AMA: Jeremiah Johnson, Director/Founder of the Neoliberal Project

by JeremiahJohnson1 min read28th Sep 202165 comments

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Ask Me AnythingUnited States policy and politicsThink tanks
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Thanks to Aaron Gertler for inviting me to do this AMA.

My name is Jeremiah Johnson, and I'm one of the founders and directors of the Neoliberal Project. The Project is a organization dedicated to advancing liberalism with thousands of members and 70+ chapters around the world. You can find the quick version of what we believe here or here (happy to go into more detail). I help run the Project day to day, host the Neoliberal Podcast, and do basically anything/everything else including social media, political commentary, content creation, managing local chapters, etc.

Aaron was kind enough to invite me here because the EA and neoliberal online communities have a surprising amount of overlap. I've been personally involved in the EA movement in a number of ways.  I created a series of charity drives on the neoliberal subreddit that have in total raised more than 1/3 of a million dollars for EA favorites like DeWorm The World and Against Malaria Foundation. I've interviewed EA-related guests on my podcast like Alvin Roth, (Nobel winning economist who created the algorithms for kidney swaps) Robert Wiblin (of 80000 hours), Rob Mather (CEO of Against Malaria), etc.  I donate a portion of my salary to GiveWell recommended charities every year, and two years ago I donated a kidney to a stranger after some EA-aligned people convinced me that it was a good choice (I had a popular AMA on donating a kidney here, but happy to answer any questions here as well).

Ask Me Anything about:

  • Purely EA topics like
    • Kidney donation - either the policy side or my personal experiences going through the process
    • Raising money for AMF, and why I like malaria bednets so much
  • The intersection between the neoliberal community and the EA community
  • Why I think politics is an underrated way to do good that the EA community sometimes overlooks
  • The Neoliberal Project, neoliberalism, politics or political philosophy, etc.
  • Or anything else that seems relevant or that you're curious about.

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Thanks for the work you do trying to make the world better, for raising awareness of effective causes, for donating money and for donating a kidney.

What, concretely, do you think The Neoliberal Project has accomplished in its existence so far? The 1/3 million and 70+ chapters are cool, but have you seen any traction on policies you care about due to your influence?

This is a complex thing to measure, because the largest thing we're trying to do is to create an ideological movement that captures a lot of people in the long run. I admire the DSA a lot and think they're very much an example of the impact I'd like to have (but obviously with what I think are preferable political views).  I think they have had enormous impact on current US politics.

But if you had asked 10 years ago 'What has the DSA accomplished?', it'd be a tough question to answer.  They had a handful of local politicians, but nobody really notable nationally was an out-and-proud DSA member until Bernie Sanders exploded in popularity. It'd be hard to describe them as having a huge impact on US politics at that time, but since the Sanders Moment they've had a massive impact, both in shifting the overton window of the Democratic Party in a lot of ways and in having very high profile members of Congress. I think a longrun path to success for us likely looks similar, in that we have to build the foundation of what we're working on for years and then hopefully at the correct moment we'll be able to leverage it in a huge way to change politics.

More concretely!  I think we've successfully made 'advocate for sensible monetary policy' the socially accepted elite position.  It's been a signature issue for us for as long as we've existed, and and area few people used to care about. Now both center-right and center-left (and even portions of the further right/left) now advocate for how important Bernanke, Yellen and Powell have been and how important it is to keep them independent and free of partisan politics. Goldbugs are now simply laughed off, and when someone like Elizabeth Warren goes after Jay Powell, the majority of the center-left is jumping to dunk on Warren and defend Powell (who is a fantastic Fed chair and should be reappointed).

That's one where I think I can really pinpoint us as key actors, because it's a niche issue and we were so early on it and so loud about it. A lot of other issues it's very difficult to measure impact - when someone votes the way you want, was it truly because of you?  Who knows? I can also say that a lot of talking with officials is talking them out of dumb ideas, and that's influence that never sees the light of day. There's another part of this that will be frustrating as an answer - there are high level politicians who have directly told us that they love what we're doing and basically agree with us/identify with us, but prefer to keep it silent because they avoid ideological labels. I know that sucks as answer, but it's the truth.

One other concrete thing - we have a small number of members who are elected, almost all at very local levels on local city commissions and things like that.  I think it's fair to count whatever they do as direct influence.

How did you come to choose the name 'neoliberal'? The first Google result for the term 'neoliberalism' gives the following Wikipedia definition: 

"Neoliberalism is contemporarily used to refer to market-oriented reform policies such as "eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers" and reducing, especially through privatization and austerity, state influence in the economy.'

Which seems only partially aligned with your stated beliefs and contradictory to 'a robust social safety net' 

(Edited link formatting)

The idea was to reclaim what was previously a slur and turn it into a positive term, similar to what LGB people did with 'queer' and so on. This essentially began with Southwood and Bowman in 2016, and the Adam Smith Institute more generally. 

