Episode 196: Benevolent Billionaire Despotism and US Media’s Softball Treatment of ‘Effective Altruism’

Citations Needed | January 31, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
48 min readJan 31, 2024
Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Sam Bankman-Fried at the 2022 Crypto Bahamas conference. (via The Guardian)

[Music]

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“Join Wall Street. Save the world,” the Washington Post urged in 2013. “How to Know Your Donations Are Doing the Most Good,” The New York Times proclaimed in 2015. “I give 10 percent of my income to charity. You should, too,” Vox advised last November.

Adam: These headlines top articles that extol the virtue of Effective Altruism, a philanthropic philosophy for lack of a better term, extensively dedicated to the pursuit of the best ways to address large-scale global ills like pandemics, poverty, and factory farming, and formed by “evidence and reason.” The school of thought, popularized by figures like the academic and author Peter Singer and disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, has been widely embraced or at least uncritically boosted in mainstream US media for years.

Nima: Superficially, it kind of makes sense. Effective Altruism, the philosophy, seems unimpeachably virtuous. It’s great if people want to solve the world’s problems and so much the better if they’ve done their research. But beneath this surface level, lies a deeply reactionary movement, predicated on an age-old desire to characterize the wealthy as the solution to rather than the cause of the very problems they purport to want to solve.

Adam: On today’s show, we’ll parse the rise, motives, and influence of Effective Altruism. We’ll look at how the doctrine gamifies wealth distribution, falsely portrays the rich as uniquely qualified to make decisions about public welfare, often provides cover for eugenics and racism, and masquerades as a groundbreaking ethos of data-driven compassion while it merely regurgitates 100-year-old rich person ideology of supposedly benevolent control over the masses.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Dr. Linsey McGoey (@LinseyMcGoey), Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her writing has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jacobin, and she is the author of two books, including, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, which was published by Verso in 2015 and more recently, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, which was published by Zed Books in 2019.

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Linsey McGoey: Some of the more recent effective altruists who get less media recognition, which might be a good thing because some of their ideas are so deeply pernicious, they’ve come up with ideas like actually, if you want to look at whose life has the most value, the ripple effects of giving money to the poor might be less because the poor can do less with it whereas the dollar made in America can go further and helping the poor. So really, you should be giving money to other wealthy industrialists or volunteers in the West because they can do more with their money. So, it’s actually a logic which is just incredibly circular and self-reinforcing the idea that those who have money are ultimately inherently better individuals, which is a type of ridiculous oligarchical supremacy.

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Adam: This episode is a spiritual sequel to Episode 45: The Not-So-Benevolent Billionaire: Bill Gates and Western Media and also Episode 146: Bill Gates, Bono and the Limits of World Bank and IMF-Approved Celebrity ‘Activism.’ That episode won’t be primarily about Bill Gates, or even mostly about Bill Gates, but it’s part of a similar ethos, a part of a similar ideology and worldview. But we’re approaching it from a different angle, we think a little bit more of an insidious angle and more popular angle of late. And we are bringing back on our Bill Gates and wealthy sophistry expert who we’re excited to talk about later in the show. So if you haven’t checked out episodes 45 and 146, please do. Not essential to listen to this one, but a nice entree, I guess, to this episode.

Nima: So, let’s get into the history of Effective Altruism. Really, this philosophy can be traced to the philosophy of Utilitarianism. Though its predecessors date back to the 17th century, the doctrine is largely understood to have been formalized by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham about a hundred years later. Bentham’s 1789 text An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation articulated the principles of utilitarianism, which advocated for bringing “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.” Bentham also endorsed a number of ideas compatible with capitalism. He was a proponent of free market economics and argued that human behavior is motivated chiefly by self-interest. Consequently, Bentham’s ideas were criticized by many, among them, Karl Marx. Now, if we fast forward a century, we get to 1889. In June of that year, the magazine North American Review published an essay by industrialist Andrew Carnegie entitled “Wealth,” later widely known as “The Gospel of Wealth.” In it, Carnegie, whose wealth at that point amounted to roughly $350 million, which equals between 4.7 and maybe 5 billion dollars today, advocated for the rich to devote a substantial portion of their wealth to specific institutions that would ostensibly serve the public: libraries, parks, concert halls, etc. Carnegie’s prescriptions indicated a clear opposition to universal welfare programs and a disdain for anyone who didn’t meet his standards of industriousness. In “Wealth,” he wrote this, “It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”

Andrew Carnegie (Library of Congress)

Adam: Some scholars credit Carnegie’s essay with launching a movement known as “scientific philanthropy,” a practice that would supposedly take a more precise, dispassionate, research-based approach to funding and promoting social causes and societal improvements. In reality, as our guest Lindsay McGoey notes, “their giving helped to shift charity from the dispensing of alms in a largely unsystematic manner to a business in itself, overseen by paid philanthropic advisors.”

Nima: Yeah, this idea is actually articulated quite clearly by Carnegie in his essay. At a later point, he writes this, “Thus is the problem of Rich and Poor to be solved. The laws of accumulation will be left free; the laws of distribution free. Individualism will continue, but the millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; intrusted 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.”

Adam: Now, other champions of scientific philanthropy unsurprisingly shared Carnegie’s sentiments, maintaining that small-scale acts of giving and government-operated welfare systems were inadequate and dysfunctional and that they promoted sloth and laziness, and dependence whereas private philanthropy could steward the world’s wealth from the top entrepreneurs, business titans, and industrialists and do something more sophisticated. So, here’s an excerpt from a September 1889 article in the San Francisco Examiner. Published just a few months after Carnegie’s essay, this piece builds on Carnegie’s contempt for the “unworthy,” throwing in some overt racism to boot.

It would write:

Scientific philanthropy and scientific penology must take the place of the haphazard methods, or the lack of method, now generally in vogue. The lesson is nowhere more urgently needed than on the Pacific Coast. We have had some excellent work here, but it has been disconnected, hand-to-mouth work. The common idea of charity among us is still that of giving a dime or a quarter to the first beggar that asks for it. Our problems are peculiar to ourselves, and in some respects, more urgent than anywhere else. The presence of the Chinese, and the consequent development of the hoodlum and the tramp, the prevalence of the opium habit and the peculiar climactic conditions that in some parts of the state demand a rush of work at one season and none at all at another, all make our social questions unusually difficult.

Years later, in 1913, standard oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the first US billionaire, would introduce the Rockefeller Foundation, which is a similar approach to Carnegie. And Rockefeller had been doing what his sort of version of scientific philanthropy was for quite some time. You know, he founded the University of Chicago, for example. But he didn’t really have a sort of system in place until he created the Rockefeller Foundation that to this day still calls itself science-driven philanthropy. And he would expand on Carnegie’s approach by investing in hospitals, churches, university donations, and public education. He specifically put a lot of money into raw scientific research and especially eradicating hookworm in the south. And in doing so, he very much opposed the kind of New Deal Roosevelt approach to poverty reduction. He thought the government should have no business because supports people like Rockefeller were going to be the benevolent overlords of the poor and help them learn how to fish rather than giving them fish because it was all about to him and Carnegie alike this idea of bootstrapism and not wasting your money on people who were seen as being layabouts are suffering from some other moral turpitude.

