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On May 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a 2018 California law, Proposition 12, which banned the sale of certain animal products that did not meet minimum welfare standards. Especially now that such ballot initiatives have withstood legal challenges, a relevant question we might ask is: how cost-effective were initiatives like Proposition 12 at reducing farmed animal suffering? 

Below is the executive summary of a report I wrote for Rethink Priorities analyzing the cost-effectiveness of not just Proposition 12, but also three other historical animal welfare ballot initiatives in the United States. In this report, I also compared the results to the cost-effectiveness of corporate campaigns. The full report is viewable here with a detailed discussion of the methodology and results. 

Executive Summary

Key Results

In this report, I estimated the impact and cost-effectiveness of four historical United States ballot initiatives that either restricted the use of common animal confinement methods (including extremely confining stalls and tethering for veal calves, extremely confining gestation crates for breeding sows, and conventional cages for egg-laying hens), set minimum per-animal space requirements, and/or mandated cage-free systems for egg-laying hens.[1] These initiatives are Arizona Proposition 204 (2006), California Proposition 2 (2008), Massachusetts Question 3 (2016), and California Proposition 12 (2018).

The three metrics of impact I estimated were: 

  1. The number of years of improved animal welfare produced per dollar spent passing the initiatives for three animal types (veal calves, breeding sows, and egg-laying hens);
  2. The estimated years of disabling pain-equivalent suffering[2] alleviated per dollar for veal calves, breeding sows, and egg-laying hens; and 
  3. The relative years of improved hen welfare and disabling pain-equivalent suffering avoided per dollar per year of counterfactual impact compared to corporate cage-free campaigns,[3] rated using an equivalent metric. 

I estimated these metrics by building a Monte Carlo model in Causal that used data on state population sizes, per-capita animal product consumption, state animal populations, and campaign fundraising amounts to estimate the number of animals whose quality of life was improved over the first four years in which the ballot initiatives were in place. In addition, for egg-laying hens specifically, I used data from the Welfare Footprint Project to estimate the years of suffering alleviated by the transition away from conventional cages for the ballot initiatives that included egg-laying hens (Welfare Footprint Project). Finally, I compared the per-dollar years of improved welfare generated and suffering avoided by ballot initiatives to that accomplished by corporate campaigns, using cost-effectiveness estimates from Saulius Šimčikas, the estimated number of animals whose lives were improved, and the Welfare Footprint data.

The key takeaways are:

  1. Among all species, about 5.0 years of animal life were improved per dollar spent (with a 90-percentile range between 3.9 and 6.4 years per dollar). This translates into approximately 0.10 years of suffering avoided per dollar spent on all four ballot initiatives, with a 90-percentile range from 0.05 years per dollar to 0.14 years per dollar.
  2. Helping egg-laying hens is, by far, the most impactful farmed animal welfare reform.
    1. Nearly all (about 99%) of the reductions in farmed-animal suffering by these four initiatives can be attributed to bans on battery cages and/or cage-free requirements.
    2. The three initiatives that impacted egg-laying hens were approximately two orders of magnitude more cost-effective than Arizona Proposition 204, which impacted only veal calves and breeding sows.
  3. Ballot initiatives that covered all animal products sold in the state were probably more cost-effective than those which only applied to domestic animals, but this finding is uncertain. 
  4. Keeping costs constant, assuming demand for eggs is price inelastic, and adjusting for differential productivity of cage-free and caged hens, requiring cage-free aviaries wasn’t statistically significantly better than banning conventional cages (and permitting enriched cages), according to a hypothetical example using Massachusetts Question 3 data.
  5. Ballot initiatives were less cost-effective but still competitive with corporate cage-free campaigns, even when they only targeted domestic production and allowed enriched cages. 
    1. In terms of the number of hen-years improved per dollar per year of impact, the three ballot initiatives studied were about 21% to 81% as cost-effective as corporate cage-free campaigns are, with a mean estimate of 44% as cost-effective.  Historical ballot initiatives studied improved an estimated 1.3 (1.0 to 1.7) years of life for egg-laying hens per dollar per year of impact, whereas corporate campaigns improved an estimated 3.5 (1.7 to 6.2) years of life per dollar spent per year of impact (based partially on Šimčikas 2019). Moreover, because ballot initiatives apply to all eggs produced in a state (whether consumed at home or at a restaurant), and if corporate campaigns face quicker diminishing marginal returns, future ballot initiatives may have a larger scale and cost-effectiveness than that which was measured here.
    2. In terms of years of suffering per year of impact, the three ballot initiatives that affected egg-laying hens were about 25% as cost-effective (11% to 47%) in terms of years of suffering per year of impact as were historical cage-free corporate campaigns. I estimate that historical ballot initiatives averted 0.025 (0.014 to 0.038) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact, compared to 0.12 (0.05 to 0.23) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact for corporate campaigns.
    3. Even California Proposition 2, which permitted enriched cages and only targeted domestic production, was estimated to have been 21% (8% to 40%) as cost-effective at reducing suffering as corporate cage-free campaigns per year of impact. Even assuming imperfect compliance, the initiative is estimated to have reduced 0.02 (0.013 to 0.027) years of disabling-equivalent suffering per dollar per year of impact. Part of the high impact, relative to the other ballot initiatives, likely comes from the fact that when California Proposition 2 was implemented, the proportion of hens who were cage-free was much lower than it was when the other initiatives were implemented. Nevertheless, this style of initiative may be more politically feasible than cage-free mandates in states with high egg production but which are more conservative than California.

Key Limitations

As with any back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are several limitations that may reduce the accuracy of my estimated cost-effectiveness analysis (Šimčikas 2019). I list these below. 

Limitations that would likely decrease the cost-effectiveness of these ballot initiatives:

  1. The counterfactual of passing a law might be even more cost-effective than ballot initiatives. 
  2. The aggregated estimates do not include the interactions that ballot initiatives have with legislative and regulatory actions or corporate campaigns. 
  3. The sample size is four initiatives–and all of them passed. 
  4. Volunteer time and legal fees are not included as costs of an initiative.

Limitations that would likely increase the cost-effectiveness of these ballot initiatives:

  1. My definition of “suffering” as pain fitting the criteria of “Disabling pain” used by the Welfare Footprint Project is fairly strict–looser definitions could lead to large increases in the estimated cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives.  
  2. The assumed proportion of veal calves living in extremely confining stalls relies on one report from one industry group. 
  3. The number of years of counterfactual credit to give an initiative is difficult to assess, and the cost-effectiveness is non-linearly related to speed-up time. 
  4. I assume that the demand for eggs is inelastic, but if welfare requirements lead to higher prices and lower quantities of eggs sold, then the number of additional hens required to produce the market equilibrium quantity of eggs following a transition to cage-free housing would be lower than that which is assumed here. 

Limitations with an unknown effect on the generalizability and accuracy of these results to the cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives more broadly:

  1. We omitted indirect effects of the ballot initiatives, outside of the individual animals helped. 
  2. The Welfare Footprint Project model assumes pain from different causes can be experienced in an additive way when they are simultaneously present. 
  3. There were a lot of variables, and some are based on guesses.
  4. I assume that hens, veal calves, and breeding sows are equal in terms of capacity to suffer. 
  5. The analysis only includes three types of animals. 
  6. Low-hanging fruit (easy-to-pass ballot initiatives) may be picked–or not, depending on your counterfactual.
  7. I assume that there is incomplete-yet-high compliance with the ballot initiatives among in-state producers and incomplete accuracy in restricting imports to welfare-compliant products. If this assumption is inaccurate, the cost-effectiveness will change. 

Purpose and Background

Twenty-four of the fifty United States allow citizens to put forth and vote directly on statutes and/or state constitutional amendments they would like to see passed.[4] Such proposals are called ballot initiatives which, since their origination in South Dakota in 1898, have been used numerous times to protect the conservation status and welfare of wild and domesticated animals (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2022).  

This report estimates the cost-effectiveness of historical ballot initiatives targeting farmed animal welfare. Though I hope that the results are relevant for designers of and advocates for future ballot initiative campaigns, the extrapolation from these results to future ballot initiatives may not be appropriate. 

The four initiatives studied are Arizona Proposition 204, California Proposition 2, Massachusetts Question 3, and California Proposition 12. I give a brief overview of each in the following four sections. 

Arizona Proposition 204

The Arizona Humane Farms initiative–henceforth called Arizona Proposition 204–was passed in 2006 with 62% of the vote and came into full effect starting January 1, 2012. The initiative made it a “class 1 misdemeanor to tether or confine a pig during pregnancy or a calf raised for veal on a farm for all or the majority of a day in a manner that prevents the animal from lying down and fully extending its limbs or turning around freely” within Arizona borders (Ballotpedia). The mechanism for enforcement is unclear; no state funds were to be spent unless a court found it necessary to do so (Brewer, 2006).

The initiative had exceptions for the treatment of such animals for veterinary purposes, rodeos, transportation, slaughter, the seven-day period before the pig was expected to give birth and research purposes (Ballotpedia). (Throughout this report, I assume these exceptions make up a very small portion of a typical breeding sow’s lifespan and thus ignore them for simplicity). It is important to note that the use of traditionally industry-preferred housing arrangements–individual stalls for veal calves and gestation crates for pigs–was not banned by Arizona Proposition 204. However, the requirement that veal calves and breeding sows have sufficient space to move about their enclosures and lie down may significantly alleviate the pain that occurs from extremely confining individual stalls and gestation crates. 

The text of Arizona Proposition 204 is available here (Brewer, 2006). 

California Proposition 2

Similar to Arizona Proposition 204, California Proposition 2 (passed in 2008) banned the confinement of in-state veal calves and breeding sows in housing that prevents them from lying down, turning around, stretching their limbs, and standing up. However, California Proposition 2 also extended these protections to egg-laying hens, the vast majority of whom in caged systems are allotted space smaller than a piece of paper. There are exceptions for “transportation, rodeos, fairs, 4-H programs, lawful slaughter, research and veterinary purposes” (UC Hastings Scholarship Repository). The initiative imposed penalties of a misdemeanor, a $1000 fine, and/or up to 180 days in jail for knowingly violating the welfare requirements (Ballotpedia). Local law enforcement was in charge of enforcement. However, the initiative did not mandate routine inspections so law enforcement would need to rely on reports of animal welfare law violations (Khokha, 2015). The initiative was passed in 2008 with over 63% of the vote, and its provisions took effect in 2015 (Ballotpedia). 

Importantly, the initiative’s egg-laying hen reforms were not a cage-free mandate; rather, the initiative banned the space conditions associated with conventional cages but still permitted cages similar to the roomier “enriched” cages present in Europe. Such enriched cages contain “a nesting area, litter, and more space for hens to move around” (Sarfas, 2021). Proposition 2 did not require the nesting area, litter, or perches, but the increase in required space per hen marked a significant departure from conventional cages. Throughout this report, I assume that California Proposition 2’s reforms are most similar to a mandate that allows either enriched or cage-free housing but bans conventional cages. 

The text of California Proposition 2 is available on page 16 of this document (UC Hastings Scholarship Repository).

Massachusetts Question 3

Similar to California Proposition 2, Massachusetts Question 3 (passed in 2016) bans “any farm owner or operator from knowingly confining any breeding pig, calf raised for veal, or egg-laying hen in a way that prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely” (Ballotpedia). Furthermore, egg-laying hens were required to have access to at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Massachusetts Question 3 applied only to whole eggs and uncooked veal and pork, and I attempt to control for the latter exception in the analysis below (Ballotpedia). Additionally, Massachusetts Question 3 also stated that:

“The proposed law’s confinement prohibitions would not apply during transportation; state and county fair exhibitions; 4-H programs; slaughter in compliance with applicable laws and regulations; medical research; veterinary exams, testing, treatment and operation if performed under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian; five days prior to a pregnant pig’s expected date of giving birth; any day that pig is nursing piglets; and for temporary periods for animal husbandry purposes not to exceed six hours in any twenty-four hour period” (Ballotpedia). 

These conditions, I assume, are either negligible in comparison to the length of animals’ confinement and/or apply to a small fraction of animals in the state. Violations of the law would result in a fine of up to $1000. The Attorney General is in charge of enforcing the law and could issue regulations to aid in implementing it (Ballotpedia). 

In contrast to California Proposition 2 and Arizona Proposition 204, however, the minimum space requirements also applied to out-of-state producers. Specifically, the ballot summary states:

“The proposed law would also prohibit any business owner or operator in Massachusetts from selling whole eggs intended for human consumption or any uncooked cut of veal or pork if the business owner or operator knows or should know that the hen, breeding pig, or veal calf that produced these products was confined in a manner prohibited by the proposed law” (Ballotpedia, bold added).

As such, it marked the first time a farm animal welfare ballot initiative in the United States extended to all qualifying goods sold in the state. 

Massachusetts Question 3 was passed with nearly 78% of the vote and was set to take effect on January 1, 2022.  In late 2021, the state legislature and governor enacted a law that delayed the start date of Massachusetts Question 3 by 7.5 months but also strengthened the egg-laying hen protections to explicitly require cage-free housing and cover liquid eggs.  As part of this law, a compromise was made such that multi-tiered aviaries (which allow birds to access greater vertical space) only had to provide one square foot of space per bird, as opposed to the 1.5 feet required for single-tiered systems (Lisinski, 2021). Hereafter, I assume that single-tiered aviaries and multi-tiered aviaries both produce welfare improvements on par with those accompanying the transition from battery cages to cage-free systems as documented by the Welfare Footprint Project (Welfare Footprint Project). 

In August 2022, a petition for injunctive relief regarding the pork standards made by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association against Massachusetts was temporarily granted pending the outcome of the lawsuit at the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) involving California Proposition 12 (Ballotpedia). However, on May 11, 2023, SCOTUS upheld California’s ability to ban the sale of pork produced using non-compliant housing (Raymond 2023). In this report, I estimate the cost-effectiveness of Massachusetts Question 3 under the assumption that the pork standards in the ballot initiative will take effect, as they already have for egg-laying hens and veal calves (Eyink and Lovells, 2022). 

California Proposition 12

The final ballot initiative I considered is California Proposition 12, which was passed in 2018 with approximately 63% of voters’ approval. Like Massachusetts Question 3, its provisions extended to all goods sold in the state except meat that was part of a prepared food item. There were also carve-outs for confinement during transportation; medical research; veterinary exams and treatment; rodeos, 4-H, and fairs; slaughter; the five-day period before giving birth and while nursing (for breeding sows); and brief periods limited to six hours per day and a maximum of one day per month for animal husbandry reasons. Violations are misdemeanors and punishable by fines up to $1000 and/or jail time up to 180 days (Ballotpedia). 

Unlike the prior initiatives, California Proposition 12 was unique in its explicit establishment of space minima. Starting in 2020, the initiative mandated that all veal sold come from calves who had at least 43 square feet of floor space apiece and that all eggs sold come from hens with at least 144 square inches of space. Further, in 2022, all pork sold had to come from pigs whose mothers had at least 24 square feet of space, and all eggs sold would have to be from hens living in enclosures compliant with the United Egg Producers’ cage-free guidelines (Ballotpedia). The cage-free guidelines not only mandate that hens have at least 1 to 1.5 square feet of space, but also that hens “are free to roam unrestricted; are provided enrichments that allow them to exhibit natural behaviors, including, at a minimum, scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas” (Shankar, 2017). Moreover, unlike Proposition 2, California Proposition 12 was enforced by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health, rather than local law enforcement, and these agencies could issue rules and regulations to assist in the enforcement of Proposition 12 (Ballotpedia). 

In 2019, the National Pork Producers Council (NPCC) sued California over Proposition 12’s application of its pork standards to all whole pork sold in the state. They alleged that the effects on out-of-state producers constitute a violation of the United States Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause (which allows the U.S. Congress to regulate interstate commerce) and the “dormant” Commerce Clause (which prohibits states from regulating other states’ behavior) recognized by past Supreme Court rulings. The case was dismissed at the district court level, and the Ninth Circuit ruled against the NPCC in July 2021. The NPCC appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Court heard oral arguments on October 11, 2022 (Ballotpedia). On May 11th, 2023, SCOTUS upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 12 (Raymond 2023), paving the way for California’s pork standards to finally take effect. In this analysis, I estimate the cost-effectiveness of the minimum space requirements under the assumption they’ll eventually take effect. 

Brief Methodological Overview

In this report, I estimated the cost-effectiveness of the four historical farmed animal welfare ballot initiatives in terms of

  1. The number of years lived by animals whose welfare was improved per dollar spent on passing the initiatives;
  2. The estimated years of suffering alleviated per dollar; and
  3. The relative number of hen-years improved and years of suffering avoided per dollar spent per year of impact compared to corporate cage-free campaigns, rated using an equivalent metric. 

I used Causal to design the model, and I included confidence intervals on most inputs to represent the uncertainty in my estimates. The model is available here,[5] and the remaining sections of this report describe line-by-line the variables used and calculations made in this model, as well as the justifications for and limits of my choices. The final results are included in the “Overall Cost-Effectiveness” sections of this report and the model. 

The general methodology I used to estimate the per-dollar number of animal years improved by each initiative included 1) identifying ballot initiatives for which campaign finance information was available, and 2) using agricultural and population data to estimate the number of animal years improved. 

Once I estimated the number of animal years improved by an initiative, I then converted the result into an estimate of the years of animal suffering alleviated per dollar spent on the initiatives. For egg-laying hens, I used estimates from the Welfare Footprint Project on the number of hours of four kinds of pain a typical hen endures during her lifetime, based on the type of housing she lives in (Welfare Footprint Project). I weighted each type of pain to aggregate the time in pain into a single metric of time spent suffering. For veal calves and breeding sows, I used the proportion of an egg-laying hen’s life spent suffering if she is in a conventional cage as a benchmark for the proportion of veal calves and breeding sows’ lives spent in suffering.

Upon finding that reductions in egg-laying hen suffering contribute over 99% of the estimated impact, I used Saulius Šimčikas’ estimated number of animal years affected per dollar spent on corporate campaigns (Šimčikas, 2019) and the same Welfare Footprint Project data to compare historical ballot initiatives to this highly successful animal welfare reform. 


This research is a project of Rethink Priorities. It was written by Laura Duffy. For help at many different stages of this project, thanks to Marcus A. Davis and William McAuliffe. If you’re interested in RP’s work, you can learn more by visiting our research database. For regular updates, please consider subscribing to our newsletter.

  1. ^

    In the rest of the report, I use the short-hand “ballot initiatives” to refer to initiatives that mandate these animal welfare improvements. 

  2. ^

    Hereafter, I use the phrase “suffering” as a short-hand for “suffering that is equivalent to disabling pain as defined by the Welfare Footprint Project,” or disabling-equivalent suffering. 

  3. ^

    Corporate campaigns occur when advocates for a social cause (in this case, cage-free eggs) use coordinated pressure tactics to get corporations to change an aspect of their production process.

  4. ^

    Two other states, New Mexico and Maryland, allow citizens to put forth only “veto referenda,” which can overrule an act that was passed into law. Veto referenda do not allow citizens to implement their own statutes or amendments, but serve rather as a “yes/no” vote on an act of the government (Ballotpedia).

  5. ^

    The model re-runs each time the page is loaded or refreshed, so the numbers in this report may differ slightly from those in each iteration of the model. 

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Reports like this make me seriously doubt whether I'm just selfishly prioritising AGI research because it's more interesting, novel, higher-status, etc. I don't think so, but the cost of being wrong is enormous.

I think it also depends on what the impact of AGI on farmed animals is.

If you are in a position where you can influence a deployment of AGI in a way that minimizes farmed animal suffering, or minimzes S-risks, then it can be very impactful.

If solving alignment with human values only allows factory farming to continue for a long time, then this could have negative impact: https://www.forbes.com/sites/briankateman/2022/09/06/optimistic-longtermism-is-terrible-for-animals/?sh=328a115d2059  

Great work! Thanks for doing this! This is encouraging and an update for me. I was originally optimistic about ballot initiatives, but I didn't see any formal cost-effectiveness analyses, and I had heard a pessimistic take from an established member of the community.

I have two minor comments/suggestions:


1. You assume a speed-up time of 4 years for ballot initiatives, but this seems pretty low to me if we want to include potential future impacts (maybe you only wanted impacts so far?), because, for the counterfactual, I'd use "us"[1] not pushing for these ballot initiatives or lobbying for other reform legislation at all ever,[2] and I wouldn't have expected similar reforms to pass within 4 years and be implemented 4 years later than otherwise without "us". Similarly, as you wrote, Šimčikas 2019 "assumes a period of impact that is lognormally distributed between 4.2 and 40 years with 90% confidence, resulting in a mean period of impact of 15 years", and I think he compared to counterfactuals where "we" don't support these corporate campaigns at all and projected future impacts. I'd probably use a distribution similar to Šimčikas 2019's, based on similar evidence cited by him and others for corporate campaign speed-up times (although I'm not really well-informed), which would make the historical US ballot initiatives pretty competitive ex ante with historical corporate chicken welfare campaigns even when their impacts are aggregated over time, and not just per year of impact. Otherwise, corporate campaigns look ~10x better on their direct effects when the impacts are aggregated over time,[3] and I might not conclude ballot initiative are competitive with them.


2. On the comparisons between corporate campaigns and ballot initiatives, if we're maximizing the expected value of a sum of utilities, rather than expected values of ratios, it seems more informative to report ratios like

(expected impact of ballot initiatives/expected costs of ballot initiatives) / (expected impact of corporate campaigns/expected costs of corporate campaigns)[4]

This is basically to avoid two envelopes problems. These ratios of expected values should be lower than the means of ratios you reported, but not much lower, so it won't change your conclusions. For example, you wrote:

In terms of years of suffering per year of impact, the three ballot initiatives that affected egg-laying hens were about 25% as cost-effective (11% to 47%) in terms of years of suffering per year of impact as were historical cage-free corporate campaigns. I estimate that historical ballot initiatives averted 0.025 (0.014 to 0.038) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact, compared to 0.12 (0.05 to 0.23) years of suffering per dollar per year of impact for corporate campaigns.

Taking ratios of means gives 0.025 / 0.12 = 0.2083333..., which is only slightly lower than the 25% you reported.

The credence intervals for the ratios and medians of the ratios can still be informative to report, though, but expected values of ratios of random variables can be misleading because of two envelopes problem-like concerns.

  1. ^

    There's a question of whom we're including in "us", e.g. only those close to the effective animal advocacy movement (by member self-identification, organization self-identification or funding from EAA), or also other animal advocates involved? For example, maybe other animal advocates would run ballot initiatives 4 years later without the support of EAA, but if they wouldn't have done so or succeeded without EAA when the ballot initiatives were actually run, how likely do we think they'd be to succeed without EAA in their attempt 4 years later? And, at any rate, when considering the cost-effectiveness of future ballot initiatives, their costs seem relevant. (As far as I can tell, you did include other animal advocates' costs supporting the initiatives, too.)

  2. ^

    Or if "we" would support these reforms later, and you're comparing to that, then you should use the difference in costs between doing it earlier and later, too, and do the same for corporate campaigns.

  3. ^

    In your figure "Hen Suffering Avoided per Dollar for Ballot Initiatives vs. Corporate Campaigns" from your model, you get a mean ratio of cost-effectivenesses of 0.1, so corporate campaigns would be ~10x better. Similarly, if I compare your 5.0 years of animal life improved per dollar spent more directly to Šimčikas 2019's expected 41 (9 to 120) chicken-years affected per dollar, corporate campaigns look ~8x better.

  4. ^

    Or expected impacts per year of impact

I believe 4 years is very conservative. I'm working on a paper due November that should basically answer the question in part 1, but suffice it to say I think the ballot measures should look many times more cost-effective than corporate campaigns.

Awesome, I'm looking forward to it!

Given similar costs per hen-year per year of impact according to Laura's report, are you expecting ballot initiatives to have longer counterfactuals than corporate campaigns? Or, do you think ballot initatives are more cost-effective per hen-year per year of impact? (Or both?)

The former, though I don't have estimates of the counterfactual timeline of corporate campaigns. (I'd like to find a way to do that and have toyed with it a bit but currently don't have one.)

Maybe you can get estimates for corporate campaign counterfactuals from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4219976 or based on a similar methodology?

Oh, that's a good idea. I had thought of something quite different and broader, but this also seems like a promising approach.

One consideration that Peter Wildeford made me think of is that, with the initiatives that do fall under Congress’ Interstate Commerce Clause authority, we might expect the longevity to be reduced. For example, if every five years a Congressperson puts into the Farm Bill a proposal to ban states from having Prop 12-style regulations, there’s some chance this passes eventually.

Does your research include any initiatives that do fall under Congressional authority?

Although a hostile Congress could also take steps to neuter the effects of corporate campaigns. Less likely than preempting stuff like Prop 12, but we've seen pretty hostile legislation at the state level like so-called "ag gag" laws.

Fascinating, I hadn't thought about that with respect to Congress. One thing I wonder about with ag-gag laws is whether they run afoul of the First Amendment. Do you know if there's a strong legal case to be made that they're unconstitutional? 

My gut instinct here would be that it's probably somewhat harder to pass Congressional legislation that both is constitutional and effectively limits corporate campaigns (because it's private entities choosing what kinds of products to sell). Am I wrong here? (I am really interested in this topic, so I would love to be corrected)

Quickly skimmed the recent Fourth Circuit ruling striking down an ag gag statute by 2-1 vote. See https://aldf.org/article/fourth-circuit-enjoins-north-carolina-ag-gag-law/

From that, my guess is that some form of ag gag can be done if carefully drawn; I don't see a conclusion that no possible law would stand as consistent with the court's prior decision in Food Lion.

I agree that the First Amendment makes much anti-corp campaign legislation much harder to pull off. My starting point was that the FA offers less protection to purely commercial speech, especially on stuff like product labeling, and so restrictions on what the company can say in advertising its products might pass muster. That could at least weaken corporate incentives.

My other theory is whether e.g. the pork industry could convince Congress that having various different animal-welfare standards based on various corporate policies disrupted the national pork market (akin to as how much a state policy allegedly would) and justified restrictions on those corporate policies. Sounds like a stretch, but if Congress can ban you from growing weed for personal use under the Commerce Clause (and it can under Gonzales vs Raich), the effects on interstate commerce seem much greater here...

Still, between the legal concerns and political realities, I'd estimate the hostile Congress risk for corp campaigns at roughly an order of magnitude less than the risk to state legislative initiatives (low confidence).

Yeah, I think that would reduce the longevity in expectation, maybe by something like 2x. My research includes things that could hypothetically fall under congressional authority and occasionally do. (Anything could fall under congressional authority, though some might require a constitutional amendment.) So I don't think this is dramatically out of sample, but I do think it's worth keeping in mind.

Hi Michael, thanks for the comments! 

I'll take the second one first: thanks for bringing to my attention the two-envelopes problem. I'll look more into this, and I'll revise accordingly! 

As for the years of counterfactual impact, I wanted this report to err on the side of being too conservative, because the impact still appears to be pretty large even under this conservative assumption. 

A couple of reasons as to why I used four years include: 

1. It's still relatively consistent with other organizations' assumptions of years of counterfactual impact. Šimčikas 2019 also gives an overview of other cost-effectiveness analyses' counterfactual impact assumptions, which I quote below: 

  • "Bollard (2016) assumes that cage-free commitments accelerate changes by five years. He also adds: “In my view, the assumption that these campaigns only accelerated pledges by five years is very conservative. It seems equally likely that these companies would never have dropped battery cages, or would have merely transitioned to “enriched” cages. For instance, as recently as March 2015, a coalition backed by McDonald’s, General Mills, and other major food companies issued a report which largely endorsed “enriched” cages as an alternative to cage-free systems.
  • "ACE uses a subjective 90% confidence interval of 1.6 to 14 years (mean 5.6 years) for all corporate pledges. They explain that “This is the number of years for which we expect these commitments to have an effect for. It is primarily based on counterfactual reasoning—how long before another factor, such as a legislative change or a shift in consumer demand, leads to a similar result.”
  • "Capriati (2018) estimate does not have a direct equivalent to years of impact expected. Instead, it estimates the number of years THL moves the policy forward by. It assigns the value to this variable based on how important THL’s role was in bringing policies about. By analyzing six randomly selected campaigns, it concludes that on average, THL’s cage-free and broiler campaigns moved policies forward by one year. Note that this assumes that other organisations would have still done corporate campaigns."

2. Given these estimates, four years seemed like an appropriate lower bound that also aligns with US political cycle. 
3. I think, as you and zdgroff have pointed out, there are probably good reasons as to why the counterfactual impact period would be longer than that of corporate campaigns. I really look forward to reading this research! But I also wanted to maintain a degree of conservatism. 

So perhaps one's takeaway is: "this is a good lower bound on the cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives and, if designed well, they can still look pretty competitive with corporate campaigns nonetheless."

Again, thanks for the comment!

These were just some very conservative guesses rather than estimates. Also, I think that the effect depends on circumstances:

  • In the case of eggs and Prop 12, by the time it was passed, most companies in the U.S. had already committed to only use cage-free eggs, often by 2025 or 2026. So I guess you could say that Prop 12 made California do it sooner (2022) and hence sped it up (although it's unclear if that is even a good thing in itself).[1] But a more important effect of Prop 12 is that it increased the probability that California and the whole U.S. will go cage-free in 2020s, and this is how I might model the impact of Prop 12. That is, I'd probably ask various people about what would they expect future cage-free rates to be with and without Prop 12.
  • For some other animals, I imagine that there were no corporate commitments or anything? The situation in such cases seems very different.
  1. ^

    According to King (2019b), some producers react to cage-free commitments by building new cage-free facilities, but not destroying old conventional caged houses which don’t yet need to be replaced. This could increase the overall amount of hens (and suffering) in the short term. O'Keefe (2020) claims that between December 2016 and December 2019, “U.S. egg producers added 33.2 million head of cage-free hens, the number of cage-housed hens only declined by 4.3 million head.” Even if the number of caged hens will decline eventually, this trend during the transition period is worrying. 

I'll also note that I think the counterfactual impact period was one of the model decisions I struggled the most with, which is why you can change it in the model here and see how the results change! https://my.causal.app/models/165404?token=6e8998626d0643db9c86482475aecc2c

Is that lognormal distribution responsible for 

the cost-effectiveness is non-linearly related to speed-up time.

If yes, what's the intuition behind this distribution? If not, why is cost-effectiveness non-linear in speed-up time?

This is really great, thanks for sharing. I'm curating the post. 

I was going to ask why you chose to focus on this set of ballot initiatives — and then found the "Ballot Initiative Selection" section in the full report. My summary (in case anyone else is curious) is that you tried to find ~all possibly relevant measures (140 initiatives), then filtered for those that have financial information (21 measures), and then narrowed down to "ballot initiatives that mandate specific welfare requirements in farm animal operations, so as to do an analysis directly relevant to farm animal advocates." 

Another thing I'm curious about is whether you've looked at ballot initiatives and measures that didn't pass. (You flag the fact that all four initiatives passed as a limitation.) Alternatively, I'm interested in hearing how we should adjust how we use the results here to estimate the EV of possible future initiatives (although maybe there are few general heuristics — it would depend too much on the state, etc.?).

(Thanks so much for working on this. As an aside, I had tried to BOTEC the following myself recently (very poorly), so I doubly appreciate the table:


Hi Lizka! Thanks for the good summary of the ballot initiatives selection process. 

Regarding the second question, I think you're right it would be hard to estimate the probability of similar initiatives passing in other states, as well as the costs of doing so. Here are a few thoughts: 

1. One reason we might be optimistic about the cost-effectiveness of pursuing ballot initiatives in more states is that the campaigns in California, Massachusetts, and Arizona may have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of proving to the public that these initiatives are feasible. Advocates also may have refined their techniques to be more effective, and the publicity they got (Prop 12 especially) may have made people in other states more willing to vote for enhanced welfare requirements. 

2. But it also might be harder to pass these initiatives in states other than California and Massachusetts for various reasons (they're very liberal, for example). Nevertheless, one study from 2014 models which states could pass initiatives similar to California Proposition 2 (which applied to domestic production only). Here's a summary of their findings from my report (pg. 115): 

"One study from 2014 used demographic data to model the vote share that a hypothetical initiative designed like California Proposition 2 would receive in all states. Amongst the states that allow ballot initiatives, Proposition 2 is predicted to gain above 50% of the votes in several of them. Depending on the model, these potential states could include Washington, Nevada, Michigan, Oregon, and Colorado, amongst others (Smithson et. al.  2014, pp. 120, 122). Though a few of these states have already passed legislation to implement some farmed animal welfare standards on the state level  (Smithson et. al.  2014, pp. 122), and though the study only estimated the likelihood of passing initiatives that affect domestic animals, it seems plausible that initiatives impacting all goods sold in-state could pass in more states than just California and Massachusetts. 

In the end, we really do not yet know if the cost-effectiveness of ballot initiatives–especially ones modeled after California Proposition 12 and Massachusetts Question 3–generalizes to states with political ideologies, wealth, and other demographics that differ from California and Massachusetts (which are themselves outliers)."

In all, I think this is a great question to be asking, and there are some reasons to be cautiously hopeful that ballot initiatives could be successful in states other than those studied, namely California and Massachusetts. In addition, I would suspect there is a lot of room for advocacy in these two states as well with regard to broiler chicken welfare. 

Thank you! Makes sense that (paraphrasing, would appreciate corrections if something is off): 

  • The existence of and publicity for past initiatives helps (makes it easier to pass future initiatives)
  • But also the campaigns might have been run in states more likely to pass them — a factor that means the likelihood of passing future initiatives in other states is smaller
    • Caveat for the models you shared

And I appreciate the flag: "I would suspect there is a lot of room for advocacy in these two states as well with regard to broiler chicken welfare."

I have a nitpicky comment that may not be very important in the end. 

It seems that estimates of how long cage-free and caged hens live and how many eggs they lay are partially based on Norwood and Lusk 2011. I once did that as well but I was told that the book describes small scale cage-free systems that don’t use optimal genetics. Large scale cage-free systems (which perhaps didn’t exist at the time to the same extent) are likely much more similar to current caged systems, especially after industry will have some time to optimize things. If it was the case that caged hens lay 467 eggs while cage-free eggs lay 325, I would be concerned about the higher number of pullets (hens who are too young to lay eggs) needed to produce the same number of eggs. I see that in your estimates you use a “Length of laying” variable, not a “lifespan” variable. I don’t know if “length of laying” includes the pullet phase, which according to industry breed specification requirements like this lasts about 17 weeks. If it doesn’t include the pullet phase, then you may be implicitly assuming that hens don’t suffer during the pullet phase or something. I failed to understand how exactly your estiamte works so I'm not sure. Anyway, I don’t know what the differences between cage-free and caged actually are. I was told by a vet that cage-free and caged birds have the same lifespan nowadays and saw a few indications that same breeds are used. But I also saw this article that claims that caged hens lay 500 eggs, while cage-free lay 420-430 eggs. I don’t know whom to believe. I can send you an unpublished document where I examined a few more sources but I’m still confused about it.

Anyway, in a way, this stuff doesn’t really matter that much for the estimate. Cage-free reforms may or may not increase the number of hens by say 5% (I’m saying a random number here because I don’t remember. If anyone’s decisions depend on this, I can try to write something about it). But if we use Welfare Footprint’s estimates, then it follows that the switch to cage-free reduces the suffering by like 60%, so that 5% doesn’t have that much impact on the final estimate. The biggest uncertainty is the years of impact. You chose 4 years but you could’ve also chosen 40 years and then everything would’ve been 10 times more cost-effective.

This is great; thanks for doing this research and thanks to everyone who worked on these ballot initiatives.

Thanks for the comment, Ben! 

And thanks so much to everyone doing direct work to improve animal welfare!

This is incredible (especially Google Docs). Thank you for your great work.

Thanks so much, Jakub! 

It would be great to see research on potential effectiveness of ballot initiatives that would ban Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), otherwise known as animal factory farms, and initiatives that would simply limit them, such as banning construction of new ones and expansion of existing ones. These are the ballot initiatives our organization is working on.

Nice analysis, Laura!

I weighted each type of pain to aggregate the time in pain into a single metric of time spent suffering.

Here are the weights for each level of pain:

I [Laura] borrowed the weights for pain conversion used by Saulius Šimčikas in his assessment of hen welfare reforms (using Welfare Footprint Project data), which equates one hour of “Disabling” pain to 100 hours of “Annoying” pain, 6.66 hours of “Hurtful” pain, and 0.2 hours of “Excruciating” pain (Šimčikas, 2022). However, these conversion rates are easily manipulable if one would like to test out different weights.

In other words:

  • Hurtful pain is r1 = 15 (= 100/6.66) times as bad as annoying pain.
  • Disabling pain is r2 = 6.66 times as bad as hurtful pain.
  • Excruciating pain is r3 = 5 (= 1/0.2) times as bad as disabling pain.
  • Excruciating pain is r4 = 500 (= 100/0.2) times as bad as annoying pain.

Intuitively, I would expect (having this and this posts in mind):

  • r1 < r2 < r3.
  • r4 >> 500. Excruciating pain being 500 times as bad as annoying pain means 1 min of excruciating pain is as bad as 8 h (= 500/60) of annoying pain.

For reference, the Welfare footprint project defines excruciating pain as follows:

All conditions and events associated with extreme levels of pain that are not normally tolerated even if only for a few seconds. In humans, it would mark the threshold of pain under which many people choose to take their lives rather than endure the pain. This is the case, for example, of scalding and severe burning events. Behavioral patterns associated with experiences in this category may include loud screaming, involuntary shaking, extreme muscle tension, or extreme restlessness. Another criterion is the manifestation of behaviors that individuals would strongly refrain from displaying under normal circumstances, as they threaten body integrity (e.g. running into hazardous areas or exposing oneself to sources of danger, such as predators, as a result of pain or of attempts to alleviate it). The attribution of conditions to this level must therefore be done cautiously. Concealment of pain is not possible.

Is there any research trying to figure out how to aggregate various types of pain?

FWIW, my intuition is something like this:

  • Excruciating pain is 1 k times as bad as disabling pain[3].
  • Disabling pain is 100 times as bad as hurtful pain.
  • Hurtful pain is 10 times as bad as annoying pain.

Hi Vasco, thanks for the comment! I really appreciate it when people dig into the modelling choices :)

EDIT: I just saw the end of your comment. I'm not aware of any research into the intensity of pain across types, and would be keen to hear from others who are.

I think your ordering (r1 < r2 < r3 and r4 >> 500x annoying) would be totally reasonable, and I haven't read those posts, so thanks for bringing them up! The choice to use the ratios previously used by Šimčikas was rather arbitrary and meant to be consistent with his results. I get why one might expect excruciating pain to be much worse than 500x annoying pain, and I think we do need more research on this to be able to better aggregate the duration and intensity of pain. 

These are the reasons why I allow users to input their own pain weights in the model, so I definitely encourage you and others to try out using alternative weights! (here) (When you enter the weights, 1 is the benchmark for "equivalent to suffering", and you might want disabling pain to be greater than 1 if down-weighting the significance of hurtful pain relative to disabling.)

Because of such methodological choices, I am more confident in the results about the animal-years improved (which look pretty good). 

One thing to note would be that excruciating pain is rather rare across hens' lifespans, and Welfare Footprint didn't find statistically significant differences between the amount of excruciating pain experienced by the average hen in conventional cages, enriched cages, and cage-free aviaries. 
From the "Total Time in Pain" tab on the display at the bottom of this Welfare Footprint page, the average time a hen spends in excruciating pain in her life, by cage type, is:
- Conventional: 0.05 (0.03 - 0.07) hours/hen 
- Furnished/Enriched: 0.038 (0.018 - 0.058) hours/hen
- Cage-free: 0.04 (0.02 - 0.06) hours/hen
Due to the lack of statistically significant differences between the time spent in excruciating pain, it may be that changing the weights drastically wouldn't lead to discernible/actionable differences in the results

However, I think that if we weighted the difference between Hurtful --> Disabling pain (r2) higher than the Annoying --> Hurtful difference we would get meaningfully different results on suffering reduction. (As we would if we chose a different benchmark category for the definition of "suffering".)

Again, I encourage you and others to try this out--I hope the model is useful and accessible to lots of people. Thanks again for the comment and feedback

Hi Laura,

Thanks for taking the time to explain that! I agree with all points.

Hello, thank you for writing and sharing this. I read the summary, but since I'm not a full-time paid animal advocate, don't have the bandwidth to engage with the full report beyond skimming over key sections and doing a few keyword searches.

In that spirit, I wanted to ask about a couple of questions about your estimates/methodology for California Prop 2 (since I looked into it once before, and have some familiarity with it)

1a. (How) Did you take into account the reduction in flock sizes (to think about lives of suffering averted)?
1b. If so (how) did you separate out the effects of avian flu-outbreak that happened at the same time as Prop 2 came into force?
2. (How) did you take into account effects on out-of-California producer effects to comply with the regulations?

PS. Whilst reading the full report, I was struck by use of lots of equations, and started to wonder (as a programmer) if for explaining the modelling and calculations, perhaps sharing code used for the calculation would be better than sharing than the algorithm in natural text form? i.e. if I were a paid full-time researcher the first thing I'd do is work through the report, write up the methods and inputs in code and see if I could reproduce the given numbers (and then start varying assumptions/modelling/inputs).

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