What exactly is the system EA's critics are seeking to change?

post by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-27T03:46:45.290Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · EA · GW · 42 comments

This is a question post.

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  Answers
    16 ishaan
    13 Halffull
    7 kbog
    4 aarongertler
    3 Khorton
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In his post about political culture at the edges of EA [EA · GW], user kbog points out:

Perhaps the most common criticism of EA is that the movement does not collectively align with radical anticapitalist politics.

This is the typical criticism EA doesn't engage enough in "systemic change", the system usually implied to be capitalism. However, it's been my experience EA's critics aren't always explicit about the "system" they're referring to. The "system" often appears to be capitalism, but it's not self-evident to me this is what is meant most of the time. Of course, the social/political "system" in question usually includes capitalism, but among leftists it appears it also includes some or all of the following:

In particular, with the predominance of intersectionality in social justice movements in recent years, it appears the "system" many leftists seek to change isn't merely capitalism, or a matter of political economy, but of intersecting structures of oppression. For example, academic theory in the philosophy of social justice has given rise to the idea of a "kyriarchy", which is a term for describing:

The soundness of the notion of a "kyriarchy" is disputed outside EA, including within leftist politics itself, and to settle issues surrounding that question isn't the job of EA. Most leftist critics of EA may not have as explicit a theory as that of the kyriarchy or similar intellectual ideas when they posit a single sociopolitical system that includes but is not limited to capitalism. Finally, it's definitely the case at least some leftist critics of EA do indeed intend the "system" in need of change is the economic system of capitalism, without commenting on the relationship of EA to anything else in politics.

However, for the sake of being comprehensive and accurate in responding to criticism, EA should understand what all kinds of different leftist critics of EA are actually saying.

Answers

answer by ishaan · 2019-05-29T05:21:50.212Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · EA · GW

This is sort of an off the cuff ramble of an answer for a topic which deserves more careful thinking, so I might make some hand-wavy statements and grand sweeping claims which I will not endorse later, but:

First off, I feel that it's a little unhelpful to frame the question this way. It implicitly forces answers to conflate some fairly separate concepts together 1) The System 2) leftists 3) critiques of EA.

Here's a similarly sort of unhelpful way to ask a question:

What are these "cognitive biases" that effective altruist critiques of veganism are seeking to make us aware of?

How would you answer?

Most effective altruists support veganism! The central insight motivating most vegan practices is similar to the central insight of EA. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of effective altruists think AI risk rather than veganism is a best possible way to go about doing good, and cite cognitive biases as the reason why people might not realize that AI risk is the top priority.

Cognitive Biases are a highly useful but fully generalizable concept that can be used to support or critique literally anything. You should seek to understand cognitive biases them in their own right...not only in the light of how someone has used them to form a "critique of veganism" by advocating for AI risk instead.

That's how you'd answer, right? So, in answer to your question:

What exactly is the system EA's (leftist) critics are seeking to change?

Most ideologically consistent leftists support EA, or would begin supporting it once they learn what it is. Utilitarianism / widening of the moral circle is very similar to ordinary lefty egalitarianism. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of the left don't think some particular EA method are the best possible way to save the world, and cite Failure to Challenge the System as the reason.

The System is a highly useful but fully generalizable concept that can be used to support or critique literally anything. You should seek to understand it in its own right...not only in the light of how someone might invoke it to form a "critique of (non-systemic) effective altruism" by advocating for systemic change instead

I hope this analogy made my point - this question implicitly exaggerates a very minor conflict, setting up an oppositional framework which does not really need to exist.

...okay, so to actually attempt to answer the quesiton rather than subvert it. Please note that the following are not my own views, but a fairly off the cuff representation of my understanding of a set of views that other people hold. Some of these are "oversimplified" versions of views that I do roughly hold, while others are views that I think are false or misguided.

What is the system?: Here's one oversimplified version of the story: from the lower to upper paleolithic, egalitarian hunter gatherers gradually depleted the natural ecology. Prior to the depletion, generally most able bodied persons could easily provide for themselves and several dependents via foraging. Therefore, it was difficult for anyone to coerce anyone else, no concepts of private property were developed, and people weren't too fussy about who was related to whom.

In the neolithic, the ecology was generally getting depleted and resources were getting scarce. Hard work and farming became increasingly necessary to survive and people had incentive to violently hoard land, hoard resources, and control the labor of others. "The System" is the power structures that emerged thereby. It includes concepts of private property, slavery, marriage (which was generally a form of slavery), social control of reproduction, social control of sex, caste, class, racism, etc - all mechanisms ultimately meant to justify the power held by the powerful. Much like cognitive biases, these ideas are deeply built into the way all of us think, and distort our judgement. (E.g. do you believe "stealing" is wrong? Some might argue that this is the cultural programming of The System talking. Without conceptions of property, there can be no notion of stealing)

Despite resource scarcity declining due to tech advance, the bulk of human societies are still operating off those neolithic power hierarchies, and the attending harmful structures and concepts are still in place. "Changing the system" often implies steps to re-equalizing the distribution of power and resources, or otherwise dismantling the structures that keep power in the hands of the powerful.

By insisting that the circle of moral concern includes all of humanity (at least), and actively engaging in a process which redistributes resources to the global poor, effective altruists would generally be considered as a source of positive contributing to the dismantling of "The System". I do think the average leftist would think Effective Altruism, properly pitched, is generally a good idea - As would the average person regardless of ideology, realistically, if you stuck to the basic premises and didn't get too into some of the more unusual conclusions that they sometimes are taken to.

So how come some common left critiques of EAs invoke "The System"?:

Again, I don't (entirely) agree with all these views, I'm explaining them.

1) Back when the public perception of EA was that it was about "earning to give" and "donating"...especially when it seemed like "earning to give" meant directing your talent to extractive corporate institutions, the critique was that donations do not actually alter the system of power. Consider that a feudal lord may "give" alms to the serf out of noblesse oblige, but the fundamentally extractive relationship between the lord and serf remains unchanged. I put "give" in quotes because, if you really want to understand The System, you have to stop implicitly thinking of the "lord's" "ownership" of the things they "nobly" "give" to the "serf" as in any way legitimate in the first place. The lord and serf may both conceptualize this exchange as the lord showing kindness towards the serf, but the reality is that the lord, or his ancestors, actually create and perpetuate the situation in the first place. Imagine the circularity of the lord calculating he had made a magnanimous "impact" by giving the serf a bit of the gold... that was won by trading the grain which the serf had toiled for in the first place. Earning to give is a little reminiscent of this...particularly in fields like finance, where you're essentially working for the "lord" in this analogy.

2) Corporate environments maximize profit. Effective altruists maximize impact. As both these things are ultimately geared towards maximizing something that ultimately boils down to a number, effective altruist language often sounds an awful lot like corporate language, and people who "succeed" in effective altruism look and sound an awful lot like people who "succeed" in corporate environments. This breeds a sense of distrust. There's a long history within leftism of groups of people "selling out" - claiming to try to change the system from inside, but then turning their backs on the powerless once they got power. To some degree, this similarity may create distasteful perceptions of a person's "value" within effective altruism that is analogous to the distasteful perception of a person's "value" in a capitalist society. (E.g. capitalist society treats people who are good at earning money as sort of morally superior. Changing "earning money" to "causing impact" can cause similarly wrong thinking)

3) EAs to some extent come off as viewing the global poor as "people to help" rather than "people to empower". The effective altruist themself is viewed as the hero and agent of change, not the people they are helping. There is not that much discussion of the people we are helping as agents of change who might play an important part in their own liberation. (This last one happens to be a critique I personally agree with fairly wholeheartedly, and plan to write more on later)

To the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is incorrect, as EA enters the policy arena more and more, we will once again come in friction with leftist (and other political movements), unlike EA has since its inception. The difference this time is we would be asserting the systemic change we're pursuing is more effective (and/or in other ways better) than the systemic change other movements are engaging in. And if that's the case, I think EA needs to engage the communities of our critics just as critically as they have engaged us. This is something I've begun working on myself.

