80,000 Hours: EA and Highly Political Causes

this ar­ti­cle is cross­posted from less­wrong.com

80,000 hours re­cently posted a guide to donat­ing which aims, in their words, to (my em­pha­sis)

use ev­i­dence and care­ful rea­son­ing to work out how to best pro­mote the wellbe­ing of all. To find the high­est-im­pact char­i­ties this giv­ing sea­son … We … summed up the main recom­men­da­tions by area below

Look­ing be­low, we find a sec­tion on the prob­lem area of crim­i­nal jus­tice (US-fo­cused). An area where the aim is out­lined as fol­lows: (quot­ing from the Open Philan­thropy “prob­lem area” page)

in­vest­ing in crim­i­nal jus­tice policy and prac­tice re­forms to sub­stan­tially re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion while main­tain­ing pub­lic safety.

Re­duc­ing in­car­cer­a­tion whilst main­tain­ing pub­lic safety seems like a rea­son­able EA cause, if we in­ter­pret “pu­bic safety” in a broad sense—that is, keep fewer peo­ple in prison whilst still get­ting al­most all of the benefits of in­car­cer­a­tion such as de­ter­rent effects, pre­ven­tion of crime, etc.

So what are the recom­mended char­i­ties? (my em­pha­sis be­low)

1. Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice

“The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice is a US or­ga­ni­za­tion that aims to re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion and racial dis­par­i­ties in in­car­cer­a­tion in states across the coun­try, and re­place mass in­car­cer­a­tion with new safety pri­ori­ties that pri­ori­tize pre­ven­tion and pro­tect low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties of color.

They pro­mote an ar­ti­cle on their site called “black wounds mat­ter”, as well as how you can “Ap­ply for VOCA Fund­ing: A Toolkit for Or­ga­ni­za­tions Work­ing With Crime Sur­vivors in Com­mu­ni­ties of Color and Other Un­der­served Com­mu­ni­ties”

2. Cosecha - (note that their url is www.lahuelga.com, which means “the strike” in Span­ish) (my em­pha­sis be­low)

“Cosecha is a group or­ga­niz­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants in 50-60 cities around the coun­try. Its goal is to build mass pop­u­lar sup­port for un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, in re­sis­tance to in­car­cer­a­tion/​de­ten­tion, de­por­ta­tion, den­i­gra­tion of rights, and dis­crim­i­na­tion. The group has be­come es­pe­cially ac­tive since the Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, given the im­me­di­ate threat of mass in­car­cer­a­tion and de­por­ta­tion of mil­lions of peo­ple.”

Cosecha have a foot­print in the news, for ex­am­ple this ar­ti­cle:

They have the ul­ti­mate goal of launch­ing mas­sive civil re­sis­tance and non-co­op­er­a­tion to show this coun­try it de­pends on us … if they wage a gen­eral strike of five to eight mil­lion work­ers for seven days, we think the econ­omy of this coun­try would not be able to sus­tain it­self

The ar­ti­cle quotes Car­los Saave­dra, who is di­rectly men­tioned by Open Philan­thropy’s Chloe Cock­burn:

Car­los Saave­dra, who leads Cosecha, stands out as an or­ga­nizer who is de­voted to test­ing and im­prov­ing his meth­ods, … Cosecha can do a lot of good to pre­vent mass de­por­ta­tions and in­car­cer­a­tion, I think his work is a good fit for likely read­ers of this post.”

They men­tion other char­i­ties el­se­where on their site and in their writeup on the sub­ject, such as the con­ser­va­tive Cen­ter for Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Re­form, but Cosecha and the Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice are the ones that were cho­sen as “high­est im­pact” and fea­tured in the guide to donat­ing.


Some­times one has to be blunt: 80,000 hours is pro­mot­ing the fi­nan­cial sup­port of some ex­tremely hot-but­ton poli­ti­cal causes, which may not be a good idea. Tra­di­tion­al­ists/​con­ser­va­tives and those who are un­ini­ti­ated to So­cial Jus­tice ide­ol­ogy might look at The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice and Cosecha and la­bel them as them racists and crim­i­nals, and thereby be turned off by Effec­tive Altru­ism, or even by the ra­tio­nal­ity move­ment as a whole.

There are stan­dard ar­gu­ments, for ex­am­ple this by Robin Han­son from 10 years ago about why it is not smart or “effec­tive” to get into these poli­ti­cal tugs-of-war if one wants to make a gen­uine differ­ence in the world.

One could also ar­gue that the 80,000 hours’ char­i­ties go be­yond the usual folly of poli­ti­cal tugs-of-war. In ad­di­tion to sup­port­ing ex­tremely poli­ti­cal causes, 80,000 hours could be ac­cused of be­ing some­what in­tel­lec­tu­ally dishon­est about what goal they are try­ing to fur­ther ac­tu­ally is.

