KevinWei

Effective altruist & technologist based in NYC! I'm interested in AI governance, both near- and long-term tech policy, U.S. politics, community-building in EAs in politics / EA entrepreneurs, & diversity in EA.

Currently a Senior Marketing Manager @ DigitalOcean and incoming Schwarzman Scholar '23. Reach out: kevinlwei.com

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If you had an hour with a political leader, what would you focus on?

I would actually suggest that you do not discuss any policy proposals with these politicians/policymakers/people, as it could be ineffective for the following reasons:

  • Communicating policy to policymakers is a very specific skillset, and doing it effectively requires lots of practice. It sounds like this isn't your day to day, so I do not recommend starting with "fairly influential people in American politics"
  • Pitching policy is much more effective when you have i) established yourself as an expert in the field of that policy, and/or ii) developed deep relationships with the policymakers in question such that they trust your judgement
  • Oftentimes, it can be less effective to talk to a politician/policymaker directly instead of their staff/offices. I think this is especially the case with proposals that may need more explanation, which seems to be the case for some/many EA proposals

Additionally, there are associated risks such as:

  • Miscommunicating a policy in a way that turns them off of the policy or issue area
  • Persuading them that a policy is important, but then they find out about this thing called "EA" or "longtermism" and see negative press pieces about these things. And then they decide not to engage

Instead of pitching a proposal, I might suggest:

  • Asking for a point of contact in their office/staff: "By the way, I think that given circumstances X, Y issue is really important. I'd love to learn more about how you're thinking about this, who would be the best person in your office / amongst your staff to talk to? And what is their email address?"
  • Offering to make an intro to an expert: "By the way, I think that given circumstances X, Y issue is really important. My friend Z has a PhD / works for a think tank / has these relevant qualifications, can I make an intro to you or someone in your office? What's the best email to reach out to?"

If you really had to pick something, I'd probably try to choose a pandemic prevention policy that's relatively under-the-radar, has a minimal impact on state/federal budgets, and unrelated to anything that can be easily weaponized (e.g., lab leaks).

US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

I'd probably have to think harder about  breaking down the specific skillsets; re: the comments above, hiring seems to be one of the skills that would fall into this subset. It would likely be slightly different for different management roles. 

I agree with the weirdness in smaller races, but I think that this may be more of a culture issue than a talent issue—candidates should just learn to rein in their egos, step back, and realize that running a campaign is not a skillset that they have (and that they should let their staff handle it). I've worked with candidates who are very good about this, and it makes life much easier on a campaign.

Re: elite schools, I think the part of elite grads being disconnected from the reality of what happens in actual communities is probably true. But a bigger question may be, why hire at schools at all? I'm not sure that the set of skills one needs to be good at campaign roles is even weakly correlated to academic performance / admission to a top US university; people just seem to default to this as a proxy for hiring, and I don't think it's a good proxy.

US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

Also important to note: U.S. green card holders / permanent residents can also make financial contributions to political campaigns, so this opportunity is not limited to U.S. citizens!

Also, anyone can volunteer for campaigns afaik!

US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

Hmm,  I should probably be more specific in defining what I mean by "talent bottleneck in campaigns." There is probably less of a bottleneck for large campaigns at the presidential/gubernatorial/senate level; I would estimate that on smaller races from House and non-gubernatorial state-level races downward, there is:

  • A shortage of campaign staffers who have a skillset in campaign management / strategy—I would argue that campaign management / strategy is sufficiently distinct from non-profit / industry / other organizational management / strategy to warrant categorizing as a bottleneck
  • A shortage of staffers who are highly-skilled in field / organizing. There seem to be a large number of people who are moderately-skilled at this, but a shortage of people who are highly-skilled (weakly-held opinion derived from my personal experience, so I could be wrong about this one)
  • There is probably not a shortage of people who have the skills for data or digital work, but there is a severe lack of funding + pay is not competitive for these roles in smaller races. There may be a shortage of people with experience working with campaign-specific tools such as VAN or Action Network, but I don't think this is a bottleneck necessarily as these can be easily picked up if you have certain technical skills

To your point above, there is probably also an information problem in the campaign staffing job market in the sense that:

