What are the most important policy changes America should make and how can we make them happen?

If we do not address the deep dysfunctions of our government and its policies, we put our democracy and entire civilization at risk. People whose lives are getting worse, who have no hope and cannot envision a future, inevitably turn to authoritarianism. A focus on telling people how terrible and fascist Donald Trump is did not work well in 2016 or 2020 and is not the best way to keep him out of the White House in 2024. It will not help us prosper and overcome political differences. Even if he is kept out in 2024, either we turn things around or things will keep getting worse. 

My new project, together with Moshe Looks and Alyssa Vance, is to chart paths forward to improve federal policy, and lay groundwork to implement those improvements. That means taking into account political feasibility. It means getting the proposals and messaging into the hands of candidates. It means commissioning academic studies quantifying costs and benefits and advance drafting of legislative language. 

Consider the pandemic. Our government’s actions these past two years not only failed to make the pandemic better, they often actively made the pandemic worse while spending trillions. Our response to a potential next pandemic, monkeypox, was similarly botched. 

Some of my most read posts point out clear cases where the government makes things worse, like car seat mandates so bad they serve as contraception, a law that makes it impossible to maintain modern ports in working order for basically no reason, and rules against container stacking that did major damage to our supply chains

A few years ago I would have left such tasks to ‘the adults in the room.’ There are no such adults. Someone has to, and no one else will. If you tell me someone is already on the case and Doing the Thing, this means little. The situation is not ‘handled.’ Elites have lost all credibility.

I also believe that almost all existing organizations nominally dedicated to such purposes face poor incentive structures due to how they are funded and garner attention, and are not testing the hypothesis that the problem could be solved. I will test that hypothesis. 

There is far more hope for improvement than almost anyone realizes. Lobbying when done right is remarkably cheap and effective. Secret congress can be productive. Many marginal improvements are highly valuable, with no substantial downsides and compounding benefits. 

Low-hanging improvement is often as simple as not restricting supply and not subsidizing demand. A sample: Reforming NEPA, the NRC, zoning and the FDA including a right to try for drugs, pandemic preparedness, repealing protectionist policies (Jones Act, Dredge Act, ‘made in America’, etc), ending qualified immunity and civil forfeiture, legalizing marijuana, avoiding 100%+ marginal tax rates, increasing high-skill immigration, fixing student loans, and NGDP level targeting by the Federal Reserve. The civil service and procurement urgently need reform. 

Campaigns bleed tons of value all the time, leaving large room for improvement. Big mistakes made the difference in 2016, almost did in 2020 and are likely again in the future.

We need your help – growing the team, engineering new software, analyzing policy space, finding experts, making connections, commissioning academic studies, drafting laws, writing up results, refining messaging, ultimately lobbying and working with campaigns, and of course raising money. 

If you are interested in hearing more please get in touch at hello@balsaresearch.com and start the subject line with the most relevant category: policy (include what area if applicable), tech, media, networking, lobbying, campaigning or money, and then tell us about yourself and what interests you, or fill out this Google Doc.

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rules against container stacking that did major damage to our supply chains. 

Is this "major damage" claim true? I remember being unsure, at the time, if the effects of the rules that limited stack height were substantial or negligible, since some people were saying that they mostly just applied to places that didn't have the equipment to stack higher. Did anyone ever follow up to at least check how much container stacking increased after the rule change?

There was a long debate on this, I thought Zvi had changed his mind and recognized the rule change made no detectable difference in the port backlog.

I am confident that the container stacking rules caused major damage when compared to better stacking rules. If we had a sensible stacking rule across LB/LA from the start I am confident there would have been far less backlog. 

What is less clear is the extent to which the rules changes that were enacted mitigated the problem. While LB made some changes on the day of the post, LA didn't act and LB's action wasn't complete. Thus there was some increase in permitted stacking but it was far from what one would have hoped for. And Elizabeth is right that we did not see a difference in port backlog that we can definitively link to the partial change that was enacted.

