When does it make sense to support/oppose political candidates on EA grounds?
post by IanDavidMoss
The risks of political engagement
will reduce EA's long-term impact
will tear the movement apart
about the left?
A possible way forward
(Context: a few days ago, I put up a post on the forum about efforts to support Democrats in the 2020 US election. Within 12 hours, the post had been downvoted almost to zero, and I decided to take it down because of the negative response. It appears in retrospect that I misjudged the current balance of opinion among EA Forum readers about EA's relationship to party politics, and the structure and tone of my original post reflected that misjudgment. I've now divided the original post into two parts: one focuses on the object-level recommendations for intervening in the current election cycle [EA · GW], and this one will address the meta-level discussion about EA and party politics. I look forward to a healthy debate, though I may not be able to participate very actively before mid-November.)
Epistemic status: beliefs strongly held but open to being convinced otherwise
Effective altruism has long had a culture of shying away from [EA · GW] explicit engagement in partisan politics. Even so, a number of individual prominent figures within the EA movement, such as Dustin Moskovitz, Cari Tuna, and Rob Wiblin, have been quite active and public in their opposition to the Trump administration, both in the 2016 cycle and today.
Why is this? It would seem that there are, in fact, sound reasons for EAs to oppose Trump on effective altruist grounds. Almost uniquely among leaders of major world powers, Trump is extraordinarily out of alignment with foundational EA values (as listed on the Centre for Effective Altruism website: commitment to others, scientific mindset, openness, integrity, and collaborative spirit). Furthermore, at an object level, the Trump administration has actively and repeatedly undermined several EA priorities:
- Pandemic preparedness and biosecurity: The Trump administration consistently sought major cuts to the CDC budget (including elimination of staff assigned to global health security in China), disbanded the national agency responsible for pandemic preparedness in 2018, and terminated the USAID pandemic early warning program in 2019. When COVID-19 began spreading in the United States, the Trump administration ignored the NSC's existing pandemic response playbook and politicized public health efforts, with predictably disastrous results: Of the top 18 states by highest per-capita COVID-19 incidence to date, 17 voted for Trump in 2016.
- Climate change: The Trump administration declared its intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017 and then formally withdrew in 2019, undermining the goals of the agreement itself as well as damaging global confidence in the United States to uphold its commitments to international efforts for the common good. In parallel, Trump's Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back numerous regulations on air pollution, which will collectively result in 1.8 billion more metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by 2035.
- Global public health: Earlier this year, the Trump administration abruptly halted all United States government funding for the World Health Organization. The U.S. had been providing 15% of the WHO’s budget, a significant proportion of which was earmarked for anti-malaria programs and other efforts to fight neglected tropical diseases.
- Institutional decision-making: The Trump administration has repeatedly sought to politicize and undermine the work of career civil servants in the federal government, leading to talent drain and hindering the country’s ability to manage risk (including global catastrophic risks) and maintain critical national infrastructure. Although these losses are less immediately visible, they may ultimately turn out to be among the greatest threats to public safety, as documented in Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk.
- Safeguarding liberal democracy: The president has taken steps to sabotage the democratic process by sowing distrust in the outcome of the upcoming election, refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and publicly calling for the investigation and imprisonment of political opponents. All of this has had and will continue to have a profound destabilizing effect on the world's dominant superpower, with experts warning of a steadily increasing risk of political violence.
Similar arguments could be made for a number of other cause areas as well, although I have focused on the ones that I believe are the least ambiguous.
In a recent column for the EA-themed Future Perfect newsletter entitled "A Long-termist's case for beating Trump," Vox.com's Dylan Matthews argued that if effective altruism's most prominent standard-bearers are investing big in ousting Trump from office, perhaps we should take their cue:
Most rank-and-file effective altruists I’ve met tend to have an instinctive disdain or impatience with partisan politics. And I have a lot of sympathy for that position; I cover politics a lot, and I assure you that many debates are exactly as ridiculous as you think they are.
But when the two of most influential EAs in the world [Moskovitz and Tuna] are sending a strong signal that they think — in a precise, no-bullshit way — that the 2020 election could influence the long-term trajectory of humanity, it’s worth taking that message seriously.
It appears that the above views are squarely in the mainstream of the EA community: in the 2019 EA Survey, less than 1% of respondents identified as right-wing [EA · GW], which I take to be strong evidence that there are very few explicit Trump supporters among EAs (another 18% identify as center right, libertarian, or "other," but I would expect a minority of these to be pro-Trump). In addition, a recent poll of members of the Effective Altruists Discuss Politics Facebook group identified only one Trump supporter out of 82 who voted. (Not scientific, I know, but it's what we've got.)
The risks of political engagement
In light of these realities, it would seem that there are strong arguments for the EA community to explicitly mobilize against Trump and Trumpism. Yet many effective altruists fear that too heavy a focus on partisan politics could lead to the movement becoming permanently captured by a particular ideology or political party, limit its ultimate potential for impact by reducing credibility among key audiences, or simply lead to internal strife that would tear the movement apart.
I understand these fears, but I also believe the risks associated with them can be managed. And I also believe that not engaging carries significant risks that must be considered in parallel. Below, I explore some common objections I've heard to the arguments above and offer some perspectives on them.
It's not neglected
It's true: partisan politics, especially in the United States, sucks up an inordinate amount of our society's money, time, and emotional energy. Regime change through democratic means is expensive, and pouring more money into it just incentivizes an arms race from equally motivated combatants. It's a bad equilibrium that, in most situations, EA should either be staying away from or actively trying to defuse. But "most" is not the same as "all," and it's important to remember that neglectedness is only one of three considerations in the ITN framework. It is easy to make the case that this election cycle is uniquely important for effective altruists thanks to the presence and influence of Trump. Just this year alone, Trump has singlehandedly wrecked heretofore bipartisan consensus on two issues important to EAs: biosecurity and global health. Is there really much doubt that animal welfare and AI safety will join that list eventually if he remains in power?