Nima: Now, Rockefeller was celebrated for his method of so-called “scientific giving” as the New York Times would call it in a 1937 article that came out the day after Rockefeller died in May, 23rd, 1937. He was 97 years old. A day later, the Times would write this:

[Rockefeller] had a theory about giving that he once expressed as ‘to solve the problem of giving money away without making paupers of those who receive it.’ Explaining his method of scientific giving, he said: ‘I investigated and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown in groping my way, without sufficient guide or chart, through the ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor. It was forced upon me to organize and plan this department upon as distinct lines of progress as our other business affairs. ‘I have always indulged the hope that during my life I should be able to establish efficiency in giving, so that wealth may be of greater use to the present and future generations. If the people can be educated to help themselves, we strike at the root of many of the evils of the world.’

The New York Times and its BS would continue with this,

In accordance with his philosophy of charity, on a business basis, he used the same system of selecting good men for the particular job at hand and then giving them free rein. His gifts were free from restrictions and the trustees were empowered to use the principal as well as the interest to further the projects they were supporting. The Rockefeller system of philanthropy was not to undertake directly the alleviation of a situation or condition that seemed to need correcting, but to provide the funds for a research group to carry out the work.

Adam: From a brief paragraph acknowledging Rockefeller’s critics, The New York Times, of course, never pauses to consider the condescending attitude here, the idea that people like Rockefeller who amassed billions of dollars are somehow qualified or democratically elected to be the ones who arbitrate what causes are important, which ones aren’t. Because again, you have to have some legitimacy when you wield this arbitrary power because it is ultimately an arbitrary power, right? No one elected these people, no sort of body ordained them have the right to have all this concentration of wealth. They just are rich. And you have to have a sort of moral rationale for that and appealing to the vagaries of science or scientism, it’s how you give legitimacy to that power because otherwise, it just seems like you’re going with whatever your ideological project is, which is, of course, what you really are doing. But giving it the veneer of science and scientism makes it seem less arbitrary. Like it’s not just an ideological play toy.

And of course, this is what Rockefeller believed. He internalized this idea that he basically had a divine mission and that he and he alone, needed to acquire as much wealth as possible, typically, through unsavory, oftentimes illegal and unethical means because he needed to be the one to sort of distribute the wealth that God had given him. Because you got to understand too, you know, Rockefeller, unlike Carnegie, he made all his money off oil, which if you’re a religious, very religious crank in many ways, which Rockefeller was, and you have this thing that just comes out of the earth and produces vast amounts of wealth, you could see why one would think that was some divine guarantee. And take away the religious component, one could also see why if you amass $29 billion worth of wealth doing something as fatuous as crypto, which is also kind of producing something out of nothing, although unlike oil, it has no intrinsic value, you can see why you would think, oh, well, clearly through some means of fate, I am now the person who needs to decide what’s good for the world.

Nima: It also avoids tricky questions of what say government should do as a matter of —

Adam: Government being another word for democratic input, right?

Nima: Right. [Laughs] Exactly, exactly. There’s this distraction from the notions of creating robust welfare systems or say labor protections that obviously robber barons had no interest in. And so therefore, not only do they feel good about what they’re doing, but they feel good that the good that they are doing is better for society than other options that could potentially be available if they allow them and didn’t say, no, no, it should be done this way. This is how good societies are created, by having good wise men steward the wealth for communities that cannot do it and not be trusted to do it themselves.

Adam: So, let’s pivot then now to the 21st century with this development of effective altruism. Now, there’s going to be a lot of things that are left out of this synopsis. So if you’re an effective altruist head, don’t get all mad at us because we’re trying to be as fair as possible. Obviously, we’re being critical. But there’s going to be currents and sub-currents and sub-genres and this Reddit page that we’re not don’t have time to get into so just fucking deal with it.

Yeah, so Effective Altruism, as defined by its adherence as “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible and taking action on that basis.” Effective Altruism began to take shape in the late 2000s as multiple groups of upwardly mobile tech and finance types fancied themselves “philosophers,” sort of got together and decided to develop this as a kind of ideological and moral framework for their beneficence and their do-goodism. Now, all these people have shared one thing in common as people coming from business and from tech, which is they had an unsentimental spreadsheet-driven optimization approach to what they call charity. In 2007, for example, Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, two analysts at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, founded GiveWell, a “charity evaluator” that claims to focus on the cost-effectiveness of different organizations. Two years later, Oxford philosophers Toby Ord and William MacAskill launched Giving What We Can, which calls itself an “organisation dedicated to creating a culture where people are inspired to give to the world’s most effective charities.” Ord and MacAskill were credited with coining the term Effective Altruism via the establishment of the charity, The Centre for Effective Altruism. Their efforts were inspired by Peter Singer, the Australian, academic and author who just happened to espouse a number of eugenics or quasi-eugenics views for which he’s gotten in trouble for in the past, including advocating the killing of disabled infants, if they “will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life.”

William MacAskill (left) and Toby Ord at an Effective Altruism conference in 2018.

Nima: Now, this eugenicist influence is thrown into sharp relief when we look at Effective Altruists’ attempts to quantify and in many ways, gamify forms of “doing good.” One example comes from William MacAskill’s 2015 book Doing Good Better, in which he devised a system of ranking causes by what he called “Quality-adjusted life years.”

As Sophie McBain wrote for the New Statesman in 2023,

One year in perfect health is defined as 1 QALY [quality-adjusted life year] while one year of life with untreated Aids is 0.5, according to the weighting cited by MacAskill; for someone living with blindness, a year of life has a QALY score of 0.4; and for someone with moderate depression it is 0.3. MacAskill writes that QALYs can be used to decide which charitable causes to prioritise: faced with a choice between spending $10,000 to save a 20-year-old from blindness or the same amount on antiretroviral therapy for a 30-year-old with Aids — a treatment that will improve their life and extend it by ten years — MacAskill argues it would be better to perform the sight-saving surgery, as the 20-year-old can expect to live another 50 years. He acknowledges that QALYs are an “imperfect”, “contested” measure but sees them as mostly good enough. And yet, using QALYs is also a scientific-sounding way of valuing the life of a sighted person over that of a blind person: it suggests that when a fire engulfs a nursery, you should save the twin with good vision first.

