EA Shouldn't Try to Exercise Direct Political Power

post by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T10:29:57.024Z · EA · GW · 34 comments

Contents

  There's not much overlap between what EA focuses on, and what American politics focuses on
  American parties are coalitions, and face opposition
  Pulling the Rope Sideways
  A few disclaimers
None
34 comments

Last May, EA-aligned donors helped to make Carrick Flynn's campaign in OR-06 one of the best funded primary campaigns in US electoral history. Flynn, a researcher at FHI and CSET, lost the primary, receiving about half as many votes as the winner despite support from the EA community [EA · GW]. This prompted several further analyses on the EA forum:

Virtually all of the initial analysis has focused on ways that EA can better win future political races. I believe that it would be harmful to try; that EA as a movement attempting to hold direct political power as elected officials would be somewhere between neutral and harmful; and that seeking to influence existing non-EA elected officials would be more effective.

***

The arguments on the EA Forum[1] in favor of Flynn’s election were wrong

> even with a small chance of success (<1%), the expected value of passing the White House's pandemic prevention plan is so huge - trillions of dollars and millions of lives saved. And if someone in Congress had that as their top priority, they might greatly increase the chances of it getting passed since there doesn't seem to be strong opposition to the plan. [EA · GW]

> The Biden administration released a fantastic $65 billion plan that aims to prevent future pandemics. Congress has funded practically none of it. Part of the problem is that nobody in congress has made pandemic preparedness a ‘core issue.’ Congressional members don’t oppose the president’s plan, and there are some standout champions, but none of them are trying to get it passed with the desperation that I think the issue warrants. [EA · GW]

> My sense is if Carrick had won, he could have done a lot of good – in particular, advancing pandemic prevention (e.g., via participating in bill markups), with an outside chance of getting Biden’s pandemic prevention plan enacted. [EA · GW]

These comments are incorrect; Carrick Flynn's election would likely not have had much influence on advancing the pandemic prevention plan.

The exclusive focus on a single high profile and very recent policy idea understates the influence politicians have, to be clear. While the specific cited reason, passing the pandemic plan, is not a good argument for the election of Carrick Flynn, politicians have many influences on many policy proposals.[4]

The broader problem is that EA has not (so far as I know) done a serious public analysis of how to achieve political changes. I am skeptical that electing many EA politicians is the right approach.

***

There's not much overlap between what EA focuses on, and what American politics focuses on

Effective Altruism is traditionally split into three central focuses: poverty reduction, animal suffering, and existential risks [EA · GW]. Pew conducts annual surveys of what Americans care most about; the most recent one is here. Animal suffering is not listed as a concern; foreign policy *as a whole*, including foreign aid but excluding more specific topics, gets between 1-2% of people to say it matters most; "advancement of computers and technology" gets between 0-1% of people to say it matters most.

Another way to consider which issues are discussed in politics is to look at what gets discussed in political news, or by politicians. My uncited impression is that there is some, minimal discussion of animal welfare bills; that foreign aid gets near-zero public focus (except as an addendum to discussions about Afghanistan or Israel); and Glenn Beck is the only political figure who has seriously engaged with AGI.

Another way is to look at the actual questions Carrick Flynn and his campaign faced. I have been unable to find any instances of him being asked about any EA focus area by a member of the public or a journalist. I have been unable to find any discussion of any EA focus area besides biosecurity.

EA politicians should be perfectly honest about their own beliefs and affiliations- as Carrick Flynn was. But they inevitably will end up campaigning on, and dealing with, primarily non-EA topics. This means that most *opposition* that EA politicians would face isn’t due to their EA stances.

***

American parties are coalitions, and face opposition

A hypothetical EA political movement would not be politically neutral. EA's, if elected to congress, would presumably vote on every bill, not just the negligible number that EA itself prioritizes. Only about 3% of EA's identify as right wingers. Almost all EA's live in congressional districts where you would need to be a Democrat in order to win. There is no chance of EA candidates controlling a majority, or even a significant fraction, of congressional seats by themselves. The *concrete outcome* of Effective Altruism exercising direct political power would be for EA to become a faction of the Democratic party.

This would be bad.

***

Pulling the Rope Sideways

> Imagine the space of all policies, where one point in that space is the current status quo policy.  To a first approximation, policy insight consists on learning which directions from that point are "up" as opposed to "down."  This space is huge – with thousands or millions of dimensions.  And while some dimensions may be more important than others, because those changes are easier to implement or have a larger slope, there are a great many important dimensions.