  • Prior work history on campaigns seems to be an extremely poor indicator for whether someone is actually good at working on a campaign
  • There are no good credential / educational indicators that would predict whether someone would be good at a campaign role; this may have changed somewhat with some of the orgs listed below but does lead to things like a severe bias toward hiring from elite schools in Democratic circles (which I think is very bad)
  • I have a weakly-held belief that most campaign management does not actually know how to hire, so even if they did have funding, they would probably not ask the right questions or do the right outreach to get talented campaign staffers hired

Some of these issues do seem to have gotten better in recent years with the advent of organizations/programs like the NDTC, Arena PAC, Movement School, various apprenticeship/bootcamp programs, etc. There are probably also conservative / Republican analogues to these programs, but I have no clue what they are as I don't work on that side of the aisle.

US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

+1 to @BlueFalcon's response below, and I would also add that:

  • There is indeed research that deep canvassing is effective, but the set of things that you can spend $ on to change people's minds ("persuasion") is only a very small subset of things that you can spend $ on in campaigns. For instance, spending $100 to ensure that a voter who already supports you turns out to the polls and votes does not change any minds but does net 1 vote.
  • There are thousands upon thousands of RCTs compiled over at Analyst Institute on how campaigns can effectively spend $. I shouldn't share anything too specific, but the research ranges on anything from messaging in a social media ad, timing of certain campaign expenditures, voter persuasion, etc.
  • Separately from all of the above: I think it is also true that from a donor's perspective, it is probably difficult to tell which campaigns are spending $ effectively. This is likely a combination of the following factors:
    • Most effective $ allocation will differ based on the candidate, party, demographic, district, etc.
    • Campaigns are (perhaps understandably) reluctant to discuss campaign strategy with basically anyone
    • There is no (publicly-shared) "impact evaluation" for campaigns
    • Many campaigns may in fact not be spending $ effectively because campaign staffing is extremely talent bottlenecked, and the Peter Principle probably holds strongly in many campaigns (esp smaller ones)
    • Campaign strategy shifts quickly
US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

The optics concern makes sense to me, but I'm 90% certain PACs and Super PACs can and do spend on things that are not ads? Eg paid canvassers/phone bankers, polling, mailers, etc.

Additionally (and I'm not advocating for this), there seem to be many ways to get around the coordination ban, e.g.: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/us/politics/buttigieg-votevets-super-pac.html

US Citizens: Targeted political contributions are probably the best passive donation opportunities for mitigating existential risk

I think the fact that contributions and contributors are publicly disclosed by campaigns at fixed intervals is another argument in favor of contributing to candidates (perhaps over other giving options) — particularly for EAs who may not be giving the max to a specific candidate. The number of contributions and/or contributors can often be used by political insiders/press as a signal for how well a campaign is doing, so for every new contribution/contributor, there is a small downstream effect of potentially influencing other people to also support that candidate. I'm not sure this dynamic necessarily exists for contributions to non-profits. In addition, the average contribution amount is also often used by political insiders/press as an indicator of how much "grassroots support" a campaign has.

I would also encourage EAs to contribute to non-federal candidates, i.e. state/county/municipal candidates and/or party candidates (such as precinct chair, county/national/state committee, etc). While these roles may be less directly relevant to x-risks, I think the probability of your contribution making an impact in a race is significantly higher. And candidates who win those seats can also eventually influence federal races in addition to creating state/county/municipal policy on things like pandemic prevention and through the budget allocation process.

Disclaimer: I have personally made campaign contributions and have worked on campaigns

EAG & EAGx lodging considerations

I did get one of those rooms through EA @ Georgia Tech. From my personal perspective, the block booking was convenient from a logistics perspective. It also probably had secondary effects for community building, as all of us staying in the same hotel helped us organize meetups / coworking time in the hotel.

From a cost perspective for the conference, my guess would be that it would be more cost effective to book a block rather than reimbursing individuals who book separately. Source: I had to do a bunch of block bookings for a past job, and it was significantly more cost effective. Interesting note is that in many hotels, single rooms and double rooms have the same nightly cost, so if many attendees had roommates then there is a potential for significant (40-50%) cost savings on hotel bookings.

EAG & EAGx lodging considerations

I like the reasons laid out here for why group rentals would be good/impactful, and anecdotally I've seen some of these dynamics play out.

Fwiw, I believe the EAGxBoston team did book a large block of rooms for attendees, which they offered/organized through EA group organizers.

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