Is EA ignoring significant possibilities for impact?

post by Holocron · 2019-05-10T13:46:52.616Z · score: 8 (9 votes) · EA · GW · 5 comments

Contents

  Introduction
  Movement-Wide
  Organizations
  Individuals
  Conclusion
5 comments

Summary: It is possible that effective altruism misses out on pursuing higher impact courses of action, backing more impactful organizations, and/or recommending better career paths to individuals. Two key contributing factors may be: (1) paying insufficient attention to the relative amount of influence EA has relative to other global actors and how to increase relative influence and (2) focusing on activities that are backed by academic research instead of more broadly focusing on activities that reasoning/EV estimates suggest would be higher impact than academic research–backed activities. A broader issue is that EA lacks a system to suggest, discuss, and evaluate improvements to EA community strategy and recommendations issued to the community.

Introduction

Several times a year, the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital spends more than the effective altruism movement has allocated to good causes in its entire lifetime, including the Open Philanthropy Project's disbursements. Samasource has lifted tens of thousands of people out of poverty with a self-sustaining model that, unlike GiveDirectly, is completely unreliant on continual donor funding, providing a tremendous multiplier on top of the funds that were initial used to establish Samasource. And Kevin Briggs, a California Highway Patrol officer, singlehandedly saved more than 200 people from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge over the course of his career. These examples highlight potential issues of the Effective Altruism movement on a movement-wide, organizational, and individual level.

Movement-Wide

Is the EA movement on track to significantly change the world, or is it merely a very small group of actors making a very limited difference with an unclear future trajectory? If the answer is something along the lines of the latter, we should consider whether or not this is the most optimal way to proceed, give the resources at the movement's disposal.

The EA movement originally threw around the idea of earning to give, a concept which was later retracted as a key talking point in favor of theoretically more impactful options. But the fact that a movement oriented around maximizing impact started out with earning to give is worrying. Even if earning to give became popular with hundreds to thousands of people, which in fact ended up happening, the impact on the world would be fairly minimal compared to the impact other actors have. It is possible that the EA movement is not pursuing courses of action that could have a substantially higher impact than what is currently happening.

As an example issue, in terms of financial resources, the entire EA community and all of its associated organizations are being outspent and outcompeted by St. Jude's alone. Earning to give might not resolve the imbalance, but getting a single additional large donor on board might. If that was promoted when EA first started instead of earning to give, the movement could look completely different right now. Perhaps EAs would be fanning out at high net worth advisory offices to do philanthropic advisory instead of working at Jane Street. Perhaps EAs would be working as chiefs of staff for major CEOs to have a chance at changing minds. Perhaps the movement would conduct research on how Warren Buffet decided on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation instead of less optimal choices, and whether outreach, networking, or persuasion methods would be effective.

As another example, there apparently aren't enough high impact jobs to go around, but there are in theory billions of dollars available. How exactly is this possible? Certainly key EA organizations might want to have the best, super-mission-aligned individuals, which requires slow and careful hiring. But the vast majority of successful startups did not require staff that were perfectly motivated to, say, optimize freight logistics. It's a stretch to say that hundreds to thousands of EAs should be working at corporations instead of doing something better like direct work. There are multitudes of high impact activities that may not require small ultra-curated teams and can involve currently underutilized community members.

As a final example, EA is very weak compared to all of the other forces in the world in all relevant senses of the term: weak in financial resources, weak in number of people, weak in political power. This problem is why the world has problems in the first place, and why Nate Soares says he spent his college years designing a societal system that "ratchets towards optimality." Does it matter if we focus on theories to reduce certain types of major risks or if we are not the key decision makers behind when nuclear missiles are launched or how much the power the AI safety committee has in a company? Perhaps EA should consider acquiring more political power, media power, or other forms of power to have a greater impact.

The problems I have mentioned and potential alternative courses of action are merely ideas. Substantial strategic research and analysis is required to assess the current course of action and evaluate better courses of action. It's not clear to me why there has been such limited [EA · GW] discussion [EA · GW] of this and progress so far unless everyone thinks being financially outmatched by St. Jude's for the next 5+ years is an optimal course of action that does not require community strategizing to address.

