An estimate of the expected influence of becoming a politician



How much influence could you have by becoming a politician? Common sense says that politicians have a lot of influence, and it’s a serious contender as a high impact path for someone who’s altruistically motivated. But aren’t the chances of success incredibly low? Our guess was that even though the chances are low, the potential impact is still very high. So, when we were asked about UK politics in a recent case study, we decided to make a more detailed estimate of the expected influence to feed into an overall analysis of politics as a career path.

We found that chances of success are low, but for some students they’re not low enough to offset the very large potential influence. The UK government budget is £720 billion, and even a small chance at influencing a budget that large could be highly significant (and the impact of politicians extends well beyond budgets).

We’ve extended our analysis of the chances of an Oxford PPE graduate succeeding as a politician, to make a rough estimate that such a student can expect to be able to direct £7.5 – 75 million to the causes they support from their chances of making it into elected office. For a student similar to an Oxford PPE graduate, this suggests the path is competitive with the most high potential earning to give careers – such as those in finance – in terms of financial influence, which when combined with politicians’ law-making powers and advocacy opportunities could put politics clearly ahead.

Aren’t politicians highly constrained by existing policy, what other politicians want, the desires of the electorate and other factors? Yes, but these factors have already been included in the estimate. Read on to see the full process.

Summary of the estimate

Our preliminary estimate is that an Oxford PPE graduate who aims to become a politician in the UK, could expect to influence £150 million of government spending, arising from their chances of making it into office. A number of factors decrease the impact of that money; giving a quality-adjusted estimate of £7.5 – 75 million, falling towards the lower end if you’re primarily interested in very specific interventions (e.g. supporting a certain organisation) rather than broader ones (e.g. promoting evidence-based policy). This is the amount of government spending the graduate might be able to direct towards the causes they support.

For students without the typical attributes of Oxford PPE students, chances are significantly reduced. For instance, repeating the calculation but considering students from Oxford and Cambridge as a whole suggests expected influence on the order of £1 – 10 million. More generally, the expected influence is highly sensitive to the individual’s degree of fit with politics i.e. it could be substantially higher for someone with strong success in student politics at Oxford, and near zero for many others.

Our proposed estimate is extremely coarse. We rely on a crude economic model of influence within government, assume that this influence in aggregate accounts for all public spending, and try to estimate the share of influence possessed by a number of relevant groups. We believe this model is much stronger than it appears casually, and do provide some justification for some of the simplifying assumptions at the end of the document. We also explain some important caveats, such as our uncertainty over the prominence of MPs and ministers, and focussing mainly on Oxford PPE. Nevertheless, it is certainly an extremely crude model. The error on this estimate is at least an order of magnitude or so, and if there are significant issues with the methodology they may actually be even larger.

To compensate for this we have made conservative estimates throughout, and still arrived at a remarkably high number. Since the conclusion of this calculation is also supported by the common sense position that going into politics is high potential for students with the right characteristics, we conclude that the expected influence of entering this path is indeed very large.

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Reasoning about influence in politics

Understanding a politician’s influence at first appears to be hopelessly tangled. A politicians’ influence is very tenuously related to the vote they can cast in parliament, and is mediated by a complicated process involving respect for precedent, social consensus, explicit and implicit negotiation, explicit and implicit appeals to popular opinion, and so on. Fortunately, on closer inspection many of these challenges can be ameliorated.

In the following research notes, we introduce an argument that the naive answer is about right: if there are 100 politicians with one vote each, then each politician has about 1% of the total impact of the politicians.

The result is highly useful in making estimates of the influence you might expect to have by becoming a politician, or indeed in any situation when a group of people negotiate over an outcome e.g a company board setting strategy, or a committee of grant makers allocating funding.

Note that the following are only preliminary research notes that were made while doing a case study, and not the results of in-depth analysis, so we’re cautious about the conclusion. Nevertheless, we’re keen to share the ideas and seek feedback.

