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Summary

This post shares my observations of the approach of the EA-aligned political action committee Protect our Future (POF) in a US Congressional Primary in North Carolina. Writing anonymously, I share my experience talking informally with roughly 20 individuals and observing the race through the media and as a citizen. I express concerns with POF's limited explanation of the rationale for their spending in this race, their limited explanation of why they selected their endorsed candidate, and advertisements that did not address their stated rationale for supporting the candidate. I explain my concern that the association of EA with large scale political spending and limited transparency could have harmful reputational effects. (This post is meant to provide constructive comments, and it should not be taken as a critique of POF's intentions or broader impact.) Finally, I propose a few changes that POF or other groups could make moving forward to mitigate possible harm, such as publishing the criteria used to evaluate candidates, providing a specific rationale for each endorsed candidate, and providing additional transparency on funding sources.

Introduction

I am writing this post to share my firsthand experience observing the Democratic primary in the 4th Congressional District of North Carolina this past spring. The political action committee (PAC) Protect our Future (POF), funded predominantly by prominent EA Sam Bankman-Fried, spent heavily (roughly $1 million) in this race to support the successful nomination of current NC State Senator Valerie Foushee. The 4th District is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Foushee has >99% odds of winning the seat in the general election on November 8th, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast as of October 26th.

I decided to write this post, my first on the EA Forum, in order to share concerns that came out of my observation of this race. Given the highly anecdotal nature of my experiences, and the success of Foushee’s campaign so far, these critiques should be viewed with some skepticism. Nonetheless, as EAs become a larger force in politics, I hope that these concerns and the accompanying suggestions could be useful for EAs engaging in large scale political spending. 

I have no prior connection with or relationship to Sam Bankman-Fried or Protect our Future. I hope that these critiques and suggestions will be received as good faith concerns about specific practices, rather than any sort of personal attack or criticism of POF’s goals, intentions, or broader impact.

 

Personal background 

I work in state government/politics in North Carolina. I’m worried that writing this post with my name attached to it could negatively impact my work, so I’ve decided to stay anonymous. I did not work or volunteer for any of the candidates in this race, though I am part of a group that endorsed one of the candidates (Nida Allam). I had no role in that endorsement. I was uncertain about who I'd vote for until a few weeks before the election, but I did end up voting for Nida Allam. Those factors could certainly influence how I view this situation.

 

My experience of the election

The concerns expressed in this post stem from conversations I had with political professionals and politically engaged but nonprofessional individuals in the run up to and the aftermath of this primary election. I also read a variety of local and national news articles that examined the role of money in the election, including the financial support from POF. In total, I talked casually with roughly 10 political professionals and 10 nonprofessionals about these topics. I did not necessarily discuss all aspects of the election or POF's role with everyone. Each of these individuals live either in or near the 4th district. I would estimate that I also consumed roughly 10 news items about the spending in the race in particular, as well as many more about the race more generally (possibly around 50.) I think this represents only a surface-level examination of the election and the underlying issues. Nonetheless, I think it’s possible that even that could provide some useful avenues for further thought and consideration by the community and, in particular, EAs involved in large scale political spending. I was particularly motivated to write this post because I haven’t seen many write ups that reflect on-the-ground experience with the impacts of EA-aligned political spending. I certainly think a much more scientific and in-depth analysis on this topic could be useful.

 

Concerns with POF’s approach

Limited information on the rationale for the spending 

POF has stated that they support NC State Sen. Valerie Foushee because they believe she will be a leader on pandemic preparedness. As far as I can tell, however, POF gave no outward explanation of its endorsement of Foushee until the media questioned their purpose. As of the time of writing, the group has a limited website listing its endorsements, contact information, and key principles (1 paragraph and 5 additional bullet points). My sense is that this is not atypical for PACs involved in US politics. Nonetheless, I think that EAs involved in politics should help promote good governance and societal values of trust and openness by going beyond the typically meager information provided by PACs. SBF’s significant financial stake in cryptocurrency, which could be affected by Congressional activity, makes the need for transparency even greater. In nearly every conversation I had about the election where POF’s political spending came up, individuals expressed varying levels of confidence that POF’s spending was truly related to SBF’s economic interest in cryptocurrency, and a few expressed the feeling that thinking otherwise would be naive. I point this out to demonstrate that, at least among the very politically engaged people I spoke to, few if any took POF’s claim of interest in pandemic prevention seriously. (To be clear, I do not doubt POF's intentions here, but some individuals without prior knowledge of SBF and EA seemed to.)

