Summary

This is a critique of the current draft of the UK Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, a recent attempt to influence policy, supported by some EAs. The Bill imposes a range of new duties on public bodies relating to future generations, ‘sustainable development’ and ‘wellbeing’. We support the underlying goals of the authors of the Bill, but believe that if the Bill were passed as currently drafted, it could significantly damage short and long term welfare. Our concerns only relate to this Bill as currently drafted; we believe in general that it is important for EAs to work more on improving policy in both the long and short terms, and John is involved with a new initiative to help with that. Later in this post we set out thoughts on other approaches which could be effective for achieving long term policy goals.

We do not see compelling evidence that simply passing a law that says there is a requirement for long-term thinking, goals or metrics will necessarily lead to better or more long-term thinking in a way that overall benefits future generations. Vague language, subversion of goals, ignoring or simply failing to improve metrics, contrary incentives of policymakers and the law of unintended consequences are all large risks, in light of the history of well-meaning legislative initiatives that have caused damage to long term welfare. 

We think there is substantial risk that the Bill could damage the welfare of future generations. Simply passing a law that the government must do ‘good things’ does not in fact ensure that it will do good things. If the goal of the Bill is circularly defined as imposing the duties and other legal measures it proposes, then it will do that. But we have no confidence that, as drafted, it will benefit future generations.

Introduction

The Bill establishes a set of national wellbeing goals, formulated by the Secretary of State with public consultation. It places various duties on public bodies and creates a new requirement of future generations impact assessments. It also requires a futures and forecasting report with a 25 year time horizon. It empowers the head of the National Audit Office to examine whether public bodies have followed their wellbeing duties. It also suggests a new Joint Committee on Future Generations in Parliament to review future legislation, and a new Future Generations Commission. There are numerous other provisions. It is based on the text of, and lessons learned from, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

We enthusiastically endorse the goal of making governments’ actions and perspectives more long term in outlook. Government action is often characterized by a distressingly short term perspective, as shown by the multiple suboptimal responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and indeed in the multiple failures in pandemic preparation before that. 

We also welcome the increasing interest of the EA movement in improving policy and governance in a non-partisan way, as we think these areas are neglected, potentially high impact and more tractable than is generally understood.

However, we are concerned that the proposed Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill may not achieve its stated outcomes. Given the current state of knowledge, we think there is a high risk of unintended and counterproductive consequences from actions based on superficial analysis. We think that the analysis should be taken to a deeper level before action is decided upon.

We know a number of people with experience in government and policy who have expressed the view that perspectives in the EA movement can sometimes – with the very best of intentions – be naïve in terms of the expected practical outcome of particular proposed policy actions, and we have sympathy for this view.

We think that many of the goals of various movements are substantially aligned, and that better discussion between them could improve their impact. We hope that this piece can help to encourage that discussion.

We also acknowledge uncertainty about the extent to which EAs were involved in or able to influence the drafting of this Bill; our understanding is the Bill changed significantly from the initial version, and we have also seen different accounts of how much EAs were involved with that initial version. It can be valuable to try to change a potentially damaging Bill in a less damaging direction, and that may have been the goal of some EAs involved. We intend no criticism whatsoever of any individual or group actions. Our concerns are purely with the text currently proposed as a potential law.

Concerns about the Bill

In our view, the proposed Bill unfortunately falls into the classic policy trap of having broad and well-meaning goals without any plausible theory of change as to how those goals will be advanced by the Bill.

Existential risk neglect

It is worth noting that the Bill's operative clauses do not directly mention existential risks at all. Implicitly these are included as ‘high-impact, low-probability risks’, but given their importance and historical neglect by policymakers we think that they should be explicitly mandated. (The term is mentioned in the explanatory notes but these have little legal weight.) CSER noted in 2018 that under the Welsh predecessor Act “it does not seem that global catastrophic and existential risks are being considered”.

Some aspects of the Bill do seem useful; for example the published risk assessment in section 16(1)(c)-(e):

The Secretary of State must … publish a futures and forecasting report that contains—

(c) an assessment of risks, including high-impact, low-probability risks, environmental risks, global risks and risks that may emerge or grow in the future, for at least the next 25 years; 
(d) each department’s plans to prevent, manage and prepare for the potential consequences of the identified future risks; 
(e) details of the assessment process used to assess the future trends and 30 risks

could be useful. However the Cabinet Office already publishes risk assessments (which proved totally inadequate to deal with COVID-19 risk, something that should have been squarely within their two-year time horizon): there is an inherent problem when such reports are published by entities that are subject to short-term political pressures. We think the CLTR suggestions for three lines of defence against x-risk, including a Chief Risk Officer and Office for Risk Management, are a good point from which to start to develop fully workable proposals. Their approach is similar to the successful model used by financial institutions and other major organizations, where this C-suite role can serve as an influential voice for risk control.

Vague language

In general the Bill seems in many places quite vague and imprecisely worded. This is concerning, because it makes it more likely that the Bill will have unintended consequences by blocking things that were not intended to be blocked, or requiring things that were not intended to be required. Such lack of clarity also imposes risks, costs, and a significant chilling effect upon investment and other societally beneficial activity. The public bodies upon whom the Bill imposes unclear duties must take action of their own, and make decisions about third parties. If the Bill is unclear, that will make it harder for the public bodies to take action, and make it harder for third parties to plan their own socially beneficial actions because they will not know exactly how rules they must comply with will be interpreted.

For example, consider the ‘sustainable development’ duty the Bill introduces on public bodies:

In this Act, any reference to a public body doing something “in accordance with the future generations principle” is a reference to the body acting in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. 

Protecting the needs of future generations definitely sounds good, but it’s not entirely clear what this actually means in practice. Does the test allow netting of costs against benefits? Does it permit the weighing of short term damage, e.g. the loss of a small area of natural habitat, against all of the healthcare, dietary and other benefits of more investment in infrastructure? The words ‘without compromising’ seem to imply an absolute test. That would be profoundly damaging to welfare: if something imposes only very small costs on the future, but gives large benefits now, we should be as happy to do it as we would be to suffer a small cost now to give future generations a large benefit. On one interpretation, the test may not even net across different areas of future generations’ abilities, so it would not allow us to slightly impair their ability on one axis while substantially improving their abilities on other axes, even if that would overall make them substantially better off. That at least should be made unambiguously clear.

It is not enough that we can work out what the words should mean, or what the most reasonable interpretation of them is. We should write laws to try to guard against future actors’ attempts to creatively interpret them, both to ensure our goals are achieved and to avoid wasting future resources on unnecessary legal/political battles. The current phrasing seems to leave a lot of room for such interpretation; for example, how many of our desires and priorities count as ‘needs’, how literally we interpret ‘without compromis[e]’ and how certain the harm needs to be to reduce ‘ability’. And even if such rules were precisely defined, and the most competent and well-informed body in the world were opining upon them, there would be profound epistemic uncertainty. The risk of incorrect decisions would be very high.

Another significant part of the Bill subjects public bodies to reporting requirements regarding their preventative spending. The Bill defines preventative spending as:

(a) Prevention: expenditure which has the purpose of creating societal conditions which mitigate risks to the future generations principle;

(b) Present and future spending: expenditure on a recognised issue which currently breaches the future generations principle to prevent the issue deteriorating and so contribute to the alleviation of the problem for current and future generations;

(c) Acute spending: expenditure with the purpose of managing the impact of an issue which breaches the future generations principle, but which is unlikely to prevent the issue deteriorating.

This is an extraordinarily broad definition of ‘preventative spending’. On one reading it could effectively cover any government spending. It is possible to come up with some kind of tenuous pretext by which almost any given action has an effect on the needs of the present and mitigates risks to future generations.

Apart from the unworkable breadth, this neglects Goodhart's law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. A department may spend billions on preventative spending without having anything to show for it. Wherever possible we should be measuring outputs, not inputs. 

Another problem is that the Bill makes the judiciary the ultimate arbiter of the duties proposed. The judiciary is profoundly ill-equipped to assess quantitatively the sort of long-term tradeoffs and risks that are implicit in the types of decisions covered by the Bill. Under the 2015 Welsh Future Generations Act, the courts have refused to intervene. Although the new Bill has stronger language to allow court intervention, judges are not economists, statisticians, scientists, philosophers or professional forecasters, and tend to evaluate processes (whether the correct paperwork was filled out) or ‘reasonableness’ (whether it seems at all plausible that the decision was acceptable).

Hurts infrastructure investment

One of the biggest drivers of human progress has been infrastructure investment: we all benefit from the huge investments previous generations made in roads, railways, electricity transmission and so on. But over time it has become more and more expensive to build the infrastructure we will need for the future because of what Holden calls vetocracy. Technological innovation has led to ever-increasing political demand by residents for more land use regulations to protect them against economic externalities such as loss of daylight. Measures such as Environmental Impact Assessments, CEQA, and EU protection of some species (that are not even endangered in the UK) have all led to an increasing vetocracy which appears to be profoundly harmful to overall welfare. 

