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You could justify tens of trillions of dollars in investment easily in trying to prevent climate change — and that’s just in the US. It’s just that’s not where political incentives are.

How long is the news cycle? 24 hours, less nowadays. How is your performance evaluated? Quarterly at the longest. So who’s rewarded for thinking that long term? No one in American politics. So they just don’t do it.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang — past presidential candidate, founder of the Forward Party, and leader of the ‘Yang Gang’ — is kind of a big deal, but is particularly popular among listeners to The 80,000 Hours Podcast.

Maybe that’s because he’s willing to embrace topics most politicians stay away from, like universal basic income, term limits for members of Congress, or what might happen when AI replaces whole industries.

But even those topics are pretty vanilla compared to our usual fare on The 80,000 Hours Podcast. So we thought it’d be fun to throw Andrew some stranger or more niche questions we hadn’t heard him comment on before, including:

  1. What would your ideal utopia in 500 years look like?
  2. Do we need more public optimism today?
  3. Is positively influencing the long-term future a key moral priority of our time?
  4. Should we invest far more to prevent low-probability risks?
  5. Should we think of future generations as an interest group that’s disenfranchised by their inability to vote?
  6. The folks who worry that advanced AI is going to go off the rails and destroy us all… are they crazy, or a valuable insurance policy?
  7. Will people struggle to live fulfilling lives once AI systems remove the economic need to ‘work’?
  8. Andrew is a huge proponent of ranked-choice voting. But what about ‘approval voting’ — where basically you just get to say “yea” or “nay” to every candidate that’s running — which some experts prefer?
  9. What would Andrew do with a billion dollars to keep the US a democracy?
  10. What does Andrew think about the effective altruism community?
  11. What’s one thing we should do to reduce the risk of nuclear war?
  12. Will Andrew’s new political party get Trump elected by splitting the vote, the same way Nader got Bush elected back in 2000?

As it turns out, Rob and Andrew agree on a lot, so the episode is less a debate than a chat about ideas that aren’t mainstream yet… but might be one day. They also talk about:

  • Andrew’s views on alternative meat
  • Whether seniors have too much power in American society
  • Andrew’s DC lobbying firm on behalf of humanity
  • How the rest of the world could support the US
  • The merits of 18-year term limits
  • What technologies Andrew is most excited about
  • How much the US should spend on foreign aid
  • Persistence and prevalence of inflation in the US economy
  • And plenty more

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore


What Andrew would do with a billion dollars

Andrew Yang: If one of the two major parties succumbs to bad leadership, everyone’s incentive is to fall in line or they lose their jobs. The counterexample to this was Senator Lisa Murkowski, who’s the only Republican senator who voted to impeach Trump earlier this year, and is also up for reelection. Her approval rating among Republicans in Alaska tanked: it’s now 6%. So it is indeed politically suicidal to go against Donald Trump.

Andrew Yang: But one reason why she did this is that they switched in Alaska from closed party primaries to open primaries and ranked-choice voting last year. So now instead of being beholden to the 10 to 20% most extreme partisan voters in Alaska, she can appeal to the general public, and if 50.1% of the Alaskan public says you’re okay, then she can still come back.

Andrew Yang: So if you gave me a billion dollars, we would do what they did in Alaska in, let’s call it 15 of the 24 states in the country that allow for ballot initiatives the same way that Alaska does. No act of Congress needed, all you need is a popular wave of people saying, “Look, I’m sick of my leaders being beholden to the 10 to 20% most extreme voters.” It disenfranchises the majority of the country. Right now, 10% of American voters elect essentially 83% of the representatives. You have an approval rating of 28% for Congress and a reelection rate of 92%. The incentives are all messed up. And if you had a billion dollars, you could run ballot initiative campaigns in over a dozen states and have a chance to win them all.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Basically, you would fund campaigns to do ballot initiatives in order to change the primary system. There’s a bunch of changes that one could make, but in this case, to have a jungle primary where everybody runs, and then the top two candidates go through to the final —

Andrew Yang: The top five candidates, actually.

Rob Wiblin: Top five? And then do you do ranked-choice voting?

