HIPR: A new EA-aligned policy newsletter

by arushigupta16 min read11th May 202111 comments

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United States policy and politicsPolicy
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I'm Arushi Gupta, the co-director of Effective Altruism NYC, and I recently started a newsletter called High Impact Policy Review, or HIPR, covering US policy news that I think is high-impact. This includes news about topics like COVID, healthcare, and climate policy, as well as topics of particular concern among effective altruists like foreign aid, farmed animal welfare, and tech policy. It also includes a few job high-impact policy job opportunities.

The goal is to make this newsletter very accessible and useful both to anyone interested in policy (not just EAs) and get people thinking more about what the most impactful, influential policy really is.

High-impact doesn't necessarily mean good - I try to highlight all the policy news (local and federal) that's happened that seems like it will have a large impact, whether that impact is positive or negative. Sometime I don't know what the impact of a decision will be either, and I try to say that.

I've shared the most recent issue (sent out on Friday, May 7th) below - please take a read and subscribe if you'd be interested! New issues go out every two weeks.

It would be helpful to know if people think I should post each issue on the Forum. I know other newsletters, like EA London, do this but I don't want to clutter the Forum with posts every 2 weeks if people think it's too off-topic!

I'd also like to acknowledge that I've had a bunch of help from some members of the EA community who are well-versed in the policy space in getting this off the ground.

Please subscribe and share with anyone who might find this interesting, even if they're not already interested in EA! It's meant for a broad audience of people who find policy important.


HIPR Issue #5: India, HFCs, menthols, and psychedelics

Welcome to the fifth edition of High Impact Policy Review, or HIPR! Sorry this edition is a week late - I was totally knocked out by my second vaccine shot last week, and decided to push this issue by a week. Lots of stuff happened in the past three weeks, so let’s get to it!

Updates

COVID

  • The NIH’s COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) is still recruiting for COVID vaccine human challenge trials (sign-up here). Volunteers over age 70 in particular are needed for US vaccine trials.
  • COVID vaccination rates in the US have fallen to 2.13M per day, down from 3.3M per day three weeks ago. Potential reasons for the drop include the J&J vaccine pause, and less eagerness amongst the remaining population to get vaccinated. Reaching herd immunity is going to require, among other things, making vaccines as easy as possible for people to access (walk-in sites, home-vaccination drives, etc), which the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine makes much easier.
  • Speaking of, the J&J pause was lifted, after 10 days. Much ink has been spilled describing the situation, but I think there were basically no good options here. Polls do seem to show that it hasn’t increased vaccine hesitancy.
  • West Virginia will give $100 savings bonds to people 16 to 35 who get vaccinated. With only 29% of the state fully vaccinated, and higher infection rates amongst younger people, the $100 is an exciting way to potentially incentivize more vaccinations, and seeing how it works out will give other governments ideas on how to increase their vaccination rates (I particularly enjoy the Mexico City strategy of having dancers, musicians and wrestlers perform at vaccine centers).
  • In response to the tragic outbreak of COVID-19 in India, Biden’s team ignored calls for help for several days. Finally, national security adviser Jake Sullivan ended the export ban on raw materials for vaccines. Then, after weeks of pressure, the Biden administration decided to share the dormant AstraZeneca vaccines that had been sitting in a warehouse in Baltimore, with India and the rest of the world. However, it will still take weeks for them to ship due to the issues with the vaccine manufacturing facility we mentioned last week. The allocations of the vaccines to different countries still have not been announced.