Adam: Now, this obviously gets you to some dangerous places, the basic premise being again, false austerity, which is going to be a reoccurring theme, this idea that we’re constantly having to make these tough choices when really what they mean is we need to make these tough choices when we don’t want to fundamentally reorganize how people get wealthy in a very specific system. And so, this kind of false austerity when it’s done in these kinds of philosophical abstract contexts seems maybe reasonable enough, but when it’s abstracted out to actual real world application, it takes you to some pretty dark places, as we’ll show.

Now, Effective Altruism also used such arbitrary and callous approaches when they determine the kinds of charities that were marked “efficient.” Consider, for example, this 2022 New Yorker article: GiveWell concluded that “the most cost-effective way to save a human life was to give approximately four thousand dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated bed nets.” The Against Malaria Foundation, surely by no coincidence, is extremely friendly to capital. It’s even a vehicle for it. The charity’s “founding partners” are Microsoft and CitiBank. But even if this is the most cost-effective way to save human lives, it’s worth asking why efficacy or efficiency rather than say, moral content is used as the chief guiding principle for wealth distribution and why there’s such a conspicuously competitive element to these decisions when determining the worthiness of human needs, And I think that’s really what it sort of gets to, which is it skirts the idea of ideology, asserts a false austerity, says that a handful of billionaires get to make these really difficult and dicey moral decisions, consciously going around doing Sophie’s choices all day with the plebes without interrogating a) the premise of austerity, b) the legitimacy of those making decisions, and c) and I think this is really the issue is whether or not there are any ideological blinders to what they may view as effective (e.g. those that are friendly to capital, don’t upset the political consensus in the places they’re operating or don’t upset the flow of capital or their operating, e.g. more national or socialist-minded politicians.) All this is kind of hand waved away, and everything is viewed as this kind of nonstop trolley problem.

Nima: In addition to fixating on efficiency, often more than on actual outcomes or impact one might argue, these organizations urge the moderately to vastly wealthy to donate certain percentages of their income to charity, which is not terrible. But campaigns like these built on good intentions and lofty statements are historically kind of useless. Consider the now 14-year-old “Giving Pledge” in which billionaires like Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have vowed to give a majority of their wealth away to charity or charitable causes or foundations either while they’re still living or within a few decades of their death. The Giving Pledge has been rightly rebuked for years as a glorified tax break and a vanity project with no grounding in the realities of immense wealth nor accountability.

And as Alex Sammon wrote for The American Prospect in 2019,

In the decade the billionaire class has had to effectuate its self-imposed wealth tax, none of the highest-profile signees have even managed to slow the growth rate of their wealth, let alone come anywhere close to cutting the total in half. The problem with having billions of dollars in wealth, most of which is held in assets and investments, is that it compounds and grows exponentially. Just investing that money in the stock market would yield an annual return of 10 percent on average, and even more in recent years. Which is why all but one of the world’s 20 wealthiest tech figures have seen their net worth surge by billions of dollars in the ten months of 2019 alone, per Business Insider.

Now, regardless of these issues, media didn’t take long to start fawning over Effective Altruism-affiliated organizations. Here are just a few examples from the infancy of the EA movement, all of which feature some combination of the founders of these charity evaluators as their key sources. This from the New York Times in December of 2012: “Putting Charities to the Test.” Later that month on December 18 2012, NPR ran the article “How Much Good Can You Do? There’s A Calculator For That.” And the following year at the end of May 2013, The Washington Post ran the article, “Join Wall Street. Save the World.” Now, this article says exactly what the headline does, basically attempting a moral justification for working on Wall Street by highlighting people who get into finance ostensibly to become wealthy enough to then give their money away. The writer Dylan Matthews cites a 25-year-old named Jason Trigg as an exemplar of this trend, writing “Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.” And it continues, “While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world.”

Adam: Now, Dylan Matthews would go on to co-found an Effective Altruism vertical at Vox a couple years later. He also very famously at the Washington Post wrote several opinion pieces about why we should not raise the minimum wage, which he said would devastate the economy. Spoiler alert, it ended up not doing that in the cities that did raise the wage. The Atlantic in 2015 jumped on the bandwagon. The headline was “THE GREATEST GOOD” with the alternative headline, “The Most Efficient Way to Save a Life.” This is another commercial for Effective Altruism with the same thesis as the Washington Post one on Wall Street. It calls the EA the “Scientific Method of Goodness.” The article also makes a note of “certain” versus “uncertain” initiatives, using a completely arbitrary ranking system to minimize the importance of, for example, climate justice. Consider this excerpt from The Atlantic chronicle, “Some organizations distribute proven drugs (quite certain), others develop unproven drugs (less certain), and some lobby to reduce global carbon emissions (more uncertain). The point isn’t that the certain causes are better than less-certain causes, but rather that thoughtful donors weigh the risk that their donations won’t pay off, as they would any other investment.” Now, a few outlets ask the very simple question of why philanthropy should be structured like a business nor why people who think reducing carbon emissions as a “bad investment” should be entrusted with determining how money is distributed throughout the world. MacAskill, for instance, has indicated disapproval of causes like climate justice and Palestinian liberation. As he told author Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the aforementioned 2022 New Yorker piece,

I was in the game for being convinced of a cause, and did a bunch of stuff that was more characteristically far-lefty. I went to a climate-justice protest, and a pro-Palestinian protest, and a meeting of the Socialist Workers Party….I realized the climate protest was against cap-and-trade, which I was for. The Socialist Workers Party was just eight people with long hair in a basement talking about the glory of the Russian Revolution.

Nima: Man, those hippies don’t know how to distribute money.

Adam: Again, very convenient that his ideology happens to align with that of the billionaires who fund this project. And MacAskill’s first book also featured a chapter entitled “The Moral Case for Sweatshop Goods” in which he presents a similar argument to that of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, which we’ve criticized on the show, who’s written about half a dozen defenses of sweatshops. MacAskill would argue that sweatshop labor offers great economic advantages to the Global South. And as Christoph himself puts it, “tended to generate the wealth to solve the problems they created,” which again is quite convenient.

Cut to 2018 and Vox starts an explicitly Effective Altruism vertical Vox media called Future Perfect. Now, Vox debuted the section in 2018 with a $380,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and stated explicitly that Future Perfect would “cover effective altruism” and “examine the big, complicated problems facing the world and the most efficient ways to solve them.” Its first release included — wait for it — an interview with Bill Gates, conducted by co-founder Ezra Klein. At the helm of Future Perfect was and still is Dylan Matthews, the former author of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog and the author of the aforementioned piece about how Wall Street was working to save the world. It’s interesting that Matthews is focused on the world’s big problems as he’s widely dismissive of issues like minimum wage as we mentioned, inequality, and other things which are viewed as kind of things to be tinkered around the margins by said wealthy people.