I would strongly recommend not creating a false dichotomy between "EA" and "Leftists", and setting up these things as somehow opposed or at odds. I'm approximately an EA. I'm approximately a leftist. While there are leftist-style critiques of EA, and EA-style critiques of leftism, I wouldn't say that there's any particular tension between these frameworks.

There is really no need to draw lines and label things according to ideology in that manner. I think the most productive reply to a "X-ist" critique of EA is an X-ist support of EA, or better yet, a re-purposing of EA to fulfill X-ist values. (Yes, there are some value systems for which this cannot work...but the egalitarian left is definitely not among those value systems)

to the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is correct, EA should internalize this criticism, and should effectively change socioeconomic systems better than leftists ever expected from us

Yes.

And to that I would add, don't needlessly frame EA as fundamentally in opposition to anyone's values. EA can be framework for figuring out strategic ways to fulfill your values regardless of what those values are. (Up to a point - but again, "leftists" are well within the pale of that point.)

...and perhaps better than leftist political movements themselves (lots of them don't appear to be active or at least effective in actually changing "the system" they themselves criticize EA for neglecting).

Well, I think this is an unhelpful tone. It is, again, setting up EA as something different and better than leftism, rather than a way for us to fulfill our values - even if our values aren't all exactly the same as each others. This isn't particular to leftism. If you wanted the members of a church congregation to donate to Givewell, you should focus on shared values of charity, not "EAs could save more souls than Christianity ever could". The goal for EA is not to engage against other ideologies, the goal (to the extent that EA ideas are good and true, which obviously they may not all be) is to become part of the fabric of common sense by which other ideologies operate and try to perpetuate their goals.

Beyond the tone it's also just not true, in my opinion. Seems to me that social change does in fact occur constantly due to political movements, all the time. What's more, I'm pretty sure that the widespread acceptance of the basic building block concepts of effective altruism (such as, all people are equally important) are largely due to these leftist social movements. I don't think it's a stretch to say that EA itself is at least in part among the products of these social movements.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T19:36:48.729Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think you're underestimating the level of hostility most socialists and communists have towards philanthropy and EA in particular. In my experience (online only) EAs receive consistent, active and preemptive hostility from leftist groups, including vicious attacks on personality and character rather than mere disagreement about ends and means. It's naive to think that small questions of framing would shift this relationship.

Of course it's important to frame things in such a way that a sizeable minority of leftists go along with us, but that's always going to be in opposition to concerted hostility from powerful people within the leftist ecosystem. And really this is more a matter of public-facing communication rather than stuff on this forum.

The goal for EA is not to engage against other ideologies

It's a perfectly valid goal. If other ideologies are wrong (or, to put it in subjective terms, if they contradict our own values) then we ought to defeat them - if that is in fact possible and the most effective strategy in pragmatic terms. There's nothing special about other people's ideologies that renders them immune to criticism and change like anything else.

EA can be framework for figuring out strategic ways to fulfill your values

It might be useful to promote this to other people in some cases, but as a concept of EA this view is philosophically untenable. See: https://philpapers.org/rec/BEREAH-3

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T17:16:23.443Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Strongly upvoted. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response.

Utilitarianism / widening of the moral circle is very similar to ordinary lefty egalitarianism. Don't lose sight of that just because some branches of the left don't think some particular EA method are the best possible way to save the world, and cite Failure to Challenge the System as the reason.

At least one leftist critique of EA has made the case while leftist political movements and EA can find common ground in the ideals shared between egalitarianism and utilitarianism, through an egalitarian lens, the framing of altruism should be seen by all leftists as problematic. From "5 Problems with Effective Altruism", by Connor Woodman, published in Novara Media in June 2016:

4. Solidarity is a better moral framework than altruism.
‘Aid’ has paternalistic undertones. Instead, we should be looking to support and join in transnational solidarity with movements in the west and Global South: indigenous peoples, landless peasants, precarious garment workers. As Monique Deveaux puts it: “By failing to see the poor as actual or prospective agents of justice [EA’s approaches] risk ignoring the root political causes of, and best remedies for, entrenched poverty.”
The best way to show solidarity is to strike at the heart of global inequality in our own land. There are an array of solidarity groups that seek to change western foreign policy and support modern-day national liberation movements. There are also various western NGOs which seek to injure the production of structural injustice in the west.
Words like solidarity – along with class, imperialism and exploitation – are scrubbed from the EA lexicon. Perhaps they should relaunch as Effective Solidarity.

"The System" is the power structures that emerged thereby. It includes concepts of private property, slavery, marriage (which was generally a form of slavery), social control of reproduction, social control of sex, caste, class, racism, etc - all mechanisms ultimately meant to justify the power held by the powerful. [...]
Despite resource scarcity declining due to tech advance, the bulk of human societies are still operating off those neolithic power hierarchies, and the attending harmful structures and concepts are still in place.

I'm aware of this. Some leftist critics of EA come from an essentially Marxist perspective (i.e., "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.") While not all contemporary Marxists, some leftists take this to a logical conclusion known as class reductionism: the idea other apparent kinds of oppression like racism and sexism are absolutely functions of classism, and so this is the only kind of anti-oppression politics leftists need or should prioritize (in spite of Urban Dictionary's contention, I'm aware this is a position in fact advanced by some people, although it's true the accusation as often levelled is unsound). Obviously, there are disagreements over class reductionism within leftism that have nothing to do with EA.

It's ambiguous whether EA's leftist critics are primarily talking about 'systemic change' in terms of economic class, or through an intersectional lens, and see race, sex, sexuality, or other dimensions of oppression to be just as important as economics in what in EA's approaches should change. So, my original question could have been formulated as: to what extent is leftist criticism of EA class reductionist, or intersectionalist?

2) Corporate environments maximize profit. Effective altruists maximize impact. As both these things are ultimately geared towards maximizing something that ultimately boils down to a number, effective altruist language often sounds an awful lot like corporate language, and people who "succeed" in effective altruism look and sound an awful lot like people who "succeed" in corporate environments. This breeds a sense of distrust. There's a long history within leftism of groups of people "selling out" - claiming to try to change the system from inside, but then turning their backs on the powerless once they got power. To some degree, this similarity may create distasteful perceptions of a person's "value" within effective altruism that is analogous to the distasteful perception of a person's "value" in a capitalist society. (E.g. capitalist society treats people who are good at earning money as sort of morally superior. Changing "earning money" to "causing impact" can cause similarly wrong thinking)

This is a major source of implicit distrust some leftists would have upon being introduced to EA that has been just below the surface of my thinking on this subject, but I've never seen anyone in EA articulate this point so well.

3) EAs to some extent come off as viewing the global poor as "people to help" rather than "people to empower". The effective altruist themself is viewed as the hero and agent of change, not the people they are helping. There is not that much discussion of the people we are helping as agents of change who might play an important part in their own liberation.

This is essentially the criticism of EA I quoted above from the Novara Media article. You're right this is a criticism of EA that isn't inherently leftist, but it is one leftists tend to make most often. It's one I agree with. I look forward to your writing on it. Please feel free to reach out to me for help in writing it, or for proofreading, editing, or feedback on the draft.

I would strongly recommend not creating a false dichotomy between "EA" and "Leftists", and setting up these things as somehow opposed or at odds.

