially when a disaster hits a place we know and love, there’s an incredibly strong feeling of helplessness, combined with an equally strong feeling of wanting to help. That’s where charitable donations come in: by writing a check, people can feel that they have contributed something to the cause. A good politician, like Cuomo, will do everything he can to validate those impulses, which are noble ones. But on the ground, what really matters is FEMA, and the army, and the navy, and – once the urgent rescue operations are over – the billions of dollars in reconstruction aid which can only come from Congress.

So far, the emergency response to Hurricane has been as good as can be expected, given the enormity of the damage. Maria is not – yet – Trump’s Katrina, because the problem with Katrina was not the storm itself, so much as it was the US government’s racist and incompetent response to the storm. So far, at least, there doesn’t seem to have been any criticism of FEMA’s response in Puerto Rico: the agency is doing a hard job in a professional manner.

To be sure, Donald Trump has evinced very little interest in Puerto Rico, but presidential statements and visits are mostly just public relations anyway, and I doubt much of the island really wants to see his face right now. Trump doesn’t seem to have interfered with the FEMA response at all, and in a way we might be able to consider that benign neglect. If he did touch it, he would surely make it worse.

The more interesting question concerns the billions of dollars that Puerto Rico is going to need from Congress. If Trump continues to ignore the humanitarian catastrophe in the country he leads, will that make it harder for Congress to step up and do the right thing? It’s going to be fascinating to find out. I suspect that Trump could actually be helpful here, if he wanted to be: he could do another one of those deals with Chuck Schumer, and push through a generous aid bill with the support of all Democrats and a good number of Republicans.

Even if Trump remains missing in action, however, there’s no reason Congress can’t come up with exactly the same bill on its own. For all that Trump is amazing at sucking up attention, there is still a functioning government in this country. If Congress manages to give Puerto Rico the resources it needs to rebuild after Maria, and if FEMA continues to do a creditable job in terms of disaster relief, then that will be a win for America’s robust government institutions even as the White House is being run by a chaos monkey.

If on the other hand it turns out that the president really is needed to shepherd such things through Congress, then Puerto Rico is in truly dire straits, will probably never recover from this hurricane, and will be a mortal stain on Trump’s memory in perpetuity.

So let’s hope that Trump is genuinely superfluous here. Because he will not rise to this occasion. And if he doesn’t, there’s no amount of charitable contributions that could ever make up for his absence.

Invisible effects, invisible causes

I spent Tuesday at a fascinating conference* in Silicon Valley, which came complete with roughly the level of inchoate enthusiasm about things like blockchain technology that you might expect. (Note to techno-utopians: No, bitcoin is not obviously helpful in Venezuela right now. Even if everybody in the country had a bitcoin wallet, they still couldn’t import or buy anything. When you’re starving to death, you can’t eat bitcoin.)

I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how little talk there was about the importance of setting audacious goals like curing all disease, or about the way that philanthropy is uniquely well placed to head off disastrous low-probability events like meteor strikes or deadly self-aware artificial intelligences. And there wasn’t even a peep about contributing further to the Stanford endowment.

Instead, there was a lot of talk about invisible causes and effects. For instance: the world is a much, much better place today than it has been at any point in human history, and yet the number of people who believe that fact is distressingly tiny. (I’d urge you to take the Gapminder test; if you get more than half the questions right, you’re doing well.)

Part of the reason is that improvements in things like girls’ education, or vaccination rates, or even just the 250,000 people who exit extreme poverty every day, are invisible: they exist at the level of aggregate statistics, but are hard to see. Another part of the reason is that human beings are problem-solvers at heart, who tend to concentrate on problems and their solutions than they do on past successes. In terms of global development, there is much to be done; naturally, then, public officials and nonprofit leaders will spend much more time communicating the scale of the problems than they will talking about all the good stuff which is now in the past.

That’s as it should be. The global refugee population is at record highs, and the global malnourishment problem is getting worse rather than better. Add to that the problems of conflict, violent crime, and global climate change, and it’s clear that we’re a very, very long way from declaring victory on just about anything.

So what’s the best way to direct philanthropic capital to alleviate important and urgent problems? Again, there’s a visibility problem. High-visibility problems – a hurricane, an earthquake, a war – are something people viscerally react to, and want to do something about. And as nonprofit organizations through the decades will tell you, pictures of ill or dying children are undeniably effective in persuading people to act, in a way that statistical facts are not.

But there are huge and tractable problems out there which have much lower visibility and equal if not greater importance. I love some of the projects that Bloomberg Philanthropies are engaging in when it comes to public health, for instance: drowning causes some 360,000 deaths per year, during which time 1.2 million people will die in traffic crashes. Making a dent in these numbers is not all that hard, and can easily save hundreds of thousands of lives. But it’s impossible to point to someone who didn’t drown, or who didn’t die in a car crash, and say “I saved your life”. And for that reason, these issues tend not to get a lot of traction among the general public.

