Jason Brennan

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AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I don't want to get caught up in words. We can use new words:

Schmoop: Small bands of experts in bureaucracies get lots of power to unilaterally decide policy which controls citizens, businesses, etc.

Vleep: During elections, use some sort of knowledge-weighted voting system.

I am in favor of Vleep but oppose Schmoop. Lots of democrats favor Schmoop despite opposing Vleep. The recent failures of various regulatory agencies are failures of Schmoop but not Vleep. Against Democracy defends Vleep but not Schmoop. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

P.S. Regarding funding, we can give the money to any other US college or university. We'll have to figure out the mechanics--it may be that we can directly donate it to your school to use it, or, more likely, you'd have your class do it and we'd pay for students' expenses. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

It's clear the agencies did a bad job, as expected, because they had perverse incentives. For instance, the FDA knows that if it approves something that works badly, it will be blamed. If it doesn't approve something or it is slow to do so, most people won't notice the invisible graveyard. 

That said, it's not clear to me whether making this a more open or democratic decision would have made it any better. Citizens are bad at long-term thinking, cost-benefit analysis, seeing the unseen, and so on. You've probably seen the surveys showing citizens were systematically misinformed about facts related to COVID and the vaccines. 

Ideally we'd structure the bureaucracies' incentives so that they get punished for the invisible graveyard, but it's unclear how to do that. I'm really not sure what to do other than trying to streamline the process of approval or requiring that any drug approved in, say, Germany, the UK, Japan, and a few other countries is automatically approved here.


AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Let's say you have a 10 person workers' co-op which shares income equally. Each person now gets paid 1/10th the firm's profit. Thanks to diminishing marginal returns, if you add an 11th worker who is otherwise identical, they will contribute gross revenue/have a marginal product of labor that is less than the previous added worker's. When you divide the income by 11, everyone will make less.

This is a well-known problem in the econ lit. Of course, in real life, workers are not homogenous, but the point remains that in general you get diminishing returns by adding workers. 

As a toy illustration, suppose that there two countries, Richland and Poorland. Everyone in Richland makes $100,000/year. Everyone in Poorland makes $2,000/year. Suppose, however, that if half of the Poorlanders move to Richland, their income will up by a factor of 15, while domestic Richlanders’ income will increase by 10%. Thus, imagine that after mass immigration, Richland has 50,000 Poorland immigrants now making $30,000/year, plus it’s 100,000 native workers now each make $110,000 a year. From a humanitarian and egalitarian standpoint, this is wonderful. Further, this isn’t merely a toy example; these are the kind of income effects we actually see with immigration in capitalist economies.

But this same miraculous growth looks far less sexy when it occurs in a democratic socialist society with equalized incomes. Imagine that democratic socialist Richland is considering whether to allowing 100,000 Poorlanders to immigrate. Imagine they recognize that Poorlander immigrants will each directly contribute about $30,000 a year to Richland economy, and further, thanks to complementarity effects, will induce the domestic Richlanders to contribute $110,000 rather than $100,000. But here the Richlanders might yet want to keep the Poorlanders out. After all, when the equalize income ((100,000 X $30,000 + 100,000 X $110,000)/200,000), average incomes fall to $70,000. Once we require equality, the Richlanders see the immigrants as causing each of them to suffer a 30% loss of income. While for capitalist Richland, the immigrants were a boon, for socialist Richland, they are a bust. Unless we imagine our socialist Richlanders are extremely and unrealistically altruistic, they will want to keep the Poorlanders out.

Things get worse once we consider how real-world ethnic and nationalist prejudices will affect things. In fact, people are biased against foreigners, especially foreigners of a different race or religion. However, the beauty of capitalism is that it makes employers’ pay to indulge their prejudices; it literally comes out of their pockets. Thus, it’s not surprising, despite what some journalists and academics claim, that when economists try to measure to what degree wage differentials are the result of employer discrimination, they find that at most it’s quite tiny.[1]


[1] Goldin and Rouse 2000; Betrand, Goldin, and Katz 2010; Bolotnyy and Emanuel 2018.

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

A few ideas:

1. Spend the money replacing certain water heater elements at Georgetown. Some students did this for a few dorms, but they could do it for others. $200 can save the university $10s of thousands per year. Indeed, it's bizarre the university didn't copy the students' project. 

2. Help people start a small business in a poor country. $1000 can get one off the ground.

3. Do a fundraiser. $1000 can be turned into $20,000 which can be given to an effective charity. Federal rules prohibit direct donations but the $1000 can be turned into more money that can be donated. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

The Ethics Project requires students to deliberate ahead of acting, then act, and then reflect on what they did. Instead of role-playing problems, they deal with real-life problems first-hand. Educational psych lit says that adult learners learn by doing. The moral blind spots lit says that people learn to behave better by practicing reflecting on their strategic decisions before acting. 

Students routinely say it was the most significant learning experience they had. That's validating. 

I like it also because it shakes students of naïveté. They tend to thing social change and making a difference is easy. But then they have to do this activity, and they get to see first-hand how red-tape, free riding, distrust, and all sorts of other obstacles stop them. But they get a chance to overcome them. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

Nothing in particular. I will leave it up to students by having a call for research projects very soon. I think students can come up with really cool ideas on their own--indeed, a few have already pitched things to me that are worth funding.  I will look into that group. Thanks for offering--I may take you up on it. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

I answered this before and it didn't post. I'll try again. 

If voting matters, we have to treat it like matters.

EAs warn people, "Don't just donate $500! Be careful. Learn what works and what doesn't. Make sure you give to an effective charity rather than an ineffective or harmful one. Be aware that you are biased to make bad choices!"

But all that applies to voting. If voting can be like donating $50,000, it can also be like robbing a charity of $50,000. But oddly I see EAs telling everyone to vote and telling them to guesstimate, even though our evidence is that people are much worse at judging politics than charities, and even though guestimating a presidential candidate is orders of magnitude more difficult than judging a charity. 


AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

A lot of people seem to hate EA because they come convinced they know the solutions to this and that, but EA tells them those solutions don't work and stuff they reject works.

For instance, if "neoliberal" means anything, it means kind of mixed economy with lots of liberal markets but with various regulations and welfare programs. Empirically, this seems to work better than anything else we've tried--by a lot! But lots of people want to reject that a priori and they hate how comfortable EAs are with doing what...works. 

AMA: Jason Brennan, author of "Against Democracy" and creator of a Georgetown course on EA

My favorite book on human nature is The Elephant in the Brain by Simler and Hanson. I think they provide overwhelming evidence that people are mostly motivated by ignoble, self-centered motives. This explains why institutions are so dysfunctional or inefficient: Politics is not about policy, charity is not about helping, medicine is not about healing, education is not about learning. Once you read their book and see their evidence, you realize that people will generally do what sounds nice rather than what works. And this stuff is independent of, say, the political irrationality literature which says voters reason badly because politics is a commons. 

The odd thing I find is that people are democratic but technocratic, while I am epistocratic but anti-technocratic. Like they want equal voting rights, but then concentrate power in the hands of bureaucrats with perverse incentives, while I want enlightened preference voting but unconcentrated power. 

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