I'm aware of this, especially because criticisms of EA by leftists outside EA are confounded by the fact most of the EA community already is leftist, and critics often lack awareness of this. I was just utilizing this frame because it's one the debate has historically been situated in by how leftist critics of EA have imposed this dichotomy on the conversation between themselves, and the EA community.

Well, I think this is an unhelpful tone. It is, again, setting up EA as something different and better than leftism, rather than a way for us to fulfill our values - even if our values aren't all exactly the same as each others. This isn't particular to leftism.

I should have been more specific above. If I didn't think the was room for cooperation or collaboration between EA and any leftist political movements, I would have said 'most' or 'all' of them are ineffective, or countereffective, by the lights of overlapping principles of both EA and leftist politics. However, while it may not be most, there are at least some leftist factions I do think EA is qualified in asserting we are better than at providing people with opportunities to pursue their own autonomy and liberation. EA should be, and thus rightly is, open to an earnest and ongoing dialogue with leftist political movements, even some of the most radical among them. Nobody has to take it from me. No less than William MacAskill has said in a closing address at EAG that EA should be open-minded to diverse intellectual, political, and ideological perspectives, and thus should not assume something like Marxism is wrong on principle, in response to what he presumably saw as an insufficient degree of open-mindedness in the very movement he co-founded. Yet EA can't take that to a conclusion of undermining its own principles.

All variety of leftist ideologies from history are on the upswing today, as politics becomes more polarized, and more people are shifting leftward (and, of course, rightward as well) away from the centre. This has impelled some radical anti-capitalists to spread in the last few years as a propaganda the meme "liberals get the bullet too". If this was inspired by they ideology of, say, Leninism, then while even if EA shouldn't moralize in asserting ourselves as "better", this would be sufficient grounds for EA to deny a positive association with them, even if the line is meant only rhetorically or symbolically. This would be justified even if we would at the same time build bridges to other leftist movements that have shown themselves more conducive to cooperation with EA, such as those Marxists who would be willing to seek common ground with EA. Of course, as there are many ideologies on the Left, including whole families of ideologies totally incompatible with EA, I believe we must be clear about this. Like you yourself said, this isn't unique to leftists. With regards to the Right, EA could build bridges to conservatism, while nonetheless totally rejecting a notion we might ally ourselves with the family of rightist ideologies we could call "supremacism".

The goal for EA is not to engage against other ideologies, the goal (to the extent that EA ideas are good and true, which obviously they may not all be) is to become part of the fabric of common sense by which other ideologies operate and try to perpetuate their goals.

To reframe my last point in the context of your words, if EA is to become part of humanity's fabric of moral common sense, we must recognize there are ideologies that don't operate under that fabric in the perpetuation of their goals, and go against the grain of both EA and the fabric of common sense. For EA to be worth anything, we must on principle be willing to engage against those ideologies. Of course, EA can and should be willing to ally itself with those leftists who'd seek to expand the circle of moral concern against those who would seek to shrink it to get ahead, no matter what their original ideals were.

This is with regards to political ideologies where either the disagreement over fundamental values, or at least basic facts that inform our moral judgements, are irreconcilable. Yet there will also be political movements with which EA can reconcile, as we would share the same fundamental values, but EA will nonetheless be responsible to criticize or challenge, on the grounds those movements are, in practice, using means or pursuing ends that put them in opposition to those of EA. Current Affairs is a socialist/radical leftist magazine that I believe represents the kinds of leftist movements with which EA can find common ground. Yet when I was seeking the same kind of conciliation you're seeking in this thread, in another discussion of socialism and effective altruism, kbog impressed upon me [EA · GW] the importance of EA's willingness to push back against those policy prescriptions that would fail to increase well-being as much as could be done simply because of a failure of effectiveness, if not altruistic intent. This conclusion is an unfortunate one even to me, as like myself I believe most of EA wouldn't want to have engage others in this way, but it may be necessary. I believe our willingness to live up to that responsibility is one of the few things that distinguishes EA at all from any other community predicated on doing good.

What's more, I'm pretty sure that the widespread acceptance of the basic building block concepts of effective altruism (such as, all people are equally important) are largely due to these leftist social movements. I don't think it's a stretch to say that EA itself is at least in part among the products of these social movements.

Agreed.




comment by ishaan · 2019-05-30T01:00:32.663Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW
This is with regards to political ideologies where either the disagreement over fundamental values, or at least basic facts that inform our moral judgements, are irreconcilable. Yet there will also be political movements with which EA can reconcile, as we would share the same fundamental values, but EA will nonetheless be responsible to criticize or challenge, on the grounds those movements are, in practice, using means or pursuing ends that put them in opposition to those of EA.

I'm going to critique Connor's article, and in doing so attempt to "lead by example" in showing how I think critiques of this type are best engaged.

The best way to show solidarity is to strike at the heart of global inequality in our own land.

There's two problems with Connor's article, and they both have to do with this sentence.

The less important problem: Who is the "our" in the phrase "our own land"? We're on the internet, yet Connor just assumes the reader's allegiances, identity, location, etc. Why is everyone who is not in some particular land implicitly excluded from the conversation? Why is "us" not everyone and "our land" not the Earth?

EA is just as guilty of this, for example when people talk about dollars going farther "overseas". This is the internet, donors and academics and direct workers and so on live in every country, so where is "local" and where is "overseas", exactly? For all EA's globalist ambitious, there is this assumption that people who are actually in a low-middle income country aren't a part of the conversation. (I agree with everything the "dollar overseas" article actually says, just to be clear. The problem is what the phrasing means about the assumptions of the writers.)

It's bad when Connor does it and it's bad when effective altruists do it. Yes, we are writing for a specific audience, but that audience is anyone who takes the time to understand EA ideas and can speak the language written. This is part of what I'm talking about when I say that EA makes some very harmful assumptions about who exactly the agents of change are going to be and the scope of who "effective altruists" potentially are. This problem is not limited to EAs, it is widespread.

The problem isn't the phrasing, of course, it's what the phrasing indicates about the writer.

The more important problem, and on this forum, this one is preaching to the choir of course, is 2) You can't just assume that your solidarity group is the most effective way to do things. Someone still has to do an impact evaluation on your social movement and the flow of talent and resources through that movement, including the particular activities of any particular organization enacting that movement.

Thus far, Effective Altruists are at the forefront of actually attempting to do this in a transparent way for altruistic organizations. The expansion to policy change is still in its infancy, but ...I would not be surprised if impact evaluations of attempting political movements and policy changes begin surfacing at some point.

Nor can you just assume that the best way to do things is local and that people should for some mysterious reason focus on things "in their own lands". Yes, it may in fact be beneficial to be local at times, but...you have to actually check, you have to have some reasonable account of why this is the most effective thing for you to do.

Once you agree on certain very basic premises (that all humans are roughly equally important moral subjects, that the results of your actions are important, etc) I think all effective altruism really asks is that you attempt process of actually estimating the effect of your use of resources and talent in a rigorous way. This applies regardless of whether your method is philanthropy or collective action.

(What would Connor say if they read my comment? I suspect they would at the very least admit that it was not ideal to implicitly assume their audience like that. But I'd like to think any shrewd supporter of collective action would eventually ask..."Well okay, how do I actually do an impact evaluation of my collective action related plans?" And the result would hopefully be more rigorous and effective collective action, which is more likely to actually accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. I think it's important that the response deconstructed the false dichotomy between "collective action" and "effective altruism". The critic should begin asking: "okay, disagreements aside, what might these effective altruist frameworks for evaluating impact do for me?" and "If I think that this other thing is more effective, how can I quantitatively prove it?")

