Effective altruism and political power

post by adamzerner · 2015-06-17T17:47:11.509Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 50 comments

I just saw that Donald Trump is running for president. Which led me to the following thought: would any of the big names in tech have a chance at being elected president of the US? Elon Musk? Sergey Brin? Jeff Bezos? Reid Hoffman? Peter Thiel? Edit: Bill Gates?

Some follow up questions/thoughts:

Edit: hypothetically, if one of these big-name tech people were to try to gain political power, how should they go about doing so?

50 comments

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comment by AABoyles · 2015-06-17T18:26:42.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Impact concerns notwithstanding, there are some practical constraints: Elon Musk and Sergey Brin are naturalized US Citizens, which makes them ineligible to serve as US President.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-06-17T19:36:01.120Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At a Singularity Summit I asked Peter Thiel if he would consider running for the U.S. Senate. He said no.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-17T20:11:30.740Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did he say why?

Replies from: James_Miller
comment by James_Miller · 2015-06-17T20:50:56.691Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not that I recall.

comment by jacob_cannell · 2015-06-17T18:08:01.046Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Peter Thiel - unlikely candidate due to his libertarian and more fringe views. Doesn't appear to have the type of personality or media presence that a president needs.

Musk is interesting because he already has a strong following and that vague 'charisma' factor. I don't know much about his political views other than pro-space.

I'm somewhat doubtful that 'becoming president' is a straight forward strategy for maximizing impact. Winning a presidential election is very difficult. Winning and also having a high impact presidency is even more difficult.

In general it's arguable to what extent presidents are leaders vs figureheads that the true powers rally behind.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-17T19:32:40.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general it's arguable to what extent presidents are leaders vs figureheads that the true powers rally behind.

Non-American here... there are certain things that give me the figurehead vibe. Such as should not be atheist - if not figurehead people would care more about culturally Christian / traditional / conservative VALUES than faith.

Faith is a deeply personal issue and suggests the importance of personality i.e. figureheadism.

Values, such as, values that align with religious conservative etc. ones even if the candidate is atheist would suggest more actual power.

When you ask your boss for a holiday, you care not if he approves it because of christian charity or atheist empathy.

Maybe at this point someone will ask why would have an atheist religious conservative values. My answer will be that a hyper-masculine nationalist even when atheist will have 90% the same values. For example he will be against abortion because he wants more kids because he wants more soldiers beca use he wants more national power. But this may be too much of an (Eastern) European kind of conservative logic and perhaps incomprehensible in the US I don't know.

I should add I was here demonstrating how some people think NOT endorsing it. Don't shoot/downvote the messenger.

Replies from: VoiceOfRa
comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-18T04:32:55.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Such as should not be atheist - if not figurehead people would care more about culturally Christian / traditional / conservative VALUES than faith.

The point is that in the USA faith is (or at least was) a reasonable signal for values.

My answer will be that a hyper-masculine nationalist even when atheist will have 90% the same values.

Due to the cultural history of the USA hyper-masculine nationalist atheists with conservative values are rare. Currently the only place to find them is in certain corners of NRx.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-17T18:53:29.186Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Elon Musk & Sergey Brin are atheists. Most (but not all) sane people are [EDIT: I probably should have said: most highly rational and highly effective people are atheist/agnostic]. 50% of the US will not vote for an atheist. A large proportion of the population think that hedge fund managers are evil, either because (a) they get paid too much or (b) they think markets work by forcing people to buy/sell things.

I don't mean to just shoot down your idea, but... I just don't think its going to happen in a democratic system without raising the sanity waterline a lot.

Replies from: jsteinhardt, None
comment by jsteinhardt · 2015-06-18T02:57:43.992Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Peter Thiel is Christian, I believe.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-18T03:30:20.485Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He is also gay which kills his chances for the presidency even more effectively than being an atheist. Not to mention that he is not a native-born American citizen which disqualifies him right off the bat.

