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Preamble

  • We use standard cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to argue that governments should do more to reduce global catastrophic risk.
  • We argue that getting governments to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy should be the goal of longtermists in the political sphere.
  • We suggest that longtermism can play a supplementary role in government catastrophe policy. If and when present people are willing to pay for interventions aimed primarily at improving humanity's long-term prospects, governments should fund these interventions.
  • We argue that longtermists should commit to acting in accordance with a CBA-driven catastrophe policy in the political sphere. This commitment would help bring about an outcome much better than the status quo, for both the present generation and the long-term future.

This article is set to appear as a chapter in Essays on Longtermism, edited by Jacob Barrett, Hilary Greaves, and David Thorstad, and published by Oxford University Press.

Abstract

Longtermists have argued that humanity should significantly increase its efforts to prevent catastrophes like nuclear wars, pandemics, and AI disasters. But one prominent longtermist argument overshoots this conclusion: the argument also implies that humanity should reduce the risk of existential catastrophe even at extreme cost to the present generation. This overshoot means that democratic governments cannot use the longtermist argument to guide their catastrophe policy. In this paper, we show that the case for preventing catastrophe does not depend on longtermism. Standard cost-benefit analysis implies that governments should spend much more on reducing catastrophic risk. We argue that a government catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis should be the goal of longtermists in the political sphere. This policy would be democratically acceptable, and it would reduce existential risk by almost as much as a strong longtermist policy.

1. Introduction

It would be very bad if humanity suffered a nuclear war, a deadly pandemic, or an AI disaster. This is for two main reasons. The first is that these catastrophes could kill billions of people. The second is that they could cause human extinction or the permanent collapse of civilization.

Longtermists have argued that humanity should increase its efforts to avert nuclear wars, pandemics, and AI disasters (Beckstead 2013; Bostrom 2013; Greaves and MacAskill 2021; MacAskill 2022; Ord 2020).[1] One prominent longtermist argument for this conclusion appeals to the second reason: these catastrophes could lead to human extinction or the permanent collapse of civilization, and hence prevent an enormous number of potential people from living happy lives in a good future (Beckstead 2013; Bostrom 2013; Greaves and MacAskill 2021; MacAskill 2022: 8–9; Ord 2020: 43–49). These events would then qualify as existential catastrophes: catastrophes that destroy humanity’s long-term potential (Ord 2020: 37).

Although this longtermist argument has been compelling to many, it has at least two limitations: limitations that are especially serious if the intended conclusion is that democratic governments should increase their efforts to prevent catastrophes. First, the argument relies on a premise that many people reject: that it would be an overwhelming moral loss if future generations never exist. Second, the argument overshoots. Given other plausible claims, building policy on this premise would not only lead governments to increase their efforts to prevent catastrophes. It would also lead them to impose extreme costs on the present generation for the sake of miniscule reductions in the risk of existential catastrophe. Since most people’s concern for the existence of future generations is limited, this policy would be democratically unacceptable, and so governments cannot use the longtermist argument to guide their catastrophe policy.

In this chapter, we offer a standard cost-benefit analysis argument for reducing the risk of catastrophe. We show that, given plausible estimates of catastrophic risk and the costs of reducing it, many interventions available to governments pass a cost-benefit analysis test. Therefore, the case for averting catastrophe does not depend on longtermism. In fact, we argue, governments should do much more to reduce catastrophic risk even if future generations do not matter at all. The first reason that a catastrophe would be bad – billions of people might die – by itself warrants much more action than the status quo. This argument from present people’s interests avoids both limitations of the longtermist argument: it assumes only that the present generation matters, and it does not overshoot. Nevertheless, like the longtermist argument, it implies that governments should do much more to reduce catastrophic risk.

We then argue that getting governments to adopt a catastrophe policy based on cost-benefit analysis should be the goal of longtermists in the political sphere. This goal is achievable, because cost-benefit analysis is already a standard tool for government decision-making and because moving to a CBA-driven catastrophe policy would benefit the present generation. Adopting a CBA-driven policy would also reduce the risk of existential catastrophe by almost as much as adopting a strong longtermist policy founded on the premise that it would be an overwhelming moral loss if future generations never exist.

We then propose that the longtermist worldview can play a supplementary role in government catastrophe policy. Longtermists can make the case for their view, and thereby increase present people’s willingness to pay for pure longtermist goods: goods that do not much benefit the present generation but improve humanity’s long-term prospects. These pure longtermist goods include especially refuges designed to help civilization recover from future catastrophes. When present people are willing to pay for such things, governments should fund them. This spending would have modest costs for those alive today and great expected benefits for the long-run future.

We end by arguing that longtermists should commit to acting in accordance with a CBA-driven catastrophe policy in the political sphere. This commitment would help bring about an outcome that is much better than the status quo, for the present generation and long-term future alike.

2. The risk of catastrophe

As noted above, we are going to use standard cost-benefit analysis to argue for increased government spending on preventing catastrophes.[2] We focus on the U.S. government, but our points apply to other countries as well (with modifications that will become clear below). We also focus on the risk of global catastrophes, which we define as events that kill at least 5 billion people. Many events could constitute a global catastrophe in the coming years, but we concentrate on three in particular: nuclear wars, pandemics, and AI disasters. Reducing the risk of these catastrophes is particularly cost-effective.

The first thing to establish is that the risk is significant. That presents a difficulty. There has never yet been a global catastrophe by our definition, so we cannot base our estimates of the risk on long-run frequencies. But this difficulty is surmountable because we can use other considerations to guide our estimates. These include near-misses (like the Cuban Missile Crisis), statistical models (like power-law extrapolations), and empirical trends (like advances in AI). We do not have the space to assess all the relevant considerations in detail, so we mainly rely on previously published estimates of the risks. These estimates should be our point of departure, pending further investigation. Note also that these estimates need not be perfectly accurate for our conclusions to go through. It often suffices that the risks exceed some low value.

Let us begin with the risk of nuclear war. Toby Ord estimates that the existential risk from nuclear war over the next 100 years is about 1-in-1,000 (2020: 167). Note, however, that ‘existential risk’ refers to the risk of an existential catastrophe: a catastrophe that destroys humanity’s long-term potential. This is a high bar. It means that any catastrophe from which humanity ever recovers (even if that recovery takes many millennia) does not count as an existential catastrophe. Nuclear wars can be enormously destructive without being likely to pose an existential catastrophe, so Ord’s estimate of the risk of “full-scale” nuclear war is much higher, at about 5% over the next 100 years (Wiblin and Ord 2020). This figure is roughly aligned with our own views (around 3%) and with other published estimates of nuclear risk. At the time of writing, the forecasting community Metaculus puts the risk of thermonuclear war before 2070 at 11% (Metaculus 2022c).[3] Luisa Rodriguez’s (2019b) aggregation of expert and superforecaster estimates has the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia at 0.38% per year, while Martin E. Hellman (2008: 21) estimates that the annual risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia stemming from a Cuban-Missile-Crisis-type scenario is 0.02-0.5%.

We recognise that each of these estimates involve difficult judgement-calls. Nevertheless, we think it would be reckless to suppose that the true risk of nuclear war this century is less than 1%. Here are assorted reasons for caution. Nuclear weapons have been a threat for just a single human lifetime, and in those years we have already racked up an eye-opening number of close calls. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the most famous example, but we also have declassified accounts of many accidents and false alarms (see, for example, Ord 2020, Appendix C). And although nuclear conflict would likely be devastating for all sides involved, leaders often have selfish incentives for brinkmanship, and may behave irrationally under pressure. Looking ahead, future technological developments may upset the delicate balance of deterrence. And we cannot presume that a nuclear war would harm only its direct targets. Research has suggested that the smoke from smouldering cities would take years to dissipate, during which time global temperatures and rainfall would drop low enough to kill most crops.[4] That leads Rodriguez (2019a) to estimate that a U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange would cause a famine that kills 5.5 billion people in expectation. One of us (Shulman) estimates a lower risk of this kind of nuclear winter, a lower average number of warheads deployed in a U.S.-Russia nuclear exchange, and a higher likelihood that emergency measures succeed in reducing mass starvation, but we still put expected casualties in the billions.

Pandemics caused by pathogens that have been engineered in a laboratory are another major concern. Ord (2020: 167) estimates that the existential risk over the next century from these engineered pandemics is around 3%. And as with nuclear war, engineered pandemics could be extremely destructive without constituting an existential catastrophe, so Ord’s estimate of the risk of global catastrophe arising from engineered pandemics would be adjusted upward from this 3% figure. At the time of writing, Metaculus suggests that there is a 9.6% probability that an engineered pathogen causes the human population to drop by at least 10% in a period of 5 years or less by 2100.[5] In a 2008 survey of participants at a conference on global catastrophes, the median respondent estimated a 10% chance that an engineered pandemic kills at least 1 billion people and a 2% chance that an engineered pandemic causes human extinction before 2100 (Sandberg and Bostrom 2008).

These estimates are based on a multitude of factors, of which we note a small selection. Diseases can be very contagious and very deadly.[6] There is no strong reason to suppose that engineered diseases could not be both. Scientists continue to conduct research in which pathogens are modified to enhance their transmissibility, lethality, and resistance to treatment (Millett and Snyder-Beattie 2017: 374; Ord 2020: 128–29). We also have numerous reports of lab leaks: cases in which pathogens have been accidentally released from biological research facilities and allowed to infect human populations (Ord 2020: 130–31). Many countries ran bioweapons programs during the twentieth century, and bioweapons were used in both World Wars (Millett and Snyder-Beattie 2017: 374). Terrorist groups like the Aum Shinrikyo cult have tried to use biological agents to cause mass casualties (Millett and Snyder-Beattie 2017: 374). Their efforts were hampered by a lack of technology and expertise, but humanity’s collective capacity for bioterror has grown considerably since then. A significant number of people now have the ability to cause a biological catastrophe, and this number looks set to rise further in the coming years (Ord 2020: 133–34).

Ord (2020: 167) puts the existential risk from artificial general intelligence (AGI) at 10% over the next century. This figure is the product of a 50% chance of human-level AGI by 2120 and a 20% risk of existential catastrophe, conditional on AGI by 2120 (Ord 2020: 168–69). Meanwhile, Joseph Carlsmith (2021: 49) estimates a 65% probability that by 2070 it will be possible and financially feasible to build AI systems capable of planning, strategising, and outperforming humans in important domains. He puts the (unconditional) existential risk from these AI systems at greater than 10% before 2070 (2021: 47). The aggregate forecast in a recent survey of machine learning researchers is a 50% chance of high-level machine intelligence by 2059 (Stein-Perlman, Weinstein-Raun, and Grace 2022).[7] The median respondent in that survey estimated a 5% probability that AI causes human extinction or humanity’s permanent and severe disempowerment (Stein-Perlman et al. 2022). Our own estimates are closer to Carlsmith and the survey respondents on timelines and closer to Ord on existential risk.

These estimates are the most speculative: nuclear weapons and engineered pathogens already exist in the world, while human-level AGI is yet to come. We cannot make a full case for the risk of AI catastrophe in this chapter, but here is a sketch. AI capabilities are growing quickly, powered partly by rapid algorithmic improvements and especially by increasing computing budgets. Before 2010, compute spent on training AI models grew in line with Moore’s law, but in the recent deep learning boom it has increased much faster, with an average doubling time of 6 months over that period (Sevilla et al. 2022). Bigger models and longer training runs have led to remarkable progress in domains like computer vision, language, protein modelling, and games. The next 20 years are likely to see the first AI systems close to the computational scale of the human brain, as hardware improves and spending on training runs continues to increase from millions of dollars today to many billions of dollars (Cotra 2020: 1–9, 2022). Extrapolating past trends suggests that these AI systems may also have capabilities matching the human brain across a wide range of domains.

AI developers train their systems using a reward function (or loss function) which assigns values to the system's outputs, along with an algorithm that modifies the system to perform better according to the reward function. But encoding human intentions in a reward function has proved extremely difficult, as is made clear by the many recorded instances of AI systems achieving high reward by behaving in ways unintended by their designers (DeepMind 2020; Krakovna 2018). These include systems pausing Tetris forever to avoid losing (Murphy 2013), using camera-trickery to deceive human evaluators into believing that a robot hand is completing a task (DeepMind 2020; OpenAI 2017), and behaving differently under observation to avoid penalties for reproduction (Lehman et al. 2020: 282; Muehlhauser 2021). We also have documented cases of AIs adopting goals that produce high reward in training but differ in important ways from the goals intended by their designers (Langosco et al. 2022; Shah et al. 2022). One example comes in the form of a model trained to win a video game by reaching a coin at the right of the stage. The model retained its ability to navigate the environment when the coin was moved, but it became clear that the model’s real goal was to go as far to the right as possible, rather than to reach the coin (Langosco et al. 2022: 4). So far, these issues of reward hacking and goal misgeneralization have been of little consequence, because we have been able to shut down misbehaving systems or alter their reward functions. But that looks set to change as AI systems come to understand and act in the wider world: a powerful AGI could learn that allowing itself to be turned off or modified is a poor way of achieving its goal. And given any of a wide variety of goals, this kind of AGI would have reason to perform well in training and conceal its real goal until AGI systems are collectively powerful enough to seize control of their reward processes (or otherwise pursue their goals) and defeat any human response.

That is one way in which misaligned AGI could be disastrous for humanity. Guarding against this outcome likely requires much more work on robustly aligning AI with human intentions, along with the cautious deployment of advanced AI to enable proper safety engineering and testing. Unfortunately, economic and geopolitical incentives may lead to much less care than is required. Competing companies and nations may cut corners and expose humanity to serious risks in a race to build AGI (Armstrong, Bostrom, and Shulman 2016). The risk is exacerbated by the winner’s curse dynamic at play: all else equal, it is the actors who most underestimate the dangers of deployment that are most likely to do so (Bostrom, Douglas, and Sandberg 2016).

