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Representing future generations in the political process

Ah, it looks like I read your post to be a bit more committal than you meant it to be! Thanks for your reply! And sorry for the misnomer, I'll correct that in the top-level comment.

Representing future generations in the political process

Hi Tobias,

I'm glad to see CRS take something of an interest in this topic and I'm particularly happy to see some meta-level discussion of representing the interests of future generations which has been sorely missing from the longtermism space.

We are in full agreement that most extant proposals to represent future generations involve very weak institutions and often rely on tenuous political commitments. In fact, it's because political commitments are so tenuous that political institutions to represent future generations must at first be weak. Strong institutions for future generations have historically been repealed very rapidly, as Jones, O'Brien, and Ryan (2018) have argued from a couple case studies.

We are also in full agreement that there are problems of predicting the interests of future generations, and that getting more objective information about their interests is a key problem. This problem proliferates with increasingly longer timescales. This is why many of the solutions I am personally most favorable to are information interventions, such as creating research bodies like the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, which can distill and package extant expertise for legislative bodies, as well as posterity impact assessments, which can create strong incentives to gather more information about the future.

I find much less compelling the idea that "if there is the political will to seriously consider future generations, it’s unnecessary to set up additional institutions to do so," and "if people do not care about the long-term future," they would not agree to such measures. The main reason I find this uncompelling is just that it overgenerates in very implausible ways. Why should women have the vote? Why should discrimination be illegal?

The main long-term function that I see longtermist institutional reform, or any other kind of institutional reform playing is an institutional signalling role. There is compelling evidence that legal and political reform significantly shifts the norms and attitudes that people come to see as acceptable (Berkowitz and Walker 1967, Bilz and Nadler 2009, Flores and Barclay 2015, Tankard and Paluck 2016, 2017, Walker and Argyle 1964). Shifting laws and institutional norms credibly signals information about group attitudes to anyone who has access to information about those laws and norms. In this case, it signals that good, sensible, right-thinking people think that future generations are of great importance and that our political systems must be responsive to their interests. For this reason, there is a chicken and egg problem for institutional reform, but this chicken and egg problem is very friendly to supporters of institutional reform. Reforming institutions changes attitudes, which in turn creates the political will necessary to reform institutions further. Reformed institutions in turn create stable shelling points that prevent value drift away from core values.

For this reason, longtermist institutional reform is quite beneficial for information-gathering purposes. Representing future generations creates greater political and cultural will to gather objective information about the interests of future generations. It's an exercise in movement-building.

I don't know if you meant to narrow in on only those reforms I mention which attempt to create literal representation of future generations or if you meant to bring into focus all attempts to ameliorate political short-termism. In the latter case, it's worth noting that there are a large variety of likely causes of short-termism. Some of them are epistemic (we don't know what to do) and motivational (we lack the political will), but others are merely institutional. In these latter cases, the problem is not that we don't have enough information or will, but rather that the right information is not getting to the right people or that institutional mechanisms are preventing appropriately-motivated and informed actors from acting for the long term. These sorts of problems sometimes require different fixes, and they can sometimes be fixed simply by creating designated stakeholders who create relevant coordination points in government and have time allocated explicitly to considering the long-term. Political problems are often a problem of institutional incentives rather than of political will, and there are currently very strong incentives to focus on the short-term. I canvass many of the various causes of political short-termism in my (now rather lengthy) review on longtermist institutional design and policy.

As a classical utilitarian, I'm also not particularly bothered by the philosophical problems you set out above, but some of these problems are the subject of my dissertation and I hope that I have some solutions for you soon.

In short, I think there is reason for more optimism about longtermist institutional reform than you express here, but I am happy to have some further discussion of the problem and to see a call to consider more seriously the epistemic problems that plague such reform along with some possible solutions.

Applications are open for EAGxVirtual 2020

Thanks for clarifying all of this! Given that most questions are optional I no longer have this concern, and I'm glad that you've clarified this on the application.

Much looking forward to seeing you there as well!

Applications are open for EAGxVirtual 2020

Thanks so much to those involved in organizing! I wanted to share that I found the registration process (with its 40 or so questions, many requiring detailed information) quite onerous and I can imagine that it might deter some people from submitting completed applications. While this might sometimes be useful for a physical conference, to ration spots in part on the basis of the amount of effort put in, I can't as easily see how it would be useful for a virtual conference. But I may simply be insufficiently creative!

How should longtermists think about eating meat?

