What brand should EA buy? If we had to buy one.

post by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2022-02-05T11:13:32.249Z · EA · GW · 32 comments

This is a question post.

If EA had to buy a non-EA business for its brand. What should it buy?  

Inspired by Ben Pace's suggestion of buy Blackwell's book store [EA · GW], if we had to buy a company/person/building only for its reputation, what company should we buy? I have not heard many people talk about this, so I think it's a neat framing of the question. It's like marketing spend, but you buy the organisation rather than paying a company.

Before someone suggests buying DeepMind (an AI lab), we wouldn't be buying that for its brand, we'd be buying it for expertise. That's a different thing. Likewise you can't suggest Jane Street (a hedge fund) - that's just investing.

Another way to look at this, Sam Bankman-Fried's FTX has sponsored Stadiums and sports stars. I presume they have a metric for who is worth investing in. If EA had to do something like this, what should it pick in terms of value for money.


answer by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-05T18:23:05.200Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A top university.  Just like scientific journals, these organizations sit at the top of a prestige hierarchy that makes them difficult to dislodge, and everyone wants to get into the top schools/journals to show how smart and capable they are.  A university or journal with a strong EA agenda could do a lot to change elite culture, by unilaterally changing the target that everyone else is aiming for.  (Of course, even if EA owned a university like Harvard 0r a journal like Nature, we wouldn't want to completely change the target because that would probably mess things up, as pradyusp mentions in their comment.  Rather we'd just want to nudge things in a marginally more EA direction.  But this could still have huge effects in the long run.)

University of Chicago, and places like the Hoover Institute at Stanford, are perhaps examples of top universities that take a different cultural stand (slightly more conservative / libertarian) compared to the leading Ivy League schools.  I think the existence of U Chicago probably has an outsized role in supporting the prestige of libertarian ideas in elite circles.  (Aka not very prestigious, but imagine how bad it would be without the schools!)  Alternatively, EA could buy a medium-prestige school and convert it more wholeheartedly to embracing wild EA ideas and priorities -- George Mason University is an example of a school with an extremely iconoclastic libertarian department that has an outsized influence on public thought relative to the school's overall prestige.

I think buying a university (more realistically: funding a new EA-themed department within an existing college, like the Hoover Institution or GMU Econ department), or a top scientific journal in a key field, would be more impactful than buying a newspaper like the Washington Post, which is a potential EA "megaproject" I've seen tossed around before on the Forum.  Newspapers are more about mass political power rather than influencing elite & academic opinion.  And the news business is much more competitive -- the likes of WaPo and NYT, although powerful, are less unassailable fortresses of cultural command in today's world than they were in the past.  By contrast, the dominance of top schools and (perhaps to a lesser extent thanks to open-access & sci-hub) top journals, seems to be going strong.

EA is already obsessed (rightfully so I believe) with starting effective-altruism student groups at as many top schools as possible.  Eventually, funding some schools to set up formal academic departments inspired by longtermist moral philosophy, scientific analysis of potential existential risks, EA-aligned economic development economics, or etc, seems like the logical next step.  Just like Blackwell books going through financial trouble, maybe EA could keep an eye out for an opportunity to bail out a financially-distressed but otherwise promising university, and thereby pick up a lot of elite social influence at a bargain price.

comment by So-Low Growth · 2022-02-07T19:15:09.897Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like the idea but then a potential counter-point would be we should just simple expand Oxford's GPI/FHI. Both of these are within Oxford, which adds a lot of prestige/credibility etc. 

Replies from: Jackson Wagner
comment by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-14T02:04:43.665Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA is advancing on several fronts here:

-GPI & FHI at Oxford

-Smaller departments and programs at other schools, like Stanford Existential Risk Initiative and Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative.

-Encouraging people to start student groups at lots and lots of colleges.

