A conversation with Michael O'Hare on January 10, 2014


Note: This set of notes gives an overview of the major points made by Michael O'Hare.


Good Ventures talked to Michael O'Hare about opportunities for philanthropy in several areas of U.S. public policy.

Climate change and natural disasters

It's possible to prepare for disasters such as rising sea levels while also working to slow down or prevent their occurrence.

There isn't a single magic bullet for climate or energy problems; no single response (electric cars, nuclear power, or hydropower) will be sufficient; it has to be a portfolio of ways to use a lot less fossil energy. Climate stabilization will be expensive, but worth it because climate change will be much more expensive.

Fortunately, a lot of what will help with climate is known and doable. There remain some risks that are quite daunting, for example hurricanes on the east coast of Florida. And earthquakes in Boston (and Memphis). Earthquakes there are very rare — with large ones occurring about every 250 years — but the next one will be particularly destructive and deadly because it’s a city of unreinforced masonry buildings, and a lot of it is on fill that will liquefy when shaken. Should we throw away most of the city? Shut it down and all move to Worcester?

Coming back to climate: we should be studying (and experimenting with) a lot of different things, including blue-sky ideas like growing trees and sinking them to the bottom of the ocean to capture CO2 from the air. But we should also be prepared for disappointments: our own research at Berkeley and elsewhere on biofuels started out with some real optimism because plants get their carbon from the air and burning them just puts it back. But looking at them more closely, we learned that crop-based biofuels like corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel drive agriculture into forests to keep food production constant, and the CO2 releases from deforestation and land use change pretty much wipe out the climate benefits of the biofuel. Of course, you can’t go wrong with conservation: turning down the thermostat in the winter and turning it up in the summer are no-brainers.


With support from the Ford Foundation, Harvard created the Innovations in Government Awards Program to recognize projects at the local, state, and national levels. Projects are self-nominated, and the program gives winners funding for replications. Now, the program has a database of projects that have undergone vetting, including administrative reforms, database tracking, and other types of projects. This is a research base of data that can be used to study and improve public management.

Economy of digital content

Technology has wrecked the economy of digital content, which used to rely on physical distribution of physical objects and news for which we had to put up with commercials, but now has electronic distribution where consumption has almost no marginal cost and therefore should be priced at zero, even though making the content is no more costless than providing parks or the police department. This creates a market failure, which we see decimating journalism, the music industry, and more right before our eyes. A possible solution is to use tax dollars to support digital content, where the government would make micropayments to artists and journalists from a common pool according to how often their content is consumed.

The crisis in digital content is more serious than many people realize and part of the reason that US politics is in trouble. Dealing with the ongoing collapse of this market is probably the most important single contribution philanthropy could make now because, without media, we cannot have the public discourse critical to all the other issues we’re talking about, such as climate change.

Quality assurance for teaching at universities

University professors never watch each other teach, in part because we’re shy and insecure that we’re actually any good at it (and have had no real training in teaching), in part because of an idea (which I think is just silly) that doing so would be a violation of academic freedom. So there is little peer discussion of teaching methods and no institutions or mechanisms to share practices. Students evaluate teaching, but research suggests that high student evaluations are not correlated with learning. Industry knows a lot about good quality-assurance practices, and we could learn from Google, Toyota, etc. if university leadership got behind it.

Classroom design is not always suited for modern teaching. For example, lecture rooms aren't good for discussions.


Cars don't just overheat the planet; heavy use of personal cars also leads to less interpersonal interaction within communities. A car-based society is socially toxic. If you wear a two-thousand pound iron suit whenever you leave your house, you don’t meet people, even casually. Creating walkable cities and decreasing the use of cars is important for improving social cohesion.

Car use could decrease following the historic pattern of cigarette use. Originally, social norms defended smokers; people would apologize for asking others not to smoke. Now it's the other way around, and people apologize for smoking. That process began with the evidence that smoking is bad for the health of smokers and non-smokers — for example, airline stewardesses who got lung cancer despite not smoking — and continued with limits on advertising, and smoking bans in certain public places. It may be possible similarly to make it rude to drive. This has started to happen to some extent; in some places like my home town of Berkeley, people would be a little ashamed to arrive at a party in an SUV. But it's important to provide the transportation infrastructure that would allow more change in social opinion: no matter how much I don’t want to drive on my next trip, I can’t buy myself a bike lane or a tram. And our pricing of public transportation is crazy: two couples can go from the East Bay to San Francisco for a show in a car, including parking, for less than it would cost to take the BART when the train has empty seats.

