The Most Interesting People I Know
33 - Habiba Islam on the Left and Effective Altruism

33 - Habiba Islam on the Left and Effective Altruism

October 26, 2022

This episode is a long time in the making. We’re going deep on the intersection of effective altruism (EA) and the left. 

When I tell people that I’m a leftist and into effective altruism, they’re often surprised. A lot of the recent criticism of EA from the left may make it seem like the ideas and communities are incompatible, causing people to genuinely ask, can you be an effective altruist and a leftist? I think you can. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real tensions between the two approaches to improving the world. 

This is not meant to be a point by point rebuttal of any criticisms of EA or the left. Instead, I wanted to better understand myself how these ideas interact. 

To discuss this, I brought on Habiba Islam. Habiba is a career advisor for 80,000 Hours, an organization that helps people find high-impact careers. 80,000 Hours grew out of the effective altruism movement, but Habiba also identifies as a leftist. As you’ll soon discover, Habiba has given these ideas a lot of thought and helped clarify a lot of longstanding confusions for me. 

We go through our backgrounds with the left and EA and attempt to define each. We then go through hidden agreements EA and the left have, misconceptions each has about the other, and the real disagreements between EA in practice and the left. 

When I first got into EA and left politics, I had grand plans to try to reconcile the two. I felt like EA’s commitment to prioritization, responding to evidence, and doing whatever works could help make the left better at achieving its goals. And I thought that the left’s ability to build movements, shape narratives, analyze power, and understand history could shore up some major blindspots within EA. Time has tempered my ambitions a bit, and I think there are good reasons why the left and EA will and should remain distinct things. But there is still a lot each can learn from the other. 

 

Left critiques of EA:

 

Show notes:

32 - Rutger Bregman on Why People Are Decent, Effective Altruism, and Causing Tucker Carlson’s Meltdown

32 - Rutger Bregman on Why People Are Decent, Effective Altruism, and Causing Tucker Carlson’s Meltdown

October 4, 2022

Rutger Bregman is the bestselling author of Utopia for Realists and Humankind: a Hopeful History. He has been profiled in the New York Times and interviewed on the Daily Show. Rupert Murdoch has been spotted reading his book, and Tucker Carlson called him a “fucking moron.” 

I first came across Rutger years ago when a friend was reading Utopia for Realists. The book, which argues for UBI, open borders, and a 15 hour work week, intrigued me, but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read it. 

He popped back up on my radar when he appeared at Davos, the annual gathering of the super-wealthy, and lambasted his audience for not talking about taxes. The viral moment he created led to an invitation onto Tucker Carlson’s show, where Rutger’s challenge to the Fox News host led to what can only be described as a meltdown. In our interview, Rutger goes deeper into the full story of both events than I’ve seen anywhere else. 

We spend the bulk of the interview discussing his book Humankind, which argues that people are actually pretty decent, but power corrupts. This is one of my favorite books, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

We wrap up with a discussion of Rutger’s relationship with effective altruism, the philosophy and social movement trying to do as much as possible to improve the world. 

In particular, we discuss:

  • His career and the publication of Utopia for Realists
  • The unlikely success of the book
  • His trip to Davos
  • Making Tucker Carlson lose his mind
  • Veneer theory and why Rousseau is underrated
  • How people actually behave in disasters
  • Why carpet bombing cities backfires
  • Why distance kills
  • The domestication of humans
  • Why socializing makes us smart
  • The problems with Milgram's shock experiments
  • The replication crisis
  • Criticisms of Rutger’s portrayal of hunter gatherer life
  • His journey to effective altruism
  • His ideas for solving EA’s billionaire problem
  • His plans for an EA-adjacent book
  • The broader changes to EA over the years
  • Hijacking status for good  
  • How committing your career to helping others might actually make you happiest

Links:

Discourse on Inequality

The Doomsday Machine

Violence

The Secret of Our Success

The Dawn of Everything

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months

The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe

Giving What We Can

Grilled

TMIPIK - Leah Garcés on Working with Factory Farmers to Help Animals

If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

Yes, it’s all the fault of Big Oil, Facebook and ‘the system’. But let’s talk about you this time

