[1]& move to the East Coast instead
 

TLDR: The Bay Area isn’t a great place to centre the EA community in the US. The East coast, between Boston and Washington DC[2], is a much better place because of the number of top universities, its proximity and accessibility to other EA-dense spots, its importance with respect to biosecurity and US policy, and how much money and time it would save the EA community overall.

  • Views are my own and not those of my employer.
  • Epistemic status: 70 sure %?

Based on a comment I made on a different post.

Intro: 

Whilst institutions and individuals who are already based in the Bay may be best placed there, especially those whose focal area is AI safety, those creating new programs, new organisations, and new events should seriously consider instead choosing an East Coast city as their homebase. The current paradigm was not established intentionally or strategically and there are strong reasons to pause, reevaluate, and shift forthcoming resources and institutions to other locations.

My Claim: 
The American EA community should be centred around the East Coast[3] [4]

0. Context: 

The EA community, broadly speaking, has two hubs - the Bay Area (which has Constellation, Lightcone, a number of EA org headquarters, and multiple all-EA living facilities)  and Oxford (which has Trajan House, Whytham Abbey, and ). 
According to the 2020 EA survey, 52.3% of the EA community live in the US and UK, so this makes sense. 
Furthermore, the Bay Area was the most EA-populated ‘city’, with 100 (of 1163) respondents living there. 
However Oxford only had ~50 respondents living there, compared to London, which was the second most populated city with ~80 respondents.

How these hubs came into existence was largely not strategic in terms of EA community-building in a global sense: Oxford is a hub because that is where the philosophers who formalised EA were living at the time, and subsequently where a large proportion of of EAs were found early on in the movement’s history. The Bay is where some American EAs were when they learned about EA, and became a gathering point which then got more attractive as EAs started focusing on AI, as the Bay is a global hotbed for AI research.

So, here are my 5 reasons (in decreasing strength) that support my claim:

 1. The East Coast is better for University outreach 

EA community builders have historically thought (and continue to think) that universities are the best place to do EA outreach. Furthermore, we’d argue that extremely prestigious, highly ranked universities are especially good places to do this.

I think it is very likely that moving to the East Coast is likely to be much more impactful for anyone interested in on-the-ground EA and longtermist community building which focuses on top-universities. Here is Juan’s cerebral case for Cambridge, Massachusetts being important. Here is a table with top 100 ranking universities at undergraduate level in the Bay compared to the east coast:

  Global University Ranking (undergrad only) 
 University Name US News '22QS '23THE '22Mean 
The East Coast has[5]:
 Harvard 1523rd
MIT 2153rd
Yale1218913th
Princeton1616713th
Columbia6221113th
Johns Hopkins9241315th
Cornell22202221st
NYU30392632nd
Boston University 651086278th 
Brown112636480th
Whereas the West Coast has: 
 Stanford 3343rd
UC Berkeley 427813th


 

 


There are too many different specialties to do a subject-by-subject comparison between the two cities when it comes to graduate programs, so I will also just present “overall global graduate program rankings” and “US law school” rankings.

  US Law school ranking 
 University Name Ranking 
The East Coast has:
 Harvard 4
MIT NA
Yale1
PrincetonNA
Columbia4
Johns HopkinsNA
Cornell12
NYU7
Boston University 17
BrownNA
Whereas the West Coast has: 
 Stanford 2
UC Berkeley 9


 


2. There are more cause areas centred on the East Coast than in the Bay


The most common response that I’ve heard to my argument is that the Bay area needs to remain a centre of EA work because AI is an (maybe the most) important cause area, and the most cutting edge and important AI research happens in the Bay[6]. I think the reason is true, but the conclusion is not. What follows from that reasoning is that: 

  • the part of the EA community focusing on AI should be centred in the Bay,
  • but the parts of the EA community focusing on Biosecurity should centre in Boston and/or Baltimore[7],
  • those focusing on US policy should centre in DC[8],[9]
  • animal welfare seems to already have a significant footprint in NYC and NYU seems primed to become the centre of digital sentience research in the US,
  • and those interested in community building would probably be better off following the rest of the cause area folks to the east coast too, which is the most densely populated part of the US, and as mentioned above, has orders of magnitude more college and grad students[10].