Headline from the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

But back to Future Perfect itself as a project, the vertical is inundated with pretty obvious PR for Effective Altruism in its offshoot and its major donors and a closely related philosophy of long termism. Here are a couple examples. From October of 2018, “Giving out cash is a great way to fight poverty. This approach might be even better.” The article can only conceive of poverty reduction in terms of poor people in the Global South, turning them into small business proprietors who are so poor. And Matthews endorses the idea of giving poor people “assets” like cows or sewing machines as “startup capital.” He would write “The hope is that giving some startup capital and some business skills helps recipients build a small ongoing enterprise — a small vegetable or dairy farming operation, say, or a bicycle messenger service, or a seamstress shop. That, in turn, is meant to enable a durable escape from poverty. Think of it as the ‘teach someone to fish’ approach, to cash’s ‘just give them the fish already’ approach.” Here, Matthews is taking a page from John Rockefeller, right? The idea that you don’t want to create pauperism and laziness, but you want to sort of teach people the entrepreneurial skills to succeed. This is sort of being extended all the way to the Global South. And this is a line again, people like Nicholas Kristof have taken other people in that kind of ultra-wealthy philanthropic orbit, Bill Gates, Bono, all that. It used to be way more in vogue. It’s less popular now. But it has been kind of rebranded as EA.

Nima: Now, the very next day after the article, Adam, that you just quoted from was published, Dylan Matthews published another one. This one headlined, “You have $8 billion. You want to do as much good as possible. What do you do?” Now, this article is effectively a press release for the Open Philanthropy Project, which was co-founded by billionaires Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna. Moskovitz is a co-founder of Facebook incidentally. Matthews in this piece describes the political bent of Effective Altruists as “…left of center but technocratic, friendly to markets (when they can be shown to work), and, above all, cosmopolitan. Effective altruists, and GiveWell in particular, go to great lengths to emphasize that doing good abroad is just as valuable as doing it in America, and probably cheaper, as well. They’re sympathetic to the welfare state but far more jazzed about open borders.” Now, this again reveals the shortcomings and perils of EA’s weird ranking algorithms for public good causes. Why can’t there be support for both the welfare state and open borders, right? Why is this a zero sum game? One I can’t help but wonder if EA types develop these number-based seemingly neutral ranking systems for causes because it’s easiest to control then which causes get the most funding and which get the least.

Now, after the kind of seed capital Rockefeller grant ran out at Vox, Future Perfect looked to additional funding sources, all of which are linked to Effective Altruism in some way. Among their donors, for instance, in 2020 was James McClave. From 2020 to 2021, Animal Charity Evaluators. From 2021 to 2023, BEMC Foundation. And from 2022 to 2023, Building a Stronger Future. Now, this last one Building a Stronger Future was the “philanthropic family foundation” of Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of scammy crypto company FTX and not coincidentally, perhaps the most high-profile Effective Altruist of the last 10 years. Bankman-Fried was, of course, convicted of fraud and conspiracy last year. Now, Vox has stated that a reporting project that Bankman-Fried’s foundation was supposed to bankroll is “now on pause.”

Adam: So after SBF’s decline, arrest, imprisonment, attempts to get vegan food inside of prison, there was an effort to rehabilitate EA because he had become the face of Effective Altruism, philanthropical donations, whatever you want to call it. So Vox and media that published its founders like The New York Times, understood that Bankman-Fried’s downfall could taint the image. And so, they started a little bit of damage control because a lot of these writers and journalists and editors had sort of put a lot of their credibility on the line in support of EA. And when it turns out that it’s one of their biggest, if not the biggest funder of their project ends up being a total fucking petty crook, they’ve understandably looked bad. So after the collapse in November of 2022 of Bankman-Fried’s empire, we started to get articles like this in The New York Times by Ezra Klein, “The Big Thing Effective Altruism (Still) Gets Right.” Klein tried his best to portray Bankman-Fried as an anomaly, writing “ I worry about overlearning the lessons of what is, in truth, an old story: A young, brash financier in a basically unregulated market made a fast fortune playing loose with his customers’ deposits and then blew up after a bank run.” I like that. No fraud, he’s just playing loose with the deposits. He would go on to say, “I’m skeptical that effective altruism deserves much blame for that, and I don’t want to see the mounting backlash overwhelm a movement that has done, and could do, much good.” Five days later at Vox, there was an article, “I went to effective altruism’s first post-Sam Bankman-Fried conference. Here’s what I saw.” The subhead read, “EA faces a reckoning after the fall of a major donor, but its rank-and-file members haven’t given up.” So don’t worry, everything’s still good in the EA world. The Guardian would follow up in December of 2022, “Giving, good and the fallout of FTX: Peter Singer on effective altruism now.” And so this idea that like, okay, the largest donor to EA turned out to be a total crook, but that shouldn’t necessarily sully the ideology.

But it really does speak to the sort of fundamental problem, right? The fact that you’re relying on a handful of megalomaniacal multi-billionaires to kind of prop up a “movement” may indicate that this is a fundamentally autocratic or kind of top-down movement. There’s not a lot of organic constituency here. That SBF has to sort of throw his money around these various media outlets and nurture and curate various media careers to promote an ideology, which again, ultimately just reaffirms the power and authority of the super rich. It paints it also as some kind of liberal alternative to the sort of bureaucratic inefficiencies and messiness of socialist or left-wing politics. And I think that actually, it is relevant, right? Because the fact that the guy is a fucking psycho crook who was ripping off his customers shows that maybe people like that shouldn’t have that much power to begin with. And, you know, again, his crime was the only crime you really got to jail for in this world, which is stealing from other rich people. Otherwise, you know, maybe it wouldn’t have been viewed that way. But I think it actually sort of does matter. And I think that when you have a movement propped up by a handful of billionaires where you do have ideologically committed, you know, everyday rank and file types, right? Your kind of Reddit types, your online people dwelling away in some philosophy department who kind of view it as something that makes sense. I’m not saying it’s entirely inorganic, but I do think there’s a correlation between having billionaires fund your project in popularity, but it would seem like maybe that sort of is the problem with that. The problem is that a handful of multi-billionaires really shouldn’t have this kind of anti-democratic control in the first place.

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Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Dr. Linsey McGoey (@LinseyMcGoey), Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her writing has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times , The Guardian, and Jacobin, and she is the author of two books, including, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, which was published by Verso in 2015 and more recently, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, which was published by Zed Books in 2019.

We are joined now by Dr. Linsey McGoey. Linsey, thank you so much for joining us today again on Citations Needed.

Linsey McGoey: It’s great to be here.