Con­sider The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice. 80,000 Hours state that the goal of their work in the crim­i­nal jus­tice prob­lem area is to “sub­stan­tially re­duce in­car­cer­a­tion while main­tain­ing pub­lic safety”. This is an ab­stract goal that has very broad ap­peal and one that I am sure al­most ev­ery­one agrees to. But then their more con­crete policy in this area is to fund a char­ity that wants to “re­duce racial dis­par­i­ties in in­car­cer­a­tion” and “pro­tect low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties of color”. The lat­ter is sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent to the former—it isn’t even close to be­ing the same thing—and the differ­ence is highly poli­ti­cal. One could ob­ject that re­duc­ing racial dis­par­i­ties in in­car­cer­a­tion is merely a means to the end of sub­stan­tially re­duc­ing in­car­cer­a­tion while main­tain­ing pub­lic safety, since many peo­ple in prison in the US are “of color”. How­ever this line of ar­gu­ment is a very poli­ti­cized one and it might be wrong, or at least I don’t see strong sup­port for it. “Selec­tively re­lease peo­ple of color and make so­ciety safer—en­dorsed by effec­tive al­tru­ists!” strug­gles against known facts about re­dic­tivism rates across races, as well as an ob­jec­tion about the im­plicit con­fla­tion of equal­ity of out­come and equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity. (and I do not want this to be in­ter­preted as a claim of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity of one race over oth­ers—merely a nec­es­sary ex­er­cise in com­ing to terms with facts and de­bunk­ing im­plicit as­sump­tions). Males are in­car­cer­ated much more than women, so what about re­duc­ing gen­der dis­par­i­ties in in­car­cer­a­tion, whilst also main­tain­ing pub­lic safety? Again, this is all highly poli­ti­cal, laden with poli­ti­cized im­plicit as­sump­tions and lan­guage.

Cosecha is worse! They are ac­tively plan­ning po­ten­tially ille­gal ac­tivi­ties like helping ille­gal im­mi­grants evade the law (though IANAL), as well as ac­tivi­ties which po­ten­tially harm the ma­jor­ity of US cit­i­zens such as a seven day na­tion­wide strike whose in­tent is to dam­age the econ­omy. Their URL is “The Strike” in Span­ish.

Again, the ab­stract goal is ex­tremely at­trac­tive to al­most any­one, but the con­crete im­ple­men­ta­tion is highly di­vi­sive. If some con­ser­va­tive al­tru­ist signed up to fi­nan­cially or morally sup­port the ab­stract goal of “sub­stan­tially re­duc­ing in­car­cer­a­tion while main­tain­ing pub­lic safety” and EA or­gani­sa­tions that are pur­su­ing that goal with­out read­ing the de­tails, and then at a later point they saw the de­tails of Cosecha and The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice, they would rightly feel cheated. And to the ob­jec­tion that con­ser­va­tive al­tru­ists should read the de­scrip­tion rather than just the head­ing—what are we do­ing writ­ing head­ings so mis­lead­ing that you’d feel cheated if you re­lied on them as sum­maries of the ac­tivity they are mean to sum­ma­rize?


One pos­si­bil­ity would be for 80,000 hours to be much more up­front about what they are try­ing to achieve here—maybe they like left-wing so­cial jus­tice causes, and want to help like-minded peo­ple donate money to such causes and help the par­tic­u­lar groups who are fa­vored in those cir­cles. There’s al­most a nod and a wink to this when Chloe Cock­burn says (my para­phrase of Saave­dra, and em­pha­sis, be­low)

I think his [A man who wants to lead a gen­eral strike of five to eight mil­lion work­ers for seven days so that the econ­omy of the USA would not be able to sus­tain it­self, in or­der to help ille­gal im­mi­grants] work is a good fit for likely read­ers of this post.

Alter­na­tively, they could try to rein­vi­go­rate the idea that their “crim­i­nal jus­tice” prob­lem area is poli­ti­cally neu­tral and benefi­cial to ev­ery­one; the Open Philan­thropy is­sue writeup talks about “con­ser­va­tive in­ter­est in what has tra­di­tion­ally been a solely liberal cause” af­ter all. I would ad­vise con­sid­er­ing drop­ping The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice and Cosecha if they in­tend to do this. There may not be poli­ti­cally neu­tral char­i­ties in this area, or there may not be enough high qual­ity con­ser­va­tive char­i­ties to pre­sent a poli­ti­cally bal­anced set of recom­men­da­tions. Set­ting up a grow­ing donor ad­vised fund or a prize for non­par­ti­san progress that gen­uinely in­tends to benefit ev­ery­one in­clud­ing con­ser­va­tives, peo­ple op­posed to ille­gal im­mi­gra­tion and peo­ple who are not “of color” might be an op­tion to con­sider.