Organizations

According to the "official" Introduction to Effective Altruism, EA is a "research field which uses high-quality evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to help others as much as possible." Ignoring the point of whether or not EA is most appropriately described as a "research field," in practice in EA there is a significant difference between using evidence versus using reasoning to work out how to maximize impact. Historically, EA has focused on backing "reputable registered tax-advantaged nonprofit organizations of moderate team and budget size that consistently pursue the same activity/activities for long periods of time, with all activities backed by research such as RCTs focused on interventions to improve health outcomes." But is this actually the right approach?

The vast majority of ventures, decisions, etc made in the world must be made with limited information for which there are no RCTs available. Samasource, for example, may very be orders of magnitude more effective per dollar of total lifetime donations than GiveDirectly. The longer Samasource runs a financially self-sustaining model, the better the impact per donor dollar will be. But Samasource was not started based on rigorous research. If we pretend it was never started and it sought funding from the EA community today to launch, Samasource may very well have gone unfunded and never have existed, which is a problem if it is actually comparably effective or more effective than GiveDirectly.

It is possible that there are a very large number of organizations is existence that have a much higher impact per dollar than top EA charities. It is also possible that we can work out with reasoning based on fermi estimates whether organizations have been more effective than top EA charities with reasonable confidence. We can certainly use fermi estimates to assess the potential impact of ideas, startups, and proposed projects. I expect that a relevant number of these estimates will have a higher expected impact per dollar than top charities. As an analogy, a small proportion of VC firms use decision analysis to determine the EV of startup investments, an approach that EA could also use. I am not aware if funding entities like EA Grants apply explicit quantitative models to estimate EVs and use model outputs for decision making.

It is possible that the EA community is applying suboptimal filters to decide what organizations to back. Perhaps a focus on financially sustainable interventions is superior, or perhaps backing early stage organizations has a higher EV and hence a higher impact. These approaches all rely on reasoning a lot more than scientific evidence, and that may turn out to be much more impactful.

Individuals

Like organization choice, EA may be recommending overly limited career/time choices to people in the movement.

For example, it is possible that strategically thinking about career impact is a superior option compared to common courses of action like directly working at an EA organization in operations or earning to give. Careers can have unintuitive but wonderful opportunities for impact. Kevin Briggs' career approach saved many more lives than a typical police officer, and amounted to the same general range of the number of statistical lives that can be saved with global health donations. The Introduction to Effective Altruism mentions the fantastic actions of Stanislav Petrov, Norman Borlaug, and others that saved a tremendous number of lives, each with a different career.

It is possible that becoming a doctor or high school health teacher could save a similar number of lives compared to Kevin Briggs, for instance if the doctor or high school health teacher was more effective than peers in promoting life-saving choices like smoking and other lifestyle changes across thousand of people they interact with in a lifetime. It may be possible to have a tremendous social impact in a large number of specialties from accounting, to dentistry, to product testing, simply by identifying scalable, sufficiently positive interventions within the field.

There may be expenditures of time that are not being sufficiently recommended. For example, learning CBT or decision analysis may be very high impact in addition to spending time reading books on EA and attending local groups. There also seems to be a lack of volunteer opportunities which, if solved, may have a big impact.

Conclusion

EA strategy may be an extremely important area to focus on because changes in strategy can have an enormous impact on the impact of EA over the next few years and moving forward. This post is my first attempt to get some of my preliminary thoughts on potential EA strategy shifts on paper, and I hope it encourages others to share their thoughts on potential optimizations or oversights of the movement as well.

5 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by aarongertler · 2019-05-10T23:43:22.411Z · score: 24 (9 votes) · EA · GW

(Warning: Long comment ahead.)

First: Thank you for posting these thoughts. I have a lot of disagreements, as I explain below, but I appreciate the time you spent to express your concerns and publish them where people could read and respond. That demonstrates courage, as well as genuine care for the EA movement and the people it wants to help. I hope my responses are helpful.

Second: I recommend this below, but I'll also say it here: If you have questions or uncertainties about something in EA (for example, how EA funders model the potential impact of donations), try asking questions!

On the Forum is good, but you can also write directly to the people who work on projects. They'll often respond to you, especially if your question is specific and indicates that you've done your own research beforehand. And even if they don't respond, your question will indicate the community's interest in a topic, and may be one factor that eventually leads them to write a blog/Forum post on the topic.

