[ Question ]

How much more important is work in USA over UK?

by jackmalde1 min read2nd Jan 202110 comments


Movement Strategy

I'd welcome general thoughts but also attempted answers to any of these (admittedly fairly ill-defined!) questions:

  • Regarding government and policy careers, 80,000 Hours mentions that working on U.S. federal policy can be particularly valuable because the U.S. federal government is so large and has so much influence over many of their priority problems. Just how significant is this difference in potential impact?
  • Movement building is probably more important in the US as well given the above. How much more important?
  • When it comes to research, working at non-profits, and earning-to-give, I suspect differences between US and UK aren't that large (although US still probably just about wins for each). Is this fair?
  • Which is more important - 'movement building in US' or 'policy related to a top problem in UK' (I appreciate this depends on so many specifics but would appreciate general thoughts)

Thanks and feel free to call me out if you think these are just silly, unanswerable questions.

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Moderately confident about the below; I know several people working in the UK civil service, and have some experience of the US->UK immigration process, but I don't work in government/policy myself. My prior in general is that people underestimate the importance of personal fit, as the majority of impact comes relatively late in a career, so leaving early has large costs. IIRC this view was expressed by Rob Wiblin, maybe on a guest appearance he had on another podcast which was x-posted to the 80k podcast, but I'm much less certain about that.

I would be somewhat surprised if the impact difference for doing a similar type of role in US/UK policy was a dominating factor compared to personal fit and probability of getting such a role, at least for most people. 

If you're young, single (or have a partner who works remotely), and have reason to think moving to a different country would not be particularly difficult or stressful for you, or if you live in neither country but want to move to one of them, then asking these questions seems prudent. If that's not the case, I would expect that your expected impact would be higher going for roles in the country where you currently live, once you control for thnigs like how long you'll be able to stay in the role, how likely you are to get the job, perform well, understand the culture etc.

Thanks for this Alex, that certainly makes sense. 

I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give a bit more info around my motivation for asking. I am a dual citizen US/UK but currently live in UK. I am young, single (at least for now!) and am quite open to moving to the US. I even have some family over there, so overall it wouldn't be too stressful/difficult to move.

If I were eligible for good government roles in the US, I would just make that a priority. However, rather unfortunately, I never signed up for the US Selective Service (essentially their military dr... (read more)

3Sokodler13dBeing Canadian, I relate to your situation a fait bit and being also young and single, I've made it one of my priorities to move to the US to increase my impact. Being Canadian in many ways is like being an unofficial American, we are so immersed in American culture to the point that much of our national identity is centered around pointing out the minute ways in which our culture differs from that of America's. This also means much of what we do in many industries is kind of a second fiddle/satellite to what the US does and if you want to climb higher, you basically have to move to the US. For example, I originally started out studying nuclear engineering hoping to design advanced fission reactors. Very quickly though, I realized that most of the best R&D work (Oak Ridge/Sandia vs. Chalk River) along with startups (TerraPower/NuScale vs. Terrestrial) were in the US and that I would be far closer to the heart of the action in the US. My friends in other engineering fields report similar situations in aerospace (Boeing/Lockheed Martin vs. Bombardier) and automotive engineering (Tesla vs. some Canadian subsidiary of GM). I have recently decided to pivot out of engineering and am looking at mostly IIDM/Policy Research/Lobbying and yet again, I have concluded it is more impactful to work in the US simply because of the Canadian government's much lower level of influence. There is something to be said about legislative deadlock and polarization as short-to-medium term barriers to making a difference that does not exist to the same degree in Canada. But, I personally see myself moreso working in a thinktank/as a committee staffer on less polarized areas like energy (Biden's Energy Secretary pick is a Canadian immigrant too!) or infrastructure as opposed to running for office myself or being on member staff. I would expect doing say academic research in economics/public policy to be more comparable in Canada vs. the US but again, I ultimately aim to influence American
1jackmalde12dGood point. I need to look into this further and figure out what I may still be able to do from a policy/government focus in the US even without having signed up for the selective service. Another good point that I surprisingly have not really considered much. It seems plausible that Brexit could have significant implications for the potential to do good in the UK. Perhaps this is something that should be discussed more. Thanks for your comment, you've given me some things to think about!
1alexrjl13dI think that is fair, though as your situation is prety much exactly the unusual one I described I'd rather you asked someone with better knowledge, as in your case personal fit seems much less likely to dominate.
1jackmalde13dYep fair enough. I probably should have given my personal situation up front. Thanks for your thoughts though, still helpful.
1alexrjl13dI'm somewhat glad you didn't, as I think your broader question is still a good one. Best of luck with your specific situation though!