Assuming independence and combining Ord’s risk-estimates of 10% for AI, 3% for engineered pandemics, and 5% for nuclear war gives us at least a 17% risk of global catastrophe from these sources over the next 100 years.[8] If we assume that the risk per decade is constant, the risk over the next decade is about 1.85%.[9] If we assume also that every person’s risk of dying in this kind of catastrophe is equal, then (conditional on not dying in other ways) each U.S. citizen’s risk of dying in this kind of catastrophe in the next decade is at least  (since, by our definition, a global catastrophe would kill at least 5 billion people, and the world population is projected to remain under 9 billion until 2033). According to projections of the U.S. population pyramid, 6.88% of U.S. citizens alive today will die in other ways over the course of the next decade.[10] That suggests that U.S. citizens alive today have on average about a 1% risk of being killed in a nuclear war, engineered pandemic, or AI disaster in the next decade. That is about ten times their risk of being killed in a car accident.[11]

3. Interventions to reduce the risk

There is good reason to think that the risk of global catastrophe in the coming years is significant. Based on Ord’s estimates, we suggest that U.S. citizens’ risk of dying in a nuclear war, pandemic, or AI disaster in the next decade is on average about 1%. We now survey some ways of reducing this risk.

The Biden administration’s 2023 Budget lists many ways of reducing the risk of biological catastrophes (The White House 2022c; U.S. Office of Management and Budget 2022). These include developing advanced personal protective equipment, along with prototype vaccines for the viral families most likely to cause pandemics.[12] The U.S. government can also enhance laboratory biosafety and biosecurity, by improving training procedures, risk assessments, and equipment (Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense 2021: 24). Another priority is improving our capacities for microbial forensics (including our abilities to detect engineered pathogens), so that we can better identify and deter potential bad actors (Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense 2021: 24–25). Relatedly, the U.S. government can strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention by increasing the budget and staff of the body responsible for its implementation, and by working to grant them the power to investigate suspected breaches (Ord 2020: 279–80). The Nuclear Threat Initiative recommends establishing a global entity focused on preventing catastrophes from biotechnology, amongst other things (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2020a: 3). Another key priority is developing pathogen-agnostic detection technologies. One such candidate technology is a Nucleic Acid Observatory, which would monitor waterways and wastewater for changing frequencies of biological agents, allowing for the early detection of potential biothreats (The Nucleic Acid Observatory Consortium 2021).

The U.S. government can also reduce the risk of nuclear war this decade. Ord (2020: 278) recommends restarting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, taking U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles off of hair-trigger alert (“Launch on Warning”), and increasing the capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify that nations are complying with safeguards agreements. Other recommendations come from the Centre for Long-Term Resilience’s Future Proof report (2021). They are directed towards the U.K. government but apply to the U.S. as well. The recommendations include committing not to incorporate AI systems into nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) and lobbying to establish this norm internationally.[13] Another is committing to avoid cyber operations that target the NC3 of Non-Proliferation Treaty signatories and establishing a multilateral agreement to this effect. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (2020b) offers many recommendations to the Biden administration for reducing nuclear risk, some of which have already been taken up.[14] Others include working to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force, re-establishing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s limits on Iran’s nuclear activity, and increasing U.S. diplomatic efforts with Russia and China (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2020b).[15]

To reduce the risks from AI, the U.S. government can fund research in AI safety. This should include alignment research focused on reducing the risk of catastrophic AI takeover by ensuring that even very powerful AI systems do what we intend, as well as interpretability research to help us understand neural networks’ behaviour and better supervise their training (Amodei et al. 2016; Hendrycks et al. 2022). The U.S. government can also fund research and work in AI governance, focused on devising norms, policies, and institutions to ensure that the development of AI is beneficial for humanity (Dafoe 2018).

4. Cost-benefit analysis of catastrophe-preventing interventions

We project that funding this suite of interventions for the next decade would cost less than $400 billion.[16] We also expect this suite of interventions to reduce the risk of global catastrophe over the next decade by at least 0.1pp (percentage points). A full defence of this claim would require more detail than we can fit in this chapter, but here is one way to illustrate the claim’s plausibility. Imagine an enormous set of worlds like our world in 2023. Each world in this set is different with respect to the features of our world about which we are uncertain, and worlds with a certain feature occur in the set in proportion to our best evidence about the presence of that feature in our world. If, for example, the best appraisal of our available evidence suggests that there is a 55% probability that the next U.S. President will be a Democrat, then 55% of the worlds in our set have a Democrat as the next President. We claim that in at least 1-in-1,000 of these worlds the interventions we recommend above would prevent a global catastrophe this decade. That is a low bar, and it seems plausible to us that the interventions above meet it. Our question now is: given this profile of costs and benefits, do these interventions pass a standard cost-benefit analysis test?

To assess interventions expected to save lives, cost-benefit analysis begins by valuing mortality risk reductions: putting a monetary value on reducing citizens’ risk of death (Kniesner and Viscusi 2019). To do that, we first determine how much a representative sample of citizens are willing to pay to reduce their risk of dying this year by a given increment (often around 0.01pp, or 1-in-10,000). One method is to ask them, giving us their stated preferences. Another method is to observe people’s behaviour, particularly their choices about what to buy and what jobs to take, giving us their revealed preferences.[17] 

U.S. government agencies use methods like these to estimate how much U.S. citizens are willing to pay to reduce their risk of death.[18] This figure is then used to calculate the value of a statistical life (VSL): the value of saving one life in expectation via small reductions in mortality risks for many people. The primary VSL figure used by the U.S. Department of Transportation for 2021 is $11.8 million, with a range to account for various kinds of uncertainty spanning from about $7 million to $16.5 million (U.S. Department of Transportation 2021a, 2021b).[19] These figures are used in the cost-benefit analyses of policies expected to save lives. Costs and benefits occurring in the future are discounted at a constant annual rate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses annual discount rates of 2% and 3%; the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) instructs agencies to conduct analyses using annual discount rates of 3% and 7% (Graham 2008: 504). The rationale is opportunity costs and people’s rate of pure time preference (Graham 2008: 504).

Now for the application to the risk of global catastrophe (otherwise known as global catastrophic risk, or GCR). We defined a global catastrophe above as an event that kills at least 5 billion people, and we assumed that each person’s risk of dying in a global catastrophe is equal. So, given a world population of less than 9 billion and conditional on a global catastrophe occurring, each American’s risk of dying in that catastrophe is at least 5/9. Reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp then reduces each American’s risk of death this decade by at least 0.055pp. Multiplying that figure by the U.S. population of 330 million, we get the result that reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp saves at least 181,500 American lives in expectation. If that GCR-reduction were to occur this year, it would be worth at least $1.27 trillion on the Department of Transportation’s lowest VSL figure of $7 million. But since the GCR-reduction would occur over the course of a decade, cost-benefit analysis requires that we discount. If we use OIRA’s highest annual discount rate of 7% and suppose (conservatively) that all the costs of our interventions are paid up front while the GCR-reduction comes only at the end of the decade, we get the result that reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp is worth at least $1.27 trillion /  $646 billion. So, at a cost of $400 billion, these interventions comfortably pass a standard cost-benefit analysis test.[20] That in turn suggests that the U.S. government should fund these interventions. Doing so would save American lives more cost-effectively than many other forms of government spending on life-saving, such as transportation and environmental regulations.

In fact, we can make a stronger argument. Using a projected U.S. population pyramid and some life-expectancy statistics, we can calculate that approximately 79% of the American life-years saved by preventing a global catastrophe in 2033 would accrue to Americans alive today in 2023 (Thornley 2022). 79% of $646 billion is approximately $510 billion. That means that funding this suite of GCR-reducing interventions is well worth it, even considering only the benefits to Americans alive today.

[EDITED TO ADD: And recall that the above figures assume a conservative 0.1pp reduction in GCR as a result of implementing the whole suite of interventions. We think that a 0.5pp reduction in GCR is a more reasonable estimate, in which case the benefit-cost ratio of the suite is over 5. Making our other assumptions more reasonable results in even more favourable benefit-cost ratios. Using the Department of Transportation’s primary VSL figure of $11.8 million and an annual discount rate of 3%, the benefit-cost ratio of the suite comes out at over 20.[21] The most cost-effective interventions within the suite will have benefit-cost ratios that are more favourable still.]

It is also worth noting some important ways in which our calculations up to this point underrate the value of GCR-reducing interventions. First, we have appealed only to these interventions’ GCR-reducing benefits: the benefits of shifting probability mass away from outcomes in which at least 5 billion people die and towards outcomes in which very few people die. But these interventions would also decrease the risk of smaller catastrophes, in which less than 5 billion people die.[22] Second, the value of preventing deaths from catastrophe is plausibly higher than the value of preventing traffic deaths. The EPA (2010: 20–26) and U.K. Treasury (2003: 62) have each recommended that a higher VSL be used for cancer risks than for accidental risks, to reflect the fact that dying from cancer tends to be more unpleasant than dying in an accident (Kniesner and Viscusi 2019: 16). We suggest that the same point applies to death by nuclear winter and engineered pandemic.

Here is another benefit of our listed GCR-reducing interventions. They do not just reduce U.S. citizens’ risk of death. They also reduce the risk of death for citizens of other nations. That is additional reason to fund these interventions.[23] It also suggests that the U.S. government could persuade other nations to share the costs of GCR-reducing interventions, in which case funding these interventions becomes an even more cost-effective way of saving U.S. lives. Cooperation between nations can also make it worthwhile for the U.S. and the world as a whole to spend more on reducing GCR. Suppose, for example, that there is some intervention that would cost $1 trillion and would reduce GCR by 0.1pp over the next decade. That is too expensive for the U.S. alone (at least based on our conservative calculations), but it would be worth funding for a coalition of nations that agreed to split the cost.

5. Longtermists should advocate for a CBA-driven catastrophe policy

The U.S. is seriously underspending on preventing catastrophes. This conclusion follows from standard cost-benefit analysis. We need not be longtermists to believe that the U.S. government should do much more to reduce the risk of nuclear wars, pandemics, and AI disasters. In fact, even entirely self-interested Americans have reason to hope that the U.S. government increases its efforts to avert catastrophes. The interventions that we recommend above are well worth it, even considering only the benefits to Americans alive today. Counting the benefits to citizens of other nations and the next generation makes these interventions even more attractive. So, Americans should hope that the U.S. government adopts something like a CBA-driven catastrophe policy: a policy of funding all those GCR-reducing interventions that pass a cost-benefit analysis test.

One might think that longtermists should be more ambitious: that rather than push for a CBA-driven catastrophe policy, longtermists should urge governments to adopt a strong longtermist policy. By a ‘strong longtermist policy’, we mean a policy founded on the premise that it would be an overwhelming moral loss if future generations never exist.[24] However, we argue that this is not the case: longtermists should advocate for a CBA-driven catastrophe policy rather than a strong longtermist policy. That is because (1) unlike a strong longtermist policy, a CBA-driven policy would be democratically acceptable and feasible to implement, and (2) a CBA-driven policy would reduce existential risk by almost as much as a strong longtermist policy.[25]

Let us begin with democratic acceptability. As noted above, a strong longtermist policy would in principle place extreme burdens on the present generation for the sake of even miniscule reductions in existential risk. Here is a rough sketch of why. If the non-existence of future generations would be a overwhelming moral loss, then an existential catastrophe (like human extinction or the permanent collapse of civilization) would be extremely bad. That in turn makes it worth reducing the risk of existential catastrophe even if doing so is exceedingly costly for the present generation.[26]

We now argue that a strong longtermist policy would place serious burdens on the present generation not only in principle but also in practice. There are suites of existential-risk-reducing interventions that governments could implement only at extreme cost to those alive today. For example, governments could slow down the development of existential-risk-increasing technologies (even those that pose only very small risks) by paying researchers large salaries to do other things. Governments could also build extensive, self-sustaining colonies (in remote locations or perhaps far underground) in which residents are permanently cut off from the rest of the world and trained to rebuild civilization in the event of a catastrophe. The U.S. government could set up a global Nucleic Acid Observatory, paying other countries large fees (if need be) to allow the U.S. to monitor their water supplies for emerging pathogens. More generally, governments could heavily subsidise investment, research, and development in ways that incentivise the present generation to increase civilization’s resilience and decrease existential risk. A strong longtermist policy would seek to implement these and other interventions quickly, a factor which adds to their expense. These expenses would in turn require increasing taxes on present citizens (particularly consumption taxes), as well as cutting forms of government spending that have little effect on existential risk (like Social Security, many kinds of medical care, and funding for parks, art, culture, and sport). These budget changes would be burdensome for those alive today. Very cautious regulation of technological development would impose burdens too. It might mean that present citizens miss out on technologies that would improve and extend their lives, like consumer goods and cures for diseases.

So, a strong longtermist policy would be democratically unacceptable, by which we mean it could not be adopted and maintained by a democratic government. If a government tried to adopt a strong longtermist policy, it would lose the support of most of its citizens. There are clear moral objections against pursuing democratically unacceptable policies, but even setting those aside, getting governments to adopt a strong longtermist policy is not feasible. Efforts in that direction are very unlikely to succeed.

A CBA-driven catastrophe policy, by contrast, would be democratically acceptable. This kind of policy would not place heavy burdens on the present generation. Since cost-benefit analysis is based in large part on citizens’ willingness to pay, policies guided by cost-benefit analysis tend not to ask citizens to pay much more than is in their own interests. And given our current lack of spending on preventing catastrophes, moving from the status quo to a CBA-driven policy is almost certainly good for U.S. citizens alive today. That is one reason to think that getting the U.S. government to adopt a CBA-driven policy is particularly feasible. Another is that cost-benefit analysis is already a standard tool for U.S. regulatory decision-making.[27] Advocating for a CBA-driven policy does not mean asking governments to adopt a radically new decision-procedure. It just means asking them to extend a standard decision-procedure into a domain where it has so far been underused.

Of course, getting governments to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy is not trivial. One barrier is psychological (Wiener 2016). Many of us find it hard to appreciate the likelihood and magnitude of a global catastrophe. Another is that GCR-reduction is a collective action problem for individuals. Although a safer world is in many people’s self-interest, working for a safer world is in few people’s self-interest. Doing so means bearing a large portion of the costs and gaining just a small portion of the benefits.[28] Politicians and regulators likewise lack incentives to advocate for GCR-reducing interventions (as they did with climate interventions in earlier decades). Given widespread ignorance of the risks, calls for such interventions are unlikely to win much public favour.

