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Becoming an EA Architect: My First Month as an Independent Researcher

This group isn’t exactly EA-aligned, but they’re working on questions that are very relevant to a number of the topics you raised, so you might want to give them a look.

https://forhealth.org/

Where should I donate?

Hey, sorry, I totally forgot about this until I stumbled across this recent discussion on donating to help with the situation in Ukraine earlier this week. I've pasted a bibliography of relevant papers below.

Aker, Jenny C., Paul Collier, and Pedro C. Vicente. “Is Information Power? Using Mobile Phones and Free Newspapers during an Election in Mozambique.” The Review of Economics and Statistics 99, no. 2 (May 2017): 185–200. https://doi.org/10.1162/REST_a_00611.

Armand, Alex, Alexander Coutts, Pedro C. Vicente, and Inês Vilela. “Does Information Break the Political Resource Curse? Experimental Evidence from Mozambique.” American Economic Review 110, no. 11 (November 1, 2020): 3431–53. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.20190842.

Banerjee, Abhijit, Nils T. Enevoldsen, Rohini Pande, and Michael Walton. “Public Information Is an Incentive for Politicians: Experimental Evidence from Delhi Elections.” Working Paper. Working Paper Series. National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2020. https://doi.org/10.3386/w26925.

Besley, Timothy, and Robin Burgess. “The Political Economy of Government Responsiveness: Theory and Evidence from India.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117, no. 4 (November 1, 2002): 1415–51. https://doi.org/10.1162/003355302320935061.

Bruns, Christian, and Oliver Himmler. “Newspaper Circulation and Local Government Efficiency: Newspaper Circulation and Local Government Efficiency.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics 113, no. 2 (June 2011): 470–92. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9442.2010.01633.x.

Casey, Katherine. “Crossing Party Lines: The Effects of Information on Redistributive Politics.” American Economic Review 105, no. 8 (August 1, 2015): 2410–48. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.20130397.

Conroy-Krutz, Jeffrey. “Media Exposure and Political Participation in a Transitional African Context.” World Development 110 (October 2018): 224–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.05.002.

Drago, Francesco, Tommaso Nannicini, and Francesco Sobbrio. “Meet the Press: How Voters and Politicians Respond to Newspaper Entry and Exit.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 6, no. 3 (July 1, 2014): 159–88. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.6.3.159.

Enikolopov, Ruben, Maria Petrova, and Konstantin Sonin. “Social Media and Corruption.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 10, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 150–74. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.20160089.

Enikolopov, Ruben, Maria Petrova, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. “Media and Political Persuasion: Evidence from Russia.” American Economic Review 101, no. 7 (December 1, 2011): 3253–85. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.101.7.3253.

Enríquez, José Ramón, Horacio Larreguy, John Marshall, and Alberto Simpser. “Online Political Information, Electoral Saturation, and Electoral Accountability in Mexico.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2021. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3897408.

Ferraz, Claudio, and Frederico Finan. “Exposing Corrupt Politicians: The Effects of Brazil’s Publicly Released Audits on Electoral Outcomes.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no. 2 (May 2008): 703–45. https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.2008.123.2.703.

Gao, Pengjie, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy. “Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance.” Journal of Financial Economics 135, no. 2 (February 2020): 445–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfineco.2019.06.003.

Grácio, Matilde, and Pedro C. Vicente. “Information, Get-out-the-Vote Messages, and Peer Influence: Causal Effects on Political Behavior in Mozambique.” Journal of Development Economics 151 (June 2021): 102665. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2021.102665.

Grossman, Guy, and Kristin Michelitch. “Information Dissemination, Competitive Pressure, and Politician Performance between Elections: A Field Experiment in Uganda.” American Political Science Review 112, no. 2 (May 2018): 280–301. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055417000648.

Larreguy, Horacio, and John Marshall. “The Incentives and Effects of Independent and Government-Controlled Media in the Developing World.” In The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion, edited by Elizabeth Suhay, Bernard Grofman, and Alexander H. Trechsel, 589–617. Oxford University Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190860806.013.13.

Larreguy, Horacio, John Marshall, and James M. Snyder. “Publicising Malfeasance: When the Local Media Structure Facilitates Electoral Accountability in Mexico.” The Economic Journal 130, no. 631 (October 16, 2020): 2291–2327. https://doi.org/10.1093/ej/ueaa046.

Moskowitz, Daniel J. “Local News, Information, and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections.” American Political Science Review 115, no. 1 (February 2021): 114–29. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055420000829.

Pande, Rohini. “Can Informed Voters Enforce Better Governance? Experiments in Low-Income Democracies.” Annual Review of Economics 3, no. 1 (September 1, 2011): 215–37. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-economics-061109-080154.

