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From the looks of it, next week might be rough for people who care about Effective Altruism. As CEA acting CEO Ben West pointed out on the forum:

“Sam Bankman-Fried's trial is scheduled to start October 3, 2023, and Michael Lewis’s book about FTX comes out the same day. My hope and expectation is that neither will be focused on EA …

Nonetheless, I think there’s a decent chance that viewing the Forum, Twitter, or news media could become stressful for some people, and you may want to pre-emptively create a plan for engaging with that in a healthy way. 

I really appreciated that comment since I didn’t know that and I’m glad I had time to mentally prepare. As someone who does outward facing voluntary community building at my workplace and in London, I feel nervous. I’ve written this piece to manage that anxiety. I actually wrote a lot of it last year to process my feelings but now seems like a good time to share.

Thoughts on EA after 2022

During the spring/summer of 2022, I was studying for my final ICAS Chartered Accountancy case study exams. They usually involve:

  • Being given a scenario where you are the qualified accountant and have been asked to do some analysis for a group of companies.
  • As you need to meet a minimum standard of Public Trust and Ethics to join an accountancy body, there is usually a dodgy character or two involved at the client company or at the firm that employs you.
  • The dodgy characters are lax about controls and risk - asking you as the accountant to “look the other way” and the case is usually set up that there is an incentive for you as the accountant to do that.
  • There are often weak internal controls at the company which make fraud more likely. Some examples of weak internal controls:
    • Lack of segregation of duties - one employee has end-to-end control of a process without oversight
    • Inadequate access controls - sensitive systems and data are not restricted to authorized personnel
    • Circumvention of controls - existing controls are intentionally avoided or bypassed by employees
    • Unsigned approvals - documents requiring sign-off are not properly authorized
  • At the end, you submit your technical accounting, finance, tax, internal controls, and general business advice that was requested as part of the case study. You also need to submit an ethics memo which would outline your concerns about the dodgy people or controls.

You’ll be glad to hear that after going through lots of practice papers, I passed!

Then three months later, the news on FTX dropped.

I’m not going to outline it here since I imagine the audience for this are already familiar[1] - if someone has a good summary, please drop it in the comments. It wasn’t just FTX, around that time, information was released on Wytham Abbey, Bostrom and the Time sexual harassment scandals.

For context, I’m mostly interested in expanding the reach of effective giving / EA impact methodologies and personally put a high discount rate on the future vs existing suffering, so, I didn’t follow the FTX Future Fund that closely.

My primary feelings at the end of 2022 were anger and embarrassment.

  • Anger
    • I’m annoyed I must answer questions about the damned castle. I did not buy the castle. None of the charities I recommend you donate to bought the castle. Yet in my community building work, I have to answer questions about the castle. It was handled poorly and I’m angry about it.
    • When the Time article came out, I was running the London Women (and NBs) in EA group. Honestly, I incorrectly assumed it was just about EA in the Bay area so when it was revealed it was Owen Cotton-Barrett, that was a shock and tbh I was annoyed at a lot of the responses.
    • In hindsight, I wish I’d created a space for people to talk about it but a 60+ person whatsapp chat didn’t seem like the right format. I agree with this post on things that make EA a good space for women and recommend this piece on what to do about sexual misconduct going forward.
  • Embarrassment
  • I had distrustful instincts towards crypto even before the crash. From my perspective, FTX was a gambling company and - even if the profits were going to fund important work[2] - it was exploitative[3]. I feel annoyed at myself that I didn’t voice this and just sat in the cognitive dissonance.
  • I’m embarassed that I put so much trust into Will MacAskill and 80k to vet SBF if they were going to endorse them to the extent that they did.
  • I’m embarrassed that I’m associated with people in the movement who make sexist and racist comments. Most EAs aren’t like that but that’s difficult to prove. Negative interactions are more memorable.
  • I am frustrated because I see many enthusiastic, extraverted, emotionally intelligent people, especially women and those from lower class or cultural backgrounds, not connecting with the EA movement. I speak to people that would be interested in spending more of their time interacting with EA or want to know how to have a positive impact but have been put off since they think the movement doesn’t want them or the vibe is unfriendly and elitist.

Updates I’ve made

  • I defer a lot less when making career decisions and thinking about cause prioritisation. I’m still not great at it but I’m much less likely to assume something is true just because someone I respected said it.
    • This is probably a good thing - better late than never
  • I’m less bullish on “EA as a community” over “EA as a professional network”
    • I’m sad about this because I have made excellent friends through EA but the movement needs to professionalise.
    • I’m pleased CEA and EV are taking steps to bring in some qualified suits that are accountable to external ethical bodies and can effectively manage risk going forward
  • I am excited about effective giving groups (rather than EA groups) as a friendly first interaction point for in person EA group and as a landing place for people who don’t want to interact beyond learning where to donate. Looking forward to hosting our first event as the GWWC London group co-lead 💪

I want to be clear that I still feel a lot of anger and embarrassment, but I’ve weighed that up against the positive potential of EA so …

Why I’m still publicly going out to bat for EA

I know a few people (all women) who have taken a step back from meta-EA this year. That is fair and I’m excited to see what they achieve in doing important direct work. However, I’m not doing that.