From my perspective, Trump's thirst for conflict, disdain for EA values, ability to shape the opinions of hundreds of millions of people, hold on power in the world's most powerful country, and willingness to subvert the democratic process is an extraordinarily bad combination that makes him orders of magnitude more dangerous to our movement than a generic conservative leader. It means that the upcoming election is almost unimaginably consequential; the "hinge of history" may well be this exact moment. Moreover, the election is not just important, it is highly tractable: preventing another four years (or more) of this disastrous leadership is well within our reach, and there are evidence-based interventions available to any of us that can help reduce the already-dwindling chances of that terrible outcome even further.
It will reduce EA's long-term impact
I have to confess I've never really understood this argument. I can think of numerous examples of social movements that have been both highly politicized and tremendously impactful, including the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the gun rights movement to name a few. In addition, raising this objection ignores the risks to the movement of not being political in this moment, given that Trump is a major driver of increased polarization and polarization is antithetical to EA goals. Strange as it may seem, I believe that fierce partisanship in the short term is the best pathway toward reduced partisanship in the long term.
It will tear the movement apart
Not if the movement is already pretty much on the same page about this. As discussed above, support for Trump or right-wing politics in general appears to be very rare within EA. There are, of course, good arguments for fostering ideological diversity within a movement such as this one, but if the right wing under Trump's influence continues to align itself against institutions, science, and global empathy, at a certain point there will not be much daylight anymore between alignment with Trumpism and fundamental misalignment with EA.
What about the left?
Judging from the comments I've seen on the forum, many of those who push back against political engagement in EA see the left, and particularly the social justice movement, as some kind of scary juggernaut seeking world domination by mind control. I happen to believe this is misguided, but first I want to point out the irony in believing that politicization makes a movement less effective and yet fearing the awesome power of the social justice warriors.
I readily concede that the left has some problems of its own. There is an anti-science strain in some corners that is quite worrisome; people occasionally lose their jobs or suffer reputation harm for stupid reasons; and there is of course lots and lots of motivated reasoning and susceptibility to disinformation among the most committed activists. These will be important things to monitor and mitigate against in the years ahead.
In the context of United States politics, however, the extreme left has not been anywhere near as successful at capturing the Democratic Party as the far right has been at capturing its counterpart, as any actual leftist will be happy to complain to you about. None of the current most powerful figures in the Democratic establishment are identified with the extreme left wing of the party (which isn't even that extreme by international standards), nor is there any public figure whose cult-leader-like hold on the progressive base is anything like Trump's influence on the right. To the extent there is problematic thinking and behavior on the left, I do not believe it is a problem that will be worsened by having Democrats in power.
A possible way forward
The reality is that there is substantial precedent for effective altruism and politics getting mixed up with each other. From the Center for Election Science [EA · GW]'s advocacy for approval voting to the Effective Altruism Foundation's ballot initiative increasing aid for effective charities in Switzerland [EA · GW] to effective altruists running for office [EA(p) · GW(p)], EAs are already engaging very directly and publicly in electoral politics under the effective altruism banner.
While the the values and priorities that are important to effective altruists are not partisan per se, it is not a big leap to go from saying that EAs should support those priorities to saying that EAs should support politicians who support those priorities. That is exactly the path that numerous issue advocacy groups in the United States have taken, seemingly in many instances without losing power or influence. (As one case study, the nonpartisan American Civil Liberties Union's reach and budget has vastly increased since the organization came out strongly against Trump in the days following the 2016 election.) As discussed above, however, given the EA movement's interest in fostering an epistemically healthy environment, there are risks to engaging in any debate that has the potential to be politicized and manipulated by partisan actors. One way to address such risks is never to take them on at all, no matter how strongly aligned or misaligned a candidate or political opportunity might be with EA values and priorities. A better way, in my opinion, would be to have some kind of formal system to weigh the risks against the opportunities on a case-by-case basis, as well as the risks of not engaging.
Such a formal process could look a lot like the processes to determine grant awards to EA-aligned organizations. Some independent group or panel that has the implicit or explicit blessing of movement leaders could regularly review candidates, ballot initiatives, and other political opportunities around the world and analyze when organized support or opposition from the EA movement would be, on net, helpful for achieving movement goals. Criteria could include the degree of alignment with EA priority areas, the difference between the counterfactual worlds in which the campaign succeeds or doesn't succeed, the potential for backfire effects and harm to the movement, and the quality of available mechanisms to help. If there were appetite for it, there could perhaps even be a democratic component to the process, as the vetting group could put nominated candidates or campaigns up for community approval or veto by vote.
I believe a process like this one would lead to much higher-quality decisions about things like whether to mobilize organized engagement in the US elections than unstructured debate on the EA Forum and other venues. In the absence of such a system, however, we are left to our individual judgments about such questions. For my part, I believe that political independence and political disengagement are not the same thing. A movement can reserve its highest loyalty for its own aims as well as the right to act when a moment of political transition has immense potential consequences for those aims. Respectfully, I do believe we find ourselves in one of those moments.
Thanks to Ka-Ping Yee and Jascha Hoffman for their assistance with an earlier draft of this article.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by Wei_Dai ·
2020-10-15T15:39:28.942Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I happen to believe this is misguided, but first I want to point out the irony in believing that politicization makes a movement less effective and yet fearing the awesome power of the social justice warriors.
Something can be "less effective" and "powerful" at the same time, if the power is misapplied. I find it very surprising and dispiriting that this needs to be explicitly pointed out, in a place like this.
I also stand by my previous comments, which are now hidden on EA Forum, but can still be viewed at ea.greaterwrong.com /posts/68TmDK6MrjfJgvA7p/introducing-landslide-coalition-an-ea-themed-giving-circle.
