Effective Altruism Is Bunk, Crypto Is Bad for the Planet, and Other Basic Truths of the FTX Crash

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Twitter’s implosion isn’t the only astonishing story in the tech world this week. There’s also the collapse of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange led by its 30-year-old founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who is now under investigation by federal regulators for multiple wrongdoings and, by the public, for reportedly being a member of what may now be world’s most despised polycule. What’s made the FTX unraveling so shocking is that Bankman-Fried was thought to be special—the reasonable voice of a Wild West industry. He was also believed to be in possession of a moral compass. Now, as headlines about FTX proliferate, people are starting to question the philosophy of “effective altruism,” which Bankman-Fried promoted and claimed to live by. This rethinking of effective altruism may be the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing crash that may devastate many vulnerable people. Despite its good reputation in some affluent and influential quarters, the effective altruism philosophy has always contained quite a bit of dangerous nonsense.  The goal of effective altruism—a philosophy and “social movement”—is to “try to find unusually good ways of helping, such that a given amount of effort goes an unusually long way,” according to EffectiveAltruism.org. That can mean donating a kidney, spending money on pandemic preparedness, or attempting to ward off space crimes in the year 3423. The actions of effective altruism devotees are guided by a few core principles, including prioritization. “The goal is to find the best ways to help, rather than just working to make any difference at all” using “numbers,” the group’s website states. Decisions should be impartial so as to “give everyone’s interests equal weight.” Adherents are committed to open truth-seeking, finding the most rational ways to make change rather than “starting with a commitment to a certain cause, community or approach.” EA acolytes pride themselves, that is, on a cool rationality that rejects the emotional satisfaction of helping someone face to face, or having the kinds of material or emotional stakes in an issue that organizers use to enlist recruits into union drives or grassroots movements pushing systemic change. It’s that reasoning which leads the EA-career advice site 80,000 Hours—featuring a testimonial from Bankman-Fried himself—to rank climate change seventh on a list of the world’s most pressing problems. Climate change, this site claims, is dangerous mainly for its potential to exacerbate other, more grave existential threats like pandemic or nuclear war. The case for that is as follows: “If climate change poses something like a 1 in 1,000,000 risk of extinction by itself, our guess is that its contribution to other existential risks is at most a few orders of magnitude higher—so something like 1 in 10,000.” Numbers! The most pressing threat, this site claims, is superpowered artificial intelligence at some point executing a plan to kill or enslave all of humanity.The most pressing threat, this site claims, is superpowered artificial intelligence at some point executing a plan to kill or enslave all of humanity. The unlikely event of the world warming by 13 degrees would constitute “a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale,” per an 80,000 Hours issue brief. But even at those temperatures ”it seems very likely that we could adapt to avoid extinction (for example, by building better buildings and widespread air conditioning, as well as building more in the cooler areas of the Earth),” the guide writes. “​​We would have to live in a much smaller area, but civilisation would survive.”Effective Altruism’s intellectual grandfather is utilitarian Peter Singer. But its best hype man is Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. His particular hobby horse is something called longtermism, spelled out in his latest book What We Owe The Future. As Alexander Zaitchek summarized in his excellent review for this magazine, longtermism “posits that one’s highest ethical duty in the present is to increase the odds, however slightly, of humanity’s long-term survival and the colonization of the Virgo supercluster of galaxies by our distant descendants.” Our chief concern should be the trillions of people who’ll live on earth for hundreds of thousands, if not billions of years to come. Oddly, the rationale for climate change not being a more pressing threat to EAs is that it would take “some time (decades or maybe centuries)” for extreme levels of warming to develop via the burning every fossil fuel reserve currently in the ground. MacAskill, who seems to have personally recruited Bankman-Fried to the EA community, has now condemned Bankman-Fried on Twitter for failing at effective altruism. “I had put my trust in Sam, and if he lied and misused customer funds he betrayed me, just as he betrayed his customers, his employees, his investors, & the communities he was a part of,” MacAskill tweeted last week. To demonstrate that Bankman-Fried’s actions were inconsistent with effective altruism and therefore Bankman-Fried’s fall does not discredit effective altruism, MacAskill posted a few sections from his book that emphasize the need to live a “rounded ethical life.” The ends do not always justify the means, MacAskill argues in these segments, even if it might theoretically save billions of lives in the far-off future. And it’s “particularly important to avoid doing harm,” he writes. But like much of EA, this sidesteps some more basic ethical issues under capitalism—issues highly relevant to the FTX collapse. Quite simply: There is no ethical or non-harmful way to make a billion dollars in an economic system rife with—and arguably premised on—exploitation and passing the true costs of a product on to others. To MacAskill, creating a Ponzi scheme and gambling away customer savings is beyond the pale. The ordinary exploitation involved in the process of accumulating extraordinary wealth—low wages, poor working conditions, and union busting—is all copacetic. In the case of crypto, especially, amassing wealth has tended to come with a massive carbon footprint. Bitcoin mining using so-called proof of work operations are extraordinarily carbon intensive. Shuttered coal and gas-fired power plants in the U.S. have surged back to life to mint cryptocurrency, sparking pushback from lawmakers in New York and elsewhere. The practice uses more electricity than the country of Norway and its 5.3 million inhabitants. Attempts to switch to another, much less emissions-intensive method called proof of stake have so far been a mixed bag. While