I think the "less important problem" is related to the "more important problem". For Connor, even if we grant that collective action is the best thing, the implicitly western "us" limits his vision as to what forms collective action could take, and which social movements people like himself might direct money, talent, or other resources towards. (For EAs, I would speculate that the implicit "us" limits our vision in different, more complicated ways, having to do with under-valuing certain forms of human capital in accomplishing EA goals - Just as Connor just assumes local is better, I think EAs sometimes just assume certain things that EAs tend to assume about exactly who is well placed to make effective impact (and therefore, who needs EA oriented advice, resources, education, training, etc). it's a subject I'm still thinking about, and it's the one I hope to write about later.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-30T08:19:06.529Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA · GW
For all EA's globalist ambitious, there is this assumption that people who are actually in a low-middle income country aren't a part of the conversation

Come on, the assumption of the writers is "people looking to us for philanthropy advice are predominantly living in the First World," and that assumption is correct. (And it's not a self-fulfilling prophecy, either).

The problem isn't the phrasing, of course, it's what the phrasing indicates about the writer.

OK, then how do you know that it doesn't merely indicate that the writer is good at writing and marketing?

You can't just assume that your solidarity group is the most effective way to do things. Someone still has to do an impact evaluation on your social movement and the flow of talent and resources through that movement, including the particular activities of any particular organization enacting that movement.

More evaluations and analyses are always nice (and some EA orgs have done that kind of thing, I believe). But their value can be dubious and it may just be a fruitless meta trap. You may think that an EA organization is under-allocating time and money for meta evaluations, but other people are going to disagree, and the reasons for such disagreement need to be properly addressed before this kind of thing can be used as a general criticism.

No one has a monopoly on critiquing people merely for having unexamined assumptions. If you start it, it turns into a game of whataboutism and petty status-seeking where no actually useful progress is made to help with important efforts in the real world. Drop the methodology wars and focus on making actual progress.

comment by ishaan · 2019-05-30T14:40:06.395Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I think that's a little unfair. It wasn't just have an "unexamined assumption", he just declared that solidarity was the best way and named some organizations he liked, with no attempt at estimating and quantifying. And he's critiquing EA, an ideology whose claim to fame is impact evaluations. Can an EA saying "okay that's great, I agree that could be true... but how about having a quantitative impact evaluation... of any kind, at all, just to help cement the case" really be characterized as "whataboutism" / methodology war?

(I don't think I agree with your first paragraph, but I do think it's fair to argue that "but not all readers are in high income countries" is whataboutism until I more fully expand on what I think the practical implications are on impact evaluation. I'm going to save the discussion about the practical problems that arise from being first world centric for a different post, or drop them, depending on how my opinion changes after I've put more thought into it.)

comment by Garrison · 2019-05-29T19:01:18.400Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I wish I could even more strongly upvote this. I think the tension between EA and leftism is largely a product of mutual misunderstanding. In general, I think there is more overlap and room for cooperation than disagreement (particularly on things like open borders, decarceration, wealth redistribution/addressing inequality). I would encourage EAs to check out a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) meeting in their hometown. Even if you strongly disagree with leftism/socialism, you'll see a very different method of organizing people committed to helping others, which I have found an educational contrast with how we do things at EA NYC. DSA is great at involving lots of members in impactful local campaigns (supporting policies like universal rent control or medicare for all, organizing tenants, or supporting electoral candidates).

For the people who think that the left is disorganized and ineffective, I would encourage you to read more about the DSA's electoral successes in the past few years (good overview of the DSA here: https://newrepublic.com/article/153768/inside-democratic-socialists-america-struggle-political-mainstream and a shorter piece by Nathan Robinson https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/05/why-i-love-the-d-s-a). Congresswomen AOC and Rashida Tlaib were DSA members and probably would not have won without the DSA's grassroots support. Tiffany Caban is a DSA-backed public defender who has a real shot at becoming the next Queens District Attorney, an extraordinarily powerful position. Queens has over 2M people and the DA can unilaterally decide a lot of criminal justice policy in their jurisdiction. If Bernie wins the primary and general, DSA will have played a large role in turning out grassroots volunteers.

I'm not advocating that EA actively engage in political campaigns or radically change the way its local groups are structured. I just think that EAs who are interested in policy change go to some DSA events, because I think the DSA understands how political change happens far better than almost everyone I know in EA. Even if you think their priorities are dead wrong, they have been massively successful on an annual budget of less than $1m (https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/133109557).

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T19:45:29.050Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
I think the tension between EA and leftism is largely a product of mutual misunderstanding.

Yet persistent attempts to explain EA have accomplished, as far as I can tell, nothing in the way of improving leftist attitudes towards EA.

The reason there is tension is that the socialist movement gains status and notability when they condemn the things that are associated with capitalism in the public conscience. It's really that simple. They are not dispassionate philosophers trying to understand things, they are a political movement that seeks attention and power. And they can gain much more attention and power if they position themselves as loud critics of EA than if they attempt a long quiet slog through the mud of rigorous cause prioritization. Of course EA seeks attention and power too, but with a very different set of constraints and incentives.

Re: the DSA. Have you seen this story?

comment by Garrison · 2019-06-04T19:56:40.417Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Eh, I've explained EA to a lot of lefties I meet and almost all of them have never heard of it, but are on board with the basics. However, my interpretation of and description of EA is pretty consistent with my lefty principles (both are extensions of radical egalitarian principles to me), and I'm sure lots of lefties would not like how market-friendly EA tends to be. I say some version of: EA is a social movement of people trying to do as much good as possible, using evidence to inform their perspective. This generally leads to people giving money to highly effective charities, giving up animal products, and prioritizing the long-term future.

Current Affairs overall is fairly amenable to EA and has a large platform within the left. I don't think "they are a political movement that seeks attention and power" is a fair or complete characterization of the left. The people I know on the left genuinely believe that their preferred policies will improve people's lives (e.g. single payer, increase minimum wage, more worker coops, etc.). You may disagree with their prescriptions, although based on the pro-market sources you tend to cite on these topics, you may not be interrogating your own biases enough. But if you believe what the typical DSA member does (that we know what the right policies are to address inequality and healthcare, and the only thing standing in the way of making them happen are entrenched wealthy interests), then their strategy of mobilizing large numbers of people to organize and canvass for these issues is a smart one. The EA approach to policy will only help affect things on the margin or in very technocratic roles, IMO. These things are important too, but EA has demonstrated no capability to mobilize popular support for its preferred policies.

Read the article. I can definitely see that happening and agree with the author's ideas at the end. I'm based in NYC and the DSA here is quite big and very effective at electoral politics (e.g. AOC and hopefully Tiffany Caban). I don't think that article proves any law of nature around lefty organizing. I do think that it illustrates a failure mode of left-wing communities (deference to identity concerns could be manipulated by bad actors). I don't think it's evidence that socialism is undesirable as a political project, any more so than EA's tendency to avoid politics makes it undesirable as a social movement.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-06-05T17:33:34.743Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
I'm sure lots of lefties would not like how market-friendly EA tends to be

It's unclear to me how representative this is of either EA or leftists. Year over year, the EA survey has shown the vast majority of EA to be "left-of-centre", which includes a significant portion of the community whose politics might very well be described as 'far-left'. So while some leftists might be willing to surmise from one EA-aligned organization, or a subset of the community, being market-friendly as representative of how market-friendly all of EA is, that's an unsound inference. Additionally, even for leftist movements in the U.S. to the left of the Democratic establishment, there is enough ideological diversity I would say many of them appreciate markets enough such that they're not 'unfriendly' to them. Of course there are leftists who aren't friendly to markets, but I'm aware of a phenomenon of some factions on the Left to claim to speak on behalf of the whole Left, when there is no reason in the vast majority of these cases to think it's a sound conclusion to draw that the bulk of the Left is hostile to markets. So, while 'a lot' of leftists may be hostile to markets, and 'a lot' of EA may be market-friendly, without being substantiated with more empirical evidence and logical qualification, those claims don't provide useful info we can meaningfully work with.