I believe this perception may have been exacerbated by a number of choices that could be altered moving forward. Notably, POF provided little explanation of Foushee's interest or achievements in pandemic preparedness, as well as little information on what policies she would support if elected.

 

Ads unrelated to the rationale for POF's support 

Campaign ads produced by POF, as far as I saw, didn't mention pandemic preparedness. (Example: Protect Our Future ad backing Valerie Foushee) The ads I saw were focused on Foushee’s personal background and unrelated policy issues. I believe that this could have raised further suspicion about the motives of POF and SBF and the potential role of his financial interests in cryptocurrency. 

I do want to note my uncertainties about this critique in particular. An alternative ad campaign that focused on pandemic preparedness or was more explicit about the reason POF supported Foushee may have been less likely to sway voters. As such, it’s definitely possible that this was a worthwhile tradeoff.

 

No clear reason for POF's support of Foushee over other candidates

Additionally, I didn't notice an effort to distinguish why Foushee would be a better candidate on pandemic preparedness than other candidates. It's possible that POF chose not to explain this part of their thinking in order to avoid harming their second choice candidate. It is also possible that they simply wanted to run a positive campaign and didn't want to attack any candidates. That said, I do think it would have been possible to be more clear about what made Foushee a uniquely strong candidate while avoiding those pitfalls. 

Together, I believe that these three factors could make a neutral observer question POF’s stated motivations, particularly in the midst of a political environment in the US where secretive political spending in support of business interests is common.  (To reiterate, I don't question POF's interest in pandemic preparedness. I'm only stating that others without prior knowledge of POF or SBF reasonably might based only on what they saw in this race.)

 

Why this matters - the risk of reputational effects

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I want to acknowledge my personal biases in this area. In general, I think engaging in politics without greater transparency could be marginally harmful to the political system. I believe that it could further normalize and support a campaign finance system that privileges the interests of wealthy individuals and groups. I think it may also contribute to the public perception of an unfair or “rigged” system, a belief that can itself be corrosive to democracy. This perspective likely makes me more concerned with the actions of POF than I might otherwise be, so it may be worth keeping that in mind in regard to the following perspective.

 

My concern with these practices is predicated on the reputational effects that I believe they could have on the EA movement. Multiple critiques I have seen recently in the press (linklinklinklink, and link) have described EA/longtermism as predominantly funded by and/or linked to a select group of very wealthy elites. I worry that this public perception could limit opportunities to grow the movement in the future. By engaging in political activity that partially aligns with this perception without doing the utmost to be transparent and demonstrate the altruistic rationale for the activity, I worry that POF could negatively affect the reputation of the movement. 

Additionally, I worry that individuals may be introduced to EA for the first time in conjunction with activity that they perceive to be negative. The political news site Politico site recently ran a profile of SBF that mentioned his interest in EA. I have read Politico regularly (3-5x a week) for the past decade, and this is the first time I have seen EA mentioned. While articles on SBF’s activity in North Carolina’s most prominent newspaper, the News & Observer, don’t directly mention effective altruism, an article quotes POF as stating that it supports candidates with a “long term view on policy planning especially as it relates to pandemic preparedness and prevention.” Other parts of the article also hint at POF’s interest in longtermist causes. I regularly read this newspaper as well, and I have never seen previous coverage of longtermist or EA-related work. It concerns me that others may first come into contact with EA through articles that associate it with big-money political groups with limited transparency, a realm of politics that some see as problematic. 

In talking with other political professionals about the race and the support of POF, I occasionally brought up my previous knowledge of SBF and his interest in EA to address their concerns about the true rationale for the spending. These individuals had not previously heard about EA, and I don’t imagine that introducing them to it through this context made them particularly like to take an interest in it. (Certainly, none showed interest during our discussions, which differs from my previous experience describing EA in different contexts.) Should these people, or others who learned about EA from the articles mentioned previously, encounter the movement again, I’m concerned that they will be less likely to find it appealing or take action with EA principles in mind. I don’t have evidence to determine if this is the case, but I think it should give us pause. 