(For example, it may not be worth several hours of time for an EA Funds manager to write up their models for one person, but they may decide to do so after the tenth person asks -- and for all you know, you could be person #10.)

Anyway, here are some thoughts on your individual points:

Samasource has lifted tens of thousands of people out of poverty with a self-sustaining model that, unlike GiveDirectly, is completely unreliant on continual donor funding, providing a tremendous multiplier on top of the funds that were initial used to establish Samasource.

It's easy to cherry-pick from among the world's tens of thousands of charities and find a few that seem to have better models than GiveWell's recommendations. The relevant questions are:

  • Could we have predicted Samasource's success ahead of time and helped it scale faster? If so, how? Overall, job/skills-training programs haven't had much success, and since only GiveWell was doing much charity research when Samasource was young (2008), it's understandable that they'd focus on areas that were more promising overall.
  • Could someone in EA found a program as successful as Samasource? If so, how? A strategy of "take the best thing you can find and copy it" doesn't obviously seem stronger than "take an area that seems promising and try to found an unusually good charity within that area", which people in EA are already doing.

Also, have you heard of Wave? It's a for-profit startup co-founded by a member of the EA community, and it has at least a few EA-aligned staffers. They provide cheap remittances to help poor people lift their families out of poverty faster, and as far as I know, they haven't had to take any donations to do so. That's the closest thing to an EA Samasource I can think of.

(If you have ideas for other self-sustaining projects you think could be very impactful, please post about them on the Forum!)

The EA movement originally threw around the idea of earning to give, a concept which was later retracted as a key talking point in favor of theoretically more impactful options. But the fact that a movement oriented around maximizing impact started out with earning to give is worrying. Even if earning to give became popular with hundreds to thousands of people, which in fact ended up happening, the impact on the world would be fairly minimal compared to the impact other actors have.

My model of early EA is that it focused on the following question:

"How can I, as an individual, help the world as much as possible?"

But that question also had some subtext:

"...and also, I probably want to do this somewhat reliably, without taking on too much risk.

The first people in EA were more or less alone. There weren't any grants for EA projects. There wasn't a community of thousands of people working in dozens of EA-aligned organizations. There were a few lonely individuals (and one or two groups large enough to meet up at someone's house and chat).

Under these circumstances, projects like "founding the next Samasource" seem a lot less safe, and it's hard to fault early adopters for choosing "save a couple of lives every year, reliably, while holding down a steady job and building career capital for future moves".

(Consider that a good trader at an investment bank could become a C-level executive with tens of millions of dollars at their disposal. The odds of this don't seem much worse than the odds that a random EA-aligned nonprofit founder creates something as good as Samasource -- and they might be better.)

In general, this is a really good thing to remember when you think about the early history of the EA community: for the first few years, there really wasn't much of a "community". Even after a few hundred people had joined up, it would have taken a lot of gumption to predict that the movement was going to be capable of changing the world in a grand-strategic sense.

As an example issue, in terms of financial resources, the entire EA community and all of its associated organizations are being outspent and outcompeted by St. Jude's alone. Earning to give might not resolve the imbalance, but getting a single additional large donor on board might.

There are quite a few people in EA who work full-time on donor relations and donor advisory. As a result of this work, I know of at least three billionaires who have made substantial contributions to EA projects, and there are probably more that I don't know of (not to mention many more donors at lower but still-stratospheric levels of wealth).

Also, earning to give has outcomes beyond "money goes to EA charities". People working at high-paid jobs in prestigious companies can get promoted to executive-level positions, influence corporate giving, influence colleagues, etc.

For example, employees of Google Boston organize a GiveWell fundraiser [EA · GW] that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on top of their normal jobs (I'd guess this requires a few hundred hours of work at most).

Another example: in his first week on the job, the person who co-founded EA Epic with me walked up to the CEO after her standard speech to new employees and handed her a copy of a Peter Singer book. The next Monday, he got a friendly email from the head of Epic's corporate giving team, who told him the CEO had enjoyed the book and asked her to get in touch. While his meeting with the corporate giving head didn't lead to any concrete results, the CEO was beginning to work on her foundation this year, and it's possible that some of her donations may eventually be EA-aligned. Things like that won't happen unless people in EA put themselves in a position to talk to rich/powerful people, and not all of those people use philanthropic advisory firms.

