Some personal thoughts on EA and systemic change

post by CarlShulman · 2019-09-26T21:40:28.725Z · EA · GW · 17 comments

DavidNash requested [EA(p) · GW(p)] that I repost my comment below, on what to make of discussions about EA neglecting systemic change, as a top-level post. These are my off-the-cuff thoughts and no one else's. In summary (to be unpacked below):

In full:


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ClaireZabel · 2019-09-27T19:31:01.425Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[meta] Carl, I think you should consider going through other long, highly upvoted comments you've written and making them top-level posts. I'd be happy to look over options with you if that'd be helpful.

comment by weeatquince · 2019-10-05T17:40:18.782Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In one key way this post very solidly completely misses the point.

The post makes a number of very good points about systemic change. But bases all of the points on financial cost-effective estimates. It is embedded in the language throughout, discussing: options that "outperformed GiveWell style charities", the "cost ... per marginal vote", lessons for "large-scale spending" or for a "small donor", etc.

I think a way the EA community has neglected systemic change in exactly in this manner. Money is not the only thing that can be leveraged in the world to make change (and in some cases money is not a thing people can give).
I think this some part of what people are pointing to when they criticise EA.

To be constructive I think we should rethink cause priotisation, but not from a financial point of view. Eg:
- If you have political power how best to spend it?
- If you have a public voice how best to use it?
- If you can organise activism what should it focus on?

(PS. Happy to support with money or time people doing this kind of research)

I think we could get noticeably different results. I think things like financial stability (hard to donate to but very important) might show up as more of a priority in the EA space if we start looking at things this way.

I think the EA community currently has a limited amount to say to anyone with power. For example:
• I met the civil servant with oversight of UK's £8bn international development spending who seemed interested in EA but did not feel it was relevant to them – I think they were correct, I had nothing to say they didn’t already know.
• Another case is an EA I know who does not have a huge amount to donate but lots of experience in political organising and activism, I doubt the EA community provides them much useful direction.

It is not that the EA community does none of this, just that we are slow. It feels like it took 80000 Hours a while to start recommending policy/politics as a career path and it is still unclear what people should do once in positions of power. ( if doing some research on this for Government careers)

Overall a very interesting post. Thank you for posting.

I note you mention a "relative gap in long-termist and high-risk global poverty work". I think this is interesting. I would love it if anyone has the time to do some back of the envelope evaluations of international development governance reform organisations (like Transparency International)

Replies from: kbog, Denkenberger, Bluefalcon, Denkenberger, ClockworkCrow
comment by kbog · 2019-11-12T07:49:39.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Shulman's not speaking only in terms of donations. You must recognize this since you quote "cost ... per marginal vote". It seems like you're taking issue with some of the basic economic concepts like efficiency and marginalism. This is something that other critics have done. However I have not seen any good defense of that point of view.

I think the EA community currently has a limited amount to say to anyone with power.

Please let this myth die. For yet another example, I have 200 pages judging policies & politicians:!At2KcPiXB5rkyABaEsATaMrRDxwj?e=VvVnl2

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-10-21T02:55:28.738Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think the EA community currently has a limited amount to say to anyone with power.

I think it would be useful for governments to have response plans for agricultural catastrophes such as nuclear and volcanic winter, and also for electricity/industry disrupting catastrophes including solar storms and high-altitude electromagnetic pulses (HEMPs). Governments could also fund research related resilience including alternative foods and backup communications systems.

comment by Bluefalcon · 2019-11-03T16:15:09.944Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As an EA with political organizing experience I think EA has plenty to say to your friend. Money is useful as a unit of analysis because it's quantifiable and fungible, but the same analytical framework can easily apply to donations of time, with the caveats that 1) Donating time will vary a lot more in its value depending on the specific service one performs and it becomes a lot more important to pick the right volunteer activity in addition to the right cause, 2) there will be some causes or organizations where it is not possible to donate time effectively, so the highest-value intervention might be different.

Being politically experienced, I would think your friend already has an idea of the highest-value services they would perform for a candidate or organization, although in some cases the highest-value candidates/organizations may have no need for those specific skills, so there could be a tradeoff between doing a more useful activity for a less impactful candidate/org vs. a less useful activity for a higher-impact candidate/org. But if you have a sense of the marginal values of different activities that should be easy to quantify, and then you can assess how high-impact the candidate/org is. For the latter as applied to the Presidential race, see the Candidate Scoring system at For a better example of the former analysis than most political people seem to have done, I recommend Graber and Green's Get Out The Vote, with 2 caveats: 1) it focuses only on turnout, and persuasion may be different; 2) the effects that seem to be the strongest are under-studied because political scientists seem to have a fetish for grassroot-y stuff over mass media. If your friend needs help with the quantitative analysis of these tradeoffs I'm happy to help.

Replies from: Bluefalcon
comment by Bluefalcon · 2019-11-03T16:21:27.293Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I donated the legal max to Cory Booker and am now donating what I can afford to the DNC, in case you're wondering where I personally come out on this.

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-10-22T05:55:23.648Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think the EA community currently has a limited amount to say to anyone with power.