Unfortunately, far from improving this situation, there is a high risk that the Bill would exacerbate that problem. By imposing extensive and ill-defined duties on public bodies it will very likely make all these problems worse, reducing future welfare directly, in exchange for an uncertain benefit. There is an extensive history in infrastructure investment of such vaguely defined rules being abused to block infrastructure that would be beneficial to future generations.  The Welsh Future Generations Bill led to the canceling of a road project whose benefits were projected to exceed costs by 2.2x, and then a halting of all road investment.

The dominant constraint on infrastructure investment in the UK is not the discount rate paid by private actors, or the discount rate used to assess government projects, but political limitations, especially reluctance of politicians to think beyond the next election, and resistance to new development that may cause negative spillover effects for neighbours. This Bill would not solve these political limitations, and may inadvertently provide additional ammunition for those who are seeking to veto projects.

Red tape

Even in areas where the Bill does not outright prevent long-term investment, the extensive procedural requirements imposed will increase the costs and uncertainty of any such investment and therefore decrease the overall amount of such investment.

Regulatory capture

If the Bill successfully creates a powerful Commission and an influential ‘national conversation’, these will be subject to the same political pressures as any other political institution. Public conversations about welfare tend to be captured and dominated by the highly privileged, so we think they will turn into a focus on matters of concern to the better-off members of high income deciles, rather than on traditional EA concerns like poverty, housing and pollution, all of which disproportionately harm those on lower incomes. Equally it seems likely that this capture will end up disregarding catastrophic risks and animal welfare to the extent that these are not already priorities to the most politically influential or the animals in question are not photogenic. 

The Bill does not seem to have any mechanisms to prevent such capture, or even to prevent the normal drift of institutions. It is likely that EA influence over the Bill is highest during the drafting: as such we should try as much as possible to ensure it produces positive outcomes even if it will later have a very different group of people at the helm. Our concerns about capture by short to medium term middle class preoccupations are stronger because the Bill seeks a Commission with such extensive regulatory powers and corresponding duties on Ministers and public bodies. We think there is a high likelihood that these new institutions will damage net welfare.

Consider for example the ‘national conversation’ on wellbeing that the Bill seeks to create:

The Secretary of State must provide for a public consultation (to be called a “national conversation”) on a series of wellbeing goals for the United Kingdom, which includes persons the Secretary of State deems to be appropriate. 

 The national conversation must engage communities across the population, with particular focus on young people and children from different social backgrounds. 

As far as we can see there is essentially nothing in the Bill to guide this consultation towards EA goals. Given this, it seems likely that people’s other specific and short-term goals and objectives will have considerable influence over the conversation. People do care about future generations, so this concern will probably influence the conversation. But it’s not clear why we should expect this influence to be significantly stronger or more influential than in other pre-existing debates. If our primary goal is to reduce existential risks to humanity, it would be better to design an institution specifically focused on those goals.

Insofar as the proposed institution makes statements or recommendations adverse to the interests of those in power, they will work to subvert it. So it is critical to fix the underlying incentives to prevent such subversion.

Moreover the existence of most welfare problems and many catastrophic risk problems is already well known (and it seems unlikely that substantial new categories of catastrophic risk will emerge purely from a discussion among members of the general public rather than from more in-depth research). There is extensive information about wellbeing and people's choices embedded in market prices, and it would be possible to measure those preferences by income decile to permit more nuanced welfare assessments.

The hard question is not so much about what aspects of their lives people would like to improve, but what efficiency gains and trade-offs we could make through policy to achieve some of those improvements. Single issue polling is notoriously unreliable because it cannot deliver opinions on trade-offs, and it is generally impossible for anything other than a highly focused group doing intensive amounts of work to assess with any degree of accuracy the likely outcomes of a range of potential policy actions in a highly complicated world of unintended consequences. Even then, they frequently get it wrong.

Makes procurement worse

The UK currently has an extremely process-orientated procurement system, requiring a great deal of documentation in order to protect against possible judicial review, even if this documentation does nothing to improve the quality of the actual decision. Smaller firms are disfavoured relative to larger ones with expertise in navigating the system, and innovative approaches are shunned in favour of established techniques that firms are confident that officials know to be legally safe. This was a significant problem during the initial covid crisis, where a rapidly changing environment required rapid decision making under uncertainty. Existing rules made it difficult to procure PPE, resulting in lengthy (and often ultimately pointless) legal challenges, and even delayed funding for an EA organisation, Our World In Data, that was providing vital information for tracking the pandemic. This problem has been recognised by many, and is the subject of a Green Paper on possible reforms. 

Unfortunately, this Bill seems like it could make the situation worse. Insofar as it subjects procurement to more duties and barriers such as impact assessments without any mechanisms to reduce such barriers that we can see, it could actually increase x-risk by making it harder for future governments to act swiftly and proportionately in response to a new danger.

Missed opportunity for bipartisanship

Most of the driving concerns behind Longtermism are at least potentially bipartisan. Both major parties care about issues with long-term impact like climate change, and many politicians are personally concerned with how posterity will view them. Leaders of many parties, including Boris Johnson, signed onto the Future Generations Pledge that was pushed by the Bill’s sponsor’s organisation. So it seems possible to craft a Future Generations Bill that could attract cross-bench support. 

Additionally, there are many advantages to doing so. By incorporating insights and concerns from across the political spectrum, rather than just one group, the Bill can avoid errors that might arise if it results from discussion within a small echo chamber, and ensure the benefits are spread more broadly across society. A bill with broad support is more likely to survive over time, avoiding both explicit repeal and more subtle undermining. This especially holds true for a bill that aims to kickstart a ‘national conversation’; presumably this conversation cannot be truly national if a large portion of the electorate regards it as a mistake.

Given this, it is disappointing that the Bill seems to be relatively partisan; worse, it does this by being unfavourable to the currently ruling party - the party which has been in power for most of the last century. This Billl has some conservative supporters, but has failed to appeal to influential right wing voices, and crucially is opposed by HM Government. Some supporters seem to think most of the chance for this or a similar bill being passed rests on a future Labour government, but this may not happen for many years. And if the Bill is politicized in that way, it may be repealed by a subsequent Conservative government.

Risk of making EA look bad

We know many people in government and policy spheres who are highly sympathetic to many EA goals, even if they have not hitherto had exposure to the EA movement. Many of them have decades of experience and reading research on the efficacy of various policy mechanisms. Endorsing a bill of this nature without sufficient discussion within the EA community to ensure the best possible bill is likely to damage the reputation of the EA community in the eyes of those people.

This can happen partly because of the content of the Bill - by promoting bad and ineffective policies, it could make the EA movement, or at least the policy-focused parts of it, appear to have a poor causal understanding of policy, economics and governance. It could also happen because of the way the Bill has been promoted: to the extent that supporters have exaggerated the size and fervour of support, it risks making us look naive about the practical realities of UK politics.

Risk of an echo chamber

The Bill does not seem to have been broadly discussed in the EA movement. There is a risk it was designed by a small ‘echo chamber’. For example, while work on the Bill has occasionally been mentioned on the forum, to our knowledge there has never been a specific post discussing what it should contain and how it should be written. There doesn’t seem to be a strong argument for secrecy here: given the Bill is public and, if it is to be passed, must be publicly debated in Parliament, it seems reasonable for EAs to discuss it first. Given the range of expertise in the EA movement, including fellow travelers with experience at the highest levels of government, it could be useful to discuss in more depth to work out optimal ways to proceed.

Towards workable theories of change for long-termism

As a theory of change, the proposals in the Bill seem fraught with difficulty to us and to many people with whom we have discussed them who are familiar with the way that government frequently works.

We think there are other, potentially more promising approaches that should also be considered, and a wide range of expertise that could be brought in to help. 

Government could be much better

Making government action more long term in perspective can be seen as a subset of the broader set of priorities of improving government action in general. Government action is often highly suboptimal, in the sense that it could be improved in a way that would make everyone, including future generations, better off.

Real rates of risk free return in the economy are currently negative, incentivising market actors to take extremely long term views. That is of course constrained by individuals’ longevity expectations and potential discounting of other lives relative to their own, but market incentives are nonetheless more long-term than they have been for most of human history. That makes private investments in long term infrastructure where much of the expected revenue is decades away - for example, railways,  renewable/nuclear power generation, or commercial space programs – much more attractive than they would be if real interest rates were higher, because they can be funded at lower costs and because they are more attractive compared to competing uses of that capital that would yield higher short-term benefits but lower long term ones.