> In practice, however, most policy debate focuses on a few dimensions, such as the abortion rate, the overall tax rate, more versus less regulation, for or against more racial equality, or a pro versus anti US stance.  In fact, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal are famous for showing that one can explain 85% of the variation in US Congressional votes by a single underlying dimension, where there are two separated clumps.  Most of the remaining variation is explained by one more dimension. [To be clear, the most important dimension is left-wing vs right-wing; the second dimension is party leadership vs. insurgents like the Tea Party or the Squad.]

> If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways.  Few will bother to resist such pulls

As I noted above, the most recent groups of new congressmembers, the Tea Party and the Squad, failed to achieve their central goals. EA differs significantly from both. We have less popular support; EA’s tend to not have backgrounds or personalities well suited for winning elections; unlike the Tea Party, we are heavily crowded into a small number of congressional districts.

EA’s central political advantage is that there is no existing anti-EA movement or public opposition. EA also has significant amounts of money, and advantages in persuasion (many EA’s are researchers, journalists, or academics). This strongly suggests that influencing current elected officials, rather than attempting to directly hold political power, plays more towards our strengths.[7] In contrast, attempting to hold direct political power would bring into existence opposition to EA: whoever is running against the EA candidates.

***

A few disclaimers

  1. ^

    It is impossible for me to evaluate Protect Our Future’s reasoning; so far as I know it was non-public. It is possible they were in a different position from random outside donors; it is very likely that they either knew non-public information or had different reasoning.

  2. ^

    The best way to try to pass the pandemic plan is therefore either to try to pass a supplemental appropriation before the election, or to persuade Republicans to support the pandemic plan as well. The former is likely impossible; for the latter, Guarding Against Pandemics has endorsed 5 incumbent Republicans: David Schweikert, Dusty Johnson, Mike Simpson, Nancy Mace, and Ted Budd. I have no context on how these endorsements were made or what conversations have occurred, but this is at least gesturing in the direction of a successful approach.

  3. ^

    One of the most significant recent changes in US lawmaking has been the decline of “Regular Order”- the traditional set of congressional rules of order- in favor of concentrating power in the hands of congressional leadership. Because the actions of congressional leadership matters more, it is less important to actually directly hold seats in congress, and more important to be able to influence congressional leadership. (Directly holding seats is one extremely important way to influence leaders; but it is certainly not the only way, and it involves unique difficulties.)

  4. ^

    One person who proofread this essay commented that the arguments presented in favor of Flynn had a highly specific, measurable, and legible end goal, if not a good argument for impact; while the more plausible case for political influence doesn’t refer to a proposal specific end result, and any changes would not necessarily be clearly visible. I’m suspicious that there is a community bias against advocating donations or action for this sort of plan. To be clear, I am *not* saying here that working on politics is bad because it doesn’t have a testable and reproducible method of achieving a specific pre-planned goal.

  5. ^

    I think that this effect, if present, was likely weak; there was no absence of criticism of Flynn for his crypto ties.

  6. ^

    Criticism of EA would be harmful even if the criticism wasn’t politically successful and the criticisms weren’t widely accepted. EA is heavily dependent on recruiting from college campuses. Most new EA’s have some level of political knowledge beforehand; making EA more politically charged would likely harm recruitment by default, even if people did not directly believe the attacks.

  7. ^

    This would allow outreach to both parties; indeed, Guarding Against Pandemics has a good-looking list of endorsements.

34 comments

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comment by Matt_Sharp · 2022-07-21T18:13:18.910Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a useful post in terms of US politics.

But to state the obvious: there are other countries, and in some of these countries there may be a much stronger case for EAs to attempt to exercise direct political power.

comment by vbelenky · 2022-07-21T16:24:55.944Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good post--not least because I think this gives me insight into what the skeptics of EA-in-politics are thinking. I have a few responses:

It seems to me that two things are being conflated here: EAs individually running for office, and EA as a movement exercising political power. The latter, I agree, sounds like a terrible idea, for all the reasons you point out. But most of the arguments you bring up don't apply to the former. My model of EA in electoral politics looks a lot more like individual EAs (who are themselves pre-selected for being unusually charismatic, well connected, or otherwise well-fit for politics) behaving as basically conventional politicians, being team players, but making EA issues their top priorities on the rare occasions when they come up. That's perfectly consistent with pulling the rope sideways. 

There's a lot of middle ground between making EA as a movement a faction of the Democratic party and limiting EA involvement in politics to lobbying (though I think we should of course also be doing lobbying.) 