Andrew Yang: Yes. Ranked-choice voting is also a moderating impulse. What you’d see if you made this change is that all of a sudden, people would have to appeal to every point of view, and you’d have to win over a majority of the population on some level to get in. And here’s the thing that a lot of people don’t understand: even if you had the exact same humans in office, their incentives would be dramatically better. Because instead of, “If I go against my party, then I lose my job. So I better just shut up, and do whatever the party says,” then it’s like, “If I decide to exercise some independence, as long as the majority of my district thinks it’s sound, then I can keep my job.”

Andrew Yang: So even if you end up with the same person, if you have a different incentive structure, then you’d see better governance, better independence, and, by the way, less authoritarianism. Because you know that in the Republican party, they’re essentially two parties right now: there’s the Trump Republicans, and then the moderate Republicans who secretly wish Trump would go away. And so, if you unlock their incentive structure, you would see many more of them act like Senator Murkowski did, where it’s like, “Look, I don’t love this guy.” And then they’d have a chance to come back in, because a majority of voters across the board agree with them. Not a majority of Republicans — which is who they’re beholden to right now — but a majority of all voters.

Approval voting vs. ranked-choice voting

Rob Wiblin: I know a bunch of people who are also working on ballot initiatives in order to do voting reform at the local and state levels in the US. We actually interviewed Aaron Hamlin, the founder of the Center for Election Science, a couple years ago. And he was doing a similar thing, but he was trying to get up something called approval voting — where basically you just get to say “yea” or “nay” to every candidate that’s running. What do you think of approval voting as against the ranked-choice voting?

Andrew Yang: I love approval voting. It’s great. And I’ve seen arguments where it is better than ranked-choice voting in some situations. I looked at this, and said I’m going to push ranked-choice voting because it addresses the problems that I’m most concerned about with polarization. But it also has a bunch of wins already, where it’s been used in 50 cities around the country, including New York City. There are organizations that have been deploying it. It’s going to be tough to change the voting system in the US, so you might as well use a system that at least has some traction in the world. But all that said, big fan of approval voting.

Rob Wiblin: Approval voting would be way better, as well.

Andrew Yang: Yeah, yeah. The plurality voting system is terrible. It’s so dumb.

Rob Wiblin: It’s the worst. What’s the point? It’s just —

Andrew Yang: Yeah. If someone were to push for approval voting or STAR voting, I’d be excited about them. I just think that RCV has more momentum, more traction. It gets rid of the spoiler effect. It allows for moderation. It has a better chance of success in the immediate term.

The worry that third party candidates could cause harm

Andrew Yang: We need to race towards ranked-choice voting or some other more modern voting system that allows for different points of view to emerge as quickly as possible. And I, personally, am a little bit saddened by how everyone is just scared about the spoiler effect, because that’s the cudgel that the duopoly uses on everybody really. It’s like, “We’re going to do something different.” — “Oh, you’re going to mess it up. You’re going to mess it up.”

Andrew Yang: Well okay, in theory, does the Democratic Party not control the levers of government in at least half of these areas? If you’re genuinely concerned about the spoiler effect, why don’t we just change it to ranked-choice voting? You control your own elections. You certainly control your own primaries. But you control the mechanics in many of these states. And so that, to me, is a solutions-oriented approach. It’s like, “You’re concerned about the spoiler effect? Let’s solve it.”

Rob Wiblin: So I guess to some extent, it could be used as a threat that you’ll run, and other people will run, and they’ll create this spoiler effect, making the election a bit of a nonsense — unless people go and actually reform the election. So let’s go do that.

Andrew Yang: That’s one of my arguments, Rob, is that if I were to just push, push, push and be like, “Are you concerned about it? Fix it, fix it, fix it.” Then it has a better chance of being fixed than if we’re all like, “Everyone stand still until they get around to fixing it.” Which by the way, they never will.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I can see that argument. I would hate to see Trump elected in 2024 as the implementation of that threat though. It seems like a very high price to pay to me.

Andrew Yang: And this is something that I think — at least I hope — people sense about me, is that I’m a rational dude. I’m not going to do something irrational.