While wikipedia is generally very good I wouldn't necessarily rely on it for left-right wing issues due to the aggregate bias of the editors. 

Thanks for the link. I'm not making any claim on wikipedia a being good or bad source of political information - I'm simply noting that it's the first google result, and may be representative of what the majority of people think when they hear the term 'neoliberal'. Certainly up to this point I'd only heard it used as an anti-capitalism slur.

 So I'm interested to hear whether Jeremiah views this is a conscious decision to reclaim the term (as you said), and what to degree his beliefs actually align with the slur-term definition (which is very loosely defined).

The term came from wonkish people who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary being called 'neoliberals' by Bernie Sanders supporters and general leftists.  There was a sense of "If supporting Hillary and being a wonk is being a neoliberal, fine, I'm a neoliberal".

Hey, thanks for doing this. I'm curious about this bullet — "Why I think politics is an underrated way to do good that the EA community sometimes overlooks". What are we underrating? And what policies seem good to push for from an EA perspective, but which few EAs are looking at?

I'm someone who thinks of myself as an EA, but I don't engage at a deep level with the community at all times, so this is my half-insider-half-outsider view of EA. My general sense is that EA famously focuses on a handful of areas - AI, animal welfare, catastrophic risk management, GiveWell-style medical interventions, etc. I very rarely see EAs talking about 'normal politics' as a place to do good, and I think there are some normal politics issues that have deep promise.

One example is advocacy for increased immigration for rich countries.  The evidence seems incredibly strong to me that increased immigration is an enormously  valuable opportunity. Estimates for this kind of drastic change are always a little fuzzy, but fully open borders would have an impact on the scale of doubling world GDP. It's a multi-trillion dollar bill we're passing on the sidewalk and refusing to pick up. Even making a small difference in immigration policy can produce extremely large benefits. And support for immigration is increasing over time, so there's real promise for change.

There are probably some EA-oriented types thinking about this already, but I think it deserves more prominence. It would also make so many other EA favorites (like AI research) a lot easier to coordinate.

What are concrete ways for EAs to support increased immigration in rich countries?

Neoliberalism is successful on Twitter and Reddit. What do you think EA gets wrong about these platforms?

If Eliezer Yudkowsky had spent 30% less time writing the sequences and used that time to shitpost a bunch of solid memes on twitter about the shorter version of the sequences, EA would probably be twice as large as it is now.

This is both a joke and directionally true. Twitter and reddit are community building tools and best at creating memes and viral content. I haven't really thought this through in any detail, but I wonder if the EA/rationalist obsession with deeply analyzing and debating everything makes them bad at memes.

There's a private facebook group you can sign up for that has some pretty solid EA memes . I love it, but I always figured it was private for a reason -- EA is full of lots of counterintuitive philosophical ideas that people find off-putting (like... utilitarianism alone is already off-putting to most normies), and EA seems to be very obsessed with having a good/prestigious reputation as a responsible, serious movement. Our jokes are mostly about how weird EA is, so we might want to keep our jokes to ourselves if we are desperately trying to seem normal to everyone else.

It's certainly an interesting contrast with r/neoliberal, where dank memes somehow coexist side by side with long, earnest "effortposts" in the style of The Economist or D.C. think-tanks.

I think part of the difference is that memes are an underdog strategy -- hence the effectiveness of right-wing memes around 2016 and the idea that "the left can't meme". Jokes have always been used to poke holes in the logic of the ruling ideology, hence the epic legacy of Russian political jokes. Neoliberalism certainly isn't a complete underdog -- center-leftism broadly is arguably still the dominant global ideology. But they still have lots of opportunities to "punch up" at contradictions in the non-neoliberal doctrines of political leaders, major news publications, burdensome laws and regulations, etc.

With EA, it's not clear that there's any ruling ideology for us to try to take down a peg. We could start making fun of ordinary charities like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, but I doubt that would go over well. I think the lack of an external enemy means that most of our memes have to be self-deprecatory (making fun of how weird we are), lest they seem like "punching down" (reveling in how right we are and making fun of ordinary people who don't agree with EA ideas).

But I'm not sure about that theory; hopefully there is some way we can figure out how to harness meme magic. New Cause Area?

Good joke at the end.

Certainly as a part-time neoliberal I'll say neolibs have a much more vibrant meme culture. Though I guess that's because they have a more publicly shitpost-y aesthetic. By r/neoliberal standards almost every post on the EA forum is an "effortpost". 

EA as a community is pretty publicly soberminded. I imagine that turns some poeple off. 

 

Neoliberals tend to talk about issues that many people take an interest in to a greater extent than EAs do. I would guess that that's an important part of the explanation of the Neoliberals' greater success on Twitter.