I remember being unsure, at the time, if the effects of the rules that limited stack height were substantial or negligible, since some people were saying that they mostly just applied to places that didn’t have the equipment to stack higher.

A priori, it seems plausible that those places don't have the equipment because of the rules. In which case you wouldn't necessarily expect a rules change to make a quick difference, especially if not announced in advance. But perhaps on a timeline of weeks or months?

I'm excited for you to pursue this more full-timedly. 

You've alluded a few times to an overall strategy of tackling individual small "doable" reforms in a way that hopefully snowballs into some kind of deeper shift. FWIW I'm still interested in a post that makes that strategy more explicit.

If the strategy is made explicit will it attract contrarianism/partisanship?

Good luck.

Naming things in politics is much more about not shooting yourself in the foot than anything else - you can't win that way but you can lose, and [plant] research is a standard option. Can always change later if we find something awesome. I learned from MetaMed that obsessing over finding the right name is not worth it, and this was (1) available (2) short (3) sounds nice and (4) is a good metaphorical plant.

a wood famous for being flimsy seems like a bad choice here

The justifications for the Jones Act are also famously flimsy. I think it fits.

I'm sorry, this may come across as very rude, but:

MetaMed, a startup both you and Vance were on, failed abjectly and then received precious little coverage or updating from the broader rat community (as far as I've seen).

I am happy to believe your skills have improved or that the cause area is better (though this one is so nebulously ambitious that I can't help but feel a cold churn of pessimism). Certainly, demanding that every project a person attempts must meet with success is too high a bar.

But this time I would like to see you and your cofounders hold yourselves accountable to keep the communities funding you informed. In practice what I'd want is a legible goalset with predictions on whether each will be met on some future date.

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If you haven't seen it, there's a thread here with links to Sarah Constantin's postmortem and Zvi's semi-postmortem, plus another comment from each of them.

I'll excerpt Zvi's comment from that thread:

Most start-ups fail. Failing at a start-up doesn't even mean that you, personally are bad at start-ups. If anything the SV-style wisdom is that it means you have experience and showed you will give it your all, and should try again! You don't blow your credibility by taking investor money, having a team that gives it their all for several years, and coming up short.

I think Constantin's postmortem is solid and I appreciate it. She says this:

But there was a mindset of “we want to give people the best thing, not the thing they want, and if there’s a discrepancy, it’s because the customer is dumb.”  I learned from experience that this is just not true -- when we got complaints from customers, it was often a very reasonable complaint, due to an error I was mortified that we’d missed.

As she says in the linked thread, Zvi's postmortem is "quite different." Constantin discusses the faults of their business strategy, Zvi attributes the failure to people wanting symbolic representation of healthcare rather than healthcare.

Is there truth to Zvi's position? It is the sort of thing I am inclined to nod my head along with and take him at his word - if Constantin weren't expressly saying that the issue was legitimate grievances, not signaling. I think her story is more plausible because it seems like less of a deflection and fits my model of the world better. But either way, I think the postmortem should've been about why Zvi failed to observe that facet of the world and what he plans to change, not about how the world sucks for having that facet.

I do agree with the quoted comment. A failed start-up is not the end of the world, it doesn't mean the founder is incompetent, or that they need to step back and let others try.

> But this time I would like to see you and your cofounders hold yourselves accountable to keep the communities funding you informed

 

I love postmortems, but community  accountability seems like a weird frame here. Presumably the people funding this org have asked some questions and were satisfied, and that's pretty separate from a public disclosure.

That is a fair point! I don't think Zvi et. al are obligated and I'm not like, going to call them fraudster hacks if they're not interested.

I said this more with the hopes that people frustrated with unaccountable governance would want to seize the mantle of personal responsibility, to show everyone that they are pure and incorruptible and it can be done. My post came across as more of a demand than I meant it to, which I apologize for.

Organizations can distribute their money how they want. My concern here is more "can pillars of the rat community get funding for crappy ideas on the basis of being pillars and having a buddy in grantmaking?" I want to judge EA orgs on their merits and I want to judge Zvi on his merits. If Balsa flops, who do we give less money?

