Last May, EA-aligned donors helped to make Carrick Flynn's campaign in OR-06 one of the best funded primary campaigns in US electoral history. Flynn, a researcher at FHI and CSET, lost the primary, receiving about half as many votes as the winner despite support from the EA community. This prompted several further analyses on the EA forum:
- Some potential lessons from Carrick’s Congressional bid
- Early spending research and Carrick Flynn
- Yglesias on EA and politics
Virtually all of the initial analysis has focused on ways that EA can better win future political races. I believe that it would be harmful to try; that EA as a movement attempting to hold direct political power as elected officials would be somewhere between neutral and harmful; and that seeking to influence existing non-EA elected officials would be more effective.
The arguments on the EA Forum in favor of Flynn’s election were wrong
> even with a small chance of success (<1%), the expected value of passing the White House's pandemic prevention plan is so huge - trillions of dollars and millions of lives saved. And if someone in Congress had that as their top priority, they might greatly increase the chances of it getting passed since there doesn't seem to be strong opposition to the plan.
> The Biden administration released a fantastic $65 billion plan that aims to prevent future pandemics. Congress has funded practically none of it. Part of the problem is that nobody in congress has made pandemic preparedness a ‘core issue.’ Congressional members don’t oppose the president’s plan, and there are some standout champions, but none of them are trying to get it passed with the desperation that I think the issue warrants.
> My sense is if Carrick had won, he could have done a lot of good – in particular, advancing pandemic prevention (e.g., via participating in bill markups), with an outside chance of getting Biden’s pandemic prevention plan enacted.
These comments are incorrect; Carrick Flynn's election would likely not have had much influence on advancing the pandemic prevention plan.
- 538 currently forecasts an 87% chance that Republicans control the House after the 2022 elections; this would likely leave Flynn more-or-less irrelevant for the next two years.
- The Democrats currently hold the House, yet have not passed their own President's pandemic plan. Nobody, in any of the comments above or elsewhere, seems to have any idea why; as a result, the arguments above are remarkably vague. The absence of domain knowledge from this conversation is really bad! (I don't claim to be an expert on politics, to be clear; it is entirely possible that the explanations I offer below are wrong. But EA extensively discussed the Flynn campaign and moved significant amounts of money, seemingly without a very basic public analysis of the facts on the ground.)
- Each fiscal year's federal budget is (supposedly) written and passed by April 15 of that year. There is extensive advanced planning for the budget. For FY 2022, the White House released its budget request April 9th, 2021, too soon for the White House pandemic plan, released September 2021, to be included. The recently released FY 2023 budget request does include funding for the pandemic plan. Carrick Flynn would be unlikely to have much influence over the FY 2023 budget, since he wouldn't even be in the House until most of the way through the negotiations, even assuming that he won the primary, won the general, and the GOP didn't hold the House. (New representatives take office January 3rd; the House passed its FY 2022 budget March 9th of last year.)
- The most likely way for the budget to exclude the pandemic plan if the Democrats hold the House, and the most likely reason Congress hasn't passed funding as a separate bill, is the Senate filibuster. The Senate routinely filibusters House bills; senators are incentivized to not give Presidents of the opposite party wins; views of the pandemic response are highly polarized. Flynn would exercise no influence over the Senate.
- None of the above comments have a realistic view of how much power a single freshman congressman would have, even if it were true that passing the pandemic plan depended solely on the House democrats in the next Congressional term. The most recent fully completed Congress had 101 new Representatives. Of those, only fourteen were the primary sponsor of a bill that passed. More broadly, there have been two high profile movements of new politicians into the US Congress recently, from the left and the right: the Tea Party and the Squad. Neither of them achieved their central political goals: repealing Obamacare, and the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. The conventional wisdom is that the US system of government makes it very difficult to change the status quo.
The exclusive focus on a single high profile and very recent policy idea understates the influence politicians have, to be clear. While the specific cited reason, passing the pandemic plan, is not a good argument for the election of Carrick Flynn, politicians have many influences on many policy proposals.
The broader problem is that EA has not (so far as I know) done a serious public analysis of how to achieve political changes. I am skeptical that electing many EA politicians is the right approach.