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-16T09:55:03.296Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Strongly upvoted. You expressed what I disliked about that paragraph much more succinctly than I was able to in my comment. (Also, I wanted to upvote some of your comments in the deleted thread, so this strong upvote is partly meant to deliver that extra karma.)
comment by xccf ·
2020-10-17T18:26:10.165Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think you should feel free to participate in politics as an individual, but I'm pretty uncomfortable with the EA movement developing an official ideology in an organic and ad-hoc way. It seems easy for a feedback loop [LW · GW] to form where an ideology becomes associated with a particular group, and people who disagree with the ideology leave the group, and that strengthens the association. I know an online forum roughly as erudite as the EA forum where this happened in the opposite direction, and the majority of the participants (I believe) are voting for Trump (not because they like him but because they think the left is worse). (Notably, most users on this other forum are pseudonymous--I suspect this is a small thing which can make a big difference in the long run in terms of how a group's political beliefs evolve.)
I'm going to go ahead and try to explain the mindset of Trump supporters as I see it a little bit, not because I want anyone voting for him (please don't), but because I think it will be helpful for understanding considerations around getting involved in politics, and also because if you're going to try and change the votes of his supporters it helps to know what they're thinking.
Essentially I think the people who support Trump do so because their social media feed mostly shows examples of the media being dishonest, and the people who oppose Trump do so because their social media feed mostly shows examples of Trump being dishonest. I don't think it is unreasonable to be distrustful of the media. See Gell-Mann Amnesia, this overview of studies which show the dismal accuracy of newspapers, or this book which explains the dismal incentives of modern news publishers and why those incentives cause them to neglect the truth. Insofar as the media is inaccurate, I would expect them to favor Democrats--a 2014 survey found 4x as many journalists identify as Democrat than Republican. I would guess that the balance has worsened since 2014 due to the feedback loop I described above.
It does seem there have been cases where the press has been clearly unfair to Trump. Let's consider the "original" Trump scandal, the one where he supposedly said Mexicans were rapists.
When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Here is the video of Trump saying the second bit. Note how he points to the audience as he says "They're not sending you"--i.e. suggesting that people in his audience are "Mexico's best people". I have never seen any media outlet point this out--it seems like his statement has been consistently presented so as to make Trump seem as xenophobic as possible. (By the way, Trump later referenced this article about coyotes who rape migrants to support his rapist claim.)
As a voter, my time to fact check stories is limited. So once I see two or three stories which seem clearly unfair on a deeper investigation, it doesn't seem totally unreasonable to wonder if most stories are unfair. In other words, the "corrupt establishment which is out to wreck Trump by any means possible" hypothesis becomes a hypothesis that does an OK job of explaining the data I see.
This theory of why people support Trump also explains why particular events have hurt his popularity in my view:
- Being a jerk to Joe Biden in the debate
- Trump's handling of BLM protests
I suspect the key issue is whether the event serves as a credible "out of band" signal of malfeasance on Trump's part--an event which requires relatively little trust in journalists to verify, and clearly indicates malfeasance even absent journalist editorializing.
You cite the fact that most EA survey respondents seem to oppose Trump. That's not a convincing argument in my view because of correlated errors. Young people in general oppose Trump and the EA movement skews young. Most EAs aren't analyzing political issues carefully and trying to come to conclusions from first principles; they're engaging in their spare time and reading what comes up in their feed. Reading people you disagree with is way less fun as a recreational activity, so people tend not to do it, and also it's easy to get pushed [LW · GW] in a particular direction if friends will ostracize people for disagreement.
I'll go ahead and respond to a few more of your points individually:
In the context of United States politics, however, the extreme left has not been anywhere near as successful at capturing the Democratic Party as the far right has been at capturing its counterpart
That's not obvious to me:
The vast majority of current House Republicans have openly condemned QAnon, with all but 17 signing onto a recent House resolution calling it a “conspiracy theory.”
Have the vast majority of House Democrats condemned antifa?
as any actual leftist will be happy to complain to you about.
I understand that disappointment with Trump is a fairly common position on the far right.
You state that the left in the US "isn't even that extreme by international standards". However, a big part of what concerns me about the left is their rhetoric and their epistemology. If their objective was to prevent anyone from eating pineapple on pizza, and they considered any yellow or green plant topping to be "pineapple" (regularly referring to the Republicans as the fascist white nationalist party when Senate Republicans unanimously confirmed a Black man as Air Force chief of staff), and they were dropping guillotine memes on Twitter, staying just within the rules to hint about their plans for pineapple on pizza lovers, then I would consider that to be a problem even if I could do without pineapple on pizza. Additionally it's instructive to observe the trend--the left has gotten a lot more extreme in recent years, and it's possible that whatever force that caused this will continue to operate.
(Maybe this would be a good time to re-emphasize that I think Biden is the right person to vote for this year--in part because I notice that whatever process which caused the left to get more extreme seemed to operate faster during Trump's term. However, I acknowledge that my Trump-supporting friend (a brilliant engineer who keeps his views very close to his chest) has a point when he mentions that Trump has ordered a halt to (in his view) Orwellian anti-racism training in the federal government, and there's a chance Biden will reverse this order. This is a way in which your claim "To the extent there is problematic thinking and behavior on the left, I do not believe it is a problem that will be worsened by having Democrats in power" could be false.)
Anyway, hopefully some of that has given you a sense for why I think the current presidential election is a minefield in a way approval voting and ballot initiatives increasing aid for effective charities are not. In the modern political era, it's not enough to just mention a bunch of things you read in your feed. You want to do random in-depth fact checks, or provide incentives for normally reticent supporters of unpopular views to explain those views, or something.
comment by RyanCarey ·
2020-10-17T10:03:06.801Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
[Politicisation] will reduce EA's long-term impact: I have to confess I've never really understood this argument. I can think of numerous examples of social movements that have been both highly politicized and tremendously impactful.