Ethereum underwent a high-profile switch, old mining devices are still being put to work. Though pollution from fossil fuels account for one in five deaths worldwide, EA enthusiasts could undoubtedly offer a lengthy explanation as to why more emissions are ultimately justified in the name of battling intergalactic genocide. Effective altruism is the gospel of wealth for guys who fashioned their personalities in high school around subjecting their criminally underpaid teachers to debates about whether God exists.Effective altruism is the gospel of wealth for guys who fashioned their personalities in high school around subjecting their criminally underpaid teachers to debates about whether God exists. The implicit reasoning behind the philosophy is that the big, powerful brains earning fortunes are also the best equipped to figure out how they will make the world a better place. Any rube can go work at a non-profit. Making a real difference might just mean getting filthy rich (“earning to give”), as MacAskill once told Bankman-Friend over lunch. “Rich makes right” is not exactly revolutionary stuff. “Doing good by doing well” has been a long-held mantra of Davos-types spewing TED talk-ish bromides about wanting to make the world a better, greener place. “The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote of his class’s charitable giving in 1899, “but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” Bizarrely, though, EA has been successfully marketed as new and innovative, mostly by dint of its proximity to tech. To be fair, EA-aligned think tanks like Open Philanthropy have sent money to plenty of worthy causes, including journalism and non-profits interested in tackling the root causes of what makes the world suck. Some EA adherents are merely self-congratulatory do-gooders. Some are people who have landed themselves in high paying jobs, yet have some vague sense that the world is bad and want to help out. Donating kidneys and mosquito netting isn’t exactly a bad thing. There may well be some way for EA to continue the good it’s doing in the world without Bankman-Friend and other wealthy backers. But on a basic material level, crypto and the institutions guiding EA remain deeply intertwined—so much so that many recipients of EA funds are now facing dire shortfalls amid the FTX implosion. Bankman-Friend more or less admitted this week that his ethical commitments were mostly a scam. When prompted by Vox’s Kelsey Piper over Twitter DMs to discuss the discrepancy between his public talk about ethics and his true perception of finance as a “game,” he responded, “ya,” and “hehe,” adding that he “had to be” good at talking about ethics since “it’s what reputations are made of.” Ethics in corporate culture, he added, is “a dumb game that we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths and so everyone likes us.”As he also told Piper, “fuck regulators.” Any talk about wanting to make good regulations on crypto was “just PR,” he confirmed. To him, regulators are useless, inept drains on businesses. Regulators are obsessed with a “giant Crackdown on Big Tech,” and are “undermining US interests globally.” He called the Office of Foreign Assets Control—the enforcement arm of the U.S. Treasury, which also administers trade sanctions—“the single biggest threat to the US being a suprepower.” Echoing the Republicans who have deemed so-called environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investment decisions a special enemy in recent years, on the theory that Wall Street banks are biased against fossil fuels, Bankman-Fried complained that “ESG has been perverted beyond recognition.” Reading this rant over Twitter DMs, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the effective altruism philosophy Bankman-Fried claimed to believe in is beside the point: Bankman-Fried is a garden-variety reactionary who wants to keep the government out of his business. Debating whether or not he did all this to serve some greater good is academic, leaning toward absurd.It was already clear beore the FTX implosion was Bankman-Fried spent plenty of money not to make the world a better place, but to influence policymakers, quickly becoming one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates. He gave $5 million to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and had pledged to put $1 billion toward supporting Democrats in 2024. This probably wasn’t because he’s a progressive at heart: Reporting by The American Prospect found that two Democratic-supporting political action committees funded by Bankman-Fried, Web3 Forward and GMI PAC, backed candidates based on how friendly they would be to the crypto industry—including on its considerable greenhouse gas emissions. These PACs sent questionnaires to candidates on these issues. As David Dayen writes: A section in one questionnaire labeled “Protecting the Environment” claims that Bitcoin “proof of work” mining, which has been criticized for using extreme amounts of energy, is actually a boost to a clean-energy electric grid, while using “2.5 times less energy than the banking system per dollar of value.” The Prospect asked Web3 Forward and GMI PAC to provide sources for this, but they have not responded. As the questionnaire even concedes at one point, the arguments appear to be based on theories from proof-of-work mining participants themselves. Independent energy experts have scoffed at the claims.Questionnaires also asked candidates to pledge to support a letter to SEC Commissioner Gary Gensler urging him to back off the industry. The letter was ultimately signed by both Republicans and Democrats, including Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Jake Auchincloss, Darren Soto and Ritchie Torres.  As The Lever reported, the Bankman-Fried-backed super PAC Protect Our Future spent millions this cycle, including to elect candidates who sit on committees relevant to the crypto industry. Bankman-Fried personally co-hosted a fundraiser for Torres with Democrat-aligned pollsters David Shor and Sean McElwee. The latter was reportedly an advisor to Bankman-Fried, whose group Data for Progress received $48,000 from Protect Our Future.  This is all very ordinary behavior for a billionaire getting involved in politics. Real or fake, the sheen of effective altruism seemed to have fooled plenty of people into thinking Bankman-Fried was extraordinary. It’s good that FTX’s collapse is finally making people rethink Bankman-Fried and effective altruism. But the problem with effective altruism isn’t that it’s populated by insufferable dweebs. The problem is these dweebs’ alliance with a profoundly anti-democratic project: to let its founders continue to make as much money as possible, whatever the cost to people and the planet. 