There's not much overlap between what EA focuses on, and what American politics focuses on
Effective Altruism is traditionally split into three central focuses: poverty reduction, animal suffering, and existential risks. Pew conducts annual surveys of what Americans care most about; the most recent one is here. Animal suffering is not listed as a concern; foreign policy *as a whole*, including foreign aid but excluding more specific topics, gets between 1-2% of people to say it matters most; "advancement of computers and technology" gets between 0-1% of people to say it matters most.
Another way to consider which issues are discussed in politics is to look at what gets discussed in political news, or by politicians. My uncited impression is that there is some, minimal discussion of animal welfare bills; that foreign aid gets near-zero public focus (except as an addendum to discussions about Afghanistan or Israel); and Glenn Beck is the only political figure who has seriously engaged with AGI.
Another way is to look at the actual questions Carrick Flynn and his campaign faced. I have been unable to find any instances of him being asked about any EA focus area by a member of the public or a journalist. I have been unable to find any discussion of any EA focus area besides biosecurity.
EA politicians should be perfectly honest about their own beliefs and affiliations- as Carrick Flynn was. But they inevitably will end up campaigning on, and dealing with, primarily non-EA topics. This means that most *opposition* that EA politicians would face isn’t due to their EA stances.
American parties are coalitions, and face opposition
A hypothetical EA political movement would not be politically neutral. EA's, if elected to congress, would presumably vote on every bill, not just the negligible number that EA itself prioritizes. Only about 3% of EA's identify as right wingers. Almost all EA's live in congressional districts where you would need to be a Democrat in order to win. There is no chance of EA candidates controlling a majority, or even a significant fraction, of congressional seats by themselves. The *concrete outcome* of Effective Altruism exercising direct political power would be for EA to become a faction of the Democratic party.
This would be bad.
- This would probably lose EA the ability to recruit Republicans, who are roughly half the population and who are useful to EA out of proportion to their current numbers.
- Because EA's would be running in elections, their opponents (in both the primary and the general) would be strongly incentivized to find ways to attack Effective Altruism in the public eye.
- Some commentary on the OR-06 primary seems to have concluded that EA isn’t a political weakness for candidates; I disagree, all that OR-06 indicates is that crypto is a softer target than EA.
- EA *may* have faced relatively fewer attacks in OR-06 because Protect Our Future has many other Democratic allies, and in particular was joined by the House Majority PAC in supporting Carrick Flynn; the winner of the primary would want to work with the same organizations that had opposed them. This would not hold true in general elections.
- Even if EA isn’t currently a political weakness for candidates, incentivizing opponents to attack EA itself would be bad.
- This would significantly damage EA’s ability to work with Republican politicians. Congress routinely passes useful bills on lower-profile but important topics; since there is little opposition to EA’s central focuses, passing this sort of bill is a plausible path to impact. However, public opposition to or criticism of EA would make this more difficult; and EA becoming a faction of the Democratic party would make this nearly impossible.
- It is extremely rare for one party to have sufficient power to pass controversial bills by itself. Since 2000, there have been only 4 years where Democrats held the House, Senate, and White House; of those four years, the Democrats only had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate for one year. Influence over one party cannot necessarily substitute for the ability to pass bipartisan bills.
- This could also potentially result in the opposite coalition passing explicitly anti-EA bills, or rolling back EA-supported reforms. (We should expect each party to hold control roughly equally often.)
Pulling the Rope Sideways
> Imagine the space of all policies, where one point in that space is the current status quo policy. To a first approximation, policy insight consists on learning which directions from that point are "up" as opposed to "down." This space is huge – with thousands or millions of dimensions. And while some dimensions may be more important than others, because those changes are easier to implement or have a larger slope, there are a great many important dimensions.
> In practice, however, most policy debate focuses on a few dimensions, such as the abortion rate, the overall tax rate, more versus less regulation, for or against more racial equality, or a pro versus anti US stance. In fact, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal are famous for showing that one can explain 85% of the variation in US Congressional votes by a single underlying dimension, where there are two separated clumps. Most of the remaining variation is explained by one more dimension. [To be clear, the most important dimension is left-wing vs right-wing; the second dimension is party leadership vs. insurgents like the Tea Party or the Squad.]
> If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls
As I noted above, the most recent groups of new congressmembers, the Tea Party and the Squad, failed to achieve their central goals. EA differs significantly from both. We have less popular support; EA’s tend to not have backgrounds or personalities well suited for winning elections; unlike the Tea Party, we are heavily crowded into a small number of congressional districts.