Right, but none that have done so without risking a big fight. The status quo is that EA consists of a few thousand people, often trying to enter important technocratic roles, and achieve change without provoking big political fights (and being many-fold more efficient by doing so). The problem is that political EA efforts can inflict effectiveness penalties on other EA efforts. If EA is associated with a side e.g., "caring about the long-term" is considered a long-term issue, then other EA efforts may become associated to that side, e.g. long-term security legislation gets drawn into large battles, diminishing the effectiveness of technocratic efforts many-fold.
Basically, by bringing EA into politics, you're basically taking a few people who normally use scalpels, and arming them for a large-scale machine gun fight. The risk is not just losing a particular fight, but inflaming a multi-front war.
There are a bunch of ways of mitigating the effectiveness penalties that one accrues on others. The costs are less if political efforts are taken individually, so that they're not seen as systematic to EA. Also if they're from less prominent people, e.g. if Will and Toby stay out of the fray. It's less costly if it's symmetric between parties. For example, the cost of affiliating to a Rubio at this point might be less than the cost of affiliating to a Buttigieg, or could even be net positive.
comment by Linch ·
2020-10-16T03:59:07.805Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Of the top 18 states by highest per-capita COVID-19 incidence to date, 17 voted for Trump in 2016.
Minor note, but this is not as much evidence as it first appears. If we use reported deaths, rather than reported cases, we'll see that ~8 or so of the top 12 states for covid-19 deaths per capita did not vote for Trump, including the top 4. (Visualization here).
comment by Sean_o_h ·
2020-10-16T08:17:17.218Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Yes, and this is likely to reflect that (1) initial outbreaks were concentrated in cities/international hubs, more of which vote democrat and (2) in the initial outbreak testing capacity was lower, meaning that there were likely many more undiagnosed cases in these states. Treatment and therefore survival has improved too, but I think overall Linch's suggestion of mortality is a fairer metric for covid prevalence.
comment by Linch ·
2020-10-16T10:41:43.060Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Yeah I agree. At the risk of derailing the conversation further, I think there are several different things going on here:
1. Whether reported cases or reported deaths are a better proxy for total covid-19 prevalence. (or a different proxy entirely)
2. Whether total (relative) covid-19 prevalence in turn is the right proxy for "how well these regions handled the pandemic."
3. Whether/which different government are counterfactually more morally responsible in a culpable way.
For #1, I think reported deaths aren't obviously a better proxy for overall relative prevalence than reported cases, but they are better upon reflection. I empathetically do not think that they are the best metric, as of October 2020, and I think for the narrow question "did Trump-voting states have more or less covid-19 prevalence per capita than non-Trump-voting states" is something that you can probably form an educated opinion of in several hours or so (probably less), but there isn't an obvious single metric for me to point to immediately.
For #2, I think this is hotly contested. One thing to note is that many US regions are going for a de facto partial herd immunity strategy, so some people will argue that total (true) deaths is a better proxy for "success of handling the pandemic" than total (true) prevalence. For example, "we delayed the pandemic long enough that we now have better medical care and the most vulnerable populations have self-selected out, hence driving our covid-19 deaths down" is a steelmanned conservative narrative that has some truth to it.
I think it's a bit nuanced because long-term disability matters a lot (as well as long-term economic impacts), so it's a more complicated question of whether you think true prevalence correlates better with long term consequences than true # of deaths. Again, better proxies are possible.
For #3, I think I share the (commonsensical?) view that the US in general, and Republican states in particular, screwed up in many ways, some of which is ex ante foreseeable, and most likely a Clinton presidency would have done better. To the specific question of state actions, I do think my dominant hypothesis is the (again, likely commonsensical?) Republican states somewhat squandered natural advantages like lower population densities and less international travel, and did some dumb things. However, I think we should be very careful about reasoning in a format that looks like
Alice and Bob have a disagreement. We like Alice more.
Naive evidence says X, we blame Bob.
Updated evidence says not X, we now have a more nuanced view that continues to blame Bob.
Hence why (even though I agree in many ways with OP and the folk views on who is more morally culpable for pandemic actions) I want to address this discrepancy in facts/framing carefully.
comment by abrahamrowe ·
2020-10-16T14:32:20.355Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I really appreciated this post! Thanks for writing it. I also really appreciated the original post and am a bit bummed it got buried. I also want to note that I find it odd that post got downvoted (possibly for being explicitly partisan?) vs posts like this [EA · GW], which don't explicitly claim to be partisan / engaging in politics but I think are actually extremely political.
One thought, slightly unrelated to the question of whether or not there are good EA grounds for supporting / opposing political candidates (and I think it's highly likely that there are):
Effective altruism has long had a culture of shying away from [EA · GW] explicit engagement in partisan politics
I think one really useful and accurate idea from the social justice community is the idea that you can't be neutral on many political issues. This seems like it ought to be even more compelling from a consequentialist perspective as well, as inaction on certain political opportunities (not exclusively, but definitely including removing Trump from office / Joe Biden winning the 2020 election in the US) might contribute directly to the worse outcome. The status quo is already a manifestation of political positions, so if you're not engaging in changing the status quo, you are taking whatever political positions built it.
For example, I live in Pennsylvania, and theoretically my vote might matter in the US presidential election this year. I can vote for Joe Biden, not vote (or vote for a third party), or vote for Donald Trump. I think it seems clear that the downside risk from Trump winning is very high compared to Joe Biden, and given that Trump will win if Joe Biden doesn't, there is almost as much risk in not voting. I think that I pretty clearly on (some kind of rough near-termist) consequentialist grounds should vote for Joe Biden, and probably should try to get as many people as possible to do the same.