Despite this societies are generally failing to act accordingly, even considering a timeframe within the expected lifespan of the average current voter. Large economic externalities are currently not internalized. Polluters still often do not in practice pay. Those who increase catastrophic risks, including AI risk, often do not pay the risk-adjusted costs of their actions. If those externalities were completely internalized by regulation or otherwise, the market would provide an extremely strong incentive for entrepreneurs, workers and other market participants to take a quite long term view. At present, the market has solved half of the collective action problem in addressing long-term perspectives.

But governments have failed to regulate to ensure that such externalities are internalized. Worse than that, we often see governments take or omit to take actions in a manner that substantially fails to reflect that negative real interest rate. 

And that is not a problem unique to long-term perspectives. Governments fail to optimize for welfare in the short term across a vast array of current issues. Even in the countries at the current technological frontier, that is often true to an underappreciated and often depressing degree, including issues like urban land use, road and public transport, education, scientific research, healthcare and finance. All of these can be described as coordination problems.

These problems can be so bad that we are aware of confidential examples of at least one area where, even given a clear set of instructions to implement a policy with extremely broad non-partisan support and potentially enormous welfare benefits, the relevant government department has been so dysfunctional that it is incapable of carrying out those steps - even though doing so would be directly beneficial to the politicians ultimately responsible. Governments often suffer not only from pursuing the wrong policies, but from internal obstacles which prevent them from implementing their intended policies. 

There is extensive research on the pathologies of governmental action; a key insight is that government action is often oriented towards volatile and manipulable whims of the population on average and towards special interests of particular actors on the margin. As a result, it is often less useful analytically to focus solely on the interests of a ‘government’ as a whole. Governments and wider society consist of interest groups and individuals. 

Given that governments often fail to optimize even in the short to medium term, it seems unlikely they are currently capable of optimizing for the long term without substantial reform. We agree there may be cognitive or resource limits that prevent existing departments from doing a good job on long term questions which funding a dedicated department or dedicated analytical help may be able to help with. 

Sector-specific approaches may be needed

Rob Wiblin has commented, while clarifying that this was only his first impression: 

I would guess that a 'longtermist' review of most policy areas isn't going to add all that much. The longtermist take is barely different from the shorttermist one, or we're acting in the area not to maximise wellbeing in the fully long run, so it's the wrong frame to have. So I think I would share Sam's intuition that it'd be better to get the longtermist perspective in the few places it really does make a difference — science and tech, war and peace, some sorts of infrastructure, maybe demographics or something like that. (Oh and climate change & similar.) Then you might have enough good analysts to see what it could really imply. I worry longtermism as a mass idea would turn into something like heritage listing or super conservatism about what already exists which is the reverse of my view. Anyway, inasmuch as there's a few specific technologies that we think are super important to advance at any given moment (e.g. broad spectrum vaccines, ability to align AI with our goals, fake meat, etc) might it be more straightforward just to aim to get them properly funded? [emphasis added]

We agree. We also agree with some supporters of the Bill that maximizing short-term economic growth, as currently measured using metrics such as GDP per capita, is not always optimal for long-term welfare. That is trivially true in matters such as nuclear or other arms proliferation. That is partly a question of definition. If we select a welfare function to value long-term risks at what we consider to be the correct levels, we can optimize for short term growth incorporating that welfare function in a way that appropriately values long-term risks. We think the perceived disagreements between the ‘neoliberal’ and ‘progress studies’ movements on the one hand, and the EA movement on the other, may partly stem from such questions of definition. With more careful definitions of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, we think those disagreements would be considerably reduced.

Moreover we also agree on the critical importance of accelerating the pace of research into improving societal coordination techniques, to improve short and long term policy and governance and reduce long term risks. However we do not think this Bill represents such an improvement. In fact, we think it overall represents a retrograde step, employing a number of approaches that have damaged welfare in previous attempts.

Conceptual goals that are intellectually appealing to EAs – for example, increasing longtermist views and actions by government – may not map well or at all to a single, concrete and tractable goal, no matter how potentially beneficial that goal may be when expressed abstractly. The problem isn’t that this Bill doesn’t give us everything we might want; it’s that we don’t think it even moves in the right direction at all.

We think that there are institutions that can be created or changed to make government more long term, but there may be different things we need to change for different aspects of long-termism. 

For example, the appropriate institutions for AI risk may be very different to those for pandemic risk. Even the EA movement itself has not reached a consensus view on the optimal way to address AI risk. In contrast, there seem to be a number of high-return ways to mitigate future pandemic risk that governments are failing to take with appropriate speed. We therefore suggest that it is useful, when attempting to define goals, to ensure that those goals are carefully defined and that they map to particular tractable areas and theories of change in the real world, given real world constraints, complexities and feedback loops.

Governments have many pathologies, which vary by country. The average UK Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister has insufficient skills in statistics, economics and other social sciences to optimize for any given welfare function. We think that improving those skills is a tractable and high impact cause area. But solving for the relevant political constraints is extremely difficult and, we think, profoundly neglected.

More broadly, we know of no competent and well-resourced institution that is well incentivized and currently focused on designing better systems of government, in either the United States or the United Kingdom. We hope to start a dialogue that will work towards beginning that process.

Ultimately, we think the base rate is that many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have ended in failure or worse. The law of unintended consequences has often applied. Of course, policy improvements are still urgently needed and very good when done carefully. But any approach to improve governance and policy, whether in the short or long term, should start with appropriate epistemic humility. It should only be embarked upon after a careful consideration and discussion of plausible failure modes. We are not aware of a comprehensive analysis having been conducted in respect of the proposed Bill. But we welcome the noble intentions, and we think that there are many other potential approaches with better chances of success.

Potential areas for research

We think that there are many tractable sub-areas where improvements that would improve long-term perspectives within government could be made within ten years. John aims to write further on this topic. Such areas include:

  • Reducing x-risk: Introducing more lines of defence, including a chief risk office and officer reporting to Parliament.
    • We think this may be a tractable area of reform. The COVID-19 pandemic is still salient and the situation in Ukraine highlights another area of risk. A useful first step might be to iteratively seek the views of policy experts, policymakers and politicians on successive revisions of that proposal, then start a small organisation devoted to building the largest possible cross-party coalition of influential supporters behind that change. Building a public list of such supporters would help to show social validation and make it easier to recruit more.
  • Pollution: ensuring that the long-term costs of pollution are properly reflected in what the polluter must pay.
  • Improving the ability of governments to optimize (given the incentives provided by current negative real interest rates) to invest and to enable third parties to invest with a long-term perspective, in subject areas such as x-risk, longevity and infrastructure. That might be done at different levels of abstraction:
    • Change an individual decision (e.g. allow more housing on a single site where it will increase welfare)
    • Change individual policies (e.g. allow more/better housing across the country in locations where it will increase welfare)
    • Change policy frameworks (e.g. improve the planning system through street votes; or allowing direct competition within/by the public sector)
    • Change the means by which policy is set (e.g. rethink the planning system: move to more decentralised processes to allow central government to be more focused)
    • Improve the skills of the policymakers, which can be divided into:
      • Improving the skills of elected politicians (e.g. improve the resources for administrative support staff for each elected politician)
      • Improving the skills of officials (e.g. improve the skills in the planning department)
    • Improve the incentives, tools and powers of the policymakers (make career progression in the civil service depend on systemic improvement in the policy area) 
    • Improve the appointments and replacement process for policymakers (improve how civil servants and/or politicians are recruited, selected and retained)
    • Improve the way of setting that process (have a body setting policy on improving the skills of politicians and improving the hiring/promotion/incentives/firing process for civil servants)
    • Increase contestability of who makes decisions in a way such that competition can drive better optimized decisions.
    • And so on, to higher levels of abstraction
  • Investing in meta-research on how to address coordination and collective action problems in policy and governance. The EA movement has minimal knowledge of the state of the art in institutional economics, policy analysis and related fields. That suggests to us that more resources invested in this area might result in considerable useful progress. This appears to us to be a tractable, neglected and high impact area of research. It has potential synergies with the work on sector regulation because that work can provide test beds for different theories of change. Particular aspects of that may include:
    • Achieving a broad consensus behind goal definition, which has its own challenges given different priorities for different species within the EA movement;
    • Optimal policy design to achieve goals, if and when they can be precisely defined. Modern theory in institutional economics illustrates that it is possible to achieve a winning electoral coalition for a specific goal chosen from a surprisingly large set, if that goal can be coupled with arbitrarily chosen orthogonal priorities to help to build that coalition.
    • Optimal movement building to build a winning coalition behind those policies
    • Creating institutions to reverse Olsonian and other reasons for decline and drift in quality of policy and governance.
    • Optimal fundraising to provide resources for movement building.

Pandemics, AI and other global catastrophic risks can all be seen as coordination problems. Almost no-one wishes to suffer such catastrophes if they can avoid it. These coordination problems are generally examples of deadweight losses.