(A lot of good can still be done through philanthropic advisory, of course; my point is that safe earning-to-give jobs still offer opportunities for high-reward risks.)

Perhaps EAs would be fanning out at high net worth advisory offices to do philanthropic advisory instead of working at Jane Street. Perhaps EAs would be working as chiefs of staff for major CEOs to have a chance at changing minds.

Some specific examples of high-net-worth advisory projects from people in EA:

This isn't to say that we couldn't have had a greater focus on reaching high-net-worth advisory offices earlier on in the movement, but it didn't take EA very long to move in that direction.

(I would be curious to hear how various people involved in early EA viewed the idea of "trying to advise rich people in a more formal way".)

It's also worth mentioning that 80K does list philanthropic advising as one of their priority paths. My guess is that there aren't many jobs in that area, and that existing jobs may require luck/connections to get, but I'd love to be proven wrong, because I've thought for a long time that this is a promising area. (I myself advise a small family foundation on their giving, and it's been a rewarding experience.)

Perhaps the movement would conduct research on how Warren Buffet decided on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation instead of less optimal choices, and whether outreach, networking, or persuasion methods would be effective.

There is some EA research on the psychology of giving (the researchers I know of here are Stefan Schubert and Lucius Caviola), but this is an area I think we could scale if anyone were interested in the subject -- maybe this is a genuine gap in EA?

I'd be interested to see you follow up on this specific topic.

There are multitudes of high impact activities that may not require small ultra-curated teams and can involve currently underutilized community members.

Which activities? If you point out an opportunity and make a compelling case for it, there's a good chance that you'll attract funding and interested people; this has happened many times already in the brief history of EA. But so far, EA projects that tried to scale quickly with help from people who weren't closely aligned generally haven't done well (as far as I know; I may be forgetting or not know of more successful projects).

As a final example, EA is very weak compared to all of the other forces in the world in all relevant senses of the term: weak in financial resources, weak in number of people, weak in political power.

This is true, but considering that the movement literally started from scratch ten years ago, and is built around some of the least marketable ideas in the world (don't yield to emotion! Give away your money! Read long articles!), it has gained strength at an incredible pace.

Some achievements:

  • Multiple billionaires are heavily involved.
  • One of the top X-risk organizations is run by a British lord who has held some of the most influential positions in his country.
  • GiveDirectly is working on multiple projects with the world's largest international aid organizations, which have the potential to sharply increase the impact of billions of dollars in spending.
  • There are active student effective altruism groups at more than half of the world's top 20 universities. Most of these groups are growing and becoming more active over time.
  • One of the most popular media sources for the Western liberal elite has an entire section devoted to effective altruism, whose top journalist is someone who didn't have much (any?) prior journalistic experience but did run the most popular EA Tumblr.
  • The former head of IARPA runs an AI risk think tank in Washington.

Ten years ago, a nascent GiveWell was finding its footing after an online scandal nearly ended the project, and Giving What We Can was about to launch with 23 members. We've come a long way.

Is this rate of growth sufficient? Maybe not. We may not acquire enough influence to stop the next world-rending disaster before it happens. But we've done remarkably well despite some setbacks, and critique-in-hindsight of EA goals has a high bar to clear in order to show that things could have gone much better.

(As I noted above, though, I think you're right that we could have paid more attention to certain ideas early on.)

Substantial strategic research and analysis is required to assess the current course of action and evaluate better courses of action. It's not clear to me why there has been such limited [EA · GW] discussion [EA · GW] of this and progress so far unless everyone thinks being financially outmatched by St. Jude's for the next 5+ years is an optimal course of action that does not require community strategizing to address.

The end of the last sentence has a condescending tone that slightly sours my feelings toward this piece, even though I can appreciate the point you're trying to make.