    This frankly infuriating situation is a reminder that even though we're seeing lots of shiny new policies and announcements nowadays, basic government competence is still not as high as it could and should be, and it's unclear to me how to fix this.The chain of events that happened here is depressing: the Trump admin first chose to start a vaccine contract with Emergent BioSolutions, a manufacturer with which the government had known quality issues in the past. Then they manufactured 60M doses of a vaccine that they hadn't approved, and let it sit idle while other countries faced vaccine shortages and begged for the doses. THEN the quality issues occurred with the J&J, and they knew that they'd need to do a quality check on the AstraZeneca vaccines, which were produced at the same factory, before they could be used. But they didn't do the check then, instead waiting until a few weeks later when pressure rose enough that they finally had to send out the AstraZeneca vaccines to other countries; but now those countries will have to wait while the FDA takes weeks to complete the quality checks. And India and others will suffer needless excess deaths, which could have been prevented by different decision at any point in this sequence of events.
  • The Biden administration, in a turnaround from previous statements, announced at the WTO that they’re backing a IP patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines. Their statements suggest it will take a long time, if it happens at all. It will require WTO approval and unanimous member consensus, and some European countries, most notably Germany, are stating they will oppose it. Some experts also say this won’t do much on its own to increase vaccine supply.
  • The FDA is planning to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for use in 12-15 year olds next week. While the news is positive, the government faces a difficult decision now as many argue that excess doses of Pfizer and other vaccines should be sent overseas to countries struggling with COVID right now, rather than inoculating teenagers here, given how mild the effects of COVID seem to be for that age group.
  • Pfizer has also asked the FDA for full approval of their vaccine (all COVID-19 vaccines are currently being administered under emergency use authorization). If they get approval in the coming months, it means that Pfizer can directly market the vaccine, it may make vaccine mandates more feasible, and it might calm some vaccine hesitancy.

Climate

  • The two big infrastructure bills are running into roadblocks in negotiations, as Republicans and Democrats argue over the size and other details of the bill. It’s unclear how much bipartisan agreement is needed to actually pass the bills; it’ll largely depend on what strategy Congressional Democrats decide to take (particularly those like Manchin).
  • The EPA is setting the first national limits on HFCs, a super-potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerants (ex. ACs and refrigerators). It has thousands of times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. I’ve been waiting to see policy action on refrigerants since seeing it listed years ago as the #1 climate solution in Drawdown’s analysis (it’s now #4), so this is very welcome news. There are still a huge number of refrigerants already in use that need to be disposed of properly at the end of their life, or they will cause emissions (I could see a national refrigerant collection service potentially being a great investment in future climate legislation) but for now, limiting the use of new HFCs is an important place to start.
  • The Senate voted to reinstate regulations designed to limit methane emissions from new oil and gas fields. It’s expected to pass the House and be approved by Pres. Biden soon.
  • Washington state passed some ambitious climate policy that includes carbon pricing, which is authorized to stay in place until emissions goals are reached. The revenue will go towards climate mitigation and adaptation, including transportation, air quality, and funding for tribal relocation.
  • Secretary Haaland visited the Bears Ears National Monument last month, suggesting the Biden admin may be open to reversing the Trump-era decision to reduce its size by 85% and open significant parts of it up to fossil fuel development and other uses.
  • The “Climate-Related Financial Risk” executive order planned for April 23rd that we discussed last time was never issued.

Foreign Aid

  • The US promised a $300 million boost in aid to Afghanistan. It was promised last year contingent on progress in peace talks with the Taliban (which have since stalled), but is now being released immediately. Senators say the aid will be cut off if the Taliban take power.
  • The White House has announced $310 million in emergency aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, to help refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations, presumably with the intent of abating the “border crisis”. While the aid will help people, it might not have exactly the effect they’re hoping for.
  • The US and China will be re-evaluating their trade deal soon, and potentially making changes to the U.S. tariffs on some $370 billion worth of annual Chinese imports. They will likely also be going head to head at the UN Security Council meeting today on many issues, including human rights accusations and their behavior against Taiwan.
  • In response to the legislation introduced last month, which would condition US aid to Israel on not being used to occupy Palestine, 330 members (including almost all Republicans and half the Democrats) of the House signed a letter late last month insisting that the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the United States provides Israel remain unconditional. Polls show that barely one-third of U.S. voters oppose such conditions.
  • A new report from the USAID inspector general suggests that US aid to Venezuela in 2019 might have been pursued with the goal of removing President Maduro from power, rather than on the basis of what would help struggling Venezuelans most.