I think there are probably lots of good reasons to think that dollars directed by the EA community shouldn't go to political candidates as a general rule of thumb (though there are probably really good giving opportunities at times), but broadly, as a community interested in ethics, it seems like we are inherently taking fairly strong political positions, but then not really willing to discuss them or make them explicit .
This was a bit of a ramble because my thoughts aren't well-formed, but I think it is pretty likely that attempting to be "neutral" on political issues is close to being as bad as taking the political position that will lead to the worse outcome, or something along those lines.
comment by xccf ·
2020-10-17T02:28:50.560Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
First, I want to say I'm glad you're voting for Joe and I hope you will tell all your Pennsylvanian friends to do the same. Nevertheless I think there are a few key considerations around EA getting involved in politics on a movement level that your comment misses.
I also want to note that I find it odd that post got downvoted (possibly for being explicitly partisan?) vs posts like this [EA · GW], which don't explicitly claim to be partisan / engaging in politics but I think are actually extremely political.
That post relates to a case where politics got itself involved in EA. The question we're discussing here is whether EA should get itself involved in politics. I do think it may be reasonable to treat these cases differently, because if we're not allowed to say anything when politics gets itself involved in EA, that leaves us vulnerable to being hijacked by external political actors. (As an absurd example, imagine it came out that the CEO if Givewell was a believer in QAnon and was directing Givewell donor funds in their direction. A commitment to being apolitical which prohibited any discussion of this seems rather self-defeating.)
I think one really useful and accurate idea from the social justice community is the idea that you can't be neutral on many political issues.
Not saying this is how you deployed it, but I often see others deploy this slogan in a way that seems very antithetical to EA.
What if I choose to focus my time and attention on issues I consider higher-impact? ("I'm soliciting donations to cure rare diseases in cute puppies. You can't be neutral on this issue!")
What if I spent some time researching the issue and I think the evidence around it is very mixed/low-quality, or the costs and benefits roughly balance out? Or I think the issue is too much of an epistemic minefield to know what evidence is reliable? ("The CIA did X, and then they did Y and Z to cover their tracks.")
What if my position is too complex / nuanced / unusual to be easily summarized as for or against? ("Not left, not right, forward.")
When someone says "you can't be neutral", it sounds to me like "please turn off your brain". Neutrality is the state I'm in when I'm trying to weigh evidence and evaluate arguments related to an issue. Telling me I can't be neutral is telling me to abrogate the thought process I use to come to a thoughtful and well-informed position.
This "you can't be neutral" mindset has the potential to destroy a lot of the value of the EA movement, in my opinion.
I think it is pretty likely that attempting to be "neutral" on political issues is close to being as bad as taking the political position that will lead to the worse outcome, or something along those lines.
I just want to quickly address this. What matters in Pennsylvania is the difference between Trump's total and Biden's total. Adding 1 to Trump's total and subtracting 1 from Biden's total have an equivalent magnitude of effect on the final result. Not voting is exactly halfway between voting for Trump and voting for Biden in terms of the effect it has. If people actually start thinking that "since I'm not voting for Biden, I might as well vote for Trump", Trump will be very happy.
I think similar logic applies to other political acts. It often seems true that the result is based roughly on summing up the actions of various involved partisans. Generally speaking, I think people who tell you "neutrality is just as bad" are trying to browbeat you into taking their position, and their statement is not descriptively accurate.
(I might as well add that I suspect the "with us or against us" sentiment on the left contributes to Trump's popularity. For all its faults, Trump's movement is more ideologically inclusive, in my view.)
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-14T23:22:14.510Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Personal context: I'm writing this as an individual rather than a moderator. I was happy to see your recommendations for political donations in the other threads, and I agree with you that the current president is much more dangerous than a more generic leader might be (though I'm not sure about "orders of magnitude"; the Iraq War was also very bad, and we missed a lot of potential climate change benefits when Al Gore didn't become president).
I generally agree with you that EA should treat politics mostly as it does other issues, though I think it's beneficial to take steps to avoid what frequently happens to other movements that become political (that is, politics sucks up more and more of their time and they lose focus on other things). This was the impetus behind the Forum's policy on political posts [EA · GW].
However, with the background of that general agreement, I have some questions/concerns about aspects of this post.
Many of those who push back against political engagement in EA see the left, and particularly the social justice movement, as some kind of scary juggernaut seeking world domination by mind control.
This seems like an uncharitable representation of how the median concerned Forum user expresses those concerns. I've interacted with a few people who seem to view the left as more culturally powerful than they are, but I've also had better discussions with people who had more reasonable concerns.* Using a phrase like "mind control" to describe the beliefs of one's opponents (even those on the fringes of community opinion) isn't great.
I thought the section other than this paragraph was very good, especially the point that supporting the Democratic Party doesn't equate to supporting the far left. But reading this nearly soured me on your argument in general (even though I don't think of myself as someone who "pushes back").
* For example, that while the far left isn't very numerous or popular, their support overlaps a lot with EA's core growth demographics, such that we might end up absorbing many of their norms or ideas without meaning to.
It will reduce EA's long-term impact
I have to confess I've never really understood this argument.
Can you provide an example of someone saying this? I struggle to think of any arguments I've seen that resemble this. Maybe the idea that EA doesn't want to cut off conservative people from feeling like they can belong in the movement, because that makes it harder to grow the movement?
A better way, in my opinion, would be to have some kind of formal system to weigh the risks against the opportunities on a case-by-case basis, as well as the risks of not engaging.
In principle, a system like this could be useful, but EA doesn't have a system like this for anything right now. Even an organization like EA Funds, which evaluates opportunities to do good and recommends that some of them get support, is just a few experienced people trying to convince other people to trust their judgment. If someone wanted to, they could start doing this for political opportunities right now (and indeed, we've had people try to compare candidates [EA · GW] before).