Right now, the student group work might be the most cost-effective, but there are limits to how well that strategy can scale. Keeping the focus on existing hubs like Oxford and the Bay Area makes sense now, but as EA gets more ambitious and starts to exhaust the low-hanging movement-growth fruit, eventually the idea of just buying our way into a Harvard Department of Progress Studies might start to look like a pretty appealing idea.

comment by iporphyry (iporophiry) · 2022-02-07T14:44:04.214Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There seems to be very little precedent of someone founding new successful universities, partially because the perceived success of a university is so dependent on pedigree. There is even less precedent of successful "themed" universities, and the only ones I know that have attained mainstream success (not counting women's universities or black universities, which are identity-based rather than movement-based) are old religious institutions like Saint John's or BYU. I think a more realistic alternative would be to buy something like EdX or a competing online academic content aggregator ("MOOC") and give it an EA slant. The success of programs like EdX is much more recent, and much more "buyable", since it is just a matter of either licensing the right content or hiring famous academics to give independent courses.

Replies from: So-Low Growth, RyanCarey
comment by So-Low Growth · 2022-02-07T19:09:39.270Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

IIRC, OpenPhil are funding EAish academics to produce online courses. I think the old Peter Singer one on Coursera/EDx did pretty well.

comment by RyanCarey · 2022-02-07T15:34:45.320Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Major philanthropists have successful started universities before, e.g. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt. More recently, major institutes have been started, e.g. IAS, various think tanks. I agree there is a formidable "moat" of prestige that would be hard to overcome, but the prospect is not one to be ruled out entirely.

comment by Aleks_K · 2022-02-11T13:20:16.073Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Are there any top universities that one could actually buy, even theoretically? Most (or at least most large) universities are either government-run or non-profits and one can't buy these kinds of entities.

Replies from: Jackson Wagner
comment by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-14T01:53:54.030Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes private colleges end up having to shut down due to financial troubles; this happened to a few places recently during the pandemic but is rare for prestigious top-tier schools. In such a situation a prospective EA buyer could probably sweep in and buy a lot of influence by bailing out the school while also insisting that in exchange the leadership be staffed with picks of the donor's choosing.

But I think a better course of action would be to just fund a new department (maybe in X risk, AI safety, moral philosophy, or development economics / progress studies) within an existing college. For example, George Mason University is a public college but their economics department is funded in part by conservative organizations: https://giving.gmu.edu/featured/5-million-gift-from-charles-koch-foundation-for-economics/.

answer by Lotte_de_Lint · 2022-02-06T21:47:15.757Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

An opinion/investigative journalist with great leverage (in their home country). I'm personally from the Netherlands, and would put Arjen Lubach forward. He is well-respected for his critical investigative journalism with a hint of satire. But another figure that would probably qualify (and is more well-known internationally) would be John Oliver from 'Last week tonight'. Such people would be able to get some of the underexposed issues EA is focused on, more in the mainstream. This would potentially drive increase the focus of research and interested investors in this direction. While EA generally does not have a focus on reaching the mainstream. The rather elaborate nature of the aimed investigative journalism makes the information rather high-fidelity. Plus, the presented specific ideas will in this way also reach the people who actually have the capacity to have an impact in a particular area and who would be missed by extremely high-fidelity outreach like books. 

comment by Matt Goldwater (Matt_Goldwater) · 2022-02-08T19:12:39.609Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA satire sounds interesting. How about Mad Magazine? That would be cheaper than Last Week Tonight, the brand isn’t attached to one person like John Oliver and it could be a good job for people that have written rationalist fiction?

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2022-02-09T15:06:09.647Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've thought for a while that EA could benefit from buying The Onion/Clickhole. A bunch of the satire is already "on the nose" for some of our more important memes, so it seems maybe worthwhile to encourage it even further, in a lighthanded way.

answer by Nathan Young · 2022-02-05T11:18:08.443Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A journal.

Buy a journal. Improve it's processes. Publish higher impact papers using the legitimacy of the previous journal's name. 

comment by pradyusp · 2022-02-05T11:28:19.334Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not so sure. First if your goal is to influence the general public, I don't they they'd be very influenced by that. 


Second, even if you do use a journal's brand name (say Nature), it only works in the short run. The people who read it frequently  know about the change in management and would be (at least) a little sceptical about the new management. So its not entirely clear that you would be able to use the previous legitimacy.


