FTX/​CEA—show us your numbers!

Forgive the clickbait title, but EA is as prone to clickbait as anywhere else.

It seemed at EAG that discussions focussed on two continuums:

Neartermist <---> Longtermist

Frugal spending <---> Ambitious spending

(The labels for the second one are debatable but I’m casually aiming for ones that won’t offend either camp.)

Finding common ground on the first has been an ongoing project for years.

The second is much more recent, and it seems like more transparency could really help to bring people on opposite sides closer together.

Accordingly: could FTX and CEA please publish the Back Of The Envelope Calculations (BOTECs) behind their recent grants and community building spending?

(Or, if there is no BOTEC and it’s more “this seems plausibly good and we have enough money to throw spaghetti at the wall”, please say that clearly and publicly.)

This would help in several ways:

  1. for sceptics of some recent spending, it would illuminate the thinking behind it. It would also let the community kick the tires on the assumptions and see how plausible they are. This could change the minds of some sceptics; and potentially improve the BOTECs/​thinking

  2. it should help combat misinformation. I heard several people misrepresent (in good faith) some grants, because there is not a clear public explanation of the grants’ theory of change and expected value. A shared set of facts would be useful and improve debate

  3. it will set the stage for future evaluation of whether or not this thinking was accurate. Unless we make predictions about spending now, it’ll be hard to see if we were well calibrated in our predictions later

Objection: this is time consuming, and this time is better spent making more grants/​doing something else

Reply: possibly true, and maybe you could have a threshold below which you don’t do this, but these things have a much higher than average chance of doing harm. Most mistaken grants will just fail. These grants carry reputational and epistemic risks to EA. The dominant theme of my discussions at EAG was some combination of anxiety and scorn about recent spending. If this is too time-consuming for the current FTX advisers, hire some staff (Open Phil has ~50 for a similar grant pot and believes it’ll expand to ~100).

Objection: why drag CEA into this?

[EDIT: I missed an update on this last week and now the stakes seem much lower—but thanks to Jessica and Max for engaging with this productively anyway: https://​​forum.effectivealtruism.org/​​posts/​​xTWhXX9HJfKmvpQZi/​​cea-is-discontinuing-its-focus-university-programming]

Reply: anecdata, and I could be persuaded that this was a mistake. Several students, all of whom asked not be named because of the risk of repercussions, expressed something between anxiety and scorn about the money their own student groups had been sent. One said they told CEA they didn’t need any money and were sent $5k anyway and told to spend it on dinners. (Someone from CEA please jump in if this is just false, or extremely unlikely, or similar—I do realise I’m publishing anonymous hearsay.) It’d be good to know how CEA is thinking about spending wisely as they are very rapidly increasing their spending on EA Groups (potentially to ~$50m/​year).

Sidenote: I think we have massively taken Open Phil for granted, who are exceptionally transparent and thoughtful about their grant process. Well done them.