An Effective Altruist "Civic Handbook" for the USA (draft, calling for comments and assistance)

post by kbog · 2020-03-23T23:06:18.709Z · EA · GW · 15 comments

I am working on a civic handbook - something to guide political engagement for the ordinary person. It has a combination of practical advice for making a difference, and policy guidance for several important issues where strong evidence and expert agreement exists. I welcome input and writing from others; here is the current draft which you can edit. We will hopefully post or publish it in a more convenient and appealing form when it is done.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-03-26T17:53:58.683Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like this! I'm glad to be able to see a lot of your prior work gathered together like this (plus some material I don't remember seeing before).


One concern: I think this document, if seen outside the Forum's context, could be read by people as representing an "official" view of the EA community, rather than one person's views on how to effectively engage with politics.

(The name "Effective Altruist Civic Handbook" feeds into this; something like "Civic Activism through an EA Lens" seems better, though I'm sure you can come up with something less clunky than my example.)

When documents exist that can be shared around independent of an explanatory post, it's good to include info on authorship/purpose to clarify who created them and what their background is.

This is something CEA has struggled with in the past. When we published the second version of the EA Handbook, we didn't initially clarify that CEA had written it, which made it seem like the work of the entire movement rather than the work of a single organization. 

For a positive counterexample, Julia Wise wrote a piece on treatment for alcohol problems [LW · GW] which included a note on her experience (mental health training and amateur research skills, no experience in treating substance abuse).

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-03-27T20:54:22.081Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Done though I still haven't identified a proper catchy name. "Effective Altruist civic handbook" was just meant as a placeholder.

comment by brb243 · 2020-03-24T19:25:21.020Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! This is interesting. I studied lobbying in my MA program in Washington, DC.

1. Could you please embolden (make bold) parts (in every paragraph or once in few paragraphs) that you find particularly important? This would help readers to orient themselves in the text better and skim more easily.

2. I submitted some comments - can you see them? Please let me know what you think about them.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-03-27T21:06:11.392Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

1. OK, I am emboldening key sentences now. Not entirely sure if I like it though.

2. Thanks, I replied in comments within the document.

Replies from: brb243
comment by brb243 · 2020-03-28T13:21:49.526Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

More replies, thanks! I like the emboldened sentences.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-03-28T22:22:53.136Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding food aid, you showed a couple papers discussing negative impacts from 'food dumping', subsidized agricultural exports from wealthy countries to poor ones. A topic that you studied in detail.

I did not read all of the text, but they mainly say: the foreign impact is that it displaces farmers. We send cheap exports, which are in fact cheaper than what a free market would produce, for a combination of reasons but mainly because of our agricultural subsidies. This puts farmers in the aid-receiving country out of work because they cannot compete.

My immediate objection is, why believe that the costs to farmers outweigh the benefits to consumers? If food is lower-priced then that should help many people. I found this paper arguing that the consumer benefits outweighed the hit to farming, on average, for households at all income levels in Ethiopia. It was not cited by either of the papers listed above.

The 1st article also says that dependence on food imports creates vulnerability to price spikes, citing this paper. But local food sources are volatile too, no? Local weather patterns, political instability, plant diseases, etc can create local price spikes. I imagine this would be worse than volatility in global commodity prices. Now, you can have imports step up to cover local price spikes, but you can also have local production step up to cover global price spikes. The former may be easier, but overall I just don't see good reason to believe that dumping increases price volatility.

There is then the long-run question of whether a country should develop its agricultural sector vs other sectors. The 1st paper touches on this. I will have to think/read more on this, or maybe you can better answer it.

Replies from: brb243
comment by brb243 · 2020-03-29T09:42:25.226Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

1) Both farmers and consumers (who may overlap) could benefit if food aid of advanced economies was purchased locally.

2) Vulnerability to price spikes could be addressed by improved resilience of local crops to weather and by better local storage practices.

3) A developing country with majority subsistence population should invest into rural development so that farmers can first feed themselves securely and second engage in trade of their surpluses as well as diversify their production from just agriculture.

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-03-31T02:32:13.662Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

1. But WHY do you believe that the costs outweigh benefits? Again - the paper looking at Ethiopia estimated that benefits of lower prices outweighed costs on average. This seems intuitively sensible, too - if we sell subsidized low-priced goods, it should increase their wealth in the short run at least.

2. It could be - and there are also many other ways to address vulnerability to spikes in global commodity prices, as described in the last paper I linked. Of course none of these solutions is perfect and simple otherwise the problems would not exist anymore. I think we should look at the likely consequences within current regimes rather than assuming that countries/societies will get much better at responding to problems.

3. But you see how it's a tradeoff, right? People can specialize in farming or they can specialize in other trades, not both. There can be different people doing different jobs, but every person who becomes a farmer is neglecting the possibility of specializing in something else. If a country has an industrial policy it will have to make a tough choice of what industries it wants to specialize in.

I am adding these considerations to Candidate Scoring System, which is more of an encyclopedia with all kinds of policy issues, but for the Civic Handbook I think I will leave the matter out as it does not have the kind of clear argumentative support necessary to build an Effective Altruist consensus.

Replies from: brb243
comment by brb243 · 2020-04-09T14:02:38.752Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sorry for the late reply.

1. I was only comparing the situation of food aid sent from abroad (an advanced economy) and food aid purchased by that advanced economy locally, in the area that the aid was supposed to help. Then, if the food aid is purchased locally, farmers earn income AND everyone gains access to food aid, increasing their wealth they can spend on non-food.

2. Of course, emergencies need to be addressed and prevented within the current system and at the same time, institutions need to improve to enable development of emerging countries.

3. Perhaps farmers can specialize in adding value to their products. Investing into agriculture has been quite effective with OneAcreFund (reported also by Roger Thurow) - and researched by RCTs.

That makes sense. Thank you. I hope that the EA candidates win.

comment by geoffreyyip · 2020-07-07T02:37:51.843Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Would also be interested in accessing a draft. I started looking into this topic on my own, but it looks like you've down a lot of research on it already!

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-08-11T06:06:54.239Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hm. (Sorry for delay, I wasn't checking the EA forum) the link seems to work and I haven't moved it.

Do you not have a Microsoft account? maybe if you're not logged in, you won't be able to use OneDrive. I can email a copy to you if you wish

Replies from: geoffreyyip
comment by geoffreyyip · 2020-08-13T02:29:25.775Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I tried logging in. Got a "This item might not exist or is no longer available" message.

Please do email a copy! My address is

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-08-13T03:16:49.636Z · EA(p) · GW(p)


comment by kidsparrow · 2020-06-15T20:12:36.097Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you have a current version of this document? I'm very interested and it looks like it's no longer in the same OneDrive folder. Thanks!

Replies from: kbog
comment by kbog · 2020-08-11T06:06:33.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hm. (Sorry for delay, I wasn't checking the EA forum) the link seems to work and I haven't moved it.

Do you not have a Microsoft account? maybe if you're not logged in, you won't be able to use OneDrive. I can email a copy to you if you wish