Replies from: jsteinhardt, skeptical_lurker
comment by jsteinhardt · 2015-06-18T17:35:27.998Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My response was directed more at the "most sane people" part.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-18T17:43:46.552Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah. In this case I concur -- I think that "most sane people are atheists" is... not quite true.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-18T10:33:39.067Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

More people would vote for a gay candidate than an atheist:

http://www.gallup.com/poll/155285/Atheists-Muslims-Bias-Presidential-Candidates.aspx

I could imagine that a gay candidate could run for the Democrats, but Theil is closer to the Republicans.

Replies from: ChristianKl, Lumifer
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-18T16:46:55.491Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure whether the numbers of that poll actually drive voting decisions. Are there estimates about how many percentage points Mitt Romney lost for being Mormon?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-18T15:32:50.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, interesting.

I find it hilarious that in terms of electability Muslims are smack in the middle between gays and atheists... X-D

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-17T23:22:13.718Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to Pew, 3.1% of the US population is atheist so if most sane people are atheists, then you are claiming at least 93.8% of the US is insane. By any reasonable definition of insane that is just wrong but I presume you meant something else. At any rate, that statement to me comes across as quite prejudiced.

http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

Replies from: skeptical_lurker, jacob_cannell
comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-18T05:40:44.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The original post was using "sane" to mean something closer to x-rational and highly effective, rather than sane in the conventional sense - I probably should have used quote marks to emphasise this. I'll edit my comment.

Atheists/agnostics are highly overrepresented at the far end of the bell curve - 93% of Nobel prize winning scientists are atheist/agnostic.

comment by jacob_cannell · 2015-06-17T23:34:08.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

According to google's first results, between 13% to 7% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. Also, somewhere between 20% to 30% is simply unaffiliated - whatever that means. Atheism/agnosticism correlates with education/intelligence at the upper levels of the latter.

When you include transhumanism and the sim argument it becomes even more complex - technically I guess I'm a deist.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-17T23:29:07.914Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Knowing how to build a sucessful tech start-up and how to be a good president are two incredibly different skill sets. All of them are smart people so will have some much more interesting and thoughtful comments than the average bear but more interesting and thoughtful is a long ways off from saying most interesting and thoughtful. I also find it surprising that you left Bill Gates off because he seems to have the most relevant knowledge. Candidates have to slowly build respect and support within a major party over several years before they can have a shot at president. Politicians are by their nature safe and careful individuals when it comes to campaigns. There are a lot of ways to lose and only a few to win.

Replies from: ChristianKl, jacob_cannell
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-18T11:06:46.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Knowing how to build a sucessful tech start-up and how to be a good president are two incredibly different skill sets.

In both cases one of the most important skill is hiring the right people and delegating responsibility to them. A person who grew a startup to a massive company is likely better at that skill then the average senator.

Replies from: Epictetus
comment by Epictetus · 2015-06-20T00:42:55.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In both cases one of the most important skill is hiring the right people and delegating responsibility to them. A person who grew a startup to a massive company is likely better at that skill then the average senator.

The President has to be able to operate effectively within the existing structure and deal with the people who were elected by voters or rose up through the bureaucracy. I don't know that running a successful startup is a good way to get acclimated to overseeing the largest bureaucracy in the country and working within the system to get things done.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-20T13:52:35.559Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the US the president can pick a lot of the people who work under him. He isn't as limited as UK or German politicians in that regard.

Big tech companies also go through a lot of negotiations. They acquire companies, negotiate deals with other companies and they do lobby for political legislation.

They still aren't Washington insiders. They lack relationships and inside knowledge about how deals get made in Washington. That's not perfect but they can hire people who do know how Washington works.

To the extend that we aren't happy with the way Washington works and want a change in how it operates, having a president who's not a Washington insider has advantages.

comment by jacob_cannell · 2015-06-17T23:38:16.843Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Knowing how to build a sucessful tech start-up and how to be a good president are two incredibly different skill sets.