Zvi said on his substack that he would consider this a worthwhile venture if there were a 2% chance of achieving a major federal policy goal. Are there lesser goals that Zvi thinks they can hit at 50% or 90%? If not, then okay. Sometimes that is just how it is and you have to do the low probability, high EV thing. But even if it's just the 2% thing, I would like Brier scores to update.

So the other concern is track record legibility. There is a lot of deferral among rats, some of it even necessary. Not every person can be a machine learning person. I've been reading LW for eight years and plenty of what Vance and Zvi write, but only heard of MetaMed a few months ago looking at Vance's LinkedIn.

Searching it up on the forums got very thin results. EY endorsed it strongly (which I believe counts as a ding on his track record if anyone is maintaining that anywhere), Alexander advertised it but remained neutral as to whether it was a good idea. So this was a big thing that the community was excited about - and it turned to shit. I believe it turned to shit without enough discussion in the aftermath of why, of what premises people had wrong. I have read the post mortems and found them lacking.

"Can you run a business well?" doesn't say much about someone's epistemics, but "Can you identify the best interventions with which to make use of your time?" absolutely does and "Can you win?" absolutely does and the way to see that is how the project empirically performs. This is a fallible test: you can do a good job at the identification and just suck at the business or just be unlucky, but I'm still going to update towards someone being untrustworthy or incompetent based on it.

Other good reasons not to do this: It is extremely plausible that making all your goals legible is inhibitive to policy work. A solution to that might be timed cryptography or an independent keeping track of their goals and reporting the results of the predictions sans what they were predicting. I am aware that this is a non-trivial inconvenience and would respect the founders considerably more if they went for it.

I am also keenly aware that this is a demand for rigor more isolated than the ice caps. I recognize the failure mode where you demand everyone wears their marks on their sleeve, but in practice only the black ones seem to stick over time. I think that's really bad because then you end up cycling veterans out and replacing them with new people who are no better or worse. Hopefully we can manage to not end up there.

I think I am much more ambivalent than I sounded in my first post, but I wanted to discuss this. Hopefully it doesn't cause anyone undue stress.

EY endorsed it strongly (which I believe counts as a ding on his track record if anyone is maintaining that anywhere)

I don't think it's a ding on his track record.

  • He tried a product.
  • It worked shockingly well for him.
  • He recommended others use that product.

This is a basic prosocial act. You haven't made an argument that the product was low-quality, the failure of the company only shows that there wasn't enough of a market for that particular product to sustain the company. For the most part I'm glad Eliezer advertised it while I could still buy it, it seems like the product was pretty great (though very expensive).

For context, here is an advert he gave for them, which has no endorsement of funding the company, nor says the organization is well run, and entirely focuses on his experience of the product (with the exception of one parenthetical).

You know Harry’s non-24 sleep disorder?  I have that.  Normally my days are around 24 hours and 30 minutes long.

Around a year ago, some friends of mine cofounded MetaMed, intended to provide high-grade analysis of the medical literature for people with solution-resistant medical problems.  (I.e. their people know Bayesian statistics and don’t automatically believe every paper that claims to be ‘statistically significant’ – in a world where only 20-30% of studies replicate, they not only search the literature, but try to figure out what’s actually true.)  MetaMed offered to demonstrate by tackling the problem of my ever-advancing sleep cycle.