31 - Alexander Zaitchik on How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines

31 - Alexander Zaitchik on How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines

May 10, 2021

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and author with work in The New Republic, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Zaitchik has written two books, one about Glenn Beck and another exploring Trump’s America. He’s working on a third, out in January 2022, called Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine, from Aspirin to Covid-19

This episode is about one of the most important stories in the world right now: global vaccine production and distribution. Alex wrote a long-form investigation in the New Republic called “How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines”, which goes deep into the global intellectual property paradigm that is limiting vaccine production and the people who defend it.  

We recorded this episode before the US announced support for some kind of waiver on vaccine patents. It’s important to note that the US did not back the TRIPS waiver proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020. The US is also reportedly concerned that sharing information would undermine American competitiveness with China and Russia in biopharmaceuticals. The idea that it would be bad if more countries developed the ability to make advanced vaccines is emblematic of the harms of prioritizing profit-making in an industry so essential to human wellbeing. A source in the Biden administration also said the negotiations are expected to take months. 

Last Thursday, the Gates Foundation reversed course and supported a temporary suspension of IP rights on Covid vaccines. The Foundation’s statement cites the number of cases in Brazil and India as a reason to support the suspension. But Bill Gates was pushing against any efforts to suspend IP protections right until the US supported some kind of waiver. Gates’ firm position for over a year has been that IP protections play zero role in limiting vaccine supply, but now his foundation supports suspending those protections because we need to increase vaccine supply so badly. Either Gates recently came across some really persuasive evidence, or public opinion actually can still matter.

As I record this, India is being ravaged by Covid. Yesterday, nearly 400,000 new cases were reported, a number which almost certainly represents a small fraction of true cases. Less than 10 percent of the country has received even one dose of vaccine. Hospitals and crematoria alike are overwhelmed and there is an acute shortage of wood due to the sheer number of deaths. Domestic policy failures of the Modi government play a big role in this story, but so too do the choices of pharmaceutical firms and their client governments like the United States and other rich countries.

We cover a lot of ground and dispel a lot of myths propagated by the pharmaceutical industry. 

We specifically discuss: 

  • Gates’ heavily managed perception as a do-gooder
  • His approach to public health and what opportunities it forecloses
  • How Gates' ideological investments run deeper than his financial ones
  • The affirmative case for IP protections in drug development 
  • The problems with that case
  • Alternative models of incentivizing drug development
  • The incentives the current system creates 
  • A brief history of drug development in the US
  • How the US military developed a majority of successful vaccines made in the 20th century
  • The story of South Africa and AIDS drugs
  • The TRIPS waiver proposal
  • Whether it's true that IP is the reason we aren't maximizing vaccine production 
  • Moderna’s empty promise to not enforce their patents
  • The argument that profit motives haven’t been strong enough 
  • The PR boon vaccines have been for big pharma
  • What a fully public response could have looked like
  • A response to Gates’ argument that IP is necessary for quality control 
  • How a tech billionaire became the de facto global public health czar
  • The role he really plays in the public health space 

I think this is one of the most important episodes of the show so far. So much rides on whether governments make decisions that prioritize global public health, even if they come at the expense of the profits of one industry. 

Buy Alex's book in January 2022. 

 

Alex’s writing:

How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines

No Vaccine in Sight

Moderna’s Pledge Not to Enforce the Patents on Their COVID-19 Vaccine Is Worthless

 

Links:

They Pledged to Donate Rights to Their COVID Vaccine, Then Sold Them to Pharma

Goldman Sachs asks in biotech research report: ‘Is curing patients a sustainable business model?’

