Some personal thoughts on EA and systemic change

post by Carl_Shulman · 2019-09-26T21:40:28.725Z · score: 171 (66 votes) · EA · GW · 8 comments

DavidNash requested [EA · GW] 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 · score: 65 (23 votes) · EA · GW

[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 John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2019-09-27T02:47:40.215Z · score: 41 (18 votes) · EA · GW

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.)

comment by RichardYannow · 2019-10-01T07:57:34.027Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · EA · GW

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 weeatquince · 2019-10-05T17:40:18.782Z · score: 29 (14 votes) · EA · GW

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)

comment by Jonas Vollmer · 2019-09-28T09:19:56.796Z · score: 21 (10 votes) · EA · GW

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

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-09-27T18:47:39.096Z · score: 10 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Recent SSC post on political spending (archive) feels relevant.

comment by lucy.ea8 · 2019-10-15T07:10:23.608Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

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.

comment by edb · 2019-09-27T13:38:27.600Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

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?