I'm not so sure - both involve convincing a number of people to follow one's leadership and contribute significant funds/energy/time towards one's cause. Launching a political campaign is more similar to launching a big successful startup than working as a truck driver, or as an engineer, or really doing just about any regular job.

comment by hg00 · 2015-06-17T21:11:16.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think lobbying for particular high-impact, neglected issues is likely to be a better path. Or else try to educate the general population and hope that politicians will follow... game theory suggests that politicians who optimize more for common opinions win more often.

comment by shminux · 2015-06-17T19:42:34.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Most of these people would not want the constraints and demands imposed by holding the POTUS office (or even VP). It's a full-time bureaucratic and diplomatic job, though VP is less so. Maybe advising through the OSTP?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-08-30T07:29:17.538Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If GH from my party keeps his word, I'll be balls deep in policy work that I can orient to EA aims. I just have to remember to follow up with him in a handful of days if he forgets, but this is my only reminder to myself. I was on a political party's party's economics and attorney general's policy committee and find policy making and governance boring as hell. I even did a temp role advising a shadow minister but basically stopped showing up to work after a few days when the thrill of meeting politicians and lobbyist came to an end and the inane admin work began. Everyone at the office was too busy to ever action anything or communicate with me after I just didn't rock up. It was surreal. Accumulating power in modern demoracies with good anti-corruption mechanisms has little private gain unless your insanely hungry for validation. Real power comes from wealth. I don't even put political stuff on my resume.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-17T18:24:05.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

would any of the big names in tech have a chance at being elected president of the US?

No.

As far as maximizing altruistic impact goes, would it be a good idea for them to become president? ... Do these people care about maximizing altruistic impact?

The impact of what? The whole of the US policy? That's an unrealistic goal. Besides, I don't know if any of them is particularly altruistic. They have lots of money which means that giving away large (in absolute terms) chunks of it leads to zero marginal impact on their life, but that's a different thing.

I also find it... ironic that Bill Gates is missing from your list.

What other "sane" people have enough reputation in the public eye to have a chance at acquiring a lot of political power?

You're thinking technocracy and that's not necessarily a good idea. What you want above all in a political leader is that his value system be aligned to yours. If it is not, the fact that he is effective at reaching his goals becomes a threat, not a benefit.

It is also the case that the US political process is set up to filter away the sane people. Would anyone sane really want a team of competent and malicious lawyers and investigators to go through his entire life with a fine-toothed comb looking for any dirt (or for what can be made to look like it)?

P.S. You should distinguish between actually running for Presidency and "let's pretend I'm running for President because it will be fun and I'm an attention whore, anyway".

Replies from: buybuydandavis, skeptical_lurker, adamzerner
comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-06-17T22:25:34.889Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also find it... ironic that Bill Gates is missing from your list.

Gates is the most credible "high tech" presidential candidate I can think of.

How do the EA folks rate his charitable efforts?

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-17T19:16:29.887Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're thinking technocracy and that's not necessarily a good idea. What you want above all in a political leader is that his value system be aligned to yours. If it is not, the fact that he is effective at reaching his goals becomes a threat, not a benefit.

Only if the goals are actually opposed to yours.

Anyway, I think most politicians goals are vaguely similar in certain respects - almost all think that economic growth is good, for instance.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-17T19:24:24.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Only if the goals are actually opposed to yours.

Nope, because for many resources the game is zero-sum.

Anyway, I think most politicians goals are vaguely similar in certain respects

So, taking a look at the XX century, for example, do you think that the value systems of politicians (or, by extension, political elites) can be safely ignored? 8-0

Replies from: skeptical_lurker
comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-17T19:37:30.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I don't think that the value systems can be ignored, I'm saying that ability to implement might be more important.