Twitter’s implosion isn’t the only astonishing story in the tech world this week. There’s also the collapse of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange led by its 30-year-old founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who is now under investigation by federal regulators for multiple wrongdoings and, by the public, for reportedly being a member of what may now be world’s most despised polycule. What’s made the FTX unraveling so shocking is that Bankman-Fried was thought to be special—the reasonable voice of a Wild West industry. He was also believed to be in possession of a moral compass. Now, as headlines about FTX proliferate, people are starting to question the philosophy of “effective altruism,” which Bankman-Fried promoted and claimed to live by. This rethinking of effective altruism may be the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing crash that may devastate many vulnerable people. Despite its good reputation in some affluent and influential quarters, the effective altruism philosophy has always contained quite a bit of dangerous nonsense.  The goal of effective altruism—a philosophy and “social movement”—is to “try to find unusually good ways of helping, such that a given amount of effort goes an unusually long way,” according to EffectiveAltruism.org. That can mean donating a kidney, spending money on pandemic preparedness, or attempting to ward off space crimes in the year 3423. The actions of effective altruism devotees are guided by a few core principles, including prioritization. “The goal is to find the best ways to help, rather than just working to make any difference at all” using “numbers,” the group’s website states. Decisions should be impartial so as to “give everyone’s interests equal weight.” Adherents are committed to open truth-seeking, finding the most rational ways to make change rather than “starting with a commitment to a certain cause, community or approach.” EA acolytes pride themselves, that is, on a cool rationality that rejects the emotional satisfaction of helping someone face to face, or having the kinds of material or emotional stakes in an issue that organizers use to enlist recruits into union drives or grassroots movements pushing systemic change. It’s that reasoning which leads the EA-career advice site 80,000 Hours—featuring a testimonial from Bankman-Fried himself—to rank climate change seventh on a list of the world’s most pressing problems. Climate change, this site claims, is dangerous mainly for its potential to exacerbate other, more grave existential threats like pandemic or nuclear war. The case for that is as follows: “If climate change poses something like a 1 in 1,000,000 risk of extinction by itself, our guess is that its contribution to other existential risks is at most a few orders of magnitude higher—so something like 1 in 10,000.” Numbers! The most pressing threat, this site claims, is superpowered artificial intelligence at some point executing a plan to kill or enslave all of humanity.The most pressing threat, this site claims, is superpowered artificial intelligence at some point executing a plan to kill or enslave all of humanity. The unlikely event of the world warming by 13 degrees would constitute “a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale,” per an 80,000 Hours issue brief. But even at those temperatures ”it seems very likely that we could adapt to avoid extinction (for example, by building better buildings and widespread air conditioning, as well as building more in the cooler areas of the Earth),” the guide writes. “​​We would have to live in a much smaller area, but civilisation would survive.”Effective Altruism’s intellectual grandfather is utilitarian Peter Singer. But its best hype man is Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. His particular hobby horse is something called longtermism, spelled out in his latest book What We Owe The Future. As Alexander Zaitchek summarized in his excellent review for this magazine, longtermism “posits that one’s highest ethical duty in the present is to increase the odds, however slightly, of humanity’s long-term survival and the colonization of the Virgo supercluster of galaxies by our distant descendants.” Our chief concern should be the trillions of people who’ll live on earth for hundreds of thousands, if not billions of years to come. Oddly, the rationale for climate change not being a more pressing threat to EAs is that it would take “some time (decades or maybe centuries)” for extreme levels of warming to develop via the burning every fossil fuel reserve currently in the ground. MacAskill, who seems to have personally recruited Bankman-Fried to the EA community, has now condemned Bankman-Fried on Twitter for failing at effective altruism. “I had put my trust in Sam, and if he lied and misused customer funds he betrayed me, just as he betrayed his customers, his employees, his investors, & the communities he was a part of,” MacAskill tweeted last week. To demonstrate that Bankman-Fried’s actions were inconsistent with effective altruism and therefore Bankman-Fried’s fall does not discredit effective altruism, MacAskill posted a few sections from his book that emphasize the need to live a “rounded ethical life.” The ends do not always justify the means, MacAskill argues in these segments, even if it might theoretically save billions of lives in the far-off future. And it’s “particularly important to avoid doing harm,” he writes. But like much of EA, this sidesteps some more basic ethical issues under capitalism—issues highly relevant to the FTX collapse. Quite simply: There is no ethical or non-harmful way to make a billion dollars in an economic system rife with—and arguably premised on—exploitation and passing the true costs of a product on to others. To MacAskill, creating a Ponzi scheme and gambling away customer savings is beyond the pale. The ordinary exploitation involved in the process of accumulating extraordinary wealth—low wages, poor working conditions, and union busting—is all copacetic. In the case of crypto, especially, amassing wealth has tended to come with a massive carbon footprint. Bitcoin mining using so-called proof of work operations are extraordinarily carbon intensive. Shuttered coal and gas-fired power plants in the U.S. have surged back to life to mint cryptocurrency, sparking pushback from lawmakers in New York and elsewhere. The practice uses more electricity than the country of Norway and its 5.3 million inhabitants. Attempts to switch to another, much less emissions-intensive method called proof of stake have so far been a mixed bag. While Ethereum underwent a high-profile switch, old mining devices are still being put to work. Though pollution from fossil fuels account for one in five deaths worldwide, EA enthusiasts could undoubtedly offer a lengthy explanation as to why more emissions are ultimately justified in the name of battling intergalactic genocide. Effective altruism is the gospel of wealth for guys who fashioned their personalities in high school around subjecting their criminally underpaid teachers to debates about whether God exists.Effective altruism is the gospel of wealth for guys who fashioned their personalities in high school around subjecting their criminally underpaid teachers to debates about whether God exists. The implicit reasoning behind the philosophy is that the big, powerful brains earning fortunes are also the best equipped to figure out how they will make the world a better place. Any rube can go work at a non-profit. Making a real difference might just mean getting filthy rich (“earning to give”), as MacAskill once told Bankman-Friend over lunch. “Rich makes right” is not exactly revolutionary stuff. “Doing good by doing well” has been a long-held mantra of Davos-types spewing TED talk-ish bromides about wanting to make the world a better, greener place. “The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote of his class’s charitable giving in 1899, “but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” Bizarrely, though, EA has been successfully marketed as new and innovative, mostly by dint of its proximity to tech. To be fair, EA-aligned think tanks like Open Philanthropy have sent money to plenty of worthy causes, including journalism and non-profits interested in tackling the root causes of what makes the world suck. Some EA adherents are merely self-congratulatory do-gooders. Some are people who have landed themselves in high paying jobs, yet have some vague sense that the world is bad and want to help out. Donating kidneys and mosquito netting isn’t exactly a bad thing. There may well be some way for EA to continue the good it’s doing in the world without Bankman-Friend and other wealthy backers. But on a basic material level, crypto and the institutions guiding EA remain deeply intertwined—so much so that many recipients of EA funds are now facing dire shortfalls amid the FTX implosion. Bankman-Friend more or less admitted this week that his ethical commitments were mostly a scam. When prompted by Vox’s Kelsey Piper over Twitter DMs to discuss the discrepancy between his public talk about ethics and his true perception of finance as a “game,” he responded, “ya,” and “hehe,” adding that he “had to be” good at talking about ethics since “it’s what reputations are made of.” Ethics in corporate culture, he added, is “a dumb game that we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths and so everyone likes us.”As he also told Piper, “fuck regulators.” Any talk about wanting to make good regulations on crypto was “just PR,” he confirmed. To him, regulators are useless, inept drains on businesses. Regulators are obsessed with a “giant Crackdown on Big Tech,” and are “undermining US interests globally.” He called the Office of Foreign Assets Control—the enforcement arm of the U.S. Treasury, which also administers trade sanctions—“the single biggest threat to the US being a suprepower.” Echoing the Republicans who have deemed so-called environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investment decisions a special enemy in recent years, on the theory that Wall Street banks are biased against fossil fuels, Bankman-Fried complained that “ESG has been perverted beyond recognition.” Reading this rant over Twitter DMs, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the effective altruism philosophy Bankman-Fried claimed to believe in is beside the point: Bankman-Fried is a garden-variety reactionary who wants to keep the government out of his business. Debating whether or not he did all this to serve some greater good is academic, leaning toward absurd.It was already clear beore the FTX implosion was Bankman-Fried spent plenty of money not to make the world a better place, but to influence policymakers, quickly becoming one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates. He gave $5 million to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and had pledged to put $1 billion toward supporting Democrats in 2024. This probably wasn’t because he’s a progressive at heart: Reporting by The American Prospect found that two Democratic-supporting political action committees funded by Bankman-Fried, Web3 Forward and GMI PAC, backed candidates based on how friendly they would be to the crypto industry—including on its considerable greenhouse gas emissions. These PACs sent questionnaires to candidates on these issues. As David Dayen writes: A section in one questionnaire labeled “Protecting the Environment” claims that Bitcoin “proof of work” mining, which has been criticized for using extreme amounts of energy, is actually a boost to a clean-energy electric grid, while using “2.5 times less energy than the banking system per dollar of value.” The Prospect asked Web3 Forward and GMI PAC to provide sources for this, but they have not responded. As the questionnaire even concedes at one point, the arguments appear to be based on theories from proof-of-work mining participants themselves. Independent energy experts have scoffed at the claims.Questionnaires also asked candidates to pledge to support a letter to SEC Commissioner Gary Gensler urging him to back off the industry. The letter was ultimately signed by both Republicans and Democrats, including Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Jake Auchincloss, Darren Soto and Ritchie Torres.  As The Lever reported, the Bankman-Fried-backed super PAC Protect Our Future spent millions this cycle, including to elect candidates who sit on committees relevant to the crypto industry. Bankman-Fried personally co-hosted a fundraiser for Torres with Democrat-aligned pollsters David Shor and Sean McElwee. The latter was reportedly an advisor to Bankman-Fried, whose group Data for Progress received $48,000 from Protect Our Future.  This is all very ordinary behavior for a billionaire getting involved in politics. Real or fake, the sheen of effective altruism seemed to have fooled plenty of people into thinking Bankman-Fried was extraordinary. It’s good that FTX’s collapse is finally making people rethink Bankman-Fried and effective altruism. But the problem with effective altruism isn’t that it’s populated by insufferable dweebs. The problem is these dweebs’ alliance with a profoundly anti-democratic project: to let its founders continue to make as much money as possible, whatever the cost to people and the planet. 