We could ex­am­ine 80,000 hours’ choice to back these or­gani­sa­tions from a more over­all-util­i­tar­ian/​over­all-effec­tive­ness point of view, rather than limit­ing the anal­y­sis to the spe­cific prob­lem area. Th­ese two char­i­ties don’t pass the smell test for al­tru­is­tic con­se­quen­tial­ism, pul­ling side­ways on ropes, find­ing hid­den lev­ers that oth­ers are ig­nor­ing, etc. Is the best thing you can do with your smart EA money helping a char­ity that wants to get stuck into the cul­ture war about which skin color is most over-rep­re­sented in pris­ons? What about a sec­ond char­ity that wants to help peo­ple ille­gally im­mi­grate at a time when im­mi­gra­tion is the most di­vi­sive poli­ti­cal topic in the west­ern world?

Fur­ther­more, Cosecha’s plans for a na­tion­wide strike and po­ten­tial civil di­s­obe­di­ence/​show­down with Trump & co could push an already volatile situ­a­tion in the US into some­thing ex­tremely ugly. The vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in the world (pre­sent and fu­ture) are not the spe­cific group that Cosecha aims to help, but the set of peo­ple who could be harmed by the uglier ver­sions of a vi­o­lent and calami­tous show­down in the US is ba­si­cally the whole world. That means that even if P(Cosecha per­suades Trump to do a U-turn on ille­gals) is 10 or 100 times greater than P(Cosecha pre­cip­i­tates a vi­o­lent crisis in the USA), they may still be net-nega­tive from an ex­pected util­ity point of view. EA doesn’t usu­ally fund causes whose out­come dis­tri­bu­tion is heav­ily left-skewed so this ar­gu­ment is a bit un­usual to have to make, but there it is.

Not only is Cosecha a cause that is (a) mind-kil­ling and cul­ture war-ish (b) very tan­gen­tially re­lated to the ac­tual prob­lem area it is ad­ver­tised un­der by 80,000 hours, but it might also (c) be an anti-char­ity that pro­duces net di­su­til­ity (in ex­pec­ta­tion) in the form of a higher prob­a­bil­ity a vi­o­lent crisis in the USA with money that you donate to it.

Back on the topic of crim­i­nal jus­tice and in­car­cer­a­tion: op­po­si­tion to re­form of­ten comes from con­ser­va­tive vot­ers and poli­ti­ci­ans, so it might seem un­likely to a care­ful thinker that ex­tra money on the left-wing side is go­ing to be highly effec­tive. Some in­tel­lec­tual judo is re­quired; make con­ser­va­tives think that it was their idea all along. So pro­mot­ing the Cen­ter for Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Re­form sounds like the kind of smart, against-the-grain idea that might be highly effec­tive! Well done, Open Philan­thropy! Also in fa­vor of this org: they don’t co­pi­ously men­tion which races or per­son-cat­e­gories they think are most im­por­tant in their ar­ti­cles about crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, the only cul­ture war item I could find on them is the world “con­ser­va­tive” (and given the in­tel­lec­tual judo ar­gu­ment above, this counts as a plus), and they’re not plan­ning a na­tional strike or other ac­tion with a heavy tail risk. But that’s the one that didn’t make the cut for the 80,000 hours guide to donat­ing!

The fact that they let Cosecha (and to a lesser ex­tent The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice) through re­duces my con­fi­dence in 80,000 hours and the EA move­ment as a whole. Who thought it would be a good idea to get EA into the cul­ture war with these causes, and also thought that they were plau­si­bly among the most effec­tive things you can do with money? Are they tak­ing effec­tive­ness se­ri­ously? What does the poli­ti­cal di­ver­sity of meet­ings at 80,000 hours look like? Were there no con­ser­va­tive al­tru­ists pre­sent in dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing The Alli­ance for Safety and Jus­tice and Cosecha, and the pro­mo­tion of them as “benefi­cial for ev­ery­one” and “effec­tive”?

Be­fore we finish, I want to em­pha­size that this post is not in­tended to start an ob­ject-level dis­cus­sion about which race, gen­der, poli­ti­cal move­ment or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion is cooler, and I would en­courage mod­er­a­tors to temp-ban peo­ple who try to have that kind of ar­gu­ment in the com­ments of this post.

I also want to em­pha­size that crit­i­cism of pro­fes­sional al­tru­ists is a nec­es­sary evil; in an ideal world the only thing I would ever want to say to peo­ple who ded­i­cate their lives to helping oth­ers (Chloe Cock­burn in par­tic­u­lar, since I men­tioned her name above) is “thank you, you’re amaz­ing”. Other than that, com­ments and crit­i­cism are wel­come, es­pe­cially any­thing point­ing out any in­ac­cu­ra­cies or mi­s­un­der­stand­ings in this post. Com­ments from any­one in­volved in 80,000 hours or Open Philan­thropy are wel­come.