TRIPS waiver: there’s more to the story than vaccine patents

Myths of Vaccine Manufacturing

Views from a vaccine manufacturer: Q&A - Abdul Muktadir, Incepta Pharmaceuticals; Pandemic Treaty Action

Video of Gates responding to criticism of his push to close-source the Oxford vaccine

30 - Tobias Leenaert on the Pragmatic Path to a Vegan World

30 - Tobias Leenaert on the Pragmatic Path to a Vegan World

March 3, 2021

Tobias Leenaert is the author of How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach, which has been translated into five languages. He is the cofounder of ProVeg International, which aims to reduce the consumption of animal products by 50% by 2040. Tobias also writes the Vegan Strategist blog, where he shares strategies for convincing people to reduce their animal product consumption. 

 

We discuss: 

  • the difference between pragmatism and idealism in animal advocacy
  • why intentions matter less than we think
  • “vegalomania” and whether a vegan diet is really the healthiest
  • when behavior change leads belief change
  • how vegetarians reduce almost as much harm as vegans
  • how reducetarian do more for animals than vegans
  • how much easier it's gotten to be vegan
  • veganism's bad brand and why so many people hate on vegans
  • a thought experiment for vegans
  • why strict veganism can be counterproductive
  • how you can help animals without being a vegan or vegetarian
  • where analogies between animal agriculture and other crimes break down
  • how to be an effective animal advocate
  • what he’s most looking forward to

I think this episode is useful for both vegetarians and vegan activists and people who are interested in consuming less animal products but aren’t sure how.

 

Links:

29 - Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes, the Iraq War, protest music, and the music industry under socialism

29 - Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes, the Iraq War, protest music, and the music industry under socialism

February 24, 2021

Conor Oberst is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the last twenty years. Best known for his work with Bright Eyes, Oberst has also collaborated with Flea, Jim James, Alt-J, and Phoebe Bridgers. His most recent song, “Miracle of Life”, featuring Bridgers, raised money for Planned Parenthood and opposed Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. 

Oberst sat for an interview with me this fall as the first in a series for Jacobin. An edited and condensed transcript can be found here. We talked a bit about politics (Oberst made public stances against the Iraq War and supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020) and a lot about music. 

I’ve been a big fan of Bright Eyes and Conor’s solo work for years now, so it was a real treat to get to chat with him. 

Be sure to check out Bright Eyes's first album in 9 years, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @GarrisonLovely 

28 - David Shor on Why Bernie Would Have Won in 2016- But Not in 2020

28 - David Shor on Why Bernie Would Have Won in 2016- But Not in 2020

January 3, 2021

David Shor is a data scientist and the former head of political data science for Civis Analytics, a Democratic think tank. In 2012, he developed the Obama campaign’s in-house election forecasting system, which accurately predicted the outcome to within a point in every state. David was the subject of some controversy this summer when he was fired following his tweeting of an academic paper. The paper argued that violent protests decreased Democratic presidential vote share while nonviolent protests increased vote share. Unfortunately, David is not at liberty to discuss the details of this incident, which is an excellent example of what happens when employment protections don’t exist. 

I want to state up front that the focus of this episode is on how to improve the electoral prospects of Democrats, which is David’s expertise. I have many disagreements with the Democratic party and its leaders, and there are many pathways to power beyond electoral politics. But America’s political institutions are extremely powerful, and ensuring that they are controlled by the non-death cult party is important. 

 

We discuss:

  • What happened in the 2020 election 
  • Why the electoral college is biased towards Republicans 
  • Efforts to combat structural bias against the Democratic party
  • Why the polls were wrong again and why they’ll be very hard to fix
  • Why Bernie would have won in 2016 but may not have in 2020
  • How Democratic staffers and left wing activists are massively unrepresentative of the American public
  • The electoral obstacles to passing Medicare for All and how to make the policy more politically popular 
  • Policies that combat inequality without raising taxes
  • Whether Democrats actually want to win
  • Why Democrats need the working class to win power 
  • Why good politicians stay relentlessly on message
  • How we can move voters towards policy positions we think are just
  • Why Democrats should talk more about issues and less about values
  • What we can learn from the growth in support for same sex marriage
  • The importance of getting the media on your side

Links:

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Matt Grossman on Twitter

David Shor on Twitter

27 -Trevor Beaulieu on Champagne Sharks and Why Killmonger Was Right

27 -Trevor Beaulieu on Champagne Sharks and Why Killmonger Was Right

October 19, 2020

Trevor Beaulieu is the host of the podcast Champagne Sharks, a “podcast about race, politics, and pop culture, through the lenses of humor and psychology.” The show has released over 300 episodes on a huge range of topics, from Afro-pessimism and social justice, to Marvel movies and Tumblr. I’ve only scratched the surface of the show, but have really enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to so far. Check out the show notes for a few of my favorites. Trevor’s many appearances on Chapo Trap House are also well worth a listen. 