As far as I know, advocates for EAs running for political office are much more excited for EAs to run as Republicans than as Democrats, for precisely the reasons you outline (and several others). 

Finally, I want to comment that things like the Flynn campaign were always longshots, and that's fine; this is a numbers game and is largely going to be paying off over decades, not years.

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T19:39:47.470Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it's fair to characterize the Flynn campaign, the actually existing case, as an example of EA as a movement trying to win a political office; it was portrayed that way in the national press. The takeaways I linked on the EA forum also seemed supportive of EA as a movement trying to win political office, and I haven't seen anybody suggest that this would be harmful.

comment by Yelnats T.J. · 2022-07-21T18:00:52.086Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate the discourse (upvoted) but don’t agree with the conclusion.

These are not my complete thoughts on the piece, but I want to make a couple points:

 

#1 your takeaway from looking at the Squad and the Tea Party could be premature.

I agree that it’s hard to overcome the inertia of status quo in our government. However, I don’t think the fact that the Squad or the Tea Party haven’t achieved their most grandiose goals (although the Tea Party came close) means the question is settled. Movement politics and moving the needle on ideology in the electorate takes time and the success could come ten or forty years in the future (look at how long it took Right-wing evangelicals to get their win over Roe V Wade). That success could also never come, but we will only be more confident in that conclusion the more that time passes.

Also, grandiose goals is not the only measurement, we could also look at smaller wins such as smaller bills, amendments, backroom deals (admittedly hard to evaluate), and concessions from the establishment (look what the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus did to the careers of John Boehner and Paul Ryan).

 

#2 Are you content enough with our current government (especially considering suffering, X-risks, and the long-term future) for EAs to not try to exercise direct political power?

Here are some questions:

  1. Do you think that the current functioning of our government is sufficient to advert existential events? Asked another way: how tolerable are the weaknesses in our current government, especially for addressing x-risks?
  2. Do you think the political system will change itself to a sufficient degree in an acceptable amount of time?
  3. If outside forces are needed to bring about the necessary change in our political system/government, can they be successful without trying to exercise direct power?
  4. Can EAs eventually be consequential in this space?

The more that you think the answers are 1) no 2) no 3) no 4) yes, the more you should agree that EAs should seek all forms of political power including direct political power.

In summation: to reach our desired destination (i.e. acceptable X-risk levels), we inevitably need governments—especially the government of the strongest superpower, the United States—to take significant measures that are not in the trajectory of the status quo. Thus, to overcome the institutional inertia and to make government function better/implement needed risk mitigation, we need to capture political power. Considering the stakes, can we afford to not pursue direct political power? Capturing political power is a long-term project, but EA is better suited than many other cause-driven communities to successfully capture consequential political power in the long term.

I think this argument also applies to suffering and the long-term future. These problems/issues are immense. The largest, wealthiest, and most powerful organizations on Earth are governments of world powers. Unless we are content to just increments of progress whilst never actually achieving are target end goal, we have to do dramatic things through governance and that involves attaining political power. And the most direct form of political power is elected office.

 

Conclusion

I disagree with your conclusion, but I think this is a necessary discourse that will push EA to improve how it mitigates collateral damage from involving itself in politics and also improves the strategies and tactics it uses in politics.

comment by atlasunshrugged · 2022-07-21T13:05:00.557Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This was really interesting, thank you for writing @iamasockpuppet.  I don't agree with all assumptions but think many of them are logical and express similar concerns to some I had during the Carrick campaign. One point I was hoping you could expand on was the below:

"The *concrete outcome* of Effective Altruism exercising direct political power would be for EA to become a faction of the Democratic party." In which you say that R EA's would then not be interested in joining EA (or at least engaging in EA politics) but to me that seems off because as you mentioned many of the issues that the average voter and indeed party cares about aren't things most EA's would prioritize. To me, this means that for the issues that EA's do really care about (e.g. X-risks mitigation) an EA D or R would be happy to collaborate because they do share the values on those issues even being in different parties which are opposed on other "bread and butter" political issues. 

Also, a note on your assumptions for Carrick's influence- I totally agree he would have had little opportunity to do much in his first term (but not because he'd be an outsider like a squad member who I think have less  influence despite their general popularity because they are perceived as not good team players in the caucus) because that's the nature of an institution based on seniority where one has to pay their dues to move up and a huge amount of value is based on the committee you are in or especially chair. But, given how much the odds go up for an incumbent in their election, I think if he (or anyone else) got in, even if they didn't have power in that first term, they would be much more likely to be able to stick around for many more and exert power that way.

