HIPR: A new EA-aligned policy newsletter

I’m Arushi Gupta, the co-director of Effective Altruism NYC, and I recently started a newsletter called High Impact Policy Review, or HIPR, covering US policy news that I think is high-impact. This includes news about topics like COVID, healthcare, and climate policy, as well as topics of particular concern among effective altruists like foreign aid, farmed animal welfare, and tech policy. It also includes a few job high-impact policy job opportunities.

The goal is to make this newsletter very accessible and useful both to anyone interested in policy (not just EAs) and get people thinking more about what the most impactful, influential policy really is.

High-impact doesn’t necessarily mean good—I try to highlight all the policy news (local and federal) that’s happened that seems like it will have a large impact, whether that impact is positive or negative. Sometime I don’t know what the impact of a decision will be either, and I try to say that.

I’ve shared the most recent issue (sent out on Friday, May 7th) below—please take a read and subscribe if you’d be interested! New issues go out every two weeks.

It would be helpful to know if people think I should post each issue on the Forum. I know other newsletters, like EA London, do this but I don’t want to clutter the Forum with posts every 2 weeks if people think it’s too off-topic!

I’d also like to acknowledge that I’ve had a bunch of help from some members of the EA community who are well-versed in the policy space in getting this off the ground.

Please subscribe and share with anyone who might find this interesting, even if they’re not already interested in EA! It’s meant for a broad audience of people who find policy important.


HIPR Issue #5: India, HFCs, menthols, and psychedelics

Welcome to the fifth edition of High Impact Policy Review, or HIPR! Sorry this edition is a week late—I was totally knocked out by my second vaccine shot last week, and decided to push this issue by a week. Lots of stuff happened in the past three weeks, so let’s get to it!

Updates

COVID

  • The NIH’s COVID-19 Prevention Network (CoVPN) is still recruiting for COVID vaccine human challenge trials (sign-up here). Volunteers over age 70 in particular are needed for US vaccine trials.

  • COVID vaccination rates in the US have fallen to 2.13M per day, down from 3.3M per day three weeks ago. Potential reasons for the drop include the J&J vaccine pause, and less eagerness amongst the remaining population to get vaccinated. Reaching herd immunity is going to require, among other things, making vaccines as easy as possible for people to access (walk-in sites, home-vaccination drives, etc), which the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine makes much easier.

  • Speaking of, the J&J pause was lifted, after 10 days. Much ink has been spilled describing the situation, but I think there were basically no good options here. Polls do seem to show that it hasn’t increased vaccine hesitancy.

  • West Virginia will give $100 savings bonds to people 16 to 35 who get vaccinated. With only 29% of the state fully vaccinated, and higher infection rates amongst younger people, the $100 is an exciting way to potentially incentivize more vaccinations, and seeing how it works out will give other governments ideas on how to increase their vaccination rates (I particularly enjoy the Mexico City strategy of having dancers, musicians and wrestlers perform at vaccine centers).

  • In response to the tragic outbreak of COVID-19 in India, Biden’s team ignored calls for help for several days. Finally, national security adviser Jake Sullivan ended the export ban on raw materials for vaccines. Then, after weeks of pressure, the Biden administration decided to share the dormant AstraZeneca vaccines that had been sitting in a warehouse in Baltimore, with India and the rest of the world. However, it will still take weeks for them to ship due to the issues with the vaccine manufacturing facility we mentioned last week. The allocations of the vaccines to different countries still have not been announced.

    This frankly infuriating situation is a reminder that even though we’re seeing lots of shiny new policies and announcements nowadays, basic government competence is still not as high as it could and should be, and it’s unclear to me how to fix this.The chain of events that happened here is depressing: the Trump admin first chose to start a vaccine contract with Emergent BioSolutions, a manufacturer with which the government had known quality issues in the past. Then they manufactured 60M doses of a vaccine that they hadn’t approved, and let it sit idle while other countries faced vaccine shortages and begged for the doses. THEN the quality issues occurred with the J&J, and they knew that they’d need to do a quality check on the AstraZeneca vaccines, which were produced at the same factory, before they could be used. But they didn’t do the check then, instead waiting until a few weeks later when pressure rose enough that they finally had to send out the AstraZeneca vaccines to other countries; but now those countries will have to wait while the FDA takes weeks to complete the quality checks. And India and others will suffer needless excess deaths, which could have been prevented by different decision at any point in this sequence of events.

