Jonas Vollmer

Bio

I’m co-founding the Atlas Fellowship, a program that experiments with scholarships, camps, and online content for high schoolers in the US, India, and elsewhere, with Ashley and Sydney.

Previously, I ran EA Funds and the Center on Long-Term Risk. My background is in medicine (BMed) and economics (MSc). See my LinkedIn.

You can best reach me at jonas@atlasfellowship.org.

I appreciate honest and direct feedback: https://admonymous.co/vollmer

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, opinions are my own, not my employer's. (I think this is generally how everyone uses the EA Forum; others who don't have such a disclaimer likely think about it similarly.)

Comments
517

Topic Contributions
1

Given that a majority of (the voter majority of) cantons needs to be in favor ("Ständemehr"), a ~16 percentage point increase in yes voters would have allowed for the initiative to pass. That's a pretty large difference. 

Things that could have been done to make it more likely that the initiative passes:

  • Release shocking results of an undercover investigation ~2 weeks before the vote. Maybe this could have led to a 2-10% increase?
  • Have a much larger campaign budget ($5m or so). Maybe another 2-7%?

So with some extra resources and luck, this may have been possible to win, perhaps.

I share your general pessimism, but I'm curious if bigger shifts are possible on a 10-30y timescale. I think progress in alternative protein might help with that, and I'd like to have better forecasts on how that will develop, and what the implications are.

A "theory of victory" might be premised on assuming success, which would be a bad assumption to make, but insofar as we're not doing that, that's what I have in mind.

I expect this long-term strategy to come from EA; don't really think anyone else would do a good job (though of course happy to be surprised).

Update: The federal ban on factory farming has failed with 37% in favor, see here for more details.

The short version is that it's pretty easy for anyone to launch one if you have $500k in funding, it's really hard to get the wording of the constitutional amendment right, and the base rate of initiatives passing is just ~10% so it's hard to actually be successful. I already published a similar write-up here, which explains some of the background, and there is a general overview of ballot measures.

I'm not planning to produce a longer write-up because I don't expect me producing a write-up will directly enable useful work. I don't expect  more Swiss ballot initiatives to be especially promising (though there might be cool ideas around), and ballot initiatives work quite differently elsewhere. The basics of how Swiss ballot initiatives work are easy to google and well-documented in the media (including English ones). I also wasn't involved with the campaigning, so I can't really comment on that.

I agree with the impression that Mark Lee seemed the sole founder. I was helping Mark Lee with some minor contributions at THINK in 2013, and Jacy didn't occur to me as one of the main contributors at the time. (Perhaps he was more involved with a specific THINK group, but not the overall organization?)

I was one of the people who helped draft the constitutional amendment and launch the initiative. My quick takes:

  • My forecast had been a 3% chance of the initiative passing*, with a best guess of ~44% of voters in favor. So I was mildly disappointed by the results.
  • 37% is pretty good; many ambitious initiatives (with real rather than symbolic effects) that aren't right-wing-populist have had much worse failures.
  • In Swiss politics, initiatives that fail with 30-50% of voters in favor generally aren't regarded as total failures. They are generally perceived to lend symbolic support in favor of the issue.
  • I find it fairly encouraging that 37% of a mostly meat-eating population are voting in favor of fairly costly measures that would negatively affect them personally on a daily basis. Initial polls even suggested that 55% were in favor (but as voters got more informed, and as the countercampaign (with ~5x more funding) played out, it got lower).

(* An initiative passing doesn't just require a majority of the voters, but also a majority of the voters in a majority of cantons (states), which is a target that's much harder to hit for non-conservative initiatives. Even if >50% of the voters were in favor, this would've been unlikely to happen.)

 

Separately, I think the effective animal activism community should be much clearer on a long-term strategy to inform their prioritization. By when do we expect to get meat alternatives that are competitive on taste and price? At that point, how many people do we expect to go vegetarian? Is there a date by which we expect >50% of the developed-world population to go vegetarian? To what degree are policies shaped by precedents from other countries? I think this sort of thinking has happened to a substantial degree for AI alignment/deployment, but not much for animal activism. Instead, everyone is running cost-effectiveness analyses with relatively short time horizons and a direct focus on animal lives improved. (This might be reasonable if you're very pessimistic about large-scale shifts away from meat consumption anytime soon.)

These sorts of macrostrategic considerations could then inform whether to let an initiative like this one fail, or to make a concerted effort to actually win it, e.g., deploying a campaign budget of $5m, an experienced campaign team, plus a data science team.

I'm not confident, sorry for implying otherwise. 

After this discussion (andespecially based on Greg's comment), I would revise my point as follows:

  • The AI might kill us because 1) it sees us as a threat (most likely), 2) it uses up our resources/environment for its own purposes (somewhat likely), or 3) it converts all matter into whatever it deems useful instantly (seems less likely to me but still not unlikely).
  • I think common framings typically omit point 2, and overemphasize and overdramatize point 3 relative to point 1. We should fix that.
  • Is this is an overly pedantic nitpick? If you're making claims that strongly violate most people's priors, it's not sufficient to be broadly correct. People will look at what you say and spot-check your reasoning. If the spot-check fails, they won't believe what you're saying, and it doesn't matter if the spot-check is about a practically irrelevant detail as long as they perceive the detail to be sufficiently important to the overall picture.
  • I also have a bit of an emotional reaction along the lines of: Man, if you go around telling people how they personally are going to be killed by AGI, you better be sure that your story is correct.

I'm excited about the success of Effektiv Spenden, and excited about the idea of producing German EA content (if executed well). I'm unconvinced by the coworking space and sent you some feedback/input via email.

The EAIF funds many of the things you listed and Peter Wildeford has been especially interested in making them happen!  Also, the Open Phil GHW team is expanding a lot and has been funding several excellent grants in these areas.

That said, I agree with the overall sentiment you expressed and definitely think there's something there.

One effect is also: there's not so much proactive encouragement to apply for funding with neartermist projects, which results in fewer things getting funded, with results in people assuming that there's no funding, even though sometimes funders are quite open to funding the kinds of things you mention.

I do think there are opportunities that GiveWell is missing, but then again I've found it hard to find grantmakers who would actually do better than them.

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