You might be partially right, but in the early days we were largely memeing about free trade, immigration, and semi-ironic worship of central bankers.  Most of that isn't exactly the hot thing with the youths, but never underestimate the power of memes to make something ironically cool in a subculture.

Hmm, I'm not sure if that's true. People really like animals, people find emerging technology/futurism interesting, and even some of the weirder ideas (eg., philosophy of mind, aliens) are captivating to people (at least when dumbed down somewhat). Contrast these ideas with wonky political ideas like monetary policy or open borders, and I'd guess that EA-issues come out ahead of neoliberal issues on interest. 

Yeah, but they might be shocked that we think of some of "the weirder ideas" as the most pressing. Most people think the economy, civil rights, climate change, etc. are the biggest issues.

I haven't really thought this through in any detail, but I wonder if the EA/rationalist obsession with deeply analyzing and debating everything makes them bad at memes.

This seems really plausible to me. I think I'm above average among EAs at memes. So after releasing a tentative summary of research done by a coworker and I, I thought it'd be really cool to summarize our (very long) post in a few quick memes. But every time I try to do this (and seriously, I've spent ~30 minutes by now across multiple false starts), I get stuck because I worry too much about the memes not conveying the appropriate level of nuance or whatever, plus I worry about seeming too irreverent and accidentally making light of some people's life's work, plus... :/  

What about HPMOR? It seems like a really popular meme (in the broader sense)

I think it's a good proof of concept - have something fun that people enjoy as a gateway drug into the group's more serious ideas. But simpler reddit/twitter content would work even better - their content is astonishingly viral compared to long works of fan-fiction.

my delayed response
  1. if you could change one policy in the American government without having to worry about political blowback what would it be,

    2. is it true boucning seals are neoliberalism and the more they bounce the more neoliberal the world gets.
  1. - open borders. If there was no political blowback it's a multi-trillion dollar idea.  Second would either be some sort of giant green package focused on carbon taxes + huge amounts of green energy R&D funding + international agreements, or some sort of federal control of zoning where I liberalize the hell out of EVERY city's zoning (this is probably impossible constitutionally, but no blowback!)
  2. Go outside Mike :)

What your best argument for using the term neoliberal? I've read the exponents post about it

"There is a trend in politics recently (and in fact since the beginning of time) for old political labels to be rediscovered, reused and redefined. One of these terms, and perhaps the most contentious one, is “Neoliberalism”. The reason for this is because the definition of the term, and the relationship between who identifies with it and who is identified by it, has shifted dramatically over its history." 

While the post clearly explains what your movement of neoliberalism is trying to acheive, it doesn't clarify the name choice. It seems like to say: "politicals terms get reused, so we're going with neoliberal". This doesn't seem like a substantial analysis of the costs and benefits of using the name for your movement. Indeed, it's seems like there might be major reputational risks involved. In my personal experience being loosely affiliated with neoliberalism, it takes a lot of work to explain that: "No, I don't support Margaret Thatcher, Reagan, or union-busting. Sorry, no, we're reinventing it to mean this, that, and the other thing. Forget you previous bad connotations of neoliberalism" More remarkable is that while neoliberalism is attempting to push back against the current wave of leftism , it is truly only on a few issues, and agrees on a lot of the basics. If I had to list a few of these major differences, it would be that (regulated) markets, YIMBYism, and free trade are good. In the grand scheme of things, these are small (but important) differences. 

However the nomenclature choice seems odd, given that the term neoliberalism is the ultimate insult in progressive circles, with an often nebulous definition, but an always evil connotation. I see a certain contrarian satisfaction in trying to reclaim the term and redefine it, but ultimately I do not see what you gain from using the term . However, it does seem clear to me that you make an immediate poor first impression on many of the folks you might be trying to persuade to become part of your movement. 

Personally, I support London's Neoliberal chapter becoming the London New Liberals, and would welcome a broader shift towards New Liberalism or something similar. Of course, there are costs to switching the name now, but  I think it's possible that the benefits would overcome the switching costs.

What's your best response to my argument? What am I missing?

I think it's important to realize that different names serve different purposes at different points in time.

If the initial subreddit had called itself the very sober sounding "/r/NewLiberal" from the beginning, I firmly believe that what we are doing right now would not exist.  The subreddit would never have gotten the attention it got, and would never have grown as fast as it did.  Reclaiming the term neoliberal was delightfully subversive and grabbed people's attention - people who loved it and people who hated it.  Before the Neoliberal Project had even been conceived and we were just a loose collection of social media spaces, we had already been profiled in Vice, Gawker, NPR, and many other places.  We had mainstream media attention because the name was controversial. The attention brought in both supporters and attackers, and the inevitable tribal battles that happened forged a sense of community that attracted people further. We've grown pretty fast, all things considered.