Democracy/Voting

  • The 2020 Census results were released and seats in Congress reapportioned. Seven House seats were shifted between states. Most of the seats lost were in Democrat states and seats gained were in Republican states (though the shift was smaller than initially expected). The future impact is still not obvious because the areas within those states growing in population usually lean Democrat, so the shape of the districts will matter. There Republicans have an advantage too as they will control 2.5 times as many congressional redistrictings as Democrats. Many are concerned that COVID-19, as well as Pres. Trump’s meddling, may have led to unusual results this year.
  • The House passed a bill to make DC the nation's 51st state. The path to success looks incredibly slim in the Senate. Even if filibuster reform were to happen and only a simple majority was needed, Sen. Manchin is opposed to the bill, so passage would be almost impossible. Statehood would give more than 700,000 DC residents representation in Congress, which they currently lack, and would make the Republican-skewed Congress (and in particular, the Senate) slightly more balanced.
  • The Judicial Act of 2021, which seeks to expand the Supreme Court from 9 justices to 13, was introduced a few weeks ago. It only requires a simple majority to pass in both houses, but it still seems very unlikely to pass, as Speaker Pelosi has stated she will not bring it to a vote in the House. If passed, it would shift the current 6-3 conservative tilt of the court to a 6-7 slight liberal advantage, with large implications for future rulings of the court.
  • Oregon lawmakers struck a deal to give Republican and Democrat lawmakers equal control over redistricting in the state; previously it was under exclusive control of the majority party (Democrats). This could lead to 2-3 seat swing towards Republicans for House races in 2022. With only a 6 seat margin in the House at the moment, this could seriously change the 2022 House race.

Immigration

  • After extended back and forth over the past few months, the Biden administration finally landed on a refugee admission limit of 62,500, which was the original promise. However, with the pace of admissions already so slow after all this confusion (including 700 flights cancelled for refugees who were expecting to come last month), the White House has stated that they are not on track to actually have that many refugees arrive this fiscal year.

Health

  • The new infrastructure bill proposals include $5B funding for the EPA’s Superfund program, which cleans up toxic waste sites across the country. There are currently 1,327 sites in the backlog, some of which have been waiting for action since the 1980s. The task is becoming more urgent as “60 percent of all Superfund sites are vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, wildfires, and sea level rise”.
  • The FDA is moving to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. They said that "menthol masks unpleasant flavors and harshness of tobacco products, making them easier to start using. Tobacco products with menthol can also be more addictive and harder to quit by enhancing the effects of nicotine." This seems like a good move for public health to me. Some have argued that it will lead to higher criminalization in Black communities, which disproportionately smoke menthols, but given that the ban would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers - not civilians/consumers (the same as current bans on other flavored cigarettes), this seems unlikely to me.

Foreign Policy

  • The U.S. may still be helping Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.  While Pres. Biden announced in February that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” he took months to offer details of the types of involvement there were before, and what exactly ended. US contractors are maintaining the Saudi aircraft used to launch offenses on Yemen, without which they would most likely be losing the war.
  • More military troops and equipment are being sent to Afghanistan to protect the forces that are beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan.
  • Progress is inching forward on the Iran nuclear deal, with a consensus expected by May 22.

Justice Reform

  • California’s bill to decriminalize psychedelics has passed their Senate Public Safety and Health Committees. The bill includes not just natural psychedelics but synthesized ones such as LSD and MDMA. If the bill is signed into law, not only would this be great news for reducing unnecessary criminal punishment, but it would also be fantastic news for mental health, as psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA have been shown to have incredible potential against PTSD and other mental health issues.
  • A memo released during the Trump administration says that inmates who were sent home due to COVID must return to prison. The Justice Department has stated they’re in no rush to rescind the memo, as the COVID-19 emergency declaration is valid through the end of the year, but this delay leaves more than 2,400 people in limbo and unsure of what will happen to them at the end of the year.
  • The Supreme Court is hearing a case which, depending on their decision, might allow people charged with low-level crack cocaine sentences across the country to apply for shorter sentences relief.

Farmed Animal Welfare

  • Although meatpacking companies have argued that they were ordered to keep slaughterhouses open during the pandemic (even as countless workers suffered from COVID-19), the Department of Justice recently disputed this claim, “stating that the federal government ‘in no way mandated that Tyson maintain its production’ last year.”

Tech

Other

  • The PRO Act, which would be the most important labor legislation in decades if passed, has support from 47 Senate Democrats. Organized labor groups continue to put pressure on the remaining 3 holdouts to sign on to the bill.
  • Of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance that Congress allocated in December and March, very little has actually reached any tenants or landlords. With 1 in 7 renters behind on payments, the delays mean more tenants facing potential evictions, and landlords losing their properties (which can lead to further consolidation by large landlords).
  • The expanded and advanced child tax credit that passed in the American Rescue Plan, only lasts for one year. Democrats pressured Biden to make that permanent, but instead he only proposed extending it to 2025. Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced a family care bill that makes the tax credit permanent.

