Activism Field Trip

One of my ongoing concerns about Effective Altruism is that it doesn’t handle activism or political change well, because the marginal value of any given activity is essentially zero.  You can do some relative effectiveness- Martin Luther King Jr apparently scouted out towns most likely to react violently to his nonviolent protests, in order to get more sympathetic publicity- but it’s no where near the certainty of Against Malaria Foundation’s cost per life saved (which itself has a huge confidence interval).  And yet, political activism is essential as a tool for improving the human condition.

Recently I participated in a FreePress.net-organized visit to one of my senators, to convince them to more vocally support net neutrality, and specifically Title II classifying cable utilities as common carriers.  This is a thing that seems important as long as cable has a stranglehold on broadband in the US, and my impression was that all I had to be helpful was live in the senator’s state (check) and show up.  That is within my power, and now was a relatively easy time to do it (still on leave for dental surgery but at a relative high in my ability to talk).  I think on some level I expected it to be a more fleshy version of phone calls for the EFF, where they do all the dialing and give you a script to read, and your job is just to demonstrate to powerful people how many unpowerful people are willing to spend their time annoying them over a specific issue.

The plusses: I was shocked by how diverse the delegation was.  I was expecting a bunch of 20-35 year old tech nerds, but the age range was probably 30-75, with me as the only programmer, and a wide range of political orientations.  Several of the people were longtime activists.  At the end of the visit the senator had agreed to do what we wanted.

The minuses:  the visit could have been much better organized.  There was a real disconnect between what FreePress said our senator’s position was, and what the senator’s aid said their position was.  We didn’t so much convince the senator to change positions as ask for something they were already doing.  Maybe FreePress didn’t bother to investigate, maybe the senator’s aid was weaselwording.  There was no one who knew and no one had the authority to shift our collective gears.

This was the first time in a while I’d experienced the gap between talking with EAs and talking with politically and socially active non-EAs.  The groups have different skills.  None of the people who took point could have persuaded anyone I know out to pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the bottom*, but they did organize rallies of 1000+ people, which I have never done and have never heard of being done in the history of effective altruism.  We’re more a blogging type of people.  And the dailykos reporter is better than me at that, in the sense of “many more people read him”.  This is bothersome when he is complaining about rising rents and construction in the same paragraph, but useful when shining light on police misconduct.

So EA is still my home, and probably will be for a while, even if I’m drawn to areas that don’t have any officially blessed EA charities, like mental health and first world education.  I would like us to have more thought diversity than we do, but really enjoy not having to explain why you can’t complain about rent and construction at the same time, or at a bare minimum knowing that if I do have to explain it I’ll have social support.

*”But what if there is a faster or less energy-intensive way to empty the boot?”