Hi - I'm an American (although dual citizen with Canada) who worked in US government for six years (at the Fed and the CFPB) and am now an academic in the UK so happy to give my thoughts briefly; feel free to reach out if you'd like to discuss further. 

I agree with the general premise, both because the US is so large and because (for better or worse, and despite everything) the US is still seen as a leader in many ways: whether or not they copy it (often not, often with good reason), almost everyone will at least consider doing anything the US does. The US system has more built-in checks & balances than the UK's parliamentarian system, which can limit scope for progress, but that's mostly at a high level (which is important, but not where most of us will have impact anyway). Similarly the federal system implies more decentralization in the US, which also limits the power of any one actor (federal or state or ...). However in terms of the bureaucracy there is a lot of scope for action in the US, e.g. one of the few complaints about the CFPB that was actually true was that it had a lot of power (again for better or worse, but it did and to a lesser extent still does).

In terms of research (and non-profits, which I know a bit but not as well), you're right that it doesn't matter as much -- except that the best research in many fields happens in the US, if only because it's a coordinating device and had increasing returns to scale (once the best start coming, they all want to be there). This is certainly true in my field of economics and behavioral science, and I suspect (happy to be corrected) true in many relevant technical fields (climate change, AI, animal cognition) although perhaps less true in something like philosophy. 

As others have noted fit and opportunity are probably more important than any of this, but on the margin yes I think there are good reasons to be in the US. [Why did I leave? Partly because my wife is European, and partly just because the senior academic job market is very thin and this was an offer at a good school in a nice location.]  And yes, unfortunately I suspect that the Selective Service tickbox may stupidly cause problems; they certainly checked mine when I joined in a standard role. I had somewhat randomly done it when I turned 18 many many years ago and then completely forgotten about.

Thanks, this is very useful. 

Would you say then that general EA movement building is likely to be more important in US? To make this more concrete: at the current margin do you think one additional person doing EA movement building in US is likely to do more good than one additional person doing EA movement building in UK?

This will of course depend both on how influential the US relative to the UK, but also on how well-known EA currently is in UK versus US. My impression is that the proportion of Americans who are EAs is far less than the proportion of British who are EAs, so the US is likely to win on both metrics.

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I welcome general answers that would be of use to anyone, but thought I'd give some info around my personal motivation for asking as well:

I am a dual citizen US/UK but currently live in UK. I am young, single (at least for now!) and am quite open to moving to the US. I even have some family over there, so overall it wouldn't be too stressful/difficult to move.

If I were eligible for good government roles in the US, I would just make that a priority. However, rather unfortunately, I never signed up for the US Selective Service (essentially their military draft) which you have to do before age 26 (I realised this when I was 26) and not having signed up to this makes you ineligible for many US federal jobs. Living in the UK I basically never even heard about this, and I know I'm not the only one this has happened to.

It's still the case however that I can easily move to the US, so now I want to think about if I should still go to the US for another type of role (say movement building role), or to go into policy in UK. These aren't the only two options I am considering, but for the purposes of this question I am narrowing it to these. I'm still figuring out some things about personal fit so you may as well just assume for the purposes of this question that my personal fit is constant across all roles, although I know of course that personal fit is a key consideration.