However, these barriers can be overcome. Those willing to bear costs for the sake of others can use their time and money to make salient the prospect of global catastrophe, thereby fostering public support for GCR-reducing interventions and placing them on the policy agenda. Longtermists – who care about the present generation as well as future generations – are well-suited to play this role in pushing governments to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy. If they take up these efforts, they have a good chance of succeeding.

Now for the second point: getting the U.S. government to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy would reduce existential risk by almost as much as getting them to adopt a strong longtermist policy. This is for two reasons. The first is that, at the current margin, the primary goals of a CBA-driven policy and a strong longtermist policy are substantially aligned. The second is that increased spending on preventing catastrophes yields steeply diminishing returns in terms of existential-risk-reduction.

Let us begin with substantial alignment. The primary goal of a CBA-driven catastrophe policy is saving lives in the near-term. The primary goal of a strong longtermist policy is reducing existential risk. In the world as it is today, these goals are aligned: many of the best interventions for reducing existential risk are also cost-effective interventions for saving lives in the near-term. Take AI, for example. Per Ord (2020: 167) and many other longtermists, the risk from AI makes up a large portion of the total existential risk this century, and this risk could be reduced significantly by work on AI safety and governance. That places this work high on many longtermists’ list of priorities. We have argued above that a CBA-driven policy would also fund this work, since it is a cost-effective way of saving lives in the near-term. The same goes for pandemics. Interventions to thwart potential pandemics rank highly on the longtermist list of priorities, and these interventions would also be implemented by a CBA-driven policy.

We illustrate the alignment between a CBA-driven policy and a strong longtermist policy using the graph below. The x-axis represents U.S. lives saved (discounted by how far in the future the life is saved) in expectation per dollar. The y-axis represents existential-risk-reduction per dollar. Interventions to the right of the blue line would be funded by a CBA-driven catastrophe policy. The exact position of each intervention is provisional and unimportant, and the graph is not to scale in any case. The important point is that a CBA-driven policy would fund many of the best interventions for reducing existential risk. 

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That is the key alignment between a CBA-driven policy and a strong longtermist policy. Now for three potentially significant differences. The first is that a strong longtermist policy would fund what we call pure longtermist goods: goods that do not much benefit present people but improve humanity’s long-term prospects. These pure longtermist goods include refuges to help humanity recover from catastrophes. The second difference is that a strong longtermist policy would spend much more on preventing catastrophes than a CBA-driven policy. In addition to the interventions warranted by a CBA-driven catastrophe policy, a strong longtermist policy would also fund catastrophe-preventing interventions that are too expensive to pass a cost-benefit analysis test. The third difference concerns nuclear risks. The risk of a full-scale nuclear war is significantly higher than the risk of a nuclear war constituting an existential catastrophe (5% versus 0.1% this century, per Ord). In part for this reason, interventions to reduce nuclear risk are cost-effective for saving lives in the near-term but not so cost-effective for reducing existential risk.[29] That makes these interventions a relatively lower priority by the lights of a strong longtermist policy than they are by the lights of a CBA-driven policy. Holding fixed the catastrophe-budget warranted by cost-benefit analysis, a strong longtermist policy would likely shift some funding away from nuclear interventions and towards AI and pandemic interventions that fail a cost-benefit analysis test.[30]

Set aside pure longtermist goods for now. We discuss them in the next section. Consider instead the fact that a strong longtermist policy would spend considerably more on preventing catastrophes (especially AI and biological catastrophes) than a CBA-driven policy. We argue that this extra spending would not make such a significant difference to existential risk, because increased spending on preventing catastrophes yields steeply diminishing returns in terms of existential-risk-reduction. That in turn is for two primary reasons. The first is that the most promising existential-risk-reducing interventions – for example, AI safety and governance, a Nucleic Acid Observatory, enhanced biosecurity and biosafety practices – pass a cost-benefit analysis test. Those catastrophe-preventing interventions that fail a cost-benefit analysis test are not nearly as effective in reducing existential risk.

Here is a second reason to expect increased spending to yield steeply diminishing returns in terms of existential-risk-reduction: many interventions undermine each other. What we mean here is that many interventions render other interventions less effective, so that the total existential-risk-reduction gained by funding some sets of interventions is less than the sum of the existential-risk-reduction gained by funding each intervention individually. Consider an example. Setting aside a minor complication, we can decompose existential risk from engineered pathogens into two factors: the risk that an engineered pathogen infects more than 1,000 people, and the risk of an existential catastrophe given that an engineered pathogen infects more than 1,000 people.[31] Suppose (for the sake of illustration only) that each risk is 10% this decade, that incentivising the world’s biomedical researchers to do safer research would halve the first risk, and that establishing a Nucleic Acid Observatory (NAO) would halve the second risk. Then in the absence of any interventions, existential risk this decade from engineered pathogens is 1%. Only incentivising safe research would reduce existential risk by 0.5%. Only establishing an NAO would reduce existential risk by 0.5%. But incentivising safe research after establishing an NAO reduces existential risk by just 0.25%. More generally, the effectiveness of existential-risk-reducing interventions that fail a cost-benefit analysis test would be substantially undermined by all those interventions that pass a cost-benefit analysis test.

At the moment, the world is spending very little on preventing global catastrophes. The U.S. spent approximately $3 billion on biosecurity in 2019 (Watson et al. 2018), and (in spite of the wake-up call provided by COVID-19) funding for preventing future pandemics has not increased much since then.[32] Much of this spending is ill-suited to combatting the most extreme biological threats. Spending on reducing GCR from AI is less than $100 million per year.[33] So, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit for governments to pick: given the current lack of spending, moving to a CBA-driven catastrophe policy would significantly decrease existential risk. Governments could reduce existential risk further by moving to a strong longtermist policy, but this extra reduction would be comparatively small. The same goes for shifting funding away from nuclear risk and towards AI and pandemic risks while holding fixed the level of spending on catastrophe-prevention warranted by cost-benefit analysis. This shift would have just a small effect on existential risk, because the best interventions for reducing AI and pandemic risks would already have been funded by a CBA-driven policy.

And, as noted above, international cooperation would make even more catastrophe-preventing interventions cost-effective enough to pass a cost-benefit analysis test. Some of these extra interventions would also have non-trivial effects on existential risk. Consider climate change. Some climate interventions are too expensive to be in any nation’s self-interest to fund unilaterally, but are worth funding for a coalition of nations that agree to coordinate. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is one example. Climate change is also an existential risk factor: a factor that increases existential risk. Besides posing a small risk of directly causing human extinction or the permanent collapse of civilization, climate change poses a significant indirect risk. It threatens to exacerbate international conflict and drive humanity to pursue risky technological solutions. Extreme climate change would also damage our resilience and make us more vulnerable to other catastrophes. So, in addition to its other benefits, mitigating climate change decreases existential risk. Since more climate interventions pass a cost-benefit analysis test if nations agree to coordinate, this kind of international cooperation would further shrink the gap between existential risk on a CBA-driven catastrophe policy versus a strong longtermist policy.

6. Pure longtermist goods and altruistic willingness to pay

There remains one potentially important difference between a CBA-driven catastrophe policy and a strong longtermist policy: a strong longtermist policy will provide significant funding for what we call pure longtermist goods. These we define as goods that do not much benefit the present generation but improve humanity’s long-term prospects. They include especially refuges: large, well-equipped structures akin to bunkers or shelters, designed to help occupants survive future catastrophes and later rebuild civilization.[34] It might seem like a CBA-driven catastrophe policy would provide no funding for pure longtermist goods, because they are not particularly cost-effective for saving lives in the near-term. In the event of a serious catastrophe, refuges would save at most a small portion of the people alive today. But a strong longtermist policy would invest in refuges, because they would significantly reduce existential risk. Even a relatively small group of survivors could get humanity back on track, in which case an existential catastrophe – the permanent destruction of humanity’s long-term potential – will have been averted. Since a strong longtermist policy would provide funding for refuges, it might seem as if adopting a strong longtermist policy would reduce existential risk by significantly more than adopting a CBA-driven policy.

However, even this difference between a CBA-driven policy and a strong longtermist policy need not be so great. That is because cost-benefit analysis should incorporate (and is beginning to incorporate) citizens’ willingness to pay to uphold their moral commitments: what we will call their altruistic willingness to pay (AWTP). Posner and Sunstein (2017) offer arguments to this effect. They note that citizens have various moral commitments – concerning the natural world, non-human animals, citizens of other nations, future generations, etc. – and suffer welfare losses when these commitments are compromised (2017: 1829–30).[35] They argue that the best way to measure these losses is by citizens’ willingness to pay to uphold their moral commitments, and that this willingness to pay should be included in cost-benefit calculations of proposed regulations (2017: 1830).[36] Posner and Sunstein also note that there is regulatory and legal precedent for doing so (2017: sec. 3).[37]

And here, we believe, is where longtermism should enter into government catastrophe policy. Longtermists should make the case for their view, and thereby increase citizens’ AWTP for pure longtermist goods like refuges.[38] When citizens are willing to pay for these goods, governments should fund them.

Although the uptake of new moral movements is hard to predict (Sunstein 2020), we have reason to be optimistic about this kind of longtermist outreach. A recent survey suggests that many people have moral intuitions that might incline them towards a weak form of longtermism: respondents tended to judge that it’s good to create happy people (Caviola et al. 2022: 9). Another survey indicates that simply making the future salient has a marked effect on people’s views about human extinction. When prompted to consider long-term consequences, the proportion of people who judged human extinction to be uniquely bad relative to near-extinction rose from 23% to 50% (Schubert, Caviola, and Faber 2019: 3–4). And when respondents were asked to suppose that life in the future would be much better than life today, that number jumped to 77% (Schubert et al. 2019: 4). In the span of about six decades, environmentalism has grown from a fringe movement to a major moral priority of our time. Like longtermism, it has been motivated in large part by a concern for future generations. Longtermist arguments have already been compelling to many people, and these factors suggest that they could be compelling to many more.

Even a small AWTP for pure longtermist goods could have a significant effect on existential risk. If U.S. citizens are willing to contribute just $5 per year on average, then a CBA-driven policy that incorporates AWTP warrants spending up to $1.65 billion per year on pure longtermist goods: enough to build extensive refuges. Of course, even in a scenario in which every U.S. citizen hears the longtermist arguments, a CBA-driven policy will provide less funding for pure longtermist goods than a strong longtermist policy. But, as with catastrophe-preventing interventions, it seems likely that marginal existential-risk-reduction diminishes steeply as spending on pure longtermist goods increases: so steeply that moving to the level of spending on pure longtermist goods warranted by citizens’ AWTP would reduce existential risk by almost as much as moving to the level of spending warranted by a strong longtermist policy. This is especially so if multiple nations offer to fund pure longtermist goods in line with their citizens’ AWTP.

Here is a final point to consider. One might think that it is true only on the current margin and in public that longtermists should push governments to adopt a catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis and altruistic willingness to pay. Once all the interventions justified by CBA-plus-AWTP have been funded, longtermists should lobby for even more government spending on preventing catastrophes. And in the meantime, longtermists should in private advocate for governments to fund existential-risk-reducing interventions that go beyond CBA-plus-AWTP.

We disagree. Longtermists can try to increase government funding for catastrophe-prevention by making longtermist arguments and thereby increasing citizens’ AWTP, but they should not urge governments to depart from a CBA-plus-AWTP catastrophe policy. On the contrary, longtermists should as far as possible commit themselves to acting in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in the political sphere. One reason why is simple: longtermists have moral reasons to respect the preferences of their fellow citizens.

To see another reason why, note first that longtermists working to improve government catastrophe policy could be a win-win. The present generation benefits because longtermists solve the collective action problem: they work to implement interventions that cost-effectively reduce everyone’s risk of dying in a catastrophe. Future generations benefit because these interventions also reduce existential risk. But as it stands the present generation may worry that longtermists would go too far. If granted imperfectly accountable power, longtermists might try to use the machinery of government to place burdens on the present generation for the sake of further benefits to future generations. These worries may lead to the marginalisation of longtermism, and thus an outcome that is worse for both present and future generations.

The best solution is compromise and commitment.[39] A CBA-plus-AWTP policy – founded as it is on citizens’ preferences – is acceptable to a broad coalition of people. As a result, longtermists committing to act in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy makes possible an arrangement that is significantly better than the status quo, both by longtermist lights and by the lights of the present generation. It also gives rise to other benefits of cooperation. For example, it helps to avoid needless conflicts in which groups lobby for opposing policies, with some substantial portion of the resources that they spend cancelling each other out (see Ord 2015: 120–21, 135). With a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in place, those resources can instead be spent on interventions that are appealing to all sides.

There are many ways in which longtermists can increase and demonstrate their commitment to this kind of win-win compromise policy. They can speak in favour of it now, and act in accordance with it in the political sphere. They can also support efforts to embed a CBA-plus-AWTP criterion into government decision-making – through executive orders, regulatory statutes, and law – thereby ensuring that governments spend neither too much nor too little on benefits to future generations. Longtermists can also earn a reputation for cooperating well with others, by supporting interventions and institutions that are appealing to a broad range of people. In doing so, longtermists make possible a form of cooperation which is substantially beneficial to both the present generation and the long-term future.

7. Conclusion

Governments should be spending much more on averting threats from nuclear war, engineered pandemics, and AI. This conclusion follows from standard cost-benefit analysis. We need not assume longtermism, or even that future generations matter. In fact, even entirely self-interested Americans have reason to hope that the U.S. government adopts a catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis.

Longtermists should push for a similar goal: a government catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis and citizens’ altruistic willingness to pay. This policy is achievable and would be democratically acceptable. It would also reduce existential risk by almost as much as a strong longtermist policy. This is especially so if longtermists succeed in making the long-term future a major moral priority of our time and if citizens’ altruistic willingness to pay for benefits to the long-term future increases commensurately. Longtermists should commit to acting in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in the political sphere. This commitment would help bring about a catastrophe policy that is much better than the status quo, for the present generation and long-term future alike.[40]

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9. Footnotes

  1. ^

     By ‘longtermists’, we mean people particularly concerned with ensuring that humanity’s long-term future goes well.

  2. ^

     Posner (2004) is one precedent in the literature. In another respect we echo Baum (2015), who argues that we need not appeal to far-future benefits to motivate further efforts to prevent catastrophes.