Reinikka, Ritva, and Jakob Svensson. “Fighting Corruption to Improve Schooling: Evidence from a Newspaper Campaign in Uganda.” Journal of the European Economic Association 3, no. 2/3 (2005): 259–67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004969.

College Public Service Pipeline

[To clarify in case this was unclear: I am just a random outsider and have no association with this Amherst student group.]

I’m a bit skeptical that just trying to get more nonprofits to recruit on campus is a winning strategy here. Among other things, the vast majority of nonprofits don’t have dedicated recruiting staff, and the people responsible for hiring don’t have the time to travel to college campuses to recruit for entry-level positions. The same is going to be true of most public sector openings at the entry level, too. (I do think there are exceptions to this — you might be able to get some of the RA programs run by the Federal Reserve System to recruit on campus, which I think would be awesome.) Regardless of whether or not you get these organizations to come to your campus, though, I think you face the even more significant obstacle of many students believing it just isn’t a good career move to take a job in public service straight out of college. I’m not sure getting these jobs more visibility changes that. My sense in college was not that the people entering finance or consulting would instead have gone into government if they’d been aware of the availability of government jobs.

I think that to make a difference here you have to change the way people think about the opportunities presented by analyst programs at consulting and financial services firms. You have to show people that these aren’t the best things they could do out of college, given basically any set of public service career objectives.

As I see it, this pitch might look something like this (obviously, the details would vary based on the individual in question’s career goals, but for the sake of argument…): 

Let’s say you’re a senior in college, and you really, really want to work in the Executive Office of the President (of the U.S.) one day. There are basically three types of ways you could get there: 1) you could work in a Congressional office, in which case it would be reasonable to try to get a job on the Hill straight out of college; 2) you could enter the campaign world and try to attach yourself to a particularly promising candidate; or 3) you could attend a graduate program that would position you to enter top policy jobs. Options 2 and 3 could both plausibly include a stint in consulting right out of college, but I don’t think that’s likely to be the optimal path in either of those directions for most people making such a choice. In the case of option 2, if you want to work in communications in the EOP, you will probably want a comms job on a campaign, and if you’re about to graduate and don’t see a campaign you’re itching to join, then I think joining a political communications firm or the press office of an elected official at the state level or on the Hill would be your best bet. This template can also be applied to working in ops in the EOP -> ops on a campaign -> ops in state government or a Hill office (-> college student). If you’re considering option 2 but are hoping to do policy work in the EOP, then you’re probably going to want to do option 3 before doing option 2 anyway, so let’s jump there. 

To get a job in the EOP, there are basically three kinds of graduate school paths: 1) law school; 2) a top public policy (or similar) master’s program; 3) a PhD in a field in which the EOP needs people with subject-matter expertise (economics, certain scientific fields, etc.). If you want to go to law school, there is no marginal advantage to working in an elite management consulting or financial services job post-college relative to (more) attainable options in public service (to pick an arbitrary example, this), and there may be disadvantages (e.g., less time to study for the LSAT). If you want to get an MPP/MPA from Harvard, Princeton, etc., there is no marginal advantage to working in an elite management consulting or financial services job post-college relative to… basically any job in government — working on the Hill for a few years or for the municipal government of any major city would make an applicant more appealing to those programs. And if you want to get a PhD in nearly any field, working in academic research for 1-3 years will be wayyy more advantageous when you’re applying than spending two years at Bain or Goldman would be. In many fields, if you’re the sort who could get a job at Bain or Goldman, you could also get an RA job working for a world-renowned scholar, and that goes a very, very long way in PhD admissions. 

The rejoinder here, I imagine, is: “What if you don’t have any idea at all what you want to do? At the very least, an MBB consulting job won’t close any doors.” I definitely believed this argument when I was a senior in college, but in the years since I graduated, I’ve come to think that the high option value provided by elite analyst positions in finance and consulting is, to a large extent, limited to private sector roles and is thus of considerably lesser value to people aiming to have careers in the public interest. My sense is that hiring managers (outside of finance/consulting, and especially in public service) are almost never looking mainly for generalists who can legibly signal high intelligence. For the vast majority of positions, the marginal benefit of additional points on the SAT, or whatever, pales in comparison to the marginal benefit of relevant domain experience and motivation/commitment to the work of this position. As a result, a lot of government jobs strongly prefer people with a demonstrated history of working in public service. The thought is that committing to a career in public service is a costly signal, and people who are willing to pay the cost to send it are more likely to be motivated and less likely to jump ship to climb a professional ladder. On top of that, the competition for some of these positions is so steep that they don’t even have to compromise on other desirable attributes to get people who can demonstrate that commitment; they can just use it as a tie-breaker to distinguish otherwise identically qualified candidates at the top of their pool. So, more generally, I now think that to underspecialize is to lose options and good ones, too, as most really cool jobs require some degree of specialization. 