And finally, whatever legitimacy existed could be destroyed with a few articles that were out of consensus with the previous journal. Perhaps someone more well versed in the sociology of academia would know better but I think that it wouldn't take very long for its reputation to change to the "weirdo journal" or anything else. 

My biggest concern though is that even if it worked and the previous two points were wrong, I don't think convincing academics is the best brand to buy. It would be more on the lines of getting famous people across various sections of society (actors, singers, sports players, politicians) to endorse EA or specific EA causes. So better would be Rihanna's or Ronaldo's brand just so that your reach is maximised. 

Replies from: casebash
comment by Chris Leong (casebash) · 2022-02-06T00:25:04.294Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EA isn't trying to maximise its reach, but to recruit people who can make a difference. The influencers who can bring these people on board typically won't be general celebrities.

comment by MathiasKB (MathiasKirkBonde) · 2022-02-06T20:44:23.033Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Whether it would work aside, I don't think this is a very ethical thing to do. It is fundamentally an attempt at deceit, which is to me is the antithesis of what EA is all about.


edit: I think I misunderstood the idea. I read it as an attempt at hijacking a journal to use it as a platform to publish ea research. If it's just buying a journal,and placing a higher emphasis on impactful research I take back my original comment. That said I think there's a very fine line between the former and the latter.

comment by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-14T04:35:57.454Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like this idea, but there are a lot of different things it could mean:

  • Try to create a "Journal of Effective Altruism", like an academic version of this here EA Forum, for researchers to exchange ideas and build up the field.  This idea could be interesting but it's vulnerable to the trade-offs expressed by So-Low Growth, and it's not clear why we'd have to start by buying a prestigious journal -- surely we could just start our own journal from scratch.
  • Buy a mainstream journal and just exert a slight EA bias insofar as we try to highlight higher-impact papers and subjects than the previous journal owners, thereby subtly changing the incentives of a large research community.  This is a cool idea and it inspired my "fund a university department" answer.
  • Buy a journal as an exercise in metascience, in order to implement better scientific standards such as requiring preregistration of hypotheses, etc.  This idea could of course be combined with having a slight EA tilt; your answer seems like it is saying we should do a combination of these last two bullet points.

Another big question is, what kind of journal (or university department) should we be aiming to buy?  Maybe "Nature" is the most prestigious journal overall, but surely we'd want to target our efforts at a specific field -- one that seems like it could be particularly high-impact, but perhaps also one that's currently misaligned from EA values and seems to have poor scientific standards (that way we'd have lots of room to improve things).  Some things that come to mind:

  • Buy a computer science journal and mostly keep running it like normal, except try to ensure that worries about AI safety are treated as pressing and important rather than niche and weird.
  • Buy a journal about bioethics and try to steer it away from obsessing about blame, privilege, whether anyone can truly give "informed consent" for anything, etc, in favor of utilitarian-style public health examination of which policies would minimize deaths and suffering during a pandemic, or how a faster approval pace for drugs might save more lives even if it means we let some duds sneak through the process.
  • Buy a journal about aging, Alzheimer's, or gerontology and try to steer it towards higher-impact research about the root causes of aging rather than just classifying finer and finer details about the various downstream effects of the decaying health that comes with age.
  • Buy some kind of journal related to biology or animal behavior and subtly try to get everyone studying the kinds of animal-welfare topics relevant to organizations like Rethink Priorities.
  • Try to turn an existing journal of economics into a journal about Progress Studies.
  • Buy a journal in a problematic field, like gain-of-function research or hypersonic missile design or AI design (if such obviously net-negative journals exist) and try to sabotage it by jacking up prices or shutting down the journal entirely.

And so on and so forth.  Are some of these better targets than others?  (For instance, maybe in biology all the incentives flow from the journals down, but in computer science changing the journals would not do as much to change the overall field.)  How much does it cost to actually buy a journal, and is that something it's possible to actually do?

comment by So-Low Growth · 2022-02-07T19:11:20.277Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the counter-point here is that currently EAs publish in more mainstream journals, allowing them to gain exposure to a wide audience. Having a niche EA journal (even if buying a popular one and changing it) may reduce the audience/respectability (i.e. considered fringe etc.). 

answer by AndreFerretti (andreferretti) · 2022-02-09T18:00:09.013Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

MrBeast Youtube channel.