Twitter’s implosion isn’t the only astonishing story in the tech world this week. There’s also the collapse of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange led by its 30-year-old founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who is now under investigation by federal regulators for multiple wrongdoings and, by the public, for reportedly being a member of what may now be world’s most despised polycule. What’s made the FTX unraveling so shocking is that Bankman-Fried was thought to be special—the reasonable voice of a Wild West industry. He was also believed to be in possession of a moral compass. Now, as headlines about FTX proliferate, people are starting to question the philosophy of “effective altruism,” which Bankman-Fried promoted and claimed to live by. This rethinking of effective altruism may be the one bright spot in an otherwise depressing crash that may devastate many vulnerable people. Despite its good reputation in some affluent and influential quarters, the effective altruism philosophy has always contained quite a bit of dangerous nonsense.  

The goal of effective altruism—a philosophy and “social movement”—is to “try to find unusually good ways of helping, such that a given amount of effort goes an unusually long way,” according to EffectiveAltruism.org. That can mean donating a kidney, spending money on pandemic preparedness, or attempting to ward off space crimes in the year 3423. The actions of effective altruism devotees are guided by a few core principles, including prioritization. “The goal is to find the best ways to help, rather than just working to make any difference at all” using “numbers,” the group’s website states. Decisions should be impartial so as to “give everyone’s interests equal weight.” Adherents are committed to open truth-seeking, finding the most rational ways to make change rather than “starting with a commitment to a certain cause, community or approach.” EA acolytes pride themselves, that is, on a cool rationality that rejects the emotional satisfaction of helping someone face to face, or having the kinds of material or emotional stakes in an issue that organizers use to enlist recruits into union drives or grassroots movements pushing systemic change. 

It’s that reasoning which leads the EA-career advice site 80,000 Hours—featuring a testimonial from Bankman-Fried himself—to rank climate change seventh on a list of the world’s most pressing problems. Climate change, this site claims, is dangerous mainly for its potential to exacerbate other, more grave existential threats like pandemic or nuclear war. The case for that is as follows: “If climate change poses something like a 1 in 1,000,000 risk of extinction by itself, our guess is that its contribution to other existential risks is at most a few orders of magnitude higher—so something like 1 in 10,000.” Numbers! 

The most pressing threat, this site claims, is superpowered artificial intelligence at some point executing a plan to kill or enslave all of humanity. The unlikely event of the world warming by 13 degrees would constitute “a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale,” per an 80,000 Hours issue brief. But even at those temperatures ”it seems very likely that we could adapt to avoid extinction (for example, by building better buildings and widespread air conditioning, as well as building more in the cooler areas of the Earth),” the guide writes. “​​We would have to live in a much smaller area, but civilisation would survive.”

Effective Altruism’s intellectual grandfather is utilitarian Peter Singer. But its best hype man is Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. His particular hobby horse is something called longtermism, spelled out in his latest book What We Owe The Future. As Alexander Zaitchek summarized in his excellent review for this magazine, longtermism “posits that one’s highest ethical duty in the present is to increase the odds, however slightly, of humanity’s long-term survival and the colonization of the Virgo supercluster of galaxies by our distant descendants.” Our chief concern should be the trillions of people who’ll live on earth for hundreds of thousands, if not billions of years to come. Oddly, the rationale for climate change not being a more pressing threat to EAs is that it would take “some time (decades or maybe centuries)” for extreme levels of warming to develop via the burning every fossil fuel reserve currently in the ground. 

MacAskill, who seems to have personally recruited Bankman-Fried to the EA community, has now condemned Bankman-Fried on Twitter for failing at effective altruism. “I had put my trust in Sam, and if he lied and misused customer funds he betrayed me, just as he betrayed his customers, his employees, his investors, & the communities he was a part of,” MacAskill tweeted last week. To demonstrate that Bankman-Fried’s actions were inconsistent with effective altruism and therefore Bankman-Fried’s fall does not discredit effective altruism, MacAskill posted a few sections from his book that emphasize the need to live a “rounded ethical life.” The ends do not always justify the means, MacAskill argues in these segments, even if it might theoretically save billions of lives in the far-off future. And it’s “particularly important to avoid doing harm,” he writes. 

But like much of EA, this sidesteps some more basic ethical issues under capitalism—issues highly relevant to the FTX collapse. Quite simply: There is no ethical or non-harmful way to make a billion dollars in an economic system rife with—and arguably premised on—exploitation and passing the true costs of a product on to others. To MacAskill, creating a Ponzi scheme and gambling away customer savings is beyond the pale. The ordinary exploitation involved in the process of accumulating extraordinary wealth—low wages, poor working conditions, and union busting—is all copacetic. 

In the case of crypto, especially, amassing wealth has tended to come with a massive carbon footprint. Bitcoin mining using so-called proof of work operations are extraordinarily carbon intensive. Shuttered coal and gas-fired power plants in the U.S. have surged back to life to mint cryptocurrency, sparking pushback from lawmakers in New York and elsewhere. The practice uses more electricity than the country of Norway and its 5.3 million inhabitants. Attempts to switch to another, much less emissions-intensive method called proof of stake have so far been a mixed bag. While Ethereum underwent a high-profile switch, old mining devices are still being put to work. Though pollution from fossil fuels account for one in five deaths worldwide, EA enthusiasts could undoubtedly offer a lengthy explanation as to why more emissions are ultimately justified in the name of battling intergalactic genocide. 

Effective altruism is the gospel of wealth for guys who fashioned their personalities in high school around subjecting their criminally underpaid teachers to debates about whether God exists. The implicit reasoning behind the philosophy is that the big, powerful brains earning fortunes are also the best equipped to figure out how they will make the world a better place. Any rube can go work at a non-profit. Making a real difference might just mean getting filthy rich (“earning to give”), as MacAskill once told Bankman-Friend over lunch. 

“Rich makes right” is not exactly revolutionary stuff. “Doing good by doing well” has been a long-held mantra of Davos-types spewing TED talk-ish bromides about wanting to make the world a better, greener place. “The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue,” steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote of his class’s charitable giving in 1899, “but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” Bizarrely, though, EA has been successfully marketed as new and innovative, mostly by dint of its proximity to tech. 

To be fair, EA-aligned think tanks like Open Philanthropy have sent money to plenty of worthy causes, including journalism and non-profits interested in tackling the root causes of what makes the world suck. Some EA adherents are merely self-congratulatory do-gooders. Some are people who have landed themselves in high paying jobs, yet have some vague sense that the world is bad and want to help out. Donating kidneys and mosquito netting isn’t exactly a bad thing. There may well be some way for EA to continue the good it’s doing in the world without Bankman-Friend and other wealthy backers. But on a basic material level, crypto and the institutions guiding EA remain deeply intertwined—so much so that many recipients of EA funds are now facing dire shortfalls amid the FTX implosion. 

Bankman-Friend more or less admitted this week that his ethical commitments were mostly a scam. When prompted by Vox’s Kelsey Piper over Twitter DMs to discuss the discrepancy between his public talk about ethics and his true perception of finance as a “game,” he responded, “ya,” and “hehe,” adding that he “had to be” good at talking about ethics since “it’s what reputations are made of.” Ethics in corporate culture, he added, is “a dumb game that we woke westerners play where we say all the right shiboleths and so everyone likes us.”