You can find Trevor on Twitter: @rickyrawls and Champagne Sharks: @champagnesharks. I’m on Twitter @garrisonlovely.

You can check out Champagne Sharks wherever you find podcasts, and you can subscribe at  https://www.patreon.com/champagnesharks 

 

On today’s episode we discuss: 

  • Our experience with the pandemic so far
  • The insanity that is the US stock market during covid
  • Why Trevor thinks black people can’t afford to be totally anti-capitalist
  • The distinctions between social democracy and socialism
  • Trevor’s firsthand experience with racism in scandinavia 
  • How fragile any kind of liberal democracy is
  • How Trevor started Champagne Sharks
  • How Chapo Trap House is like the Daily Show for new left podcasts
  • The willingness to look into the political abyss
  • How the right prioritizes property over people’s lives
  • The recent uprisings over police violence against black people
  • Whether nonviolent protests are more effective
  • Why Killmonger from Black Panther was right

 

A few of my favorite Champagne Sharks episodes:

CS 238: Is The Whole Internet Becoming 4Chan? Pt. 1 feat. Dale Beran (01/23/2020)

CS 186: Tumblr Brain feat. Jaya Sundaresh (@shutupjaya) (06/20/2019)`

CS 272: Karens (Hard-R) With Attitude feat. Nashwa Khan pt. 1

CS 276: The Futureless Now feat. Matt Christman pt. 1

CS 274: After the Bern feat. Felix Biederman pt. 1

CS 282: Live, Love, Work and Catastrophe feat. Rob Delaney

CS 284: Clarence Thomas and The Reactionary Mind Pt. 1 feat. Corey Robin

CS 280: Afropessimism feat. Frank Wilderson III *DOUBLE EPISODE*

 

Show notes:

Why the stock market is divorced from the pain of a pandemic economy

What if ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Closer Than Scientists Thought?

Video showed police thank (Kyle Rittenhouse) & give him water prior to the killings

Wage Theft vs. Other Forms of Theft in the U.S.

The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened

The Protesting of a Protest Paper

26 - Ross Barkan on Running for Office and the Return of Socialism to New York

26 - Ross Barkan on Running for Office and the Return of Socialism to New York

September 10, 2020

Ross Barkan is an award-winning journalist and former political candidate. Ross ran for state senate in Brooklyn in 2018 (where he was endorsed by AOC). He is back to full-time journalism, with a column in the Guardian and frequent contributions to the Nation and Gothamist. He also has work in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review. In both 2017 and 2019, he was the recipient of the New York Press Club’s award for distinguished newspaper commentary. He now teaches journalism at NYU and St. Joseph’s College. He also created a popular newsletter, Political Currents, on New York and national affairs. 

As always, links to his work will be found in the show notes. Ross’s Substack newsletter, Political Currents, is an amazing font of information on New York City politics. 

In today’s episode, we discuss: 

His experience running for state senate, the curse of fundraising, and how running for office destroys your social life, how small dollar digital fundraising is fueling left wing candidates, what a DSA endorsement means and why Ross thinks he didn’t get it, why he thinks he didn't win, what you should consider when deciding whether to run for office, how De Blasio and Cuomo bungled New York’s COVID response, how Cuomo refuses to raise taxes on the wealthy, the lack of any meaningful action to reduce the power of the NYPD, why Ross doesn’t support police abolition and why we think the case for prison abolition is stronger, Bernie’s loss and the progress the left has made in recent years, and the very exciting election of five DSA-endorsed candidates to statewide political office in New York

More about Ross:

Links:

 

25 - Charlie Bresler on the Lives You Can Save

25 - Charlie Bresler on the Lives You Can Save

August 10, 2020

Charlie Bresler is the Executive Director of the Life You Can Save, a nonprofit founded by Peter Singer that inspires and empowers people to take action in the fight against extreme poverty. 