MrBeast regularly spends $10,000-$1,000,000 per YouTube video. He donates money, cars, food, or houses to video participants. In other videos, he plants trees, cleans the ocean from plastic, etc.

Imagine if he donated $20,000 to GiveDirectly, and showed the impact of his donations in rural Africa.

MrBeast is already an incredible altruist. Let's make him effective, too.

answer by Nathan Young · 2022-02-05T11:41:21.026Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The MacArthur Foundation's nuclear granting

It's not clear to me that we should support the MacArthur Foundation's grants on effectiveness grounds alone. But they might be worth it on reputational grounds + effectiveness. There is an entire field of people who will respect EA because it saved their jobs and they are people we want the respect of.

"Since 2015 alone, MacArthur directed 231 grants totaling >$100m in some cases providing more than half the annual funding for individual institutions or programs."
"MacArthur was providing something like 40 to 55 percent of all the funding worldwide of the non-government funding worldwide on nuclear policy”

This isn't my idea.

ht Haydn Belfield for the quoted text.

answer by Nathan Young · 2022-02-05T11:26:20.402Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Blackwell's book store

As Ben Pace suggests, Blackwell's is in trouble and EA could buy it. How much do EA authors spend on marketing over the next 10 years?

Ben estimates buying Blackwell's would cost $15M. How much marketing do you get fro that?

Imagine if you launch Will MacAskill's new book buy buying the book store. I don't think this is a good idea, but I don't think it's totally stupid and I don't know how much marketing spend you get by buying a book store and all the publicity which will surround that?

Cons: It's a current business and it may not be easy to use marketing channels to push on books.

It's a really fun idea, so I am tempted to ignore the badness. This is a problem. This might be a playpumps situation.


answer by iporphyry (iporophiry) · 2022-02-07T14:32:21.607Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the Christian Science Monitor's popularity and reputation makes Christian Scientists (note: totally different from Scientologists) significantly more respectable than they would be otherwise. 

From Britannica: 

The Christian Science Monitor, American daily online newspaper that is published under the auspices of the Church of Christ, Scientist. Its original print edition was established in 1908 at the urging of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the church, as a protest against the sensationalism of the popular press. The Monitor became famous for its thoughtful treatment of the news and for the quality of its long-range, comprehensive assessments of political, social, and economic developments. It remains one of the most respected American newspapers. Headquarters are in Boston.

So I would try to buy a dying newspaper, or another media source. Alternatively (and more likely), I would found a new newspaper with a name like "San Francisco Herald" and try to attract a core of editors from a dying media source. 

answer by Nathan Young · 2022-02-05T11:34:36.158Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

David Attenborough

Get David Attenborough to give a talk on the beauty and majesty of animals and what we owe to them at an EAG.

comment by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-05T19:01:06.326Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why do an EA-themed nature documentary when we haven't even gotten around to making any documentaries about EA??  If Carl Sagan was still alive, I'd say we should pay him to make an EA-themed sequel to "Cosmos" -- each episode could tackle a different philosophical idea or global problem, roughly following the 80,000 Hours Podcast series "Effective Altruism: An Introduction" and "Effective Altruism: Ten Global Problems".  Interviews with experts would alternate with experimental demonstrations, historical anecdotes,  and CGI visualizations meant to make the abstract ideas of effective altruism vivid and memorable, just like Cosmos did so well.

I'm confident that Carl Sagan (given his curiosity and strong anti-nuclear-weapons activism) would've been very amenable to this idea, but unfortunately he is no longer with us, and I don't think Neil Degrasse Tyson would be an acceptable replacement.  Maybe somebody like Bill Gates or Al Gore (of "An Inconvenient Truth") would be interested?  James Burke, of the beloved British documentary series "Connections", is still around.