As he also told Piper, “fuck regulators.” Any talk about wanting to make good regulations on crypto was “just PR,” he confirmed. To him, regulators are useless, inept drains on businesses. Regulators are obsessed with a “giant Crackdown on Big Tech,” and are “undermining US interests globally.” He called the Office of Foreign Assets Control—the enforcement arm of the U.S. Treasury, which also administers trade sanctions—“the single biggest threat to the US being a suprepower.” Echoing the Republicans who have deemed so-called environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investment decisions a special enemy in recent years, on the theory that Wall Street banks are biased against fossil fuels, Bankman-Fried complained that “ESG has been perverted beyond recognition.” 

Reading this rant over Twitter DMs, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the effective altruism philosophy Bankman-Fried claimed to believe in is beside the point: Bankman-Fried is a garden-variety reactionary who wants to keep the government out of his business. Debating whether or not he did all this to serve some greater good is academic, leaning toward absurd.

It was already clear beore the FTX implosion was Bankman-Fried spent plenty of money not to make the world a better place, but to influence policymakers, quickly becoming one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates. He gave $5 million to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and had pledged to put $1 billion toward supporting Democrats in 2024. This probably wasn’t because he’s a progressive at heart: Reporting by The American Prospect found that two Democratic-supporting political action committees funded by Bankman-Fried, Web3 Forward and GMI PAC, backed candidates based on how friendly they would be to the crypto industry—including on its considerable greenhouse gas emissions. These PACs sent questionnaires to candidates on these issues. As David Dayen writes: 

A section in one questionnaire labeled “Protecting the Environment” claims that Bitcoin “proof of work” mining, which has been criticized for using extreme amounts of energy, is actually a boost to a clean-energy electric grid, while using “2.5 times less energy than the banking system per dollar of value.” 

The Prospect asked Web3 Forward and GMI PAC to provide sources for this, but they have not responded. As the questionnaire even concedes at one point, the arguments appear to be based on theories from proof-of-work mining participants themselves. Independent energy experts have scoffed at the claims.

Questionnaires also asked candidates to pledge to support a letter to SEC Commissioner Gary Gensler urging him to back off the industry. The letter was ultimately signed by both Republicans and Democrats, including Representatives Josh Gottheimer, Jake Auchincloss, Darren Soto and Ritchie Torres.  As The Lever reported, the Bankman-Fried-backed super PAC Protect Our Future spent millions this cycle, including to elect candidates who sit on committees relevant to the crypto industry. Bankman-Fried personally co-hosted a fundraiser for Torres with Democrat-aligned pollsters David Shor and Sean McElwee. The latter was reportedly an advisor to Bankman-Fried, whose group Data for Progress received $48,000 from Protect Our Future.  This is all very ordinary behavior for a billionaire getting involved in politics. Real or fake, the sheen of effective altruism seemed to have fooled plenty of people into thinking Bankman-Fried was extraordinary

It’s good that FTX’s collapse is finally making people rethink Bankman-Fried and effective altruism. But the problem with effective altruism isn’t that it’s populated by insufferable dweebs. The problem is these dweebs’ alliance with a profoundly anti-democratic project: to let its founders continue to make as much money as possible, whatever the cost to people and the planet. 

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Costa Rica on Track to Shelve Escazu Environmental Agreement

The emblematic Escazú Agreement on environmental protection approved by Latin American countries in 2018, is about to fall into oblivion in Costa Rica, one of its promoters, in the face of the rejection of the government, the majority of Congress and businessmen, who see it as a brake on economic reactivation. Costa Rica has been […] The post Costa Rica on Track to Shelve Escazu Environmental Agreement appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

The emblematic Escazú Agreement on environmental protection approved by Latin American countries in 2018, is about to fall into oblivion in Costa Rica, one of its promoters, in the face of the rejection of the government, the majority of Congress and businessmen, who see it as a brake on economic reactivation. Costa Rica has been a “vanguard country, with positions always in favor of the environment and human rights”, says Nicolás Boeglin, professor of international law at the University of Costa Rica, to AFP. For this reason, says the academic, it is inexplicable that the Legislative Assembly intends to shelve the agreement, which guarantees access to information on environmental matters, the right of citizen participation in decisions affecting the environment and protection for nature defenders. Only the six deputies of the Frente Amplio (left) are determined to extend the period of discussion in Congress, but 29 votes are needed. If the deadline, which expires on February 1, is not extended, the Agreement will be shelved. “Costa Rica is wrong if it does not approve the Escazú Agreement because of the signal it gives. Being a country that has been at the forefront in this matter (…) to throw it overboard would be a very serious mistake”, comments Jonathan Acuña, a member of the parliament of the Front of the Amplist Front, to AFP. Boeglin estimates that “it seems [that the other deputies] are very much in agreement and very comfortable with the fact that Costa Rica is turning its back internationally on two traditional pillars of its foreign policy: the environment and human rights”. Little support Pushed by Costa Rica and Chile, the convention was signed in 2018 by 24 countries after six years of arduous negotiations. It was ratified by 14: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Uruguay. The Costa Rican delegates christened it the Escazú Agreement, the name of an upper-class municipality of San José where its negotiation was closed, and it was signed in New York in September 2018 in the framework of the UN General Assembly. “The current scenario indicates that there is little support from the deputies and deputies,” the Ministry of Environment said in a note. “However, in a country like Costa Rica, where there is a very good protection of human rights, very good protection of the environment and a whole process of validation of the environmental impact of projects […] it will not affect anything if the Escazú Agreement is not approved,” it added. At the CELAC Summit held this week in Buenos Aires, Chilean President Gabriel Boric urged not to let the Agreement die.  It’s not on the agenda The Costa Rican Parliament approved the agreement in February 2020 with 44 votes in favor (out of 57 parliamentarians) and none against. However, a year later the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court annulled the vote for “procedural flaws” and alleged lack of prior consultation with the Judiciary. “Most of what is contained in the Escazu Agreement, Costa Rica already has in its own legislation, the couple of things that would be new would be a monumental obstacle for any future development project of the country,” according to Liberal Congressman Eli Fienzag. Other parliamentarians and the president of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves, do not like this Latin American pact either. “The private sector should be reassured that the Escazú Agreement is not on the government’s agenda […], I do not think it would be beneficial for the country”, said the president after taking office in May 2022. According to Chaves, if ratified, it would “unjustifiably” delay the economic reactivation after the covid-19 pandemic. Attacks against businesses The Costa Rican Union of Chambers and Associations of the Business Sector (Uccaep) supported the president’s words through a letter. “Said agreement attempts against the legal security of the companies and the economic reactivation”, says the missive. “When what we need are measures of economic reactivation, this initiative that does not contain a single point to boost production is being promoted,” said Uccaep’s president, José Álvaro Jenkins, in the letter. But the NGO MarViva, which operates in Latin American tropical Pacific nations, affirms that “contrary to what is argued” by the businessmen, the ratification of the Agreement would be beneficial for Costa Rica’s economy. “Rather, it is a guarantee in the investment climate, which would facilitate the creation of added value for those productive activities that are developed in accordance with the provisions of the agreement”, says to AFP the manager of Political Advocacy of MarViva, Katherine Arroyo. The post Costa Rica on Track to Shelve Escazu Environmental Agreement appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Can video games change people’s minds about the climate crisis?