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Neglectedness and impact


Let’s suppose there’s a cause that you care about much more than society at large. In your eyes, that cause is neglected. All else equal, you should have more positive impact by working on a neglected cause, because other people won’t already be taking the best opportunities within it. But how much more positive impact can you expect?

The following is a set of research notes we made while performing a case study, which we’re making available for feedback on our thinking. It argues for a simple result: If you care about an output K times more than society at large, then (all else equal) you should expect investing in gaining that output to be K times more effective than making other investments.

For instance, most people don’t put a high weight on avoiding animal suffering. Let’s suppose you do. In fact, you estimate that you care about it roughly 10 times more than the average person (i.e. you would be satisfied investing 10 times the amount of resources to avoid the same amount of animal suffering compared to the average person). Then, you should expect that investing to end animal suffering is, all else equal, roughly 10 times more effective than making other investments.

This seems like it might be a highly relevant consideration in picking causes. If the argument is correct then, all else equal, we should expect more neglected causes to be more effective. Our current position is that the arguement below shows that we should weight neglectedness to some extent in picking causes, but we’re not yet sure how highly we should weight it because we’re not sure: (i) how important neglectedness, as modelled in this way, is compared to other considerations we could investigate (ii) how tractable it is to investigate.

The research note also explores how important this consideration is to members of 80,000 Hours, the effect of adding further considerations, and how the result might be applied in practice.

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Linearity – a useful assumption in evaluating careers and causes


When analysing the good done by different paths, we’ve often found it useful to assume that the value of your resources are linear – i.e. donating $2mn is roughly twice as good as $1mn, persuading two people to support a cause is roughly twice as good as persuading one person, and so on. For more in-depth examples, see our upcoming analysis of the value of becoming a politician or this analysis of the ethics of consumption.

This assumption, however, faces a number of objections. In this post, Paul Christiano, a Research Associate at 80,000 Hours, responds to these objections to linearity, arguing that it’s normally a reasonable approximation to make.

What do I mean by “linearity”?

More precisely, the assumption is:

The value of a resource is very likely to be linear when considering changes that are a small fraction of the current supply of that resource; is very likely to be diminishing through most of the range; and is likely to be increasing only as you come to control the majority of that resource, and even then only in some cases.

In the abstract it’s not a very objectionable sounding claim, but below I go over a few common objections in particular cases.

Note that “current supply” means resources that would be used in the pursuit of similar goals. When it seems like the current supply is negligibly small, I think we are probably drawing the boundaries wrong: don’t consider money being spent on a very narrow cause, consider money being sensibly spent on improving the world, etc. In the most extreme case, where the relevant supply of resources really is tiny, then this number will still be driven up by incidentally relevant behavior by people with completely different goals.

Of course I don’t think this is an ironclad law, but in practice I rarely believe objections people make against local linearity. That said, there is lots of room for me to revise my views here.

First, I should say that linearity seems to be the right prior presumption. If we do something twice, a priori we should suppose that the second time we do it will have the same (expected) effect as the first time we do it. So I see my role here (at least with respect to linearity) as defending the prior presumption from various objections that might be raised.

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Influencing the Far Future



In an earlier post we reviewed the arguments in favor of the idea that we should primarily assess causes in terms of whether they help build a society that’s likely to survive and flourish in the very long-term. We think this is a plausible position, but it raises the question: what activities in fact do help improve the world over the very long term, and of those, which are best? We’ve been asked this question several times in recent case studies.

First, we propose a very broad categorisation of how our actions today might affect the long-run future.

Second, as a first step to prioritising different methods, we compiled a list of approaches to improve the long-run future that are currently popular among the community of people who explicitly believe the long-run future is important.

The list was compiled from our knowledge of the community. Please let us know if you think there are other important types of approach that have been neglected. Further, note that this post is not meant as an endorsement of any particular approach; just an acknowledgement that it has significant support.

Third, we comment on how existing mainstream philanthropy may or may not influence the far future.

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