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)
“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”
“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.”
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.