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T13:52:15.149Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In which you say that R EA's would then not be interested in joining EA (or at least engaging in EA politics) but to me that seems off because as you mentioned many of the issues that the average voter and indeed party cares about aren't things most EA's would prioritize.

I agree that EA politicians wouldn't prioritize the issues that they care less about; but they wouldn't be able to avoid taking a stance on them, most straightforwardly by voting on bills. There are no national single-issue politicians in American politics, every vote is a vote for a coalition, and EA would be a member of such a coalition. EA would be repeatedly advocating for the election of politicians who consistently take one side of the issues, and would therefore correctly be associated with that side.

To me, this means that for the issues that EA's do really care about (e.g. X-risks mitigation) an EA D or R would be happy to collaborate because they do share the values on those issues even being in different parties which are opposed on other "bread and butter" political issues. 

This assumes that the EA's in question are already committed EA's with strong alignment on the EA cause areas. There's at least two important cases where that might not be true:

  • EA's might want to work with somebody who's not themself an EA; for example, every current member of Congress.
  • Nobody is born as an EA; EA needs to recruit people to become EA's.

I do agree that, while some EA's with opposing politics might bounce out of EA as a result, the number would be pretty negligible, most would probably remain.

But, given how much the odds go up for an incumbent in their election, I think if he (or anyone else) got in, even if they didn't have power in that first term, they would be much more likely to be able to stick around for many more and exert power that way.

I agree.

comment by Zach Stein-Perlman (zsp) · 2022-07-21T16:35:44.355Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The *concrete outcome* of Effective Altruism exercising direct political power would be for EA to become a faction of the Democratic party.

It remains to be seen how effective they'll be, but note that e.g. GAP is nonpartisan.

[Edit: oh, the OP already mentioned this!]

Replies from: Khorton
comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-07-21T16:41:07.539Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My guess would be GAP focuses on recruiting existing politicians. I would be surprised if it's a pre-existing community, of which some people decided to run for office and other community members donated and volunteered?

Replies from: zsp
comment by Zach Stein-Perlman (zsp) · 2022-07-21T16:54:15.521Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree. Sometimes it sounds like the OP would support political interventions like GAP's PAC ("seeking to influence existing non-EA elected officials would be more effective"); I just wanted to note that EA political interventions aren't inevitably Democratic.

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T20:26:57.586Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree, I think that GAP is probably very good. I mentioned it as being effective and bipartisan in footnotes 2 and 7.

comment by RedStateBlueState · 2022-07-21T19:38:54.260Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: after reflecting on this comment I think I was too dismissive of the risk of association between EA and Democrats, particularly because I think we're headed toward a period of Republican domination of US politics and the risk of being associated with Democrats may feasibly outweigh the reward of potential policy. Anyway, below are my original thoughts.

 

Interesting post. I lean toward disagreeing, for a couple of reasons.

I think you would agree that Congress can, if it adopts EA legislation, be greatly helpful to the EA cause. It just has way more money and influence than EA can dream of at the moment. The questions are then:

  1. Is having a self-proclaimed EA in Congress helpful to getting legislation passed?
  2. Will the potential negative press and association with Democrats be too harmful to the EA movement to be worth it?

On (1), I think the answer is a resounding YES, and you have to overthink really hard to reach a different conclusion. Congresspeople deal with a ton of different interest groups all the time trying to have their preferred policies make their way into legislation. We are competing with all of them, which makes our odds of success quite low, especially since politicians generally consult the interest groups they agree with rather than interest groups actually persuading politicians. Having a congressman tirelessly devoted to the singular cause of getting EA legislation enacted, on the other hand - that can be powerful. I think the Tea Party/Squad comparison is quite a bad one, given that these groups focus on hyper-partisan legislation, which as you say EA is not. A more apt comparison in my eyes is pork. Politicians get funding all the time for projects in their districts so they can report back to their constituents. Hundreds of these things get included in many omnibus bills in order to ensure the vote of every single legislator. If Carrick Flynn is unwilling to vote for legislation without AI safety funding, and Democrats in the House need his vote due to a narrow majority, that boosts our odds significantly (especially since AI safety is pretty non-partisan and unlikely to be a sticking point in the Senate). I think you focus too much on the short-term in this analysis - politicians stick around for a long time, and Flynn could very realistically have a lot of influence in future sessions. The upside here seems massive.