So I think there were very strong reasons to lean heavily into the neoliberalism branding early in our existence. And once you lean heavily into a brand, it's hard to divorce yourself from that brand - path dependency is a thing. A lot of our members identify with the neoliberal brand. I also continue to think there's a benefit to being controversial and iconoclastic.  Think about the DSA's rise in popularity, and how the left has successfully redefined 'socialism' from 'the scary communist USSR with a brutal dictatorship and absolute total state control over every part of the economy' to 'socialism is when free college and healthcare'. (which may be a slight exaggeration of how many GenZ socialists understand themselves, but only a slight one)

With that said! I do think it's likely that as we move further into serious advocacy within the political establishment, we'll move more towards a different branding. We already have the Center for New Liberalism which is essentially just a new wrapper on the same ideas, and is helpful to use in instances when 'neoliberal' might scare people off. Clearly it does restrict some things for us and isn't the best branding in all situations. Right now we're letting our chapters choose whichever name is best for them in their local context. I'm ultimately a pragmatist and am willing to use different names in different contexts.

The Progressive Policy Institute and the Neoliberal Project are one example of an EA-adjacent political movement/organization/project. Can you list some others? Here is my own vague high-level list of some political groups that seem EA-adjacent (I don't know much about individual think-tanks or anything):

  • Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein, co-founders of Vox, have both talked about EA / rationalism in some of their writing, and interviewed on EA / rationalist podcasts. And of course Vox hosts Future Perfect, an explicitly EA column (although the rest of Vox does not strike me as significantly more EA than other center-left publications).

  • The Progress Studies movement is small and more oriented towards history than politics, but it seems to align with Marginal Revolution and the idea of long-term economic growth as a cause area. Charter Cities stuff is kinda connected to this area.

  • Perhaps there is a cluster of "institution design" people (which also has overlap in the cryptocurrency world), including folks such as Vitalik Buterin, Robin Hanson, and Glen Weyl. These type of folks seem very relevant to the important but IMO underdeveloped "improving institutional decisionmaking" wing of the EA movement. EA is also connected to some groups promoting more incremental / shovel-ready institutional tweaks, like approval voting.

  • Naturally lots of individual issues feed into niche political advocacy groups. Climate change and nuclear power, nuclear disarmament, international aid, vegetarian/vegan stuff. Although sometimes in these cases it's more like EA is just choosing the already-existing lobbying group that aligns with their goals, but the lobbying group is just excited about their particular EA-adjacent issue without anybody there having gone through larger philosophy of EA.

  • California tech / venture capital groups, maybe? Peter Thiel is usually cast by the media as some kind of supervillain, but his projects sometimes strike me as feeling distantly EA-adjacent.

  • I feel like after Covid, there ought to be a strong locus of people pushing for various reforms to the CDC and FDA, but I don't know of anything in that space?

Big fan of many of the groups discussed here, and we're often close with the groups you listed. We've had Matt and Ezra on the podcast several times, as well as Dylan Matthews from Future Perfect to discuss kidney donation.  Love the work that Future Perfect does. I've also hosted on the podcast Glen Weyl, Jason Crawford of the Roots of Progress, and Mark Lutter of the Charter Cities Institute.  Much less a fan of Peter Thiel, whose goals are explicitly anti-liberal (and being an ideological liberal I obviously view this as a very bad thing).

I think your answer is a pretty thorough overview of the space, to be honest.  'Rationalists' generally, like the LessWrong and SlateStarCodex crowd, are heavily EA aligned.  But that's a fairly explicit thing. Economics as a field is fairly fertile ground due to the tendency towards cost-benefit analysis, modeling, etc.

Are there any neoliberal policies which you think should be cause areas in strictly EA terms?

Neoliberalism is an explicitly globalist ideology, with heavy emphasis on free international trade, free immigration, and cooperative international institutions.

Of those

  • Free trade is something I see as incredibly beneficial to the world, but also an area where most of the hard work has already been done and the gains from further trade liberalization are small-to-medium sized.  Not necessarily an EA area of focus.
  • Increasing immigration is something I think has enormous potential for EA action (I go into more depth in a different comment chain)
  • Cooperative international institutions are highly aligned with EA goals such as 'preventing large scale war' and 'preventing nuclear explosions' and other such global tail risk scenarios.
  • I also tend to think that advocacy for socially liberal causes in developing countries - women's rights, ethnic minority rights/protections, LGBT rights - is a place where a little bit of political will can go a long way. I'm unsure how to set up a series of value calculations on this, but my instinct is that there's a lot of opportunity in that area.

Which of these do you think advocates should focus more on, on the margin?

Do you wish that EA was different in any way? 

If so, what are some of your top answers?

I wish it was more mainstream!

EA is basically a group of weirdos caring about very weird, abstract things.  I think that's great and we need weird people pursuing weird passion projects, because that's how a lot of important shit has gotten done throughout history. But I also wish there was a more mainstream version of EA.