Homo sapiens evolved in small groups and with a short expected lifespan. It is not surprising that we have not improved our societal coordination techniques fast enough to keep pace with the increasingly rapid pace of technological change over the last few millennia. However, we strongly believe that can be changed. It is possible to innovate in societal techniques to improve coordination problems. The resources devoted to that question have hitherto been tiny compared to the enormous potential welfare benefits. But they should be carefully directed to achieve a good return on the resources invested. We would welcome views from others, including on potential areas for research and policy priorities for longtermists.

How EA is the Bill?

In the course of writing this article we came across a range of opinions about how EA-affiliated the Bill was. At one extreme, many non-involved people we spoke to seem to be under the impression that this was an ‘EA Bill’ - counterfactually caused by EAs, and warranting a significant epistemic update on the credibility of the movement (if policy was your expertise). On the other hand, many more involved EAs have downplayed the direct contributions and indicated they shared many of our concerns. It seems possible that EAs drafted, or strongly influenced, the initial version, and since then have had more limited impact but have publicly supported / avoided publicly criticizing the Bill, in a way that creates an unfortunate ambiguity. 

Establishing moral credit is not our main concern here, but hopefully we can help demonstrate to onlookers that the EA movement is not quite so enamored with making more quangos as it might have appeared.

Conclusion

While policy change to reduce the neglect of future generations seems very desirable to us, we do not think this Bill is a good way to go about it. The guiding philosophy behind the Bill seems to be that if we mandate the government to do something we will end up with that thing, rather than a mere symbolic representation of that thing. There is little institutional design to keep the mandated bureaucracy on-target to achieve longtermist goals; in contrast it does seem likely to contribute to the vetocracy that makes effective action so difficult in modern democracies. Additionally, the Bill risks reputational damage for the EA movement, due to the perhaps inaccurate impression some onlookers have that this is an ‘EA bill’.

Acknowledgements

We are most grateful to Sam Dumitriu, AlasdairGives, Jonathon Kitson, Seb Krier, Pedro Serodio, Haydn Belfield, Sam Hilton, Nathaniel Bechhofer, Angus Mercer and Sophie Dannreuther for their kind comments on earlier drafts of this. All errors are our own.


 

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TL;DR

Lots of good critical points in this post. However I would want readers to note that:

  • None of the criticisms in the post really pertain to the core elements of the bill. The theory of change for the bill is: government doesn’t make long term plans > tell government to make long term plans (i.e. set a long term vision and track progress towards it) > then government will make long term plans. This approach has had research and thought put into it.
  • This draft of the bill makes much more sense when you see it as a campaigning tool, a showcase of ideas. This is a private members bill (PMB). PMBs are primarily campaigning techniques to build support and spark debate. It will not be passed through parliament (in its current form).

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Thank you for posting. (And thank you for sharing a draft of your post with me before posting so I could start drafting this reply).

I have been the main person from the EA community working on the bill campaign. I have never been in the driving seat for the bill but I have had some influence over it.

I agree with many of the points raised. At a high level I agree for example that there is no "compelling evidence" that this bill work work as planned. Society has not worked out how to fix short-termism in policy making. I do however think this is an important enough issue that we should try to address it with a Future Generations Bill (similar to this one). I think statements in this post like "if the Bill were passed as currently drafted, it could significantly damage short and long term welfare" are unjustified by the text and overstated given the degree of evidence.

Overall I think there seems to be some confusion in this post about what the bill is doing and trying to achieve (acting as a rallying point) and what it is not doing (being passed in Parliament). So I will briefly run though an explanation of the bill and then respond to specific points made by the post above before drawing a conclusion.

 

 

AN EXPLANATION

1. THE GOOD: What is the Future Generations Bill doing?

The theory of change for the bill is:

A: The UK government doesn’t make a long-term plan. Some bits of government have long-term (~10year) plans (NHS, Foreign Policy) but many do not, and certainly there is no single coherent long-term UK strategy document.

B: Long term planning has some key features, in particular:
• Setting coherent long term goals
• Setting intermediate objectives that if achieved move us towards the long term goal
• Working towards those objectives/goals
• Tracking progress towards that objectives/goals 

C: Some politically neutral oversight / input is extremely helpful to long-term planning in government. This view is based on senior policy experts' views of cases where long term planning appears to have gone well in the UK, all of which appear to have this feature (the IPA, the CCC, the NCSC, the BoE, etc).

 +

D: Put in place legislation that requires the government to do long term planning: 
• The government to set a high level long-term goal (“wellbeing goals”). A advisory public consultation (“national conversation”) would be best policy making practice for this.
• Each department to set intermediate goals (“wellbeing objectives”).
• Tracking progress towards the goals and objectives.
• Some form of non-political oversight.

E: A government that is better at planning for the long-term

This is the core of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill.

I don’t think anyone knows with any certainty how to fix political short termism . Integrating these core ideas into government policy making (maybe with a bill) represents perhaps my best guess at how to get a government to work long term (without radical change). Evidence from the Welsh bill is mixed but there is some evidence that the bill there is having a positive effect on creating a long-term thinking culture among policy makers.

Research into this can be seen in the "Past research" section here, the report here, the forum post here and eventually the  upcoming inquiry mentioned here. Note that none of the critiques in this post really seem to be against these core ideas. (So, hopefully we are all roughly on the same page with this bit.) 

So then, what is all the other stuff in the bill, why the challenges with this draft?

 

2. THE BAD: So what about all the other bits of the bill about surveying school children or involving the courts and what about the length or the vagueness of the bill?

The current draft of the bill is a campaign tool. It will not become law. The Bill has been laid in Parliament as a House of Lords Private Members Bill (PMB).

The bill was not written by trained legal drafters. In government, when I worked on drafting a statutory instrument, it took about 6 months and involved multiple lawyers and a range of technical experts. Meanwhile any Parliamentarian can lay legislation in Parliament for debate – but they don’t get the lawyers or technical experts (maybe an hour or two of time from Table Office). The Bill was mostly drafted by the campaign staff of Lord Bird. To get this drafted they took the Welsh Bill as a template and then added and subtracted from that, often by looking at other bills and seeing what could be copied over. (In fact I found at least one typo in the earlier version that was laid in parliament.) 

This draft of the bill will not become UK law. Most PMBs go nowhere and are never heard of. As far as I know no house of Lords private members bill passes through the House of Commons to become law except where they can pass completely unopposed without debate (e.g. 2019 on FGM and 2015 on the House of Lords expulsion rules). That seems extremely unlikely for this bill.

This draft of the bill is a shopping list of ideas. This bill is primarily a campaigning tool to spark debate and build support for an idea. And so a strategic decision was made by Lords Bird’s team to, rather than have a nice short bill, INCLUDE ALL THE IDEAS: legal powers, prevention targets, consulting school children, rules on companies (not in the current draft), etc. Now in my view this makes a bill worse, but also more popular. Worse: for example it does (in my view) not need independent oversight from a new Parliamentary Committee AND a new Commissioner AND 2 existing arm’s length bodies AND the public (via the courts)!! More popular: politicians (even those on the right) want to support a bill with their ideas in it, even if it has some other ideas in it, so more ideas → more supporters.

 

Given the above I think the drafting of the bill deserves to be given some slack. Personally this is not be the approach I would have taken (I mean I am an EA policy nerd who prefers a short tightly drafted pieces of work I can 100% stand by), but I am not sure that this was the wrong tactic to have taken. It does open up the bill to criticisms on much of the fluff – but at the same time it seems to have worked to build support from a lot of MPs across political parties. 

 

[Edit added for clarity: I don’t think the bill is net bad and yet support it anyway as a campaign device. I think the bill could be better drafted but is still a net good (the benefits outweigh costs)]

 

3. THE BEAUTIFUL: Is it doing good or not? 

Most private members' bills fade into obscurity this one has not. There have been over 266 media pieces, with a global reach of 92 million. There has been support from 70+ MPs and 40+ Peers. A Conservative MP is taking forward the Bill in the House of Commons. 

There has been interest from local authorities and devolved administrations. These places are where innovative policy change ideas should happen and be tested. There have been commitments for a Future Generations policy from the Mayor of Yorkshire and the Scottish Government.

It is unclear how much the bill has been useful for the APPG for Future Generations, but it has helped a bit in growing supporters and the APPG has led to change in ways that people on this Forum would be excited about such as the government committing to improve its approach to managing extreme risks (link).

So definitely not a perfect bill but beautiful in its own way.



 

RESPONSES TO SPECIFIC POINTS

The bill is not perfect but there was often a strategic reason for the Bill being drafted as it is. I also think John and Larks tend to overstate/exaggerate how bad the problems are without providing supporting evidence. I respond to a few points below.

 

superficial analysis

Mostly disagree. There has been significant analysis see here, here, and here. More would still be good. 

 

Without any plausible theory of change

Disagree. There is a very clear theory of change described above. I admit this had not been written publicly prior to now. (I offered to write this up for the authors prior to them posting this article.)

 

Existential risk neglect.

