Sam Bankman-Fried should spend $100M on short-term projects now
Epistemic Status: 75% confidence in the general thesis, ~40% confidence in the specific arguments used to support that thesis.
Note: I wrote this in a hurry and it isn’t my most well-polished piece, partially because most of my core reasoning is based on non-formal intuition from my experience doing media relations (most visibly for the tech startup SudShare, if you want to check my credentials). The reasoning given here should be read as a somewhat loose attempt to get that intuition into words, and not necessarily the crux of why I believe this to be necessary. I’m only releasing this post as-is because I likely won’t have the time/motivation to improve it.
I’m not sure if SBF himself reads this forum regularly, but but I hope the general argument at least makes its way to someone close to him, as I genuinely think this is pretty important.
Core thesis: SBF is going to be having an outsized impact on how people perceive EA, especially as he wades into political waters. Right now he is most famous for his cryptocurrency success, but this is not something that will help his public image outside of very specific markets. Spending ~$100,000,000 on altruistic projects with very near-term measurable impact (especially if that impact is felt within America/wherever he’s doing the most political philanthropy) is almost certainly worthwhile from a pure PR perspective, and can multiply the value of future political contributions.
According to a recent podcast interview, Sam Bankman-Fried (from here on referred to as “SBF”) is planning to donate up to a “soft ceiling” of $1,000,000,000 on the next US presidential election. I will assume that his team has accurately done the cost-benefit calculation and determined that this is a worthwhile cause area. If this is so, we need to consider both the best way for that money to make an impact within said cause area, and potential ramifications of making the donation.
An excellent case-study of what not to do here is the presidential election campaigns of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Bloomberg spend over a billion dollars(!) on his campaign in 2020, (with Steyer spending “just” $340 million), and yet lost the primaries by a landslide, only winning a single contest in American Samoa. In Tom Steyer’s case, I believe it’s likely that the sheer amount he was spending cost him votes—media coverage was such that being bombarded with ads for his campaign reinforced the impression of him as a power-hungry businessman running because he had nothing better to do.
For a more direct example, take Carrick Flynn’s recent campaign. Almost all media coverage focused on him as the guy being supported by a “crypto-bro” billionaire, which while perhaps a popular image in some tech-savvy subcultures, is not a very appealing image to most Americans. This made sense as a framing device because it’s what his primary funder, SBF, was famous for. If SBF doesn’t want that framing, he’s going to need to become more famous for something else. This is almost certainly worth investing at least 10% of the amount he is willing to spend on traditional campaign donations, since it seems to have such an outsized effect on election results—people really do care about (perceived) backgrounds, and the wrong framing can make billions in donations less than useless. In Flynn’s case SBF wasn’t even running, but heavy funders will be put under heavy scrutiny, and that’s inevitably going to impact the candidate’s public image as well. The good news is that changing what you’re most famous for is absolutely doable, but it’s going to take some work. One of the best possible ways to convince Americans that you are acting in good faith is to have a track record that backs up your core thesis. If you say that you’re an Effective Altruist (forget for a moment about how we define the term), by golly, you’d better have a track record of doing altruistic acts that have been measurably effective!
Unfortunately for SBF, so far none of his big ($100M+) donations have been easily measurable in impact, mostly because they’re focused primarily on the long-term future. This is great from the perspective of ultimately helping the greatest number of people, but it does mean that reporters will basically ignore it, due to a lack of reportable results. If SBF wants to become known as a capital-A Altruist who isn’t in it for some cynical tech-bro reason, he will (ironically enough perhaps somewhat cynically) have to create a Bill Gates-esque track record of saving lives in the here-and-now. This means spending enough money on short-termist non-partisan causes (which also preferably impact Americans in a noticeably positive manner) that the first thing people think of when they think of SBF are those cause areas. This is advantageous outside of the political arena as well, because it will help insure later buy-in for long-termist causes he later champions if he can show that he has measurably done great good in the world already.
As such, I would strongly recommend SBF spend at least $100,000,000 this year on a highly-visible neartermist cause, before funding his next political target.
This lesson extends outside of SBF to the larger EA community of course, but it seemed worthwhile to focus on him in this post, for obvious reasons.
[Please note that I have pretty low confidence in the accuracy of the rest of this footnote.] Compare this to Donald Trump in 2016, where the popular framing by those in favor of him was “he has a great track record of running his business; government is like a business in many ways; therefore he will probably do great in government”. This is despite the fact that he’s (arguably) a pretty terrible businessman! How did he create that impression? Two primary answers: the Art of The Deal, and The Apprentice. Yes, he was popularly known even before that, but those two pieces of media were what turned him from just another businessman to The Archetypal Successful Businessman in American consciousness. This is different from Bloomberg’s framing, where he was pushing his experience as Mayor of NYC over pretty much anything else (and very much failing at even that, but that’s another story).
[Please note that I have not fact-checked this footnote, though I am fairly confident my assessment is correct.] Bill Gates is an excellent example here, even though he’s also been the victim of many negative conspiracy theories: If he were to massively fund a political candidate, I suspect most news articles would focus on his work funding public health measures, rather than his time as CEO of Microsoft. Negative ads would still run connecting him with Big Tech of course, but the dominant media narrative would be around his qualifications as philanthropist, not his past in tech. It would be a massive win for SBF if he can pull off something similar.
I’ve chosen this amount because the impact of any less will likely get drowned out in the news cycle, and because it would be 10% of his “soft ceiling” on presidential political donations, meaning it’s an amount he should easily be willing to spend if he cares about that donation having a positive impact.