What I have in mind here is not an EA movement trying to get John Q Donor to give money to things like AI-alignment, or animal welfare studies, or any of the generally very weird and off-putting  stuff that EA often focuses on. I'd like a Main Street Friendly version that instead focused on 'Popular Charity Inc should change to do X instead of Y' or 'Donate to Popular Cause A instead of Popular Cause B', where all of the suggestions are very mainstream and easily understandable (but efficient versions of that mainstream thing).

Most people are going to get turned off by abstract calculations, anything they see as weird,  etc. They just want to do some good and not think too hard about it. Improving how those people donate - not by making them optimal, but by making them moderately better - seems to be an area where lots of good could be done.

To use a food analogy - EAs are very often like people examining tens of thousands of obscure recipes, trying to identify the optimal, perfect dish. Something like beluga caviar over the world's most expensive wagyu cooked by a Michelin chef. Normal people just select a food and cook it and eat it - here's some mac and cheese from a box, yum. Rather than trying to recruit more weirdos in the search for the ultra-perfect dish, there should be more focus on giving normal people tips to improve their mac and cheese.  That would do more to increase the average culinary level of the population (and I'd expect any successful mass appeal strategy to recruit more weirdos than a weirdo-recruiting strategy would anyways).

One thing that I do is try to convince regular people who like to donate to charity to donate some portion (a quarter to a half, depending on how receptive they are) internationally. In the US only about 6% of charitable giving goes overseas, and money donated in the developing world is usually far more impactful. I don't try to lecture them or explain the most optimal thing to do, just nudge them in the right direction. I often use explicitly the same thing they're already doing - if they donate to cancer stuff here, I find an effect cancer charity in a poor country. If they donate to schools here, I find a good place to fund education in the third world. It's an easy win and I have a pretty high success rate with this.

I am not sure about the etiquette of follow up questions in AMAs, but I’ll give it a go:

Why does being mainstream matter? If, for example, s-risk is the highest priority cause to work on, and the work of a few mad scientists is what is needed to solve the problem, why worry about the general public’s perception of EA as a movement, or EA ideas? We can look at growing the movement as growing the number of top performers and game-changers, in their respective industries, who share EA values. Let the rest of us enjoy the benefit of their labor.

My point is that I think you can often a ton of good by NOT focusing on the highest priority cause.

If you constantly talk about killer AI for a year, you might get 2 people to contribute to it. 

If you constantly talk about improving regular people's regular charitable giving for a year, you might influence dozens or hundreds of people to give more efficiently, even if they're still giving to something that isn't the highest priority cause.

Basically - If your goal is to improve restaurant quality, improving  every McDonald's in the US by 10% does more to improve restaurant quality than opening a handful of Michelin star joints.

I'm not massively familiar with neoliberalism or your project but I'm struggling to understand where the specific recommendations/positions come from. To what degree are they derived from a set of clear principles or a philosophy as opposed to being the concensus of leaders in the inside of the movement or some other method?

I feel like EAs are generally strongly 'bought in' on there being a moral obligation to help other people if you can do so easily and it's important to use evidence and reason when working out how to do good but beyond that I see most EA cause areas more like things that some EAs are interested in, I don't think most EAs are strongly compelled by all mainstream cause areas. Would you say that neoliberals are generally strongly bought in at the policy level (e.g. we believe in a carbon tax) or a more fundamental level and do you think that you need to support all of those policies outlined in the first what we believe link to be a neoliberal?

There's definitely a set of principles that underpins our policy beliefs.  A lot of this goes all the way back to classical liberalism - to be a neoliberal means first and foremost that you are a liberal and are grounded in liberal political philosophy.  This means we hold the core liberal values of equality before the law, democratic governance, a market economy, freedoms of press/religion/speech/assembly/etc.

Modern neoliberals take that liberalism and add and emphasize a few things.  Neoliberals are internationalist and globalist, which leads to our support for free trade, free immigration, international institutions, etc.  We are social liberals who fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry. We are capitalists who believe in using a relatively free-market economy to make a richer world, but paired with a welfare state to alleviate poverty and suffering.  And we have an emphasis on evidence-based policy.  All of those are relatively base-level beliefs that inform the policies we support.

What do you think of the policy proposals discussed here and here by two prominent members of the EA community? How much similarity do you find between those and policies typically favored by neoliberals?