Here’s some of the things I’ve previously tried:

  • Taking low-dose melatonin 1-2 hours before bedtime
  • Using timed-release melatonin
  • Installing red lights (blue light tells your brain not to start making melatonin)
  • Using blue-blocking sunglasses after sunset
  • Wearing earplugs
  • Using a sleep mask
  • Watching the sunrise
  • Watching the sunset
  • Blocking out all light from the windows in my bedroom using aluminum foil, then lining the door-edges with foam to prevent light from slipping in the cracks, so I wouldn’t have to use a sleep mask
  • Spending a total of ~$2200 on three different mattresses (I cannot afford the high-end stuff, so I tried several mid-end ones)
  • Trying 4 different pillows, including memory foam, and finally settling on a folded picnic blanket stuffed into a pillowcase (everything else was too thick)
  • Putting 2 humidifiers in my room, a warm humidifier and a cold humidifier, in case dryness was causing my nose to stuff up and thereby diminish sleep quality
  • Buying an auto-adjusting CPAP machine for $650 off Craigslist in case I had sleep apnea.  ($650 is half the price of the sleep study required to determine if you need a CPAP machine.)
  • Taking modafinil and R-modafinil.
  • Buying a gradual-light-intensity-increasing, sun alarm clock for ~$150

Not all of this was futile – I kept the darkened room, the humidifiers, the red lights, the earplugs, and one of the mattresses; and continued taking the low-dose  and time-release melatonin.  But that didn’t prevent my sleep cycle from advancing 3 hours per week (until my bedtime was after sunrise, whereupon I would lose several days to staying awake until sunset, after which my sleep cycle began slowly advancing again).

MetaMed produced a long summary of extant research on non-24 sleep disorder, which I skimmed, and concluded by saying that – based on how the nadir of body temperature varies for people with non-24 sleep disorder and what this implied about my circadian rhythm – their best suggestion, although it had little or no clinical backing, was that I should take my low-dose melatonin 5-7 hours before bedtime, instead of 1-2 hours, a recommendation which I’d never heard anywhere before.

And it worked.

I can’t *#&$ing believe that #*$%ing worked.

(EDIT in response to reader questions:  “Low-dose” melatonin is 200microgram (mcg) = 0.2 mg.  Currently I’m taking 0.2mg 5.5hr in advance, and taking 1mg timed-release just before closing my eyes to sleep.  However, I worked up to that over time – I started out just taking 0.3mg total, and I would recommend to anyone else that they start at 0.2mg.)

Sticker shock warning:  MetaMed’s charge for an analysis starts at $5K, or around double the cost of everything else I tried put together – it’s either for people who have money, or people who have resistant serious problems.  (Of course MetaMed dreams of eventually converting all of medicine to a saner footing, but right now they have to charge significant amounts to initial customers.)  And by the nature of MetaMed’s task, results are definitely not guaranteed – but it worked for me.

Note: I didn't read the HPMOR advert, I read the one here on LW which is different. It starts like this:

In a world where 85% of doctors can't solve simple Bayesian word problems...

In a world where only 20.9% of reported results that a pharmaceutical company tries to investigate for development purposes, fully replicate...

In a world where "p-values" are anything the author wants them to be...

...and where there are all sorts of amazing technologies and techniques which nobody at your hospital has ever heard of...

...there's also MetaMed.  Instead of just having “evidence-based medicine” in journals that doctors don't actually read, MetaMed will provide you with actual evidence-based healthcare.

You're right that he doesn't make any specific verifiable claims so much as be very glowing and excited. It does still make me less inclined to trust his predictive ability (or trust him, depending on how much is him believing in that stuff vs building up hype for whatever reason.)

I do think this ad doesn't line up with what you said re: "[...] nor says the organization is well run, and entirely focuses on his experience of the product (with the exception of one parenthetical)."

  • As I understand it, you're updating against his recommendations of a product by his friends being strong evidence that the company won't later go out of business. This seems fine to me.
  • I'm saying that his endorsement of the product seems eminently reasonable to me, that it was indeed life-changing for him on a level that very few products ever are, and that in general with that kind of information about a product, I don't think he made any errors of judgment, and acted pro-socially. 
  • I will continue to take his product advice strongly, but I will not expect that just because a company is run by rationalists or that Eliezer endorses the product, that this is especially strong evidence that they will succeed on the business fundamentals.
  • I think you were mistaken to call it a "ding on his track record" because he did not endorse investing in the company, he endorsed using the product, and this seems like the right epistemic state to me. From the evidence I have about MetaMed, I would really want to have access to their product.
  • As an example, if he'd written a post called "Great Investment Opportunity: MetaMed" this would be a ding on his track record. Instead he wrote a post called "MetaMed: Evidence-Based Healthcare", and this seems accurate and to be a positive sign about his track record of product-recommendations.