  3. ^

     A war counts as thermonuclear if and only if three countries each detonate at least 10 nuclear devices of at least 10 kiloton yield outside of their own territory or two countries each detonate at least 50 nuclear devices of at least 10 kiloton yield outside of their own territory.

  4. ^

     See, for example, (Coupe et al. 2019; Mills et al. 2014; Robock, Oman, and Stenchikov 2007; Xia et al. 2022). Some doubt that nuclear war would have such severe atmospheric effects (Reisner et al. 2018; Seitz 2011).

  5. ^

     Metaculus forecasters estimate that there is a 32% probability that the human population drops by at least 10% in a period of 5 years or less by 2100 (Metaculus 2022a), and a 30% probability conditional on this drop occurring that it is caused by an engineered pathogen (Metaculus 2022b). Multiplying these figures gets us 9.6%. This calculation ignores some minor technicalities to do with the possibility that there will be more than one qualifying drop in population.

  6. ^

     COVID-19 spread to almost every community, as did the 1918 Flu. Engineered pandemics could be even harder to suppress. Rabies and septicemic plague kill almost 100% of their victims in the absence of treatment (Millett and Snyder-Beattie 2017: 374).

  7. ^

     The survey defines ‘high-level machine intelligence’ as machine intelligence that can accomplish every task better and more cheaply than human workers.

    Admittedly, we have some reason to suspect these estimates. As Cotra (2020: 40–41) notes, machine learning researchers' responses in a previous survey (Grace et al. 2018) were implausibly sensitive to minor reframings of questions.

    In any case, recent progress in AI has exceeded almost all expectations. On two out of four benchmarks, state-of-the-art performance in June 2022 was outside the 90% credible interval of an aggregate of forecasters’ predictions made in August 2021 (Steinhardt 2022).

  8. ^

     Here we assume that a full-scale nuclear war would kill at least 5 billion people and hence qualify as a global catastrophe (Rodriguez 2019a; Xia et al. 2022: 1).

    The risk is not , because each of Ord’s risk-estimates is conditional on humanity not suffering an existential catastrophe from another source in the next 100 years (as is made clear by Ord 2020: 173–74). If we assume statistical independence between risks, the probability that there is no global catastrophe from AI, engineered pandemics, or nuclear war in the next 100 years is at most . The probability that there is some such global catastrophe is then at least 17%. There might well be some positive correlation between risks (Ord 2020: 173–75), but plausible degrees of correlation will not significantly reduce total risk.

    Note that the 17% figure does not incorporate the upward adjustment for the (significant, in our view) likelihood that an engineered pandemic constitutes a global catastrophe but not an existential catastrophe.

  9. ^

     If the risk over the next century is 17% and the risk per decade is constant, then the risk per decade is  such that . That gives us .

    There are reasons to doubt that the risk this decade is as high as the risk in future decades. One might think that ‘crunch time’ for AI and pandemic risk is more than a decade off. One might also think that most nuclear risk comes from scenarios in which future technological developments cast doubt on nations’ second-strike capability, thereby incentivising first-strikes. These factors are at least partly counterbalanced by the likelihood that we will be better prepared for risks in future decades.

  10. ^

     The projected number of Americans at least 10 years old in 2033 is 6.88% smaller than the number of Americans in 2023 (PopulationPyramid 2019).

  11. ^

     Our World in Data (2019) records a mean of approximately 41,000 road injury deaths per year in the United States over the past decade.

  12. ^

     This Budget includes many of the recommendations from the Apollo Program for Biodefense and Athena Agenda (Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense 2021, 2022).

  13. ^

     Avin and Amadae (2019) survey ways in which AI may exacerbate nuclear risk and offer policy recommendations, including the recommendation not to incorporate AI into NC3. The U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (2021: 98) make a similar recommendation.

  14. ^

     Those taken up already include extending New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and issuing a joint declaration with the other members of the P5 – China, France, Russia, and the U.K. – that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” (The White House 2022b).

  15. ^

     It is worth noting that the dynamics of nuclear risk are complex, and that experts disagree about the likely effects of these interventions. What can be broadly agreed is that nuclear risk should receive more investigation and funding.

  16. ^

     The Biden administration’s 2023 Budget requests $88.2 billion over five years (The White House 2022c; U.S. Office of Management and Budget 2022). We can suppose that another five years of funding would require that much again. A Nucleic Acid Observatory covering the U.S. is estimated to cost $18.4 billion to establish and $10.4 billion per year to run (The Nucleic Acid Observatory Consortium 2021: 18). Ord (2020: 202–3) recommends increasing the budget of the Biological Weapons Convention to $80 million per year. Our listed interventions to reduce nuclear risk are unlikely to cost more than $10 billion for the decade. AI safety and governance might cost up to $10 billion as well. The total cost of these interventions for the decade would then be $319.6 billion.

  17. ^

     We can observe how much people pay for products that reduce their risk of death, like bike helmets, smoke alarms, and airbags. We can also observe how much more people are paid to do risky work, like service nuclear reactors and fly new planes (Kniesner and Viscusi 2019).

  18. ^

     US agencies rely mainly on hedonic wage studies, which measure the wage-premium for risky jobs. European agencies tend to rely on stated preference methods (Kniesner and Viscusi 2019: 10).

  19. ^

     Updating for inflation and growth in real incomes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s central estimate for 2021 is approximately $12.2 million. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2021 figure is about $12.1 million (Kniesner and Viscusi 2019).

  20. ^

     Researchers and analysts in the US frequently cite a $50,000-per-quality-adjusted-life-year (QALY) threshold for funding medical interventions, but this figure lacks any particular normative significance and has not been updated to account for inflation and real growth in incomes since it first came to prominence in the mid-1990s (Neumann, Cohen, and Weinstein 2014). The £20,000-£30,000-per-QALY range recommended by the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suffers from similar defects (Claxton et al. 2016). More principled estimates put a higher value on years of life (Aldy and Viscusi 2008; Favaloro and Berger 2021; Hirth et al. 2000). In any case, simply updating the $50,000-per-QALY threshold to account for inflation and growth since 1995 would imply a value of more than $100,000-per-QALY. At $100,000-per-QALY, the value of reducing GCR a decade from now by 0.1pp is at least $412billion. (14,583,317,092 is the expected number of American life-years saved by preventing a global catastrophe in 2033, based on a projected US population pyramid (PopulationPyramid 2019) and life-expectancy statistics (U.S. Social Security Administration 2022). See Thornley (2022).) That figure justifies the suite of interventions we recommend below. We believe that many interventions are also justified on the more demanding $50,000-per-QALY figure.

  21. ^

    0.005×$11,800,000×330,000,000×(5/9)×(1/1.0310)≈$8.04 trillion, which is over 20 times the cost of $400 billion.

  22. ^

     This is especially so in the case of pandemics, and in fact the pandemic-preventing interventions that we list are justified even considering only their effects on the risk of pandemics about as damaging as COVID-19. The total cost of the COVID-19 pandemic for the U.S. has been estimated at $16 trillion (Cutler and Summers 2020), which suggests that it is worth the U.S. spending up to $32 billion per year to decrease the annual risk of such pandemics by 0.2pp (and Cutler and Summers’ estimate is based on an October 2020 projection of 625,000 deaths. At the time of writing, Our World in Data (2022) has total confirmed US COVID-19 deaths at over 1 million). Our listed pandemic-preventing interventions are projected to cost less than $32 billion per year, and they would plausibly reduce annual risk by more than 0.2pp. After all, the observed frequency of pandemics as bad as COVID-19 is about one per century, suggesting an annual risk of 1% per year. A 0.2pp-decrease then means a 20%-decrease in baseline risk, which seems easily achievable via the interventions that we recommend. And since our listed pandemic-preventing interventions can be justified in this way, the case for funding them does not depend on difficult forecasts of the likelihood of unprecedented events, like a pandemic constituting a global catastrophe. Instead, we can appeal to the observed frequency of pandemics about as damaging as COVID-19.

  23. ^

     There is a case for including benefits to non-U.S. citizens in cost-benefit analyses of GCR-reducing interventions. After all, saving the lives of non-U.S. citizens is morally important. And the Biden administration already includes costs to non-U.S. citizens in its social cost of carbon (SCC): its estimate of the harm caused by carbon dioxide emissions (The White House 2022a). The SCC is a key input to the U.S. government’s climate policy, and counting costs to non-U.S. citizens in the SCC changes the cost-benefit balance of important decisions like regulating power plant emissions, setting standards for vehicle fuel efficiency, and signing on to international climate agreements.

  24. ^

     Describing this policy as ‘longtermist’ is simplifying slightly. Some longtermists prioritise preventing future suffering over increasing the probability that future generations exist (see, for example, Vinding 2020).

  25. ^

     Here is a related recommendation: longtermists should assess interventions’ cost-effectiveness using standard cost-benefit analysis when proposing those interventions to governments. They should not assess cost-effectiveness using longtermist assumptions and then appeal to cost-effectiveness thresholds from standard cost-benefit analysis to argue for government funding (see, e.g., Matheny 2007: 1340). If governments funded every intervention justified on these grounds, their level of spending on catastrophe-preventing interventions would be unacceptable to a majority of their citizens.

  26. ^

     Bostrom (2013: 18–19) makes something like this point, as does Posner (2004: 152–53).

    Why think that the non-existence of future generations would be an overwhelming moral loss? The best-known argument goes as follows: the expected future population is enormous (Greaves and MacAskill 2021: 6–9; MacAskill 2022: 1), the lives of future people are good in expectation (MacAskill 2022: 9), and – all else equal – it is better if the future contains more good lives (MacAskill 2022: 8). We should note, however, that longtermism is a big tent and that not all longtermists accept these claims.

  27. ^

     Since the Reagan administration, executive orders have required U.S. agencies to conduct cost-benefit analyses of major regulations (Executive Order No. 13,563 2012), and to demonstrate that the benefits of the regulation outweigh the costs (Executive Order No. 12,291 1982). U.S. courts have struck down regulations for being insufficiently sensitive to the results of cost-benefit analyses (Graham 2008: 454, 479; Posner and Sunstein 2017: 1820), citing a clause in the Administrative Procedure Act which requires courts to invalidate regulations that are “arbitrary [or] capricious” (Scope of Review 2012). The Supreme Court has indicated that agencies may not impose regulations with costs that “significantly” exceed benefits (Michigan v. EPA Michigan, et al.  V. Environmental Protection Agency, et al. (No. 14-46); Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al. (No. 14-47); National Mining Association v. Environmental Protection Agency, et al. (No. 14-49), 2015). For more, see (Graham 2008; E. A. Posner and Sunstein 2017).

  28. ^

     In this respect, reducing GCR is akin to mitigating climate change.

  29. ^

     However, we should note that nuclear war is an existential risk factor (Ord 2020: 175–80): a factor that increases existential risk. That is because nuclear wars that are not themselves existential catastrophes make humanity more vulnerable to other kinds of existential catastrophe. Since nuclear war is an existential risk factor, preventing nuclear war has effects on total existential risk not limited by nuclear war’s direct contribution to existential risk.

  30. ^

     We should note, though, that there are other reasons why a strong longtermist policy might prioritise nuclear risk. One is that a nuclear war might negatively affect the characteristics of the societies that shape the future.

  31. ^

     The minor complication is that an engineered pathogen could cause an existential catastrophe (the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential) without infecting more than 1,000 people. Since this outcome is very unlikely, we can safely ignore it here.

  32. ^

     At the time of writing, the PREVENT Pandemics Act (S.3799 - PREVENT Pandemics Act 2022) is yet to pass the Senate or the House, and it includes only about $2 billion in new spending to prevent future pandemics. Biden’s Build Back Better Act originally included $2.7 billion of funding for pandemic prevention (Teran 2022), but this funding was cut when the legislation became the Inflation Reduction Act (H.R.5376 - Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 2022).

  33. ^

     Ord (2020: 312) estimated that global spending on reducing existential risk from AI in 2020 was between $10 and $50 million per year.

  34. ^

     See Beckstead (2015) and Jebari (2015) for more detail.

  35. ^

     The welfare loss is most direct on an unrestricted preference-satisfaction theory of welfare: if a person has a moral commitment compromised, they thereby have a preference frustrated and so suffer a welfare loss. But compromised moral commitments also lead to welfare losses on other plausible theories of welfare. These theories will place some weight on positive and negative experiences, and having one’s moral commitments compromised is typically a negative experience.

  36. ^

     Here are two reasons why one might think that AWTP should be excluded from cost-benefit calculations, along with responses. First, one might think that AWTP for benefits to other people should be excluded (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2010: 18–19). Most of us care not only about the benefits that other people receive, but also about the costs that they bear. If benefits but not costs are included, we all pay more for benefits than we would like to, on average. If both benefits and costs are included, they cancel each other out. This point is correct as far as it goes, but it gives us no reason to exclude AWTP for pure longtermist goods from cost-benefit calculations. Future generations will not have to pay for the pure longtermist goods that we fund (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2010: 19).

    Second, one might think that charities (rather than governments) should assume the responsibility of upholding citizen’s moral commitments. This thought is analogous to the thought that private companies (rather than governments) should provide for citizens’ needs, and the response is analogous as well: some collective action problems require government action to solve. Citizens may be willing to bear costs for the sake of some moral commitment if and only if it can be ensured that some number of other people are contributing as well (Posner and Sunstein 2017: 1840).

  37. ^

     In their cost-benefit analysis of the ‘Water Closet Clearances’ regulation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appealed to non-wheelchair-users’ willingness to pay to make buildings more accessible for wheelchair users. The DOJ noted that, even if non-wheelchair-users would be willing to pay just pennies on average to provide disabled access, the benefits of the regulation would justify the costs (Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services 2010). In another context, the DOJ estimated U.S. AWTP to prevent rape, and noted that the estimated figure justified a regulation designed to reduce the incidence of prison rape (National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape 2012). And on the legal side, the U.S. Department of the Interior had a damage measure struck down by a court of appeals for failing to incorporate the existence value of pristine wilderness: the value that people derive from just knowing that such places exist, independently of whether they expect to visit them (Ohio v. U.S. Dept. Of the Interior 1989). Based on this case, Sunstein and Posner (2017: 1858–1860) suggest that excluding AWTP from cost-benefit analyses may suffice to render regulations “arbitrary [and] capricious”, in which case courts are required by the Administrative Procedure Act to invalidate them (Scope of Review 2012).