Opportunities

Interested in learning more on how to increase your engagement with high-impact U.S. policy? Check out a list of resources on the HIPR website!

Please email hello@highimpactpolicy.review with any feedback! And feel free to forward any news that you think should be included in the next edition. If this was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here!

Until next time,

Arushi 📋🖋

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:49 PM
New Comment

While this is very detailed, and looks like a good political newsletter, I'm not sure it's a good fit for the forum. The constant newsflow of partisan topics can consume a lot of attention without adding much value, and relatively few of the topics covered here seem like plausible EA topic areas.

I also worry that in your attempt to cover a lot of area some of these summaries are quite misleading. This is probably inevitable, because it takes a lot of time to become informed about an issue, but it means that in many cases I think that someone reading this might end up coming to conclusions quite at odds to reality.

For example, consider this summary, of the CDC/FDA's decision to ban and then re-allow the JnJ vaccine:

Speaking of, the J&J pause was lifted, after 10 days. Much ink has been spilled describing the situation, but I think there were basically no good options here. Polls do seem to show that it hasn’t increased vaccine hesitancy.

You suggest that there were no good options, and link to a Mother Jones article on the subject. I would have expected this article to supply evidence for your claim by enumerating the possible options and showing that all of them had major problems. Indeed, the article does discuss two options:

  • The CDC/FDA could have hidden the data about the blot clots, hoped no-one noticed, and continued the rollout. But this risks undermining public trust if/when the truth gets out.
  • The CDC/FDA could ban distribution of the the vaccine and investigate the issue.

However, the article does not consider what I and many other people consider to be obviously  the best strategy:

  • Disclose the blood clots to the public, but continue to allow its distribution.

It is possible that this is not in fact the best strategy. But "Tell people the truth, then let them make up their own minds" is normally the best strategy.  At the very least an article arguing that there were no good options needs to at least consider  this third option.

Secondly, you suggest that this pause has not damaged vaccine takeup. I do not think this view is supported by the evidence:

  • The temporary suspensions of the AstraZeneca vaccine dramatically reduced public trust in the EU, especially when compared to the UK which had not done a similar suspension.
  • The percentage of people who thought the JnJ vaccine was safe fell by about 15 percentage points.
  • Vaccination rates for every age group dropped dramatically when the FDA banned the JnJ vaccine, regardless of vaccine penetration.
  • Even after the ban was lifted, almost no-one wants to get the J&J vaccine now. Takeup rates for the other vaccines have not risen to compensate; they have actually fallen.
  • Many people in America would have preferred the J&J vaccine, because it only requires one shot, and is not 'new, unsafe' technology. 
  • Even if no lasting damage has been done to vaccine willingness, around 50 people will have died of covid who would otherwise have been saved by the J&J vaccine. In exchange, around 2 probably non-fatal blood clots were averted.

Given the above as well as my wider reading around the issue, I actually think a fairer summary would have been:

Speaking of, the J&J pause was lifted, after 10 days. While initially establishment public health experts were supportive of the decision, political scientists and well informed amateurs were sharply critical, arguing that this pause was unnecessary given the extremely low incidence of blood clots and importance of ending the pandemic. Subsequent data suggests that the fear generated by this decision has significantly undermined the US vaccination program.

Unfortunately gathering the data to illustrate this point is quite time consuming. Despite being already well versed in the subject, the above section took me over an hour to put together in response to a single bullet point, and I count 38 similar news bullet points in the post. I provide it as an illustration of the difficulties involved in this project; I think many of your other bullet points contain similar inaccuracies and misleading statements, but it is simply too time consuming to go into them.

If you do continue, I would strongly encourage you to consider getting a Republican to review your writeups. Many of the sections have a distinct pro-administration bias, and I think checking this would be the easiest way to significantly improve the overall accuracy.

The claim that the newsletter has a "pro-administration bias" strikes me as odd, because the newsletter has been largely critical of the Biden administration's foreign policy and global vaccine distribution strategy. Rather, the newsletter overall seems to have a far-left viewpoint (i.e. more like Bernie than Biden). There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, I'm personally glad to see more political diversity within the EA movement. A plurality of EAs identify as "center-left", including me, and I don't think that political affiliation should be a barrier to participation in EA (although I draw the line at authoritarianism and bigotry: fascists, tankies, and the like). On the other hand, I agree that a more politically diverse group of people writing or reviewing the newsletter would make fewer errors in expectation.