So if you’re looking for places to target your money and your efforts which might be neglected due to their lack of sex appeal, something like road safety is a great place to start. Campaigns can take time, but they can also work wonders: 95% of motorcycle riders in Vietnam now wear helmets, for instance, thereby preventing tens of thousands of deaths and severe brain injuries.

Or: give out IUDs and other long-acting forms of contraception to teen girls. They’re just more reliable and more effective, and they effectively reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Or: make relatively small improvements in the way that people cook! Almost half of the world’s population cooks over dung or wood or coal, causing 4 million preventable deaths a year from respiratory illness and other effects of dirty cooking. That includes more than half of the children under 5 dying of pneumonia. Cleaner stoves save lives.

Finding causes like this isn’t hard, but there’s often something unsatisfyingabout supporting them. That girl you gave the IUD to probably wouldn’t have gotten pregnant, that van you put a seatbelt into was never going to crash. The lives saved are statistical inferences, the good done is prophylactic rather than heroic.

There’s just very little salience when talking about people you will never see, never touch, never talk to – people who, indeed, can never be identified. Philanthropy can make life worth living, for the giver just as much as for the recipient, but you do need to be something of a data geek to get a huge amount of personal pleasure out of a statistical downtick in road deaths. Especially when there’s no particular reason to believe that your particular intervention was the reason for the change.

In these days of #resistance, giving has become especially performative, a way of demonstrating to yourself and others who you are and what you believe in. The ACLU might not particularly need your money, but you give them money anyway, because doing so helps define who you are, in a good way. Similarly, it feels really good to hand over food to a person in Brooklyn who is going to try to send it to a ravaged Puerto Rico. When you give money to a cause, you often feel like you need to be able to identify with that cause in some way. You want to be able to talk to your friends and say something like “this is a cause I deeply believe in”.

As a result, invisible causes are always going to be underfunded, and/or funded overwhelmingly by governments and large institutions. I’d still love for them to be more popular, though. Because that really would make the world a much better place.

*The conference was called Power of Progress, and while it doesn’t have a website so I can’t link to anything, it was put on by the Pritzker Innovation Fund, The Breakthrough Institute, The Observer Research Foundation, Third Plateau, and Our World in Data.

Food waste: The world’s biggest market failure

What would you say if I were to tell you that you could make the world a better place by spending an extra $1,500 a year at the grocery store? Perhaps you would say that, for all that you believed in the cause, you really didn’t have $1,500 to spend supporting it. Which is fair enough: That’s a substantial chunk of change!

But what if I were to tell you that you could make the world a better place by spending $1,500 less at the grocery store? Without changing a single morsel of what you eat – the same brands, the same quantities, the same everything.

That, amazingly, is the world we live in, and gives you an idea of the enormous scale of food waste. I’m a natural skeptic of all large numbers which are hard to measure, but even if these ones are off by a factor of two or three or four, they’re still enormous: the average American creates 22o pounds of food waste every year, worth some $1,500. That adds up to 35 million tonnes of food wasted in America each year. Globally, the value of all the 1.3 billion tons of food thrown away each year is some $750 billion. That’s more than the GDP of South Africa and the Philippines combined.

Even local effects are enormous. A full third of New York City’s trash is food waste, which means that the city government spends about $180 million per year tipping it into landfills. That’s a lot of money before you even start looking at the other negative effects of food waste, such as what happens when you put tons of putrescible waste into puncturable plastic bags on city streets. (Hint: It’s not only foul odors, it’s also rats. Lots of them. In what should be a pleasant shared public space.)

Making a serious dent in this issue is a classic collective-action problem: It involves millions of people all making small changes, like ignoring expiration dates, storing produce better, reusing leftovers, and buying smaller quantities of food more frequently. We can all be better at such things, and it would certainly help if we realized how much money they could save us.

There are technology and design solutions too, which can make a dent: invisible natural coatings which preserve food’s shelf life, for instance, or just making refrigerators less deep so that food doesn’t end up getting hidden, out of site, at the back of the fridge. In the developing world, things like better roads and more extensive electrification will help to ensure that cash crops stay fresh to their final destination, rather than rotting long before they get there.

The really big prize, however, comes with large numbers people in the developed world changing their ingrained habits, about how they shop and how they consume. That’s not easy when food is a smaller and smaller part of household budgets. “It’s getting people to appreciate food again, as something people worked very hard to produce for you,” says Danielle Nierenberg, the president of Food Tank. “It’s storytelling. Making people relate to a farmer. Understanding what went into their food. Relearning common sense.”

The multi-billion-dollar question, then, is just this: How does one most effectively send that message, achieve that goal? Changing people’s behavior is one of the hardest things that anybody can try to do. Guilt trips don’t generally work well, or for very long; Nierenberg has more hope that a simple appeal to financial greed might be a better idea. After all, most of us would really like an extra $1,500 per year.

But so far, it’s early days, and for all that there are a few encouraging data points from places like England and Tennessee, no one has yet found the magic bullet. It’s frustrating, because these are the kind of problems that the capitalist system is meant to solve magically: if there are 750 billion dollar bills lying on the sidewalk, someone should have made a machine to pick them up. Instead, there are millions of people who are both overweight and undernourished, and millions of tons of precious nutrients being dumped into landfills every year. It’s the world’s biggest market failure, and we’re only just beginning to work out how to address it.