  38. ^

     Baum (2015: 93) makes a point along these lines: longtermists can use the inspirational power of the far future to motivate efforts to ensure it goes well.

  39. ^

     In this respect, the situation is analogous to Parfit’s (1984: 7) hitchhiker case.

  40. ^

     For helpful comments, we thank Mackenzie Arnold, Tomi Francis, Jakob Graabak, Hannah Lovell, Andreas Schmidt, Philip Trammell, Risto Uuk, Nikhil Venkatesh, an anonymous reviewer for Oxford University Press, and audience members at the 10th Oxford Workshop on Global Priorities Research.

  41. ^

     And recall that the above figures assume a conservative 0.1pp reduction in GCR as a result of implementing the whole suite of interventions. We think that a 0.5pp reduction in GCR is a more reasonable estimate, in which case the benefit-cost ratio of the suite is over 5. The most cost-effective interventions within the suite will have even more favourable benefit-cost ratios.

Comments35
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Thanks so much for writing this thought-provoking piece and for cross-posting it here to the forum for discussion. It is a long piece with lots of subtly different arguments that piece together in complex ways. Indeed, by the end of it, I'm not sure if I agree with the overall thrust or not. But there are many strands on which I do strongly agree or disagree and so I'll try to break them out into different comments here to make the discussion easier.

Overall:

  • I’m enthusiastic about your work towards creating CBA for existential risks.
  • I’m sympathetic to the argument that concern about presently existing people is sufficient to warrant substantial government spending on existential risk (though I don't think it quite gets there).
  • I’m also sympathetic to the idea that one should lead with this in policy circles (though I favour the view that one should sometimes lead with it and sometimes with future generations).
  • I strongly agree that we shouldn't try to implement policies that are democratically infeasible (though it should be uncontroversial that it is sometimes correct to propose policies that go somewhat beyond current democratic feasibility, since feasibility is not fixed).
  • I strongly disagree with the idea that it is in some way undemocratic to argue that the effects on future generations give an especially strong reason to be concerned about existential risks (which I think your paper sometimes suggests).

Regarding your CBA:

I worry that your stated estimates, aren't really enough to secure adequate funding on traditional CBA grounds.

For example, it doesn't work in many countries. There are only a fifth as many people living in the UK, so only a fifth as many beneficiaries. Thus the benefits internalised by the UK are a fifth as high, so the cost-benefit ratio is only a fifth as good. Moreover, the UK is poorer, so people are less willing to pay to avoid risk and the VSLs used by the government are substantially lower (I think about a fifth your stated figure — £2M), such that the package you list would dramatically fail the CBA by a factor of 25 or so in the UK. Many other countries are poorer or smaller than the US in some combination and will have trouble meeting this cost-benefit bar on the estimates you gave.

Even in the US, your estimates for the cost-benefit calculation aren’t really enough to make it go through. It would be if all these interventions were inextricably bound up as a package, or if all funding on them had equal effect. But CBA cares about marginal cost effectiveness and presumably the package can be broken into chunks of differing ex-ante cost-effectiveness (e.g. by intervention type, or by tranches of funding in each intervention). Indeed you suggest this later in the piece. Since the average only just meets the bar, if there is much variation, the marginal work won’t meet the bar, so government funding would cap out at something less than this, perhaps substantially so.

Moreover, your analysis suggests the package only marginally meets the cost-benefit threshold and requires some educated guesswork to do so (the amounts it would lower existential risk). Such speculative estimates that drive a large funding choice are usually frowned on in CBA. So even if it is marginally worth funding if government attention and capacity were free, it wouldn’t be a high priority.

My guess is therefore that a national package of interventions by the US would need to be notably more modest than this one to get funded purely on traditional CBA grounds, and much more modest to get funded in the UK or elsewhere, widening the gap between what traditional CBA gets us and what the addition of longtermist considerations could achieve.

But CBA cares about marginal cost effectiveness and presumably the package can be broken into chunks of differing ex-ante cost-effectiveness (e.g. by intervention type, or by tranches of funding in each intervention). Indeed you suggest this later in the piece. Since the average only just meets the bar, if there is much variation, the marginal work won’t meet the bar, so government funding would cap out at something less than this, perhaps substantially so.

Yes, this is an important point. If we were to do a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of catastrophe-preventing interventions, we’d want to address it more comprehensively (especially since we also mention how different interventions can undermine each other elsewhere in the paper).

On the point about the average only just meeting the bar, though, I think it’s worth noting that our mainline calculation uses very conservative assumptions. In particular, we assume:

  • A total cost of $400b rounded up from $319.6b
  • That all the costs of the interventions are paid upfront and that the risk-reduction occurs only at the end of the decade
  • The lowest VSL figure used by the DoT
  • The highest discount rate recommended by OIRA
  • A 1-in-1,000 GCR-reduction from the whole suite

And we count only these interventions benefits in terms of GCR-reduction. We don’t count any of the benefits arising from these interventions reducing the risk of smaller catastrophes.

I think that, once you replace these conservative assumptions with more reasonable ones, it’s plausible that each intervention we propose would pass a CBA test.

I think that these points also help our conclusions apply to other countries, even though all other countries are either smaller than the US or employ a lower VSL. And even though reasonable assumptions will still imply that some GCR-reducing interventions are too expensive for some countries, it could be worthwhile for these countries to participate in a coalition that agrees to share the costs of the interventions.

I agree that speculative estimates are a major problem. Making these estimates less speculative – insofar as that can be done – seems to me like a high priority. In the meantime, I wonder if it would help to emphasise that a speculative-but-unbiased estimate of the risk is just as likely to be too low as to be too high.

Thanks Elliott,

I guess this shows that the case won't get through with the conservative rounding off that you applied here, so future developments of this CBA would want to go straight for the more precise approximations in order to secure a higher evaluation.

Re the possibility of international agreements, I agree that they can make it easier to meet various CBA thresholds, but I also note that they are notoriously hard to achieve, even when in the interests of both parties. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, but if the CBA case relies on them then the claim that one doesn't need to go beyond it (or beyond CBA-plus-AWTP) becomes weaker.

That said, I think some of our residual disagreement may be to do with me still not quite understanding what your paper is claiming. One of my concerns is that I'm worried that CBA-plus-AWTP is a weak style of argument — especially with elected politicians. That is, arguing for new policies (or treaties) on grounds of CBA-plus-AWTP has some sway for fairly routine choices made by civil servants who need to apply government cost-effectiveness tests, but little sway with voters or politicians. Indeed, many people who would be benefited by such cost-effectiveness tests are either bored by — or actively repelled by — such a methodology. But if you are arguing that we should only campaign for policies that would pass such a test, then I'm more sympathetic. In that case, we could still make the case for them in terms that will resonate more broadly.

I've just seen your comment further down:

What we’re arguing for is a criterion: governments should fund all those catastrophe-preventing interventions that clear the bar set by cost-benefit analysis and altruistic willingness to pay. One justification for funding these interventions is the justification provided by CBA itself, but it need not be the only one. If longtermist justifications help us get to the place where all the catastrophe-preventing interventions that clear the CBA-plus-AWTP bar are funded, then there’s a case for employing those justifications too.

which answers my final paragraph in the parent comment, and suggests that we are not too far apart.

suggests that we are not too far apart.

Yes, I think so!

I guess this shows that the case won't get through with the conservative rounding off that you applied here, so future developments of this CBA would want to go straight for the more precise approximations in order to secure a higher evaluation.

And thanks again for making this point (and to weeatquince as well). I've written a new paragraph emphasising a more reasonable, less conservative estimate of benefit-cost ratios. I expect it'll probably go in the final draft, and I'll edit the post here to include it as well (just waiting on Carl's approval).

 Re the possibility of international agreements, I agree that they can make it easier to meet various CBA thresholds, but I also note that they are notoriously hard to achieve, even when in the interests of both parties. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try, but if the CBA case relies on them then the claim that one doesn't need to go beyond it (or beyond CBA-plus-AWTP) becomes weaker.

I think this is right (and I must admit that I don't know that much about the mechanics and success-rates of international agreements) but one cause for optimism here is Cass Sunstein's view about why the Montreal Protocol was such a success (see Chapter 2): cost-benefit analysis suggested that it would be in the US's interest to implement unilaterally and that the benefit-cost ratio would be even more favourable if other countries signed on as well. In that respect, the Montreal Protocol seems akin to prospective international agreements to share the cost of GCR-reducing interventions.

'Democratically unacceptable'

Like Richard, I was quite confused while reading the piece about the use of this term. I agree with him that if you are trying to get normative mileage out of this idea, then it doesn't work. In representative democracies like the US, we elect people to represent us in the highest levels of national decision-making. They are allowed to act in our narrow self-interest, but also in furtherance of our ideals. Indeed, they are aren’t constrained to leading from the back — to leading people to where they already want to go. They are also allowed to to lead from the front — to use good judgment to see things the public hadn’t yet seen, to show why it is an attractive course of action and to take it. Indeed, when we think of great Presidents or Prime Ministers it is often this quality that we most admire. So it seems entirely fine to me to appeal to people in government on moral grounds — including on longtermist grounds such as the effects on future generations. To say otherwise would involve some surprising judgments about other acts of moral leadership that are widely celebrated (such as in the ending of slavery).

I think the best version of this argument about democratic acceptability is not a moral or political philosophy argument (that it is wrong or unjust or undemocratic for governments to implement policies on these grounds) because there is little evidence it would be any of those things. Before a funding allocation reached those levels it would likely become politically unacceptable — i.e. it couldn’t practically be implemented and you would get less in the long run than if you asked for a more modest amount. I think there is broad agreement among longtermists that political feasibility is a key constraint, so the question is then about where it kicks in and what we can do to loosen the constraint by raising moral awareness.

At times it sounds like you agree with this, such as when you explicitly say "democratically unacceptable, by which we mean it could not be adopted and maintained by a democratic government", but at other times you seem to trade on the idea that there is something democratically tainted about political advocacy on behalf of the people of the future — this is something I strongly reject. I think the paper would be better if it were clearer on this. I think using the term 'democratically infeasible' would have been more apposite and would dispel the confusion.

(I should add that part of this is the question of whether you mean infeasible vs normatively problematic, and part of it is the question of whether you are critiquing use of longtermist considerations (over and above CBA considerations) vs whether you are critiquing attempts to impose the policies one would come up with on strong longtermism + ignoring feasibility. I'll address that more in another comment, but the short version is that I agree that imposing wildly unpopular policies on voters might be normatively problematic as well as infeasible, but think that comparison is a straw man.)

at other times you seem to trade on the idea that there is something democratically tainted about political advocacy on behalf of the people of the future — this is something I strongly reject.

I reject that too. We don’t mean to suggest that there is anything democratically tainted about that kind of advocacy. Indeed, we say that longtermists should advocate on behalf of future generations, in order to increase the present generation’s altruistic willingness to pay for benefits to future generations.

What we think would be democratically unacceptable is governments implementing policies that go significantly beyond the present generation’s altruistic willingness to pay. Getting governments to adopt such policies is infeasible, but we chose ‘unacceptable’ because we also think there would be something normatively problematic about it.

So I think we are addressing your strawman here. Certainly, we don’t take ourselves to be arguing against anyone in particular in saying that there would be something wrong with governments placing heavy burdens on the present generation for the sake of small reductions in existential risk. But it seems worth saying in any case, because I think it helps ward off misunderstandings from people not so familiar with longtermism (and we're hoping to reach such people - especially policymakers - with this paper). For suppose that someone knows only of the following argument for longtermism: the expected future population is enormous, the lives of future people are good in expectation, and it is better if the future contains more good lives. Then that person might mistakenly think that the goal of longtermists in the political sphere must be something like a strong longtermist policy.

we chose ‘unacceptable’ because we also think there would be something normatively problematic about it.

I'm not so sure about that. I agree with you that it would be normatively problematic in the paradigm case of a policy that imposed extreme costs on current society for very slight reduction in total existential risk — let's say, reducing incomes by 50% in order to lower risk by 1 part in 1 million.

But I don't know that it is true in general.

First, consider a policy that was inefficient but small — e.g. one that cost $10 million to the US govt, but reduced the number of statistical lives lost in the US by only 0.1, I don't think I'd say that this was democratically unacceptable. Policies like this are enacted all the time in safety contexts and are often inefficient and ill-thought-out, and I'm not generally in favour of them, but I don't find them to be undemocratic. I suppose one could argue that all US policy that doesn't pass a CBA is undemocratic (or democratically unacceptable), but that seems a stretch to me. So I wonder whether it is correct to count our intuitions on the extreme example as counting against all policies that are inefficient in traditional CBA terms or just against those that impose severe costs.

I wouldn't call a small policy like that 'democratically unacceptable' either. I guess the key thing is whether a policy goes significantly beyond citizens' willingness to pay not only by a large factor but also by a large absolute value. It seems likely to be the latter kinds of policies that couldn't be adopted and maintained by a democratic government, in which case it's those policies that qualify as democratically unacceptable on our definition.

Overshooting:

Second, the argument overshoots. Given other plausible claims, building policy on this premise would not only lead governments to increase their efforts to prevent catastrophes. It would also lead them to impose extreme costs on the present generation for the sake of miniscule reductions in the risk of existential catastrophe.

I disagree with this. 

First, I think that many moral views are compelled to find the possibility that their generation permanently eradicates all humans from the world to be especially bad and worthy of much extra effort to avoid. As I detailed in Chapter 2 of the Precipice, this can be based on considerations about the past or about the future. While longtermism is often associated with the future-directed reasons, I favour a broader definition. If someone is deeply moved by the Burkean partnership of the generations over an unbroken chain stretching back 10,000 generations and thinks this gives additional reason not to be the generation who breaks it, then I’m inclined to say they are a longtermist too. But whether it counts or doesn’t, my arguments in Chapter 2 still imply that many moral views are already committed to a special badness of extinction (and often other existential risks). This means there is a wide set of views that go beyond traditional CBA and I can't see a good argument why they should all overshoot.