3. (almost) Everything is closer

There are three points here:

3. 1 International travel 

The East Coast is a much more centrally located, and therefore more accessible global hub than the Bay Area. Eastern Standard time is an easier time zone to coordinate with the UK, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East than Pacific standard time is. Here is a table comparing how easy it is to fly[11] from various cities with sizable EA communities, or global air travel hubs, to NYC compared to SFO.

Destination New York City (JFK)San Francisco (SFO)
NYC/SFO 5.75 Hours (direct)5.75 Hours (direct) 
London8 Hours (direct) 11 Hours (direct)
Nassau 3.5 (direct)8+ hours (connecting)
Boston 1.5 hours (direct)5.75 Hours (direct)
Washington DC 1.3 hours (direct)5.75 Hours (direct) 
Dubai 14 hours (direct)16 hours (direct) 
Sydney20+ hours (connecting)13.6 hours (direct)
Paris 8.2 hour (direct) 11.5 hours (direct)
Singapore18.2 hours (direct) 15.2 hours (direct) 

 

3.2 Domestic Travel 

The cities on the East Coast are close together. This means that travelling from hub city to hub city will be quicker and cheaper than it is now.

3.3 Local Travel 

The East Coast has comparatively superior public transport within cities, and both trains and planes travelling between them. I would not be surprised if the average EA currently living in the Bay saved upwards of $400 per month on transport as a result of moving to Boston, NYC, or DC if they were using the quickest mode of transport between destinations locally.

4. It will save the EA community money

  • The Bay area has a higher cost of living than Boston or Washington DC , whilst NYC is more expensive to live in[12].
  • Shorter flights are cheaper than longer flights
  • Public Transportation being quicker than driving saves money on Uber fares
  • Cities being denser or less geographically spread-out means less time and money spent travelling to shops, restaurants, and meetings.
  • California has higher tax rates than Massachusetts or DC, but lower than New York.
  • Another reason I have less evidence for, but think is still worth listing here, is: 
    Many (if not most) EAs living in the Bay are doing remote work. As a community based on resource-effectiveness, I don’t think the possible benefit of local network effect for remote workers is likely to be outweighed by living in one of the most expensive places on earth, when you could be doing the same remote work, in a similarly large EA community, whilst spending less money on the same lifestyle[13].

5. Optics 

Many recent critiques of EA from outside the EA community have heavily leant on the ‘vibe’ that EA is a crazy, elitist, dystopian pet-project of a bunch of silicon valley billionaires.[14] I think this narrative has been aided by most of EA’s most publicly-visible/influential people being found in just a handful of places, one of which - the Bay - has a reputation amongst the American public and media for being extremely out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and heading down a road of failed left-leaning ideological policy.

EA would be aided by hedging its reputation amongst a greater number of respected cities and institutions - in the same way that EA’s credibility has been bolstered by its association with Oxford University, it would also gain from being part of the house-hold colloquium in a greater number of metropolitan areas with influence over political and popular culture, such as Boston, NYC, DC, London, and a greater number of major cities outside of the US and the UK. De-centralizing the EA community away from the Bay area is the first step in this global diffusion.


Acknowledgements: 

Thanks to Rocky Schwarts, Juan Gil, Trevor Levin, and Justis from the Forum Feedback service for their feedback.

  1. ^

     Nope, not a “Bae” joke in sight. I’m a mature adult

  2. ^

    No offence intended, Philadelphians 

  3. ^

    I’m not a nominative determinist but, I mean, EA is even in the name - the EAst coast? come on. 