A new wave of game makers are attempting to influence a generation of environmentally conscious players. Will it work, and is it enough?“It was scary. It made you realise how, despite all the sophistication of modern society, we’re still reliant on water falling from the sky.” Sam Alfred, the lead designer at Cape Town-based video game studio Free Lives, vividly remembers his city nearly running out of water. During 2018, the area surrounding South Africa’s second largest city suffered months of dwindling rainfall. Dams were unable to replenish themselves at the rate its inhabitants required. Water was rationed. Businesses shut. The situation even called for its own grim version of the Doomsday Clock: hour by hour, the city ticked ever closer to Day Zero, marking the end of its fresh water supply.Terra Nil, the video game that Alfred has been developing since 2019, is a response to these terrifying events. Dubbed a “city-builder in reverse”, it foregoes the consumption and expansion of genre classics such as Civilisation and SimCity to paint a picture of environmental restoration. Starting with arid desert, it’s up to the player to rewild a landscape using various technologies – a toxin scrubber, for example, or a beehive. At light-speed, and with eye-massaging flushes of emerald green and azure blue, the environment transforms into lush vegetation. Terra Nil’s simplicity is as beautiful as its visuals, offering the satisfaction of a colouring book while doling out a clear-eyed critique of environment-wrecking extraction. Continue reading...

A new wave of game makers are attempting to influence a generation of environmentally conscious players. Will it work, and is it enough?“It was scary. It made you realise how, despite all the sophistication of modern society, we’re still reliant on water falling from the sky.” Sam Alfred, the lead designer at Cape Town-based video game studio Free Lives, vividly remembers his city nearly running out of water. During 2018, the area surrounding South Africa’s second largest city suffered months of dwindling rainfall. Dams were unable to replenish themselves at the rate its inhabitants required. Water was rationed. Businesses shut. The situation even called for its own grim version of the Doomsday Clock: hour by hour, the city ticked ever closer to Day Zero, marking the end of its fresh water supply.Terra Nil, the video game that Alfred has been developing since 2019, is a response to these terrifying events. Dubbed a “city-builder in reverse”, it foregoes the consumption and expansion of genre classics such as Civilisation and SimCity to paint a picture of environmental restoration. Starting with arid desert, it’s up to the player to rewild a landscape using various technologies – a toxin scrubber, for example, or a beehive. At light-speed, and with eye-massaging flushes of emerald green and azure blue, the environment transforms into lush vegetation. Terra Nil’s simplicity is as beautiful as its visuals, offering the satisfaction of a colouring book while doling out a clear-eyed critique of environment-wrecking extraction. Continue reading...

WTO chief calls for global carbon pricing

Adopting a global carbon pricing scheme could help countries streamline supply chains and mitigate concerns about competition, according to the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO). “A shared global carbon-pricing framework would best provide certainty for businesses and predictability for developing countries,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Thursday evening at the World Economic Forum’s Annual...

Adopting a global carbon pricing scheme could help countries streamline supply chains and mitigate concerns about competition, according to the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO).  “A shared global carbon-pricing framework would best provide certainty for businesses and predictability for developing countries,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Thursday evening at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Today there are at least 70 different — and “fragmented” — carbon pricing setups around the world, according to Okonjo-Iweala. That inconsistency ultimately hampers the decarbonization of trade and supply chains, the World Economic Forum stated following Okonjo-Iweala's address. As a result, the WTO has begun working with the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund to streamline carbon pricing, Okonjo-Iweala confirmed. In addition to expressing her support for shared global carbon pricing framework, Okonjo-Iweala also called for the elimination of “skewed” import tariffs that plague national borders today. Such tariffs, she explained, favor high-carbon imports over those whose production have generated fewer emissions. “Because of countries’ widespread tendency to impose higher tariffs on relatively clean finished goods, but lower tariffs on often more-polluting inputs and intermediates, trade policy skews in favor of dirtier products,” Okonjo-Iweala said. This discrepancy has resulted in what Okonjo-Iweala described as “an implicit subsidy” for carbon dioxide production — equivalent to between $550 billion and $800 billion per year. Eradicating this bias, she added, could decrease global carbon emissions by 3.6 percent while increasing global income by 0.65 percent. Okonjo-Iweala said she has been calling upon WTO members to bolster efforts “to liberalize trade and environmental good and services, bearing in mind all the sensitivities of developing countries.” Decarbonization of global trade and supply chains must occur in a way that is “leaving no one behind,” Okonjo-Iweala said. Developing countries, she explained, will need to obtain both “the capacity and infrastructure to demonstrate the low carbon content of their goods.” “Some have export baskets that are currently tilted heavily towards high carbon goods,” Okonjo-Iweala said. At the same time, however, she identified an opportunity for developing countries “to leapfrog” past environmentally harmful stages of development. Okonjo-Iweala emphasized the need for the scale-up and “diffusion of the green technologies that are necessary to ensure sustainable growth.” “Trade is the missing piece of the climate puzzle,” she added. “Trade is part of the solution.”