And what about for a longtermist view that is more typical of our community? Suppose we are committed to the idea that each person matters equally no matter when they would live. It doesn't follow from this that the best policy is one that demands vast sacrifices from the current generation, anymore than this follows from the widely held view that all people matter equally regardless of race or place of birth. One could still have places in ethics or political philosophy where there are limits placed on the sacrifices that can be demanded of you, and especially limits placed on the sacrifices you can force others to endure in order to produce a larger amount of benefits for others. Theories with such limits could still be impartial in time and could definitely qualify as longtermist.

One could also have things tempered by moral uncertainty or political beliefs about pluralism or non-coercion.

And that is before we get to the fact that longtermist policy drafters don't have to ignore the feasibility of their proposals — another clear way to stop before you overshoot. 

I really don't think it is clear that there are any serious policy suggestions from longtermists that do overshoot here. e.g. in The Precipice (p. 186) my advice on budget is:

We currently spend less than a thousandth of a percent of gross world product on them. Earlier, I suggested bringing this up by at least a factor of 100, to reach a point where the world is spending more on securing its potential than on ice cream, and perhaps a good longer-term target may be a full 1 percent.

And this doesn't seem too different from your own advice ($400B spending by the US is 2% of a year's GDP).

A different take might be that I and others could be commended for not going too far, but that in doing so we are being inconsistent with our stated principles. That is an interesting angle, and one raised by Jim Holt in his very good NYT book review. But I ultimately don't think it works either: I can't see any strong arguments that longtermism lacks the theoretical resources to consistently avoid overshooting.

Second, the argument overshoots.

The argument we mean to refer to here is the one that we call the ‘best-known argument’ elsewhere: the one that says that the non-existence of future generations would be an overwhelming moral loss because the expected future population is enormous, the lives of future people are good in expectation, and it is better if the future contains more good lives. We think that this argument is liable to overshoot.

I agree that there are other compelling longtermist arguments that don’t overshoot. But my concern is that governments can’t use these arguments to guide their catastrophe policy. That’s because these arguments don’t give governments much guidance in deciding where to set the bar for funding catastrophe-preventing interventions. They don’t answer the question, ‘By how much does an intervention need to reduce risks per $1 billion of cost in order to be worth funding?’.

We currently spend less than a thousandth of a percent of gross world product on them. Earlier, I suggested bringing this up by at least a factor of 100, to reach a point where the world is spending more on securing its potential than on ice cream, and perhaps a good longer-term target may be a full 1 percent.

And this doesn't seem too different from your own advice ($400B spending by the US is 2% of a year's GDP).

This seems like a good target to me, although note that $400b is our estimate for how much it would cost to fund our suite of interventions for a decade, rather than for a year.

Thanks for the clarifications!

EJT
1y10
1
0

Thanks, these comments are great! I'm planning to work through them later this week. 

I agree with pretty much all of your bulletpoints. With regards to the last one, we didn't mean to suggest that arguing for greater concern about existential risks is undemocratic. Instead, we meant to suggest that (in the world as it is today) it would be undemocratic for governments to implement polices that place heavy burdens on the present generation for the sake of small reductions in existential risk.

The target of your comparisons:

At times it seems like you are comparing traditional CBA justifications for government work on existential risk vs longtermist justifications. At other times it seems like you are comparing the policy prescriptions and funding that would pass a traditional CBA vs the policy prescriptions and funding that would come out of strong longtermist reasoning (deliberately setting aside political feasibility). I have different views on each of these comparisons. 

On the first, I think we should use both traditional CBA justifications as well as longtermist considerations and don’t think the piece really offers much argument against including the latter at all (for one thing, it doesn’t seem to recognise that they can actually be popular and motivating with the public and with policy makers in a way that CBA isn’t, widening the feasibility window). 

On the second, I agree that we should generally not use strong longtermist justifications (though the piece usually frames itself as arguing against regular longtermist justifications). For one thing, I don't actually endorse strong longtermism anyway. I also agree that we shouldn’t set aside political feasibility in our policy recommendations. But it seems something of a straw man to suggest that the choice under discussion is to ignore effects on future generations or to consider all such effects on a total utilitarian basis and ignore the political feasibility. Are there any serious advocates of that position? The inadequacy of the second of these options doesn’t really help you conclude that we should deliberately restrict ourselves to the CBA option, as there are so many other options that were not considered.

On the first, I think we should use both traditional CBA justifications as well as longtermist considerations

I agree with this. What we’re arguing for is a criterion: governments should fund all those catastrophe-preventing interventions that clear the bar set by cost-benefit analysis and altruistic willingness to pay. One justification for funding these interventions is the justification provided by CBA itself, but it need not be the only one. If longtermist justifications help us get to the place where all the catastrophe-preventing interventions that clear the CBA-plus-AWTP bar are funded, then there’s a case for employing those justifications too.

But it seems something of a straw man to suggest that the choice under discussion is to ignore effects on future generations or to consider all such effects on a total utilitarian basis and ignore the political feasibility. Are there any serious advocates of that position?

We think that longtermists in the political sphere should (as far as they can) commit themselves to only pushing for policies that can be justified on CBA-plus-AWTP grounds (which need not entirely ignore effects on future generations). We think that, in the absence of such a commitment, the present generation may worry that longtermists would go too far. From the paper:

 Longtermists can try to increase government funding for catastrophe-prevention by making longtermist arguments and thereby increasing citizens’ AWTP, but they should not urge governments to depart from a CBA-plus-AWTP catastrophe policy. On the contrary, longtermists should as far as possible commit themselves to acting in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in the political sphere. One reason why is simple: longtermists have moral reasons to respect the preferences of their fellow citizens.

To see another reason why, note first that longtermists working to improve government catastrophe policy could be a win-win. The present generation benefits because longtermists solve the collective action problem: they work to implement interventions that cost-effectively reduce everyone’s risk of dying in a catastrophe. Future generations benefit because these interventions also reduce existential risk. But as it stands the present generation may worry that longtermists would go too far. If granted imperfectly accountable power, longtermists might try to use the machinery of government to place burdens on the present generation for the sake of further benefits to future generations. These worries may lead to the marginalisation of longtermism, and thus an outcome that is worse for both present and future generations.

The best solution is compromise and commitment.[39] A CBA-plus-AWTP policy – founded as it is on citizens’ preferences – is acceptable to a broad coalition of people. As a result, longtermists committing to act in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy makes possible an arrangement that is significantly better than the status quo, both by longtermist lights and by the lights of the present generation. It also gives rise to other benefits of cooperation. For example, it helps to avoid needless conflicts in which groups lobby for opposing policies, with some substantial portion of the resources that they spend cancelling each other out (see Ord 2015: 120–21, 135). With a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in place, those resources can instead be spent on interventions that are appealing to all sides.

I like the central points that (i) even weak assumptions suffice to support catastrophic risk reduction as a public policy priority, and (ii) it's generally better (more effective) to argue from widely-accepted assumptions than from widely-rejected ones.

But I worry about the following claim:

There are clear moral objections against pursuing democratically unacceptable policies

This seems objectionably conservative, and would seem to preclude any sort of "systemic change" that is not already popular. Closing down factory farms, for example, is clearly "democratically unacceptable" to the current electorate. But it would be ridiculous to claim that there are "clear moral objections" to vegan abolitionist political activism.

Obviously the point of such advocacy is to change what is (currently) regarded as "democratically (un)acceptable". If the advocacy succeeds, then the result is no longer democratically unacceptable.  If the advocacy fails, then it isn't implemented.  In neither case is there any obvious moral objection to advocating, within a democracy, for what you think is true and good.

EJT
1y10
5
0

Thanks for the comment!

There are clear moral objections against pursuing democratically unacceptable policies

What we mean with this sentence is that there are clear moral objections against governments pursuing [perhaps we should have said 'instituting'] democratically unacceptable policies. We don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with citizens advocating for policies that are currently democratically unacceptable with the aim of making them democratically acceptable.

OK, thanks for clarifying! I guess there's a bit of ambiguity surrounding talk of "the goal of longtermists in the political sphere", so maybe worth distinguishing immediate policy goals that could be implemented right away, vs. external (e.g. "consciousness-raising") advocacy aimed at shifting values.

It's actually an interesting question when policymakers can reasonably go against public opinion. It doesn't seem necessarily objectionable (e.g. to push climate protection measures that most voters are too selfish or short-sighted to want to pay for). There's a reason we have representative rather than direct democracy. But the key thing about your definition of "democratically unacceptable" is that it specifies the policy could not possibly be maintained, which more naturally suggests a feasibility objection than a moral one, anyhow.

But I'm musing a bit far afield now.  Thanks for the thought-provoking paper!

Thank you (again) for this.

I think this message should be emphasized much more in many EA and LT contexts, e.g. introductory materials on effectivealtruism.org and 80000hours.org.

As your paper points out: longtermist axiology probably changes the ranking between x-risk and catastrophic risk interventions in some cases. But there's lots of convergence, and in practice your ranked list of interventions won't change much (even if the diff between them does... after you adjust for cluelessness, Pascal's mugging, etc).

Some worry that if you're a fan of longtermist axiology then this approach to comms is disingenous. I strongly disagree: it's normal to start your comms by finding common ground, and elaborate on your full reasoning later on.

Andrew Leigh MP seems to agree. Here's the blurb from his recent book, "What's The Worst That Could Happen?":

Did you know that you’re more likely to die from a catastrophe than in a car crash? The odds that a typical US resident will die from a catastrophic event—for example, nuclear war, bioterrorism, or out-of-control artificial intelligence—have been estimated at 1 in 6. That’s fifteen times more likely than a fatal car crash and thirty-one times more likely than being murdered. In What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, Andrew Leigh looks at catastrophic risks and how to mitigate them, arguing provocatively that the rise of populist politics makes catastrophe more likely.

The message I take is that there's potentially a big difference between these two questions:

  1. Which government policies should one advocate for?
  2. For an impartial individual, what are the best causes and interventions to work on?

Most of effective altruism, including 80,000 Hours, has focused on the second question.

This paper makes a good case for an answer to the first, but doesn't tell us much about the second.

If you only value the lives of the present generation, it's not-at-all obvious that marginal investment in reducing catastrophic risk beats funding GiveWell-recommended charities (or if animal lives are included, fighting factory farming). And this paper doesn't make that case.

I think the mistake people have made is not to distinguish more clearly between these two questions, both in discussion of what's best and in choice of strategy.

People often criticise effective altruism because they interpret the suggestions aimed at individuals as policy proposals ("but if everyone did this..."). But if community members are not clearly distinguishing the two perspectives, to some degree that's fair – you can see from this paper why you would not want to turn over control of the government to strong longtermists. If the community is going to expand from philanthropy to policy, it needs to rethink what proposals it advocates for and how they are justified. 

A third question is:

3. What values should one morally advocate for?

The answers to this could be different yet again.

Much past longtermist advocacy arguably fits into the framework of trying to get people to increase their altruistic willingness to pay to help future generations, and I think make sense on those grounds. Though again perhaps could be clearer that the question of what governments should do all-considered given people's current willingnesses to pay is a different question.

Thanks for writing this! I'm curating it.

There are roughly two parts to the post

  1. a sketch cost-benefit analysis (CBA) for whether the US should fund interventions reducing global catastrophic risk (roughly sections 2-4)
  2. an argument for why longtermists should push for a policy of funding all those GCR-reducing interventions that pass a cost-benefit analysis test and no more (except to the extent that a government should account for its citizens' altruistic preferences, which in turn can be influenced by longtermism)
    1. "That is because (1) unlike a strong longtermist policy, a CBA-driven policy would be democratically acceptable and feasible to implement, and (2) a CBA-driven policy would reduce existential risk by almost as much as a strong longtermist policy."

I think the second part presents more novel arguments for readers of the Forum, but the first part is an interesting exercise, and important to sketch out to make the argument in part two. 

Assorted thoughts below. 

1. A graph

I want to flag a graph from further into the post that some people might miss ("The x-axis represents U.S. lives saved (discounted by how far in the future the life is saved) in expectation per dollar. The y-axis represents existential-risk-reduction per dollar. Interventions to the right of the blue line would be funded by a CBA-driven catastrophe policy. The exact position of each intervention is provisional and unimportant, and the graph is not to scale in any case... "): 

A picture containing graphical user interface

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2. Outlining the cost-benefit analysis

I do feel like a lot of the numbers used for the sketch CBA are hard to defend, but I get the sense that you're approaching those as givens, and then asking what e.g. people in the US government should do if they find the assumptions reasonable. At a brief skim, the support for "how much the interventions in question would reduce risk" seems to be the weakest (and I am a little worried about how this is approached — flagged below). 