Current Affairs overall is fairly amenable to EA and has a large platform within the left. I don't think "they are a political movement that seeks attention and power" is a fair or complete characterization of the left. The people I know on the left genuinely believe that their preferred policies will improve people's lives (e.g. single payer, increase minimum wage, more worker coops, etc.).

I think you're misinterpreting. I never said that was a complete characterization, and fairness has nothing to do with it. Leftist movements are political movements, and I would say they're seeking attention and power like any and every other political movement. I'm on the Left as well, and that I and the people who are leftists genuinely believe our preferred policies will indeed improve people's lives doesn't change the fact the acquisition of political power to achieve those goals, and acquiring the requisite public attention to achieve that political power, is necessary to achieve those goals. To publicly acknowledge this can be fraught because such language can be easily, often through motivation, interpreted by leftists or their sympathizers as speaking of a political movement covetous of power for its own sake. If one is too sheepish to explain otherwise, and stand up for one's convictions, it's a problem. Yet it shouldn't be a problem. I've read articles written by no less than Current Affairs' editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson that to talk about power is something all leftists need to do more of.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T20:49:46.315Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

It's kind of funny to me that post on the DSA you've just linked is written by the same author of the Current Affairs article I linked on your post about socialism and EA the other day that you ripped apart.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T21:07:16.711Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Well I don't play character assassination games, I've got no vendetta against the guy. Knowing about economics and observing the health of social movements are orthogonal. Would I trust Daron Acemoglu's opinion of the internal workings of the DSA? Of course not.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T21:13:42.369Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Yeah, I just meant it's a funny coincidence. I don't think there is any issue citing him here.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T21:19:29.165Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Yeah, I didn't notice it, I was under the impression that 99% of Current Affairs was written by Nate.

answer by Halffull · 2019-05-28T23:05:16.525Z · score: 13 (5 votes) · EA · GW

As someone who agrees EAs aren't focused enough on systemic change, I don't see a single "system" that EAs are ignoring. Rather, I see a failure to use systems thinking to tackle important but hard to measure opportunities for interventions in general. That is, I may have particular ideas for systemic change of particular systems (academia and research, capitalism, societal trust) I'm working on or have worked on, but my critique is simply that EAs (at least in the mainstream movement) tend to ignore this type of thinking at all, when historically the biggest changes in quality of life seem to have come from systemic change and the resulting feedback loops.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T19:30:48.635Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Can you give an example of a concrete argument along the lines of this "type of thinking" that was or would be ignored?

comment by Halffull · 2019-05-29T22:48:00.588Z · score: 3 (6 votes) · EA · GW

It's hard to point to thoughts not thinked :). A few lines of research and interventions that I would expect to be more pursued in the EA community if this bias wasn't present:

1. More research and experimentation with new types of governance (on a systemic level, not just including the limited research funding into different ways to count votes).

2. More research and funding into what creates paradigm shifts in science, changes in governance structures, etc.

3. More research into power, and influence, and how they can effect large changes.

4. Much much more looking at trust and coordination failures, and how to handle them.

5. A research program around the problem of externalities and potential approaches to it.

Basically, I'd expect much more of a "5 why's approach" that looks into the root causes of suffering in the world, rather than trying to fix individual instances of it.


An interesting counter example might be CFAR and the rationality focus in the community, but this seems to be a rare instance, and at any rate tries to fix a systemic problem with a decidely non-systemic solution (there are a few others that OpenPhil has lead, such as looking into changing academic research, but again the mainstream EA community mostly just doesn't know how to think this way).

comment by kbog · 2019-05-30T00:15:59.262Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

If you just look backwards from EAs' priorities, then you have no good reason to claim that EAs are doing things wrong. Maybe such systemic causes actually are worse, and other causes actually are better. Arguments like this don't really go anywhere. Especially if you are talking about "thoughts not thinked", then this is just useless speculation.

Aside from rationality, some relevant areas of interest in EA are human enhancement to eliminate suffering (cf David Pearce - this is absolutely as "root" as it gets, more so than any sort of political or social activism), functional decision theory to enable agents to cooperate without having to communicate, moral uncertainty to enable different moral theories to cooperate (MacAskill and I have both written to push this), the stuff Scott Alexander has written about 'Moloch', and value spreading (EA growth but also general advocacy for rationality, animals or other issues).

By the way I've had no problem incorporating goals for better governance when quantitatively scoring [EA · GW]political candidates. You can probably say that I happen to underestimate or overestimate their importance but the idea that it's inherently difficult to include them with EA methodology just seems clearly false, having done it. I mean it's pretty easy to just come up with guesstimates if nothing else.

(on a systemic level, not just including the limited research funding into different ways to count votes).

What's systemic if not voting mechanisms? Voting seems like a very root part of the government system, more so than economic and social policies for instance.

tries to fix a systemic problem with a decidely non-systemic solution

What would a "systemic solution" look like? Conquering the world? I don't see what you are getting at here.

I feel like you are implicitly including "big" as part of your definition of "systemic", and that inherently and unreasonably excludes any feasible goals for small projects.

there are a few others that OpenPhil has lead, such as looking into changing academic research

Well they're not going to change all of it. They're going to have to try something small, and hopefully get it to catch on elsewhere.

comment by Halffull · 2019-05-30T08:59:14.039Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW
If you just look backwards from EAs' priorities, then you have no good reason to claim that EAs are doing things wrong. Maybe such systemic causes actually are worse, and other causes actually are better.

Maybe, but I didn't say that I'd expect to see lots of projects trying to fix these issues, just that I'd expect to see more research into them, which is obviously the first step to determine correct interventions.

Arguments like this don't really go anywhere. Especially if you are talking about "thoughts not thinked", then this is just useless speculation.

What would count as useful speculation if you think that EAs cause prioritization mechanisms are biased?

What's systemic if not voting mechanisms? Voting seems like a very root part of the government system, more so than economic and social policies for instance.

Voting mechanisms can be systemic if they're approached that way. For instance, working backwards from a two party system in the US, figuring out what causes this to happen, and recommending mechanisms that fix that.

are human enhancement to eliminate suffering

This is another great example of EA bucking the trend, but I don't see it as a mainstream EA cause.

functional decision theory to enable agents to cooperate without having to communicate, moral uncertainty to enable different moral theories to cooperate

These are certainly examples of root cause thinking, but to be truly systems thinking they have to take the next step to ask how can we shift the current system to these new foundations.

You can probably say that I happen to underestimate or overestimate their importance but the idea that it's inherently difficult to include them with EA methodology just seems clearly false, having done it. I mean it's pretty easy to just come up with guesstimates if nothing else.

The EA Methodology systemically underestimates systemic changes and handwaves away modelling of them. Consider for instance how hard it is to incorporate a feedback loop into a guesstimate model, not to mention flowthrough effects, and that your response here didn't even mention those as problems.

What would a "systemic solution" look like?

Non-systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, then creating an organization that teaches people to be rational.

Systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, asking what about the system creates irrational people, and then creating an organization that looks to change that.

I feel like you are implicitly including "big" as part of your definition of "systemic"

I'm including systems thinking as part of my definition. This often leads to "big" interventions, because systems are resillient and often in local attractors, but oftentimes the interventions can be small, but targeted to cause large feedback loops and flowthrough effects. However, the second is only possible through either dumb luck, or skillful systems thinking.

Well they're not going to change all of it. They're going to have to try something small, and hopefully get it to catch on elsewhere.