I do not write this post with the goal of stopping POF or other EA-aligned political groups or donors from engaging in this kinds of spending. I very much appreciate the value of working within an imperfect system to make positive change - otherwise, I wouldn't be working in US politics. Nonetheless, I think there may be simple changes that POF or other EA-aligned groups could make to reduce some of the reputational risks to EA posed by large scale political spending. I outline some possible changes below.

 

Proposed changes to minimize the possibility of harm

NOTE: This is intended only to exemplify some of the changes that could be made. There may be many better ideas that would achieve the same ends.

 

Publish criteria for evaluating candidates

This could include issue positions, personal qualities, past experience, vote history, or previous actions. Many advocacy groups in the US, such as the National Rifle Association and the League of Conservation Voters, have trackers that evaluate and provide specific grades to legislators based on their previous actions or statements. Had POF established clearer public-facing criteria, they could have highlighted those specifics when contacted by news organizations, or highlighted them in their advertisements or mailers. 

 

Provide a clear rationale for each candidate

This could be based on a system like the trackers mentioned above, or it could be written individually for each candidate. Either way, this would help provide a clearer explanation of why a group is supporting one candidate over another, particularly in a primary that includes a number of candidates with many similar policy positions. 


Provide additional transparency on funding sources

I suspect that the limited information about POF’s funding sources and motivations contributed to perceptions that it was intervening on behalf of crypto interests. I don’t doubt that some people would have believed this whether or not POF was more transparent about the source of its funds (and potentially even more so in that scenario). It’s also possible that this would have had minimal impact on those beliefs. Nonetheless, I think this practice could be an important part of demonstrating a group’s commitment to transparency and helping to promote trust in the group's stated intentions, which could be important in preventing reputational harm to EA.

Notably, these proposed changes may set EA-aligned groups apart from other groups in a way that is disadvantageous politically. They could also impact the effectiveness of the activity by watering down a more politically powerful message. Personally, I think that this might be a worthwhile price to pay to avoid possible reputational harms to the broader EA movement, but that trade-off is worth considering in more depth.

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I hope that this post will provide a useful perspective for those involved in large scale EA-aligned political spending. I’d be happy to answer any questions I can or provide any clarification, and I would welcome any feedback that could improve this post or help me contribute more effectively in the future. 


 

Comments17
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:36 PM

A few quick points:

  • My guess would be that PoF's limited commentary on candidates is because they don't have enough staff resources to give detailed commentary, and/or to talk to the media  in every state race where they are involved.
  • I imagine they run ads on certain topics (i.e. not just pandemic prevention) because those are the ones that voters care about, i.e. just to help their candidate to win. 
  • I expect they rarely go "negative" for the same reasons as most groups - because it's not effective enough to be worth making enemies of the other candidates.

Now what about the main point of your post? I think we could divide the problems you identify into two buckets: (1) dem voters thinking PoF is bad, (2) folks reading thinking EA is bad. Regarding (1), I agree that these happen to some extent, given PoF's current strategy, but am less sure how to solve them. To some extent, it is easier to provide a rationale for each candidate once they have a track record, which will be true when more pandemic preparedness bills have been voted on. Re criteria for evaluating candidates, I think there are potential problems, in that the nature of pandemic preparedness legislation can change a lot over time, so it's hard to fit your desiderata on a checklist. And it's not clear that you would want to elevate their prominence in that kind of way, because it could turn it into a more partisan or factional issue, which is not currently desired. So this part might not be so easy. As for funding source, I thought it was known to be almost entirely from SBF? Regarding (2), maybe this is counterbalanced a bit by the broader media about EA and longtermism in regard to Macaskill's latest book. I expect most will hear about EA in other ways!

Anyway, tough problems, but I think relatively unclear solutions. Still, nice post!

I like the idea of Protect Our Future being more transparent about how and why they make endorsements. Giving a specific list of ways they evaluate candidates would be helpful for people to understand their actions. I also worry a little bit that this would make it easy to game their endorsement process or encourage political stunts that are more about drawing attention than doing something useful. But I'm not sure how big of a worry this should be.

