Currently, the EA movement tracks human capital and financial capital, using metrics like “number of engaged EAs” or “amount of money pledged toward EA causes”.  But other forms of capital seem as important, less understood, and less measured. Plausibly, part of the explanation for the neglect is measurability bias (a streetlight effect).

Network capital

Network capital is the existence and strength of links between people in a social network. Links can have different forms; a very basic one is the ability to get another party’s attention and time, or tacit permission to reach out to them. Other types can include trust, degree of ability to model the other party, and so on.

It would be good to think about what kind of network capital the movement is lacking, what kind of capital will be useful in future, but also how do we find the shortest paths through implicit networks not available as data?

In some sense the standard EA focus on broad career capital, recruitment from elite schools,  and elite expertise already builds a lot of network capital. What seems less clear is the ability to effectively use it to do good.

On one occasion, a small group of EAs went through the list of people Dominic Cummings follows on Twitter, and found that we had met or worked with ⅓ of them. 

Example: the EA bet on the civil service. A main effect of EAs entering and climbing the civil service is reducing the rest of EA's distance from power centres. Each EA civil servant is then a network capital multiplier for the rest of us. A counterpoint is that this will tend to reduce the distance from x people to 3 people, but in catastrophes it is far better to go from x to 1. (That is, EA → minister.) 

Structural capital

Structural capital is the ability of the holder to absorb resources (e.g. people or money) and turn them into useful things. It takes various forms:

  • functional and scalable processes, 
  • competent management,
  • suitable legal status and backing,
  • good operations support,
  • well designed spaces,
  • well written code.

On this framing, it may make sense to ask questions like:

  • How much of these forms of capital do we have?
  • How is it distributed?
  • When we are converting between different forms, or substituting one form of capital with another, what are the conversion rates?
  • Are we using the different forms of capital efficiently?

This is a part of series explains my part in the EA response to COVID, my reasons for switching from AI alignment work for a full year, and some new ideas the experience gave me. It was co-written with Gavin Leech. 


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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:23 PM

I love the framing of "structural capital", and would tentatively state that EA as a movement has much less structural capital than I would expect, relative to its amount of financial/human/network capital. In fact, I would argue that EA is bottlenecked on structural capital.

It seems to me like EA has a ton of money, a bunch of really smart people, and the ear of decisionmakers... but has had at best mixed results converting this into effective organizations, good ops, or good code. This is relative to my experience in the Silicon Valley tech scene, which feels like the best point of comparison. (You may draw different conclusions compared to e.g. academia)

One question I would be very interested in: how much of the money & people are being spent acquiring more money & people, vs being converted into structural capital?

Setting up an information markets for these questions here:

Then the follow up question would be: What % of EA money/FTE SHOULD be spent on gaining structural capital?

Fleshing out the argument more:

  • "Structural capital is the ability of the holder to absorb resources (e.g. people or money) and turn them into useful things". What useful things has EA produced (exclusive of fundraising and converting more EAs)? I think e.g. the outcomes around developing world health interventions are really great, but it's not clear to me how much of that is counterfactually attributable to EA; would the Gates foundation or somebody else have picked it up anyways?
  • Competent management: it feels like excellent management and managers are in short supply; there are a lot of people who do direct work (research, community work), but few managers and even fewer execs on the level of "VP or director at top series-A Silicon Valley startup"
  • Well written code: maybe the comparison to SV is especially harsh here, but I've been thinking that EA needs better software (still WIP). Software is an incredibly high-leverage activity, and I'd claim that eg most of the world's productivity gains in the last two decades can be attributed to software; but EA draws from an philosophical/academic tradition and thus wayyy overvalues "blogging" over "coding"

Good post. I would add a notion of idea pervasiveness in the public consciousness. What I mean is how often people think along EA-consistent lines, or make arguments around dinner tables that explicitly or implicitly draw upon EA principles. This will influence how EA-consistent government policy is. Ideas like democracy, impartial justice, and freedom of religion, have strong pervasiveness. You could measure it by surveying people about whether they have heard of EA, and if so, whether they would refer to it in casual conversations, or whether they think it would influence their actions. You could benchmark the responses by asking the same questions about democracy or some other ubiquitous idea.

I like this line of thinking! I'll be entering civil service for my next career move, and being new to the EA community had got me thinking along these lines - I've been asking myself 'how can synergies be created at these intersections?'.

Thank you for posting these great explanations! I realized when explaining EA Angels to someone today that the main benefit of a successful for-profit startup is not always financial capital. After reading this, I think it might be the network and structural capital