They "have to" do that? Why? Certainly that's one way to intervene in the system. There are many others as well.

"Hopefully" getting it to catch on elsewhere also seems silly. Perhaps they could try to look into ways to model the network effects, influence and power structures, etc, and use systems thinking to maximize their chances of getting it to catch on elsewhere.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-30T09:58:20.227Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · EA · GW
Maybe, but I didn't say that I'd expect to see lots of projects trying to fix these issues, just that I'd expect to see more research into them, which is obviously the first step to determine correct interventions.

But you were talking about supposed deficiencies in EA modeling. Now you're talking about the decision of which things to research and model in the first place. You're shifting goalposts.

Voting mechanisms can be systemic if they're approached that way. For instance, working backwards from a two party system in the US, figuring out what causes this to happen, and recommending mechanisms that fix that.

That's no more systemic than any other way to decide how to improve how to improve voting. Changing voting mechanisms is basically working backwards from the problem of suboptimal politicians in the US, figuring out what system causes this to happen, and recommending mechanisms that fix that. Whether "figuring out" is more guided by empirical observations or by social choice theory doesn't change the matter.

What would count as useful speculation if you think that EAs cause prioritization mechanisms are biased?

Well you can point out arguments that people are ignoring or rejecting for bad reasons, but that requires more concrete ideas instead of speculation. Maybe the lesson here is to dabble less in "speculation" and spend more time trying to make concrete progress. Show us! What's a good cause we've missed?

This is another great example of EA bucking the trend, but I don't see it as a mainstream EA cause.

Yes, because right now the only good way to approach it is to pretty much "get better at biology" - there is not enough fundamental knowledge on cognition to make dedicated progress on this specific topic. So EAs' decisions are rational.

By the way, no other groups of "systems thinkers" are picking up on paradise engineering either.

These are certainly examples of root cause thinking, but to be truly systems thinking they have to take the next step to ask how can we shift the current system to these new foundations.

Like, uh, building institutions and advocacy for responsible AI design, and keeping them closely networked with the EA community, and spreading the idea of functional decision theory as a component of desirable AI design, with papers about FDT cooperation being published by multiple EA groups that focus on AI (MIRI and FRI)?

Consider for instance how hard it is to incorporate a feedback loop into a guesstimate model, not to mention flowthrough effects

Lol. I included "feedback loops" in arithmetic in a Word document. I had governance listed as 5% equal to the sum of other long-run policy issues, but due to the feedback loop of better governance begetting better governance, I decided to increase it to 10%. Done.

Non-systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, then creating an organization that teaches people to be rational.
Systemic solution: Seeing that people are irrational, asking what about the system creates irrational people, and then creating an organization that looks to change that.

Right. Let's build kibbutzim where children are conditioned to make rational decisions. Sounds super tractable to me! Those silly EAs have been missing this low-hanging fruit the entire time.

Also, it's not even clear how this definition of systems fits with your earlier claims that systems solutions are incorrectly less amenable to EA methodology than non-systems solutions. The concrete thing you've said is that EA models are worse at flow-through effects and feedback loops, which even if true (dubious) seems to apply equally well to non-systemic solutions.

I'm including systems thinking as part of my definition. This often leads to "big" interventions, but oftentimes the interventions can be small, but targeted to cause large feedback loops and flowthrough effects.

Except apparently you aren't including poverty relief, which has large feedback loops and flowthrough effects; and apparently you aren't including for animal advocacy, which has the same; and apparently you aren't including EA movement growth, which has the same; and apparently you aren't including promoting the construction of safe AGI, which has the same; and so on for everything else that EA does.

This looks very no-true-Scotsman-like.

They "have to" do that? Why?

Because they only have a hundred million dollars or so, and uh they don't have the ability to coerce the general population? Come on.

"Hopefully" getting it to catch on elsewhere also seems silly. Perhaps they could try to look into ways to model the network effects, influence and power structures, etc, and use systems thinking to maximize their chances of getting it to catch on elsewhere

This is pedantry. Saying "hopefully" doesn't imply that they're not going to select the option with the highest cause for hopes. It merely implies that they don't have control over how these things actually play out.

comment by Halffull · 2019-05-30T09:33:40.252Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I will note that I notice that I'm feeling very adversarial in this conversation, rather than truth seeking. For that reason I'm not going to participate further.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T17:24:19.743Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Strongly upvoted. This highlights the difference between criticisms of EA it doesn't focus enough on systemic change that come from a particularly left-wing perspectives, and others which are based on empirical or ethical disagreements as opposed to political ones. This is a distinction I should have made clear in the OP, and I didn't. Thanks for the clarification.

answer by kbog · 2019-05-28T07:08:07.305Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Usually they're just talking about capitalism and not bothering with all the critical theory stuff. Goals seem to generally consist of (1) removing institutions and practices of international trade and finance, and relegating economic activity to being a domestic phenomenon, and (2) reforming or replacing private economic activity so that economic decisions are determined by workers or the government rather than by business leaders and capital owners.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T12:57:57.368Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm aware there are at least some critics of EA who by "systemic change" do indeed bother with the critical theory stuff, in addition to capitalism, as they see the other structures of oppression they're trying to point at as part and parcel with capitalism. I recall an article or two like this, but I don't specifically remember which ones right now. I will try finding them, and when I do, I'll respond with another comment.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-28T10:06:36.596Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Yeah, but I already acknowledged what they're usually doing. I want to know what the unusual leftist critics of EA think.

answer by aarongertler · 2019-05-28T05:34:40.086Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I don't think there's a clean answer to this, since not all "system" critics have strong ideas about what the "system" is, and those with strong ideas still don't see eye-to-eye. Some aren't even leftist (I'd also put, say, Angus Deaton in this category, since he sees EA as addressing symptoms rather than root causes).

The best way to learn about this is to read critics carefully and try to interpret their words charitably. You can find a lot of EA criticism on this page developed by CEA. I'd especially recommend the following sections:

  • Does effective altruism neglect systemic change?
  • Does charity and aid really work?
  • Does effective altruism neglect effective interventions when the impact can't be measured?

--

If I had to give a quick summary of the "system" objection that I thought critics from anywhere on the political spectrum would generally support, I'd say something like:

"Many attempts to fix problems by throwing money at the apparent direct cause of the problem have failed or had little impact, because the reason the problem was happening was not actually this 'direct cause'.

"Effective altruism seems to focus on attacking the direct causes of problems in the development space, without as much energy going toward the considerable work that has been done on political and economic systems that are an ongoing source of problems and won't be improved by spending on 'direct causes'."

For a leftist, the "systems" I mentioned might be capitalism and (at the far edges of leftism) what we think of as "democracy" (which may not actually be very democratic). For a non-leftist, the systems could be over-regulation by governments, restrictive immigration laws, tyranny and corruption within governments, etc. (That said, I don't think political lines are always this clearly drawn -- there are right-wing anticapitalists and socialists who support open borders.)

--

Overall, I don't think these objections make much sense nowadays. EA is moving quickly toward more work on policy and systemic change, and we were already deeply involved in those things years ago.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-28T13:57:03.847Z · score: 4 (5 votes) · EA · GW

From my viewpoint, to the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is correct, EA should internalize this criticism, and should effectively change socioeconomic systems better than leftists ever expected from us, and perhaps better than leftist political movements themselves (lots of them don't appear to be active or at least effective in actually changing "the system" they themselves criticize EA for neglecting). If that's the case, I think what we've been doing is mostly lip service, or bending the activities we currently support out of shape to look like the systemic change leftists criticize us for not engaging in enough. It's plausible something like EA donations to Givewell-recommended charities like GiveDirectly or the AMF taken to their logical conclusion leads to the best systemic change we could reliably seek to enact. Yet I don't think we've done our diligence to check that is in fact the case, or there is a kind of effective systemic socio-political/socio-economic change we should participate in.