More broadly, CSER has these recommendations for governments for global catastrophic risks.

comment by ClockworkCrow · 2020-01-26T15:32:41.061Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Has there been any good research regarding the effectiveness of different activism techniques? This feels like an important question when discussing EA and systemic change. Scotts post on political lobbying comes to mind, it makes me suspect that for most corporations and large organisations there are more effective ways to wield their influence than through lobbying efforts, but perhaps for organisations that have less in the way of deeply partisan appeal (like the NRA), and on the whole less power to throw around (I would suspect that large companies have better ways to wield influence than through direct lobbying, i.e building plants/factories in a particular congressmans district in return for public support), lobbying might be quite effective, especially if they have a talent pool to draw on as wide as EA does.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2019-09-27T02:47:40.215Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I wish the systemic change discussion was less focused on cost-effectiveness and more focused on uncertainty regarding the results of our actions. For example, in 2013 Scott Alexander wrote this post on how military strikes are an extremely cheap way to help foreigners ("at least potentially"). I'm glad he included the disclaimer, because although Scott's article works off the premise that "life is ~10% better in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown", Libya isn't looking too hot right now - Obama says Libya is the biggest regret of his presidency. Scott also failed to mention that American intervention in Libya may have reduced North Korea's willingness to negotiate regarding its nuclear weapons program.

To me, uncertainty means it's valuable to research systemic changes well in advance of trying to make them. If systemic changes aren't cost-effective now, but might be cost-effective in the future, we should consider starting to theorize, debate, and run increasingly large experiments now anyway. (Disclaimer: Having productive disagreements about systemic changes is in itself a largely unsolved institution design problem, I'd argue! Maybe we should start by trying to solve that.)

Replies from: RichardYannow
comment by RichardYannow · 2019-10-01T07:57:34.027Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Note that Scott himself has said he agrees the Libya intervention turned out poorly and is now no longer comfortable endorsing things similar interventions, see

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2019-09-28T09:19:56.796Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some people have been asking for further details on the Swiss effective foreign aid ballot initiative ("1% initiative" in Zurich) by the Effective Altruism Foundation (EAF). The vote on a counterproposal that preserves the key points of the original initiative will take place on November 17th and I'll publish an EA forum post afterwards. Feel free to get in touch via PM if you'd like to get access to an early draft.

There's no need for any additional financial resources for that particular initiative, but I encourage people looking to support potential similar future initiatives (or other efforts to improve Swiss foreign aid policy) with ≥$10k to get in touch with me (firstname dot lastname at

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2019-11-17T16:15:14.924Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Update: The counterproposal to the initiative has passed!

Our social media update:

70% of Zurich voters in favor of more effective foreign aid: The counterproposal to the Stiftung für Effektiven Altruismus's ballot initiative has passed with a very strong majority! The city of Zurich’s development cooperation budget has thus just been increased from $3 million to $8 million per year. It is to be allocated “based on the available scientific research on effectiveness and cost-effectiveness”.
We supported the counterproposal because it contains the key points of our original initiative and had a high chance of success. This seems to be the first time that Swiss legislation on development cooperation mentions effectiveness requirements.

I expect to post a more thorough EA forum update in a couple of weeks.

Replies from: Jonas Vollmer
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-05-22T03:44:54.990Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This post was awarded an EA Forum Prize; see the prize announcement [EA · GW] for more details.

My notes on what I liked about the post, from the announcement:

It was good to see Carl react to positive feedback on a comment by turning said comment into a full-fledged post; I hope more users will consider doing the same!

This post is dense with information, and thus difficult to summarize, but here are some elements of it that I appreciated:

  • Carl uses evidence from a wide range of sources in EA, academia, and the broader world to make his points.
  • He also points at specific organizations (e.g. the Center for Global Development) that he thinks may be strong options based on his views about systemic change.
    • If you’ve taken the time to develop a set of theories and beliefs, it can be really helpful to connect those to real-world actions you’d recommend.
    • (Note that Carl doesn’t go as far as actively endorsing that readers donate to these organizations.)
  • The post at one point notes that, while Carl doesn’t necessarily “endors[e] all the details of” an impact estimate from Let’s Fund, he does see it as a legitimate way to model a systemic intervention.
    • It can be easy to slip into categorizing things as either entirely good or entirely bad, and “mixed” reviews of this type are a useful preventative measure against this. In a field where individuals and organizations are constantly trying to solve very difficult problems, it seems important to appreciate partial progress and steps taken in the right direction.
comment by edb · 2019-09-27T13:38:27.600Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding the third point, do I understand that what David is suggesting is that dollars spend on campaigning for candidates focused on poverty reduction programs/spending will in the long run be more beneficial than dollars spend on funding organizations working on the problems that such candidates may focus on?

My main follow up question is therefore which are the priorities countries/hemispheres? Is he referring to candidates who have a focus on foreign aid, or candidates who have a focus on poverty reduction domestically - in other words, socialist?

comment by lucy.ea8 · 2019-10-15T07:10:23.608Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sometimes systemic change critiques come from a Marxist perspective that assumes Marxist revolution will produce a utopia, whereas empirically such revolution has been responsible for impoverishing billions of people, mass killing, the Cold War, (with risk of nuclear war) and increased tensions between China and democracies, creating large object-level disagreements with many EAs who want to accurately forecast the results of political action

This is the weakest part of the post. EA does not have the power to cause systemic change anyways, a better understanding of the various systems of the world, their histories, achievements and failures would help in taking better micro decisions of what charities to fund, for those of us with less than $100K per year to give.

Given the negative effect when countries involve in others political systems, I would totally stay away from such efforts, and focus on well understood health or education charities that dont carry such a risk.