Actually, rather than focusing on star power, it would probably be a better idea to just hire a really good documentary team with a track record of producing good television.  Ken Burns and more recently Peter Jackson are big names in the documentary world, although they've mostly worked with archival footage, which is very different than producing a "Cosmos"-inspired science show.  Maybe some team of folks at National Geographic or the BBC would be a good fit?

Taking this idea more seriously:  If I was an EA grantmaker, I'd want to start small by maybe hiring an educational-youtube-video personality (like John Green's "Crash Course") to make an Effective Altruism series.  If that seemed to show good results, then I would escalate to funding a decent Netflix-style documentary movie, which I imagine could be had for something like $2-5 million -- "An Inconvenient Truth" had a budget of around $1.5 million.  Then, if everything was still going peachy, we could set our sights higher and consider a big Cosmos-style TV series with a big marketing push to really try and get the word out.

Replies from: RyanCarey
comment by RyanCarey · 2022-02-05T19:10:38.953Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

"Free to Choose" by Milton Friedman is another interesting precedent - it inspired many, including a certain Arnold Schwarzenegger to get into politics. You could also think of famous lecture series', like Feynman's in physics.

Al Gore is too political, and definitely not someone you would want to present something like this.

Rather, it's the sort of thing that might be in the wheelhouse of Max Tegmark, and some of the famous presenters on FLI's scientific boards. People like Toby Ord and Will Macaskill also.

Anton Korinek is apparently doing a Coursera type course, by the way.

I think plenty of these things will happen in time.

comment by Shakeel Hashim · 2022-02-05T11:39:00.503Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a really good idea. Even better might be to commission him to make a documentary with a very EA-focused take on animal welfare. It's hard to say how much his explicitly climate change focused documentaries have done, but anecdotally it feels like they've been influential.

Replies from: Jackson Wagner
comment by Jackson Wagner · 2022-02-05T18:38:50.706Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

An EA-themed nature documentary could be a good idea, and Attenborough does seem to have a weirdly powerful brand such that he is the voice of like seemingly half of all big nature documentaries.  (Attenborough's inexplicable dominance of the genre, and the slight samey-ness that creates, greatly annoys my ecologist wife!)  Unfortunately I'm not sure that "all about animal suffering" is a great theme for an appealing nature documentary watched by millions.  But maybe I'm anchoring too much on the idea of gross, hard-to-watch, in-your-face PETA-style tactics, and a well-produced, hopeful and optimistic EA documentary could take a different tone?

Replies from: saulius
comment by saulius · 2022-02-05T21:24:36.648Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It may or may not be a good idea to do a documentary about wild animal suffering but I don't think that Attenborough would agree to do it because his passion seems to be about preserving nature. Advocating for caring for wild animal suffering would slightly go against this view because it would make it seem like nature preservation stuff he is advocating for has some cons too.

answer by Shakeel Hashim · 2022-02-05T11:26:43.039Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

EDIT: Just realised you said "only for its reputation", which makes my arguments for Apple less relevant (though it is still a very highly-regarded brand!).

If money is no object, I'd say Apple. It's one of the most loved brands, it is phenomenally good at marketing and it holds enormous financial influence. Not only could you direct a portion of its revenue to EA causes, you could also do things to encourage the spread of EA — for instance, add a "round up" feature to Apple Pay that rounded all your purchases to the nearest dollar, with the money going to EA funds.

Obviously this is not at all possible, but it's an interesting question to think about. Even if no one can "buy" Apple, it's perfectly possible for an EA to eventually become CEO of Apple and that could have much of the same impact.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2022-02-05T11:32:02.603Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say money is no object. Instead I'd say that we have to look at the cost benefit. But your points still stand.

comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2022-02-05T11:35:51.672Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

:P yeah a bit. But I still think some of what you say stands. It is well known that FTX supports effective charities and that's really good on reputation alone.

comment by Shakeel Hashim · 2022-02-05T11:28:47.373Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Similarly, I've wondered how much impact could be had by changing Facebook's charity donation prompts to EA-recommended charities.


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comment by Nathan Young (nathan) · 2022-02-05T11:36:55.744Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Put another way, what are beloved brands going cheap (or cheap to us) that would suit Effective Altruism?