This is a new service and it has to interact with the existing medical system, so they are currently expensive, starting at $5,000 for a research report.  (Keeping in mind that a basic report involves a lot of work by people who must be good at math.)


Unrelatedly but from the same advert. I had not realized it was that expensive - this rings some alarm bells for me but maybe it is fine, it is in fact a medical service. I have been waffling back and forth and will conclude I don't know enough of the details.

Regardless, the alarm bells still made me want to survey the comments and see if anyone else was alarmed. Summaries of the comments by top level:

> The words "evidence-based medicine" seems to imply "non evidence-based medicine"

> Will MetaMed make its research freely available?

> Proposals re: the idea that MetaMed might not improve the world save for their clients

> You should disclose that MIRI shares sponsors with MetaMed, detail question

> Please send this to the front page!

> I'm overall not impressed, here are a couple criticisms, what does MetaMed have over uptodate.com in terms of comparative advantage? (Nice going user EHeller, have some Bayes points.)

> Discussion of doctors and their understanding of probability

> MetaMed has gone out of business (3 years later)

> Is MetaMed a continuation of a vanished company called Personalized Medicine?

> A friend of mine has terrible fibromyalgia and would pay 5k for relief but not for a literature search of unknown benefit. I guess she's not the target audience? (long thread, MetaMed research is cited, EHeller again disputes its value compared to less expensive sources)

> An aside on rat poison

> How might MetaMed and IBM Watson compare and contrast?

> Error in advert: Jaan Tallinn is not the CEO but chairman, Zvi is the CEO.

> Is MetaMed LW-y enough that we should precommit to updating by prespecified amounts on the effectiveness of LW rationality in response to its successes and failures?

There I will cut off because the last commentor is after my own heart. Gwern responds by saying:

At a first glance, I'm not sure humans can update by prespecified amounts, much less prespecified amounts of the right quantity in this case: something like >95% of all startups fail for various reasons, so even if LW-think could double the standard odds (let's not dicker around with merely increasing effectiveness by 50% or something, let's go all the way to +100%!), you're trying to see the difference between... a 5% success rate and a 10% success rate. One observation just isn't going to count for much here.

And that is correct. But you don't have to make a single prediction, success/fail, you should be able to come up with predictions about your company that you can put higher numbers on and we can see how those empirically turn out. Or you could even keep track of all the startups launched by prominent LW members.

In contrast, Michael Vassar (who was also on the project) says,

Definitely, though others must decide the update size.

Which I don't think anyone followed through on, perhaps because they then agreed with gwern?

Anyway - it seems plausible the correct update size for a founder running a failed startup is a couple percentage points of confidence in them along certain metrics.

I think MetaMed seems like more of an update than that, my basic reasoning being: 1) I think it was entirely possible to see what was wrong with the idea before they kicked it up, 2) accounting for the possibility of bad faith, 3) Constantin's mortem suggests some maybe serious issues 4) I consider Zvi's post-mortem to be more deflective than an attempt at real self-evaluation. So maybe like 6-9 points?

I uh, I don't actually think Balsa is at all likely to be bad or anything. Please don't let that be your takeaway here. I expect them to write some interesting papers, take a few minutely useful actions, and then pack it in [65%]. There's no justification why these posts have been as long as they are except that I personally find the topic interesting and want to speak my mind.

I expect I got some things wrong here, feel free to let me know what errors you notice.

