If you had an hour with a political leader, what would you focus on?

post by Yitz · 2022-05-09T01:23:15.870Z · EA · GW · 12 comments

This is a question post.

I’m not in the political field myself, but I have a close relationship with someone who has a close relationship with a number of fairly influential people in American politics. It has happened in the past that I have been able to talk (briefly) with some of them, and it is possible I may get similar opportunities in the near future. If that happens (which is no guarantee), it seems worthwhile to use the opportunity to make a case for one or two specific, not-likely-to-be-controversial policies which may not otherwise be on their radar. I’m a relative newcomer to EA, and I’d love to know which EA-related policy proposals are likely to have the largest marginal impact, especially considering I would have very limited time to make their case. Note again that I will not consider arguing for policies which could be significantly controversial, as I don’t want to ruin my connection’s ability to arrange such things in the future.

Answers

answer by Matthew Yglesias · 2022-05-10T01:49:15.913Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agree that the Guarding Against Pandemics prevention policies are probably the most constructive thing to push. If you're talking to a Republican who's disinclined to spend money, tell them they should pay for it by clawing-back unspent state Covid relief funds. 

answer by freedomandutility · 2022-05-09T08:45:11.420Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the most shovel-ready, most tractable, least partisan, least politically risky and least weird but still important cause which the politician could actually go on to champion is pandemic mitigation, and you can get the main points across in a very short conversation. Key points to mention would be:

  1. new pandemics much worse than COVID are very much possible,

  2. we got lucky with COVID because we had studied SARS-COV-1 in detail before hand

  3. lab leaks are not a conspiracy theory but are a legitimate threat and biosecurity experts have been worried about them for years, and lab leaks could be worse than naturally arising pandemics

  4. Human costs and financial costs of COVID-19. If the person is a libertarian, you could also say that poor pandemic response mechanisms led to overreach of government power and if they’re particularly left wing, you could also say that the pandemic exacerbated inequalities.

  5. specific pandemic mitigation policies advocated by EA orgs like Guarding Against Pandemics (USA). You could also offer to connect them with biosecurity experts. I’m confident that if you contact EA biosecurity experts saying “this influential politician wants to talk about pandemics”, they will jump at the opportunity, but worst case scenario message me on this forum and I’ll help you get in touch with an expert.

I would strongly recommend against diluting your message by discussing more than one cause area.

I think internationalist stuff like global heath and aid is much more partisan / politically intractable, there’s a good chance the person you’re talking to will not care about farm animals enough, and I think people are too unlikely to take AI risks seriously in a short unsolicited conversation.

answer by Jackson Wagner · 2022-05-09T02:36:03.298Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The details of what's most tractable for your contact to work on might depend on specifics of their situation (whether they are Republican or Democrat, whether they are more influential with Congress or with the White House or with a State government, whether they are involved with any specialized congressional committees on particular topics, etc).  I agree that pandemic preparedness is probably the top general recommendation, but here is a list of some other areas where EA intersects with political issues:

AI, Pandemics, Nuclear War: Unfortunately I'm not sure if there are any shovel-ready AI alignment policies that EA wants to push for, despite the area's overwhelming importance.  On the biosecurity side, though, there is a lot of stuff that governments can do [EA(p) · GW(p)].  Pushing for some smart pandemic preparedness measures of the sort advocated by Guarding Against Pandemics might be my #1 recommendation.  I'm less familiar with the nuclear war / great-power-conflict space and how tractable that is.

Global Health  &  Animal Welfare: The animal welfare side of EA seems to be celebrating one win after another [EA · GW] with their strategy of making moderate, well-researched corporate asks, funding ballot initiatives, and influencing various government food-safety standards.  Similarly, global health & development groups have historically gotten a lot of mileage by influencing existing foreign-aid spending to be used more effectively [EA · GW].  A lot of global health stuff is appealingly easy-to-understand, which might make it popular and non-controversial: "get rid of lead paint and air pollution", "make vaccines available against diseases", "help people who are suffering", etc. If you want to brush up on how to frame various EA causes in an especially positive and friendly way, Vox's Future Perfect column (which often covers EA global health and animal welfare topics) has a really great style.