  • The Biden administration, in a turnaround from previous statements, announced at the WTO that they’re backing a IP patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines. Their statements suggest it will take a long time, if it happens at all. It will require WTO approval and unanimous member consensus, and some European countries, most notably Germany, are stating they will oppose it. Some experts also say this won’t do much on its own to increase vaccine supply.

  • The FDA is planning to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for use in 12-15 year olds next week. While the news is positive, the government faces a difficult decision now as many argue that excess doses of Pfizer and other vaccines should be sent overseas to countries struggling with COVID right now, rather than inoculating teenagers here, given how mild the effects of COVID seem to be for that age group.

  • Pfizer has also asked the FDA for full approval of their vaccine (all COVID-19 vaccines are currently being administered under emergency use authorization). If they get approval in the coming months, it means that Pfizer can directly market the vaccine, it may make vaccine mandates more feasible, and it might calm some vaccine hesitancy.

Climate

  • The two big infrastructure bills are running into roadblocks in negotiations, as Republicans and Democrats argue over the size and other details of the bill. It’s unclear how much bipartisan agreement is needed to actually pass the bills; it’ll largely depend on what strategy Congressional Democrats decide to take (particularly those like Manchin).

  • The EPA is setting the first national limits on HFCs, a super-potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerants (ex. ACs and refrigerators). It has thousands of times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. I’ve been waiting to see policy action on refrigerants since seeing it listed years ago as the #1 climate solution in Drawdown’s analysis (it’s now #4), so this is very welcome news. There are still a huge number of refrigerants already in use that need to be disposed of properly at the end of their life, or they will cause emissions (I could see a national refrigerant collection service potentially being a great investment in future climate legislation) but for now, limiting the use of new HFCs is an important place to start.

  • The Senate voted to reinstate regulations designed to limit methane emissions from new oil and gas fields. It’s expected to pass the House and be approved by Pres. Biden soon.

  • Washington state passed some ambitious climate policy that includes carbon pricing, which is authorized to stay in place until emissions goals are reached. The revenue will go towards climate mitigation and adaptation, including transportation, air quality, and funding for tribal relocation.

  • Secretary Haaland visited the Bears Ears National Monument last month, suggesting the Biden admin may be open to reversing the Trump-era decision to reduce its size by 85% and open significant parts of it up to fossil fuel development and other uses.

  • The “Climate-Related Financial Risk” executive order planned for April 23rd that we discussed last time was never issued.

Foreign Aid

  • The US promised a $300 million boost in aid to Afghanistan. It was promised last year contingent on progress in peace talks with the Taliban (which have since stalled), but is now being released immediately. Senators say the aid will be cut off if the Taliban take power.

  • The White House has announced $310 million in emergency aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, to help refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and other vulnerable populations, presumably with the intent of abating the “border crisis”. While the aid will help people, it might not have exactly the effect they’re hoping for.

  • The US and China will be re-evaluating their trade deal soon, and potentially making changes to the U.S. tariffs on some $370 billion worth of annual Chinese imports. They will likely also be going head to head at the UN Security Council meeting today on many issues, including human rights accusations and their behavior against Taiwan.

  • In response to the legislation introduced last month, which would condition US aid to Israel on not being used to occupy Palestine, 330 members (including almost all Republicans and half the Democrats) of the House signed a letter late last month insisting that the $3.8 billion in annual military aid the United States provides Israel remain unconditional. Polls show that barely one-third of U.S. voters oppose such conditions.

  • A new report from the USAID inspector general suggests that US aid to Venezuela in 2019 might have been pursued with the goal of removing President Maduro from power, rather than on the basis of what would help struggling Venezuelans most.

Democracy/​Voting

  • The 2020 Census results were released and seats in Congress reapportioned. Seven House seats were shifted between states. Most of the seats lost were in Democrat states and seats gained were in Republican states (though the shift was smaller than initially expected). The future impact is still not obvious because the areas within those states growing in population usually lean Democrat, so the shape of the districts will matter. There Republicans have an advantage too as they will control 2.5 times as many congressional redistrictings as Democrats. Many are concerned that COVID-19, as well as Pres. Trump’s meddling, may have led to unusual results this year.

  • The House passed a bill to make DC the nation’s 51st state. The path to success looks incredibly slim in the Senate. Even if filibuster reform were to happen and only a simple majority was needed, Sen. Manchin is opposed to the bill, so passage would be almost impossible. Statehood would give more than 700,000 DC residents representation in Congress, which they currently lack, and would make the Republican-skewed Congress (and in particular, the Senate) slightly more balanced.