I agree that Protect Our Future should be a lot more explicit about its agenda. While the Valerie Foushee campaign was successful the Carrick Flynn campaign failed and likely failed for reasons like distrust of PAC money. 

It's unclear to me why the strategic decision of Protect Our Future to be this untransparent was made. Given the amount of money they spend, it was likely that it will get some public attention and the transparency made it look a bit shady.

Clear public-facing criteria would likely be helpful. It makes it clear to the media how Protect Our Future chooses its candidates. It also makes it clear to other politicians what they would need to do to get support from Protect Our Future. Given that politicians do spend a lot of time on fundraising, making it more clear to them what they would need to do to get support from Protect Our Future would likely be good. 

Having a blog that publishes posts about candidates they decided to support and also on legislative movements that they care about it would likely be a good move while costing very little compared to the amount of money that Protect Our Future spends.

This comment seems to be generating substantial disagreement. I'd be curious to hear from those who disagree: which parts of this comment do you disagree with, and why?

Not sure but I think the Flynn campaign result was more likely an outcome of the fundamentals of the race: a popular, progressive, woman of color with local party support who already represented part of the district as a state rep and helped draw the new congressional district was way more likely to win over someone who hadn't lived there in years and had never run a political campaign before. 

Andrea Salinas got 36% of the vote while Carrick Flynn got 18%. I think it's pretty clear, that Flynn would have gotten more votes if he wouldn't have been perceived by the press as being funded by ill-intentioned corporate money. 

Whether that would have been enough to get double the amount of votes is unclear but I don't think the available data suggest that this isn't in the realm of what would have been possible. 

Well to be fair I didn't say it was impossible, just that the outcome probably had more to do with the fundamentals of the race. It may have had a negative effect yes, but plenty of candidates win in races despite being supported by all kinds of PACs and having negative press about it. 

Having more connections within the state for support and donations and highlighting those would have helped blunt negative attacks about PAC funding, for example. 

I strongly agree. SBF and Future Fund don't seem to have any track record in party politics. Given the massive reputational risks to EA that might not be easily fixable, I think their political advocacy should be closely scrutinized and possibly slowed to build up more capacity before engaging. 

My perception is informed by the Flynn campaign, which seemed to have important failures. Local political leaders criticized the campaign for failing engage with local media and elected officials. They spent more an $800,000 on an attack ad calling the eventual winner of the race a "lobbyist for a corporation accused of driving up drug prices", but many EAs now believe that claim was "very misleading". They received plenty of negative local media coverage. They did manage to secure a $1M donation from a PAC aligned with Nancy Pelosi, and building relationships with mainstream Democrats seems to be part of the strategy in supporting Foushee. This could be a useful strategy, but also risks associating EA with corrupt big money party politics. 

I've signed up for fundraising emails from the EA Donor Network organized following the Flynn campaign. They've recommended two candidates so far, Victoria Gu and Seth Magaziner in Rhode Island, both with single paragraph explanations of why the candidates are worth supporting. When I emailed back looking for more information about why we should donate to these candidates, I received a response to my first email but not a second. To be clear, I'm not really looking for an explanation via private emails -- I'd like EA political work to adopt the same standards of transparency and rigorous analysis that have powered EA success in other domains. 

For onlookers, just to comment on one small piece of this, in early Oct 2022, SBF gave signals of updating/backed off on his spend ("billion dollar donation figure"). 

This was picked up by 10-20 outlets, suggesting this was an active signal from SBF.

Thanks for writing this! I'm quite sympathetic to the point that political spending is likely to have second-order political and reputational effects for EA that are complicated and not currently well-theorized (at least in any sort of public setting). 


Something I'd be curious to learn more about as an outsider to NC politics is a brief summary of background on the different candidates in the race and why one candidate might be better/worse than another. Friends of mine in progressive politics have expressed frustration with Protect Our Future supporting candidates they think are substantively unqualified and unserious about pandemic preparedness. From my perspective, in understanding decision-making here, it'd be helpful to know context around whether there were (for example) (1) multiple basically similar candidates and one said the right thing about pandemic preparedness, (2) differently qualified candidates and POF supported the better/worse one, or (3) candidates that were more left/right and POF supported the left/right one.