The real reason to divest from sin stocks

Matt Levine really likes the Cliff Asness take on socially responsible investing. Which, in short, says that if virtuous people avoid a stock, then the price of that stock will fall, thereby increasing the returns reaped by the people who aren’t virtuous and who buy it.

Asness claims that if the stock price doesn’t fall, “there is no effect on the world, no good deed done at all,” and Levine seems to judge divestment strategies on a similar basis, asking whether capital markets are “doing much to cut down on sin”.

Both of them, then, buy into the idea that the only reason to avoid “sin stocks” is to somehow punish the company for being sinful. But that’s not true at all. If some people avoid certain stocks, those stocks are not going to get noticeably cheaper. That might be how the stock market works in some airless economics model, but it’s not how the market works in practice.

The kind of people who divest from sin stocks are not, and never will be, marginal price-setters. If you think you’re somehow punishing a company by not buying its stock, you’re frankly delusional.

But it’s still virtuous to avoid those stocks! I’ll repeat myself from a long piece I wrote a couple of years ago: the main reason to divest from sin stocks such as fossil fuel companies is simply that it’s the right thing to do. By owning shares in these companies, investors profit from activity which is making the world a worse place. They don’t need to do that, so they shouldn’t.

Divestment is a political gesture. It’s idealistic, rather than technocratic. It’s the right thing to do even if it turns out to be utterly futile.

Don’t listen, then, to Matt and Cliff. If you think it’s bad to own sin stocks, there’s no harm in listening to your intuitions. And if you think it’s OK to own broad indices, even if those indices include sin stocks, that’s OK too. This is an ethical decision you’re making, after all. Not a practical one.

We need a Give Directly option in Houston

Giving cash to the needy is the simplest and most effective form of charity – one which has stood the test of millennia. Gussied up as “unconditional cash transfers,” it’s now changing the world of development and philanthropy, and being embraced by the likes of the International Rescue Committee and many others.

As anybody with a television can tell you, there’s no shortage of need in Houston right now – and there’s no shortage of cash, either. Michael Dellis trying to raise a $100 million fund, JJ Watt is up to $20 million, the Red Cross has surely raised an eight- if not nine-figure sum by this point, and soon there are going to be tens of millions of dollars in telethon proceeds, too. On top of that is the official Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, which will also be receiving enormous sums of money from both the public and the private sector.

When people give to these organizations, they’re not generally trying to find the place which they think will be most effective at spending their money. If they did, almost no one would give to the Red Cross. JJ Watt has said that he doesn’t know how he’s going to spend his money, just that he’s going to take his time and listen to experts. Michael Dell is almost equally vague: his Rebuild Texas Fund just has an action-area shopping list comprising “health and housing; schools and child care; workforce and transportation; and capital for rebuilding small businesses”. Which, if you put them all together, would probably include nearly all of the $100 billionplus in damages caused by Harvey.

Given the enormity of the devastation, it’s clear that private charitable donations aren’t going to be able to move the needle very far when it comes to the full cost of rebuilding the fourth-largest city in America. On the other hand, just because you can’t do everything is no reason not to do something. And there’s at least one bit of good news when it comes to these disaster-relief shops: nearly all of them are going to spend nearly all of their money within two or three years. If you give money today, it will end up being spent somehow, and is very unlikely to be sitting in the bank in a couple of years’ time.

Still, it’s likely that very little of the money being donated right now is going to become simple unconditional cash transfers down the road. Places like Habitat for Humanity and Feeding Texas, which are getting money from the telethon, are worthy organizations, but they give out stuff (food and shelter) rather than money.

Meanwhile, there’s a gathering consensus in the charity world that cash transfers are the baseline standard. If you can’t do better than giving cash, you should just give cash. That makes perfect sense in theory – but in practice, what you need is an actual giving-away-cash option. And that’s what’s missing in Houston.

What we need, then, is the option to ensure that the money we’re donating for Houston’s neediest goes straight to those individuals, in cash. If Give Directly doesn’t want to mission-creep, then someone else should do it: set up an organization which gives out cash (or, more realistically, reloadable prepaid debit cards) to the people who need it most. There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Houston, for instance, many of whom have lost their homes and their jobs, and who are in truly desperate straits. If there was a way to send cash directly to those families, I would do it in a heartbeat. But so far I haven’t been able to find one.

The next-best thing would be for someone to set up a charity which has the ability to give out large amounts of cash whenever and wherever (in the US) a future disaster hits. If we don’t have that ability now, in the wake of Harvey, that’s bad – but let’s build that ability, so that we’re prepared for the next earthquake or hurricane or wildfire. Such an organization would have non-zero overhead costs, of course. But its overhead costs would be much lower than the costs of something like the Red Cross. And once such a shop was set up, choosing between the two would be a no-brainer.