I’m still pushing EA at my workplace and, despite a wobble after FTX where we considered naming it EY Altruism Conversations, we’ve settled on using EA in the title because most people have never heard of EA yet. I’ve recently added the link to our EA@EY newsletter and my GWWC pledge in my email signature. 

Why?

I think EA is better than anything else that currently exists

  • Most people I’ve met in EA have been kind, thoughtful, conscientious, generous, intelligent and deeply passionate about improving the world. I want there to be a place where it is easy to connect with these kinds of people because strong relationships will make do-gooders more resilient.
  • I agree with this post that EA is three radical ideas I want to protect (radical empathy, scope sensitivity and scout mindset) but in my opinion the most impressive part of EA is the execution. For me, as much as I find the intellectual side interesting, I went to business school so fit squarely into the “doing” side of EA and these are the things that excited me about the movement:
    • EA goes beyond just identifying problems and tend to act on theories of change based on clearly stated and testable assumptions
    • They tend to be quick to respond to actionable feedback and publicly share impact evaluations
    • It has been successful at creating a community not tied to a specific cause area and building connections between different causes helping to create resilience among do-gooders
    • EA is pretty good at up-skilling do-gooders, pointing them to resources that might make them more resilient and providing calls to action
      • 80,000 Hours career guide did this for me and is easily the most important EA resource that got me to take action in 2021. I’m glad they are reemphasising it because it is excellent
      • (CEA did used to have a big list of things to take action on but that seems to be gone now?)
      • All Clearer Thinking Tools are pretty great for this
      • I LOVE this How to (actually) change the world | Non-trivial course and think it should have a wider audience than just high school students (ie. it reminded me of a corporate training). I really hope it gets finished!
  • In particular, I think the above appeals to people who work for corporates since this is how work is done in the private sector where metrics and results are especially important. I am bullish on community building work specifically aimed at working professionals, CSR departments and the growing trend towards corporate ESG reporting
    • Hit me up if you are interested in this too - been working with EACN and HIP on this.
  • I don’t think any of this is necessarily unique to the effective altruism movement. If a new, better, more positively impactful movement develops that looks like it’ll be more successful at building a radically better world - I’ll consider jumping ship.
  • But, honestly, from what I can see - nothing else comes close.

The future of EA will be defined by the people who step up and take action today.

  • EA at its best is a do-ocracy and individuals can have an outsized impact on the culture. See SBF 😉
  • I like that there has been an increased focus on character - you’ll notice all that what I listed that I liked best about people in EA were traits rather than outcomes (yet!!!!)
  • If you see something important that you think is currently underrepresented within EA, you (yes, you!!) might be the right person to fix that.
  • The key feedback I have for CEA is that they should do more explicit hero licencing if they don’t want to do the organising work themselves. Not “yeah, it’d be fine if you did it”, active encouragement! I know managing volunteers is a lot of work but giving them ownership (and licence that you’d like them to do it) would make a difference.
    • @ChanaMessinger is excellent at hero licencing (she wrote the piece I linked) - there were points in my community building in London where I would have given up without the explicit encouragement she gave me - thanks Chana <3

Conclusion and some caveats

  • I’m pretty careful to make sure my whole personality isn’t EA.
  • Caring about other things is important for your mental health.
  • Diversifying your associations is good for your long-term career capital.

Saying that, I think EA is the shit. I am really proud to be associated with this movement full of awesome people doing ambitious projects to make the world better. Keep your focus on who you’re trying to help and we’ll get through it 💪

Stolen from this post (This is just for vibes; I don't actually think EA is awful.)

  1. ^


    although lol not everyone (posted 23rd September 2023)

  2. ^

    Which tbh I was unconvinced on since it wasn't always meeting a direct cash transfer benchmark

  3. ^


    I recommend this documentary from YouTuber Folding Ideas which is a major source of my distrust of cryptocurrency and Web3

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JWS
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This was a fantastic post Gemma, it really resonated with me and I honestly think it's one of the best things I've read on here this year :)

Some points that spoke to me, along with reflections from my own experience:

I defer a lot less when making career decisions and thinking about cause prioritisation. I’m still not great at it but I’m much less likely to assume something is true just because someone I respected said it. This is probably a good thing - better late than never

Agreed that this is a good thing. I think that coming to the EA community/movement (as opposed to being aware of the ideas) later in my life I already have career and personal networks that are (mostly) separate from EA, and I think that makes it mentally easier/less socially costly to hold views that aren't the majority, or a slightly different from the Orthodoxy.

I agree with this post that EA is three radical ideas I want to protect (radical empathy, scope sensitivity and scout mindset) but in my opinion the most impressive part of EA is the execution.

