I was in DC last weekend for the Effective Altruism Global conference. I met a lot of smart people who are going to have a huge impact on the world, and some who already are. I’ll share a few of my favorite highlights here, with the disclaimer that most quotes won’t be exact:
The mistake every do-gooder makes is coming to a country and thinking ‘I’m just here to help people, I’m not a political actor.’ Guess what? You are. What you do changes the balance of power, often toward the centerChris Blattman
I’m funding the Yale spit test? The world doesn’t make sense [Yale, NIH, et c should be on it]… its like, if I won an academy award or NBA MVP, how screwed up would the world be?Tyler Cowen, referring to Fast Grants
You should all be political independents, both parties are terrible. You should be voluntary social conservatives, behave like Mormons…. we need a marginal revolution toward the better parts of the Mormon / social conservative packageTyler Cowen
Tyler later specified that the main things he meant by this were to marry young and not drink, though I don’t think he realized how common the latter already is:
As he often does, Tyler recommend that people travel more:
If I meet someone who’s been to 40 countries I tell them they should travel more, and to weirder placesTyler Cowen
But when someone asked “How much travel is too much”, he came up with this limiting principle:
How much travel is too much travel? 10% after your significant other gets mad at youTyler Cowen
I asked Matt Yglesias how much of his policy influence comes just from writing things online, and how much from personal connections and being in DC. He said something like:
Personal connections matter a lot given how real people change their minds, but there’s also less of a dichotomy than you’d think. For instance, a WaPo column of mine was getting passed around the White House, but I wrote it because someone in the WH suggested the topic. Politicians often communicate with each other via the media, though I wish they wouldn’t. Just talk to each other, you work in the same building!Matt Yglesias
His take on the changing media environment:
My tweets are more influential than my columns & substack, because they are read so much more & I’m followed by many journalists. Overall though now is a great time for specialists, obsessives and weirdos. Construction Physics is a great blog now but if he’d written it in 2003 people would just be like, WTF. On the other hand my [generalist] college blog did well in 2003 but if a college student wrote the same kind of things today people would say, who cares?Matt Yglesias
Journalists are suspicious haters, that’s our function in societyCan’t remember if this was Matt Yglesias or Kelsey Piper
Tyler and Matt were both telling people that you can accomplish your goals more effectively by being more “normie” in some ways. This can be a bit of a sacrifice, but:
If you can give a kidney, you can learn to tie a tie, give a firm handshake, and look people in the eyeMatt Yglesias
I’m some combination of smart enough and arrogant enough that its normally rare for me to meet someone and think “oh, you’re smarter than I am”. But at EAG it was common; not just because of the ridiculous numbers of top-university degrees and real-world accomplishments, but the breadth and depth of the conversations, everything from mental math to number theory, AI to finance, to a surprisingly convincing pitch for the relevance of metaphysics for political theory.
It wasn’t a step up for everyone though; I talked to someone at a top hedge fund who said the people he worked with were “are the smartest, most dedicated people I’ve been around…. smarter than EAs, more able to execute than mathematicians at [top PhD program he was at]”. They work 12 hour days, actually working the whole time (no long lunch break, small talk with colleagues, reading social media on their computers)… but all in a ruthless, selfish, impressively successful quest to outsmart the market and make more money.
Overall it was a great time and helped me narrow down my plans for what to do with my time and brainpower post-tenure. If you’re interested there are more conferences ahead.