Within EA, individuals typically vote with their wallets, job applications, and Forum posts. There's not much in the way of coordination around "official" EA recommendations, even if some orgs are trusted by much of the community to recommend things. The equivalent of voting against community approval for candidate X (as a cause worth supporting over various other causes) is to not donate to candidate X.
So while I like the idea of an organization that reviews political campaigns to seek out opportunities for impact — as I would almost any org that reviews opportunities for impact — I don't think we'd need that organization to be uniquely "official" within EA. They'd just have to present their arguments clearly and convincingly.
(And, I suppose, not be actively opposed by other orgs in the movement, though I don't think that would be likely to happen as long as the org in question avoided representing itself as "the official EA political charity" or something.)
Were this organization to exist, one factor that would help me personally trust it would be if their most common recommendation were "no action, this campaign doesn't seem important/tractable enough to support either candidate rather than giving to (insert nonpartisan charity)."
comment by IanDavidMoss ·
2020-10-15T00:20:04.846Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks very much Aaron, I always appreciate your thoughtful comments. Re: "mind control," that was intended to be an exaggeration for humorous effect, but I can see how it may reduce the credibility of the post for anyone who might be on the fence about these issues. So point taken and thank you.
Before the original post was taken down, there was an example of an argument that EA's effectiveness as a movement will be reduced by excessive partisanship. NunoSempere wrote, "I've briefly looked at the evolution of past social movements, and I don't get the sense that doing this kind of thing leads to a social movement being very long lived. One of the long lived movements I've studied cultivated (though perhaps not consciously) the skill of having members on both sides of any political conflict. If I imagine EA being very long lived, which seems somewhat valuable, playing politics is not a thing I picture happening in that scenario. See also the intersection between politics and movement collapse scenarios [EA · GW]". I'll leave it to Nuno to elaborate further if so desired.
Your comments on the structure and positioning of the recommending organization seem reasonable to me, and yes, my assumption is that there should be a fairly high bar for propagating a recommendation.
comment by Ben Pace ·
2020-10-15T00:46:09.696Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
By the way Ian, I've not followed these posts in great detail and I mostly think getting involved in partisan politics in most straightforward ways seems like a bad idea, but I've really appreciated the level of effort you've put in and are clearly willing to put in to have an actual conversation about this (in comments here, with Wei Dai, with others). It's made me feel more at home in the Forum. Thank you for that.
comment by MarcSerna ·
2020-10-17T08:26:04.835Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I don't see it as a priority. By following this road, the EA community is at risk of allienating half of humanity which feel conservative and might be great givers and have deep concern for doing good effectively, but feel almost the same urgency you feel about Trump about people on the other side of the spectrum.
Most importantly, this issue has a lot of attention already, so I don't think making a stand from the EA community would make any significant difference.
So I see a great cost (losing conservative altruists for their lifetime) at almost no gain (adding your voice to a saturated debate).
I would freely vote and be vocal about my political ideas, those are part of your identity and important for your community, but I would prefer to leave EA out of it.
comment by MichaelStJules ·
2020-10-16T01:06:42.492Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
On the object-level question for a decision process for supporting/opposing particular candidates/parties, I think we should look for fairly strong consensus in favour of doing so for a given decision, if it's expected to reflect back on the EA community generally. If
- <X% more EAs (weighted by engagement or selecting only among engaged EAs, and maybe weighted/selecting based on knowledge of the relevant issues and discussion) are in favour of it than are against getting involved, or
- at least Y% of EAs (weighted again) are against getting involved,
then we should not get involved.
I'd guess X% > 20% and 10% < Y% < 30%.
If you think getting involved is wasteful, i.e. worse than the counterfactual use of those resources, you should vote against getting involved.
comment by Jordan_Warner ·
2020-10-17T13:01:00.531Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I'd say another risk of making political engagement a big part of EA would be alienating non-US citizens, who hear quite enough about US politics everywhere else!
Engagement with politics divides the movement geographically as well as politically, which I think is worth considering. While the rest of the world clearly cares about US politics, I don't think it would be good for EA to encourage foreign interference in any countries elections, so political discussions are alienating to the rest of us.
This isn't a reason to never engage with politics, and I'd imagine political action in other countries could be even more high impact than in the US, by virtue of being more neglected (probably less impactful though, to be honest). It's just another reason to minimise the role of politics in the movement.
comment by MichaelStJules ·
2020-10-16T00:38:30.218Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think it's worth further distinguishing between political engagement generally and supporting/opposing political candidates or parties, since parties come with a lot of baggage that EA doesn't want to commit/associate to and is more zero-sum. Animal welfare initiatives and the Zurich initiative are political, but they
- are in line with EA cause prioritization and don't commit/associate us to anything more than we already are committed/associated to (e.g. views on other controversial topics)
- don't touch the usual culture war issues politics is getting very polarized over that EAs might find unimportant or EAs are themselves divided on.
