Jackson Wagner

Space Systems Engineer @ https://www.xonaspace.com/pulsar
Working (6-15 years of experience)
2353Fort Collins, CO, USAJoined Apr 2021


Engineer working on next-gen satellite navigation at Xona Space Systems. I write about effective-altruist and longtermist topics at nukazaria.substack.com, or you can read about videogames and other silliness at jacksonw.xyz


Thank you for all these details! It's true, I was only aware of the general outlines of Spain's transition to democracy. I guess it is more correct to say that I am inspired by the /abstract fantasy/ of inheriting the reins to an oppressive government and then turning everything around in a virtuous and altruistic way, rather than by the messy real-world character flaws that feature in the actual histories of Deng Xaoping, Juan Carlos, Mikhail Gorbechav, etc.

I have the same feeling about the idea of subsisting on short-term grants -- it sounds awesome, but way too transient and unstable for me to really consider. I wrote a post about this here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/KdhEAu6pFnfPwA5hf/grantees-how-do-you-structure-your-finances-and-career

OpenPhil is already pretty hip to the cause of YIMBYism!  See the "land use reform" section of their US policy focus areas:

Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, leading to higher housing prices, especially in a few large high-wage metropolitan areas (e.g., New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.). More permissive policy could contribute to both affordable housing and the continued growth of centers of economic activity, allowing more people to access high-wage jobs and encouraging economic growth through returns to agglomeration. Working toward more permissive policy in those key regions from a public-interest perspective (as opposed to lobbying for specific developments) appears neglected considering the significant potential gains.

However, they haven't made a huge number of donations to YIMBY causes ("only" $7 million of grants!), I suspect because they feel that the benefits of YIMBYism, although large, don't quite measure up to other even-more-effective areas.  Perhaps also because in recent years, YIMBYism seems like it has attracted more attention  and created its own successful ecosystem of charities and interest groups (at least in a few places) -- OpenPhil might be figuring that the YIMBYs are already on-track for eventual victory.

I personally am a huge YIMBY (I literally have a copy of this sign outside my house), and I also think that EA should be paying more attention to the broader general cause area of "improving institutional decisionmaking" and boosting state capacity / "civilizational adequacy" in the developed world, of which YIMBYism is one part.  But I can see where OpenPhil is coming from.

Some EA-adjacent groups are more focused on land use and fixing problems in the developed world -- see for instance progress studies and its "Housing Theory of Everything", or the EA-adjacent political commentator Matt Yglesias who was involved in helping launch the modern YIMBY movement some years ago.

Another example of good moral behavior by Nazis: Dietrich von Choltitz was the commanding officer in charge of occupied of Paris in 1944 as Allied armies were closing in.  Hitler demanded that Paris be razed as the German army retreated, but Choltitz refused.  From Wikipedia:

On the 23 August, Hitler gave the order to destroy the city by cable: "Paris must not pass into the enemy's hands, except as a field of ruins.", after which explosives were laid at various bridges and monuments (which later had to be de-mined[14]).

With the arrival of Allied troops on the edge of the city at dawn the next day on the 24th, Choltitz made the decision not to destroy the city, and on 25 August, surrendered the German garrison, not to the Supreme Allied Command, but rather to representatives of the provisional government, the Free French.[11] Because Hitler's directive was not carried out, Choltitz is often seen as the "Saviour of Paris".[15][16]

Hitler did not completely give up on the destruction, with the Luftwaffe conducting an incendiary bombing raid on August 26, and V2 rockets fired from Belgium, causing extensive damage.[14]

The events leading up to the surrender were the subject of a 1951 memoir written by General von Choltitz, where he took credit for disobeying Hitler's orders and saving Paris because of its obvious military futility, his affection for the French capital's history and culture, and his belief that Hitler had by then become insane. His motivation not to destroy the city may have been made in part because it was a futile and destructive gesture, but also in order to ensure his better treatment after capitulation.[20]  The memoirs also state that he was persuaded to spare the city in part by an all-night meeting with Nordling on the night of 24 August.  He did hold several meetings with Nordling, along with the president of the municipal council, Pierre Taittinger, hoping to limit the bloodshed and damage to the city, and which led to the release of some political prisoners.

As Wikipedia notes, the decision to spare the city was almost overdetermined... at some point as you get increasingly late in the war, ignoring the crazy orders from Berlin is less moral heroism than basic practicality.

Also, similarly to Deng Xiaoping and Nikita Khrushchev who I mentioned in my answer, it is a bit too easy for these people to look morally exemplary and make big improvements to their society, since it isn't hard to be morally superior to Hitler, Mao, or Stalin!!