Going through the first list

  • Single Payer Healthcare. -Weakly opposed. I prefer a multi-payer system like many, many other rich countries have. I'm usually annoyed when people present single payer as the only way to get everyone affordable healthcare coverage.
  • Build More Housing. Huge yes, neoliberals are pretty explicitly YIMBY. 
  • Legalize Drugs. Yes, but I'm unsure about harder drugs.
  • Jail People Less. Very much yes 
  • Less Military. This is complicated and I'm unsure.
  • Give People Money. In general, fungible cash benefits are better than restricted benefits or in-kind services provided.  The flat tax idea is bad.
  • No Minimum Wage. Opposed. Monopsony power is a thing and "No minimum wage" types typically don't understand actual labor econ very well beyond a ultra simplified econ101 view.
  • Tax Land Value. Yes.
  • Tax Harmful Things. Yes
  • Reduce Other Taxes. The pattern I'm sensing is that this person REALLY likes simplicity but it often seems like just simplicity for simplicity's sake without much real justification.
  • Fund Schools Federally. Probably a good idea
  • Let People In. YES
  • Opt-Out Organ Donation. A decent idea, but the research I'm aware of is that this doesn't actually move organ donation rates all that much.
  • Randomize Everything. 'Everything' is hyperbole, but I think more experimentation is a good thing.

In general I'd say this platform has a great deal in common with a neoliberal platform, but it also falls into a lot of overly simple policies (or more generously one-size-fits-all) that are aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity but ignore hidden depth.  Specifically thinking of 'one tax rate', 'remove all other taxes', zero MW, Single Payer.

Would love to also get your takes on the second list

My understanding is that the Neoliberal Project is a part of the Progressive Policy Institute, a DC think tank (correct me if I'm wrong).

Are you guys trying to lobby for any causes, and if so, what has your experience been on the lobbying front? Are there any lessons you've learned that may be helpful to EAs lobbying for EA causes like pandemic preparedness funding?

Yes, lobbying officials is part of what we do.  We're trying to talk to officials about all the things we care about - taking action on climate change, increasing immigration, etc etc etc. Truthfully I don't have a ton of experience on this front yet - I've been part of the project since its inception in early 2017, but have only been formally employed by PPI for the last 8 months or so. So I'm not a fountain of wisdom on all the best lobbying techniques - this is somewhat beginner level analysis of the DC swamp.

One thing I've noticed is that an ounce of access is worth a pound of attention, which is worth ten pounds of idea.  Access in DC is the real currency, not money.  True high quality access directly to powerful congresspeople or cabinet-level people is phenomenally rare. Access to regular congresspeople, important congressional staffers or mid-level executive branch types is still limited and fought over. Access is golden. The number of hours in a day for any of these decision makers is finite and someone always wants their time.

If you can't get direct access to decision makers, the next best thing is attention (which can lead to access later, if your ideas get traction). There are a lot of small think tanks with very bright people writing quality reports...  that will then go on to be downloaded a grand total of 11 times ever (and maybe 1-2 of those downloads actually got read more than a third of the way through).  Getting important people to pay attention to your work in DC is hard. There are quite a lot of think tanks and non-profits and people writing reports on every imaginable topic under the sun, and you have to stand out somehow.

Our model that we're hoping to lean into as we grow is to take our natural talent for community building and getting online attention and leverage that into attention/access among people who matter in DC (and elsewhere). We have a network of politically active chapters in cities around the country and globe. We have a large, boisterous social media following that we can mobilize. That's a reason for someone to court us, to pay attention and care what we're telling them. I guess maybe that's a piece of advice - if you want a decision maker's attention, if you want access, recognize how that's a limited resource to the decision maker and give them a reason to care beyond just yelling 'My Idea Is Very Good!' like everyone else.

You help lead a social movement a bit like EA.

What broad commentary do you have of EA that you think we might not know?

You need more emojis and memes.

Sounds like a joke, but it's serious. My theory of politics is that basically all politics are identity politics. 'Identity politics' has traditionally been used to mean things like "Black person cares about race issues' or 'Woman cares about women's issues', but I think it goes beyond that. Tribalism is infecting virtually everything we do and every issue we care about, and when you get separated into tribes you develop identities. 'Neoliberal' and 'Socialist' are identities today, there are people who strongly identify as those things, whose sense of self is defined by them to some extent. 'Trump fan' is an identity. 'Coal miner' and 'Gun owner' and 'Anti-racist' and 'Bayesian statistician' and 'Breastfeeding mother' are identities. Every single one of these groups has their inside jokes, their memes, their semi-religious hero figures and iconography, their organizations, their hated outgroup, etc.

One thing that I really believe is that for a movement to grow, there has to be a coherent sense of identity uniting members of the movement. You can get a little ways purely on ideas and convincing people with long explanatory argumentation, but only a little. To grow further you've got to make people want to be part of the organization on a tribal level, to not just agree with you but identify as you. And one of the primary ways to do that is silly memes, insider jokes and symbols you all use together, etc. Group identifiers.

Even Julia Galef, leading rationalist/EA spokesperson, wrote a book about how to be a more rational thinker... and ended up endorsing identity formation. The entire point of The Scout Mindset is to stop letting your identity do your thinking for you, which I agree with... but in the end you can't really  escape the pull of identity unless you start to develop an identity as 'the sort of person who doesn't get sucked  into tribal politics'. Galef calls this 'developing the Scout Mindset', which I would call identifying as a Scout.