Agreed again! My personal experience is that being part of the EA community made me want to 'walk the walk' of my beliefs more, specifically for me it was going vegetarian and signing the GWWC pledge. I think that's something that the EA community does really well.[1]

***

Finally, on the question of "going out to bat for the EA movement post FTX" I think I'm getting more and more into the idea of doing so more loudly, and especially calling out bad criticisms of EA that we let slide too often. Maybe that can be my contribution to the 3rd wave 'do-ocracy' of EA 🙂

  1. ^

    This is kinda related to Scott's Effective Altruism As A Tower Of Assumptions. For example, if you think GW/Randomista charities don't take into account autonomy and personal knowledge then that's fine, donate to GiveDirectly!

Thank you! That's very kind! 

I feel similarly about finding EA later in my life - I heard about it when I was a few years into my career rather than in university. I'm glad I did because if I'd heard about it in uni, I could imagine it becoming my whole deal. I've got a lot of value from working a normie corporate job first and I'm glad a lot of my friends really don't care about EA at all. 

One of my other half-written drafts is about the benefits of doing graduate training at an employer that churns out dozens of graduates a year rather than a small EA organisation (where the quality of management, mentorship, training and support is more variable). I think the 80k advice on career capital for new grads is great and getting people to think about their long term output (thinking 20-30 years head rather than just 5) is excellent, but I think their ideas for initial first jobs are limited (and so obviously written by cerebral oxford grads who would have access to top of the range opportunities). 

IMO they underrate graduates spending their first few years post-grad joining professions where there are existing networks and professional ethics requirements. Examples would be law/accountancy/engineering/medicine/teaching etc. I think there are downsides (time requirement, skills you might not use later) but I think there are benefits to having a more diverse non-academia EA talent pipeline and I want to spread effective giving into those spaces!! Having the pipeline mostly filled with early start up employees, policy people and management consultants is high risk - none of these roles are accountable to external ethical or professional standards. Plus, having worked in international tax, I now have opinions on potentially high impact tax policy work that isn't obvious to people without that background - I like being able to bring a different perspective.

***

Good for you on bad criticisms! Keep at it 💪

I’m not going to outline it here since I imagine the audience for this are already familiar - if someone has a good summary, please drop it in the comments.

I quite liked this summary from New York Magazine earlier today but YMMV:

Since November 11, 2022, the day that Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange FTX collapsed and his hedge fund Alameda Research collapsed and his personal $26 billion turned out to have been vaporous, the twitchy 31-year-old, maybe-genius, maybe-scammer failed to raise $8 billion to save the company, gave a lot of weird interviews denying he did anything intentionally wrong, tried to blame his ex, was charged with eight counts of fraud and conspiracy, spent a week in a Bahamian jail, had enough of that, got extradited to the U.S., pleaded not guilty in New York, moved in with his parents in California on a $250 million bond, got accused of witness tampering, talked with Michael Lewis, got yelled at by a judge for violating bail terms to watch the Super Bowl, witnessed his former executives flip on him, started a Substack, got hit with four more charges, gave interviews to the rest of the journalists he hadn’t already gotten around to, successfully got a charge on illegal campaign contributions dropped on a technicality, got charged with another count of bribing Chinese officials, had a few charges separated to a different criminal suit, leaked his ex’s diary, got incarcerated again on the grounds that he “attempted to tamper with two witnesses,” complained about not getting his food or medicine while in jail (fair), complained about not having enough computer time in jail (ehhhhh), and got personally sued about three dozen times in the federal courts.

At last, his trial starts on Tuesday, October 3, 2023. It is expected to last about six weeks. He is being judged here on seven charges concerning financial fraud. He faces more than 100 years in jail.

My primary feelings at the end of 2022 were anger and embarrassment.

I share some of your feelings and disagree with others, but I'll say that I like that you shared them. I don't think we have enough open discussion of how we feel about big events in EA and that leaves people hurt and doesn't create room for future trust. If EA is to change without space for honest discussion of feelings then I think people will get hurt.

Thanks for writing this, I think it's great.

Regarding "The key feedback I have for CEA is that they should do more explicit hero licencing if they don’t want to do the organising work themselves." Would you be able to say more about what you think we should be doing differently? In particular: I expect that it's easier for us to hero-license people we are already e.g. giving a grant to than it is for us to search out new people, and if we could do a better job at e.g. telling group leaders "for real we actually think you should own this" that would be good to know.

(Though of course maybe we should additionally put in the effort to search out new people, even though it is harder.)

Apologies for the delay in response - it has been a busy month at work!

Thank you for asking!! I have a lot of suggestions on this so have been trying to legibly structure my thoughts.

However, it has ended up turning into a bit of a monster answer and tbh replying to this comment is blocking me doing effective giving posts.

So I'm going to prioritise writing those this week and get back to you later.

Thanks for understanding!

Minor: your link at the top to my short form about SBF's trial is broken.