This obviously doesn’t answer the question of how to choose what to do after one graduates, which, admittedly, is genuinely hard. At a minimum, though, there’s some reassurance in the fact that the costs to making the wrong call aren’t that high. People in the first few years of their career typically enjoy a lot of latitude to pivot and try new things as long as they have a good attitude about it and aren’t in a rush to climb any ladders professionally. I basically did this and think it ended well. On that note, one thing that really helped me was having a lot of free time to reflect about my goals (and research how to best achieve them) in my first year out of college, when I was feeling very professionally unsatisfied. (I would hate to be very professionally unsatisfied and not have a lot of free time to figure out how to remedy the situation, which I imagine would have been the case if I’d been in consulting or finance.) I generally think that having free time to reflect and pursue independent projects in one’s first few years out of college is really underrated by most people, especially among EAs, for whom the returns to reflection are probably especially high. I’ll conclude just by saying: One of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever gotten was to prioritize working in places where my incentives would be aligned with my values and where I would be surrounded by people who would support me in making professional decisions in a manner consistent with my values. I think people tend to underestimate the impact of their environment on the possibilities that they can imagine for themselves. I know I did for a very long time. 

College Public Service Pipeline

"Public service" is obviously a huge and diverse category, but my strong impression is that many public interest jobs (including at the entry level) offer substantially better exit opportunities within public service than nearly any  management consulting gig (and I think this is true to an even greater extent if the comparison is with entry-level roles at investment banks or hedge funds). The problem, I think, is that at least in the U.S., there are very few public interest jobs that are 1) entry-level, 2) open to generalists without prior experience in some very specific area, 3) involve the kind of "substantive" responsibilities that would make them comparable "learning opportunities" to the positions available in consulting and finance, and 4) are at least in the vicinity of moderately high-impact work (very broadly construed). And the positions that do exist that meet these criteria are, of course, extraordinarily hard to get. Basically, I don't think the issue is actually that trying to enter public service  straight out of college is a bad career move.  I think it's often quite a good career move, and I definitely think more people should do it, but I think a big part of the reason more people don't is that it's a very risky thing to commit to as an undergraduate (compared to the options available in the private sector). Conditional on, e.g., actually managing to land a position doing the kind of work you want to do within an executive agency, though, I think the public servant is probably better-positioned for impact (including over a multi-decade time horizon) than the management consultant or the investment banker.

Where should I donate?

Yeah, I’d be happy to, but I may not get around to it until next week, if that’s alright.

Announcing our 2021 charity recommendations

New Harvest is also listed as a standout charity in spite of (my impression is) an even narrower focus on cell-cultured product innovation than GFI (which also supports plant-based meat substitutes). I too would love some clarity from ACE on this.

Where should I donate?

In the vein of “democracy promotion” and “longer-term/less measurable global development interventions,” you might consider donating to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and/or Partnership for Transparency Fund. I know more about ICIJ than Partnership for Transparency, but both strike me as a very strong organizations with impressive track records in fighting corruption in low- and middle-income countries. In addition to anecdotes of their achievements, there is also a growing body of evidence in economics showing that local investigative journalism can have really striking (positive) effects on various sorts of favorable political outcomes. Admittedly, most of this evidence, as far as I’m aware, is not from LMICs. Assuming it generalizes to that context, though (and I think there is good reason to believe it does), ICIJ in particular may be one of the few organizations out there with a reasonable prospect of cost-effectively improving the quality of institutions in LMICs, which (as others have noted elsewhere on this forum) is likely quite important for bringing about faster economic growth and other related positive development outcomes.

There's a role for small EA donors in campaign finance

Answering the question of whether a candidate is “good,” might well (at least on certain EA world views) be sufficient to answer the question of whether donating to the candidate would be (sufficiently) cost-effective (given evidence that 1) donations matter for getting elected, and 2) getting elected allows one to influence policy). Consider the case of a candidate running on a longtermist platform. My impression is that when longtermist grantmakers evaluate giving opportunities in existential risk mitigation, their decision process is much closer to “determine whether the opportunity in question has a reasonable chance of improving humanity’s longterm trajectory within a range of broadly acceptable costs” than to “conduct a thorough, systematic, GiveWell-style cost-effectiveness analysis.” I would think that roughly the same principles that apply to donations to organizations that lobby Congress for better biosecurity policy apply to donations to candidates for Congress who strongly favor better biosecurity policy. This seems to be the thinking behind OP’s post. The back-of-the-envelope intuition here is pretty straightforward; insisting on a GiveWell-style CEA in its place reads like an isolated demand for rigor.

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