I'm in favor of more strategic discussion, but many of the strategy suggestions I've seen on the Forum suffer from at least one of the following:

  • A lack of specificity (a problem is noted, but no solution is proposed, or a solution is proposed with very little detail / no modeling of any kind)
  • A lack of knowledge of the full scope of the present-day movement (it's easy to reduce EA to consisting of GiveWell, Open Phil, 80K, and CEA, but there's a lot more going on than that; I often see people propose ideas that are already being implemented)
  • "Someone should do X" syndrome (an idea is proposed which could go very well, but then no one ever follows up with a more detailed proposal or a grant application). In theory, EA orgs could pick up these ideas and fund people to work on them, but if your idea doesn't fit the focus of any particular organization, some individual will have to pick it up and run with it.

These suggestions are still frequently useful, and I've heard many of them be discussed within EA organizations, but I wish that writers would, on average, move away from abstract worries and criticism and move toward concrete suggestions and proposals.

(By the way, I'm always happy to read anyone's Forum posts ahead of time and make suggestions for ways to make them more concrete, people the author might want to talk to before publishing, etc.)

Samasource, for example, may very be orders of magnitude more effective per dollar of total lifetime donations than GiveDirectly. The longer Samasource runs a financially self-sustaining model, the better the impact per donor dollar will be. But Samasource was not started based on rigorous research. If we pretend it was never started and it sought funding from the EA community today to launch, Samasource may very well have gone unfunded and never have existed, which is a problem if it is actually comparably effective or more effective than GiveDirectly.

Two notes:

1. GiveDirectly isn't just giving money directly to people; it is also changing the aid sector by establishing the idea that aid should clear the "cash benchmark". This has already begun to influence WHO and USAID, as well as many NGOs and private foundations, and the eventual impact of that influence is really hard to calculate (not to mention the value of experimental data on basic income programs, etc.)

2. The apt comparison is not "funding Samasource vs. funding GiveDirectly". The apt comparison is "funding the average early-stage Samasource-like thing vs. funding GiveDirectly". Most of the money put into Samasource-like things probably won't have nearly as much impact as money given directly to poor people. We might hit on some kind of fantastically successful program and get great returns, but that isn't guaranteed or even necessarily likely.

It is also possible that we can work out with reasoning based on Fermi estimates whether organizations have been more effective than top EA charities with reasonable confidence. We can certainly use Fermi estimates to assess the potential impact of ideas, startups, and proposed projects. I expect that a relevant number of these estimates will have a higher expected impact per dollar than top charities.

We will definitely find that some organizations have been more effective than top EA charities, but as I've said already, this cherry-picking won't help us unless we learn general lessons that help us make future funding decisions. Open Phil does some of this already with their History of Philanthropy work.

There's value in using Fermi estimates for potential projects, yes, but why do you think those would help us make better predictions about the world than the models used by GiveWell, Open Phil, EA Funds, etc.? Is there some factor you think these organizations routinely undervalue? Some valuable type of idea they never look at?

(Also, EA funding goes well beyond "top charities" at this point: GiveWell's research is expanding to cover a lot more ground [EA · GW], and the latest grant recommendations from the Long-Term Future Fund [EA · GW] included a lot of experimental research and ideas.)

I am not aware if funding entities like EA Grants apply explicit quantitative models to estimate EVs and use model outputs for decision making.

Did you write to any funding entities before writing this post to ask about their models?

Generally, these organizations are happy to share at least the basics of their approach, and I think this post would have benefited from having concrete models to comment on (rather than guesses about how Fermi estimates and decision analysis might compare to whatever funders are doing).

It is possible that strategically thinking about career impact is a superior option compared to common courses of action like directly working at an EA organization in operations or earning to give. Careers can have unintuitive but wonderful opportunities for impact.

No EA organization in the world will try to stop you from "strategically thinking about career impact". 80K's process explicitly calls on individuals to consider their options carefully, with a lot of self-reflection, before making big decisions. I'm not sure what you think is missing from the "standard" EA career decision process (if such a thing even exists).

Kevin Briggs' career approach saved many more lives than a typical police officer, and amounted to the same general range of the number of statistical lives that can be saved with global health donations.

Let's say I'm choosing between two careers. In Career A, I can save 200 lives before I retire if I manage to perform unusually well, to the point where my career is newsworthy and I'm hailed as a moral exemplar. In Career B, I can save 200 lives before I retire if I do my job reasonably well, collect paychecks, and donate what I don't need.

The higher-EV option in this scenario is Career B, and it isn't close.