  4. ^

    and at least in the short term (from 2022 until 2030?)  that it should be the Centre of EA in general. In the long term, it probably makes sense for somewhere like the UAE to be the global centre of EA. I don’t know if I want to defend this claim super vigorously at the moment though.

  5. ^

     And in the tier just below these, there are Tufts, Northeastern, Darthmouth, Georgetown

  6. ^

    This can probably be summarised at “network effects” 

  7. ^

     But nobody really wants to live in Baltimore if they have a choice

  8. ^

    Or even in Boston, given Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School’s influence on the US government. 

  9. ^

    For more reasons to move to DC, here is a recent post. 

  10. ^

    The decision for US cities to specialise in particular cause areas vs. all cities taking a big-tent approach is a strategic decision the community as a whole has failed to actively/explicitly make to date.

  11. ^

     According to google

  12. ^
  13. ^

    Of course this might mean that actually the best place to do remote work might then be somewhere super cheap in Florida or Maine, but I think in order to achieve the balance of EA-attractiveness and less-expensive-than-the-Bay-ness, the East coast makes sense.

  14. ^

    For a critique from inside the EA community, I keep coming back to this post for some reason

82

New Comment
24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:28 AM

I don't think using "optics" as a reason to shift away from the Bay is great. Many of the critiques you seem to be gesturing at would still ham away at EA regardless (potentially because it's an easy narrative to pick on or because it's easy to associate the movement's funding with Silicon Valley). 


I also think using the association between EA and Oxford Uni seems counterintuitive to me; people seem to often associate Oxford with "elitism".

I also think using the association between EA and Oxford Uni seems counterintuitive to me; people seem to often associate Oxford with "elitism".

Agree with this, and this could be further hurt by focusing too much on the areas with more elite universities on the East Coast (of course I am in favor of recruiting from them to a large extent, but shifting the community is a different question). Right now I think the Silicon Valley and Oxford hubs balance each other out well on this dimension.

One aspect of Silicon Valley culture I really like relative to East Coast is that people care very little whether you went to Harvard or dropped out of high school, and they don’t care at all that I prefer to wear t-shirts and shorts every day because it’s much more comfortable for me. To a larger extent than other places, I feel like Silicon Valley culture judges me on what I actually get done.

they don’t care at all that I prefer to wear t-shirts and shorts every day because it’s much more comfortable for me.

Coming from a culture that places no emphasis on work attire whatsoever, I agree this is important :)

fwiw, this is super important to me too (I wear whatever I want, which is hardly ever remotely "professional") and I've never felt out of place or judged when at a Boston EA, Harvard EA, or EA NYC event

Great to hear! I haven't interacted much with the EA communities on the east coast, I was mainly speaking about my experience with the culture overall (e.g., interning at non-EA companies near DC vs. in the Bay Area)

I think it's more that there's a lot of criticism that's really about Silicone Valley culture, and if EA is less centered there, less of that culture will seep in.

As your fellow Cantabrigian I have some sympathies for this  argument. But I'm confused about some parts of it and disagree with others:

  • "EA hub should be on the east coast" is one kind of claim. "People starting new EA projects, orgs, and events should do so on the east coast" is a different one. They'd be giving up the very valuable benefits of living near the densest concentrations of other orgs, especially funders. You're right that the reasons for Oxford and the Bay being the two hubs are largely historical rather than practical, but that's the nature of Schelling points; it might have been better to have started in the East Coast (or somewhere temperate, cheap, cosmopolitan, and globally centrally located like Barcelona), but how are we going to all coordinate to move there? The options that come to mind (Open Phil, FTX, CEA, and/or others move there, or coordinate to do so together?) seem very costly — on the order of weeks or months of the entire organization's time.
  • By the commonly held view that AI is by far the most important cause area, it's fine that the Bay is an EA hub despite the tech industry being its only non-Schelling-point reason to be a hub.
  • For better or worse, Berkeley is also a hub for community-building now; tons of student organizers spent this summer there. Again, they go there for the recursive common-knowledge reason that other people will also be going there, so there'd have to be some (costly?) coordinated shift probably driven by a major org.
  • Seems slightly like cheating to count all those universities (or indeed all those cities) as part of the same hub. Oxford and London are way closer than any of Boston, DC, and NYC are to each other. It seems like a place can be a hub if it would be physically easy for any two people living in it to meet every week. Boston, NYC, and DC are not close enough to qualify. Pointing out the cause area networks that each of these cities have, and cumulatively counting them against the Bay "merely" having the AI industry, makes it seem more likely than it is that the entire East Coast could achieve the kind of Schelling status that Berkeley has. (Indeed, notably the Bay Area EA community is overwhelmingly located specifically in Berkeley, supporting the idea that physical proximity is very important.)
  • Generally I really like the East Coast lifestyle (insofar as it differs from the Bay's) and am figuring out how to articulate it. Maybe it's that people are a little more ironic. Maybe it's that having to Uber basically everywhere in the Bay is dystopian. That being said, lots of EAs like the outdoors, and the East Coast is much worse than the Bay Area for hiking etc.
  • One thing that I like about Boston relative to the Bay is the relatively horizontal social/professional structure: it feels like, in the Bay, there's a pretty clear status pyramid and a pretty clear line of who's in the elite circle (access to the top workspaces), while it's looser and chiller in Boston. But it seems like this results from the Bay being a major hub and Boston being less of a hub. E.g., once a certain office space opens in Cambridge, I expect some of these dynamics to reappear, and if Boston became as booming as Berkeley, I think a pyramid would likely start to become more apparent as well. (Sad.)

Hmm yeah, I went East Coast --> Bay and I somewhat miss the irony.

Ah this irony point is interesting! Do you think that this irony is in some way antithetical to the statusy self-importance of west coast culture?

I'm in favor of informing people of the potential strengths of different cities so they can make a better informed decision, but this post reads like trying to convince rather than inform.

In a world where EA takes off (and it already is), there is room for many hubs. I think there needn't be a scarcity mindset about picking the best place. I think EAs should be trying to seed the movement kinda everywhere—lowest-hanging and juiciest fruit first. Live where you want, I say, and let the existing EA architecture be a point to help you determine where that is, but not the only point.

While I'm at it, I think the argument that university density matters for EA culture and organisation positioning is untrue. It matters for research, in which case those researchers can go there... But they already would have, toward the university they want to do the PhD or grad degree at. What actually matters for everyone else is where people want to go once they are out of university.

Most people don't want to graduate and then feel they are trapped in their university town for want of community elsewhere. They want to go live their lives in the city and culture that works for them. I suspect this is why the bay area, DC, NYC, Boston, and London have become hubs. They are just good places to live depending on what type of person you are. But, cities and tastes evolve, so I expect that other up-and-coming cities (Austin TX is one I am working on) will become EA hubs too as EAs just decide to live where they would like to live. Not where to "be EAs" but where to truly live.

I also think the hub problem will probably work itself out if the people in cities who already like EA start doing EA things, where they are already. You don't have to move to a current hub to do good work, or necessarily even the best work you can do. Maybe living in a nonhub and trying to do good work is even a part of your good work in the longterm, because of societal effects.

It's funny because I agree with your premise while also disagreeing. There are definitely other places worth living as an EA than the bay. But you still have a sort of scarcity mindset about hubs, claiming that these established east coast cities are where other cause areas are now centered, and therefore that is where all the EAs should go.

EA is not tiny anymore, and it is okay to stop acting like it and start spreading out.