General Scientific & Economic Development: The economic policy ideas of the "progress studies" movement aren't big traditional pillars of EA (yet!), but they tend to touch on a wide variety of subjects, so they generate a lot of shovel-ready political recommendations.  If you wanted, you could take a shotgun approach and try to just rapid-fire a bunch of suggestions from the playbook of "abundance agenda liberalism", leaving it up to the politician you're talking to to decide whether going YIMBY sounds more doable than trying to reform the FDA, or making it easier to build bigger ports [LW · GW] and construct clean-energy infrastructure.

Improving Institutional Decisionmaking:  Personally, I'm most excited by big radical ideas mentioned by the FTX Future Fund, like prediction markets, quadratic funding, and charter cities.  Unfortunately, these probably aren't the most actionable or popular suggestions!  But there are a lot of other ideas out there: Approval voting seems like a good idea that will be broadly applicable.  Running better cost-benefit analyses on regulations is always a plus, as is deploying Phil-Tetlock-style forecaster training for important decisionmaking groups.  The most actionable ideas for your situation, however, might be something specific to whatever parts of government your contact has influence over -- like changing a specific rule about whether earmarks are allowed for inclusion in spending bills, or when a vote can be held on legislation.

comment by RedStateBlueState · 2022-05-09T02:54:34.359Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I do think that it's very important not to make animal welfare a partisan issue, so if you do bring it up, be careful. The same probably goes for a lot of these other issues, I just know animal welfare in particular is able to make a lot of headway in public referenda because it is relatively nonpartisan.

answer by KevinWei · 2022-05-09T20:17:00.670Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would actually suggest that you do not discuss any policy proposals with these politicians/policymakers/people, as it could be ineffective for the following reasons:

  • Communicating policy to policymakers is a very specific skillset, and doing it effectively requires lots of practice. It sounds like this isn't your day to day, so I do not recommend starting with "fairly influential people in American politics"
  • Pitching policy is much more effective when you have i) established yourself as an expert in the field of that policy, and/or ii) developed deep relationships with the policymakers in question such that they trust your judgement
  • Oftentimes, it can be less effective to talk to a politician/policymaker directly instead of their staff/offices. I think this is especially the case with proposals that may need more explanation, which seems to be the case for some/many EA proposals

Additionally, there are associated risks such as:

  • Miscommunicating a policy in a way that turns them off of the policy or issue area
  • Persuading them that a policy is important, but then they find out about this thing called "EA" or "longtermism" and see negative press pieces about these things. And then they decide not to engage

Instead of pitching a proposal, I might suggest:

  • Asking for a point of contact in their office/staff: "By the way, I think that given circumstances X, Y issue is really important. I'd love to learn more about how you're thinking about this, who would be the best person in your office / amongst your staff to talk to? And what is their email address?"
  • Offering to make an intro to an expert: "By the way, I think that given circumstances X, Y issue is really important. My friend Z has a PhD / works for a think tank / has these relevant qualifications, can I make an intro to you or someone in your office? What's the best email to reach out to?"

If you really had to pick something, I'd probably try to choose a pandemic prevention policy that's relatively under-the-radar, has a minimal impact on state/federal budgets, and unrelated to anything that can be easily weaponized (e.g., lab leaks).

comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-05-09T20:30:39.536Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I worry a little that if OP pitches policy poorly (or well, but in the wrong context), they might reflect badly on their friend.

But in a situation where the politician's open to hearing from you, I wouldn't be especially worried.

answer by Vilfredo's Ghost (Bluefalcon) · 2022-05-09T17:56:59.776Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Immediately: I don't think the Biden admin's pandemic prevention funding bill is particularly controversial, but the Senate killed it because it wasn't a priority for anyone and they just needed to cut $ to make their arbitrary budget numbers. So they could find a senator to champion that. 