For question 2, first let me comment on negative press. I'm pretty skeptical. Flynn really didn't advertise EA at all during his campaign, and his opponents did not attack him for it (aside from crypto due to its association with wealth/corruption), and for good reason. It's really hard to get voters to care about esoteric ideas one way or the other. Voters at large hold pretty authoritarian values and don't care about Republicans' attacks on democracy. Very liberal whites are basically the only ones who care about climate change. And these are esoteric issues that are already quite political - the idea that AI safety or animal welfare would become a campaign point is in my view laughable. To add, if it becomes too much of an issue, we (as a movement) can always decide it's not worth it and stop running candidates. Flynn was a nice trial run that showed us crypto is a weakness, and it's worth having more tests.

Now onto association with Democrats. EA will always be a left-dominated organization due to the extreme left lean of highly educated people. I do share your concern about Republicans being unwilling to pass EA legislation if it's associated with Democrats. But I think you vastly exaggerate how much more association EA would have with Democrats if there were a couple of Democratic EA-associated legislators in office, especially if they never really talk about EA in public. And besides, going back to question 1, I still think there is a (much) higher chance of getting legislation passed if we have an EA in Congress.

Replies from: nonn, iamasockpuppet
comment by nonn · 2022-07-22T04:41:23.678Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Your second question "Will the potential negative press and association with Democrats be too harmful to the EA movement to be worth it?" seems to ignore that a major group EAs will be running against will be democrats in primaries.

So it's not only that you're creating large incentives for republicans to attack EA, you're also creating it for e.g. progressive democrats. See: Warren endorsing Flynn's opponent & somewhat attacking flynn for crypto billionaire sellout stuff

That seems potentially pretty harmful too. It'd be much harder to be an active group on top universities if progressive groups strongly disliked EA.

Which I think they would, if EAs ran against progressives enough that Warren or Bernie or AOC more strongly criticized EA. Which would be in line the incentives we're creating & general vibe [pretty skeptical of a bunch of white men, crypto billionaires, etc].

comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T19:57:33.344Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Congresspeople deal with a ton of different interest groups all the time trying to have their preferred policies make their way into legislation. We are competing with all of them, which makes our odds of success quite low, especially since politicians generally consult the interest groups they agree with rather than interest groups actually persuading politicians.

...

A more apt comparison in my eyes is pork. Politicians get funding all the time for projects in their districts so they can report back to their constituents. Hundreds of these things get included in many omnibus bills in order to ensure the vote of every single legislator.

I agree that pork is good comparison, since it has highly concentrated support but nonexistent opposition. But the second section I quoted above directly contradicts the first section: pork is an example of how interest groups can be effective at getting their preferred policies into legislation, even if no politician themself benefits from the pork.

It's very rare for the groups that benefit from pork to try to steer it by themselves holding office.

I don't think we are really competing with all other interest groups; there's not a limited amount of legislation. There is a limited-ish budget, but it's so high that there's room for many different priorities already (including pork).

But I think you vastly exaggerate how much having more association EA would have with Democrats if there were a couple of Democratic EA-associated legislators in office, especially if they never really talk about EA in public.

Well, maybe. It's really tough to evaluate hypotheticals like this; but the actually existing political campaign that I'm commenting on lead to multiple articles about EA in the national political press just from the primary, let alone the general or somebody holding office.

Replies from: RedStateBlueState
comment by RedStateBlueState · 2022-07-21T20:12:47.140Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think this is an accurate view of pork. Pork is pushed for by legislators, not by interest groups. These projects have some support from within the district, sure, but it's really the legislators that want them to happen so they can advertise to their constituents. Similarly EA would be much more likely to make its way into legislation if it were pushed for by a devoted legislator than by an outside interest group.

As for the articles in the press, I think Yglesias makes a pretty convincing case that these can do quite a bit of good as well; in my mind they're probably net good, but I understand the concern.

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-22T01:47:58.531Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Pork is pushed for by legislators, not by interest groups.

I don't really understand the distinction you're drawing. Interest groups definitely lobby to receive pork.

These projects have some support from within the district, sure, but it's really the legislators that want them to happen so they can advertise to their constituents.

Is the claim here that the actual spending itself doesn't matter, and the reason it occurs is solely that the politician likes to be able to talk about the spending?

That runs counter to my understanding; this paper claims otherwise for Brazil, and this paper suggests otherwise for the US.

Replies from: RedStateBlueState
comment by RedStateBlueState · 2022-07-22T02:02:33.067Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm repeating myself, which I guess is a sign I'm not writing clearly. I think the way you're looking at it is this:

  • Interest group lobbies -> politician pushes for the pork- > pork gets included.