I've pulled out some fragments that produce a ~BOTEC for the cost-effectiveness of a set of interventions from the US government's perspective (bold mine):  

  1. A "global catastrophe" is an event that kills at least 5 billion people. The model assumes that each person’s risk of dying in a global catastrophe is equal.
  2. Overall risk of a global catastrophe: "Assuming independence and combining Ord’s risk-estimates of 10% for AI, 3% for engineered pandemics, and 5% for nuclear war gives us at least a 17% risk of global catastrophe from these sources over the next 100 years.[8] If we assume that the risk per decade is constant, the risk over the next decade is about 1.85%.[9] If we assume also that every person’s risk of dying in this kind of catastrophe is equal, then (conditional on not dying in other ways) each U.S. citizen’s risk of dying in this kind of catastrophe in the next decade is at least  (since, by our definition, a global catastrophe would kill at least 5 billion people, and the world population is projected to remain under 9 billion until 2033). According to projections of the U.S. population pyramid, 6.88% of U.S. citizens alive today will die in other ways over the course of the next decade.[10] That suggests that U.S. citizens alive today have on average about a 1% risk of being killed in a nuclear war, engineered pandemic, or AI disaster in the next decade. That is about ten times their risk of being killed in a car accident.[11]"
    1. A lot of ink has been spilled on this, but I don't get the sense that there's a lot of agreement. 
  3. How much would a set of interventions cost: "We project that funding this suite of interventions for the next decade would cost less than $400 billion.[16]" — the footnote reads "The Biden administration’s 2023 Budget requests $88.2 billion over five years (The White House 2022c; U.S. Office of Management and Budget 2022). We can suppose that another five years of funding would require that much again. A Nucleic Acid Observatory covering the U.S. is estimated to cost $18.4 billion to establish and $10.4 billion per year to run (The Nucleic Acid Observatory Consortium 2021: 18). Ord (2020: 202–3) recommends increasing the budget of the Biological Weapons Convention to $80 million per year. Our listed interventions to reduce nuclear risk are unlikely to cost more than $10 billion for the decade. AI safety and governance might cost up to $10 billion as well. The total cost of these interventions for the decade would then be $319.6 billion."
  4. How much would the interventions reduce risk: "We also expect this suite of interventions to reduce the risk of global catastrophe over the next decade by at least 0.1pp (percentage points). A full defence of this claim would require more detail than we can fit in this chapter, but here is one way to illustrate the claim’s plausibility. Imagine an enormous set of worlds like our world in 2023. ... We claim that in at least 1-in-1,000 of these worlds the interventions we recommend above would prevent a global catastrophe this decade. That is a low bar, and it seems plausible to us that the interventions above meet it."
    1. This seems under-argued. Without thinking too long about this, it's probably the point in the model that I'd want to see more work on. 
    2. I also worry a bit that collecting interventions like this (and estimating cost-effectiveness for the whole bunch instead of individually) leads to issues like: funding interventions that aren't cost-effective because they're part of the group, not funding interventions that account for the bulk of the risk reduction because a group that's advocating for funding these interventions gets a partial success that drops some particularly useful intervention (e.g. funding AI safety research), etc.
  5. The value of a statistical life (VSL) (the value of saving one life in expectation via small reductions in mortality risks for many people): "The primary VSL figure used by the U.S. Department of Transportation for 2021 is $11.8 million, with a range to account for various kinds of uncertainty spanning from about $7 million to $16.5 million (U.S. Department of Transportation 2021a, 2021b)." (With a constant annual discount rate.) (Discussed here.)
  6. Should the US fund these interventions? (Yes)
    1. "given a world population of less than 9 billion and conditional on a global catastrophe occurring, each American’s risk of dying in that catastrophe is at least 5/9. Reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp then reduces each American’s risk of death this decade by at least 0.055pp. Multiplying that figure by the U.S. population of 330 million, we get the result that reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp saves at least 181,500 American lives in expectation. If that GCR-reduction were to occur this year, it would be worth at least $1.27 trillion on the Department of Transportation’s lowest VSL figure of $7 million. But since the GCR-reduction would occur over the course of a decade, cost-benefit analysis requires that we discount. If we use OIRA’s highest annual discount rate of 7% and suppose (conservatively) that all the costs of our interventions are paid up front while the GCR-reduction comes only at the end of the decade, we get the result that reducing GCR this decade by 0.1pp is worth at least $1.27 trillion /  $646 billion. So, at a cost of $400 billion, these interventions comfortably pass a standard cost-benefit analysis test.[20] That in turn suggests that the U.S. government should fund these interventions. Doing so would save American lives more cost-effectively than many other forms of government spending on life-saving, such as transportation and environmental regulations. In fact, we can make a stronger argument. Using a projected U.S. population pyramid and some life-expectancy statistics, we can calculate that approximately 79% of the American life-years saved by preventing a global catastrophe in 2033 would accrue to Americans alive today in 2023 (Thornley 2022). 79% of $646 billion is approximately $510 billion. That means that funding this suite of GCR-reducing interventions is well worth it, even considering only the benefits to Americans alive today.[21]"
    2. (The authors also flag that this pretty significantly underrates the cost-effectiveness of the interventions, etc. by not accounting for the fact that the interventions also decrease the risks from smaller catastrophes and by not accounting for the deaths of non-US citizens.)

3. Some excerpts from the argument about what longtermists should advocate for that I found insightful or important 

  1. "getting governments to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy is not trivial. One barrier is psychological (Wiener 2016). Many of us find it hard to appreciate the likelihood and magnitude of a global catastrophe. Another is that GCR-reduction is a collective action problem for individuals. Although a safer world is in many people’s self-interest, working for a safer world is in few people’s self-interest. Doing so means bearing a large portion of the costs and gaining just a small portion of the benefits.[28] Politicians and regulators likewise lack incentives to advocate for GCR-reducing interventions (as they did with climate interventions in earlier decades). Given widespread ignorance of the risks, calls for such interventions are unlikely to win much public favour. / However, these barriers can be overcome."
  2. "getting the U.S. government to adopt a CBA-driven catastrophe policy would reduce existential risk by almost as much as getting them to adopt a strong longtermist policy. This is for two reasons. The first is that, at the current margin, the primary goals of a CBA-driven policy and a strong longtermist policy are substantially aligned. The second is that increased spending on preventing catastrophes yields steeply diminishing returns in terms of existential-risk-reduction." (I appreciated the explanations given for the reasons.)
  3. "At the moment, the world is spending very little on preventing global catastrophes. The U.S. spent approximately $3 billion on biosecurity in 2019 (Watson et al. 2018), and (in spite of the wake-up call provided by COVID-19) funding for preventing future pandemics has not increased much since then.[32] Much of this spending is ill-suited to combatting the most extreme biological threats. Spending on reducing GCR from AI is less than $100 million per year.[33]"
  4. "here, we believe, is where longtermism should enter into government catastrophe policy. Longtermists should make the case for their view, and thereby increase citizens’ AWTP [altruistic willingness to pay] for pure longtermist goods like refuges.[38] When citizens are willing to pay for these goods, governments should fund them."
  5. "One might think that it is true only on the current margin and in public that longtermists should push governments to adopt a catastrophe policy guided by cost-benefit analysis and altruistic willingness to pay. [...] We disagree. Longtermists can try to increase government funding for catastrophe-prevention by making longtermist arguments and thereby increasing citizens’ AWTP, but they should not urge governments to depart from a CBA-plus-AWTP catastrophe policy. On the contrary, longtermists should as far as possible commit themselves to acting in accordance with a CBA-plus-AWTP policy in the political sphere. One reason why is simple: longtermists have moral reasons to respect the preferences of their fellow citizens. [Another reason why is that] the present generation may worry that longtermists would go too far. If granted imperfectly accountable power, longtermists might try to use the machinery of government to place burdens on the present generation for the sake of further benefits to future generations. These worries may lead to the marginalisation of longtermism, and thus an outcome that is worse for both present and future generations."

I'm pretty late to the party here, but I want to say I really enjoyed the piece! Your piece came out only three weeks before the big draft overhaul to the way that the U.S. does benefit-cost analysis came out, which is in a document called Circular A-4. I think there is a lot I'd change around the choices in the analysis, particularly in light of the new draft A-4 Guidance (most of which goes in favor of putting more weight on catastrophes):

  • The old A-4's use of a 7% discount rate on capital didn't make sense because the 7% includes other factors outside of time preference (in particular risk aversion). The new A-4 has a much better treatment of discounting capital: which is applying a shadow price of capital adjustment, which is somewhere between a factor of 1-1.2 (so it's not too much of an adjustment in any case). The upshot of all of this is that, based on the new A-4, you should be using a 1.7% discount rate for impacts out to 30 years, which is drastically different than the 7% discount rate that you were using and which will put more weight on the future (and appropriately so from the descriptive point of view to reflect people's tradeoffs between money now and money in the future in capital markets). 
  • For impacts beyond 30 years, standard economic theory and the new A-4 suggest that you should be using a declining discount rate to account for future interest rate uncertainty (see my brief description here). The A-4 preamble has a proposed schedule of declining discount rates, which goes down to 1% 140 years in the future. This will also place more value on the future. 
  • President Biden's Presidential Memorandum and the new A-4 are quite clear (see summary of A-4's temporal scope of analysis section) that the interest of future generations should be taken into account when they will be impacted by important benefits and costs from some policy. In fact, the U.S. had previously been accounting for the impacts of climate change out to 500 years in BCA (in the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations) through the use of the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases, so impacts on future generations had been taken into account in that context, and should be taken into account in these other contexts as well, as discussed in the new draft A-4.
  • Much of your analysis seems to only look at the direct impacts on Americans. However, A-4 has a robust discussion around the conditions under which it is important for analysts to include global impacts, such as "regulating an externality on the basis of its global effects supports a cooperative international approach to the regulation of the externality by potentially inducing other countries to follow suit or maintain existing efforts." This recognizes that global externalities/risks like pandemics, biosecurity, climate change, etc. require international regulatory cooperation. If, e.g., a new global pandemic is caused by poor biosecurity regulatory oversight in other countries, this harms Americans. Both because Americans will get sick and die, but also because disruptions in other countries will cause significant harm to the global economy, global trade, and global stability that will in turn harm Americans. Just as poor biosecurity regulatory oversight in the U.S. causing a pandemic will cause harm in other countries for the same reasons. Note that this is also the approach that the U.S. Government has taken to account for climate change in BCA through the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases by considering global damages from climate change and not just domestic damages. As that document states, global externalities like greenhouse gas emissions and biosecurity policy imply that the whole world enjoys the benefit of one country’s decisions to reduce the harm from the global externality, and therefore “the only way to achieve an efficient allocation of resources for emissions reduction on a global basis—and so benefit the U.S. and its citizens and residents—is for all countries to consider estimates of global marginal damages” from the externality as well as the global marginal benefits of taking actions to reduce the externality.
  • Although your post is about risks, I didn't see mention of accounting for Risk Aversion, which is one of the most consistent features of human preferences and should be reflected in BCA. The draft A-4 instructs BCA practitioners to explicitly account for uncertainty when doing BCA as well as risk aversion across that uncertainty. This ends up placing more weight on the benefits that help to avoid catastrophes, and thus would tend to favor policies that reduce the probability of catastrophes (e.g. pandemic preparedness).
  • And finally, much of your analysis seems to hinge on probabilities for catastrophes that come from e.g. the EA community or Prediction Markets. Because you choose to account for a very limited scope of impacts across time and space at a very high discount rate, those probabilities end up having to do a lot of work for the analysis to yield net benefits. My sense is for the purposes of BCA for U.S. regulatory impact assessments, these probabilities may be viewed as too speculative (at least for anthropogenic risks) and may be challenged in getting through the various processes that BCAs for regulations must go through including public comment, OIRA review, and then ultimately litigation in court where most rules are inevitably challenged.  Fortunately, A-4 has a tool that provides a way forward in this situation: Break Even Analysis. Break-even analysis provides a way forward when there is a high degree of uncertainty/ambiguity in important parameters, and you need to determine what those parameters would need to be for the policy to still yield positive net benefits. This is particularly relevant for catastrophic events: “For example, there may be instances where you have estimates of the expected outcome of a type of catastrophic event, but assessing the change in the probability of such an event may be difficult. Your break-even analysis could demonstrate how much a regulatory alternative would need to reduce the probability of a catastrophic event occurring in order to yield positive net benefits or change which regulatory alternative is most net beneficial.”

To Summarize, I think U.S. BCA practice actually offers a much wider variety of tools for assessing catastrophic risks, which benefits the interest and welfare of Americans, and those tools should be utilized. 

Thanks, Danny! This is all super helpful. I'm planning to work through this comment and your BCA update post next week.

Thanks for this, great paper. 

  1. I 100% agree on the point that longtermism is not a necessary argument to achieve investment in existential/GCR risk reduction (and indeed might be a distraction). We have recently published on this (here). The paper focuses on the process of National Risk Assessment (NRA). We argue: "If one takes standard government cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) as the starting point, especially the domain of healthcare where cost-per-quality-adjusted-life-year is typically the currency and discount rates of around 3% are typically used, then existential risk just looks like a limiting case for CEA. The population at risk is simply all those alive at the time and the clear salience of existential risks emerges in simple consequence calculations (such as those demonstrated above) coupled with standard cost-utility metrics.” (look for my post on this paper in the Forum, as I'm about to publish it (next 1-2 days probably >> update, here's the link). 
  2. We then turn to the question of why governments don't see things this way, and note: "The real question then becomes, why do government NRAs and CEAs not account for the probabilities and impacts of GCRs and existential risk? Possibilities include unfamiliarity (i.e., a knowledge gap, to be solved by wider consultation), apparent intractability (i.e., a lack of policy response options, to be solved by wider consultation), conscious neglect (due to low probability or for political purposes, but surely to be authorized by wider consultation), or seeing some issues as global rather than national (typically requiring a global coordination mechanism). Most paths point toward the need for informed public and stakeholder dialog."
  3. We then ask how wider consultation might be effected and propose a two-way communication approach between governments and experts/populations. Noting that NRAs are based on somewhat arbitrary assumptions we propose letting the public explore alternative outcomes of the NRA process by altering assumptions. This is where the AWTP line of your argument could be included, as discount rate and time-horizon are two of the assumptions that could be explored, and seeing the magnitude of benefit/cost people might be persuaded that a little WTP for altruistic outcomes might be good. 
  4. Overall, CEA/CBA is a good approach, and NRA is a method by which it could be formalized in government processes around catastrophe (provided current shortcomings where NRA is often not connected to a capabilities analysis (solutions) are overcome). 
  5. Refuges: sometimes the interests in securing a refuge and protecting the whole population align, as in the case of island refuges, where investment in the refuge is also protecting the entire currently alive population. So refuges may not always be left of the blue box in your figure. 

Thanks for the tip! Looking forward to reading your paper.

but surely to be authorized by wider consultation

What do you mean by this?

Thanks. I guess this relates to your point about democratically acceptable decisions of governments. If a government is choosing to neglect something (eg because its probability is low, or because they have political motivations for doing so, vested interests etc), then they should only do so if they have information suggesting the electorate has/would authorize this. Otherwise it is an undemocratic decision. 

Thank so much you for writing this I think it is an excellent piece and makes a really strong case for how longtermists should consider approaching policy. I agree with most of your conclusions here.

I have been working in the space for a number of years advocating (with some limited successes) for a cost effectiveness approach to government policy making on risks in the UK (and am a contributing author to the Future Proof report your cite). Interestingly despite having made progress in the area I am over time leaning more towards work on specific advocacy focused on known risks (e.g. on pandemic preparedness) than more general work on improve government spending on risks as a whole. I have a number of unpublished notes on how to assess the value of such work that might be useful so thought I would share below.