Adam: Yes, thank you so much for rejoining us. So, I want to begin by talking about Effective Altruism, EA, and its offshoot and sister ideologies and specifically, what you describe as the most prominent strain, which kind of, I guess won the evolutionary battle of relevance by sheer virtue of its intrinsic sycophancy to the wealthy. You write, “…the most extremist, pro-rich takes on trickle-down policies who seem to get the plum jobs at effective altruism research centers,” which is a nice coincidence, which is to say the most power-flattering, kind of ideologically pro-capitalists have the most influence over elite university and various institutions and other funding streams. Chief among them you mentioned is William MacAskill who’s an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Research Fellow at Oxford. Like our previous discussion five and a half, six years ago, McCaskill is a big fan of the “sweatshops are good” framework. We talked about him at the top of the show. He’s a big fan of the “sweatshops are good” and the kind of hockey stick graph narrative of progress, you know, sort of, look, everything’s getting jolly and swell, the kind of Nicholas Kristof, Steven Pinker, stop you’re complaining, here are some numbers, we found that show that, you know, there’s 5% less malaria, etc., etc. I want to begin by talking about MacAskill’s prominence in the EA circles and what it sort of speaks to in terms of funding and how a certain narrative by virtue of who it flatters kind of rises to the top within the EA circles itself.

Linsey McGoey

Linsey McGoey: Yeah, years ago, when this movement started, I think it was begun by a bunch of quite earnest people and thinkers who were based at Oxford. And it really started in the late 90s, in sort of 2006, 2007, 2008. And I was also at Oxford at the time but at a different department than some of these philosophers. And I met a number of them like Toby Ord, for example, who’s a close associate of William MacAskill. I was always impressed by how sincerely dedicated they seemed and were to the cause of trying to alleviate poverty worldwide. So, there was a sincerity to their approach, which I found quite refreshing. But also at times, I found them quite naive because they seem to not really know much about organizations like the World Trade Organization, for example, whose draconian policies on trade and very self-serving policies on trade for wealthy nations like the United States was something that development scholars were very attuned to. And people like Ord didn’t seem to know much about these global institutions. So, I found them both sincere but naive.

And I could never have predicted then just how much the Effective Altruism movement would take off to the extent that it has. And I think what happened is that people like William MacAskill firstly wrote a very best selling book, that’s Doing Good Better, where he makes the case for the moral effectiveness of sweatshops, for example, and he just became someone who is very photogenic, quite a good speaker, quite charismatic. And he seemed to really tap into the Silicon Valley interest in trying to find initiatives that purported to do good globally but which actually just left the status quo intact. So, he sort of seemed to fit with the aim of wealthy people, not to have to in any way impede themselves from making as much money as possible. And if anything, he validated them by saying earn to give, earn to give, making money through whatever means possible will be the best way to make a change in the world.

Adam: Yeah, cause it strikes me as not coincidental that this rise also happened in concert with, obviously, the economic recession and the broader Occupy movement and discussions about inequality, that there was a kind of generic cultural sense, it didn’t really transfer much into policy, but there was a sense that there was a group of people who had too much and that the suffering of those at the bottom 99%, as it were, was actually not unrelated to that concentration of wealth. And then he comes along and says, oh, no, au contraire. The wealthy actually need to be more wealthy. Where that wealth comes from, don’t ask too many questions. I guess it just comes from their, Randian brilliance and innovation, which again, does strike one as slightly convenient. But yeah, this sort of provided an alternative answer to that. That in fact, the issue was not inequality and greed but was in many ways, not enough inequality and greed. And that the rich sort of just needed to have a kind of moral commitment to being nice.

Linsey McGoey: I think so. I always was struck by and came back to this question of: is this out of sort of malevolence? Is this out of an inability to see that many reasons why developing nations are poor is because of trade policies that benefit rich nations, for example? Is it out of deliberate blindness or simply genuine ignorance of the many structural issues that development scholars and Marxist thinkers had been pointing out for so many decades? And I just could never really be certain as to whether it was deliberate blindness or genuine.

Adam: Well, this is the eternal question of our podcast. Is it ignorance or venality and sometimes, it’s a combination thereof. And then of course, ignorance can turn into venality. Once you realize all the funding comes from saying Bill Gates is doing a heck of a job.

Nima: [Laughs] Well, right, yeah, I kind of want to dig into this idea of convenience, right? That this ideology just happens to coincide with what people are kind of already doing. They just have to be a little more moral about it. So as you’ve written, Linsey, the basic logic behind Effective Altruism is not particularly new. It’s a near carbon copy of the justifications for wealth concentration in the hands of a few, which have been voiced for the past century. Notably, like 100 years ago by John D. Rockefeller, this idea that I need more and more money myself because the more I earn, the more I can give to good causes in a rational way. And I want to note this through line of being rational, which kind of flows across all of these ideologies. Now, Rockefeller’s brand of altruism or charity had more of a Baptist flavor to it, of course, whereas modern Effective Altruism relies really on this more secular scientism, but the logic is almost identical. So, I’d love to hear you talk about how this thinking seems, at least to the skeptical among us, I would count Citations Needed in that category as being just a bit convenient, right? What are the odds that the thing that they claim is best for all of society now and into the future also happens to be what is best for themselves and for other super rich people across the globe? How did this kind of miraculous convenience come about?

Linsey McGoey: The history, as you say, it can be linked back to people like Rockefeller. And it really has a longer history too, going back to the generations that preceded Rockefeller and particularly, the writings of Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarian theories of how to create utility. People should be instrumental when it came to efforts to better society. And so, when you look at someone like MacAskill, his main influence is this Australian philosopher named Peter Singer, and Singer is a proponent of Bentham’s approach to utilitarianism. And when you think of the writings of people like Bentham in the early 19th-century, late 18th-century, they were narrow then, and their understanding of how to create change is still narrow today when it influences thinkers like MacAskill. And the problem that I find so unfortunate is that it’s as if proponents of EA today want to ignore the many criticisms of Bentham’s approach to society that even later utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill were attentive to. So, Mill would say that Bentham is blind to the things he doesn’t want to see, his philosophy is too rigid and narrow. It benefits the rich exclusively, typically, in ways that Bentham doesn’t want to say because he’s such a sort of narrow, doctrinaire thinker that he doesn’t realize the limits of some of his thinking. So, John Stuart Mill would point this out about Bentham, but later thinkers like MacAskill or Singer typically ignore some of these criticisms that Mill made of Bentham because they want to adopt this doctrinaire attitude to utilitarianism in a way that is, they think, more faithful to the theory of how change should operate. So, this theory is the idea that you create the maximum utility for as many people as possible through any means necessary in essence, and that’s the best way to create good, but actually, that leads to potentially deeply anti-egalitarian approaches to life and society. It can lead to a defense of slavery, for example, at its worst extreme, and the thinkers today who defend this approach to utilitarianism are going down a road that was pointed out to be deeply dangerous by earlier thinkers like Mill, but they always ignored these criticisms.

Nima: Yeah, I love this idea that this was kind of known and pushed back on at the time or many, many years ago. So, these critiques are nothing new as well, right? They kind of rose up alongside these philosophies or these ideologies. You know, we recently had an episode where we talked about the idea of, you know, oh, we’ll judge people by the time that they were living in, right? Like, oh, how could they have known any better? And what we found, obviously, along the way, is that people have always known better. It’s just whose ideologies are then promoted by the most powerful and then whose criticisms are then further marginalized?