Labor mobility

This is not one of my areas of expertise, but an important question to focus on here would be who will benefit and suffer from any policy change. Countries with particularly high percentages of immigrants, such as UAE and Qatar, tend to have many problems. You have to be careful to draw the boundaries of the analysis properly: are the gains going to the workers, the receiving communities, or the elite decision makers in the supplying and hiring countries?

It is also important to consider whether resources spent on labor mobility could be better used on other programs to directly improve welfare in developing countries.

Animal welfare/factory farming

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has made very effective ads, at least I can feel myself emotionally gripped by the kittens and puppies on the screen. I don’t think it’s necessary to abuse animals in order to put meat on the table. But if we are romantic about things like GMOs, organic food, local food production [what diet could be provided during the winter in Minneapolis?] and cage-free eggs, we run the risk of condemning a lot of people who can’t afford options to hunger. Agricultural yields are important and growing more so as population increases and tastes evolve.

Organ donation

Organ donation is an area where “nudges” can go a long way, for instance, by making it the default option on drivers’ licenses that you can refuse if you wish. Some cultures and religions object to using organs from cadavers, but it might be possible to change social norms around organ donation so that more people believe that donating organs is a way to have a positive impact on the world after death. Another approach is to make a legal market for selling organs — an idea supported by Thomas Schelling. Overall, organ donation seems like an interesting issue, but the number of people that could be saved due to changes in current practice seems small relative to other health risks.

End of life care

In many cases where patients have no chance of recovery, many resources are spent in order to extend the lives of the patients by only a few weeks. It’s worth remembering that we don’t save lives by medicine or anything else, we just extend them: everybody dies. If people were given the choice upfront to extend their own lives in the future by a matter of fairly miserable weeks should they be in an ICU with a terminal condition, or to receive earlier in life a share of the amount of money that doing so would cost and opt for a good hospice instead of that kind of heroic treatment, perhaps they would choose to use the money on something other than desperate treatment. I would certainly sign up for that in a minute.

Managing philanthropic projects

I’m a proponent of the "ready-fire-aim” approach and having a philanthropic portfolio where 20% of projects are expected to fail quickly, so that it is possible to learn from them (and the long shots that do succeed) while designing the next portfolio.

It is important to think in advance about your criteria for success. Every program (public and philanthropic) should be required to generate data by which its performance can be observed and if possible, measured. Then, it should be managed on the "derivative of performance;" i.e. every year, it should aim to improve on the previous year, with less attention than we usually give to “success” or “failure”.

The arts

All institutions, without real leadership, will evolve to maximize the comfort of their managers, which almost never maximizes value created. In the arts, when evaluating art programs, too often the institution’s and artists’ welfare are considered instead of the audience's. For example, if a symphony is written but never performed (more often, never performed after its premiere), it still might be considered a success that a symphony was just created. The focus ought to be on the demand side (the audience) rather than on the supply side (the artists, museums, orchestras, etc.): what the arts need is not pumping out more art, but growing a competent, demanding public. Of course trashing arts education in the schools as we have been doing for at least two decades is very bad policy.

Arts institutions generally don’t think about the visitor experience as much, or as carefully, as they should. For example, museums do not record their collections on their balance sheets, but, again for example, the Art Institute of Chicago probably owns around $25-30 billion worth of artwork. If it were to sell 1% of it by value (maybe 10% of the collection by object count), it could endow free admission forever, without sacrificing value created, since nearly all of the collection is never shown anyway. Selling unused pieces also could fund the construction of more gallery buildings so that more of the collection could be shown. If what we care about is “people seeing art” rather than “museums having art,” this seems like an easy call. However, museum directors have written themselves rules that forbid them from selling art unless they use the proceeds to fund the acquisition of other art (that, generally, they still have no place to exhibit).

Arts and culture, I can say only partly ironically, might be the most important policy area, because (i) public policy is super-important for increasing our engagement with more, better art, and (ii), comparing it to health care, why would we try to lengthen lives if life isn’t worth living?