Why 2023 Is a Crucial Year in Our Economic Transformation

What now for Bidenomics? After two surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly, fruitful governing years for Democrats, the GOP—barely—holds the House. We’ve already seen the governing chaos caused by right-wing revolts against Republican leadership, and once the Kevin McCarthy saga is settled, we’ll likely see threats of investigations and impeachments. But don’t expect any substantive legislative progress.But this might be a very eventful policy year nonetheless. All eyes are now on the executive branch. The big question will be: Can the White House and the federal agencies make all of their legislative successes—the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act—really work for the American people? No doubt, these policies are a real break from the failures of neoliberalism. They invest public funds, from proper taxation on the wealthy and corporations who are otherwise skirting the law, in important new sectors of our future economy, from clean energy to semiconductor supply chains. They strengthen basic public scientific research. They strengthen government itself, from the IRS to the Department of Energy and more.But whether these policies will actually work is an open question. In the year ahead, policymakers will face four important “choice points.” Their decisions will make the difference between a one-off set of government grants and tax credits and the ushering in of a new political order—a true split from market-only answers, and an embrace of sustained public investment in public goods that Americans will see, understand, and maybe even reward.The four critical political economy questions for 2023: Will we plan? Will we repair? Will we embrace and amplify the role of government? And, as we seek to build roads and bridges, wind farms, and electric vehicle charging stations and semiconductor fabrication plans, will we listen to the communities who will be most affected by all of this change?Will we embrace government planning? For decades, open embrace of industrial policy was verboten. The idea that it is necessary, appropriate, and even good for the state to play a central role in deciding which industries rise and fall, how they are structured, and how they produce the goods and services we need: This was the policy that “shall not be named.” Sure, the Defense Department quietly nurtured the military-industrial complex, and various agencies enforced risk or competition regulations that made life easier or harder for industries. But they acted typically not with an explicit policy goal of onshoring or offshoring those industries, winding them up or winding them down, and almost never with job creation, worker power, and public safety in mind.Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a political reckoning in the U.S. with what is required to address climate change, changed all of that. Whether or not personal protective equipment, vaccines, or energy are produced at home or abroad, in friendly jurisdictions or hostile ones, these questions are no longer mostly about just-in-time logistics. They are now, more clearly than ever before, questions of life and death.Which leads to choice point number one: Does Biden let each agency that got enormous pots of money and new authorities in the last legislative session burrow into their own siloes, responsive only to their congressional overseers? Or does the president insist that all these new laws add up to more than the sum of their parts? For all of this legislation to add up strategically, as National Economic Council Director Brian Deese often insists it must, the White House will have to drive alignment across agencies and communicate clear economic and sectoral priorities. While the notion of “industrial planning” sometimes evokes more authoritarian political systems like China, the reality is that Western economies, U.S. states and localities, and well-run private sector firms all plan. Decades of research tell us that industrial strategies are more likely to be effective if they are part of an economy-wide plan, and more likely to be legitimate if this plan is inclusive, democratically decided, and accountable. What must be produced to meet the needs of a country as vast as ours? Where must it be produced to bring more of the productive capacity of our country to bear? Who should produce, and who should benefit? These questions must drive a strategic industrial plan that meets the unique challenges of the U.S. economy over the next decade. Will we repair past harms?The neoliberal era was premised on the assumption that markets would allocate capital efficiently—and, in certain ways, they did. Corporations moved manufacturing facilities where costs were low, often offshore. But they did so without regard to the kinds of things only democratically accountable governments attend to: whether the geographic distribution of economic opportunity contributes to a strong, vibrant democracy, and whether the location of new manufacturing facilities would strengthen or undermine our towns, cities, and communities. There’s a reason the narrative that Nafta cost American jobs has haunted Democrats for decades.Setting a new economic North Star is about more than producing resilient supply chains or making efficient use of nearby colleges and training centers for workforce development, however important both of those might be. It is also about repairing past harm—some of which far predates the neoliberal era, all of which was made worse by neoliberalism’s “let the market decide” dogma.In the coming years, government will write new rules and make important choices, shifting capital and structuring markets for decades to come. Where will our new manufacturing centers be located? What features, from the treatment of workers to the use of natural resources, will distinguish our most innovative, productive firms? Values beyond economic efficiency will guide those choices, and a new North Star must make those plain.One value should be to recognize and repair the harm of years of neoliberal disinvestment and extraction, both public and private. This will not be easy. The Biden administration has already pledged a “whole-of-government” approach to race equity that directs 40 percent of the benefits of investments to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”This is certainly a reparative move, in that it requires acknowledging past harm. Fixing past harm was, for example, the basis of the administration’s summer 2022 decision to cancel hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt. Certainly, part of the argument for debt cancellation is about borrowers’ future economic contributions, but part of the policy decision was based on Occupy Wall Street–era arguments that our current level of student debt is unfair and extractive, because borrowers who took out loans never got the degrees or employment benefits promised. Whether the Biden administration has the political backbone to design IRA, supply chain, and infrastructure policies such that they redress past harms and prevent future concentrations of economic and political power remains an open question as we head into 2023. It is a critical one.Will we make government visible?The role and reputation of government itself is also important as we begin implementation at scale. The Biden team must strengthen government’s public legitimacy by driving a visible government plan that can shift public views toward government. This will be a very tall order. Polling consistently shows that across the country, Americans of all ages and demographic backgrounds lack trust in the federal government, although Democratic and independent voters have more faith in government than do Republicans. Making government actions visible—marketing them, advertising them, taking full credit—might be risky given anti-government sentiment and the polarization of government itself, but this is a risk worth taking given how essential belief in government action is to our democracy. This will be most important for the Treasury Department. For the past decade, we’ve had policy-by-tax code, from subsidies for health insurance to Covid recovery funds. This is largely the result of Senate rules that make more sensible policymaking impossible. It is indirect, and largely invisible. As Suzanne Mettler describes, this submerges the state. Voters don’t see what is happening and can’t hold the government to account, or reward it, for outcomes. Correcting for these flaws is ultimately the job of Congress, but there are steps Treasury officials can take to add accountability, guidance, and oversight to guide these dollars in ways that align with industrial policy aims. Today’s Treasury leadership has done an admirable job of explaining itself. But government and those of us who are pro-government allies must do much, much more so that the American people understand government’s role in structuring and driving all manner of public benefits.The new economics is such an important break from the past. Getting the public to see that this is the work of government—not just a policy here or there, but an entirely new governmental approach—critical to not just the success of these laws, but to our basic democratic project.Who will we listen to, elite experts or ordinary citizens?Most people still think about neoliberalism as a pro-market, libertarian-esque economic project. But the deepest part of the neoliberal legacy is not economic per se; it is about governance. The neoliberal fight is less about left versus right, and more about who gets listened to and whose advice gets baked into policy design: the expert economist or the union member, the corporate lawyer or the movement leader.This leads to our final choice point for the coming year: As implementation decisions proceed, and our country builds out its manufacturing capacity at a blistering pace, whose expertise will the Biden administration make central? Trained experts of course matter on everything from economic to environmental effects. But so does the knowledge of line workers, nurses and orderlies, and everyday citizens. Will this administration, as it implements its $4 trillion agenda, find a smart and effective way to include the expertise of people whose lives will be most affected by the siting of the new wind farm or the implementation of health insurance directives?Many prominent thinkers are understandably worried that such local expertise—a.k.a. democracy—will hobble our ability to build good things quickly, and with it all of the good intentions of 2022’s hard-fought legislative wins. Whether the Biden team, and local and state governments around the country, devise more robust ways to get input from the people who are least often heard from may determine whether any of the 2022 legislation leaves a legacy that lasts far beyond the next few years, and whether it’s a legacy our children will be proud of.Conclusion The battle for our new economy has only just begun. Republican lawmakers are already trying to claw back critical funding. Corporate interests are lining up to take advantage of all that the new laws have to offer. The question now is whether progressives and those fighting for the public interest—less informed than businesses, and less organized, but far more important for our politics—will step effectively onto the playing field. Even with no legislative prospects in sight for the next two years, 2023 will be a critical year in our fight for the economy the American people deserve.