Adam: I want to ask a question about the sort of inherent and you alluded to the inherent anti-democratic nature of these types of ideologies, which is to say the implication and sometimes the explicit statement is that democratic processes of welfare are inefficient, they’re corrupt. They’re sort of not scientific, capital S Scientific. So, there’s always this kind of smug scientism to all this, right? This idea that, like, again, this is what we discussed almost word for word when we discussed Bill Gates those many, many years ago, is this idea that by virtue of somehow being a successful CEO of a software company, that therefore makes him per se, an expert on education, that therefore makes him per se, an expert on global health even though he has no experience in that. And now since we last talked, he’s now an expert on climate change now. And he’s doing op-eds in The New York Times because by virtue of being a billionaire.

It’s like that line, I forget which one, one of the Justice League movies where they’re like, well, Aquaman can do this, and Wonder Woman can do that. And he’s like, well, as Batman, what’s your superpower? He says, well, “I’m rich.”

It’s like, I’m just, I’m rich. Therefore, I’m an expert on literally any fucking thing I want to be an expert on. When I wake up in the morning, by virtue of being rich per se, I’m an expert on whatever it is whether it’s, again, global health or education, whatever kind of whimsical ideological play toy I decide to play with that day. I’m therefore an expert in that thing.

And there’s a similar ethos here where it is deeply undemocratic, this idea “earn to give” because, again, who elected these billionaires to make these decisions? And of course, there’s a sort of implicit criticism of ineffective altruism, right? It’s as if the government is just going to homeless camps and giving people plastic surgery and Disney Plus subscriptions. They’re not being effective in their altruism, right? This sort of just pissing away money.

I want you to talk about the anti-democratic strains that exist in this. Obviously, people like John Rockefeller, when FDR came along, and the Great Depression came along, they had nothing but contempt for any kind of socialism. I think that sort of goes without saying. And talk about the contempt for democracy, the contempt for government. And to the extent to which they do embrace government, it’s in this kind of wonky, technocratic, tweak-the-system here and there but nothing that remotely approaches any kind of welfare state.

Linsey McGoey: Yeah, when you think about the democratic elements, it’s fascinating because actually, you realize that some of the contemporary proponents of this type of extreme billionaire philanthropy are so much worse than the earlier robber barons in ways because at least people like Carnegie, for example, funded libraries. He wanted to fund mass literacy to an extent. He did ultimately, really want to contribute to more of a sense of the idea that the more people know about their wider environment, the more effective they will be in fighting for a better future for all. Building housing, different initiatives that were begun by these early philanthropists while being ultimately very self-serving and aimed at busting unions, for example, they were in ways committed to the democratic ideal. Today’s technocrats are not in so many ways that I find very worrying. You actually had the point where some of the more recent effective altruists who get less media recognition than MacAskill, which might be a good thing because some of their ideas are so deeply pernicious, they’ve come up with ideas, like actually, if you want to look at whose life has the most value, the ripple effects of giving money to the poor might be less because the poor can do less with it. Whereas the dollar made in America can go further in helping the poor. So really, you should be giving money to other wealthy industrialists or volunteers in the West because they can do more with their money. So, it’s actually a logic which is just incredibly circular and self-reinforcing the idea that those who have money are ultimately inherently better individuals, which is a type of ridiculous oligarchical supremacy.

Adam: I hope that’s not true.

Nima: Well, as you’ve written, to kind of pull on this side a bit, there’s an undercurrent or maybe an overcurrent of racism that has long pervaded the history of Effective Altruism and similar circles, maybe “pervaded” is even too kind of word, maybe it’s inherent to it. Now, this isn’t just like me being lefty and being mean, kind of snarking at a worldview that we’ve been talking about for the past 45 minutes. But this really is inherent to the ideology itself, as you yourself have written. So, indeed, massive global inequalities if not the product of design and capitalist greed can only really be explained, we’ve heard from certain leading effective altruists due to genetic differences. Can you talk a bit about the role of race science in the establishment and then growth of Effective Altruism and related so-called movements like long-termism per se.

Linsey McGoey: There was a controversy that broke out at Oxford last year because Nick Bostrom who’s a philosopher who is affiliated with the Future of Humanity Institute, one of the many centers that’s got funding from deep-pocketed billionaires based in the United States and the UK. And Bostrom had essentially on a listserv in his earlier years made some comments that suggested that white individuals are mentally superior to Black individuals, in essence, and he’s never apologized for this to my knowledge. And he bases these claims on, you know, spurious race science testing that relies on very discredited IQ measures of cognitive difference in order to make racist claims about inferiority or superiority. So, some of these leading, purportedly leading thinkers will not or refuse to engage with the massive evidence that looks at the construction of IQ tests and how they are limited and how they’re ineffective at gauging differences between individuals for so many different reasons, including just the sheer effort to classify different groups and their ethnicities is fraught with challenges and problems. And so, to look at IQ tests is deeply discredited for many reasons. But I think it’s because they want to defend their approach to Western supremacy in a way that has the aura of science attached to it. And they’ll do so by any means they can when ultimately, there’s a political reason, further aims to defend Western supremacy. And it’s because they genuinely believe that the West is best. And they want to maintain their global edge competitively, in perpetuity if they can, and they’ll do so as best they can.

Adam: I wanna try to be fair here a little bit here or try to be generous.

Nima: You’ve gone soft.

Linsey McGoey: It’s gotten to you. There’s a lot of money that’s associated with these Effective Altruists.

Adam: This is what they call the “to be sure” paragraph.

Linsey McGoey: MacAskill got tens of millions from people like Bankman-Fried.

Nima: Adam started having kids and started “to be sure-ing” all of our interviews.

Adam: Yeah, exactly. It’s what happens, you get soft. I want to be fair because the thing with EA, when you criticize EA as I’ve done in the past, it becomes very fluid. You can kind of be various things at once. You say, oh, well, you know, it’s racist. And I say, oh, well, no, it’s actually, it is racist or it’s, you know, sycophantic to the wealthy. And they say, well, there’s an EA strain that’s this and that. And I think what we’re trying to focus on is like the EA strains that actually get a lot of money and have a lot of prominence because again, as you noticed, there has been dissent within the EA world that one can glean from forums and other kinds of discourses, especially in the aftermath of the Sam Bankman-Fried kind of fallout. Where Rockefeller cured hookworm in the South, it’s like, yeah, he did tons of evil shit, but, like, 1% of it was yeah, okay, maybe that was good, right? Or some of the coverage that SPF has funded at Vox on animal rights. Some people say, well, you know, that was good. And so you can kind of be ideologically more sort of “go with the times” in certain ways to make it hard to pin down. But I want you to talk about some of those divisions. I know, again, you sort of alluded to them, a lot of true believers feel like they kind of got played. It’s almost like libertarianism where there’s always the sort of 5% who are like genuine believers who are holding out for some genuinely non-corrupt kind of libertarian vision. I once knew a libertarian in college once who believed in a 100% inheritance tax and I’ve always thought he was the only, like, principled libertarian government. Because it’s like, yeah, if you’re gonna live in like a Randian hellscape —

Nima: You found a true Scotsman.