See also my 2018 EAG talk on shaping the long-term future through antispeciest legislative initiatives. Most of the relevant discussion starts at 8:40.


While I at the time thought the dominant beneficial effect would be through AGI alignment, I now think that we should think of these interventions as improving the value alignment of humanity and our descendents in general.

And cf. my and Jeff Sebo's paper on the indirect effects of eating meat and farming animals on human moral psychology and its importance for consequentialists:


In general, I'm with Michael in thinking that we should expect the dominant beneficial effects of vegetarianism and abolitionist efforts against animal agriculture to be their effects on human morality, which can positively shape the long-term future by better aligning the values of our descendents (and therefore their behavior) with our own values.

How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation?

Thanks! I appreciate your wariness of overemphasizing precise numbers and I agree that it is important to hedge your estimates in this way.

However, none of the claims in the bullet you cite give us any indication of the expected value of each intervention. For two interventions A and B, all of the following is consistent with the expected value of A being astronomically higher than the expected value of B:

  • B is better than A in most of the most plausible scenarios
  • On most models the difference in cost-effectiveness is small (within 1 or 2 orders of magnitude)
  • One could reasonably believe that B is better than A or that B is better than A

Extremely little information is communicated about the relative expected value of A and B by the above points, and what information is communicated misleadingly suggests that both interventions are quite close in expected value. Because EAs are concerned with the expected value of interventions, I think you ought to communicate more about the relative expected value of the interventions and frame your summary of the interventions in a way that is less likely to mislead people about the relative expected value of each intervention.

I think the ideally informative way to both communicate the relative expected value of the interventions and hedge on your model uncertainty in the summary is to (1) provide your expected value estimate, (2) explain that you have high model uncertainty and one could arrive at a different expected value estimate with different assumptions, and (3) invite participants to adjust the Guesstimate and generate their own predictions.

How good is The Humane League compared to the Against Malaria Foundation?

Thanks for doing this! Though it seems like you kinda buried the lede. Why isn't this in the top level summary?

  • In expectation, THL is >100x better than AMF
  • In the median scenario, THL is about 2-4x more cost-effective than AMF
  • A 71% chance that THL is more cost-effective than AMF
Older people may place less moral value on the far future

On the topic of the outlier age group:

"If it really is the case that the 55 to 64 year old age group is an outlier as the more present-day-centric group, it suggests that a simple “rational” explanation (“why care about the future when I’ll be dead soon anyway”) might not be the best explanation. Other socio-cultural factors may be at play."

I can see two decent explanations for why the 55 to 64 age group would have less longtermist values than either adjacent age cohort.

The first is cohort effects. As the Pew Research Center points out, there is no simple relationship between age and political ideology. While voters tend to become more conservative as they age (along with other effects on time preference, etc), their ideological identity is also greatly affected by the administration under which they come of age politically.

The second is the findings from Ahlfeldt et al. and others that 1) while voters become more conservative as they age, they become rapidly more conservative around retirement age, and 2) the very oldest people seem to experience some "end of life altruism" because they have very weak self-interested reasons (due to so little time remaining) and so their self-interested reasons are dominated by ego-transcending values such as altruism. (See especially the provocative graphs on p. 15 of Ahlfeldt et al.)

If either of these explanations is true, then it could be that the "rational" explanation is empirically adequate, but there are other effects in play as well.

Institutions for Future Generations

More on the question of what best explains these trends:


Ahlfeldt et al. analyze 305 Swiss referenda and argue that aging effects swing free from cohort effects and status quo habituation effects. "The evidence, instead, suggests that voters make deliberate choices that maximize their expected utility conditional on their stage in the lifecycle."

Institutions for Future Generations

I think these trends are not better-explained by the hypothesis that older people are more conservative.

1. In the study, older voters were more likely to support health spending on risks to elderly health and less likely to support health care cost cuts, and less likely to support education spending, public transportation and infrastructure spending, and job creation. They were also neutral on the creation of sports facilities.

While I unfortunately haven't been able to look at the 82 referenda to examine their specific content, on its face this looks less like a division on party lines and more like a division on lines of generational self-interest.

2. The authors report that "[W]e find that controlling for party affiliation (conservatives and greens) and region (Baden vs. Württemberg) reduces the age effect by about one-third (Table 5, columns 3 and 4)."

3. The fact that older people are more conservative itself requires explanation. Part of the explanation is plausibly that conservative ideology and political parties cater to the self-interest of older people. How much can be explained this way I cannot say.

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