- aren't so zero-sum within EA because of the narrow focus. While many EAs don't prioritize those causes and find them wasteful, I think far fewer find them (very) actively harmful (except insofar as they take resources away from more important things). When you support or oppose a politician, there are many ways in which they could be good or bad according to a given EA, and you're more likely to actually do harm according to some other EA's values.
comment by jtm ·
2020-10-14T17:34:53.407Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I'll probably write a longer comment later but for now, I'd just like to record that I strongly disagreed with the downvoting of the original post. I'd concede that the meta-level discussion on the role of electoral politics in EA isn't straightforward, but I think that the object-level case for engaging in the US election to get Donald Trump out of office is sufficiently strong that it – at the very, very least – deserves to be heard and discussed. Particularly because I would argue that the case can be substantiated by appeals to many of the things that EAs purport to care about (reducing catastrophic risks from climate change, anthropogenic biological events, nuclear conflict; improving global health and development) and can be supported by the kinds of evidence and quantitative estimates that EAs tend to rely on.
comment by Wei_Dai ·
2020-10-15T18:15:54.382Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
but I think that the object-level case for engaging in the US election to get Donald Trump out of office is sufficiently strong that it – at the very, very least – deserves to be heard and discussed
Unfortunately I don't think "discussed" is possible in today's environment, due to reasons I wrote at ea.greaterwrong.com /posts/68TmDK6MrjfJgvA7p/introducing-landslide-coalition-an-ea-themed-giving-circle. For example I'm personally afraid to say anything that could be interpreted as being positive about Trump in public (or even in private), and I'm probably within the top percentile of EAs in terms of being less vulnerable to cancellation [EA(p) · GW(p)].
comment by IanDavidMoss ·
2020-10-15T20:55:58.630Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I'll go ahead and say some positive things about Trump:
- My overall impression is that his policy on China has been fairly effective at increasing pressure without leading to open hostilities. (I should note that I am in no way an expert on US-China relations though)
- I think he's been a good match for Kim Jong-Un and his handling of that relationship has probably gone better than we could have expected under Clinton.
- I appreciate that he doesn't appear to have any great appetite for armed conflict with other countries, although the Soleimani assassination was one glaring exception to that which could have turned out very differently.
- I am genuinely impressed with his creativity, ability to think outside the box, and willingness to endure in the face of criticism.
See? Wasn't that hard.
comment by Wei_Dai ·
2020-10-15T21:57:26.738Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Sorry, I did not mean to imply that someone who just wrote a whole post about opposing Trump's reelection will get into trouble for saying a few positive things about him. Should I have been more clear about that? I thought it would be obvious that the risk is in being taken as a Trump supporter, or creating doubt in others' minds that one might be a Trump supporter. Or do you think a healthy debate about whether EA should oppose Trump's reelection can be had that excludes every potential participant except those who are clearly at no such risk?
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-16T09:53:34.230Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Is your fear of saying positive things about Trump based on how you would expect people in the EA community to react? Is it more about people elsewhere on the internet who might happen to see your views or track them down because of an unrelated grudge they hold against you?
I can easily imagine someone in the EA community taking a pro-Trump position for EA-related reasons (e.g. a belief that abortion is a hugely neglected cause area, or that gains from Trump's economic/war-avoiding policies overwhelm losses from his other policies). What do you predict would happen to someone like that? Would you expect them to be fired if they held a position at an EA org? Barred from attending EA Global? Shunned by people in their local group?
I'll also note that the positions in a discussion like the one Ian proposes aren't really "pro-Trump" and "anti-Trump": they are "Trump is so bad that preventing his election is a competitive EA cause area" and "no, this doesn't really measure up to other cause areas, or is otherwise a bad idea." Someone could easily argue for the latter point even if they would never vote for Trump.
(That said, if this discussion really would exclude everyone who could possibly be taken as a Trump supporter, that seems very unhealthy to me. I just don't think that's what would happen.)
comment by Wei_Dai ·
2020-10-17T07:25:03.016Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
It's based on how I expect some people in the EA community to react (they would be less likely to consider me in a positive light, take my ideas seriously, be willing to lend me their cooperation when I need it, hire me, etc.), and also on the fact that I live in a very left-leaning area (as most EAs probably do) where being (or suspected of being) a Trump supporter can easily make someone socially ostracized, which would impact not just me but my family. And yes, I also expect and fear that my views will be tracked down, perhaps deliberately misinterpreted, and used against me, by someone who might hold a grudge against me in the future, or just think that's a good way to get what they want, e.g., in a policy dispute.
If you're still skeptical that people are reluctant or afraid to speak positively about Trump or Republicans in general, have you noticed that nobody has pushed back against the recent Democrat-promoting posts here on object-level grounds? I've seen the same on FB posts of prominent EA people promoting voting for Democrats, where every comment is some flavor of support. Can it really be that out of thousands of forum users and FB friends/followers, there is not one Trump or Republican supporter who might object to voting for Democrats on object-level grounds, or perhaps just someone who thinks that the authors are overstating their case for object-level reasons?
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-19T08:43:07.503Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
If you're still skeptical that people are reluctant or afraid to speak positively about Trump or Republicans in general...
I never said I was skeptical that people felt this way. I'm quite certain people do feel this way, because you've said you feel it and so have others. I just wanted to hear more details about that feeling of reluctance/fear, and to express doubt that no Trump supporter would ever be willing to express that support in a public EA discussion.
It's certainly possible, even likely, that "some people" in the community would react negatively to hearing that someone was a Trump supporter, in a way that made future interactions a bit less collaborative or more fraught. But I think that's the nature of expressing strong opinions generally, in almost any community. Someone who came out as a communist would likely face similar challenges. Same for someone who was very religious, or a supporter of PETA, or a fan of Antifa. Probably not for a moderate liberal, even an outspoken one, but that's because EAs are overwhelmingly moderately liberal.
This phenomenon makes it hard to have totally open discussions on many topics, politics among them. And I agree with you that any public discussion about politics within EA could be skewed* -- but I just don't think it would be skewed to the point that an idea many people held wouldn't show up at all.
People write controversial Forum comments all the time. People have bitter online arguments in various EA spaces. There are plenty of loud and opinionated people in the community who aren't concerned about how others will react to them (heck, anyone who wants to can make an anonymous account on the Forum -- where are the anonymous Trump supporters?).
*This is one reason I'd prefer we not have much partisan political discussion here [EA · GW]. And if a group of people were to look for "political donation opportunities," I'd hope that they would start by looking carefully at the object-level virtues of each important candidate in a given election, without partisanship.