Disagree. This was deliberate. My biggest impact on the draft was to add in this section on risks. At the time of drafting I consulted with staff at CSER who advised the bill should use “global risks” rather than “existential risks”. I believe they felt it was better to avoid the “existential risks” brand in this bill.

 

[Should push for] CLTR suggestions for three lines of defence

Strongly agree. (Note I might be bias as I am the author of that section of the CLTR paper.)

 

Vague language ...

should write laws to try to guard against future actors’ attempts to creatively interpret them

Weakly disagree. Vague language is a tool that legislators sometimes deliberately use to achieve goals. It has pros and cons. It can increase uncertainty but is used to create legislation that can be adaptive to changing future needs. For example see the GAAR and maybe the ideas here in this white paper.

If this bill is to be an experiment then it needs to be able to be adaptable, to give powers to future Ministers to develop the specifics (And ideally set a date for review and evaluation, which it does not do, which is a genuine problem with it!). Given this context it is not clear that the vagueness of the wording is bad.  Also note that a good way to mitigate any negative consequences of vagueness is by requiring a government body to issue further guidance, as is done in this draft bill.

I see no evidence to believe that vagueness will lead to an increased risk of "blocking things that were not intended to be blocked, or requiring things that were not intended to be required" in this context.

 

For example, consider the ‘sustainable development’ duty the Bill introduces on public bodies:

Neutral. I agree this definition is clearly hard to work with. However for context this definition of “sustainable development” was chosen because it is commonly used (it is the definition introduced by the UN in 1987 and widely used since then) which has the advantage of people already being familiar with it.
 

problem is that the Bill makes the judiciary the ultimate arbiter of the duties proposed

Agree. I would remove this from the Bill if it was solely up to me.

 

Hurts infrastructure investment

Weekly agree. As I mention above the current draft of the bill has 5 mechanisms for oversight and I expect this shopping list approach is too much and could lead to vetocracy.

On the other hand this bill could also SUPPORT more new infrastructure. The bill should facilitate long-term thinking, it the core elements of the bill are in part modelled on things that have lead to more infrastructure in the past (the IPA and the NIC). If the government’s stated long-term goals includes environmental protection (and national identity) over infrastructure (as with the Welsh example) then the bill should lead to that and if the government’s stated long-term goals include more infrastructure then the bill should help facilitate that. The bill makes no attempt to comment on what long-term goals should be in place, only to provide a framework to achieving them.

 

 Red tape / makes procurement worse

Neutral. This is a risk but a very small one. Readers of the bill will note that for most red tape policies the drafters also included a line in the bill saying the policy was optional. For example for impact assessments (the only bit that affects procurement) departments can just not do them and say why they are not doing the. Yes this seems odd at first glance (why even include them) but it makes sense if you see the bill as a campaign tool to spark debate on a long list of policy ideas. 

 

Regulatory capture

Disagree. This part of the critique seems tangential to the whole point of the bill. The bill does not exist to stop political pressures on policy or ensure a fully equal society, etc, ect. The bill makes no attempt to comment on what long-term goals should be in place, only to provide a framework to achieving them.

 

Missed opportunity for bipartisanship

Slightly agree. The bill does have fairly strong bi-partisan support but I do think more could have been done to engage the libertarian right. I do think this is harder than expected. The bill team engaged with a lot of right wing politicians including getting feedback some very senior ex-politicians. There is still a tendency for people to want to add their ideas rather than take out ideas. Also honestly they don’t say what you might naïvely expect, for example one of the ideas that did not go in following consultation with politicians on the political right was actually an idea Larks and John mention: about having the consultation involve more focus groups to get  public opinions on trade-offs. (That the government does not back the bill is expect for a PMB).

 

Makes EAs looks bad

This is an odd critique. The bill is not EA led so I am not sure it should reflect on the EA community. In fact the idea for the Welsh bill predates the EA community. There has been one tweet critical of EA and linking EA and the bill (and to me that one Tweet did not look like it was made it good faith, it was rude, assumed incompetence, and contained no good arguments against the bill, of which there are plenty. Can add details if wanted).

 

[Edit added: supporters have exaggerated the size and fervour of support]

[Edit added: I think this would be bad but I know of no-one doing this and don’t know what this refers to.]

 

Risk of an echo chamber

Disagree. There was broad consultation across UK political and policy groups, including some EA organisations.  It is not clear that a post on the EA forum by me would have had much effect or that the drafting team (in Lord Bird's office) could have been persuaded to post on this forum. Also such engagement might just have increased the chance of the bill being associated with EA by critiques.

 

Sector-specific approaches may be needed

Agree. I like this bit. In fact it aligns with the current approach to the bill campaign that the secretariat to the APPG for Future Generations is taking, as of August last year. See here.

 

Ultimately, we think the base rate is that many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have ended in failure or worse. [Edited, was misquoted]We think the base rate is that most efforts to improve governance have ended in failure or worse

Disagree. This is an interesting claim I would like to see evidence for. If you think that the UK government today works better than it did 10 or 50 or 100 years ago then it seems false that most attempts to improve things do more harm than good.

 

 

 

OVERALL

I  agree with some of the criticisms made in this post, but think many others are overstated. I thank the authors for their interest and feedback. Ultimately we do not know how to fix political short-termism but integrating something along the lines of the core elements of this bill into UK policy making seems like a reasonable thing to try. This specific drafting of this bill is not perfect – but to say it is so bad that it will cause significant harm is an overstatement given the evidence available. Either way this exact draft will not pass parliament but it has already sparked debate and successfully engaged politicians across both sides of the political spectrum. Overall I support this bill.

I am open to more feedback discussion and debate.

Many thanks for the thoughtful and constructive response. I agree with many of your comments.

(First, I note that our published text does not include the sentence you quoted:

We think the base rate is that most efforts to improve governance have ended in failure or worse

Instead it says this:

Ultimately, we think the base rate is that many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have ended in failure or worse. 

We agreed with your comments on that and amended accordingly before publishing. Thank you again for giving them.)

Responding to your two main points in reverse order:

This draft of the bill makes much more sense when you see it as a campaigning tool, a showcase of ideas. This is a private members bill (PMB). PMBs are primarily campaigning techniques to build support and spark debate. It will not be passed through parliament (in its current form).

1. We did not intend to criticize the Bill as a campaigning device. We intended to express doubts that it should be enacted, and it seems there is more consensus on that than we thought. We expressly said that we never meant to criticize anyone's actions. And we agree with you about the minimal likelihood of this particular Bill being enacted, although that does not prevent it being the basis of a subsequent bill, so it still matters what the Bill contains and whether those provisions should become law.

2. However, even as a campaigning device, it would be helpful to know what elements of the Bill have won support. Has it built more support for workable and beneficial measures, or for a range of populist measures that will be harmful? We do not have the data to judge but given the weight of the latter in the draft, I am concerned.

If the counterfactual to this Bill is no Bill, I think my view (with considerably lower confidence than on the enactment question) is that no Bill may on balance have been better, insofar as it may create or reinforce unhelpful Schelling points for damaging ideas. That relates to my doubts about the substantive theory of change:

None of the criticisms in the post really pertain to the core elements of the bill. The theory of change for the bill is: government doesn’t make long term plans > tell government to make long term plans (i.e. set a long term vision and track progress towards it) > then government will make long term plans. This approach has had research and thought put into it. 

Again, let me stress that I highly welcome the ends and I am keen to discuss more about how to achieve them. My sole concern is with this particular theory of change.

1. If we are looking at the Bill as legislation then what the ‘core elements of the bill’ are could have different meanings. In this regard we prefer to look at likely outcomes rather than intentions. There are many other elements of the Bill that we think would likely make the Bill net damaging to welfare if enacted as law.

2. I strongly support long term planning by the Government, so long as it is done with nearly enough epistemic humility. It is not true that the Government doesn't make long term plans. There are many sectors where the Government does make or has made long term plans. At present, they are often extraordinarily badly designed.

a. For example, since the 1930s the Government has planned in one way or another to try to push against economic gravity (agglomeration effects) to drive jobs away from higher productivity areas of the country, at enormous costs to welfare. I wrote a casual summary of some such attempts here

b. The planning system in general attempts to forecast ‘need’ and various other metrics in at least the medium term, and in the cases of some infrastructure for the long term. Those forecasts are often circular, not least because the population movements will partly depend upon the amount of housing and other infrastructure that gets built.

c. The negative effects caused by the bad design of the current planning system have, I estimate, probably damaged welfare per head by at least 10%, while increasing pollution and inequality, among many other problems, as my co-authors and I wrote about here.

d. The Government makes long term plans for infrastructure, of which HS2 is one of the largest examples. While I strongly support building infrastructure in general, I have profound concerns about whether HS2 itself is the best use of the many scores of billions of pounds that will be spent on it.

e. The Government makes long term plans for defence. But I have seen private estimates that the UK’s defence capabilities if attacked are vastly less strong than is assumed by the Government.

f. In relation to the specific institutions you name in the excerpt you quote, I agree IPA may have helped (although we need to do better: infrastructure planning in the UK in general is still worse than many other European countries). But the BoE has for decades provided banks with a range of implicit subsidies. As a result, the banks have eye-watering degrees of leverage and are still profoundly unstable, risky and rent-laden. The BoE has not ensured any plausible plans to resolve major banks in the event of a financial crisis to avoid the necessity of yet another bailout to prevent the collapse of the financial system. 

