Over $5 Billion was spent in the 2012 US presidential election.  I think this zero-sum waste of money is a ripe target for moral trade.  I also think that it would be a great opportunity for an EA venture!

The Premise:


What if people had the option to ‘cancel out’ the donations of an opposing political party by paying the same amount?  What if these ‘canceled out’ donations were subsequently given to an effective charity?


Let’s say that I’m a Democrat, and my friend is a Republican.  We both plan on donating $100 to our respective candidates.  But after discussing it, we realise that this is a pretty pointless waste of money, and instead we agree to each put our $100 towards a charity recommended by Givewell.


I think there might be strong demand for a mechanism that could lower the transaction costs between people in the above situation.  Both so that they can cancel out donations of those outside their immediate circle, and simultaneously confirm that the other side is holding up their end of the bargain.


The technical difficulties of such a mechanism might be fairly minimal, ironically due in part to the comic lack of regulation on super PACs (which don't have limits on donations or other onerous restrictions). One could simply have an escrow account that receives donations from each side and ‘clears’ every so often. If $200,000 came from Democrats and $260,000 from Republicans, our organisation would donate $400,000 to an effective charity and $60,000 to a Republican super PAC.


Would it really be that easy?


Maybe? Probably not?  It’s still a half-baked idea, but one that I hope can be developed further.  In addition to having a credible escrow account, one would need strong marketing and general operations.  The idea would certainly get tons of media attention - basically nobody in the US enjoys the election process and this might be a breath of fresh air.


Other problems might be if only one side tends to donate to the escrow account.  That might be remedied by appealing to wealthy donors on the other side.  Another problem might be a perceived lack of a 1-to-1 ratio in effectiveness.  One might open a market (such that I could donate 1.1 dollars to cancel out 1 opponent’s dollar) but honestly I think the simpler version is better from a marketing perspective.


Might this be a candidate for incubation within EA ventures? Pun totally intended.




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For more on this topic, check out Toby Ord's talk from The "Good Done Right" EA Conferece. https://soundcloud.com/gooddoneright/toby-ord-moral-trade

What a great paper. Thanks for sharing this. The details of this paper should be discussed more on this forum.

I think the first step would be talking to a lawyer who could find out whether a charity or PAC that commits to do this would be legal. Campaign financing is highly regulated, so there are a lot of ways it could be prohibited.

This idea is really interesting. Thanks for posting it and it would be cool to see if it worked!

One reason people might be hesitant to do this is people might think that donation-canceling succeeds in not changing the odds of victory for either candidate, but might believe that politicians pay more attention to the beliefs of their donors. If that were true, elected politicians would pay less attention to those with EA-sympathies. Even if it's not true (political scientists are pretty skeptical of that claim), enough people might think it's true to be an issue.

I have trouble imagining this working. I would expect that people interested in EA would generally be behind the same sort of political candidates. I'm not sure how easily you could pursuade someone not already interested in EA in the benefit of this scheme. The most generous of my coworkers seem to think of donating as something you just do, rather than an effort to improve the world. (I once had someone seriously try to convince me to donate to an organization that would help send people like [specific disabled veteran] to a water park.) I would expect most people to see campaign donation as a sort of personal support, and not get behind arguments about usefulness and such. Who exactly would you be targetting with this?

I envision this targeting the general public.

I suppose I have a higher credence in a wide audience finding this really appealing. By spending X dollars, you're canceling out X dollars of the other side while simultaneously sending 2*X dollars to an actual charity.

Nobody likes the negative ads in the US - plenty of people donate in order to 'prevent the other side from winning' more than supporting their own candidate.

Hah I wrote up a similar idea five years ago, though my views might have changed since then!


I feel like it's a rite of passage for every person to independently invent this idea at some point.

I suppose I will forever be denied this rite of passage, as I totally took it from Toby's paper about year ago :)


Makes the naive assumption that these are actual "donations" based on "supporting" a candidate. In fact three of the top five donors for Gore were also in the top five for Bush, and wealthy/corporate donors often give to both major party candidates. Sure, they might give more to one side depending on their influence at the time. The politicians also make special efforts to shake down interest groups for "donations" when it is not election season (http://www.amazon.com/Extortion-Politicians-Extract-Money-Pockets/dp/0544103343/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423164502&sr=8-1&keywords=extortion+politics). In order for your idea to work, first extreme campaign contribution limits would have to be in place. I would like to see a candidate donate most of their campaign funds to charity. Support our troops? Fine, show us how much with money from your campaign. Pro-choice? Donate to Planned Parenthood. Care about the environment? You have lots of good options.

Good point, this certainly wouldn't work for lobbying. But over 50% of donations still come from wealthy individuals or small donations, so it's a substantial absolute amount of money that still could benefit from moral trade.


In fact three of the top five donors for Gore were also in the top five for Bush, and wealthy/corporate donors often give to both major party candidates.

This is a tangent, but how was it rational for Gore to look favourably on them for their donations?


The point is that they gave large amounts, and gave large amounts to both candidates for President. Logically, they were not giving out of a preference for either candidate to win, but because they expected to profit from it in the future. As altruists we need to avoid the assumption that others who donate to political candidates, as I am sure a number of people in this group do, do so as altruists and not for purely selfish reasons.

I know, but that doesn't really answer my question - rationally, Gore should have been indifferent between (a) them giving the same amount to him and Bush and (b) nothing to either candidate.

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