We truly do live in interesting times

Topic Contributions


Critique of OpenPhil's macroeconomic policy advocacy

I don't quite understand what your view is in your section on macro advocacy and in particular what you think is the relevance of that Weyl quote.

To be clear, I think this episode really shouldn't be taken as a lesson against technocracy. The technocrats were on the right side of this one - sure the Fed was too loose in '21 but if it had been controlled by politicians it probably would have been even worse. The size of the stimulus was also a textbook expression of populism.

Of course you could also argue that Fed tightness prior to 2021 was a failure of the technocrats. Still, I was rather perplexed to see numerous EAs and adjacent folks at the time call to erode Fed independence just because of one (admittedly persistent) mistake that was already being corrected. There is a lot to say in defense of central bank independence and it shouldn't be jettisoned so lightly.

Regardless, Open Phil grantmaking is not technocracy because Open Phil is not a government. Open Phil is a component of civil society. It's important to uphold this distinction because a common tactic of bad faith critics like Weyl is to hyperbolize private actions and judge them by the standards of government actions. Technocracy is a form of government not the mere belief that one has the merits to try to lobby the government to act differently.

Why I'm concerned about Giving Green

As Giving Green is still recommending donations to TSM in spite of what seems to be the majority opinion here, I'd like to highlight a recent letter to the White House cosigned by TSM (among dozens of other groups). The letter argues that the United States should be less "antagonistic" towards China in order to focus on cooperating on climate change.

In reality, the United States and China have already agreed to cooperate on climate change. So TSM et al are not proposing any obvious change in US-China climate policy. Apparently they want us to be more generally friendly toward China in other domains, so that the already-agreed-to climate cooperation can run more smoothly.

The first problem with this is that it's not clear that US-China cooperation on climate change can achieve much anyway. The idea that America should cooperate with China on climate change is a trite line that gets repeated constantly as a superficial aspiration but to me seems rather deficient in policy substance. Exactly how this cooperation on climate change is supposed to work is generally a mystery if you try to think beyond vague outlines. This letter states that the US and China can cooperate because they have 'complementary strengths', but this isn't even really true. The letter says "For example, the U.S. is the world leader in clean technology research and controls immense financial resources; China is the world leader in industrial capacity across a number of clean energy industries and is a major source of infrastructure financing across the Global South" but this is almost the same two strengths stated in slightly different ways. Clearly, both are financiers. China does have serious clean tech research and the US does have serious clean tech industry; maybe there is a comparative advantage in American research and Chinese manufacturing, but in practice you cannot separate green research and green manufacturing very easily (most of the recent green tech progress is innovations and scale arising from manufacturing), and there aren't severe trade barriers stopping American green technology ideas and Chinese manufacturing products from crossing the Pacific anyway.

No doubt there is room for some reforms of trade, travel and immigration to improve green technology transfer between the US and China. But in broad strokes, both the US and China can provide both financing and clean technology, this is classic economic competition. It is at least as likely that competition between the United States and China will lead both sides to put more effort into financing clean infrastructure and exporting clean technology. After all, China's motivation for infrastructure projects has been partly geopolitical, and there have been many calls in the US for financing similar infrastructure projects around the world in order to compete with China.

I am not alone in suggesting this. Numerous foreign policy experts have cut through the trite assumption echoed by that letter and shown how climate progress fits equally or better into a framework of competition with China.

Competition With China Can Save the Planet | Foreign Affairs

Why the United States should compete with China on global clean energy finance (brookings.edu)

Want to Compete with China? Deliver on Climate Security for the Indo-Pacific - Just Security

Productive Competition: A Framework for U.S.-China Engagement on Climate Change | Center for Strategic and International Studies (csis.org)

The second problem with TSM et al's idea that America should generally be more friendly with China is that it (obviously) has implications beyond climate policy. It is yet another example of TSM attempting to influence broader political issues besides environmental policy, an activity which can be either good or bad but definitely adds to the complexity and undermines the robustness of Giving Green's recommendation.