While EA is quickly moving toward policy work, a comprehensive and legible slate of what the global EA efforts in this regard are doesn't exist. I could tell you most of what's going on in EA on the fronts of global poverty alleviation; mental health; animal welfare; AI alignment, and other x-risks. I'm not confident I could map out even a minority of the policy work going on in EA if someone asked me.

To the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is incorrect, as EA enters the policy arena more and more, we will once again come in friction with leftist (and other political movements), unlike EA has since its inception. The difference this time is we would be asserting the systemic change we're pursuing is more effective (and/or in other ways better) than the systemic change other movements are engaging in. And if that's the case, I think EA needs to engage the communities of our critics just as critically as they have engaged us. This is something I've begun working on myself.


comment by aarongertler · 2019-05-29T00:42:30.690Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I also don't know of any single place where most EA policy work is gathered together for easy reference, and I'd be grateful to anyone who compiled such a resource.

To the extent the systemic change criticism of EA is correct, EA should internalize this criticism, and should effectively change socioeconomic systems better than leftists ever expected from us.

I maintain that I don't think the criticism is "correct" in any meaningful sense. Past EA efforts to examine possibilities for systemic change generally concluded that doing so wasn't worthwhile given the limited resources at our disposal (one notable exception is Open Phil, which has more available resources than any other organization in EA).

I'm in favor of more work on figuring out policy strategy from an effectiveness perspective, but I don't know that "EA" is responsible for that work -- it has to be done by individuals, and helped along by organizations who provide incentives to those individuals, but there are reasonable incentives in place already (at least for some areas of policy). Are there specific actors within EA who ought to be doing more, but aren't?

(I often see arguments like "EA should do X", but rarely "org Y should do X" or "individuals in group Z should do X", even though arguments of the latter types seem more useful.)

Yet I don't think we've done our diligence to check that is in fact the case, or there is a kind of effective systemic socio-political/socio-economic change we should participate in.

What would this due diligence look like? Is there a certain thing you wish someone had created that no one has? Have people created the kinds of things you want, but in a low-quality fashion?

Also, I expect GiveWell's upcoming policy change work [EA · GW] (and ongoing work by orgs like J-PAL that have GiveWell funding) to generate a lot of systematic change per dollar spent. Have you looked at J-PAL's Innovation in Government Initiative at all?

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T12:54:30.708Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW
I'm in favor of more work on figuring out policy strategy from an effectiveness perspective, but I don't know that "EA" is responsible for that work

I agree. It's my habit for the sake of argument in casual and generic discussions in EA to treat "EA" as a unitary blob of resources. I agree if we're seriously trying to getpoliy specific, it doesn't make sense to talk about EA as a whole unit, but the individual actions of particular actors in and around the EA ecosystem.

Are there specific actors within EA who ought to be doing more, but aren't?

I haven't thought about this enough to name specific organizations. There appear to be blocs within EA who support policy reform in particular areas, which may or may not be shared with the Open Philanthropy Project. However, unlike Open Phil, the most a bloc of supporters for a particular kind of policy reform in EA appear to organize themselves into is an informal association that is all talk, no action. When I think of EA-connected policy work, the following comes to mind:

  • Open Phil, through their grants.
  • The NGOs Open Phil grants to, which usually either predate EA, or are largely independent of the community aside from their relationship with Open Phil.
  • A number of academic/research policy institutes focused on global coordination, AI alignment, and other x-risks, launched in tandem with some of the world's leading research universities, such as UC Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.

In other words, these are all orgs that probably would have gotten off the ground, and could achieve their goals, without the support of EA, except for Open Phil as an EA-aligned org. And by "Open Phil", it's more like just Good Ventures and a handful of program officers. So if we subtract their efforts from the rest of the policy work the EA community can take credit for, there isn't much left.

Collectively combined, the rest of the EA community is several thousand people with a decade of experience through dozens of independently launched NGOs/NPOs and tens of millions of dollars at their disposal who, for all we talk about public policy, haven't done much about it. I believe some EA associations in Europe have done some policy consulting, yet, for example, in the United States, the most significant policy work that I'm aware has ever been tried in EA independent of Open Phil was EA Policy Analytics [EA · GW], which didn't go very far.

What would this due diligence look like? Is there a certain thing you wish someone had created that no one has? Have people created the kinds of things you want, but in a low-quality fashion?

I'd like to see more comprehensive responses to individual critiques of EA in history, and also to the body of criticism of EA in general. I think the series of more informal blog posts different EAs have written as responses to such critiques over the years have been okay, but they haven't really moved the dial. My impression EA, and our leftist critics, have reached a stand-still/impasse, but this is unnecessary. A systematic review of leftist criticism of EA is something I'm working on myself, though it isn't at the top of my priority list to finish it in the near future.

Also, I expect GiveWell's upcoming policy change work [EA · GW] (and ongoing work by orgs like J-PAL that have GiveWell funding) to generate a lot of systematic change per dollar spent. Have you looked at J-PAL's Innovation in Government Initiative at all?

I haven't. I'll check them out. I wasn't aware of these developments, so thanks for bringing them to my attention.

answer by Khorton · 2019-05-29T11:51:00.055Z · score: 3 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I'm fairly centrist, but if I put my leftist hat on, the thing that feels worst about global development EA is the lack of context.

EA often celebrates individuals who give a lot of money, without recognising where that money comes from. We don't openly acknowledge how much money Britain and America have gained from the Global South, both in the past and right now. Sure, trade deficits are complicated, but on the surface we're getting a lot more than we give, and we get a significant amount of interest from developing world debt.

Sure, it's great when rich people donate to help poor people, but why are the rich rich, and why are the poor poor? EA is always very quiet about that. Maybe we can't change global economic systems, but it would nice if we could acknowledge that they're the backdrop to everything we do.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T19:18:18.268Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · EA · GW
EA often celebrates individuals who give a lot of money, without recognising where that money comes from. We don't openly acknowledge how much money Britain and America have gained from the Global South, both in the past and right now

Have you asked EAs what they think about economic history? Why don't you do that before making presumptions about others' attitudes towards it?

Of course some (not nearly all) of America and Britain's wealth comes from interactions with the global South, and furthermore of course some comes from unfair interactions (though the magnitude of this is less clear). There, I openly acknowledge it, because it is banal. Presumably other EAs generally know about it too, so why would you demand it to be preemptively "acknowledged"?

Such demands are unproductive and silly. Otherwise we may as well demand that everyone "acknowledge" animal farming, and governance, and urbanization, and technological advances, and human cognition, and slavery, and everything else that has contributed to economic growth. But there are books for those things: if someone wants to know why the economy has turned out this way, they can go read those books. Or they can ask us, and we can tell them what we think or what sources to read. There's no reason to preempt this healthy intellectual process with a political game of collective atonement.

why are the rich rich, and why are the poor poor? EA is always very quiet about that

Because (a) that question has already been largely addressed, there is extensive economic and historical literature examining the issue, and (b) it's not really important for answering most of the questions that we have to answer.

Edit: less rude now.

comment by michaelchen · 2019-05-30T01:34:26.097Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Exploiting others makes you less virtuous, and singing the praises of rich philanthropists without acknowledging that paints an incomplete picture. If we don't acknowledge it, it's reasonable for leftists to assume that we don't know or don't care.