For instance, suppose you highly value environmentalism, but the party which puts environmentalism as their #1 option wants to stop nuclear power (as is typical of environmentalists). If you believe that nuclear power is the best clean, reliable option we have the technology for now, then you might vote for a party which has environmentalism lower down the list of priorities (and no-one wants the environment to be polluted) but has greater expertise.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-17T19:51:10.386Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm saying that ability to implement might be more important.

Depends on the degree of mismatch we are talking about, but generally speaking, no, I still think that similar values are MUCH more important than the capability to execute.

Your example, by the way, is not about expertise, it's about the value mismatch (you highly value nuclear power and the Green party highly disvalues it).

Replies from: hg00
comment by hg00 · 2015-06-17T21:19:03.216Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend these posts:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/l4/terminal_values_and_instrumental_values/

http://lesswrong.com/lw/le/lost_purposes/

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-17T21:25:06.334Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am aware of these posts. Can you be more direct?

Replies from: hg00
comment by hg00 · 2015-06-17T21:56:18.065Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I expect there are particular factual statements that pro-nuclear environmentalists and anti-nuclear environmentalists would disagree with about the world. (E.g. "When all things are said and done, the expected effect of more nuclear power on the environment is (positive|negative).") If this is true, it seems to me that being pro/anti nuclear is probably an instrumental goal not a terminal one.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-18T01:17:27.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could be or could be not -- the original example is quite barebones and we can read different interpretations into it. But in any case that seems irrelevant: we are not talking about the difference between instrumental and terminal goals, we are talking about the choice between two agents/proxies one of which has a closer value system and the other is more effective at achieving his goals.

Replies from: hg00, skeptical_lurker
comment by hg00 · 2015-06-19T07:08:22.420Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

we are talking about the choice between two agents/proxies one of which has a closer value system and the other is more effective at achieving his goals.

If the two environmentalists had a debate about this subject, each could start the debate by saying they want to do whatever is best for the environment. And then each could present a series of facts suggesting that nuclear power either is or is not good for the environment--a factual disagreement about what the right instrumental goal is for achieving the terminal goal of helping the environment.

If you think anti-nuclear environmentalists possess lack of nuclear plants as a terminal value, imagine what would happen if one was convinced of the factual belief that nuclear power is actually good for the environment. If your model is correct, we can imagine that they would continue to be anti-nuclear environmentalists because that's their terminal goal (while acknowledging that nuclear power is actually the best option for the environment). But we have counterexamples like Stewart Brand who switched from anti-nuclear to pro-nuclear after doing research & having their beliefs change.

Replies from: Jiro, Lumifer
comment by Jiro · 2015-06-19T17:49:43.755Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Actual human beings' goals don't divide neatly into instrumental and terminal, and actual humans can be inconsistent. So you can have someone who has instrumental goals (that can be changed with evidence showing that they don't meet a terminal goal), terminal goals (which cannot), and inbetween goals like nuclear power that are harder to change than the former category, but easier to change than the latter.

Replies from: hg00
comment by hg00 · 2015-06-20T01:07:27.690Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

inbetween goals like nuclear power that are harder to change than the former category, but easier to change than the latter

Yep, this is kinda one of the things LW specializes in--helping people become better at changing their minds regarding things they are stubbornly wrong about.

I agree that human beings' goals don't neatly divide in to instrumental and terminal. This is just a model we use. I think Lumifer is using the model in a way that's harmful--labeling stubborn incorrect beliefs as "terminal goals" amounts to throwing up your hands and saying it's impossible to help people become better at changing their minds. Based on the what I've seen, this isn't the case--although it's difficult, it is possible to help people become better at changing their minds, and accomplishing this is highly valuable.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-19T14:49:47.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the two environmentalists had a debate about this subject

This is not what this subthread is about. It started with me saying

What you want above all in a political leader is that his value system be aligned to yours. If it is not, the fact that he is effective at reaching his goals becomes a threat, not a benefit.

and skeptical_lurker pointing out that

Only if the goals are actually opposed to yours.

and me continuing with

I still think that similar values are MUCH more important than the capability to execute.