While TSM does not say so explicitly, the apparent subtext is that the United States should exercise little or no serious policy response to China's infliction of mass suffering through concentration camps in Xinjiang and its treaty-violating destruction of political rights in Hong Kong. Their only statement on human rights is that the United States should work together with China to support international best practices on human rights... this is a bizarre thing to say considering that China is one of the biggest current violators of international best practices on human rights. It can only suggest that either the letter signatories are ignorant of severe systematic human rights violations in China or they believe that we should turn a blind eye on them in order to focus on cooperating on other issues (almost certainly the latter).

The letter also has the subtext that the United States should exert less effort in deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and should be more reluctant to defend Taiwan in the event that China does invade that island nation, that the United States should tolerate China's allegedly unfair trade practices (I admit that I agree that the US should be more tolerant here, but some climate donors may disagree), and that the United States should tolerate China's efforts to change international institutions and international law. (I delve into the complexity and probable harmfulness of China's international political aspirations in this essay.)

In my estimation this letter is probably net harmful, and I would like to see anyone affiliated with EA exercise extreme caution before recommending donations to an organization which seems to implicitly discourage reasonable efforts to curb ongoing massive human rights violations.

Edit: here's another notable story. TSM cancelled an event in which they were planning to study protest tactics from Hong Kong, because sympathizers with the Chinese Communist Party were offended by the implication of legitimizing Hong Kong protestors. The mere fact that TSM is not holding events to study Hong Kong protest tactics is of course not a problem in itself, but backtracking and capitulating like this suggests that TSM suffers from moral rot and/or excessive influence by unsavory authoritarians.

Edit2: see Matt Yglesias' recent article suggesting that TSM is probably doing more harm than good. For completeness, here is a reply, which seems completely unconvincing, except the link to this article is something noteworthy to think about.

On AI Weapons

Sorry, I worded that poorly - my point was the lack of comprehensive weighing of pros and cons, as opposed to analyzing just 1 or 2 particular problems (e.g. swarm terrorism risk).

How well did EA-funded biorisk organisations do on Covid?

Hm, certainly the vaccine rollout was in hindsight the second most important thing after success or failure at initial lockdown and containment.

It does seem to have been neglected by preparation efforts and EA funding before the pandemic, but that's understandable considering how much of a surprise this mRNA stuff was.

How well did EA-funded biorisk organisations do on Covid?
Prevention definitely helps. (It is a semantic question if you want to count prevention as a type of preparation or not)

I don't think most people would consider prevention a type of preparation. EA-funded biorisk efforts presumably did not consider it that way. And more to the point, I do not want to lump prevention together with preparation because I am making an argument about preparation that is separate from prevention. So it's not about just semantics, but precision on which efforts did well or poorly.

The idea that preparation (henceforth excluding prevention) helps is conventional wisdom and I think I would want to see good evidence against this to stop believing in this.

Conventional wisdom is worth little when it is the product of armchair speculation rather than experience. If people live through half a dozen pandemics and still have that conventional wisdom then we can have a different conversation.

On pandemics specifically the quick containment of SARs seems to be a success story (although I have not looked at how much preparation played a role it does seem to be a part of the story)

Wouldn't preparation seem to be a part of the story of COVID-19 outcomes given a similarly superficial level of inquiry?

I agree but I think that designing systems that can make good decisions in a risk scenario is a form of preparation

Forget semantics. Did EA funding efforts and recipients design systems that made good decisions about COVID-19? Did anyone who talked about "pandemic preparation" pre-2020 use the term to encompass the design of systems like that?

A confusing factor that might make it hard to tell if preparation helped is that, based on the UK experience (eg discussed here) it appears that having bad plans in place may actually be worse than no plans.