It might not hurt to repeat some of that economic and historical literature in an EA venue. The mere existence of books on a topic doesn't give any indication of EAs' opinions on those books.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-30T07:49:09.732Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
Exploiting others makes you less virtuous

But (a) it's not clear that virtue matters, as virtue ethics is controversial (as are all moral theories) and most of us adhere to consequentialism, and (b) merely making money from interacting with someone is not sufficient for exploitation to take place, it must also be one of the unfair interactions, and (c) Khorton did not talk about where we get our own wealth: he talked about where American and British wealth has generally come from, which is something with a long history and many factors regardless of our personal behavior. These are the kinds of nuances that demands for "acknowledgement" routinely obfuscate.

singing the praises of rich philanthropists without acknowledging that paints an incomplete picture

Every picture that isn't published in a book or journal is incomplete; saying that a philanthropist got their money from exploitation is an incomplete picture. And the incomplete picture of "this philanthropist just does a lot of good" is closer to the truth than the incomplete picture of "this philanthropist made a lot money from exploitation and oppression, and is just giving some of it back". Because once you take all the nuances into account, the proportion of our money that we could say has some kind of moral taint or special obligation (other than that which is ordinarily implied by utilitarian/benevolent motives) is just going to be somewhere between 0 and 25%.

In any case, generally painting a complete picture about this seems unimportant in the first place: per the goals of EA, we should paint a complete picture of how to do good now and in the future, and to the extent that belaboring economic history can inform these efforts, it should be belabored specifically in the contexts where it is actually relevant (i.e. writings about how to improve economic systems, and so on), not obnoxiously inserted into all regular discourse about philanthropy per se.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-30T13:10:06.711Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Point of correction: khorton is a 'she', not a 'he'.

comment by Khorton · 2019-05-29T20:17:46.401Z · score: 2 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Downvoted because this is rude

comment by kbog · 2019-05-29T21:03:31.068Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Downvoted because you're not engaging with my arguments.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T12:28:28.053Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I expect EA hasn't publicly acknowledged this is as much as we maybe should have in the past because:

1. Even if we were to assume the worst, and that all the gains of the Western world EA is giving away were originally ill-gotten, it wouldn't change how we think it is best redistributed to improve the world, including to do justice by the very people the wealth would allegedly have been expropriated from;

2. Acknowledging this can give opportunistic critics of EA the chance to back EA into a corner and pillory us as too ignorant of issues of justice to accomplish any good;

3. Even if we did acknowledged this, it's unclear we would reach a conclusion about what EA should do better than what we have now, since this is a question of the origins of wealth, a fundamental question of politics as hotly disputed in the world today as any, and not one I expect EA would be able to resolve to anyone's satisfaction.

This isn't to say EA shouldn't do better on this issue. It's just in my experience the conditions set up when people debate these questions in public, including with regard to EA, aren't set up to give EA a chance to learn, respond, update, improve, or change. I.e., most instances when this subject is broached it is a political debate set up for rhetorical purposes by 2 sides EA is caught between, and who exploit EA's reception to criticism to use it as a springboard to advance their own agenda.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-29T21:03:23.709Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

While I didn't upvote kbog's comment for being rude, and I agree with you he didn't need to be that rude, I didn't downvote it either because I think he is reaching for a valid point. While I express it differently, I share kbog's frustration with how sometimes effective altruists say we should extend so much charity to anti-capitalist critics of EA, while it may not be a majority of them, there are lots of kinds of anti-capitalism it seems EA should not actually want to reconcile with. I expressed that point without the rudeness of kbog's comment in another comment reply I'll excerpt here:

All variety of leftist ideologies from history are on the upswing today, as politics becomes more polarized, and more people are shifting leftward (and, of course, rightward as well) away from the centre. This has impelled some radical anti-capitalists to spread in the last few years as a propaganda the meme "liberals get the bullet too".
If this was inspired by they ideology of, say, Leninism, then while even if EA shouldn't moralize in asserting ourselves as "better", this would be sufficient grounds for EA to deny a positive association with them, even if the line is meant only rhetorically or symbolically. This would be justified even if we would at the same time build bridges to other leftist movements that have shown themselves more conducive to cooperation with EA, such as those Marxists who would be willing to seek common ground with EA. Of course, as there are many ideologies on the Left, including whole families of ideologies totally incompatible with EA, I believe we must be clear about how we're going to tow this line. Like you yourself said, this isn't unique to leftists. With regards to the Right, EA could build bridges to conservatism, while nonetheless totally rejecting a notion we might ally ourselves with the family of rightist ideologies we could call "supremacism".
[...]
If EA is to become part of humanity's fabric of moral common sense, we must recognize there are ideologies that don't operate under that fabric in the perpetuation of their goals, and go against the grain of both EA and the fabric of common sense. For EA to be worth anything, we must on principle be willing to engage against those ideologies. Of course, EA can and should be willing to ally itself with those leftists who'd seek to expand the circle of moral concern against those who would seek to shrink it to get ahead, no matter what their original ideals were.
This is with regards to political ideologies where either the disagreement over fundamental values, or at least basic facts that inform our moral judgements, are irreconcilable. Yet there will also be political movements with which EA can reconcile, as we would share the same fundamental values, but EA will nonetheless be responsible to criticize or challenge, on the grounds those movements are, in practice, using means or pursuing ends that put them in opposition to those of EA.
[...]
I believe our willingness to live up to that responsibility is one of the few things that distinguishes EA at all from any other community predicated on doing good.
comment by Khorton · 2019-05-29T23:08:38.930Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I agree there are beliefs and belief systems that EA is incompatible with, although my post wasn't coming from a place of anti-capitalism: even with my leftist hat on, all I would want is to regulate global market failures.

It's a pretty big leap to hear "global markets make the rich richer and the poor poorer" and assume communism :)

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-30T01:51:35.370Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Right, I wasn't assuming communism on your part. I was just sharing thoughts of my own that I thought better represented the frustration kbog was trying to express. I did this because I thought he was making a valid point with his comment you downvoted about how the kind of question you're asking would lead EA to prioritize a route for public dialogue that it doesn't actually make sense to prioritize, since it is one you made from a leftist viewpoint as a thought exercise, even though you clarified you yourself are a centrist, and as a criticism of EA it is unsound.

My above comment was also addressing the premise you thought the historical origins of wealth as seen from an anti-capitalist perspective is a very relevant criticism of EA. I of course assumed by 'leftist' you meant 'anti-capitalist', which you did not. So, my last comment doesn't apply. I was aware that you yourself were just wearing a leftist hat for the sake of argument, and I did not assume communism on your part.

Of course, regarding your point about questions of reform of contemporary global markets, I agree with you, and disagree with kbog, that that is a legitimate criticism of EA the community should think more about.

comment by kbog · 2019-05-30T07:51:51.061Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nothing that I've said here is about whether or not we should reform global markets, nor about whether or not we should adopt communism as Khorton inexplicably assumed. The issue here is not about policy, it's about discourse, viz. the idea that we ought to emphatically and preemptively notify people and atone for the causes of our own and the general Western prosperity, with the implicit assumption that such causes make it morally disagreeable.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-30T13:20:18.992Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Okay, so, what has has happened is:

  • khorton said she is a centrist, who for the sake of argument, was putting on her 'leftist' hat.
  • By "leftist", I thought she meant she was being the devil's advocate for anti-capitalism, when she was actually being an advocate for progressive/left-liberal reform.
  • She assumed that you assumed, like me, she was playing the role of devil's advocate for anti-capitalism, when you did not, i.e., not anti-capitalist.
  • While khorton's original comment didn't mention reform and regulation of global markets, she made clear in her next response to me that is what she intended as the subject of her comment even though she didn't make it explicit.
  • I got mixed up, and as the subject changed, I forgot market reform was never even implied by khorton's original comment.

While I disagreed with how rude your original response to her was, I did agree with your point. Now that you've edited it, and this comment is sorted, I've now upvoted your comment, as I agree with you.

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