My take on this:

  1. Some of these arguments are good. I'm biased because I don't like the Bay Area vibe.
  2. It's very bad that the movement is focusing outreach on elite universities. Proximity to them should not be a criterion. We should invest in less elitist communities that can make the movement more diverse.
  3. It'd also be much better if, like you said about reputation, EA also hedges its bets on more hubs than currently exist, and in more countries - particularly in ones that aren't in North America or Western Europe.
  4. I'd also like to challenge the claim that AI people should be centered in the Bay and that most cutting edge and important AI research happens there:
  • It's true that OpenAI and Anthropic are there, but Deepmind is mostly in London and other non-US sites, Google Research is scattered all over, and so is Meta AI.
  • Out of the top 20 universities in AI according to CSRankings (results in the link may change in the future), only one is in the Bay Area - Stanford. In comparison, there are 5 on the East Coast, 7 in China, and one is even my own university here in Israel, which is also a tech hub.
  • It's true that those don't give a picture of AI safety research in academia, but there's not a lot of it anyway. Some at Berkeley (Bay Area) and some at Oxford, with new faculty members appearing in other places now, but not necessarily in the Bay Area.
  1. It's very bad that the movement is focusing outreach on elite universities. Proximity to them should not be a criterion. We should invest in less elitist communities that can make the movement more diverse.

Very bad is a strong statement. Do you mind elaborating on why you think diversity in itself is important, and what kind of diversity you refer to (e.g. diversity of viewpoints, diversity of ethnicity etc.)?  FWIW, Harvard students' ethnic markup differs somewhat from the US population, but not very much so ( once you factor out non residents, the underrepresentation does not seem to exceed a factor of 2.0). 

Nevertheless, it is true that focusing on elite universities is bound to attract students that are in some ways different from the population at large.  However, focusing on them has the benefit on finding ambitious students with comparatively larger chances of impacting the world.

Additionally, elite universities just have a higher proportion of students who are even interested in EA in the first place, so network effects mean that these universities will probably have more fruitful and lively EA student groups. As a local group organizer in Germany, where we do not have elite universities, this difference is palpable. It seems local EA groups in Oxford and London are much more vibrant. 

I'll take a stab at sharing some relevant info at least. Here is a recent forum post on differences in intellect from Ivy to nonIvy tier schools. And my comment discussing incentive structures in American higher education which mean we need to look at both public and private universities.

Hey, I'm sorry to be harsh, but your reasons are not very good. This whole post reads like rationalization.

I say this while also agreeing with your conclusion: I lived in Boston, NYC and DC for a long time, have a bunch of friends in various East Coast EA groups. The East Coast is a great place for effective altruism already :) -- I'm in DC and the DC group is really good (as referenced in https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/9uPMWPZg8mqmcAhhL/selfish-reasons-to-move-to-dc)

The main reason I think the Bay is a bad place is that it has a culture bubble, which causes people to be out of touch with the actual problems in the world. It makes sense for people interfacing with tech and AI to be proximate to Silicon Valley but nothing else.

This whole post reads like rationalization.

Would be good to explain why when you write that.

I see you've been highly upvoted, so I guess I will take a stab at it - but I don't actually know if this comment will be helpful; it seems more likely to distract than edify. (The main thing I'm going to do is argue against bits of the post, saying why I think they're bad reasons; but I don't have any insight into the mindset of the author as they were writing it. I infer that a mind was rationalizing by the output of bad reasons.)

Anyway, here goes.

Reason 1 ("university outreach") is bad because who cares? People doing university outreach can go live near the universities. Universities are an important aspect of the EA recruitment pipeline but seem to have no impact on where people actually go once they have a career.

Reason 2 ("more cause areas on the East Coast") is bad because we don't care about cause area count, we care about the distribution of people working in different cause areas. The first three bullet points (AI, biosecurity, policy) are correct and fine but they don't say anything about the broader EA community. The animal welfare bullet point is too speculative; the community building one is circular reasoning.

Reason 3 ("travel distances") is bad because who cares? Most people don't travel often enough for this to matter. I actually travel a lot myself so it matters to me a little bit, but I can tell that I am rationalizing when I choose to live places based on travel distances and so I am pretty sure author is also.