Adam: [Laughs] Right, exactly. I found the one true Scotsman. Talk, if you will, about how it’s kind of hard to pin down, it’s a little slippery when you do level criticisms at it because you do get this kind of “no true Scotsman,” this is not really EA. And why you think it’s important to focus on, like, the actual people in power and you know, establishment institutions.

Linsey McGoey: It’s so important to make this point about the ideological ambiguity or malleability. And I think, to use words that maybe “slippery” sort of sounds pejorative, in a way, though it is slippery.

Adam: That’s what we do best here at Citations Needed.

Linsey McGoey: Yeah, because I think you get at such an important point, which is that EA is a broad church, I think it is a church. It’s got a very much a religious tenor to it in a way, but it’s a nondenominational church in a way because it’s got many different facets and elements that are appealing to a wide range of people for very, very sincere, earnest and beneficent reasons, which is that people see the world imploding around them, and they want to make a difference. They want to create change. They want to help their fellow humans and other entities and the expansiveness of the EA movement towards that goal is real. And it’s not just humans too, there’s this commitment to non-human rights, which I think is appealing to people who defend animal rights, which goes back to Singer’s interest in that himself. But Singer himself has long been the bête noire of disability rights activists because he uses utilitarian logic to defend a very strong eugenics program, which essentially argues that people with disabilities have less value than other groups because of their inability to potentially realize the full mental heights of non-disabled groups, for example. It’s a very, very pernicious ideology when taken to extreme levels in ways that are rigid and that don’t allow for the importance of seeing ethical ambiguity, for example.

The way that certain strands of EA are defended, it always gets back to this narrowness because some of the proponents who insist that utilitarianism needs to be the rigid measure by which we understand the value of human action, they tend to not realize how deeply problematic that is for looking at the fact that we don’t ourselves know which actions will be the most impactful or not over the long term. For example, you could not measure the effectiveness of anti-apartheid movements in South Africa when the hopes of their coming to fruition seems so dismal. Nobody would have funded them because it seemed impossible to achieve that massive end goal for humanity, which ultimately, of course, led to genuine freedom for human beings in a way that you couldn’t show through an RCT at the time but which was of vast value to all of humanity. And I think people like Ezra Klein, for example, he said, I again defend the EA proponents’ position that GiveWell knows exactly which charities are the most beneficial because they’ve measured it. Well, that’s so epistemologically naive, I just want to bang my head against a wall. Because how is this guy purportedly the voice of reason in America today? He’s so naive when it comes to his defense of measurement fetishism.

Adam: That’s how you get a job with the New York time.

Linsey McGoey: [Laughs] Exactly.

Adam: Yeah, it’s a very bleak and reductionist and sort of technocratic view of politics without really much historical precedent. Because in many ways, like you said, I mean, everything is nothing until it’s something in some ways, right? Like that which is going to create positive change or social change isn’t always reduced to a formula of pure rationality. There’s something so bleak about this worldview, there’s something so limiting, so sad.

Nima: Well, it Taylorizes everything.

Adam: Yeah, but in a way that’s like, again, it flatters a certain mindset, a certain corporate middle manager mindset, a certain kind of like, oh, I’m Mr. Science Guy. And it’s like, yeah, but politics is not even rational by its own logic because the idea that you would have a system where everyone goes and grovels to the wealthiest person is not a rational system. Again, this is the runaway contempt for democracy and democratic processes. It accepts the premise that massive inequalities are inevitable and doesn’t even think maybe for a second, you’re taking some sort of, like, medieval prescription for, you know, fever, right? They never think that maybe the bloodletting or the leeches aren’t helping. It’s like, the thing that’s causing that you’re saying is the solution, like the idea that that would be the thing that’s causing the problem, which is to say massive inequities, concentrations of power of like seven guys, all of whom are like massively antisocial. The idea that that itself would be the problem is just not entertained as an option for again, I think, obvious structural reasons, both a combination of the eternal Citations Needed question of stupid or venal. And it’s such a sad way to view the world because it’s like we’ve reached the end of history. We’re just gonna go around begging to the same five assholes.

Linsey McGoey: It really is. I think you’ve hit on such an important point. Because when you mentioned the bleakness, when you mentioned the irrationality, and when you mentioned the sadness, which is in essence, a type of cynicism, a type of cynicism that suggests that the possible is limited to the measurable in the moment. And I think that’s a very fatalistic and unambitious way to see humanity’s potential. So, I think two things that I want to draw on that you’ve just pointed to, which are so crucial, is first, it’s irrationality because it’s irrational to presume that we know who has the best solutions to a problem when so many people are impeded from realizing their full potential because of a lack of structural opportunity, because of the problem of inheritance leading to inequities that are themselves statistically measurable. So, we know that opportunity reinforces it across generations, and the lack of opportunity is essentially replicated from one generation to the next when you don’t have a system that benefits social mobility sufficiently. We know all this, and yet, they think it’s rational to ignore these problems. That’s not reason. That’s inanity.

Nima: Yeah. I mean, I think this connects well to your most recent book. We’ve been talking about whether it’s stupidity or cruelty as an animating force. Can you just tell our listeners a little bit about how you define and then kind of discuss strategic ignorance?

Linsey McGoey: I define strategic ignorance as the exploitation of the unknowns in any environment in order to avoid liability for social harms, to exert one’s own expertise to resolve uncertainties in the future, and to essentially exploit what we don’t know for positive gains in ways that can be quite reinforcing of existent power systems. And how that’s sort of different from how psychologists define strategic ignorance is that they tend to find it at the individual level where people don’t want to know facts that just confirm an earlier individual viewpoint. And we all do that. I think the left and the right does that. And most people do that. But the sociological definition of strategic ignorance tries to look at more institutional abilities to mobilize unknowns in ways that can reinforce the status quo, for example. So, it’s sort of more of a focus on structure versus individual tendencies to not want to know facts we don’t like. And I think in this case, how effective altruists mobilize, they say, well, we just don’t know how really trying to lobby for a long-term political position will turn out so let’s keep giving to whoever GiveWell tells us to give to. So, they act as if the unknowns in the future or the present or something that can’t be dismissed, that have to be acted on in these measurement-based ways that I think, as we’ve been talking about, just make a fetish, they fetishize what can be known immediately over wider questions that seem less easy to measure in distinctive ways. And recently, the effective altruists will argue that that’s not the case. They challenge this view through their long-termist approach where they say that we have to look to the future and future uncertainties in a way that compels us to act in certain ways now. But again, they do so in this way that is incredibly cynical, I think, because they do so in a way that mobilizes against these politically effective changes that can improve equity in the present. So, as I think you said earlier, it’s a bleak attitude because it really impedes the idea that politics matter today in ways that could be attended to, in ways that create more equity now. They never seem to want to try to achieve more equity in the present.