Insofar as the institutions you mention have been helpful, it is worth noting that they are sector-specific. I think there is substantial risk that any general, non-sector-specific Government long-term plans may end up having effects as disastrous as those of the Barlow Report.

So in general I think the Government as currently made up seems (a) lacking in epistemic humility, (b) not good at picking tractable areas in which to make long term plans, and (c) frequently incapable of competently executing on them. 

Therefore I think that getting the Government as currently formed to select and act on long term plans, unless the subjects of those long term plans are very carefully guided, could be highly damaging to the welfare of future generations, at least if we look at the long term plans that it has previously created and executed upon that have had the most economic impact over the last 50 years.

So I think there is considerable risk that wellbeing goals set through public consultation will be unattainable or even outright damaging. Goals set by UK governments often seem to be pure responses to short-term electoral or populist incentives and frequently are not even as rational as that.

Response to specific points

I agree that the analysis done in advance of the Bill has been thoughtful and I welcome it. However I think we need to go much deeper to get any confidence about likely outcomes. Mushtaq Khan might be a good place to start in analysing what would be workable given existing UK institutions, and I think his papers illustrate the depth of analysis that it would be useful to have. I welcome your interest in sector-specific approaches and I think there is scope for an enormous amount of progress here. 

Conclusion

I would welcome trials of this approach, despite many historically disastrous attempts at long term planning by the UK Government, but the proposals for long term planning in this Bill seem to be a proposal for implementation rather than a trial. I would prefer a trial to be conducted on some selective basis so that we can measure the counterfactual. We could try selecting different sectors, or we could try imposing such requirements on a random selection of mayors, for example. We might also do more in depth study of the many disastrous attempts at long-term planning that the UK Government has previously undertaken, and attempt to build in legislative safeguards against as many of those cases as possible before seeking implementation.  But, as I said above, I think a sectoral approach to getting more long-term perspectives and actions in government may be much more productive.

Again, I think you for all your work on this and for the constructive feedback, and I am pleased that we agree on many goals. I hope we can continue this discussion and would welcome collaboration.

Hi John, Thank you for the healthy debate. I am finding it very interesting.

I just want to pick up on one point that is perhaps an important crux where I think my views are quite different from yours. You say:

 

I think that getting the Government as currently formed to select and act on long term plans, unless the subjects of those long term plans are very carefully guided, could be highly damaging

You seem to be saying that the bill would encourage government to do more long-term decision making but government decision making about the future is just so terrible that we should not encourage it to happen (at least any time soon, at least in any general way).

Insofar as there is a problem of political short-termism (which I think there is considerable evidence for) this line of reasoning seems to suggest that we should not fix that problem (at least for now, in any general sense). I don’t buy this. I tend to apply a very high standard of evidence to arguments against fixing a problem and/or in favour of making systems worse in some way. (As a thought experiment if the government regularly made long-term plans and had a clear way to do it, would you want to stop that happening?)

Furthermore, your evidence for this claim is not strong – it appears primarily to rest on a list of anecdotal stories of failures in long-term planning stretching back over 50 years. But this appears one-sided. I can rattle of an equally long list of times when I think long-term planning has gone or is going well (in reducing regulation, in financial stability, in cyber security, in energy, in nuclear decommissioning, in forestry, in climate, in flood defence, in sewers, etc, etc). There is certainly no universal rule that government long-term planning has to go badly. I also think we should recognise that the significant development of government capability in some long term planning tools over recent years in government such as the impressive Futures Toolkit or the cross-Whitehall heads of horizon scanning project (I think these also serve as examples of non-sector specific approaches).

This is perhaps an important crux. It seems to me that in addition to your (often valid) criticisms of the drafting and some of the fluff in the bill you also have a belief that the bill should not be doing what the bill sets out to do – to generally make government more long-term! I am not sure how to resolve this disagreement. Like I said, I apply a high standard of evidence to such claims that we should not fix problems. But keen to hear your views.

I work on government legislation in the civil service and can confirm that private member's bills wouldn't have any access to the Office for Parliamentary Counsel (government specialist lawyers) unless government supports the private member's bill, which is rare. Private member's bills are primarily used as campaigning tools for demonstrating political support for a particular idea and getting it debated in Parliament.

Really excellent comment - could be its own post, arguably.

I can sympathise with both parties here but I think the EA Comms part of this bill could have been better. It seems consistent with both sides to have done some comms saying "this is a first draft, it is a rallying point, it has some EA involvement but is not an EA bill". I think saying that on Twitter for instance, would have avoided a lot of blowback.

Thanks to weeatquince for their work on the bill and the authors of this article for their response.

Hi Larks and John, Thanks for sharing this with me ahead of posting. 

Five notes for readers.

1.

First, this Bill isn't an EA Bill. This is recognised a bit in the post, but I really want to underline it. Its led by Lord John Bird and his office, and supported by Today for Tomorrow.  It mostly builds on the Welsh Commissioner for Future Generations. None or them are 'EA'. There are about 3-4 supporters that could plausibly be labelled EA, out of ~100 institutional supporters.

2.

Second, on the merits of the Bill - to add a little to Sam's excellent overview. Some useful further readings:

3.

Third, I think the Bill is mainly about 'broad longtermism' https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/ben-todd-on-varieties-of-longtermism/

I think the most important parts of the bill are about longtermist representation, rather than big welfare-affecting policies. For example, the parliamentary committee on future generations, an independent commissioner, the responsibility on ministers, the NAO/OBR oversight, the longer Risk Register timeframe, the "set some longterm goals"/impact assessments - everything seems designed to just nudge politicians to think more about future generations.

The idea, I presume, is that all that procedural nudging (without being specific about substance, which should be left to current elected politicians) will prompt more long-term thinking and move away from our incredible shorttermism (eg see some of the stuff Cummings has written about how incredibly shortterm our political culture is).

4.

Fourth, the authors note "Some supporters seem to think most of the chance for this or a similar bill being passed rests on a future Labour government, but this may not happen for many years"

I presume this is just based on me (as I said in comments on the draft). However, that's not my view. I think both parties could (and should) support it - its being led in the Commons by a Conservative. I don't think it shold be coded as Labour, and if I tweeted stuff that may have given that impression, I regret that. I do think there's a slightly higher chance of it being passed by a Labour govt, but mainly because of the Welsh link - most Welsh MPs are Labour.

5.

Fifth and finally, I find it helpful to return to the Bill’s overview, as laid out by Lord John Bird in the explanatory notes. I think there's a lot in here for our community to like. Let's debate this large selection of options, identify the strongest options, and work together to implement them.

“1. The first part of this Bill establishes a set of national wellbeing goals, formulated by the Secretary of State and confirmed via a public consultation. It places a duty on public bodies and government departments to set objectives in line with these goals, whilst demonstrating certain ‘ways of working’; these are a consideration for the long-term, prevention, planning for risk, collaboration, integration and involvement. Decisions are to be accompanied by future generations impact assessments to ensure longer-term unintended consequences on national wellbeing are mitigated.

2. The second part of this Bill focuses on improving planning and spending within Government. The Bill establishes a futures and forecasting report which assesses the risks and trends, for at least the forthcoming 25 years, and lays out detailed plans on mitigating these risks; the Bill makes provision that when doing so, the views of various relevant groups must be accounted for, including the UK and UN Climate Change Committees and the views of 11-25 year olds on wellbeing. This is to improve the United Kingdom’s preparedness for existential risk. Currently, the Cabinet Office’s National Risk Register only accounts for two years into the future. The Bill also requires departments to categorise their spending into preventative tiers to encourage public bodies to think about investing more money in the short-term to make savings in the long-term, encouraging a pivot towards prevention rather than immediate relief.

3. To improve transparency and accountability within Government, the Bill allocates powers to the head of the National Audit Office to conduct examinations on public bodies in order to assess whether a body has acted in accordance with its wellbeing duties. The Bill extends the Office for Budget Responsibility’s responsibilities to examine the extent to which progress is being made towards the national indicators and subsequent milestones. This, combined with the futures and forecasting report, is used to produce advice to the Treasury to ensure long-term fiscal risks are mitigated. A Joint Select Committee on Future Generations is also established by the Bill to ensure any relevant incoming legislation can be reviewed and amendments suggested. The Bill makes provision for there to be a minister in each Government department in charge of safeguarding future generations’ interests. Their role is to promote the wellbeing goals when formulating policy and, through observing how the Bill is applied within departments, they can also feed back into how the national indicators should be adapted (after consulting with the Joint Committee and the Commission). A Future Generations Commission is to be established, consisting of an expert from each country of the United Kingdom and a young person from each devolved country to improve understanding of the future generations principle amongst public bodies and the public.”