On the other hand, this next example gets closer to proving your point, which is that some careers have much higher potential impact than most ETG opportunities:

The Introduction to Effective Altruism mentions the fantastic actions of Stanislav Petrov, Norman Borlaug, and others that saved a tremendous number of lives, each with a different career.

The point of that section of the introduction isn't to comment on the career choices of Petrov and Borlaug, but to emphasize that even "ordinary" people can have a tremendous impact; it's meant to be inspirational, not advisory. (Source: I recently rewrote that section of the introduction.)

Petrov's heroic actions came about as a result of a very unlikely accident and have little bearing on whether one should become a soldier. Maybe soldiering is worthwhile if you can specifically become an officer at a nuclear facility, but that seems difficult.

Borlaug's work is a bit more typical of what an impact-focused scientist can achieve, in that at least a few other scientists have also saved millions of lives.

Open Phil agrees with both of us on the potential of science; they've given tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of scientists over the last few years. Meanwhile, 80K considers certain branches of science to be priority paths, and the 2017 EA Donor Lottery winner gave most of his winnings [EA · GW] to an organization trying to follow in Borlaug's footsteps.

It may be possible to have a tremendous social impact in a large number of specialties from accounting, to dentistry, to product testing, simply by identifying scalable, sufficiently positive interventions within the field.

I agree! This is one of the reasons I'm enthusiastic about earning-to-give: if people in EA enter a variety of influential/wealthy fields and keep their wits about them, they may notice opportunities to create change. On the other hand, studying these professions and trying to change them from the outside seems less promising.

Remember also that problems must be tractable as well as large-scale. Taking your example of "accounting", one could save Americans tens of millions of hours per year by fighting for tax simplification. But in the process, you'd need to:

  • Develop a strong understanding of tax law and the legislative process.
  • Raise millions of dollars in lobbying funds and use them effectively to grab attention from congresspeople.
  • Go head-to-head with Intuit and Grover Norquist, who will be spending their own millions to fight you.

I love tax simplification. It's one of my pet causes, something I'll gripe about or retweet at the slightest opportunity. But I don't think I'd be likely to have much of an impact throwing my hat into that particular ring, alongside hundreds of other people who have been arguing about it for decades. I'd rather focus on pulling the rope sideways (fighting for causes and ideas that have high potential and no major enemies).

comment by Jeremy (captainjc) · 2019-05-13T15:10:59.631Z · score: 9 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Fantastic stuff Aaron. Even as someone who has followed EA forum/newsletters/blogs for 2-3 years, there were quite a few things I didn't know about. Thanks!

comment by kbog · 2019-05-10T20:05:09.156Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Every time I see something like this I wonder if it's going to criticize the emphasis on Givewell charities and allege that EA needs to pay less attention to hard evidence, or criticize the emphasis on x-risks and long term trajectories and allege that EA needs to pay more attention to hard evidence. Half the time it's one and half the time it's the other.

I think it's time everyone realized that EAs are already covering all the methodological bases and we should really spend our time on actual evaluations of actual programs.

comment by agdfoster · 2019-05-10T18:29:44.571Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I think your reasoning here needs a lot of work. Few quick points:

  • better to critic specific points rather than something broad like ‘all strategy of EA affiliated orgs’.
  • generally, if it seems like a large number of really smart people in EA appear to be missing something, you should have a strong prior that you are the one missing something. Took me a long time to accept this. It’s not wrong to shine a light on things of course, but a touch more humility in your writing would go a long way.
  • reasoning and evidence aren’t exclusive things, evidence is part of reasoning.
  • this said, I don’t think the criticism of “too evidence based” sticks anyway, have you read much academic ea research recently? Maybe in poverty.. but that’s a very busy area with loads of evidence where most approaches don’t work so it would be pretty crazy not to put heavy weight on evidence in that cause area.
  • Jude’s spends 2.1m a day but given the differences between the impact p dollar of projects easily gets into the order of 100s-1000s this isn’t very relevant.
  • OpenPhil could spend that. There are complex reasons why it doesn’t but the main thing to note that total spend is a terrible terrible signal.
  • for profit models have been explored numerous times, while still promising, little really great stuff has been found. People are working on it but it’s not a slam dunk.
  • earning to give is a great way to build career capital and do good.
  • advocacy and philanthropic advisory is really hard. People in that area are going as fast as they sensibly can.
  • it takes a long time to become a chief of staff at a powerful org.
  • policy / lobbying approaches are really hard, and people are again working on it as fast as they can.
comment by Holocron · 2019-05-10T19:39:21.027Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
better to critic specific points rather than something broad like ‘all strategy of EA affiliated orgs’.

