Some numbers have changed since 2008; as of 2021, estimates for the present marginal cost to save a child's life are more like $5000.

I think dead children should be used as a unit of currency. I know this sounds controversial, but hear me out.

According to Population Services International, a respected charity research group, it costs between $650 and $1000 to save one child's life through charity. You've probably heard lower numbers like twenty cents somewhere. The lower numbers are wrong. Yes, maybe an anti-measles vaccine for a kid in Africa only costs twenty cents, and measles can be fatal. But there's a lot of overhead, and you have to immunize a lot of people before you get the one kid otherwise destined to die of measles. I find the $650-$1000 figure much more believable. Let's round it off to $800.

So one dead child = eight hundred dollars. If you spend eight hundred dollars on a laptop, that's one African kid who died because you didn't give it to charity. Distasteful but true. Now that we know that, we can get down to the details of designing the currency itself. It should be a big gold coin, with a picture of a smiling Burmese child on the front, and a tombstone on the back. The abbreviation can be DC.

Of course, most things won't cost a whole dead child, so we'll need smaller denominations. There are four dead puppies to the dead child, since dogs cost a bit above $200 to keep alive in an animal shelter. There are two burnt rainforests per puppy, and five infected wounds per burnt rainforest. I'm sure we can find talented artists to design the coins for all of these.

Yes, you grudgingly admit, such a system is technically feasible, but why in blue blazes would we want to replace our reassuring green dollar bills graced with dignified ex-presidents, with that?

I leave that question to an article I read on the BBC site today: woman spends £250,000 on a luxury doghouse for her Great Danes complete with spa and plasma TV.

This does sound sort of ridiculous, but clearly it is not ridiculous enough. After all, at least one person thought it would be a good idea. Clearly, saying "doghouse that costs 250,000 pounds" does not carry the appropriate punch of "do not buy this."

And that's why I recommend switching to a dead-child-based currency. "Doghouse that costs 250,000 pounds" might not carry the proper punch. "Doghouse that costs 500 dead children" does. Using dead children as a unit of currency carries a built-in awareness of opportunity costs. Yes, you can buy that doghouse, if you really think it's more important than spending that same money to save five hundred Haitian kids' lives. Go on! Dogs watching plasma TV! That sounds adorable!

After reading an article about Mormon tithing practices, I am hopeful that the switch from dollars to DCs will destroy organized religion as well. It sounds plausible for a church to say it needs two million dollars to move to a larger building. It even sounds plausible when a pastor gets up there in front of his congregation and says that God really wants every family to just give whatever little bit they're able, so that they can all buy a better house of worship and praise God in a more fitting sanctuary. My old synagogue did this for years, and no one found anything wrong with it; my parents even donated quite a big chunk of money. If my rabbi'd had to say "We need twenty-five hundred dead children to move to a sweeter pad", the gig would have been up.

Not like I am any saint myself. The past two years, I've spent about two dead puppies on books from alone. I am probably going to spend very close to a whole dead child to fly home for my two week winter break, and I spent ten dead children on my trip around the world this summer. I spent four infected wounds on fantasy map-making software. But at least in the back of my mind I realize I'm doing it. Can the people who spend a dead kid plus a dead puppy on the world's most expensive sundae say the same? What about the Japanese guy spending 1050 dead kids on a mobile phone strap?

One of America's top pro-life groups, Focus on the Family, spends two hundred thousand dead children a year pushing its message of conservatism and opposition to abortion. Take a second to fully appreciate the irony there.

I'm not saying these people don't have a right to spend their presumably hard-earned money on whatever they want. Of course they have that right. I am just saying that if we took the simple common sense step of changing our monetary denomination from dollars to dead children, maybe they'd want something different.

C'mon, I bet you an infected wound it'd work great.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

This is my favorite post for making the opportunity costs of our spending feel real and urgent.

The most compelling empirical observations have some kind of normative implications. For example, Peter Singer observed that almost everyone strongly believes that we are obligated to save a child drowning nearby, even if it requires some personal sacrifice. Combined with the basic normative principle that distance doesn't matter morally, that observation tells us that something is wrong with our moral instincts. This post presents another such empirical fact: our attitudes and choices depend greatly on the salience of opportunity costs. Combined with the principle that such salience shouldn't matter morally, we can deduce that something is wrong with our moral instincts.

If you appreciate this post, you should also read Scott Alexander's Efficient Charity and maybe Newtonian Ethics.

I don't think Scott would endorse this post today. His attitude now is that most people should commit to donate at least 10%, and then feel okay about doing whatever they like with the rest of their income.

This post does not advocate fanatical altruism. It's to show how we don't think in terms of opportunity costs by default, and to show that something is going wrong with our reasoning if our attitudes depend on how salient those opportunity costs are.

I assume you intend this in the direction of "opportunity costs aren't sufficiently salient, so we don't take them into account as much as we should". Which seems true. But I also think part of the difference is that super-duper salient  opportunity costs make normal spending feel pathologically unacceptable, particularly to altruistically-minded folks.

I agree with above that Scott seems to favor framings of limited altruism, after which you can spend your money on whatever frivolous things you feel like.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities