O

Ofer

2112 karmaJoined Jun 2017

Bio

Last nontrivial update: 2024-02-01.

Send me anonymous feedback: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1qDWHI0ARJAJMGqhxc9FHgzHyEFp-1xneyl9hxSMzJP0/viewform

Any type of feedback is welcome, including arguments that a post/comment I wrote is net negative.

I'm interested in ways to increase the EV of the EA community by mitigating downside risks from EA related activities. Without claiming originality, I think that:

  • Complex cluelessness is a common phenomenon in the domains of anthropogenic x-risks and meta-EA (due to an abundance of crucial considerations). It is often very hard to judge whether a given intervention is net-positive or net-negative.
  • The EA community is made out of humans. Humans' judgement tends to be influenced by biases and self-deception. That is a serious source of risk, considering the previous point.
    • Some potential mitigations involve improving some aspects of how EA funding works, e.g. with respect to conflicts of interest. Please don't interpret my interest in such mitigations as accusations of corruption etc.

Feel free to reach out by sending me a PM. I've turned off email notifications for private messages, so if you send me a time sensitive PM consider also pinging me about it via the anonymous feedback link above.

Comments
259

I failed to mention in the parent comment that the prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) would plausibly not survive politically without the support of Ben-Gvir, which may have allowed the latter to have a lot of influence over the behavior of the Israeli government w.r.t. the war. Quoting from a WSJ article that was published today:

The differing paths present a stark choice for Netanyahu, who now risks heightening Israel’s international isolation if he continues the war, or potentially losing power if Ben-Gvir withdraws his Jewish Power party’s six lawmakers from the governing coalition.

“Ben-Gvir has huge leverage over Netanyahu,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute. “The last thing Netanyahu needs is an early election and Ben-Gvir knows that.”

There's also the unilateralist's curse: suppose someone publishes an essay about a dangerous, viral idea that they misjudge to be net-positive; after 20 other people also thought about it but judged it to be net-negative.

In 2018, two years before it won a Peace Prize,[3] the World Food Programme was ranked worst of 40 largest aid agencies on the QuODA scale (decent proxies for aid quality).

Quoting form the linked page (from the website of The Center for Global Development):

QuODA’s 24 aid effectiveness indicators are listed below and we’ve published a detailed methodology along with the data.

I suppose that the claim in the parent comment that the WFP "was ranked worst of 40 largest aid agencies" is based on that "data" spreadsheet. But notice that 27 of those 40 "aid agencies" are not aid agencies but rather countries (e.g. Australia, United States). So this is already a big red flag. For each agency/country, the spreadsheet provides 7 indicators that are grouped under the title "Maximising Efficiency". One of those indicators is called "ME4" according to which the WFP performed 3rd worst among all 40 agencies/countries. Quoting from the "detailed methodology" PDF (removing footnote references):

Indicator ME4: High Country Programmable Aid Share

[...] The [OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC)], recognizing the need for a metric that reflects the amount of aid that is received and recorded by partner country governments, constructed a measure called country programmable aid. CPA is a measure of development assistance that excludes funding that does not flow to partner countries (e.g. donor administrative costs and imputed student costs), unpredictable flows (e.g. humanitarian assistance), and transfers that are not discussed between donors and partner countries (e.g. food assistance). [...]

So if I understand correctly, the the QuODA scale seems to "punish" agencies that spend money on food assistance directly (rather than giving the money to the host state), and therefore does not seem like a good scale for evaluating the World Food Programme. (To be clear, I'm not overall familiar with QuODA scale; I'm just reporting what seems to me like a very big red flag).

A 2008 study found that UN agencies were by far the least efficient agencies, with the WFP disbursing just $30,000 per employee, where the average was $1,000,000.

Maybe the WFP employs many locals in low-GPD-per-capita states as part of their efforts to distribute food and the salaries are not a large % of WFP's budget? (I don't know whether that is the case; I'm just pointing out that that metric does not seem useful here.)

It's possible that if the UN had not existed, we would have already had a third world war. The UN is obviously not optimal but may be a lot better than nothing (w.r.t. allowing humanity to coordinate on important issues). EDIT: 'Making the UN better' may be an important cause area from an EA perspective.

If Russia and China are worse offenders (which I doubt, if the metric is "atrocities per capita") and have been treated less severely by the UN, this seems to point at a bias in favor of permanent members of the UN Security Council / superpowers, rather than a bias against Israel in particular.

And one of the major drivers of the conflict is the UN policy towards palestinian refugees, which has encouraged revanchism over integration for decades, unlike their policy towards other descendants of refugees.

Many policies that seek to hold states accountable for committing atrocities can be accused of encouraging revanchism. Nonetheless, the international community should probably coordinate to prevent states from doing things like conquering land and then effectively throwing hundreds of thousands of natives outside their new borders (causing them to be stateless), killing those who try to return, destroying/stealing almost all of their property without providing any compensation, etc.

I think this is verified by the very anomalous way the UN treats Israel, like repeatedly condemning Israel while neglecting far worse offenders,

Can you give an example of a state that was clearly a "worse offender" than Israel and yet was clearly treated less severely by the UN?

I don't really appreciate Ofer's comments, because they present the war effort as one combined front and do not really tell you how much influence different agents have.

The OP includes arguments for why people should not support a ceasefire, while not providing ~any info about the incentives of people/factions within Israel or the relevant historical context. I agree that such info is important. Summarizing all the relevant info in a reliable/legible way is hard (and both I and the OP failed to do so here). This problem probably often exists w.r.t. conflicts at that scale. Humanity should nonetheless attempt to coordinate somehow to make the world peaceful and avoid situations in which humans are doing terrible things to each other as they compete over resources and power.

Your comment mentions in passing "UN orgs of questionable independence and reliability". This is a good place to argue that most people should probably just defer to relevant UN institutions on questions such as whether a certain ceasefire is net-positive. Quoting from the UN website (published 3 days ago):

The Secretary-General went before the Security Council today to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that could have ramifications for peace and security in the region and beyond, two days after he invoked Article 99 of the United Nations Charter.

Is anyone on this forum in a better position than the Secretary-General of the UN to analyze, for example, the impact of Israel's actions on future, unrelated conflicts? (E.g. imagine that next year some state/org will set out to starve millions of people etc. as part of some total war, while claiming that their actions are at least as justified as the US-supported actions of Israel in the Gaza strip.)

After learning some more about the topic, it now seems to me that the word "untrustworthy" in my comment above is a severe understatement. Quoting from a Washington Post article (emphasis added):

The so-called “Dahiya Doctrine” took shape in the wake of the bruising 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. [...]

The doctrine that emerged out of the conflict was most famously articulated by IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he told an Israeli newspaper in 2008. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” [...] Around the same time, former Israeli colonel Gabriel Siboni wrote a report under the aegis of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies that argued the necessary response to militant provocations from Lebanon, Syria or Gaza were “disproportionate” strikes that aim only secondarily to hit the enemy’s capacity to launch rockets or other attacks. Rather, the goal should be to inflict lasting damage, no matter the civilian consequences, as a future deterrent.

“With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses,” he wrote. “Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

The doctrine appeared to be in operation during a round of hostilities between Hamas in Gaza and Israel at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. A U.N.-commissioned report regarding that conflict, which saw the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and Israelis, determined that Israel’s campaign was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”

The doctrine endured in the years since. [...]

Ofer
2mo99
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Disclosure (copying from a previous comment): I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75 years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic. I am not making here a claim that people in EA should or should not get involved and in what way.

The author mentioned they do not want the comments to be "a discussion of the war per se" and yet the post contains multiple contentious pro-Israel propaganda talking points, and includes arguments that a cease-fire is net-negative. Therefore it seems to me legitimate to mention here the following.

In interviews to foreign press, Israeli officials/politicians often make claims to the effect that Israel is doing everything it can to minimize civilian casualties. Explaining why those claims are untrustworthy in a short comment is a hard task because whatever I'll write will leave out so much important stuff. (Imagine you had to explain to an alien, in a short text, why a certain claim by Donald Trump is untrustworthy.) But I'll give it a go anyway:

  • The current Minister of National Security in Israel is a far-right politician called Itamar Ben-Gvir. He has been convicted on at least eight charges, including supporting a terrorist organization and incitement to racism. For many years he has signaled admiration for a person that has massacred 29 Palestinians; he kept a portrait of that person in his living room. (He removed the portrait in 2020 because a prominent right-wing politician refused to run with him as part of an election.) As a member of the Security Cabinet of Israel, Ben-Gvir plausibly had[1] a substantial, direct influence on Israel's behavior in the Gaza strip. EDIT (2024-02-04): I failed to mention here that the prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) would plausibly not survive politically without the support of Ben-Gvir, which may have allowed the latter to have a lot of influence over the behavior of the Israeli government w.r.t. the war. Quoting from a WSJ article that was published today:

The differing paths present a stark choice for Netanyahu, who now risks heightening Israel’s international isolation if he continues the war, or potentially losing power if Ben-Gvir withdraws his Jewish Power party’s six lawmakers from the governing coalition.

“Ben-Gvir has huge leverage over Netanyahu,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute. “The last thing Netanyahu needs is an early election and Ben-Gvir knows that.”

  • It seems to me that when politicians from the ruling coalition communicate with the Israeli public (in Hebrew) about what Israel is doing in the Gaza strip, they ~never mention avoiding civilian casualties as a moral obligation. When they do mention steps that Israel takes to reduce civilian casualties, it is often presented as things that are done for the purpose of reducing international pressure and thereby allowing the war to continue. This is a good place to mention:
  1. This Hebrew article by a former Israeli Defense Minister, from 3 days ago, titled "[...] There are no innocents in Gaza" (Google Translated).
  2. The Deputy Knesset Speaker has tweeted in Hebrew that Israel had to do "no less than burn Gaza", according to the The Jerusalem Post.
  • The right-wing prime minister of Israel (Netanyahu) is probably more concerned right now with surviving politically (and saving his legacy, and maybe also avoiding going to jail due to his unrelated trial) than he is concerned with minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties.

  • From the perspective of the Israeli government, even if this is not consciously optimized for, more Palestinian civilian casualties probably means a greater deterrence effect (and a greater revenge). In the Qibya massacre that occurred in 1953, 69 Palestinian villagers were killed, two thirds of which were women and children--according to an extended-protected Wikipedia entry--as a response to an attack in which an Israeli woman and her two children were killed. The international outcry seemingly caused Israel to no longer carry out such similarly orchestrated massacres. But during the current war, the Israeli government has the ability to act (perhaps subconsciously) in a way that is functionally similar to the Qibya massacre--at a much larger scale--while claiming (perhaps without technically lying[2]) that all the civilian casualties are killed in Israeli attacks with civilian casualties are attacks on "legitimate military targets".

(The Qibya massacre was led by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a Major in the IDF. Sharon personally ordered his troops to achieve "maximal killing and damage to property" (quoting from the extended-protected Wikipedia entry). Sharon later served as the prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006 and played a major role in Hamas taking over the Gaza strip; see my previous comment for more info on the incentive that Israel had to empower Hamas while weakening the much more peaceful Palestinian National Authority; while trying to avoid a peace process and its obligations to the Palestinian refugees.)


  1. EDIT: ~5 days after the war started a new, smaller version of the Security Cabinet was created without Ben-Gvir. The larger version of the Security Cabinet (which Ben-Gvir is part of) is now referred to as 'the extended cabinet'. I don't know how much power the extended cabinet currently has. I think at minimum members are getting updates and can use their position to "shame" the top decision makers for not being sufficiently 'tough' from the perspective of right-wing voters (e.g. if the decision makers allow certain humanitarian aid). In any case, I think it's plausible that the general tone of this war was set during its first days and still has a lot of influence on Israel's current behavior in the Gaza strip. UPDATE: This Hebrew article (published ~4 hours after this comment) says that the extended cabinet has approved doubling the amount of fuel that is allowed to enter the Gaza strip (for the operation of water desalination and sewage treatment systems, to prevent spread of diseases) due to pressure from the US. Ben-Gvir voted against. ↩︎

  2. EDIT: What I mean here is that Israel can internally make claims such as: "We are bombing that building with about X civilians inside because based on certain evidence it is more than 5% likely that a Hamas commander with such and such rank is currently there, which makes the building a legitimate military target". (I don't know much about international law but my best guess is that there is a huge gray area in which claims like that can be made while no one is consciously lying.) ↩︎

I'm trying to make a general point about improving Israel's incentives, not about whether one should press a button that magically makes Israel declare a ceasefire right now.

The way that the international community handles this situation may influence whether states/governments/politicians can expect to benefit from acting on incentives in a way that violates ~universal norms related to justice and human decency.

I feel like a lot of your comment is not really very relevant to this discussion. For example, in the same way that I don't think the My Lai massacre provides much evidence about the contemporary US military, I don't think Qibya, which took place 70 years ago, tells us much about contemporary IDF doctrine.

Unlike the My Lai massacre (which seemingly resulted from a command by a captain of infantry in the US Army), the Qibya massacre resulted from an order that was given by the Defense Minister of Israel in coordination with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The raid was led by Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a Major in the IDF. Sharon personally ordered his troops to achieve "maximal killing and damage to property" (quoting from the extended-protected Wikipedia entry). Later, as Minister of Defense, Sharon bore personal responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982, according to the official Israeli commission that investigated the cause and circumstances of the massacre. Sharon later served as the prime minister of Israel from 2001 to 2006 (and played a major role in Hamas taking over the Gaza strip).

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