Thank you Haydn! These are very constructive comments.

To respond briefly:

3. I am not primarily focused on what the Bill's intentions are, but on the overall likely outcomes from its presentation and enactment. In our view there is a substantial chance that the Bill as currently drafted would overall damage welfare if passed in its current form. We agree the chance of that happening is almost zero, but there may be future Bills. I have a weaker view on the effect of the Bill as a campaigning tool but I still have substantial concerns given the presence of a number of potentially harmful but potentially popular provisions in it. 

4. I too prefer for a non-partisan approach. However we think there is negligible chance of this Government supporting it – I understand the Government has indicated it does not support the Bill – and only a small chance of a future Conservative government supporting it. I think the Bill would need to be drastically revised to give it a good chance of support by a Conservative government.

5. As we said, I agree that something in the direction of the ‘three lines of defence’ approach to risks could be very helpful, and that it would be very helpful to work on future sector-specific approaches in other sectors and better forecasting and risk identification in general.

Just briefly on (4) - Govts of all parties oppose all PMBs as a matter of course, especially ones from the Lords. Very few actually become law (see eg here). This pattern is less due to the specifics of any particular Bill, and more about govt control of the parliamentary timetable, and govts' ability to claim credit for legislation. One's options if one comes top of the PMB ballot is to 1) try and get the Govt to support it or 2) use it as a campaigning device (or I guess 3 try both).

I'm not so sure that the ideas in this Bill couldn't get picked up by Conservatives - its introduced in the Commons by a Conservative MP, the well-being goals seem like the levelling up goals, extending the Risk Register is just sensible, NAO & OBR were both introduced by Conservative governments, etc. You'll know the Conservatives better than me though - I liked your suggestions in the second half about ideas that might be more amenable.

Thank you Haydn. I agree about the base rate for PMBs. They can get attention from the Government –in particular as I think you know this one was designed by us to be acceptable to the Government, and the Secretary of State said that it was ‘cracking’ and that he was keen to ‘steal all of the ideas in it’. https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3047

So I recognize that general campaigning is also a valid use of PMBs in general.

As you know I’m very keen to work collaboratively on possible approaches to getting more longtermist perspectives in government.

Hi, me again with another comment.

I have for the first time read Holden's post on "vetocracy" last night which you link to. I thought it was very good.

He basically says that empowerment of any actors will to some degree increase the risk of vetocracy. If you give a voice to a disadvantaged actor it will provide an extra channel for that actor to input and maybe even stop changes in the world. Holden is pretty clear that he thinks this is worth it – that looking over history to date  empowering of people who have been left out of decision making is overall a good thing, even given vetocracy etc. I have not personally dug into his historical analysis but this seems plausible to me. He suggests that instead of not empowering people we should instead focus on making sure we "mitigate these challenges via well-designed processes". 

I think this is a nice framing for future generations work. It highlights how any and every action to give a voice to future generations will inevitably create some red tape, some possibility of blocking new projects, some vetocracy. This is unavoidable. But the benefits should outweigh the costs.

So the question should not be does this specific attempt to empower future generations cause some red tape, some vetocracy, etc. It should be have the specific process been designed to minimise those burdens.  For this I give this specific draft of the Future Generations bill maybe a 3 ½ star out of 5 (★★★✮☆). It has regular 5 year reviewing of the long term goals and more regular reviewing of medium term objectives, it has optionality over much of the red tape, it allows for guidance to be set and changed as and when needed without legislation, it has at least some focus on ways of working, etc – all of which should help. That said it has perhaps too many and too strong oversight bodies and lacks a requirement for a formal review, etc.

– – – 

Ultimately, if this view is correct it means that there is likely some price to pay. And the people who will pay that price are those of us who are campaigning tirelessly against the negative impacts of vetocracy (such as John) and the people they are trying to help (often a nations' poorest).

My views are still in line with Holden's that empowerment is good, especially where we try to do so with good processes that minimise the costs. I think in many of these case the costs to society today might be very small (more long-term thinking could help infrastructure even in the medium term, <10years). Given the evidence I have seen as to costs I don’t think EAs should give up on broad longtermist endeavours to push for a focus on future generations, or stop trying to try to shape a world and broadly design systems that work for the long-term. But I do think people working on broad longtermsim (including msyelf) could do more to recognise the costs, that John and others may end up paying. I am also keen to hear more about John's experiences and am open to more research and more mapping out of the costs and benefits and work looking specifically at the pros and cons for empowerment of future generations.

Thank you, I think that’s very constructive.

Where I would slightly disagree is that I don’t agree that every mechanism to give future generations’ interests more of a voice need necessarily result in more costs or red tape for any change. It may be possible to construct mechanisms that give them more of a voice for positive change. (The analogy here would be street votes.) We could see the “three lines of defence” proposals as an example of that. I think it would be good to see if we can find more of those mechanisms.

Good point. To clarify I think when I say "give future generations a voice" I was thinking of empowerment – general mechanisms that would allow someone to speak for the future, some sort or representation or consideration across the board (not just specific polices). I think broad empowerment is valuable and we should not give up on any and all general approaches to empowering future generations (e.g. WoFGB) in order to only focus on sector specific policies. (I get the impression you think otherwise.)

 

(Also to clarify, given how ridiculously short term our politics is when is, when I say empower future generations I would include within that the future views of current generations.)

I have an open mind on that. I think it’s an empirical question and it depends partly on how it is done. I could envisage many circumstances where a mechanism allowing someone purportedly to speak for future generations could in fact harm those future generations.

Keen to chat and see what we can come up with between us. At this point I think I have thought about it enough that I would be surprised if we could develop ideas better than the core ideas of the bill – but keen to try.

I think it is likely that even if you and I can't come up with improvements (although I suspect we can), a broader number of people getting involved could improve on the core ideas – looking forward to working on it together!

This article was very clear and provided a good criticism, but I was disappointed by its conclusion. It sounds like you're not content with this Bill so instead you think EAs should focus on researching how they could improve the Civil Service and politics. That's an area which already receives a lot of research attention, so I was hoping you'd focus on something more novel.

"Ultimately, we think the base rate is that many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have ended in failure or worse."

"Many" seems to be doing a lot of work in this paragraph. Do you mean to say that more than half of legislative attempts to improve policy have had neutral or negative value overall?

Thank you for the thoughtful response! I agree with you. It's certainly not my view that EAs should focus solely on researching how they could improve the Civil Service and politics. I agree that there are many other legislative, fiscal and other ideas that could be pursued to make government analysis more long term and better. We do point to the ‘three layers’ proposal against x-risk as potentially promising (and indeed the step in that direction is one of the best parts of the Bill in my view, although I think it needs to be improved). We agree that substantial resources should be focused on investigating new lines of approach. I'm afraid we don't have developed suggestions on what those should be, sorry – and as we say the answers may have to be highly sector-specific – but one of our hopes is that this will encourage more attention on that.

‘Many’ was carefully chosen not to imply more than half - perhaps very substantially less, depending on the metric. I started this analysis by assuming a base rate of less than half, but then updated my view based on granular analysis of the proposed Bill language and what we have been able to learn about the theory of change.

‘Many’ was carefully chosen not to imply more than half - perhaps very substantially less, depending on the metric. I started this analysis by assuming a base rate of less than half, but then updated my view based on granular analysis of the proposed Bill language and what we have been able to learn about the theory of change.

Then it seems to me that it would have been just as accurate to say: 'many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have succeeded' and conclude the opposite.

Thank you for your comment. I agree we could have said ‘many efforts to improve policy in the last 50 years have succeeded’. However, given our substantive analysis of the Bill, I think we would have ended up with the same concerns about its potential outcomes. In view of the impression that some people who do not work in policy or government seem to have that attempts to improve policy generally or always move things in the intended direction, we thought it helpful to highlight the risk of unintended consequences. The alternative formulation would not have made that point as clearly.

Thanks for this! Great points. One thing:

We think that there are many tractable sub-areas where improvements that would improve long-term perspectives within government could be made within ten years. John aims to write further on this topic. Such areas include: Reducing x-risk: Introducing more lines of defence, including a chief risk office and officer reporting to Parliament [the other recommendations in the linked report are: eight new government risk ownership units and an independent national extreme risk institute].

