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Former EA politician; currently acquiring some more "hard" skills


I'm having thoughts about bottlenecks on improving institutional decision-making based on some of the conversations I had yesterday at EAG: Reconnect. Due to my experience, I'm mostly oriented towards governmental institutions, and one of the barriers there is the attitudes of constituents/voters.

To oversimplify, there are 2 dimensions to this: incorrect beliefs about what effects policies will have on the world, and low empathy/narrow circles of moral concern.

As an example of what I mean, take immigration policy. Voters incorrectly believe that higher immigration results in lower wages for residents, but they also don't care as much as they could/should about improving the well-being of strangers who currently live in another country.

It seems to me, even aside from the cause area of improving institutional decision-making, that moral circle expansion across the broader population is one of the interventions that I feel most confident about leading to a brighter long-term future.

If I were designing a research agenda around this goal, I might structure it this way:

  1. What are examples of times and places that moral circle expansion occurred? I'm currently pretty confident that widespread moral circle expansion has occurred and would want to double-check that assumption by studying historical trends in ethics by e.g. talking to sociologists and historians.

  2. Root cause analysis on how and why moral expansion occurred in the past.

  3. What currently correlates with different moral circle sizes across populations? Initial intuition here is that "scarcity mindset" drives small circles of moral concern. Is this accurate? What factors correlate with wider moral concern? Religiosity? Median income? GINI coefficient?

  4. Figure out how I would design a study or studies to find out if increases/decreases in [religiosity/scarcity mindset/median income/etc.] cause moral circle expansion, and how persistent (sticky) that change is likely to be.

  5. Find out if such studies have already been done, or implement them if they have not been done.

  6. Are there more direct interventions that lead to broader (persistent) moral circle expansion? E.g. consumption of psychedelic substances (and destigmatization/decriminalization thereof)

  7. If the prior avenues of study are fruitful, search for the most tractable and cost-effective interventions for moral circle expansion.

TBH, the above feels pretty trite and obvious to me now that I've typed it all out, so I'm sure other people have already written about this somewhere; does anybody have ideas for where I could read others' thoughts along these lines?

Able to do it? I'm not sure. It seems likely that my persuasive skills played a role, but the more significant factor is that I did it more than the average Rep because most Reps never tried.

I think it would help me answer if I gave a little more context. I only succeeded at this three times, by my estimation. We go through 800-1000 bills a year, to give you a sense of scale. I was very wary of attempting to do it and failing, because my model is that each failure makes the body as a whole slightly less likely to listen to you in the future. So the only times I attempted to do it were when the counterfactual outcome was both so intolerably stupid that I couldn't keep my mouth shut and I thought I had an okay chance of making a difference. The couple of Reps who had a reputation for always getting up and saying something every time they disagreed with the committee recommendation, whether or not there was a chance of overturning that recommendation, were often greeted with groans; like, "Oh boy, it's this guy again. Why is he wasting our time?" I most certainly did not want to be seen as one of those people because that would have been extremely counterproductive.

Only one of those three times can I say with 99% certainty that yes, that was me, because any outcome in politics has many different inputs and so it's quite hard to assign responsibility for any outcome to oneself.

For example, one of the times I'm not counting was when I was working with a team of people that were cooperating with each other to get a favorable vote on allowing contraceptives to be dispensed over the counter. All of us played a role in getting the committee recommendation overturned.

I'm trying to think of other Reps who got committee recommendations overturned on more than one occasion, and I think they were all higher-ranking than me; in such a large legislative body, people relied very heavily on heuristics about a speaker's experience level and education. When I was first sworn in, I was age 24 and the median age of the NH House was 67.

Sure. I'm mostly thinking of things like data analyst positions at think tanks and research centers that help steer policy recommendations for governments both local and abroad.

Yeah, I think it's the two things you say (technology leading to filter bubbles + toxoplasma). You mention it indirectly, but I also want to explicitly point at the role, prior to the internet, that mass media had in shaping a common narrative that people could refer back to.

At the risk of substituting an elegant model for a more complicated multi-causal one, here are a few other forces that come to mind as well...

  • The World Wars and the Cold War gave the US powerful, external enemies, which does wonders for internal unity.

  • I think the 2-party system also plays a role; my impression is that polarization seems a bit less intractable in countries with multi-party systems, because when parties have to form coalitions to get things done, that affects the way the people who identify with those different parties feel about each other.

I don't think tight control by a single political faction is the only possible fix (if you can even call that a fix!). I think on the extremely unlikely end, you could have some kind of national education reform that brings tools for productively resolving disagreements, like double crux, into public schools . If you want something less unlikely, then voting reforms that break the current 2-party duopoly, such that we move toward proportional representation or approval voting, could also have beneficial effects on polarization.