Adam: No, it’s just various crumb begging. Reminds me a lot of, Bill Gates funded Global Citizen, like, concerts and festivals where they all get together and have like the head of the IMF come on stage and give a speech. And it’s just like, so awe-inspiring, we’re gonna affect change with the people that are in charge. It’s like, wait, how does that work? I want to talk a bit about the media influence of EA. Obviously, as we discussed the top of our show, there’s been a lot of softball coverage, a lot of doey-eyed, kind of Ezra Klein types of like, well, this new thing is happening that’s going to make it more savvy and scientific. And it’s just again, this just rehashed like Rockefeller-ism Taylorism. I want to talk about some of the direct EA funding. I guess, most famously, or most prominently, is the Vox vertical Future Perfect, which was founded explicitly to be an EA vertical by Ezra Klein and Dylan Matthews I think in 2018, and then they sort of got a lot of their funding, if not most of their funding from Sam Bankman-Fried. And obviously, they’ve since not been funded by that. I want to talk about this whole premise is that like, we’re going to create an optimistic vision of the future that harnesses technology and a bunch of like do-goodie rich people to create a better world. I want to discuss your impression of media coverage in general of EA. I know it’s a sort of broad question. But specifically, its influence with a certain type of like savvy wonk guy, kind of end of history, scientism wonk guy like most prominently, Ezra Klein, which again, probably doesn’t hurt in terms of actually funding your new media property.

Linsey McGoey: Future Perfect seemed to come on the scene and in some ways, they’ve done some good articles like at least they look at basic income projects and experiments, and they do at least admit the truth, which is that just giving money to people can help resolve a lot of the problems that we have when it comes to a lack of structural opportunity for groups that are deliberately immiserated through different corporate and employment practices. But, you know, Future Perfect was also an apologist for the current system of wealth enhancement that benefits a few at the expense of the many, and I just don’t understand why they refuse to look at some of the problems with political economy that are known to lead to different forms of corruption of political processes, when money buys election, corruption of welfare initiatives that work well in ways to lower the cost to the state when it comes to healthcare spending and other factors, for example, which prevent government from effectively investing in infrastructure. So, we know that certain nations produce more equity when they have well-funded welfare programs. And a place like Future Perfect doesn’t seem to want to do the hard work looking at some of these public policy initiatives. They just want to report on whatever Musk’s latest grand idea is to build a subway or something and not call it a subway because that must be banal but actually, he really just wants to build a subway.

So, I don’t understand why a place like Future Perfect rarely seems to want to do the job of what journalists should do, which is to question power. They just have no interest in that in ways I don’t get why. But, of course, the obvious answer is because it impedes their funding sources.

Nima: Well, this has been so amazing. Linsey, before we let you go, can you tell us and our listeners, what you are currently up to and what we can look forward to from you in the future? In our perfect future.

Linsey McGoey: I’d love to come back again. And it might be five years before I’ve done anything interesting that could be of relevance to your listeners because I’ve got this long-term project going on, where I’m just basically traveling around America, trying to interview people who I feel like are left out of the mainstream media discourse a bit on the left and right. So, I’m Canadian, I live in the UK. But I’m very inspired by the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, which was published almost 200 years ago and where he traveled through a number of US states in the early 1830s to ask people about how the democratic experiment is going. And 200 years later, I’m broadly retracing some of his steps but going beyond them, because obviously the western frontier at that time was Michigan, it was Tennessee, the western frontier had not reached, you know, places like California yet. Sadly, of course, obviously, the extermination process was ongoing, which he witnessed and was critical of himself. So, I’m trying to ask similar questions to what Tocqueville asked around. What will democracy survive? What is the role between godliness and religion in democracy? What is the role of the tyranny of the majority and suppressing minority perspectives and viewpoints? And can this republic, can it be a space of hope rather than simply oppression?

Adam: Speaking of blinkered vision, I feel like they were not very ambitious when they named it Northwestern University in Chicago. They were like, alright, we’re done.

Nima: We did it.

Adam: We’re done with our genocide.

Linsey McGoey: End of history is here, and it’s going to be based at Northwestern, we’ve got all the solutions.

Adam: How embarrassing.

Nima: Well, I think that is a great place to leave it. Linsey, cannot thank you enough for joining us again after a number of years on our show. We’ve been speaking of course to Dr. Linsey McGoey (@LinseyMcGoey), Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her writing has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jacobin, and she is the author of two books, including, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, which was published by Verso in 2015 and more recently, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, which was published by Zed Books in 2019. Linsey, thank you so much, again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Linsey McGoey: Thank you.

[Music]

Adam: Yeah, I think the idea of this blinkered vision of how we deal with the big social problems of our time, which are treated as kind of inherited down from God, or from nature, that these things are laws of nature, that we’re kind of born unequal, and there’s nothing really, really to do about it, rather than being the result of political choices made by the very same people at the top

Nima: And maintained by them and then assumed to be able to only be fixed by the same people.

Adam: You can see the appeal, right, you can see the appeal for like someone who’s not really interested in the bigger kind of moral or political questions, but wants to do good. And you know, how convenient that there’s this ideology that is premised on the rich getting richer, as a form of beneficence. And indeed, if they were to lose money, through taxes and or through some sort of attack on the market, or, you know, fundamental critique of the system that would therefore create more suffering.

Nima: Well, they wouldn’t be able to charity our way out of this, they wouldn’t be able to do as much good.

Adam: Yeah. And don’t get me wrong, the more you donate to Citations Needed Patreon, the better it is for society. Like that’s true in some cases.

Nima: That’s a fact. Yeah, that’s a law of nature.

Adam: That’s just science. I mean, we’ve done studies, you can’t see them, but we’ve done them. But generally speaking, the idea of just giving money to myopic, capital-friendly charities, like it’s gonna solve anything right? Because we’re not we’re on like a 2,375-year, Bill Gates course for equality. We’ll, we’ll get there eventually,

Nima: Eventually, all the money that he’s making, he won’t just make back like tenfold.

Adam: Yeah, even though he’s twice as wealthy, adjusted for inflation, as he was 20 years ago, but he’s giving it away, trust us.

Nima: But somehow this is going to end at some point.

Adam: Trust us, it’s gonna go.

Nima: And he does it in the most effective way because he has all the data, right.

Adam: Because he started a software company and therefore that gives him the right to determine public health in Africa, clearly.

Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for joining us. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod and on Facebook at Citations Needed and if you are so inclined, become very, very Effective Altruists by giving to Citations Needed through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener funded. And as always, a very special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon.

Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.

This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, January 31, 2024.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.

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Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.