New Top EA Cause: Politics

by Davidmanheim 3 min read1st Apr 20202 comments

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Epistemic Status: This is serious - I wouldn't joke about such things, not today.

Effective altruism should focus on a topic that is not only important, but also tractable, and/or neglected. But everything is equally important, so the key issue is what we can do that has no opposition, can be done cheaply and effectively, and no-one else ever pays attention to.

Politics seems ideal.

Everything else is basically solved

As a cause area becomes a larger focus, not only does neglectedness go down, but the lowest hanging fruit in terms of effective interventions to reduce risk also disappear. That means that if other people have claimed an issue is a moral priority, it's probably not important anymore - everyone always does the right thing naturally, once they are told what it is.

For example, until the advent of modern medicine, which uses fully justifiable methods to treat people, many people died. Since everyone is rational about medical care, and always follow medical advice, even in the developing world, I'd guess there is no reason for effective altruism to continue to think about it. Now that we've stopped ignoring the obvious ways to treat the leading causes of death, no one smokes, is overweight, or fails to exercise. People are basically immortal.

Even further in the past, many interventions would have been effective 50 or 100 years ago. Obviously, investing in agricultural innovation was critical up until the invention of dwarf wheat and modern irrigation. Now, however, unless mainstream assumptions with no basis in analysis turn out to be wrong, any risk of starvation in any conceivable circumstance is now thankfully fully and completely in the distant past. And we can assume that no human action could possibly bring it back.

The same is true about scary past threats like infectious diseases. Of course, given the recent global outbreak of COVID-19, which came as a completely unforeseeable surprise, everyone is now focusing all of their efforts on the most important and previously neglected ways to fight the pandemic. It seems that the world is beginning to put serious effort into this cause. So we can stop worrying.

But not everyone has stopped worrying - a surprising but obviously self-correcting short term lapse in otherwise ideal responses. That means the most important thing for effective altruists to do is to minimize wasted effort. So I wish people could just stop talking about COVID. We need to find something else to focus on. Anything else.

What should we be doing instead?

The best way to do find out what's going to be important is to ignore problems. If we do that long enough, problems usually go away.

That means we desperately need to take doctors and other experts away from this ongoing crisis, and deploy them elsewhere - and it almost doesn't matter where. There are obvious candidates, of course. Supervolcanos, asteroids, and malevolent AI are all already important areas of research. You might think they are a poor fit for infectious disease experts' skill sets, but the more important issues is that they are unlikely unless they end up happening, and there is no way to trade off probability and impact.

There is one area, however, where infectious disease experts are going to have a tremendous amount of influence due to this still ongoing outbreak, and a complete lack of public blame focused on their decisions. That area, of course, is politics, where no-one would blame the people in charge just because they were in a position of responsibility when something bad happened.

Politics is the most neglected cause

Politics is an obvious and easy to address area that has heretofore inexplicably been completely ignored by anyone and everyone attempting to make the world better. Unfortunately, utopian ideas have never been tried - and it's like they say, "no harm trying". Thankfully, this doesn't require any kind of systemic change, so absolutely no-one will feel threatened.

A simple Smart-Expert-Improvement-Regime (SEIR) model shows that as new ideas spread, viruslike, through the population, they can quickly reach a peak. And then all that is needed is for someone to act, and once almost the entire population is exposed to something, any problems disappear almost on its own, with no negative effects.

Infectious disease experts have shown their ability to convince the public of almost anything. The quick and universal compliance with their suggestions despite political leaders messages to the contrary are proof of this fact.

The biggest problem is that this idea, unlike other priorities in effective altruism, requires funding. People obviously aren't going to do something to benefit the public unless it's also incredibly lucrative, which is why there are so few people showing interest in effective altruism, or politics. And unfortunately, big and splashy ideas that make the donor look really good simply can't get funded - no one wants social prestige or warm fuzzy feelings.

What we need to create the required influx of public health experts into politics is a heretofore unprecedented declaration by an individual that they want to dump money into zero-sum political contests - preferably, contests where everyone involved shares very similar goals. This will both limit the downside it the initiative succeed, and limit the risk of runaway success.

Thankfully, the US democratic primaries are still ongoing, and they are reaching exactly the point where almost half of the votes are already cast - evidently the peak of an event is an ideal time to tip the balance.

Act now, think later!

We shouldn't forget the lessons we have learned in the past, of course. But if there's anything that we've learned as a movement, it's that our first instincts and assumptions are correct. That means that before anyone can analyze this idea, we must act.

We don't really need to worry about who does anything, or whether they are the right person. Once enough different people have made their own unilateral decisions, I'm sure everyone will coordinate seamlessly. All we need to do now is find people, almost at random. If you're reading this, don't worry about citizenship or age requirements, just act now.

I encourage all of you to announce your candidacy in the comments below.

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