I'm torn because:

  1. I think a lot of your individual arguments are incorrect (e..g. $5000 is a steal for MetaMed's product if they delivered what they promised. This includes promising only a 10% chance of success, if the problems are big enough).
  2. I nonetheless agree with you that one should update downward on the chance of Balsa's success due to the gestalt of information that has come out on Zvi and MetaMed (e.g. Zvi saying MetaMed was a definitive test of whether people cared about health or signaling care, while Sarah lays out a bunch of prosaic problems).
  3. I think "we" is a bad framing as long as the project isn't asking for small donor funding.
  4. I do think grand vague plans with insufficient specifics (aka "goals") are overrewarded on LW.
    1. OTOH I have a (less) grand vague project that I'm referring to in other posts but not laying out in totality in its own post, specifically because of this, and I think that might be leaving value on the table in the form of lost feedback and potential collaborators. A way for me to lay out grand vague plans as "here's what I'm working on", but without making status claims that would need to be debunked, would be very useful.
    2. OTTH it's maybe fine or even good if I have to produce three object-level blog posts before I can lay out the grand vague goal.
  5. But also it's bad to discourage grand goals just because they haven't reached the plan stage yet.

Yes, there are lesser goals that I could hit with 90% probability. Note that in that comment, I was saying that 2% would make the project attractive, rather than saying I put our chances of success at 2%. And also that the bar there was set very high - getting a clear attributable major policy win. Which then got someone willing to take the YES side at 5% (Ross).

I also have bad associations to MetaMed (not based on direct evidence, though). Mentioning here that there's a perception (I had the same impression – but see localdeity's comment for two retrospectives) that MetaMed didn't get a proper retrospective seems relevant. That said, it's been a while since then and it's not like Zvi hasn't done anything else in the meantime. (I think the regular "updates" posts on various topics are excellent and demonstrate types of skill that seem quite relevant for the announced project – though obviously other more org-related skills are also required.) I'd say it's on the (potential) funders to evaluate what they're comfortable with. I think the things you mention (at least lean implementations thereof) sound like good practices either way, whether or not the track record has flaws. Going beyond what's common practice could be worth it if the funders have specific concerns, but maybe they're fine without and that would be okay – and there's also the danger that too much accountability ties you down and creates bad incentives. (For instance, setting specific goals can make it harder to pivot in situations where pivoting would benefit the mission. Though maybe you can set goals in such a way that they're flexible and you get mostly just the positives out of goalsetting/accountability.)

Overall, I think I agree with the spirit of the comment, but, at the same time, I don't find myself too worried about this. (I've never met Zvi and have no conflicts of interest.)

For anyone who works in architecture, balsa wood is what you use to prototype ideas. 

It is also one of the weakest, most breakable woods.

It's also light, and lightness has a lot of metaphorical connotations

To me, it suggests a contrast with Weber's "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards."

I recognize that examples need to be legible, and I would also hope for deep internalization of pulling the rope sideways and investigation of policy areas that are less legible and therefore dramatically easier to shift on the margin.

How much time/energy do you, Moshe, and Alyssa expect to spend on this?

This is a full energy top priority effort.

I will continue the blog as part of that effort, it is the reason I am in position to be able to do this, and I will continue to attend to other commitments because life is complicated, but the effective barrier is 'I can only do so much in a week on this type of stuff no matter what anyway.'

If we do not address the deep dysfunctions of our government and its policies, we put our democracy and entire civilization at risk.

...

My new project, together with Moshe Looks and Alyssa Vance, is to chart paths forward to improve federal policy, and lay groundwork to implement those improvements. That means taking into account political feasibility. It means getting the proposals and messaging into the hands of candidates. It means commissioning academic studies quantifying costs and benefits and advance drafting of legislative language.

I'd be interesting in hearing more about how those two paragraphs are connected. How do we go from 1) lobbying for and getting specific policies implemented to 2) correcting the deep dysfunctions in our government?

I'm also not clear if this is implied or not, but is (2) supposed to mitigate existential risks? If so, I'd be interested to hear more about the specific thoughts and plans surrounding that.

Frankly, I'm worried you have bitten off more than you can chew.

This project has real Carrick Flynn vibes: well-meaning outsider without much domain expertise tries to fix things by throwing crypto money (I assume) at political problems where money has strongly diminishing returns. Focusing on lobbying instead of on a single candidate is an improvement to be sure, but "improve federal policy" is the kind of goal you come up with when you're not familiar with any of the specifics.