My claim is that the true mechanism is this:

  • Politician wants some funding to show constituents -> may turn to interest groups in district to see what projects need funding (or may just know about projects in their home district) -> politician pushes for pork -> pork gets included
comment by samuel · 2022-07-21T21:25:26.529Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate you laying out the specifics here! As someone who grew up in/around politics, the ineffectiveness of a freshman member of congress feels obvious.  I want to  amplify the concern for politics & EA.

EA should seriously consider drawing the line at financial support. Some EAs  want EA-aligned candidates to run, and that generally feels like a good idea. Rational politicians who care about important issues are better, right? They know what's best? Let's assume that's true, even if that's quite an assumption to make. Representatives vote on every bill, many of which have little to do with EA. How should we expect an EA candidate to vote on non-EA issues? If EA publicly and significantly backs a specific candidate, EA becomes at least a little culpable for all of a candidate's views, not just the EA ones. Furthermore, there's no guarantee that a candidate will vote how they say they'll vote. Moreover, even if they do vote how they say they'll vote, that doesn't guarantee results, whether that be winning a vote or operationalizing a government program that proves to be effective. There's so much uncertainty here. How can we as EAs truly calculate return on investment in campaign politics? I don't think we can with any real accuracy. There's nothing wrong with supporting candidates that you like, but this seems to fall far short of what we typically expect in terms of evidence. It feels like informed voting, not EA.

Agree that running EA candidates may polarize issues that are refreshingly nonpartisan. This would be an own-goal of sizable consequence.

Politics is a high-leverage arena, so it's logical that EAs are attracted to it, especially now that there's money floating around. EA as a (mostly) nonpartisan movement has higher potential with less downside. Channeling the community's energy into lobbying and advocating for EA-aligned policy is straightforward, effective and transparent. "This strongly suggests that influencing current elected officials, rather than attempting to directly hold political power, plays more towards our strengths." I couldn't agree more.

Replies from: samuel, samuel
comment by samuel · 2022-07-21T23:42:02.413Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interested to hear why people are downvoting this comment... would love to engage in a discussion!

comment by samuel · 2022-07-21T21:41:21.224Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wanted to keep the meat of my argument above as concise as possible, but also want to mention that EAs largely fail to grasp 1) what politics do to politicians  and 2) the unknowable, cascading, massive impacts of political decisions. Politicians change their minds, trade votes, compromise, make decisions based on reelection. And the decisions they make reverberate. None of this is predictable or measurable, so it's hard to imagine how to classify it as effective altruism.

comment by Mauricio · 2022-07-21T22:03:07.308Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think you have good points around partisanship, comparative advantage, and weaknesses of some arguments on the forum. Still, I imagine skeptics would find much of this unconvincing:

  • Your analysis of the limited influence of individual elected officials focuses on the House of Representatives. These arguments are grounded in the House's unique features (e.g., influence of leadership, limits on members' ability to propose amendments), so it doesn't make sense to generalize their conclusions to the Senate.
  • Concluding one of your sections, you write, "they inevitably will end up campaigning on, and dealing with, primarily non-EA topics. This means that most opposition that EA politicians would face isn’t due to their EA stances." So? I'm not seeing how this is an argument for your main claim.
  • Even if community members "tend to not have backgrounds or personalities well suited for winning elections," this of course doesn't apply to all community members.
  • I'd also encourage readers to consider the possibility that some arguments about this are hard to share publicly.
Replies from: iamasockpuppet, Guy Raveh
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-22T01:14:07.082Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah. It's kinda difficult for me to present a knockdown argument against explicitly EA politicians, when everybody agrees that the benefits would be illegible the public and difficult to predict.

Your analysis of the limited influence of individual elected officials focuses on the House of Representatives. These arguments are grounded in the House's unique features (e.g., influence of leadership, limits on members' ability to propose amendments), so it doesn't make sense to generalize their conclusions to the Senate.

This is true, and I think my essay suffered somewhat from being both an argument specifically about Carrick Flynn and an argument about politics more generally.

I think that the focus on the House, beyond just Flynn, was somewhat reasonable though; I think that EA is just incapable of getting an EA elected to the Senate in the near term, so there's not much point in considering the benefits. I can elaborate on this if you disagree.

Concluding one of your sections, you write, "they inevitably will end up campaigning on, and dealing with, primarily non-EA topics. This means that most opposition that EA politicians would face isn’t due to their EA stances." So? I'm not seeing how this is an argument for your main claim.