So I'm very serious when I say that the lack of an EA emoji identifier to put in your twitter handle is holding you back. I really believe that matters. Neoliberals are globes. The DSA has the red rose. YIMBYs have the Avocado. Urbanists use a crane or a building emoji.  There are specific emojis for crypto fans, Georgists, social democrats, free trade lovers, and even more niche topics. Why not EA?

I guess in many ways, I like neoliberalism for being coherent with EA but it being fine if people hate it. So I can share neoliberal memes and not really mind if they get people's backs up a bit, because we all know that politics is a bit annoying like that.

I think EA has fewer direct competitors and hence it's more risky if people get turned off. Here we have neoliberal EAs, republican EAs, sock EAs. Would that be true if we had a push for EA to be an identity on the same level as neoliberalism?

There sort of is -- I've seen some EAs use the light bulb emoji 💡 on Twitter (I assume this comes from the EA logo) -- but it's not widely used, and it's unclear to me whether it means "identifies as an EA" or "is a practicing EA" (i.e. donates a substantial percentage of their income to EA causes and/or does direct work on those causes).

I'm unsure whether I want there to be an easy way to "identify as EA", since identities do seem to make people worse at thinking clearly. I've thought/written about this (in the context of a neoliberal identity too, as it happens), and my conclusion was basically that a strong EA identity would be okay so long as the centerpiece of the identity continues to be a question ("How can we do the most good?") as opposed to any particular answer. I'm not sure how realistic that is, though.

Loved the post you linked!

I second your hesitation about the upside/downside to "identifying as an EA". But I honestly don't think you can help this sort of thing happening. The most you can do is actively guide the values that are defining your group.  In the early days of the neoliberal subreddit (the earliest large-scale group of modern self-identified neoliberals), one of the slogans we used was 'evidence based policy'. The leaders and prominent members of the subreddit tried to instill 'evidence based policy' as a core value to the members, to offset the dangers of groupthink, to make people be willing to change their minds.  EBP is a complicated subject and it's not like most people are really out there reading research papers. But it's important to at least have people signaling that they are open to changing their minds. Signaling can become reality.

Did you succeed in guiding the values? Did the 'evidence based policy' become part of Neo-liberal internet identity? 

I'm not saying you're wrong but I find such visible identification distasteful.  That's the reason I don't use the lightbulb.

I don't want everyone to know everything about me just by which emojis are in my handle. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

What are your thoughts on Singer's criticism of open borders?

"But given that concerns about immigration have clearly brought about the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the election of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland, I think that the moral imperative is not to have open borders."

I'm not aware of any serious arguments that open borders are bad on a first-order, only that the political backlash is something to worry about.

With that in mind, I'm a pragmatist (and pragmatism is one of our core values). I'll fight for whatever increases in immigration I can get and work within the political reality that we live in. I'm willing to explore what Bryan Caplan calls 'keyhole' solutions that are much less than ideal or unfair in some ways, but better than nothing. 

I also think that the backlash angle can be overstated.  A lot of the backlash is not really about the actual number of immigrants (which people are largely ignorant of - the most opposition comes from the places with the least immigrants), but the perception of chaos. And sometimes you can just power through - Merkel accepted millions of refugees in one of the greatest acts of political courage I've ever seen. It briefly empowered the AfD extremists in Germany, but Merkel just bulled forward and ended up doing fine. She's retiring as one of the most popular and effective German leaders ever. The AfD is now shrinking and the refugees are still there and millions and millions of lives have been drastically improved. I also think that Singer is wrong when he says

"But given that concerns about immigration have clearly brought about the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, and the election of right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland"

This seems like a very simplistic analysis. Immigration likely played a part, but the rise of right-wing nationalism is a global phenomenon with a lot of moving parts. How does immigration explain Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, Modi, etc?

Given all this, I'm going to keep advocating for the immigration increases I can get (which will not be anything close to Open Borders) and continue making the public case for immigration to change public attitudes. Immigration is on a gay-marriage-like trend, and god willing public attitude keeps moving that way

Also, if the backlash is likely to repeal the measure in question but only partially likely then it may be worth the risk. I often read that we should be wary of backlash in case anti immigrant parties get into power, but if that's stopping us pass immigration measures those parties are getting what they want anyway.

Atual cost benefit analysis should happen here but the gains are so large that I am optimistic.

"I often read that we should be wary of backlash in case anti immigrant parties get into power, but if that's stopping us pass immigration measures those parties are getting what they want anyway."


This assumes that the only negative aspect of anti-immigrant parties is their anti-immigrant stance. If they're also worse on other metrics as well, then the logic doesn't necessarily hold.

My response here would be that immigration to the UK has probably bought more benefit than the costs of brexit and US immigration more than the costs of Trump. Even if the causality is clear which I'm not sure it is, I'd bet on those being bet positive anyway.

