Previously: Announcing Balsa Research

It is easy to see why improving government policy would be impactful. The part where one has a chance of pulling it off requires explanation. Here are four fair questions.

  1. Why believe there is an opening in what would appear to be a well-covered, highly crowded space of trained professionals pushing their preferred policies? 
  2. Why is this tractable or neglected? 
  3. What is the theory of change? 
  4. You?

Tell the Story So Far

My answer to all of these, as it is in most other places, has two central explanations.

  1. There are no adults. In most places, also no trained professionals. There are only a bunch of adaptation executors, rewarded when they are seen cutting the enemy rather than ensuring the enemy is cut, and for reinforcing the party line. 
  2. Where adults do exist, they do not have the right incentives. This causes them to mostly do things that don’t help solve the underlying problems. Existing organizations are instead focused on pleasing their donor bases and otherwise looking good. This makes them bad at generating effective solutions and at getting anything implemented. 

There are several entire ecosystems of think tanks and political activists seeking to make their case, have their voices heard and enact change. We have no shortage of such projects, from all sides: Left wing and right wing, statist, liberal and libertarian. Some generalize while others narrow their focus. 

Almost none of them are taking actions designed to cause change. That is not what gets them or their employees more status or more funding. That is not what their organizational memory or culture says to do.

This is why, from the perspective of someone looking for good policy as a result, such results seem to be few and far between, no matter one’s underlying preferences. When it comes time to choose policies on which to campaign or laws to enact, the choices and details reliably fail to seem to be anything approaching optimal and are often atrociously bad. They are not much informed by what preparatory work has been done. 

Recently I talked to a number of Democratic operatives, and all of them winced at most of what the party has been centrally attempting (often successfully) to pass, both on political and practical grounds.

When Republicans have had the power to pass legislation recently, they seem to have little idea how to in practice implement either general good governance or their own core principles. They have instead mostly focused on either looking tough on culture war issues and point making or trying to mechanically win future elections. 

When the time came to ‘repeal and replace’ the ACA, with years to prepare, the proposal that was voted on was the null proposal. No alternatives seem to have been seriously considered. 

Corporate tax reform was a top Republican priority forever. Its implementation was technically botched. 

With a new opportunity to pass abortion laws, we see once again that the research simply was not done, by anyone, on any side.

Leftist and statist organizations propose policy primarily on the basis of symbolism rather than whether the proposal would work in practice. Usually what they propose would sabotage the very cause they say they wish to promote if it were implemented. Often the motivations are various internal struggles.

Libertarian groups are good at pointing out the flaws in new proposals and existing laws. Alas, they mostly do not present these arguments in the forms or with the credibility that causes the system to listen. Everyone is tired of hearing it, often including me. Nor do they pack a sufficient lobbying punch. Nor do they sculpt proposals in ways that allow them to be picked up by the media or would make them popular with voters, or make them palatable enough to be seriously considered. 

Centrist-style thought is embodied by the Forward Party having zero policy stances at all. 

Effective altruist efforts have mostly chosen to hone in on a handful of narrow cause areas, neglecting the issues that impact elections and daily lives. It is too early to tell if those efforts will succeed on their own terms. 

Republicans seem to be post-policy, their groups doubly so.

The result, from all sides, is usually neither good policy for the country, good policy for the particular cause the group behind it cares about most, or even good politics, let alone all three. 

One can blame this on political practicalities. On lobbyists, individual lawmakers with leverage, various special interest groups and coalition members and the dynamics of primaries and increasing partisan division, the details of the filibuster rules and CBO scores and the echo chambers of Twitter and the mass media. On overworked and overwhelmed congressional staff and the impossibility of staying on top of all the issues while spending half one’s time fundraising and having to focus primarily on winning elections. Or on much of the work necessary to succeed being the type of long term, permanently private work for which no one can take credit.

These certainly make the problem harder. They also absorb almost all the money, which is spent fighting partisan battles. 

File these problems under Degree of Difficulty, and treat them for now as endogenous. 

You want to win? I say: Play better. 

A Better Way

What would one do differently, if one’s focus was not on who got the credit or which side was helped in a partisan struggle, but instead focused on what would improve the lives of citizens?

That means a full stack approach:

  1. Model the situation and figure out what would actually improve things. Use public writing both as an impetus to understand and to pass that knowledge onto others. Bring together a team, working partly in public, to understand the dynamics involved. Red team proposed solutions both politically and practically.
  2. Find solutions that balance improving things with the need for political viability, and for the likelihood a proposal survives political compromise while remaining effective. Assemble them into the Official Policy Binder (first draft currently in progress), and post sufficiently robust sections of it to the Official Solutions Website
  3. Quantify the gains (or avoided costs) in a way that is legible to the congress and to the media, in part via Proper Scientific Studies in the Proper Journals in the Proper Scientific Font by Credible Sources. Use as much officialness as is efficient and necessary in each case. Rather than doing this internally, reach out to and commission the right academics to do it, giving them a mission to find the real answers and publishing any negative results you find. They, too, are trapped by bad incentives, the need to publish or perish and ensure the flow of grants. The prices here are quite reasonable – one estimate for a comprehensive study on a key piece of harmful legislation in need of repeal, that has still somehow not been done, was only $75,000.  
  4. Collaborate during this process to figure out what else we can learn and quantify, and look for alternative approaches. I have found that often the most important implications of such work are not stated directly but instead need to be extracted and reasoned out, or require follow-ups, which reduces their punch greatly. Where feasible, this process should include running true experiments. One should not only rely on polls and focus groups and theorizing.
  5. Simultaneously, legislative language must be professionally drafted, red teamed and ensured to do what you want it to do. All congressional staff are massively overworked, you need to do this for them, and you need to ensure you get the thing you think you are getting. Plan ahead for how they will inevitably make it worse.
  6. With studies in hand, one is in a much better position to spread the word via the media and to pitch members of congress on the proposal and argue for it. Quantification via properly credible sources is a big game. One must play by rules of evidence. 
  7. To make it stick will require not only a lobbying effort but the ability to offer campaign support and good incentives. Lobbying effectively and ultimately helping support campaigns are more expensive than the previous steps, but still remarkably cheap compared to what is at stake and relative to potential funding sources. With a selfless positive agenda and a willingness to get involved in primaries the dollars will go farther, and ultimately even most politicians do want things to be better rather than worse. Do the work, find champions to do the work only members can do, support them. 
  8. Thus, the whole operation needs to be backed up, at some point, by a willingness to coordinate support, especially in primaries and also in general elections, to candidates that share the general agenda. 
  9. Wins beget wins, building momentum, as the coalition for good things is emboldened, learns to coordinate and gets more positive vibes. Thus it’s fine to start small.

Or in share-this-list-on-social-media list form:

  1. Model the world. Find improvements that balance viability with physical impact.
  2. Compile options into Official Policy Binder and Official Solutions Website.
  3. Commission proper academic work to credibly quantify impacts on all fronts.
  4. Use this as an opportunity to run experiments and learn more.
  5. Draft model legislation. 
  6. Spread the world via media and writing.
  7. Lobby. Pitch members of Congress and their staff. Do the work. Find champions.
  8. Back this up with the ability to support campaigns to help gather support.
  9. Start small if necessary. Wins beget wins.
  10. Profit.

To be most effective will require coordinating and implementing this full stack, but the individual steps are valuable on their own. Each represents an important missing piece and multiplier. In some cases some of the steps are done for us, and we can provide complements.

I believe that I bring a unique skill set, mindset, world model and brand that will be a great asset with the modeling and research parts of the program, figuring out what we can assert and how we can assert it. I have positioned myself to keep things focused on cutting the right enemy.

It is up to you to decide how much of that you agree with, based on what I have done so far.

For the parts that are not my comparative advantage, which ultimately will be most things, I am not only willing but eager to build a team and pass as much as possible off to them, including the credit. The goal is to do something, not be someone.

Gathering Support

There is a great hunger for a way to turn money into a combination of (1) a government that works better and implements pro-growth, pro-humans-and-living-life, technically sound policies on the margin, and convincing politicians to stand up for this positive vision and (2) stopping Donald Trump and others who turn to election denialism and authoritarianism, of whatever flavor. There is also an increasing acknowledgement that goal (1), in addition to being valuable in its own right, is vital to securing goal (2). 

It is also necessary for (3), enabling the economic dynamics and culture necessary to allow us to reasonably address an increasing array of things inside and outside of government. Growing the pie and returning to prosperity gives everything room to breathe, and everyone freedom to think.

I have found this hunger especially strong among those who have earned themselves quite a lot of money, only to find themselves in a world where they are implicitly told that they can only spend their new wealth in ways that do not matter – that they are helpless to turn it into the Doing of Things.

By focusing first on and funding first the non-campaign, fully non-partisan steps of getting the policy house in order and setting an actually effective and politically practical positive agenda in motion that would improve the lived experience of the average American, we can bring in support from those with an understandable reluctance to start funding zero-sum political fights and taking a public stance. 

I believe there is tremendous leverage in ultimately going after the biggest cause of them all. One does not need either large odds of success nor anything like a full realization of ambitions to make the cause worthwhile many times over. While the problem may not seem tractable or neglected, I am arguing here it is both those; compared to the stakes, the problem is remarkably tractable and neglected even if you give people highly generous credit for trying. Once one digs further into the dynamics, it is all far more tractable and neglected than it looks. Nor does any of this seem out of place on reflection. 

Another advantage of this approach is that it can fall under someone’s ‘fund the universities and research and general neutrally good things’ money bucket, rather than having to go into a partisan political bucket. One can do this without ‘taking a side.’ 

That holds true whether one is donating money, spending time and lending one’s expertise and knowledge, or anything else. Once again, if you would like to assist this effort in any way, including being happy to answer questions about the areas you know best, do not hesitate to contact us at hello@balsaresearch.com or by filling out this Google Form. I’ve been overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of those reaching out so far, so it might be a bit before you hear back, but I will strive to get back to everyone as soon as I can. 

In the short term, with this tsunami of people eager to get involved, the most valuable resource is my time. The biggest need is to find the right one or two people who can serve as force multipliers on my time, either via being a research assistant to whom I can offload intellectual subtasks and get to coordinate work, an executive assistant, or both. We also want to find people with experience in scaling research efforts so we can let experts contribute in the areas and ways they know best. If you are or think you know the right person for any or all of this, whether or not that person is you, please do not hesitate to get in touch. 

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14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:23 AM

One key challenge will be both a) being nonpartisan, and also b) appearing nonpartisan. If you're not actually aiming for (a), then for honesty's sake you should not aim for (b) either. But if you are actually aiming for (a) as you claim, then I would avoid including "stopping Donald Trump" in your stated goals as that hurts your (b). I know from personal experience that there are at least some people who'd support a nonpartisan version of your effort but also voted for Trump as (what they saw as) the lesser of two lizards; there is no reason to alienate those people like this.

I fully support this initiative, and am excited to see how it works out!

Do you have a theory of where think tanks with seemingly similar methods and goals, like the Brookings Institution and Niskanen Center, might be going wrong? Things Balsa could/would do differently to be more effective than them?

It is easy to see why improving government policy would be impactful.

I agree that it's easy to see why it has some impact, but I'm confused about why Balsa is considering it to be high impact. Or, perhaps the highest impact thing they could be doing.

  • Are the issues particularly important? Compared to things like x-risk reduction?
  • Is this a first step towards a larger goal of Raising the Sanity Waterline? Of the US government? Other governments? Society in general? With the idea being that doing so will reduce x-risk?
  • Maybe something Slytherin is going on here, like it being a move to accumulate political capital/reputation, and then using that political capital/reputation on something like x-risk reduction down the road. Sorry if that was info-hazardous to bring up.

Or maybe the claim isn't that it is high/highest impact but it's worth pursuing anyway? On first thought I think the barrier for pursuing some project shouldn't necessarily be "it's super high/highest possible impact", but the barrier for asking for money/resources seems like it should be something like that.