Can it really be that out of thousands of forum users and FB friends/followers, there is not one Trump or Republican supporter who might object to voting for Democrats on object-level grounds,
I've seen political posts from EAs I know that drew in Trump supporters who happened to be in their social networks (though I'm not sure how many of said supporters would consider themselves interested in EA). But I don't spend much time on Facebook in general, and EA Twitter doesn't have especially active political conversation in my experience (most of Rob Wiblin's recent posts have ~1 comment, and he's one of the most popular EA Twitter users). So I'm interested in your experiences (and those of other people who spend more time than I do in the relevant spaces). Are these FB/Twitter posts getting 5 comments? 10? 50?
When people respond to partisan political posts from friends they know personally, I'd expect agreeable responses to dominate. When my socialist Facebook friends post about socialism, they get a lot of responses from other socialists and very few from capitalists, even though I expect they have lots of capitalists in their social networks, and I wouldn't expect capitalists who respond to them to be worried about shunning given that capitalism is a normal position in elite spaces. I think people just don't like starting arguments with their friends over touchy subjects.
Of course, this assumes that the dynamic in play is "responding to a friend." If these are posts in discussion-oriented spaces and there are lots of responses, and the responses are all one-sided, that's stronger evidence that people don't want to speak out in support of Trump. (However, it also seems plausible that EA is so anti-Trump generally that there just aren't people around who disagree and care enough to comment, especially given how much of the community is non-American.)
As for this Forum: On the post we're now discussing, the opinionated comments are (as I type this) as follows:
- Our back-and-forth (with Ian's contribution)
- Your comment which links to other comments where you push back on the post
- xccf's comment pushing back on the post and making what I see as a good-faith attempt to steelman Trump supporters
- Ryan Carey's comment pushing back on the post
- Linch's comment pushing back on the post (and related discussion)
- Abraham Rowe's generally supportive comment
- My comment pushing back on the post (though my tone was supportive)
- Ben's comment pushing back on the post (but supporting Ian for taking the time to discuss things)
- MarcSerna's comment pushing back on the post
- MichaelStJules presenting some neutral thoughts/feedback
- JTM endorsing the concept of the post and pushing for more discussion
- Jordan Warner's comment pushing back on the post
Almost unanimously, people seem to want EA to stay out of partisan political stuff. No one aside from Ian and maybe JTM actually argued against Trump on the object level. I'm not surprised that there were no pro-Trump arguments on the object level.
Comments on the "recommendations for donating to beat Trump post" are:
- Me noting that we won't frontpage it (and expressing support for the cause)
- A discussion between Peter and Ian about the general case for donating vs. volunteering
- Other comments by Peter where he mentions he'd consider donating
And... that's it. Only three unique respondents, hardly a landslide even if they all express a desire for Trump to lose the election.
On which other Forum posts would it make sense for a pro-Trump EA to discuss their support for Trump? The subject is only now coming up with the election season almost over (kbog [EA · GW] had his "Candidate Scoring System" posts a while back, but those didn't lead to much or any partisan discussion IIRC). If it took until now for someone to write the post "supporting Democrats might be a good EA cause" and 90% of EA leans left, I'm not surprised that the post "supporting Republicans might be a good EA cause" hasn't come up.
In some posts made around the time of the 2016 election, there were a few comments pointing out potential benefits of a President Trump (see HenryMaine and Larks here [EA · GW]). There were more anti-Trump comments, but nothing surprising given the underlying demographics of EA. I just don't think there's enough overall activity on the Forum for "no recent object-level pro-Trump comments" to mean much.
comment by xccf ·
2020-10-17T04:23:42.186Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
What do you predict would happen to someone like that? Would you expect them to be fired if they held a position at an EA org? Barred from attending EA Global? Shunned by people in their local group?
Peter Thiel spoke at the EA Summit in 2014 I think, what happened to him? I heard at least one EA say we should kick him out.
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-19T09:16:34.542Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Was the "at least one EA" someone in a position of influence?
My understanding is that Thiel stopped being especially interested in EA around the time he got into politics, but he might still be making AI-related donations here and there. I'd be surprised if he had wanted to speak at any recent EA Global conference, as most of his current work seems either opposed to or orthogonal to common EA positions. But I don't have any special knowledge here. (Certainly he was never Glebbed [EA · GW].)
comment by xccf ·
2020-10-20T20:27:11.207Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Was the "at least one EA" someone in a position of influence?
most of his current work seems either opposed to or orthogonal to common EA positions.
I think you have to be careful here, because if someone's work is "opposed" to a common EA position, it's possible that they disagree on facts related to that position but they are still motivated by doing the most good. It plays into the feedback loop I was talking about in the other comment. If you disagree with someone a lot, and you don't think you will be able to change their mind, you might not want to invest the time in exploring that disagreement.
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) ·
2020-10-21T08:40:57.519Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Sure -- that's a good thing to clarify. When I say "opposed to," I mean that it seems like the things he presently cares about don't seem connected to a cause-neutral welfare-maximizing perspective (though I can't say I know what his motivations are, so perhaps that is what he's aiming for).
Most notably, his PAC explicitly supports an "America First immigration policy," which seems difficult to square with his espoused libertarianism and his complaints about technological slowdown in addition to being directly opposed to work from Open Phil and others. I don't understand exactly what his aims are at this point, but it feels like he's far away enough from the EA baseline that I wouldn't want to assume a motivation of "do the most good in a cause-neutral way" anymore.
comment by MichaelStJules ·
2020-10-17T00:01:27.181Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think it's plausible many EAs would not want to interact with a Trump supporter regularly, and while I doubt it would cost them their job or get them banned from EA global, I do wonder if it would count against them in trying to get a job at EA orgs. I think this is more likely in the effective animal advocacy space, which is influenced by the broader animal advocacy/activism space, and so seems further left than EA on average.