Many people have wanted for a long time to make most of the reforms you suggest. Just to take your first two examples, NEPA and the NRC each have huge well-funded interest groups that want them reformed and have been trying for decades, with little success. What does Balsa bring to the table? What actual reforms do you even have in mind?

I think this is an unnecessarily negative response to an announcement post. Zvi's been posting regularly for some time now about his thoughts on many of the areas he talks about in this post, including ideas for specific reforms. You've picked on a couple of the areas that are most high-profile, and I agree that we'd need extraordinary evidence to believe there's fruit in arm's reach in NEPA or NRC.

At the same time, I know Zvi's interested in repealing the Foreign Dredge Act, and that act didn't even have a Wikipedia article until one of his blog posts inspired me to make one. It seems to me he's doing a breadth-first search. I doubt he's going to land on an area where he doesn't bring anything to the table. I'm personally excited to see what Balsa comes up with.

That's fair, I could have phrased it more positively. I meant it more along the lines of "tread carefully and look out for the skulls" and not "this is a bad idea and you should give up".

I can speak a bit to what I have in mind to do. It's too early to speak too much about how I intend to get those particular things passed but am looking into it. 

I am studying the NEPA question, will hopefully have posts in a month or two after Manchin's reforms are done trying to pass. There are a lot of options both for marginal reforms and for radical reimagining. Right now, as far as I can tell, no one has designed a outcome-based replacement that someone could even consider (as opposed to process based) and I am excited to get that papered over time, as well as looking in detail to what marginal changes would have the most real impact.

NRC is more straightforward in terms of what to do, you order them to approve plants if they're safe, and do general permitting reforms, although details still matter. I am partial to 'hold nuclear plants to only require they be much safer than other power plants' although it's still early. I do think that there will be far more opportunity here going forward due to the course of events. 

Our funding sources are not public, but I will say at this time we are not funded in any way by FTX or OP.

I understand why you get the impression you do.   The issues mentioned are all over the map. Zoning is not even a Federal government issue.  Some of those issues are already the subject of significant reform efforts. In other cases, such as "fixing student loans"  it's unclear what Balsa's goal even is. 

But, many of the problems identified are real.

And, it doesn't seem that much progress is being made on many of them. 

So, Balsa's goal is worthy. 

And, it may well be that Balsa turns out to be unsuccessful, but doing nothing is guaranteed to be unsuccessful.  

So, I for one applaud this effort and am excited to see what comes of it.

I agree the goals are good, and many of the problems are real (I work in one of these areas of government myself, so I can personally attest to some of it). But I think that the attitude ("Elites have lost all credibility") and the broad adversarial mandate (find problems that other people should have fixed already but haven't) will plausibly lead not just to wasted money but also to unnecessary politicization and backlash. 

Those are fair concerns, but my impression in general is that those kinds of attitudes will tend to moderate in practice as Balsa becomes larger, develops and focuses on particular issues.  To the extent they don't and are harmful, Balsa is likely to be ineffective but is unlikely to be able to be significant enough to cause negative outcomes.

This project has real Carrick Flynn vibes: well-meaning outsider without much domain expertise tries to fix things by throwing crypto money (I assume) at political problems where money has strongly diminishing returns.

Can you talk a bit more about what gave you this vibe? They aren't starting a fund or a PAC, which is what comes to mind for me when people throw money at problems, and is literally what Carrick Flynn did.

My assumption about crypto money is because SBF/FTX has been the main EA funder giving extensively for political activity so far. Zvi's comment that "existing organizations nominally dedicated to such purposes face poor incentive structures due to how they are funded and garner attention" also implies that Balsa has an unusual funding source. 

Availability of money encourages organizations to spend that money on achieving their goals, and Zvi's blogging about policy failures, here and in the past, has tended to be rather strongly worded and even derisive. This leads me to believe that in practice he will be more focused on using the organization's resources to enact changes, e.g. through advocacy/publicizing failures, than on impartial policy analysis.