I think there is three points my notes might helpfully add to your work

  1. Some more depth about how to think about cost benefit analysis and in particular what the threshold is for government to take action. I think the cost benefit you describe is below the threshold for government action.
  2. An independent literature review type analysis on what the benefit cost ratio is for on the margin additional funds going into disaster prevention. (Literature list in Annex section).
  3. Some vague reflections as a practitioner in this space on the paths to impact

 

Note: Some of this research was carried out for Charity Entrepreneurship and should be considered Charity Entrepreneurship work. This post is in an independent capacity and does not represent views of any employer

 

1. The cost benefit analysis here is not enough to suggests government action

I think it is worth putting some though into how to interpret cost benefit analyses and how a government policy maker might interpret and use them. Your conservative estimate suggests a benefit $646 billion to a cost of $400 billion – this is a benefit cost ratio (BCR) of 1.6 to 1. 

Naively a benefit cost ratio of >1 to 1 suggests that a project is worth funding. However given the overhead costs of government policy, to governments propensity to make even cost effective projects go wrong and public preferences for money in hand it may be more appropriate to apply a higher bar for cost-effective government spending. I remember I used to have a 3 to 1 ratio, perhaps picked up when I worked in Government although I cannot find a source for this now.

According to https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5537512/ the average cost benefit ratio of government investment into health programs is 8.3 to 1. I highly expect there are many actions the US government could take to improve citizens healthcare with a CBA in the 5-10 to 1 range. In comparison on a 1.6 to 1 does not look like a priority.

Some Copenhagen Consensus analysis I read considers robust evidence for benefits between 5 to 15 times higher than costs as "good" interventions.

So overall if making the case to government or the public I think making the case that there is a 1.6 to 1 BCR is not sufficient to suggest action. I would consider 3 to 1 to be a reasonable bar and 5 to 1 to be a good case for action.

 

2. On the other hand the benefit cost ratio is probably higher than your analysis suggests

As mentioned you directly calculate a benefit cost ratio of 1.6 to 1 (i.e. $646 billion to $400 billion).

Firstly I note that reading your workings this is clearly a conservative estimate. I would be interested to see a midline estimate of the BCR too.

I made a separate estimate that I thought I would share. It was a bit more optimistic than this. It suggested that the benefit costs ratios (BCR) for disaster prevention are that, on the margin, additional spending on disaster preparedness to be in the region of 10 to 1, maybe a bit below that. I copy my sources into an annex section below.

(That said, spending $400 billion is arguably more than “on the margin” and is a big jump in spending so we might expect that spending at that level to have a somewhat lower value. Of course in practice I don’t think advocates are going to get government to spend $400bn tomorrow and that a gradual ramp up in spending is likely justified.)

 

3. A few reflections on political tractability and value 

My experience (based on the UK) is that I expect governments to be relatively open to change and improvement in this area. I expect the technocratic elements of government respond well to highlighting inconsistencies in process and decision making and the UK government has committed to improvements to how they asses risks. I expect governments to be a bit more reticent to make changes that necessitate significant spending or to put in place mechanisms and oversight that can hold them to account for not spending sufficiently on high-impact risks that might ensure future spending.

I am also becoming a bit more sceptical of the value of this kind of general longtermist work when put in comparison to work focusing on known risks. Based on my analysis to date I believe some of the more specific policy change ideas about preventing dangerous research or developing new technology to tackle pandemics (or AI regulation) to be a bit more tractable and a bit higher benefit to cost than then this more general work to increase spending on risks. That said in policy you may want to have many avenues you are working on at once so as to capitalise on key opportunities so these approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Additionally there is a case for more general system improvements from a more patient longtermist view or from a higher focus on unknown unknown risks being critical.
 

 

ANNEX: My estimate 

On the value of general disaster preparedness

We can set a prior for the value of pandemic preparedness by looking at other disaster preparedness spending.

Real-world evidence. Most of the evidence for this comes from assessments of the value of physical infrastructure preparation for natural disasters, such as building buildings that can withstand floods. See table below.

SourceSummaryBCR

Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: 2019 Report

Link

  • Looks at the BCR for different disaster mitigation prevention. For example:
    • Adopting building codes 11:1
    • Changing buildings 4:1
  • (We think this source has some risk of bias, although it does appear to be high quality.)

11:1

 

4:1

If Mitigation Saves $6 Per Every $1 …
(Gall and Friedland, 2020)

Link

  • “The value of hazard mitigation is well known: the Multihazard Mitigation Council (MMC) upped their initial estimate of $4 (MMC 2005) saved for every $1 spent on hazard mitigation to $6, and $7 with regard to flood mitigation (MMC 2017).”

4:1

 

6½:1

Other estimates. There are also a number of estimates of benefit cost ratios:

SourceSummaryBCR

Does mitigation save? Reviewing cost-benefit analyses of disaster risk reduction

(Shreve and Kelman, 2014)

Link

  • Suggest that disaster relief saves money but at what ratio is unclear and is highly dependent on situation location and kind of disaster.
  • BCR estimates tend to be less than 10 with a few going into the 10s and a very few much higher (largest was 1800)
  • BCRs may underestimate by putting a high discount rate
~10:1

Natural disasters challenge paper

(Copenhagen Consensus, 2015)

  • There are growing economic costs from natural disasters in recent years. This is especially true in developing countries where there may be limited insurance, higher risks and looser building codes. 
  • Looks at retrofitting schools to be earthquake resistant in seismically active countries, suggests this has a BCR close to 1:1
  • Looks at constructing a one-metre high wall to protect homes or elevating houses by one metre to reduce flooding. Suggests this has a BCR of 60:1.

1:1

 

60:1

IFRC 
Link
  • ““We estimate that for each dollar spent on disaster preparedness, an average of four dollars is saved on disaster response and recovery” says Alberto Monguzzi, Disaster Management Coordinator in the IFRC Europe Zone Office.”
4:1

Pandemic preparedness estimates

Other estimates. We found one example of estimates of the value of preparing better for future pandemics. 

SourceSummaryBCR

Not the last pandemic: … (Craven et al., 2021)

Link

  • Suggests a cost over 10 years of $285bn-$430bn would partially mitigate a damage $16,000bn every 50 years.
  • This roughly implies a BCR of <9:1
    • (16000/50) / (((285+430)/2)/10) = 8.95
<9:1

We also found three examples of estimates of the value stockpiling for future pandemics. 

SourceSummaryBCR

The Cost Efectiveness of Stockpiling Drugs, Vaccines and Other Health Resources for Pandemic … 

(Plans‑Rubió, 2020)

Link 

  • Looked at estimates for the cost effectiveness of stockpiling drugs for a pandemic. Example estimates:
    • “US$8550 per LYS in very high severity pandemics and US$13,447 per LYS in moderate severity pandemics”
    • “₤3800 per QALY and ₤28,000 per QALY for the 1918 and 1957/69 pandemic scenarios” 
  • Very roughly if we place a value of $50-100k per year of life this suggests a BCR of roughly 5:1 - 10:1.
~8:1

Cost-Benefit of Stockpiling Drugs …

(Balicer et al, 2005)

Link

  • Suggest various options for stockpiling in Israel for an influenza pandemic have a cost benefit ratios of 0.37, 0.38, 2.49, 2.44, 3.68
  • “investments in antiviral agents can be expected to yield a substantial economic return of >$3.68 per $1 invested, while saving many lives”
4:1
Link
  • “expanding the stockpile of AV drugs to encompass the whole UK population (≈60 million) might even be acceptable (≈£6,500 per QALY gained over a no intervention strategy for the 1918 scenario under base-case assumptions).”
  • Very roughly if we place a value of $50-100k per year of life this suggests a BCR of roughly 10:1.
~10:1

()

Link

  • “Procuring an adequate PPE stockpile in advance at non-pandemic prices would cost only 17% of the projected amount needed to procure it at current pandemic-inflated prices”
6:1

 

Historical data and estimates suggest the value of increasing preparedness is decent but not very high, with estimated benefit cost ratios (BCR) often around or just below 1:10. 

 

How this changes with scale of the disaster

There is some reason to think that disaster preparedness is more cost effective when targeted at worse disasters. Theoretically this makes sense as disasters are heavy-tailed and most of the impact of preventing and mitigating disasters will be in preventing and mitigating the very worst disasters. This is also supported by models estimating the effect of pandemic preparedness, such as those discussed in this talk. (Doohan and Hauck, 202?)

Pandemics affect more people than natural disasters so we could expect a higher than average BCR. This is more relevant if we pick preparedness interventions that scale with the size of the disaster (an example of an intervention that does not have this effect might be stockpiling, for which the impact is capped by the size of the stockpile, not by the size of the disaster).

However overall I did not find much solid evidence to suggest that the BCR ratio is higher for higher scale disasters.

Thanks for this! All extremely helpful info.

Naively a benefit cost ratio of >1 to 1 suggests that a project is worth funding. However given the overhead costs of government policy, to governments propensity to make even cost effective projects go wrong and public preferences for money in hand it may be more appropriate to apply a higher bar for cost-effective government spending. I remember I used to have a 3 to 1 ratio, perhaps picked up when I worked in Government although I cannot find a source for this now.

This is good to know. Our BCR of 1.6 is based on very conservative assumptions. We were basically seeing how conservative we could go while still getting a BCR of over 1. I think Carl and I agree that, on more reasonable estimates, the BCR of the suite is over 5 and maybe even over 10 (certainly I think that's the case for some of the interventions within the suite). If, as you say, many people in government are looking for interventions with BCRs significantly higher than 1, then I think we should place more emphasis on our less conservative estimates going forward.

I made a separate estimate that I thought I would share. It was a bit more optimistic than this. It suggested that the benefit costs ratios (BCR) for disaster prevention are that, on the margin, additional spending on disaster preparedness to be in the region of 10 to 1, maybe a bit below that. I copy my sources into an annex section below.

Thanks very much for this! I might try to get some of these references into the final paper.

I am also becoming a bit more sceptical of the value of this kind of general longtermist work when put in comparison to work focusing on known risks. Based on my analysis to date I believe some of the more specific policy change ideas about preventing dangerous research or developing new technology to tackle pandemics (or AI regulation) to be a bit more tractable and a bit higher benefit to cost than then this more general work to increase spending on risks. 

This is really good to know as well.

I agree that much more GCR mitigation could be funded through CBA.

There are suites of existential-risk-reducing interventions that governments could implement only at extreme cost to those alive today. … Governments could also build extensive, self-sustaining colonies (in remote locations or perhaps far underground) in which residents are permanently cut off from the rest of the world and trained to rebuild civilization in the event of a catastrophe....More generally, governments could heavily subsidise investment, research, and development in ways that incentivise the present generation to increase civilization’s resilience and decrease existential risk.

Though I agree that refuges would not pass a CBA, I don't think they are an example of something that would be extreme cost to those alive today-I suspect significant value could be obtained with $1 billion. And while storing up food for the US population for a five year nuclear winter might cost around $1 trillion, preparing to scale resilient foods quickly in a catastrophe is more like hundreds of millions of dollars and passes a CBA.

kill at least 5 billion people and hence qualify as a global catastrophe

This is higher than other thresholds for GCR I've seen - can you explain why?

And the Biden administration already includes costs to non-U.S. citizens in its social cost of carbon (SCC): its estimate of the harm caused by carbon dioxide emissions (The White House 2022a). The SCC is a key input to the U.S. government’s climate policy, and counting costs to non-U.S. citizens in the SCC changes the cost-benefit balance of important decisions like regulating power plant emissions, setting standards for vehicle fuel efficiency, and signing on to international climate agreements.

I'm pretty sure this includes effects on future generations, which you appear to be against for GCR mitigation. Interestingly, energy efficiency rules calculate the benefits of saved SCC, but they are forbidden to actually take this information into account in deciding what efficiency level to choose at this point.

It's probably too late, but I would mention the Global Catastrophic Risk Management Act that recently became law in the US. This provides hope that the US will do more on GCR.

Though I agree that refuges would not pass a CBA, I don't think they are an example of something that would be extreme cost to those alive today-I suspect significant value could be obtained with $1 billion.

I think this is right. Our claim is that a strong longtermist policy as a whole would place extreme burdens on the present generation. We expect that a strong longtermist policy would call for particularly extensive refuges (and lots of them) as well as the other things that we mention in that paragraph.

We also focus on the risk of global catastrophes, which we define as events that kill at least 5 billion people.

This is higher than other thresholds for GCR I've seen - can you explain why?

We use that threshold because we think that focusing on that threshold by itself makes the benefit-cost ratio come out greater than 1. I’m not so sure that’s the case for the more common thresholds of killing at least 1 billion people or at least 10% of the population in order to qualify as a global catastrophe.

I'm pretty sure this includes effects on future generations, which you appear to be against for GCR mitigation. 

We're not opposed to including effects on future generations in cost-benefit calculations. We do the calculation that excludes benefits to future generations to show that, even if one totally ignores benefits to future generations, our suite of interventions still looks like it's worth funding.

Interestingly, energy efficiency rules calculate the benefits of saved SCC, but they are forbidden to actually take this information into account in deciding what efficiency level to choose at this point.

Oh interesting! Thanks.

It's probably too late, but I would mention the Global Catastrophic Risk Management Act that recently became law in the US. This provides hope that the US will do more on GCR.

And thanks very much for this! I think we will still be able to mention this in the published version.

Maybe an obvious point, but I think we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of providing EA funding for catastrophe-preventing interventions, alongside attempts to influence government. Attempts to influence government may fail / fall short of what is needed / take too long given the urgency of action.

Especially in the case of pure longtermist goods, we need to ensure the EA/longtermist movement has enough money to fund things that governments won't. Should we just get on with developing refuges ourselves?

Maybe an obvious point, but I think we shouldn't lose sight of the importance of providing EA funding for catastrophe-preventing interventions, alongside attempts to influence government. Attempts to influence government may fail / fall short of what is needed / take too long given the urgency of action.

Yep, agreed! 

Should we just get on with developing refuges ourselves?

My impression is that this is being explored. See, e.g., here.

I agree that governments should prioritize spending on preventing catastrophic events like nuclear war, engineered pandemics, and AI risks based on cost-benefit analysis. As longtermists, we should push for a policy guided by cost-benefit analysis and citizens' willingness to pay, and commit to acting accordingly in politics. This would significantly reduce existential risks for both the present and future generations.

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