I am looking forward to someone creating a wacky dashboard where we can learn who are the most-upvoted but also most-disagreed-with posters on the Forum.  If we think EA is getting too insular / conformist, maybe next time instead of a Criticism & Red-Teaming contest, we could give out an EA Forum Contrarianism Prize!   :P

  • Mike Jackson, a British Army officer participating in the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, refused to obey orders to capture a Russian-held airport (which could have sparked direct conflict between NATO troops and the Russian Army):
    • Mike Jackson served in the NATO chain of command, reporting to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, American four-star General Wesley Clark. Under Jackson's command, the ARRC deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina in March 1999,[13] where Jackson served his second tour of duty in the Balkans, commanding KFOR, NATO's multi-national peacekeeping force established at the end of the Kosovo War. He gained significant media attention in June 1999 after a confrontation with Clark in which he refused to block the runways of the Russian-occupied Pristina Airport and isolate the Russian troops there, thus preventing them from flying in reinforcements.[40][41] In one heated discussion with Clark, Jackson reputedly told him "I'm not going to start the Third World War for you".[40] He later told the BBC he believed that obeying the order would have led to the possibility of an armed confrontation with Russian troops, which he felt was not "the right way to start off a relationship with Russians".
  • By the same token, there are probably a whole lot of unsung heroes right now who are working to make sure that Russia/Ukraine/NATO are able to navigate as best as possible this scary new phenomenon of fighting a massive, bloody, tragic, near-total, yet still limited war over the future of Ukraine, without escalating into a potentially nuclear direct conflict between Russia and NATO.  Most notably, Ukraine holding back from attacking targets inside Russian territory and Russia holding back from attacking targets inside NATO territory, even though it must be extremely tempting to do so.
  • There are definitely lots of heroic stories from WW2 where commanders went out of their way to protect civilians, or refused to destroy towns / cultural landmarks even when it would've been tactically advantageous (taking Kyoto off the list of atom-bomb targets is a famous example, although there doesn't seem to have been much pressure to keep Kyoto on the list -- there have been many smaller-scale showdowns where the pressure to attack a treasured cultural site must have been much higher), or refused to cooperate with Nazi authorities who were rounding up Jews and others as part of the Holocaust.  (Same goes for people who refused to cooperate with other oppressive police states, such as the east-German Stasi or Soviet KGB).  Unfortunately I am not familiar with many specific stories.
  • It would be interesting if anyone could name sufficiently large-scale examples of a corporation making a strongly virtuous decision against a strong profit motive.  Ie, a cigarette / gambling / tobacco company deciding to wind down their activities or change their business strategy (in a way that actually helped long-term, rather than just creating an opening for someone less scrupulous), or lobby for regulations that would hurt them but serve the public interest, or etc.
  • Similarly, it would be interesting to hear examples of people inside non-military government agencies who made important decisions that went against their personal incentives.  There are many Watergate-like stories of law-enforcement agencies investigating corruption even though higher-ups want to shut down the investigations.  I could also imagine there might be some heroic stories along the lines of someone at the FDA approving an experimental medicine for, say, HIV, despite public disapproval of homosexuality at the time and the notorious culture of risk-averse safetyism at public health agencies.  (The first confirmed cases of "community spread" of Covid-19 were discovered by intrepid researchers breaking CDC orders that mandated who was allowed to be tested and what tests were allowed to be used!)

Not quite as dramatic as a commander disobeying military orders, but a similar category includes basically all "could-be dictators" who could've assumed absolute control and used it for selfish ends, but instead worked to create a better society and then willingly relinquished power at the end of their terms.  These people might not have been under external pressure to continue ruling, but they probably resisted strong personal temptation and the pressure of their supporters/allies:

  • George Washington refusing to run for a third term in office in 1796, setting the precedent of the two-term US presidency.
  • (Probably a whole lot of George-Washington-like figures in post-colonial countries in Latin America / Asia / Africa that gained their independence and adopted democracy over the past 200 years!  Unfortunately I can't name many detailed examples.)
  • Juan Carlos De Borbon was the King of Spain in the 1970s, pretended to be supportive of Fransisco Franco's fascist government, and due to that loyalty he was hand-picked by Franco to succeed him in leading Spain's autocracy after Franco's death.  But actually, shortly after Franco died, Juan Carlos revealed his true colors, pivoting towards enthusiastically embracing democratic reforms and shepherding Spain through a bloodless transition to democracy!!  He later abdicated the throne in 2014, ending the monarchy.  This story has always been a huge moral inspiration to me.
  • Mikhail Gorbechev helping dismantle the Soviet Union.  (To a lesser extent, you could count Deng Xiaoping in China who pivoted China towards capitalism and away from the insane chaos of the Mao era.  To an even lesser extent, you could count Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, who "de-Stalinized" the USSR but otherwise kept the oppressive communist system going.)
  • Al Gore notably decided to respect the (controversial) decision of the Supreme Court after the ridiculously-close presidential election of 2000, refusing to go full-steam and litigate the election indefinitely out of respect for the nation's civic integrity.
  • The "Ibrahim Prize" is a Nobel-Prize-like award given out "to a former African executive head of state or government on criteria of good governance, democratic election and respect of terms limits" -- basically for people who make like George Washington and do the right thing at the end of their term.  It has been awarded seven times since 2007, including an honorary retrospective award to Nelson Mandela, and most recently to Mahamadou Issoufou in 2020 after the first-ever peaceful democratic transition of power in Niger.

I am a big fan of living in DC and I think EA should absolutely have a bigger presence there -- it should probably be the #2 largest hub.

I am also a fan of diversifying EA in general, starting more spin-off movements (like Progress Studies) and building mini-hubs in more cities.  Furthermore, I'm pessimistic about California's future: I grew up here, but I'm moving away to Colorado later this month because I can't see a good life for myself in the too-expensive Bay Area.

All that said -- if you are a longtermist who thinks that AI risk is the biggest and most pressing X-risk, the case for keeping the primary EA hub in the Bay Area (to influence the top labs which are actually developing AI, and to recruit top tech researchers who can work directly on AI alignment) is totally ironclad IMO, and it's important enough to overcome all the familiar complaints about rent, crime, remoteness, etc.  I and many other EAs do feel like AI is the most important issue by a noticeable degree, so "there are more cause areas centered on the East Coast" is not worth much to me.

tl;dr, I think we should aim to diversify a little, keeping the Bay Area as the primary hub, just not by such an overwhelming margin.

I spent two years in northern Virginia (not working as an EA or in policy, but rather an aerospace engineer) -- I loved it and I have always thought there should be a bigger EA/rationalist hub in DC given its obvious geopolitical significance.  I remember being surprised when I moved to the city at how it felt so energetic and full of young people, very different from my image of how our top political leaders are all in their 80s.

I also want to reiterate how, coming from the west coast (previously lived in Colorado and northern California), the quality of the museums and sights is just amazing -- not only do you have a ridiculous array of totally free Smithsonian museums (and a lot of non-Smithsonian museums too... the museum of the Marine Corps is very cool and underrated!), you also have a ton of assorted beautiful monuments / gardens / architectural marvels / etc all around the city, like the beautifully-decorated and largest church in North America, the Lotus festival at the National Aquatic Gardens, etc.  It is not like San Fransisco where you visit the Exploratorium and maybe an art museum and then you've seen most of the cool stuff -- in DC, you can literally make it a hobby to spend every other weekend perusing a new museum full of amazing cultural treasures, and you won't run out for over a year.

Another thing that I loved about DC was the amount of interesting stuff that you could visit within a short drive of the city itself.  In Colorado, Denver/Boulder are really fun and have great mountains, but if you want to go anywhere besides that you've basically got to drive 1000 miles.  In DC, you can take weekend trips to Baltimore, Richmond, Pittsburgh, New York, civil war battlefields, Monticello, the historical sites and theme parks near Jamestown and Williamsburg, etc.

Two potential downsides to living in DC:

1. Lots of people are in DC for only a short time, driven by their careers.  This reflects the city's ambition and energy, but it does mean that it might be hard to put down permanent roots there, and social relationships feel more ephemeral than they might elsewhere, because it feels like anyone might move away at any moment.  To some extent being in the EA/rationalist community mitigates this, because you are slotting into an existing culture with so much shared background knowledge & values.

2. Although it is close to lots of amazing cultural sites and world-class cities, it does not have that much access to nature.  Shenandoah and chesapeake bay are cool (did you know NASA sometimes launches orbital rockets from Virgnia?), but they are obviously a far cry from the natural beauty of Colorado or California.  The weather in DC is also kind of meh, with hot and humid summers and winters that can get inconveniently icy/slushy.  But the weather also has its upsides -- the year-round average temperature of DC is just right (unlike eg New York which is on the cold side), so you get beautiful springs and falls there, a real four seasons that you don't get on the west coast.