Two reasons this is bad:

  • As I discussed in the next section, creating opposition to EA could be harmful to EA itself.
  • It means that most of the EA effort in elections would go, not to arguing for EA causes specifically, but to arguing for and fighting over other issues. For example, in OR-06, significant sums of EA money was spent attacking Andrea Salinas as a drug lobbyist, which is not an EA focus. It also means that EA might lose elections even where nobody really disagrees or opposes the EA cause areas; OR-06 is again an example.
Replies from: Mauricio
comment by Mauricio · 2022-07-22T02:51:48.020Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair points.

I could see it making sense to try to build experience with politics even if some successes would be out of reach in the near term.

I'm still not sure I get what you have in mind with the last couple of reasons.

  • I'm not seeing how your first bullet point is a reason why it's bad that "most opposition that EA politicians would face isn't due to their EA stances." Is the idea that there isn't already opposition to EA stances, so creating it is extra bad?
  • Re: effort going toward arguing over other issues, fair enough, although my vague sense is most people have been accounting for that (i.e. not counting issue persuasion as a major benefit of this advocacy).
  • Re: "It also means that EA might lose elections even where nobody really disagrees or opposes the EA cause areas," sure, but on the flip side, obscurity of these cause areas also reduces cause-area-motivated opponents. It's not clear to me that's bad for candidates overall.
Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-23T03:27:10.284Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Is the idea that there isn't already opposition to EA stances, so creating it is extra bad?

Bringing into existence new opposition is bad. Not sure to what extent there's currently no opposition; but there's no opposition of the sort that EA's would face. (I'm pretty sure there are no professional oppo researchers targeting EA or individual EA's right now, for example. Similarly, existing politicians have no reason to dislike EA. Similarly, I'm pretty sure that there's never been a publicly running advertisement attacking effective altruism.)

(I think it's pretty likely that there attack ads would be if EA keeps running candidates. Maybe you're skeptical now, but that's based on a positive view of EA from the inside; not based on what a motivated opposition researcher who's being paid to find reasons to criticize an EA would either find or twist to criticize. The term "political hatchet job" exists for a reason.)

obscurity of these cause areas also reduces cause-area-motivated opponents

I'm not really sure what you mean by that?

Is the idea that nobody would oppose EA candidates because of EA ideology? That's true, they would oppose EA candidates for non-EA ideological reasons, and also because electoral seats are a scarce resource.

comment by Guy Raveh · 2022-07-21T22:47:25.276Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd also encourage readers to consider the possibility that some arguments about this are hard to share publicly.

Why would that be?

Transparency and keeping everything important public would in my view be the solution to attacks on the movement by political opponents. Secrecy is what can make us be perceived as a sinister organisation.

Replies from: Mauricio
comment by Mauricio · 2022-07-21T23:52:20.077Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My understanding is that discretion is the default approach taken by roughly every political actor. My intuition would be to trust that informed consensus over our armchair theorizing about PR.

But if we want to do theorizing, I think the core thing is that politics and policy are often competitive environments, and handing assets (like information) to rivals isn't always a great move. As a more concrete example mechanism, many actors are happy to present information out of context in a way that's calculated to cause maximal reputational harm (and many audiences won't engage deeply enough to recognize this as manipulation); they'll have a harder time doing that if they don't get access to that information in the first place.

comment by minthin · 2022-07-21T21:39:53.700Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I love this post and the fact that EAs are weighing trade-offs of electoral politics. 

OP undervalues the impact having one EA in Congress can make. Even if not in the party in power, the member can 1) raise/introduce policy interventions that would otherwise not be considered, even as "marker" bills, 2) shift the Overton window on important cause areas, 3) Recruit fellow members to support policy interventions.

Nonetheless, I'm glad we are weighing the trade-offs of appearing partisan. There are benefits of that too, that should not be overlooked, but def some unintended consequences. 

comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-07-21T16:43:20.309Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I largely agree. I'm not certain, but at the moment I don't think it's a good idea for people to run for office, recruit volunteers and fundraise as EAs. I am more optimistic about EAs running for office on their own merits. I'm also optimistic about EAs starting political advocacy organisations.

comment by artifex · 2022-07-21T23:58:25.968Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

even with a small chance of success (<1%), the expected value of passing the White House's pandemic prevention plan is so huge - trillions of dollars and millions of lives saved

You can’t just easily find projects that spend big amounts of money with 1500% rates of return like that? Trillions of dollars of expected value seems absurdly optimistic and not like realistic expected rates of return that you find in the real world for spending money on big projects. What usually happens is that most of the resources are wasted with underwhelming results or in counterproductive ways.

comment by Peter (Peter Gebauer) · 2022-07-21T19:50:12.063Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there are examples of topics that aren't as polarized and receive bipartisan support at least in part because of the relentless efforts of a small group of policy makers, like the recent bill dealing with sexual assault in the US military, so the "if elected..." case doesn't seem totally hopeless to me.  Of course, that's no guarantee, and what ends up in the bill is likely to change based on who is in power and what they want in it.