I also think that covering a narrow range of topics, but in more depth, would improve the newsletter's accuracy.

[+][comment deleted]4mo 1

I downvoted your comment despite agreeing with a lot of your critiques because I very, very strongly disagree that posts like this aren't a good fit for the forum (and my best guess is that discouraging this sort of post does significantly more harm than good). If someone who has a good understanding of what effective altruism is has an idea they think is plausibly a high impact use of time (or other resources), the forum is exactly where that sort of idea belongs! This post clearly reaches this standard. Once the idea is on the forum, open discussion can happen about whether it is a high impact idea, or even net positive. 

 If people only ever post ideas to the forum that they are already quite sure the effective altruism community will agree are high impact, it will be much harder for the effective altruism community to not be an echo chamber of only the "approved" ideas.  I think the author has improved the forum by making this post for two reasons. The first reason is that the post created an interesting discussion on whether this idea is good one and how it could be improved (the critiques in your comment were an important contribution to this!). Secondly, more importantly, their post nudged the culture of the forum in a direction I liked; making it more normal to post ideas for plausibly* high impact projects that aren't as obviously connected to one of the standard EA ideas that come up in every EA intro talk. Despite me not being sure that this idea is even net positive, it still seems almost absurd to me that this post isn't a good fit for the EA forum (especially if people like you make compelling critiques and suggestions in the comments, ensuring the discussion isn't too one-sided and maybe also allowing plausibly good ideas to iterate into better ideas)!

*To me, sufficiently plausible to be a good fit for a forum post, as I said above, is an author who understands what EA is who thinks the idea might be high impact. I actually think this author went well beyond and above what I think a good minimum bar is for such ideas;  it sounds like this author put in a great deal of thought into this project, has put quite a bit of work already into getting this idea off the ground and also got feedback from multiple people in the EA community!

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

To be clear, I think this specific post was a reasonable fit for the forum, insomuch as it is a proposal for a newsletter, for the reasons you outlined. I agree the forum should accept ideas that are merely plausibly promising, so they can be refined, create useful discussion, and give people the opportunity for growth.  And indeed I did not downvote this post.

The issue I was responding to was the question of whether every instalment of the newsletter should be shared on the forum:

It would be helpful to know if people think I should post each issue on the Forum. I know other newsletters, like EA London, do this but I don't want to clutter the Forum with posts every 2 weeks if people think it's too off-topic!

Given that the post explicitly raised the question I think it is perfectly legitimate to answer it in the negative.

Sorry if this was not clear. It actually did not even occur to me that this individual post might be inappropriate, so I made no attempt in my comment to distinguish this from my view.

FWIW I had a similar initial reaction to Sophia, though reading more carefully I totally agree that it's more reasonable to interpret your comment as a reaction to the newsletter rather than to the proposal. I'd maybe add an edit to your high-level comment just to make sure people don't get confused?

That makes sense! My mistake. 

The goal is to make this newsletter very accessible and useful both to anyone interested in policy (not just EAs) and get people thinking more about what the most impactful, influential policy really is.


Thanks for this work! Commenting on the climate section (the topic I know most about, not really expert in the other domains you cover), inferring importance and influentialness from the write-up seems hard -- it looks like a round-up of interesting developments, but with little prioritization and assessment between them.

E.g. the American Jobs Plan is arguably the most important climate legislation right now,  > 10x larger than the climate piece of the Recovery Act and quite a momentous shift in the willingness to invest in low-carbon infrastructure, but this is not clear from the write-up which gives similar weight to fairly marginal issues such as methane regulation for new oil and gas fields (short-lived pollutants in a subset of the economy, and only new installations) or state policies (Washington state having a target that is 10-15% more ambitious than what other Democratic-leaning states are doing seems fairly inconsequential).

I think this makes sense as a round-up, but I do think it does not meet the goal of focusing on the most impactful / influential developments. So I'd agree with Larks and Evelyn that a narrower, but deeper newsletter could be more accurate and more in line with the goal of highlighting particularly important developments.

I think this is a great idea and personally I think it's relevant enough for the forum

I agree. Generally, we are not at a point where anyone should be concerned with cluttering the forum - the Karma and tag system helps to take care of that

WOOOHOOO!! Way to go!