I haven't yet read beyond the linked report's summary, so I could easily be missing things. But don't many of your criticisms of the Future Generations Bill also apply to most of these proposals? In particular, institutions aimed at broadly addressing extreme risks seem vulnerable to vague language and regulatory capture / goal drift, while failing to be sector-specific (which I thought were your strongest/core criticisms of the bill). (The extreme risks proposals are probably a little less vulnerable to these weaknesses than the bill's proposals, since the former are somewhat more specific, but not by that much.)

Thank you very much for your response! I agree that there is a risk of capture and drift with any institution. I also agree with your point that the difference with institutions specifically mandated to deal with extreme risks is that those risks and metrics can be more precisely defined. As we say, I don't think those lines of defence proposals are complete. It may also be possible, for example, to have external prediction markets or other external validation such as paid forecasters or ‘red teams’ to monitor their performance.  I suspect we could perhaps define large buckets of risk with enough accuracy to allow that sort of external monitoring. 

It's much harder to envisage how that could be done for a much more general goal, and indeed the Bill does not attempt to do that in advance – but sadly I don't have much confidence that its suggested process for selecting such goals would make it easy to create external institutions to accurately monitor performance. 

Makes sense, precisely defining the risks does seem like it would help a lot.

How would external validators help (if relevant officials, voters, and legislators aren't very concerned with these issues)? Is the idea that external validators would be useful after raising broader concerns?

It's an excellent question. Yes, I think we agree. In general I think sunlight can be a great disinfectant. If external validators' views were published then it would be easier to create pressure to improve the organisation that is doing bad work. We could also look at creating incentives for the organisation and individuals within the organisation to achieve better results as measured against the views of external validators.

For those like me who don't know what a quango is, here's a Wikipedia link:

The term quango or QUANGO (less often QuANGO or QANGO) is a description of an organisation to which a government has devolved power, but which is still partly controlled and/or financed by government bodies.

It is very unclear what Quangos have to do with the rest of this whole post and why they get a random mention in the "make EA look bad" section. Looking into it it appears that someone on twitter criticised this WoFG bill and also EA on the grounds that this bill includes a Quango. 

 

Now, I am not sure that anyone denies that Quangos can be useful tools. The authors (Larks and James) do not at any point make a case against Quangos or say they cannot be a useful in the correct circumstance. In fact they make a case for more Quangos (with the three lines of defence suggestion). 

However I do think some people believe they are overused in policy design so put a high credence on polices asks contain a Quango on being poorly thought out. So if such a person saw a policy proposal that they were already sceptical of and noticed it contained a Quango and you didn’t have any time to look into the details you might update negatively on that policy idea.

 

I think this is basically what has happened. I think our Twitter author took a circular line of reasoning and went from: I have a high prior that EAs are bad at policy, to look an EA policy idea with a Qunago therefore EAs must be very bad at policy. It does not for a moment the possibility that EAs supporting a bill that includes a Quango was a carefully considered policy decision given the weight of available evidence.

I am not sure there is much more to the anti-Quango criticism than that. But I think this person is friends with John so interested to see if John has another take on what has gone on here.

I can’t speak for the Twitter author you mention but I think our comment about quangos was primarily intended to add a minor element of humour to lighten a very long piece. I apologize if that was a poor choice on our part. Quangos were extensively joked about in the old UK television series and book Yes Minister.

My personal view about the quango (the Commission) suggested in the Bill is that without substantial revision it risks doing net damage. I certainly agree that some forms of quango may be useful, although I think it is often difficult to design them to ensure that the benefits exceed the costs. It would be great if the next quango proposed generates much greater consensus that the proposal is likely to be net beneficial.

Note quango isn't an official term. UK government recognises 4 different types of groups:

  • Non ministerial departments 
  • Agencies and other public bodies 
  • High profile groups 
  • Public corporations  

Some examples:

  • National Audit Office 
  • Office of Budget Reponsibility
  • Climate Change Committee 
  • Independent Commission for Aid Impact 
  • National Infrastructure Commission 
  • Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure

Sorry! Thank you very much for the explanation.

I made a "vote on comments" app for the Future Generations Bill.

Can you write comments that most people agree with? It only takes a minute.

https://pol.is/5cafmyhtrx

This is the app that Audrey Tang talked about on the 80,000 Hours podcast

Wait, what? This is awesome. 

In the comment above, Nathan Young has linked his Polis app.

To explain mechanically what seems to be going on in that page:

  1. The website asks a bunch of questions and gets responses from people.
  2. The answer to these questions creates a set of preferences for each person (their positive or negative reactions to each question).
  3. It takes each person's preferences, and compares this to other people, using some measure of "distance" (e.g. counting fraction of agreement or disagreement).
  4. It then uses the distances to arrange people's preferences onto a 2d grid (embeds the preferences onto a low dimensional space)
  5. It then groups the preferences on the grid ("clusters"), like, by drawing circles around them.

This sounds complicated if your not a nerd, but it's not, really! See footnotes[1][2][3]!

 

There's very important details/subtleties/extensions here: 

  • This relies on "high quality" questions that "interrogate and cover the space of opinions" "correctly".
  • Even with perfect questions, small, subtle changes in the embedding algorithm or clustering will get very results. The envelope for different results could be further, dramatically larger if you can tweak the questions or their presentation.

In short, what you see isn't necessarily "Truth" or even truth-seeking, and the groupings may not be "real".

  1. ^

    For the underlying methods, this isn't hard to achieve. To calibrate, I think this is an example of unsupervised learning, and could come out of a CS200 class project. If you can code basic Python or start in "data science", you could do this! Gates are open, come in! 

  2. ^
  3. ^

    The second and third notebook is a good introduction to clustering and uses k-means. But some find k-means a little too basic. Polis seems to be using density methods like HDBSCAN.

    The embedding might be UMAP or TSNE. My guess is that the clustering is probably trivial, but there might be some subtle issues related to the embedding.

So why do this? 

Here's the actual results. 

So for one, you can see groups of people and opinions. So you can now see "different camps" and "count opinions". 

This could be valuable and hard to achieve. In much social media, voting doesn't take advantage of granular, individual preferences, so it's hard to unravel deep opinions between groups, say on LW or the EA forum.

 

But counting camps is just the beginning, and probably isn't the most valuable thing from this approach. 

For one, under certain conditions, this granularity allows you to understand deep differences in opinions. This can improve communication and understanding in ways not available right now. 

To see this, look at what actually happened on the page. 

There's two groups. For Group A:

  • The broad overview is that group A wants to see broader involvement of longtermism and ideas, in a public process.
  • However, Group A does not support the Bill, though I guess they have sentiment for something in this direction.
  • There's also oddball questions that group A reacted to. You should be skeptical about the signal to noise of information from these questions, but the implication might be that group A has positive views on the role/size/value of government.

 

For the other group, Group B:

  • Group B has different preferences and do not want to involve government, not in a broad way that has the government highly engaged or powerful in longtermism or vice versa. One explanation *might* be that it distrusts government entry or control on the issues (presumably related to dysfunction, misuse, capture, drift, and dilution).
  • However, much of Group B also has "different preferences about x-risk". This suggests other interpretations about their views. There's a bit of mischief here, but this isn't that important.

Here is the full report: https://pol.is/report/r8ef5zucaxxvtzkiym69b

Also Charles, let's have a call some time! https://calendly.com/nathanpmyoung/omni (anyone who reads this far is also welcome)

Again, the groups might not be real. It's unclear what the groups represent. This might be a flaw that is endemic to this approach, or it could be fixed in some way.

There's more: 

  • Instead of naively embedding preferences and creating the groups, you can "take actions that encourage grouping along an existing structure or ontology". If done correctly, the consequent content might be more useful and even more truthful.
  • I think this system like most approaches, requires high quality interpretation. One implication is that this probably puts pressure on or cuts out a niche for "punditry". This can be good or bad.
  • All voting in some sense flattens complex issues into a simple, literally one dimensional axis. Because it builds on voting, Polis can't completely escape this issue, but tries to alleviate them by interrogating the space with more questions. Doing this runs into other issues, e.g. curse of dimensionality. I think this is why question design and UX choices are deceptively important.
  • Implementation involves other sensitivities/issues (e.g.  flavors of panopticon a la Bentham, Foucault or something). It will be interesting to talk to some informed people about this.

I think they are really useful and would recommend the forum had some kind of Polis functionality. 

Thank you Nathan - this is extremely interesting. 

Thanks for this excellent write up and later exchanges in the comments. It was very educational for me. A quick thought, written on my phone.

It strikes me that a common failure mode in EA and elsewhere is to assume transparency of reasoning/causality; to wrongly assume that others will understand what you are trying to do and why. A solution to that issue might be to recommend that proponents of (significant) new initiatives should generally share a (short) theory of change, similar to Sam's, in advance or alongside their idea. I think that Michael Aird made a similar argument, but for organisations only, I think.

I'll add that while I like this idea, it might be too demanding. It could be excessively cost to innovation and speed (e.g., people might not do good things because they don't want the hassle of having to post and debate the theory of change).