Charlie was previously the president of the Men’s Warehouse and a professor of clinical psychology. Later in the episode, we dig into Charlie’s path from psychology, to men’s fashion, to fighting global poverty. The inspiration for this episode is the release of the 10th anniversary edition of the book The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. The book offers an overview of the intensity of global poverty and the related human suffering and makes a compelling case to donate more to more effective charities. Contrary to popular belief, there are charities that have proven track records of delivering effective interventions, some of which can save a child’s life for less than two thousand dollars. The new edition of the Life You Can Save is available for free in e-book and audiobook format. The audiobook is read by a number of celebrities, including Kristen Bell, Paul Simon, and Stephen Fry. In addition to the book, we discuss:

Where The Life You Can Save is now, the shallow pond thought experiment, the myth that we don't know what works in global poverty and health, why an "empathy fund" may be more sustainable, framing effective giving as an opportunity vs. an obligation, why being a doctor doesn't do as much good as we think, how Charlie's democratic socialism informs his life, why EAs aren't as radical you might expect them to be. 

If you’re familiar with Effective Altruism, I’d recommend skipping to about 35 and a half minutes in. Most of the ideas we discuss for the bulk of the episode are probably familiar to you, but you may be interested in our conversation on the intersection of EA and radical politics. 

 

Show notes:

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

Over 5M children die before they turn 5 each year

The Moral Imperative toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health

The Limits of Power 

The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945

The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation

Woman, Culture, and Society

American Power and the New Mandarins

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

Dystopia in Fiction and in Fact: How “Nineteen Eighty-Four” teaches us the wrong lessons about dictatorship…

Hozier’s new protest song Jackboot Jump

Homage to Catalonia

Politics and the English Language

 

You can reach out to Charlie directly at:

Charlie@thelifeyoucansave.org

24 - Edgar Villanueva on Decolonizing Wealth

24 - Edgar Villanueva on Decolonizing Wealth

May 3, 2020

Edgar Villanueva is a globally-recognized expert on social justice philanthropy. He serves as Chair of the Board of Directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy. Edgar currently serves as Senior Vice President at the Schott Foundation for Public Education where he oversees grant investment and capacity building for education justice campaigns across the United States.

He is also the award-winning author of Decolonizing Wealth, a bestselling book offering hopeful and compelling alternatives to the dynamics of colonization in the philanthropic and social finance sectors. 

In addition to working in philanthropy for many years, Edgar has consulted with numerous nonprofit organizations and national and global philanthropies on advancing racial equity inside of their institutions and through their investment strategies.

We spend most of our conversation on Edgar’s book, specifically: 

How he became disillusioned with the philanthropy sector, America's refusal to engage with its history of colonialism and racism, the coloniser's mindset and how it ties to contemporary philanthropy, how people of color are left out of philanthropic spending, the 5% foundation payout requirement and why most foundation money is parked in investment accounts, a call to transfer capital back to impoverished communities, poverty in precolonial times, the potlatch ceremony, a challenge to the thesis of Decolonizing Wealth from an effective altruism perspective, the problem with the term altruism, the problems that are solved by just giving people money with no strings attached, shifting the power and choice from donors to the people they're trying to help, the ties between capitalism and white supremacy, and how to learn more and join the Decolonizing Wealth giving circle

Near the end of the episode we had some audio drop out, did what I could to piece things back together and didn't end up losing too much, but there are some awkward cuts. 

If you’d like to learn more about the book visit decolonizingwealth.com. You can find Edgar on Twitter at @VillanuevaEdgar and me at @GarrisonLovely. If you’d like to get in touch directly, you can email me at mostinterestingpeople27 [at] gmail [dot] com.

 

Show notes:

Report: 72% of Americans rarely encounter or receive information about Native Americans

Decolonizingwealth.com

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