I enjoyed reading this informative and well-researched post, but honestly one of my takeaways was that YIMBY (or "land use reform" as openphil calls it) seems like a marginally better cause area than crime reduction:

  • You say that the total cost of crime to society is similar to the total cost of land-use restrictions.  But the solutions to land-use restrictions seem pretty obvious -- to a first approximation, just let people build more houses by having higher levels of government squash local opposition to projects.  (Then if you want to get fancy, you can address flaws in the first-order solution with patches like congestion pricing, Harberger / Land Value taxation, etc.)  Meanwhile, the solutions to crime seem more nebulous: yes, I agree we're probably underpoliced and overimprisoned, but cutting against this is the "incapacitation" effect you mention of locking up the small percentage of repeat offenders.
  • It's hard to say exactly why, but  to me, these crime-reduction ideas seem like they'd probably run into to diminishing returns.  Even if you managed to encourage optimal policing policy across hundreds of local counties/cities,  it's hard to picture an amazing total victory that turns America into a nordic-style low-crime utopia.  I would expect something more like a 30% reduction in crime, closing some but not all of the gap between the USA and Europe.  To me, total victory in the YIMBY arena seems more plausible (although again, idk why, just a feeling).
  • (For me to believe that a low-crime utopia is possible in the USA -- matching or besting countries like Japan -- I feel like it would have to involve some totally wild mechanism of the sort that Robin Hanson would dream up, or possibly some kind of intensive social-credit system.)
  • YIMBY problems are arguably greater in scale: prohibitively expensive urban real-estate is a plague across the entire developed world -- places like the UK, Canada, and New Zealand have it even worse than the USA.  Meanwhile, most discussion that I see about crime focuses on how America has anomalously high crime rates and should aspire to be more like low-crime Europe.  If crime is dragging down America's GDP by ~10%, but land-use is dragging down the entire developed world's GDP by ~10%, then land-use would be the bigger overall issue.  (On the other hand, you could say this is an argument for the tractability of crime reduction -- just be more like Europe!  Versus the global nature of land-use problems maybe indicates that, as easy as it seems to just let people build more housing, perhaps there is some universal force of creeping vetocracy and stakeholder management that will eventually doom any attempts to go full YIMBY.)

All that said, even here on the EA Forum which is all about prioritizing causes, it feels pretty silly for me to be doing a compare/contrast between YIMBY and crime-reduction policies when I am in favor of both, and the two feel so synergistic!  (You mentioned how one of the major costs of crime is that it causes people to feel unsafe in cities and move to the suburbs.  And in my own life, I personally care about both affording a home and living in a safe, high-trust neighborhood.)  I am not trying to start a debate, rather I suppose I am asking, "As a guy who is excited about institutional experimentation and big potential improvements to civilization's status quo, what are the most interesting/hopeful/exciting ideas about crime-reduction policy?"

Some other questions, if you will forgive the stream-of-consciousness style of this long comment:

  • Some people say that you could reduce crime a lot by looking at "pipeline"-style interventions very far upstream of the crimes themselves.  Do any of these seem to you like they'd plausibly have big effects on crime in the USA?  I've heard people mention things like:
    • investing more in schools (and generally "investing in communities", eg libraries)
    • running a sufficiently hot economy that unemployment is kept low
    • removing pollutants like lead from the environment
    • something about cultural values and fatherhood, idk
  • My impression is that drug use explains some (but not all) of the western hemisphere's high crime rates compared to Europe and East Asia.  So any approaches to reduce drug use (or somehow make drug use less criminogenic / change what drugs are popular / etc) would be very valuable.  But (per this Slow Boring article), this seems like a very hard problem.  Do you see any promising approaches here?

Don't historians often write about how the totalitarian governments of the 20th century were enabled by various new technologies?  (ie, radio and newspapers for propagating ideology, advances in bureaucratic administration that helped nations keep tabs on millions of individual citizens, etc?  People are always mentioning things like how IBM made those punch-card machines that the Nazis used to help organize the holocaust.)  I don't think that stable totalitarianism is very plausible with modern-day technology.  But new technology is being developed all the time -- the fear is that just like the 20th century made "totalitarianism" possible for the first time, the balance of new technology might shift in a way that favors centralization of government power even more strongly.

Political commentators often mention that China has developed a lot of innovative high-tech methods for controlling its Uighur population: AI-based facial tracking and gait analysis to identify people's movements around the city, social credit scores to lock them out of opportunities, forced sterilization to reduce birthrates, etc.  Obviously China's innovations aren't good enough that they'll be able to outcompete the free world and attain perfect global hegemony, or anything like that!  But technology is unpredictable; future surveillance tech might give much bigger advantages to authoritarian systems.

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