Even if you assume a democratic trifecta is necessary, that will probably happen again within the next ~20 years (the previous ones were 2008 and 1992, though the geography of the Senate and House districts does favor the Republican Party more strongly now than back then) and pandemic prevention will likely be just as important if not more so. It sort of depends on how long you are thinking about. If you think immediate change through one party is the most likely route, then one election probably won't cut it. I think it's certainly possible that there might be other more cost-effective ways of advancing pandemic prevention policy, like potentially finding a champion who is already an influential member of congress. 

I may be under the wrong impression, but it definitely seems like an area that where we have a lot of effective, concrete proposals that just need government funding and coordination, but few representatives are truly focused on it. 

What goals did the Tea Party fail on? 

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T20:18:08.851Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What goals did the Tea Party fail on? 

Repealing Obamacare was arguably its central political goal, and was a total failure.

Secondary failures include failing to reduce government spending and failing to reduce government debt. I also would characterize it as failing to reduce the size of the government and failing to reduce government regulation, although I don't know how to measure these. These cases are all dependent on what hypothetical you choose- maybe they reduced the rate of increase.

Replies from: Peter Gebauer
comment by Peter (Peter Gebauer) · 2022-07-26T06:10:48.035Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I see what you mean but I wouldn't say it was a total failure. Yes, the ACA overall held on by a single vote from the late John McCain switching sides at the last minute, but Trump did get rid of its main coverage enforcement mechanism - the individual mandate and financial penalty. 

And in terms of its anti-abortion goals, while they certainly weren't the only group working on that, it definitely seems like they've been rather successful with the overturn of Roe vs. Wade due to Republican appointed judges. 

In terms of the size of government, this one is difficult to say but there are certainly a number of agencies that have had their powers limited in the past few years, like the EPA. So perhaps even if the official Tea Party seems to have fizzled out, it seems to have had an impact, or at least significant progress has been made on some of their goals. 

comment by Scronkfinkle · 2022-07-21T10:50:27.019Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is really well written and expresses some of my doubts well.

I do think though that running as EA would not create an opposition to EA. In my view, EA is almost a religion to me, and we can table whether EA could formally be made a religion to provide constitutional protections, but in my view someone running as Christian doesn't face anti-Christian stances from their opponents, and Mitt Romney, despite there being A LOT of discussion about his Mormonism, didn't have opposition running as anti-mormon. I think if you frame EA as a set of guiding principles, like religion, attempts by the opposition to be anti-EA will likely fail, if they are even attempted.

Replies from: iamasockpuppet
comment by iamasockpuppet · 2022-07-21T11:23:31.740Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Without necessarily endorsing the EA-as-religion comparison, I don't think it's true that politicians don't face opposition for their religion. Christians do not face much criticism because they are the majority; some specific denominations do face opposition. In particular, Romney did in fact face significant opposition due to his Mormon religion- see this experiment, and this summary on wikipedia. (It wasn't a significant factor in the higher-profile 2012 general election because the Obama campaign decided to focus their fire on Romney's venture capital background.)

Replies from: Scronkfinkle
comment by Scronkfinkle · 2022-07-22T08:33:13.473Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To be clear, they were attacking mormonism but not running anti-mormon campaigns. They weren't developing policies that are like in stark contrast to mormonism.

To set this up against something different, consider LGBT candidates. There, revealing this aspect of yourself might actually push the opponent to develop a strong anti-LGBT platform.

I didn't and don't see the same happening for Christian or mormon candidates (i.e., :we are now going to develop very atheist policies and run on a secular platform to counter the Christian candidate"). I similarly don't expect people being like "effective altruism is about using reason and evidence to figure out how to do good, so we will run a campaign that explicitly is against reason and evidence."

I could see them instead running on an anti-elitist/intellectual platform, but this would be the case for any academic running for office too probably. I could also see them running a "we need to take care of our own, not other countries" platform, but that runs along party lines already, so like maybe don't be an R EA candidate.

So I really don't see the risk of them running an anti-EA campaign because you haven't detailed what that might look like, and the versions I've come up with are not actually EA but are normal political division lines.