Longer term: Better regulation of gene synthesis companies. The most clearly good policy is to require them to apply the International Gene Synthesis Consortium/Australia Group standards for screening customers/orders. 

 

I believe these are the only two policies Guarding Against Pandemics has actually endorsed, because there is so much complexity around other policies and specific implementation details can make or break it. So if you're in a position to influence their staffing choices, I would try to get them to hire an EA-aligned biosecurity expert to advise them on health/science policy (maybe not mention EA, offer specific names), or at least get to know such people and start relying on their advice informally if none are available to hire.

Maybe a worthwhile project for EAs: much like Mitt Romney had his binders full of women, and many advocacy organizations have vetted lists of job candidates they push when a new President takes office, we need binders full of EAs should we should be trying to get into key positions in government or ask policymakers consult with should an opportunity arise. I don't think the list needs to be public, but it would be helpful to create one. 

comment by Vilfredo's Ghost (Bluefalcon) · 2022-05-09T18:13:10.767Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Note: I make this last proposal as someone who could currently be pushing candidates at a few agencies but don't have any to push. So I know there's demand for it. 

answer by Catherine Low · 2022-05-12T10:13:40.748Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Yitz, 

I’m part of CEA’s Community Health team, and we’re available as a resource for community members who want to consult with us on higher stakes communications (like interviews with journalists and introducing EA ideas to highly influential people), so we’re familiar with this sort of situation. 

From the information you shared, I find it hard to know what to suggest. It depends a lot on the specific situation, like the particular influential person, your relationship with them, your knowledge of the topic/policy, credibility you have on that topic/policy, the particular situation of the meeting. 

Since you say you’re a relative newcomer and not in the politics field, I’m guessing that it might not be a good idea to pitch policies to them in a short meeting. But I’d be happy to get more info from you and try to give a more thorough answer. I’ll message you directly! 

answer by david_reinstein · 2022-05-09T02:32:35.456Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It’s hard to say without any context. And the hardest thing may be starting the conversation without seeming overbearing.

To get the conversation going, I might consider suggesting something involving the pandemic preparedness funding, or chicken or pig welfare standards, or eye stalk ablation among shrimps.

answer by jamesb · 2022-05-09T04:35:18.316Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm not in a political field myself, therefore I would like to address the politician by asking the following: 
"In a political environment and as a voting member of a party, let's suppose your opposite rival party presents a proposal which you personally find to be more sensible than the proposal your own party presented instead.  It is a win or loose situation, your vote is the decisive for the result. 
Which proposal would you vote for  in this scenario?"

The answer would provide concrete proof of the level of intellectual honesty/dishonesty of the politician: 
- If the answer is to vote for their own party's proposal, it would tell me that  the politician lacks intellectually honesty.
- If the answer is to vote the opposite party, it would tell me that the politician does not lack intellectual honesty

The concept of Intellectual honesty can be summarized by following principles:

  • One’s personal beliefs or politics do not interfere with the pursuit of truth
  • Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s own convictions
  • Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another
  • References, or earlier work, are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided

Most importantly, intellectual honesty is defined by capabity to replace one's previous beliefs in favor of better informed ones, and the capability to utilize imparcial reasoning. 

In this light, I would ask the politician a reflection on the notion that perhaps intellectual dishonesty might be deeply embedded in political environment (religious too) and that the current partisan political models and the lack of intellectually honest discourse may actually be the main obstacle in the formation of reliable and transparent governance.   


 

comment by Vilfredo's Ghost (Bluefalcon) · 2022-05-09T17:59:23.783Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would absolutely not do this. This is going to insult powerful people for the sake of...what exactly? People gotta operate in the environment that actually exists, and we need to be supplying them with shovel-ready opportunities to do that, not asking them to go off on some philosophical exercise. 

comment by Kirsten (Khorton) · 2022-05-09T20:28:05.599Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's not intellectually dishonest for someone to refuse to trust you with information that could destroy their career.

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