In light of central explanations one and two, I feel like this fairly cries out for a reasoned rule in the Kahneman sense.

Short recap: this is the idea that you consult the best available experts to determine what the 6-8 most important dimensions of the problem are, and then give each of these a score, like cells in a spreadsheet. The default approach is to weight all these equally. The story goes this routinely meets expert performance even in fields where there are good experts, and tends to exceed it in fields where there isn't anything like real experts (politics being one of them).

I think the use of the method would be a fast and simple way to estimate priorities for which policies to pursue based on their approximate goodness.

One modification to the method I suggest: I expect one of the dimensions to be salience, and in keeping with the pulling from the side strategy I suggest we weight it negatively, which I expect to have the impact of down weighting stuff the parties are really stuck on.

An exception to what I just suggested: if the salience score suddenly goes from low to high (like a big scandal or disaster draws attention to a previously ignored problem) then it would be a good idea to make that the top priority all of a sudden so we can present something actionable to Congress or regulators as a fait accompli.

Not an American, but I have tried to understand what this might amount to... Let's say, too simply,  that what happens in American politics is a product of money, votes, and ideas. Of these three ingredients, "votes" seem to be least important to Balsa. Instead, you're positioning yourselves as political hackers who will use money efficiently to get ideas turned into official policy - more efficiently than all those traditional think tanks and lobbyists, who are caught up in partisan negative-sum games, telling donors what they want to hear, and so on. Even more specifically, I get the sense of a "political MetaMed" whose initial target audience is effective-altruist nouveau-riche. You've indicated the kinds of reforms you'd like to facilitate, you're spreading the word of your existence, now you wait to see if someone is willing to hire you to work on a proposal that you're willing to support... Good luck, and we'll see what adventures you have, on the way to Harris vs DeSantis, or whatever else happens in 2024. 

on the way to Harris vs DeSantis, or whatever else happens in 2024

Checking predictit and Metaculus, Trump vs. Biden and DeSantis vs. Biden are the most likely pairs.

Living in DC for four years and making friends with a number of smart, motivated people working on various political thinktank projects... It seems to me perhaps that you are underestimating how much there are already sensible people trying to push for sensible legislation and not making a lot of notable progress. I mean, I wish you luck, but I feel like politics in general and US politics in particular is such a tangled mess that I feel rather low on hope for your quest. Especially within the short timeframes I expect we have until the world starts getting turned upside down by weird AI tech acceleration even before outright AGI.

Great work, Zvi.

I wonder what framework you're using to select which policies to tackle. What you've written here presents a function f: X -> P to go from policy area / idea / problem X to effectively implemented policy P. How are you choosing X?

  1. There are no adults. In most places, also no trained professionals. There are only a bunch of adaptation executors, rewarded when they are seen cutting the enemy rather than ensuring the enemy is cut, and for reinforcing the party line. 
  2. Where adults do exist, they do not have the right incentives. This causes them to mostly do things that don’t help solve the underlying problems. Existing organizations are instead focused on pleasing their donor bases and otherwise looking good. This makes them bad at generating effective solutions and at getting anything implemented. 

Taken together, if widely known, this would imply that it would be impossible for the federal government to credibly commit to foreign treaties. 

Although obviously disadvantageous in some ways, it does have some genuine advantages for political factions if they fear being dragged into an undesirable treaty when an opposing faction is in power. Especially if it's a treaty that they can't easily break later without severe consequences, such as trade deals agreed with nominal allies.

So there may be incentives to maintain the status quo, and it's not at all clear that change would be net positive to those with such fears.

Taken together, if widely known, this would imply that it would be impossible for the federal government to credibly commit to foreign treaties

My impression is this is indeed partially true.  My understanding is that United States is a symbolic-only signatory to many treaties,  pretty capricious about ones it has nominally signed for real, and that an informal agreement with the US or assurances from US institutions are much less reliable than many other countries.

A lot of trade treaties have mechanisms for investor-state dispute settlement, so it takes actual effort to get out of those treaty obligations.

[+][comment deleted]4mo 20
[+][comment deleted]4mo 10

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