Thanks for doing the podcast and everything else!

One thing that confuses me about neoliberalism in the 2010s sense is how different it is from neoliberalism in the 1980s sense. Globe Twitter is pro-market, but not really Reaganite or Thatcherite, definitely not when it comes to the conservative parts of those ideologies. I've had friends on the left who say they like the ideas of 21st century neoliberalism but think the name is too misleading or offputting – people read it as something quite different from "progressive cosmopolitanism plus free markets plus generous welfare state". I'm hesitant to use it in front of left audiences for that reason.

So why 'neoliberalism' as a name, given the baggage it has?

Initially the name came from wonkish Hillary Clinton supporters getting called '****ing neoliberals' or other angry denunciations by Bernie Sanders supporters in the 2016 Dem primary. We kind of ran with it - if being a Clinton supporter is being a neoliberal, fine, I'm a neoliberal.

Once the name was there, it attracted attention like a lightning rod and the community grew very fast.  At the beginning nobody was trying to make this into anything, it was just a bunch of people memeing about central bankers, globalism and woke capitalism. There wasn't a conscious decision about how This Is The Name That Will Eventually Win Suburban Moms And Create Our Political Moment, it was just a small community having fun that turned into a much larger community. By that point the name was the name.

Moving forward, we have some soft-rebranding where some of our chapters choose to go by 'New Liberals' instead of Neoliberal. We are moving into using different names in different contexts.

What do you think should be neoliberals' approach to existential risks to humanity? The two x-risks that the EA community focuses on the most are:

  • Advanced artificial intelligence
  • Genetically engineered pandemics

How would you trade off between mitigating x-risks and increasing economic growth?

Another longtermist question: What do you think about Stubborn Attachments?

I'm somewhat of a skeptic on the dangers of AI, so I may not be the best person to address that point. On pandemics, I think it's likely that Gain of Function research should be heavily curtailed - but I don't think that's a core neoliberal value or anything, just my personal opinion.

More broadly, I don't really think of x-risk and economic growth as things that necessarily have to be traded for each other.  I think that in many important ways a more prosperous society has more stability and less x-risk.  One important area to worry about is the possibility of nuclear conflict.  To me it seems pretty clear that the more than every country in the world can become a rich country, the more stable international geopolitics will be and the lower the risk of a catastrophic war will be.

Morally, I think any attempt to slow growth in the name of x-risk had better be really damn sure that the x-risk is truly intolerable, because in practical terms 'trade off for growth' means 'potentially impoverish millions/billions of people'. Purposefully trying to slow economic growth seems to me to be a moral evil in almost all cases, barring some exceptional edge cases, simply because economic growth is so good (and this is especially true in developing countries).

I think Tyler Cowen's general idea that economic growth is extremely important is true and underrated in our political discourse. I'm not always in agreement with the prescriptions that Cowen believes would actually achieve that growth.  There's an exciting revival in the general big-tent-neoliberal world of a 'pro-growth progressive' attitude.  Sometimes you hear this called a 'supply side liberal'. Ezra Klein wrote about this in the NYTimes, but I would also recommend the general works of Sam Hammond at the Niskanen Center, Matt Yglesias and Noah Smith for other versions of this.

Morally, I think any attempt to slow growth in the name of x-risk had better be really damn sure that the x-risk is truly intolerable[...]

I think Tyler Cowen's general idea that economic growth is extremely important is true and underrated

 

To be clear, Tyler Cowen believes that growth is more important than averting x-risk as a logical consequence of believing that human extinction on the timescale of 700 years or so is inevitable (H/T AppliedDivinityStudies, pg.12). 

I often see people citing Tyler Cowen on the moral imperative to do economic growth for our descendants while simultaneously claiming that existential risk is low but nonzero. Of course there's nothing wrong with agreeing with someone on one thing but not another, but in this case I feel like there's a premise missing or something.

What do you think are the top 3-5 things that altruists (donors, activists, etc.) should do to combat the global rise of authoritarianism?

I'm hesitant to act like I know the One True Answer here because while this is a global phenomenon, I think Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, Duterte, Erdogan, Modi, Xi, Putin, Orban, etc etc etc all have their own unique circumstances that makes any kind of general answer impossible. Putin is propelled by unique factors relating to the fall of the USSR and the sense of decline/malaise in Russia.  All American politics is inexorably tied into our race relations. Erdogan's boosted by Turkey's tortured history with 'liberal coups' and its historical dance between Islam and secularism. There's no single thing to address all these guys at once.

I'm honestly unsure that individual action can do much to influence the authoritarian wave. I think there are likely geopolitical solutions, but geopolitics is hard and far more messy and complicated than most casual observers understand.

I suggest you wait for some upvotes on my questions before answering any. I just think writing a lot is a good way to let the community pick the best ones.

Or I could just answer all of them :)