Finally, there's the possibility of another external threat, preferably one that is actually grounded in reality, one that's worth fighting. One might have hoped catastrophic risks like pandemics could have served this purpose, but we see how that went this time around. Unfortunately humans are hard-wired to see other humans as the most valid kind of threat.

I want to throw in one last note of caution against overstating current levels of polarization and division, because it's too easy to see the past as better than it actually was. When I think of divisive elections, I also think back to the Jefferson-Adams smear campaigns in 1800. Or, you know, the Civil War, when the US literally split into two countries and we started killing each other en masse.

  • you'd get voted out of office

No, not this one. I don't think there was anything I wanted to say that would have been harmful enough to turn the Eye of Sauron(*) upon me.

  • there are costs imposed directly on you/people-close-to-you (i.e. stress)

Nah, any stress would have been a tertiary effect from...

  • you'd lose support from your political allies that you need to accomplish anything

This was the big one. I was already a black sheep when I got voted into office; I had negative amounts of political capital within my party. I had to focus a ton of energy into being likable, which largely means seeming similar to your target audience, and choosing my battles very carefully, which means keeping my mouth shut by default.

A related thing I'm wondering is whether you considered anything like "going out with a bang", where you tried... just not self-censoring, and... probably losing the next election and some supporters in the meanwhile but also heaving some rocks through the overton window on your way out.

No. I spent the last 9 months of my final year planning on becoming a lobbyist, which meant I had to maintain my reputation up in Concord.

One other thing that would have kept me from "going out with a bang" was that I was very aware of my status as the only EA-identified elected official in the world. I knew my actions could potentially reflect back on the movement and affect other people who wanted to run for office in the future.

That status also ties back into the motivation of keeping my options open; I didn't (and don't) know what the future holds, and I don't know what will be needed of me.

why more politicians don't just say "Screw it I'm saying what I really think" shortly before retiring

I think this is due to a few different things...

  • they also want to retain optionality (a big one)
  • they care about their reputation for its own sake
  • they don't want to harm the future work of any allies who were closely related to them
  • why toss a grenade when the benefits are uncertain and amorphous?
  • most of them don't have significant contrarian opinions that they've been holding back, because the political process selects for the most mainstream people and the people who are most comfortable doing what their party leadership requires of them. The most Republican of Republicans, the most Democratic of Democrats.

(*) Edit to clarify for a friend's question: the Eye of Sauron in this metaphor would be the party structure deciding to find a primary challenger, not the voters themselves.

A (possibly wrong) sense I have about being an elected politician is that because you are beholden to your constituents, it may be difficult to act independently and support the policies that have the best consequences for society (as these may conflict with either your constituent's perceptions or immediate interests). Did you find that this was true, or were there examples of this?

Yes, 100%. This is one of the areas where believing EA things directly conflicts with holding elected office: you value all lives and experiences equally, but you're supposed to value the lives of people in your governed territory more than people outside your territory, and you're supposed to value the lives of your particular constituents more than non-constituents. If you also hold to the meta-norm of cooperating with societal institutions (e.g. in the same way an attorney is supposed to only care for their client's interests, might it not be good for a politician to only argue for their constituents' interests?), that introduces another level of conflict.

The most clear example that comes to mind from when I was in office is the Northern Pass project, which would entail many construction sites to cut a swath through NH forests in order to install power lines that would carry hydro power from Canada to New England. People in New England currently pay the highest electric bills in the country. This would potentially harm the tourism industry and property owners in the North Country region by making some views less aesthetically appealing. Electricity consumers would benefit from slightly lower electric bills due to an increase in supply, but this benefit would disproportionately accrue to residents of other states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, because they are much more populous than NH. The outcome would probably be slightly better on metrics of global warming and pollution because hydro power is better for the environment than coal and natural gas. I won't talk about the potential downside (or upside?) of cheaper electricity leading to faster societal progress and marginal changes to X-risk calculations because that part of the scenario never came up in hearings, go figure. ;)

Anyway, the Northern Pass is extremely controversial, albeit in a nonpartisan way.

I feel like a democratic process encourages short-term policies for various reasons like constituent's impatience, interest-groups, reversibility of policies, etc. Did you find that this was true? Were longer timeline policies, those with their effects coming further in the future, generally neglected?

Yes and yes. It would be great to see institutional changes that push towards longer time scales.

Do you think being an EA/believing EA things...represents any disadvantage (or advantage) in running for office?

One advantage I can think of is that you have a source of information other than the political party, and that source of information is filtering based on evidence. Therefore, you're more likely to hear about things like relative efficacy of canvassing vs. lawn signs, and spend your resources wisely, rather than the 'kitchen sink' approach of just doing what everyone else does during a campaign.

As for disadvantages, well. I think some EAs handle this better than others, but I associate being an EA with needing to cope with lots of uncertainty. Maybe this is just because I also lost the comfort of my dogma at the same time I learned about EA. To the extent that motivation and energy is tied to self-assuredness that you're doing the right thing, I think having EA thoughts can sap you of some energy compared to a counterfactual self that feels content and comfortable within a political party. This is more of an issue when you're in office than when you're doing the campaigning part, though.