  • The Judicial Act of 2021, which seeks to expand the Supreme Court from 9 justices to 13, was introduced a few weeks ago. It only requires a simple majority to pass in both houses, but it still seems very unlikely to pass, as Speaker Pelosi has stated she will not bring it to a vote in the House. If passed, it would shift the current 6-3 conservative tilt of the court to a 6-7 slight liberal advantage, with large implications for future rulings of the court.

  • Oregon lawmakers struck a deal to give Republican and Democrat lawmakers equal control over redistricting in the state; previously it was under exclusive control of the majority party (Democrats). This could lead to 2-3 seat swing towards Republicans for House races in 2022. With only a 6 seat margin in the House at the moment, this could seriously change the 2022 House race.

Immigration

  • After extended back and forth over the past few months, the Biden administration finally landed on a refugee admission limit of 62,500, which was the original promise. However, with the pace of admissions already so slow after all this confusion (including 700 flights cancelled for refugees who were expecting to come last month), the White House has stated that they are not on track to actually have that many refugees arrive this fiscal year.

Health

  • The new infrastructure bill proposals include $5B funding for the EPA’s Superfund program, which cleans up toxic waste sites across the country. There are currently 1,327 sites in the backlog, some of which have been waiting for action since the 1980s. The task is becoming more urgent as “60 percent of all Superfund sites are vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, wildfires, and sea level rise”.

  • The FDA is moving to ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars. They said that “menthol masks unpleasant flavors and harshness of tobacco products, making them easier to start using. Tobacco products with menthol can also be more addictive and harder to quit by enhancing the effects of nicotine.” This seems like a good move for public health to me. Some have argued that it will lead to higher criminalization in Black communities, which disproportionately smoke menthols, but given that the ban would only apply to manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers, importers and retailers—not civilians/​consumers (the same as current bans on other flavored cigarettes), this seems unlikely to me.

Foreign Policy

  • The U.S. may still be helping Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. While Pres. Biden announced in February that he would end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” he took months to offer details of the types of involvement there were before, and what exactly ended. US contractors are maintaining the Saudi aircraft used to launch offenses on Yemen, without which they would most likely be losing the war.

  • More military troops and equipment are being sent to Afghanistan to protect the forces that are beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan.

  • Progress is inching forward on the Iran nuclear deal, with a consensus expected by May 22.

Justice Reform

  • California’s bill to decriminalize psychedelics has passed their Senate Public Safety and Health Committees. The bill includes not just natural psychedelics but synthesized ones such as LSD and MDMA. If the bill is signed into law, not only would this be great news for reducing unnecessary criminal punishment, but it would also be fantastic news for mental health, as psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA have been shown to have incredible potential against PTSD and other mental health issues.

  • A memo released during the Trump administration says that inmates who were sent home due to COVID must return to prison. The Justice Department has stated they’re in no rush to rescind the memo, as the COVID-19 emergency declaration is valid through the end of the year, but this delay leaves more than 2,400 people in limbo and unsure of what will happen to them at the end of the year.

  • The Supreme Court is hearing a case which, depending on their decision, might allow people charged with low-level crack cocaine sentences across the country to apply for shorter sentences relief.

Farmed Animal Welfare

  • Although meatpacking companies have argued that they were ordered to keep slaughterhouses open during the pandemic (even as countless workers suffered from COVID-19), the Department of Justice recently disputed this claim, “stating that the federal government ‘in no way mandated that Tyson maintain its production’ last year.”

Tech

Other

  • The PRO Act, which would be the most important labor legislation in decades if passed, has support from 47 Senate Democrats. Organized labor groups continue to put pressure on the remaining 3 holdouts to sign on to the bill.

  • Of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance that Congress allocated in December and March, very little has actually reached any tenants or landlords. With 1 in 7 renters behind on payments, the delays mean more tenants facing potential evictions, and landlords losing their properties (which can lead to further consolidation by large landlords).

  • The expanded and advanced child tax credit that passed in the American Rescue Plan, only lasts for one year. Democrats pressured Biden to make that permanent, but instead he only proposed extending it to 2025. Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced a family care bill that makes the tax credit permanent.

Opportunities

Interested in learning more on how to increase your engagement with high-impact U.S. policy? Check out a list of resources on the HIPR website!

Please email hello@highimpactpolicy.review with any feedback! And feel free to forward any news that you think should be included in the next edition. If this was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here!

Until next time,

Arushi 📋🖋