I'm mentioning broad concerns I have about the movement's strategy, primarily a potential underemphasis on acquiring resources and an overemphasis on established courses of impact. How exactly would I critic specific points? I mention potential examples of problems and associated optimizations, such as relying more on decision analysis than RCTs.

generally, if it seems like a large number of really smart people in EA appear to be missing something, you should have a strong prior that you are the one missing something. Took me a long time to accept this. It’s not wrong to shine a light on things of course, but a touch more humility in your writing would go a long way.

I don't claim to be correct, just wanted to document my thoughts and see if anyone had other views.

reasoning and evidence aren’t exclusive things, evidence is part of reasoning.

I separated the two for rhetorical effect, using evidence to refer more towards established routes of impact and reasoning to refer to reasoning about unproven routes of impact. I agree evidence and reasoning are linked, and that reasoning should use both academic evidence and other factual data.

this said, I don’t think the criticism of “too evidence based” sticks anyway, have you read much academic ea research recently? Maybe in poverty.. but that’s a very busy area with loads of evidence where most approaches don’t work so it would be pretty crazy not to put heavy weight on evidence in that cause area.

Why exactly do you not think this sticks? My point is there may be research on, say, the effect of ads on animal protein consumption, but there are many courses of action that do not have supporting evidence that may be much higher impact than courses of action with supporting evidence. For instance, starting Impossible Foods to create good tasting alternatives. Why is that not considered EA? Seems pretty high impact to me.

Jude’s spends 2.1m a day but given the differences between the impact p dollar of projects easily gets into the order of 100s-1000s this isn’t very relevant.

I completely agree that EA may spend money more effectively than Jude's by a significant amount. My main point is that the movement could be influence constrained, it may lack the influence to actually affect the long-term or make a significant dent in global poverty, but a change in strategy (perhaps in a direction of directly or indirectly acquiring more resources) may increase the likelihood of creating significant impact.

OpenPhil could spend that. There are complex reasons why it doesn’t but the main thing to note that total spend is a terrible terrible signal.

It cannot spend that, because it would run out of money. St Jude's has a revenue stream from its fundraising branch that enables it to continually spend much more than the EA movement has in its entire lifetime. I understand OPP is, among other reasons, waiting to have more epistemic certainty on what causes/interventions are most impactful. That may be great, but distributing 0.5% of $100 billion could be much better than distributing 0.5% of $10 billion a year, particularly given the urgency of some cause areas and the theoretically compounding returns of altruism.

for profit models have been explored numerous times, while still promising, little really great stuff has been found. People are working on it but it’s not a slam dunk.

Is that true? This seems like an opinion—there are certainly many financially self-sustaining/for-profit models that have enormous positive impacts on the world. I mentioned Impossible Foods earlier, and within companies, the impact of projects like Apple introducing blue light reduction in iPhones affects hundreds of millions of people.

earning to give is a great way to build career capital and do good.

Is it? This is an opinion. What if it's exceptionally low impact compared to other possible career courses of action? Or what if it is a good idea, but more emphasis should be placed on career strategy in addition to donating money because both have expected impacts in the same range?

advocacy and philanthropic advisory is really hard. People in that area are going as fast as they sensibly can.

I'm not necessarily suggesting the EA movement actually focus on acquiring more HNW individuals or actually pursue these tactics. These were example possibilities to consider to emphasize the point that movement strategy can have big effects on movement impact, and that EA may not currently be pursing the most optimal strategy.

Also, I think this objection is rather broad. Lots of things can be considered really hard, and something seeming hard doesn't mean it's lower EV than something seeming easy.

it takes a long time to become a chief of staff at a powerful org

I think there are easier ways to come into contact with ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Again, just an idea, not a recommendation.

policy / lobbying approaches are really hard, and people are again working on it as fast as they can.

Allocating more resources to these approaches would have some sort of impact, whether positive or negative. How do we know our current allocation is optimal?