If I turn out to be wrong on these points, then I would be significantly more optimistic about the project. In principle I think more policy engagement could be a good thing, if handled carefully.

Ah, thank you - I didn't twig on the incentives comment, but I can see how that would be a signal of different operation.

I noticed you mention you work in one of these areas: from your perspective, what would you want an org like this to do differently from the existing ones that would make it more successful at getting policy implemented?

I suspect (though it's not something I have experience with) that a successful new policy think tank would be started by people with inside knowledge and connections to be able to suss out where the levers of government are. When the public starts hearing a lot about some dumb thing the government is doing badly (at the federal level), there are basically three possibilities: 1) it's well on its way to being fixed, 2) it's well on its way to becoming partisan and therefore subject to gridlock, or 3) it makes a good story but there isn't much substance to it, e.g. another less tractable factor is the real bottleneck. So you'd want to be in the position of having a thorough gears-level understanding of a particularly policy area that lets you be among the first to identify mistakes/weaknesses and how they could be fixed. Needless to say, this is tough to do in a whole bunch of policy areas at once.

I expect high returns in this domain from the strategy of doing basically the same thing as everyone else but slightly differently

How much do you expect to share your month-to-month priorities, projects, and successes/failures publicly?

(Relatedly, I'd be excited about a public longlist of straightforwardly-good and potentially-tractable policy proposals, like a much longer version of your "Low-hanging improvement" paragraph with some detail for each proposal.)

I am flattered that someone nominated this but I don't know why. I still believe in the project, but this doesn't match at all what I'd look to in this kind of review? The vision has changed and narrowed substantially. So this is a historical artifact of sorts, I suppose, but I don't see why it would belong.

I think I'm personally interested in a more detailed self-review of how this project went. Like, Balsa Research seemed like your own operationalization of a particular hypothesis, which is "one partial solution to civilizational dysfunction is to accomplish clear wins that restore/improve faith that we can improve things on purpose." (or, something like that)

I didn't nominate the post but having thought about it now, I'd be interested in an in-depth update on how you think about that, and what nuts-and-bolts of your thinking have evolved over the past couple years. 

Did you see (https://thezvi.substack.com/p/balsa-update-and-general-thank-you)? That's the closest thing available at the moment.

Unfortunately, it's Petrov Day, so someone blew up the world! Better luck in the next cycle of time. 

I have a book on my to-read list on exactly this topic, for those interested: Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change since 1945

I originally picked up the recommendation from a post at the Scholar's Stage.

If you track down when it all started, it probably was Reagan's era revocation of the FCC Fairness Doctrine. The slow but inexorable slide to extreme political polarization that still continues unabated. It might be too late to fix it before things turn ugly, but kudos for trying. 

And you are right, there are no adults in the room. You are Harry, and the McGonagalls of the world are more concerned with following the rules than with saving the world. I guess Eliezer's concept of "heroic responsibility" is rubbing off. The question is, can you find HPMOR-worthy outside the box approaches.

Examples like car seat mandates and the Jones act are not problems that are created through political polarization. 

Both Democrat and Republican voters support getting rid of civil forfeiture. Blaming political polarization for it not happening seems like a bad diagnosis. 

I... have no idea what you are trying to say. There is some cooperation still going on, yes. Not nearly as much as it used to.

The Jones Act was from 1920. It's not a problem that started to exist after the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine. 

Cross-party cooperation is not needed in many states to change state laws like car seat mandates. 

Did you fail to fill in the [email] placeholder? Or DM me the best email to use.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to edit this copy, it's fixed now.

Just filled out the contact form on the site. I hope there is some way I can assist I'd love to help make progress on Jones Act / Housing / NEPA reform. 

The situation is not ‘handled.’ Elites have lost all credibility.

I think it's worth caveating this that not all elites have lost credibility. Elites in places like Singapore, Switzerland, and Finland have a lot of credibility.