I don't see how trying to tease apart terminal and instrumental goals is relevant to this issue. I also think that in practice many theoretically-instrumental goals are, in fact, terminal. Stewart Brand changed his mind, but a great deal more people didn't and I am willing to argue that for at least some and probably many of them the opposition to the nuclear effectively became a terminal goal (along the "when you forget your goal you redouble your efforts" lines).

Replies from: hg00
comment by hg00 · 2015-06-20T00:57:03.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So there are two models I can have of politicians who advocate policies different from mine. The first is that we have different terminal goals--even though our model of the world is quite similar, in the sense that we agree about which policies would create which outcomes, we differ on which outcomes we prefer to create. The second is that we have different beliefs--for example, you think raising the minimum wage would be on net beneficial for the working class, whereas I think it's likely to increase unemployment.

These two models suggest different strategies for people who have political disagreements. The first model suggests all-out war: take down the people who have different values from you at any cost through rhetoric, dirty tactics, etc. The second model suggests trying to improve your rationality and their rationality so your beliefs are less stubborn, you can see the world more accurately, and you can better achieve your collective values.

I also think that in practice many theoretically-instrumental goals are, in fact, terminal.

I don't think this is the right model for something like an incorrect belief in nuclear power being bad. I think it's more accurate to say that someone has a visceral disgust for nuclear power, or all their friends think nuclear power is bad, or whatever. Labeling incorrect beliefs as terminal goals basically makes them in to black boxes where investigating how the incorrect belief formed is a waste of time. The advantage of investigating how the incorrect belief formed is that we can learn how to prevent incorrect beliefs from forming in ourselves and others. That's basically the project of this site.

comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-18T05:24:10.855Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with hg00 - I meant that environmentalism is a goal and nuclear power is a means to an end, not a value in itself.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-18T15:29:49.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In which sense environmentalism is a goal?

I tend to think of it as a religion, but let's be charitable and call it a set of (often inconsistent) preferences. For example, some people prefer not to live near a nuclear plant. How is it a goal?

Replies from: skeptical_lurker
comment by skeptical_lurker · 2015-06-18T19:36:53.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, to a large extent you are right and much of environmentalism is quasi-religious. However, being charitable, consider the specific goal of maintaining an environment suitable for human habitation. Having a government that knows whether nuclear or coal power is more dangerous is very important here.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-17T18:26:20.143Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I also find it... ironic that Bill Gates is missing from your list.

I thought about him, but it seems "too obvious"(?). Like I'd think that it's sort of clear that he has a solid chance at running and winning if he wanted to. But he doesn't, so I take that as evidence that he doesn't want to. Although I didn't think much about it, and it very well may be bad reasoning.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2015-06-17T18:37:07.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

it's sort of clear that he has a solid chance at running and winning if he wanted to.

Really? Have you asked any "regular" people -- cashiers in a Walmart, car mechanics, secretaries -- whether they think Bill "Why isn't my computer doing what I want?" Gates would make a good POTUS..?

But the ironic part actually has to do with Gates demonstrating much more altruism than other names on your list.

Replies from: adamzerner
comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-17T22:09:32.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're right. My previous comment was just what my original thought process was, but now I think you're right.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-17T19:24:07.256Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does EA have to say about acquiring political power?

CEA just started the Global Priorities Project which does political lobbying. They already successfully got an amendment into a bill.

Peter Thiel?

It's difficult to estimate the amount of political power that Thiel has. Thiel does sit in the Bilderberg Steering Committee. Palantirs CEO is also a member.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-18T03:27:10.233Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

this was an unhelpful comment, removed and replaced by this comment

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-18T10:32:21.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When raising awareness, branding is an issue. We don't want to have EA associated with low status writing on toilet walls.