What now for Bidenomics? After two surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly, fruitful governing years for Democrats, the GOP—barely—holds the House. We’ve already seen the governing chaos caused by right-wing revolts against Republican leadership, and once the Kevin McCarthy saga is settled, we’ll likely see threats of investigations and impeachments. But don’t expect any substantive legislative progress.But this might be a very eventful policy year nonetheless. All eyes are now on the executive branch. The big question will be: Can the White House and the federal agencies make all of their legislative successes—the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHIPS and Science Act—really work for the American people? No doubt, these policies are a real break from the failures of neoliberalism. They invest public funds, from proper taxation on the wealthy and corporations who are otherwise skirting the law, in important new sectors of our future economy, from clean energy to semiconductor supply chains. They strengthen basic public scientific research. They strengthen government itself, from the IRS to the Department of Energy and more.But whether these policies will actually work is an open question. In the year ahead, policymakers will face four important “choice points.” Their decisions will make the difference between a one-off set of government grants and tax credits and the ushering in of a new political order—a true split from market-only answers, and an embrace of sustained public investment in public goods that Americans will see, understand, and maybe even reward.The four critical political economy questions for 2023: Will we plan? Will we repair? Will we embrace and amplify the role of government? And, as we seek to build roads and bridges, wind farms, and electric vehicle charging stations and semiconductor fabrication plans, will we listen to the communities who will be most affected by all of this change?Will we embrace government planning? For decades, open embrace of industrial policy was verboten. The idea that it is necessary, appropriate, and even good for the state to play a central role in deciding which industries rise and fall, how they are structured, and how they produce the goods and services we need: This was the policy that “shall not be named.” Sure, the Defense Department quietly nurtured the military-industrial complex, and various agencies enforced risk or competition regulations that made life easier or harder for industries. But they acted typically not with an explicit policy goal of onshoring or offshoring those industries, winding them up or winding them down, and almost never with job creation, worker power, and public safety in mind.Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a political reckoning in the U.S. with what is required to address climate change, changed all of that. Whether or not personal protective equipment, vaccines, or energy are produced at home or abroad, in friendly jurisdictions or hostile ones, these questions are no longer mostly about just-in-time logistics. They are now, more clearly than ever before, questions of life and death.Which leads to choice point number one: Does Biden let each agency that got enormous pots of money and new authorities in the last legislative session burrow into their own siloes, responsive only to their congressional overseers? Or does the president insist that all these new laws add up to more than the sum of their parts? For all of this legislation to add up strategically, as National Economic Council Director Brian Deese often insists it must, the White House will have to drive alignment across agencies and communicate clear economic and sectoral priorities. While the notion of “industrial planning” sometimes evokes more authoritarian political systems like China, the reality is that Western economies, U.S. states and localities, and well-run private sector firms all plan. Decades of research tell us that industrial strategies are more likely to be effective if they are part of an economy-wide plan, and more likely to be legitimate if this plan is inclusive, democratically decided, and accountable. What must be produced to meet the needs of a country as vast as ours? Where must it be produced to bring more of the productive capacity of our country to bear? Who should produce, and who should benefit? These questions must drive a strategic industrial plan that meets the unique challenges of the U.S. economy over the next decade. Will we repair past harms?The neoliberal era was premised on the assumption that markets would allocate capital efficiently—and, in certain ways, they did. Corporations moved manufacturing facilities where costs were low, often offshore. But they did so without regard to the kinds of things only democratically accountable governments attend to: whether the geographic distribution of economic opportunity contributes to a strong, vibrant democracy, and whether the location of new manufacturing facilities would strengthen or undermine our towns, cities, and communities. There’s a reason the narrative that Nafta cost American jobs has haunted Democrats for decades.Setting a new economic North Star is about more than producing resilient supply chains or making efficient use of nearby colleges and training centers for workforce development, however important both of those might be. It is also about repairing past harm—some of which far predates the neoliberal era, all of which was made worse by neoliberalism’s “let the market decide” dogma.In the coming years, government will write new rules and make important choices, shifting capital and structuring markets for decades to come. Where will our new manufacturing centers be located? What features, from the treatment of workers to the use of natural resources, will distinguish our most innovative, productive firms? Values beyond economic efficiency will guide those choices, and a new North Star must make those plain.One value should be to recognize and repair the harm of years of neoliberal disinvestment and extraction, both public and private. This will not be easy. The Biden administration has already pledged a “whole-of-government” approach to race equity that directs 40 percent of the benefits of investments to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”This is certainly a reparative move, in that it requires acknowledging past harm. Fixing past harm was, for example, the basis of the administration’s summer 2022 decision to cancel hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt. Certainly, part of the argument for debt cancellation is about borrowers’ future economic contributions, but part of the policy decision was based on Occupy Wall Street–era arguments that our current level of student debt is unfair and extractive, because borrowers who took out loans never got the degrees or employment benefits promised. Whether the Biden administration has the political backbone to design IRA, supply chain, and infrastructure policies such that they redress past harms and prevent future concentrations of economic and political power remains an open question as we head into 2023. It is a critical one.Will we make government visible?The role and reputation of government itself is also important as we begin implementation at scale. The Biden team must strengthen government’s public legitimacy by driving a visible government plan that can shift public views toward government. This will be a very tall order. Polling consistently shows that across the country, Americans of all ages and demographic backgrounds lack trust in the federal government, although Democratic and independent voters have more faith in government than do Republicans. Making government actions visible—marketing them, advertising them, taking full credit—might be risky given anti-government sentiment and the polarization of government itself, but this is a risk worth taking given how essential belief in government action is to our democracy. This will be most important for the Treasury Department. For the past decade, we’ve had policy-by-tax code, from subsidies for health insurance to Covid recovery funds. This is largely the result of Senate rules that make more sensible policymaking impossible. It is indirect, and largely invisible. As Suzanne Mettler describes, this submerges the state. Voters don’t see what is happening and can’t hold the government to account, or reward it, for outcomes. Correcting for these flaws is ultimately the job of Congress, but there are steps Treasury officials can take to add accountability, guidance, and oversight to guide these dollars in ways that align with industrial policy aims. Today’s Treasury leadership has done an admirable job of explaining itself. But government and those of us who are pro-government allies must do much, much more so that the American people understand government’s role in structuring and driving all manner of public benefits.The new economics is such an important break from the past. Getting the public to see that this is the work of government—not just a policy here or there, but an entirely new governmental approach—critical to not just the success of these laws, but to our basic democratic project.Who will we listen to, elite experts or ordinary citizens?Most people still think about neoliberalism as a pro-market, libertarian-esque economic project. But the deepest part of the neoliberal legacy is not economic per se; it is about governance. The neoliberal fight is less about left versus right, and more about who gets listened to and whose advice gets baked into policy design: the expert economist or the union member, the corporate lawyer or the movement leader.This leads to our final choice point for the coming year: As implementation decisions proceed, and our country builds out its manufacturing capacity at a blistering pace, whose expertise will the Biden administration make central? Trained experts of course matter on everything from economic to environmental effects. But so does the knowledge of line workers, nurses and orderlies, and everyday citizens. Will this administration, as it implements its $4 trillion agenda, find a smart and effective way to include the expertise of people whose lives will be most affected by the siting of the new wind farm or the implementation of health insurance directives?Many prominent thinkers are understandably worried that such local expertise—a.k.a. democracy—will hobble our ability to build good things quickly, and with it all of the good intentions of 2022’s hard-fought legislative wins. Whether the Biden team, and local and state governments around the country, devise more robust ways to get input from the people who are least often heard from may determine whether any of the 2022 legislation leaves a legacy that lasts far beyond the next few years, and whether it’s a legacy our children will be proud of.Conclusion The battle for our new economy has only just begun. Republican lawmakers are already trying to claw back critical funding. Corporate interests are lining up to take advantage of all that the new laws have to offer. The question now is whether progressives and those fighting for the public interest—less informed than businesses, and less organized, but far more important for our politics—will step effectively onto the playing field. Even with no legislative prospects in sight for the next two years, 2023 will be a critical year in our fight for the economy the American people deserve.

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