Reason 4 ("save money") proves too much: if this reason was important then this post should argue that people should move to rural areas, not cities. The difference between cost of living across SF, DC, and NYC is tiny relative to the benefit you would get from moving elsewhere. So this reason cannot be that important.

Reason 5 ("optics") is the most complicated argument relying on too many conjunctive assumptions about the way the movement will be perceived if various things happen.

Cheers, thanks for explaining your reasoning.

Some responses:

1: An important part of the university recruitment pipeline is the ability to easily connect university students with professionals who can serve as their mentors and potentially employers. University outreach will likely be more effective if there is a hub near the university.

2: Can you say more about cause area count vs. distribution? I'm not sure I understand your claim. Re: animal welfare, as the director of EA NYC, I do not think this is speculative and I think it is fairly widely recognized.

3: We often have EAs pass through NYC from other east coast cities and many EAs/EA orgs do east coast tours. Likewise, there have historically been east coast retreats that bring in EAs from multiple cities and that wouldn't be comparably possible on the west coast.

The main reason I think the Bay is a bad place is that it has a culture bubble, which causes people to be out of touch with the actual problems in the world.

Couldn't the same be said of any location in the developed world, which would include any plausible candidate for an EA hub?

To some degree yes. But it's worse in the Bay than anywhere else. Even developing countries also have a culture bubble too, they just have it in the "wrong direction" (e.g., in Africa, too few people think long term and have experience with science, technology, etc).

To me, if we are choosing the best place to avoid culture bubbles, I would choose someplace cosmopolitan: where tons of different people with different views are mashed together in a way where you can easily juxtapose them. NYC, London, Singapore, Toronto, etc.

I'm pretty sure rationality and rationalization read the same though? That's sort of the point of rationalization. The distinction, whether it is sampling the evidence in a biased way, is often outside of the text.

I am a big fan of living in DC and I think EA should absolutely have a bigger presence there -- it should probably be the #2 largest hub.

I am also a fan of diversifying EA in general, starting more spin-off movements (like Progress Studies) and building mini-hubs in more cities.  Furthermore, I'm pessimistic about California's future: I grew up here, but I'm moving away to Colorado later this month because I can't see a good life for myself in the too-expensive Bay Area.

All that said -- if you are a longtermist who thinks that AI risk is the biggest and most pressing X-risk, the case for keeping the primary EA hub in the Bay Area (to influence the top labs which are actually developing AI, and to recruit top tech researchers who can work directly on AI alignment) is totally ironclad IMO, and it's important enough to overcome all the familiar complaints about rent, crime, remoteness, etc.  I and many other EAs do feel like AI is the most important issue by a noticeable degree, so "there are more cause areas centered on the East Coast" is not worth much to me.

tl;dr, I think we should aim to diversify a little, keeping the Bay Area as the primary hub, just not by such an overwhelming margin.

Thanks for writing this, it's nice to see some thinking around US national strategy (something that's been really missing!). 

I think the main question that feels unanswered is: in a world where we agreed with / acted upon this claim, what changes?

It feels to me like Boston/NYC/Washington DC are all on their ways to becoming Hubs, with an uptick of coworking spaces, new organisations being founded, EAG(x)'s being hosted, and growing and more professionalised community building. It sounds the communities there are also thriving. 

The one exception is the "spend the summer in the Bay" meme for longtermists, I'm not sure to what extent people are spending time in the East Coast cities (perhaps you have more insight here?)

Unfortunately, founder effects are all too strong. MIRI was looking to decamp from the Bay to Bellingham, Washington a year or so ago, to save money and encourage people to move to a lower-COL area, but ended up quietly abandoning this because having the established community was just too important.

I do think it'd be good to have a "cheaper" alternative EA city to avoid turning away EAs who have/want kids. Maybe Philadelphia or Chicago would be a good place for a few orgs to coordinate to move to, especially with both cities having top-tier universities?