Different forms of capital

Currently, the EA movement tracks human capital and financial capital, using metrics like “number of engaged EAs” or “amount of money pledged toward EA causes”. But other forms of capital seem as important, less understood, and less measured. Plausibly, part of the explanation for the neglect is measurability bias (a streetlight effect).

Network capital

Network capital is the existence and strength of links between people in a social network. Links can have different forms; a very basic one is the ability to get another party’s attention and time, or tacit permission to reach out to them. Other types can include trust, degree of ability to model the other party, and so on.

It would be good to think about what kind of network capital the movement is lacking, what kind of capital will be useful in future, but also how do we find the shortest paths through implicit networks not available as data?

In some sense the standard EA focus on broad career capital, recruitment from elite schools, and elite expertise already builds a lot of network capital. What seems less clear is the ability to effectively use it to do good.

On one occasion, a small group of EAs went through the list of people Dominic Cummings follows on Twitter, and found that we had met or worked with ⅓ of them.

Example: the EA bet on the civil service. A main effect of EAs entering and climbing the civil service is reducing the rest of EA’s distance from power centres. Each EA civil servant is then a network capital multiplier for the rest of us. A counterpoint is that this will tend to reduce the distance from x people to 3 people, but in catastrophes it is far better to go from x to 1. (That is, EA → minister.)

Structural capital

Structural capital is the ability of the holder to absorb resources (e.g. people or money) and turn them into useful things. It takes various forms:

  • functional and scalable processes,

  • competent management,

  • suitable legal status and backing,

  • good operations support,

  • well designed spaces,

  • well written code.

On this framing, it may make sense to ask questions like:

  • How much of these forms of capital do we have?

  • How is it distributed?

  • When we are converting between different forms, or substituting one form of capital with another, what are the conversion rates?

  • Are we using the different forms of capital efficiently?

This is a part of series explains my part in the EA response to COVID, my reasons for switching from AI alignment work for a full year, and some new ideas the experience gave me. It was co-written with Gavin Leech.