Well you can't just define preparation as "good plans", that's a no-true-Scotsman argument. If you have some way of ensuring that your preparation will be good preparation then it's a different story.

Evidence from COVID does suggest to me that specific preparation does help. Notably countries (E Asia, Australasia)  that had SARs and prepared for future SARs type outbreaks managed COIVD better.

That isn't necessarily due to physical preparation, it could easily be intangible changes in the culture and political system, granting that there is in fact a causal connection as opposed to East Asia and Australasia just being better at this stuff.

iirc there was a study which found that American cities that lived through the Spanish Flu (1919) suffered less death early in the COVID19 outbreak. Cannot find the study now but if it's really true then that would be hard to explain through preparation.

Does that seem like a good summary and sufficiently explain your findings. 

I'm not sure exactly what anti-fragile means but that doesn't sound right, decision systems in the US/UK for instance didn't fall apart, they were just apathetic and unresponsive to good ideas just like they are for mundane problems that aren't big crises. In other words they calmly kept operating the way they always do.

I don't have reason to believe that there is a positive interaction between good leadership and good preparation. Maybe good preparation and good leadership act more as substitutes for each other rather than compliments.

Not sure it is useful to say 'prevention helps' since we cannot wish away viruses, we can only take measures to attempt to prevent viruses from emerging, and while those measures may be cost-effective it is a different conversation to which I have nothing to contribute.

I would summarize my view by saying that smart actions by government and civil society in the moment make the most difference, and if plans and preparation are to be helpful they will have to be done in careful ways to avoid the failures documented during COVID-19.

How well did EA-funded biorisk organisations do on Covid?

I moved my comment to an answer after learning that the index was directly funded by an Open Phil grant. You'd do better to repost your reply to me there. Sorry about the confusion.

How well did EA-funded biorisk organisations do on Covid?
Answer by kbogJun 09, 20215

The Global Health Security Index looks like a misfire. This isn't directly about performance during the pandemic, but Nuclear Threat Initiative, funded by Open Phil for this purpose (h/t HowieL for pointing this out) and collaborating with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, made the 2019 Global Health Security Index which seems invalidated by COVID-19 outcomes and may have encouraged actors to take the wrong moves. This ThinkGlobalHealth article describes how its ratings did not predict good performance against the virus. The article relies on official death counts rather than excess mortality, but I made that correction and reached similar results.

Looking through the index, there are some indicators which don't make sense, like praising countries for avoiding travel restrictions (which is perverse), praising them for having more ethical regulations against surveillance and clinical trials (which may be ethically justified but is more likely to make it harder to fight a pandemic), and praising them for gender equality (a noble sentiment but not directly relevant to pandemics).

Even cutting some of those dubious measures out, I found the index was not predictive of excess mortality. In general it appears that effective pandemic response is not about preparation and this may have been systematically overlooked by EA efforts and funding recipients in the realm of biorisk.

Some people have also criticized the index for rating China moderately highly on prevention of pathogen release, considering that COVID-19 came from China, but considering that COVID-19 is just one data point of virus emergence or lab leak and that China is a very large country I don't think this is right.

Which non-EA-funded organisations did well on Covid?
Answer by kbogJun 08, 2021-2

EAs have voted in various elections in the United States. This study adjusted for various factors and found that Republican Party power at the state level was associated with modestly higher amounts of death from COVID-19. Since the majority of EA voters have picked the Democratic Party, this can be taken as something of a vindication. Of course, there are many other issues for deciding your vote besides pandemics, and that study might be wrong. It's not even peer reviewed.

The difference might be entirely explained by politically motivated differences in social distancing behavior between Democratic and Republican citizens, although if that's the case it could still somewhat vindicate opposition to the Republican Party.

Also, the study was done before the vaccine rollout; it will be interesting to see a similar analysis from a later date.

How well did EA-funded biorisk organisations do on Covid?

Edit: I've reposted this comment as an answer, and am self-downvoting this.

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