Do you think...being identified as one, represents any disadvantage (or advantage) in running for office?

This is harder for me to say. The NH House of Representatives has the lowest barrier to entry of any state legislative body, and I was subjected to proportionately less scrutiny as a politician. (Though my history with the FSP raised that scrutiny quite substantially.) I don't think EA as a field has particularly problematic associations for political purposes; the worst is probably its association with Peter Singer. (Insert side rant about how of course professional ethicists are going to have at least a couple unconventional views because what even is the point of turning ethical thought into your profession unless you come to conclusions that are outside the mainstream...)

However, opposition research is a big deal in higher-visibility races--something I've seen up-close and personal in State Senate races--and any weirdness can be weaponized. Unfortunately, the conclusion here is that a public EA identity is most likely to not affect a candidate, but if it does affect a candidate, it's likely to hurt them.

In my case, joining the EA movement hurt me in a way that is pretty non-generalizable: to a large degree, it cut me off from the community that had supported my run for office in the first place. I gained a new community, but that community was non local and had much bigger fish to fry(*) than the issues I was working on.

(*) with my apologies to the vegans

Looking back, there are four projects I'm the most proud of:

Three bills I played "sidekick" on... 1) A 911 immunity bill, which confers legal immunity from drug possession charges to both the person who calls 911 in the event of a medical emergency and the victim of the emergency. 2) A bill expanding Narcan access to third parties. (Narcan is a medication which can be administered by a layperson and which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose.) 3) A bill that legalized syringe service programs, aka needle exchanges.

A bill I put forward to shift the Overton Window, decriminalizing sex work, which was to my knowledge the first bill of its kind to be introduced in the US, although it is no longer the only bill of its kind to be introduced in the US. The successor to my seat has taken up the banner for sex workers' rights, and I'm very proud of her.

In addition to these, I also experienced a few very cool moments of "holy moly, I can't believe I just pulled that off," which all had in common the theme of going up against consensus in a deliberative body, be that my Committee or the General Assembly, and convincing my fellow Representatives to reverse course and vote the opposite way they had intended.

(Question 2)

(Most of this is from the frame of trying to reduce expected opposition.)

The potential success of most example policies or policy areas I can think of are going to be highly dependent on region and political milieu; for instance, animal welfare measures have a good chance in Berkeley, California but not Ames, Iowa.

Potential, non-region-specific reforms would be ones that aren't (yet) strongly red or blue coded, such as approval voting, which I'm moderately bullish on.

One way to reduce expected opposition is to focus on locations under single-party rule going into 2021 (or whichever year you're reading this) and pick policies that match that party's brand but are currently unsexy or non-salient enough that no elected official will care enough to champion them unless a constituent suggests it. E.g., even though Democrats won all federal elections in New Hampshire, Republicans will have control of the state executive and legislative branches, so this would be a good biennium for occupational licensing reform, which isn't particularly exciting or topical.

Besides minimizing expected opposition, another way of minimizing expected effort is to find someone who's already planning on pushing a package of reforms, and ask them to tack on just one more related thing that has good evidence behind it.

In areas with split-party leadership, I recommend going with one of two strategies, each of which has its own corresponding policy space.

  1. Boring. Pick something dry and technical that has outsized effects, probably something in the regulatory sector. The goal here is to fly under the radar and not attract attention. Plenty of bipartisan bills pass this way.

  2. If you can't be boring, sidestep expected gridlock by picking an issue that cuts across party lines. Something that splits Republicans so that some of them will vote with the majority of Democrats or vice versa. This is going to depend on what preexisting fracture lines lie within your local or state political parties.

(Question 1) 2019 was entirely composed of taking a break as much as possible from political things. I was pretty burnt out and needed to recover. I worked as a nanny, which is something I really enjoyed for its own sake even though I didn't have an intention of continuing with it long term.

Early in 2020 I left my nanny position and started doing a fair amount of exploratory work around land use reform, registering an org with the Secretary of State, having a lot of conversations with YIMBY types in my area, etc. Some time around June, I had a very self-reflective day, where I sort of realized that even if I left behind criminal justice reform as a cause area (and thereby attempt to avoid the emotional toll that kind of work was taking on me), there were several aspects of any public-facing career that were incompatible with the kind of life I want to lead. (One example would be the high levels of self-censorship required.)

For a few reasons, I'd long thought it would behoove me to acquire more "hard" skills. Some of the policy-adjacent but non-public-facing roles that I'm most interested in require a background in data science, so I've been enrolled in a pretty intense data science program since late August. I expect to graduate at the beginning of March.

I'll put my answer to question 2 in a separate comment. =)

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