EA’s central political advantage is that there is no existing anti-EA movement or public opposition. EA also has significant amounts of money, and advantages in persuasion (many EA’s are researchers, journalists, or academics). This strongly suggests that influencing current elected officials, rather than attempting to directly hold political power, plays more towards our strengths. In contrast, attempting to hold direct political power would bring into existence opposition to EA: whoever is running against the EA candidates.
A few disclaimers
- The above argument is dependent on politicians and the public not caring much about either foreign aid or existential risks, and not strongly associating them with either party. (Animal suffering is more complicated politically.) If you directly prefer one political party to another, there is no way to avoid pulling for one team.
- This is primarily an argument against EA as a movement attempting to run and fund many candidates. It is *not* an argument against supporting or being involved with political campaigns- just the opposite, in fact. It is also not an argument against individuals running for office- but it's worth recalling that while elected politicians are the flashiest, highest profile, and highest status people in politics, there are many other important roles as well. (e.g. In the recent wave of commentary about US politics, I haven’t seen any suggestions that people join congressional staffs.)
- Please do not comment on non-EA focus area arguments for preferring one American political party over another.
It is impossible for me to evaluate Protect Our Future’s reasoning; so far as I know it was non-public. It is possible they were in a different position from random outside donors; it is very likely that they either knew non-public information or had different reasoning.
The best way to try to pass the pandemic plan is therefore either to try to pass a supplemental appropriation before the election, or to persuade Republicans to support the pandemic plan as well. The former is likely impossible; for the latter, Guarding Against Pandemics has endorsed 5 incumbent Republicans: David Schweikert, Dusty Johnson, Mike Simpson, Nancy Mace, and Ted Budd. I have no context on how these endorsements were made or what conversations have occurred, but this is at least gesturing in the direction of a successful approach.
One of the most significant recent changes in US lawmaking has been the decline of “Regular Order”- the traditional set of congressional rules of order- in favor of concentrating power in the hands of congressional leadership. Because the actions of congressional leadership matters more, it is less important to actually directly hold seats in congress, and more important to be able to influence congressional leadership. (Directly holding seats is one extremely important way to influence leaders; but it is certainly not the only way, and it involves unique difficulties.)
- Some of the above comments imply that holding key committee seats is critical. This is difficult for new representatives; committee assignments and chairs are explicitly decided by seniority; the average member of the House has spent 4.5 terms in the House. In addition, committees are now frequently bypassed by congressional leadership, to bring bills directly to the floor: ‘“an increasing proportion of legislation has reached the House and Senate floors without undergoing markups.” During the 2009-2011 period, over 40% of “all House bills and 80% of all Senate bills were deliberated outside committee.”’
- Similarly, portrayals of lawmaking tend to highlight the opportunity to make amendments to bills. This opportunity- referred to as open rules- barely exists today. The House majority essentially always blocks the minority from offering amendments, and often blocks all amendments entirely. Here’s the percentage of bills brought to the House floor under open rules:
- 111th Congress (2009-2010): 1% open
- 112th Congress (2011-2012): 18% open
- 113th Congress (2013-2014): 8% open
- 114th Congress (2015-2016): 5% open
- 115th Congress (2017-2018): 0% open
One person who proofread this essay commented that the arguments presented in favor of Flynn had a highly specific, measurable, and legible end goal, if not a good argument for impact; while the more plausible case for political influence doesn’t refer to a proposal specific end result, and any changes would not necessarily be clearly visible. I’m suspicious that there is a community bias against advocating donations or action for this sort of plan. To be clear, I am *not* saying here that working on politics is bad because it doesn’t have a testable and reproducible method of achieving a specific pre-planned goal.
I think that this effect, if present, was likely weak; there was no absence of criticism of Flynn for his crypto ties.
Criticism of EA would be harmful even if the criticism wasn’t politically successful and the criticisms weren’t widely accepted. EA is heavily dependent on recruiting from college campuses. Most new EA’s have some level of political knowledge beforehand; making EA more politically charged would likely harm recruitment by default, even if people did not directly believe the attacks.
This would allow outreach to both parties; indeed, Guarding Against Pandemics has a good-looking list of endorsements.