Hi, I'm also a voter in the 4th district- I don't really consider myself a proper EA though but agree with some of the ideas. Foushee did not talk about pandemic preparedness much at all in her campaign. The understanding of me, and most other people in the district whom I have talked to, was that ulterior motives were behind the Foushee endorsement rather than any specific policy stance. Specifically I've heard a lot of people suspecting it was about crypto support (which seems odd, Foushee isn't particularly pro-crypto and if you wanted to turn a candidate pro-crypto, I don't see why you would start with her). I think it's more likely a bid for "political influence" more generally by copying endorsements by other groups currying favor with mainstream dems like AIPAC. From solely an EA lens, Foushee is a very odd endorsement. There were two candidates who split the climate vote/endorsements: Ashley Ward, a climate scientist running a single-issue campaign (whom I voted for), and Nida Allam, the most serious challenger, running a very progressive (Squad-esque) campaign with a big climate plank. I know climate change is not a major EA issue for most but I would have assumed that that would be a big determining factor, since it was the only issue I know of a strong EA stance on that really came up in the race. There were a few foreign policy considerations (Foushee has a mainstream Dem view of Israel like I think many EAs do, Allam tends to go further with her support of Palestine)  but I don't really understand how those (and this supposed pandemic preparedness stance)  are important enough to outweigh climate concerns. One additional piece of info on the race that might be useful: Ward's campaign got going pretty late, so I can't blame SBF too much if he wasn't expecting that she would get a decent amount of the vote. Clay Aiken was also in the running but he's despised among local Dems that I have talked to.

Summary: Foushee isn't particularly EA-aligned, the motives probably have more to do with strengthening Dem mainstream than any particular issue. Bad move by SBF, in my opinion.

Edit: I guess I should cover qualifications too. Foushee's part of a local political family, has been in the state gov a while, has name recognition. Allam is an elected official from Durham, the largest town in the district, with somewhat less experience. Ward, Aiken, and Crystal Cavalier all have never held office before.

I realise this is counterintuitive, but they are not focussed on Israel, or on centrist dems vs progressive dems - they have supported dems from all (edit:almost all) over the spectrum (I believe related groups have donated in republican primaries as well). And you can see that the version of EA that they're interested in doesn't focus on climate either. It seems to me that it's either pandemics, if you believe them, or general influence if you don't, I don't see how anything else really makes sense.

What Squad-esque members did POF support?

Well squad-esque seems like an odd litmus test since there are many other progressive members of congress than them but POF did support Maxwell Frost who won. 

I'm not saying they supported any candidates from the leftmost 5% of the party - and I doubt those would accept the funds if offered. Just that they supported people who ran to the left of their primary opponents (like Jasmine Crockett), not just to the right. It's not a left/right thing.

Thanks so much for providing this explanation of the candidates! As another comment pointed out, I probably should have put that in the original post, so I really appreciate you taking the time to provide that context. 

Thanks for this thoughtful, constructive, and informative post, and for the very reasonable proposed changes.

I agree that it's very important for EA and EA-adjacent organizations not to become politically partisan, or to be perceived as partisan. This is much more difficult than ever before, given that almost every issue becomes polarized on social media -- even if the issue has no intrinsic political or moral connection to either party.

IMHO, if the ultimate goal of PoF is to get candidates elected who support constructive, rational, well-informed crypto regulation that helps the crypto industry grow and flourish, it's OK to be open and transparent about that, and to support candidates of any party who are aligned with that mission.

I think crypto should get more attention in EA, and should maybe be considered a moderately cause areas for EAs, given its potential to increase access to financial services, secure digital identities, property rights, etc -- especially among the billions of people with minimal access to banking or secure digital records. If we're serious about reducing global poverty and improving global public health, then crypto replacements for the current banking system and the current medical records system could be useful. Unfortunately, many folks, including many EAs, seem to think crypto is nothing more than Bitcoin as a 'digital store of value', plus a bunch of shady crypto scams and cute NFTs. 

So, I would love to see more money spent on public education and legislator education about crypto (or pandemic preparedness, or AI X-risks, or whatever PoF or FTX or Future Fund  wants to prioritize).

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