Rob Wiblin: You’re not going to do something really stupid. Yeah. I suppose there are a lot of opportunities to put up these ballot initiatives for voting reform. So maybe the first line of attack can be doing that: getting money and then running those campaigns everywhere that’s possible. And then the Forward Party —

Andrew Yang: 2022. We’ve got one cycle to try and make some enormous headway. So if you’ve got a billion dollars and you want to fix American democracy, you genuinely could. The entire investment in this area right now is $153 million. It’s way too low. It’s stupid.

Investment in existential risk reduction

Rob Wiblin: Do you think we underinvest in avoiding or preparing for those sorts of tail risks — you know, low-probability events that would be super catastrophic if they happened?

Andrew Yang: Of course we do. I made this argument on the presidential trail. I went to crowds in New Hampshire and Iowa and I just asked them this: “How much do you think climate change is going to cost us?” They think about it. And I was like, “Look, the economy is $22 trillion, just so you have a frame of reference. What do you all think?” And they came back with very big numbers. And I was like, yeah, it doesn’t even include all the human lives that are going to be lost.

Rob Wiblin: Just lost GDP.

Andrew Yang: Yeah. You could justify tens of trillions of dollars in investment easily in trying to prevent climate change — and that’s just in the US. And again, one reason I love this community is that if you think about it species-wide, then all of a sudden of course all of these investments become not just sensible, but extraordinarily necessary and rewarding. It’s just that’s not where political incentives are. And if there was an American political leader, like, “Hey, guess what we’re going to do? We’re going to spend a ton of money on these far-reaching problems and whatnot.”

Andrew Yang: It’s like a disease that’s born of the political equivalent of our stock market moving back and forth. It’s like, how long is the news cycle? 24 hours, less nowadays. How is your performance evaluated? Quarterly at the longest. So who’s rewarded for thinking that long term? No one in American politics. So they just don’t do it.

Rob Wiblin: An incredible example of this is how the US spent trillions of dollars responding to the damage of the pandemic — economic stimulus, trying to make people [inaudible], and undo the damage that was done by people having to stay home. I think it was like trillions of dollars spent on the CARES Act, but they’re currently kind of bickering whether to spend $30 billion advancing the technologies that would arrest and stop the next pandemic, and do all of the preparation that we should have done last time so that we didn’t have such a disaster. And that’s about 1% or 2% of the amount of money we spent — and that’s just the money, let alone the lives lost. The desire to always be reactionary rather than getting ahead and thinking about how we can stop the damage in the first place is crazy to me.

Andrew Yang: Yeah. It’s not great. And the conclusions I’ve drawn about the system, Rob, really are that the duopoly is going to kill us, and that the two sides don’t really care about getting it right — they just care about eking out the next win. And they just trade power back and forth in DC while we all sink into the mud or get sick with the next pandemic or suffer from climate change. The institutional incentives are all wrong, and the world will just continue to suffer as a result.

Andrew Yang: It’s why I think there needs to be a genuine political restoration and complete rejuvenation of the system. This duopoly is just awful. You know what I mean? They’ve been trading power back and forth for 160 years or so. And the faith in the system is just going lower and lower. You see with Trump winning, 62% of Americans want an alternative to the duopoly even now. And then if someone actually suggests an alternative to the duopoly, then everyone’s like, “Oh no, you’re going to screw it up for the good guys against the bad guys” — whoever that happens to be.

Future generations as a disenfranchised interest group

Rob Wiblin: We’ve been talking about voting reform. Do you think from a voting perspective or from a societal decision-making perspective, it’d be reasonable to think of future generations as kind of a disenfranchised interest group? Because they don’t get to vote, they don’t have any kind of direct influence over our politics — but our decisions today through climate change and all sorts of other issues can potentially have a huge influence on their wellbeing.

Andrew Yang: I love it. There should be the unborn generations lobby where it’s like, “Hey, we don’t exist yet, but you’re totally screwing us.” You don’t even need to wait for the hypothetical — frankly, it’s young people in the US too. They look up and they’re like, “Hey, you all are screwing us.” Because in America, you can see we have a gerontocracy. There’s also a circular thing where young people don’t vote at the levels that old people do. Little-known fact — I mean, maybe you know — but I won the Iowa youth poll. So if it was just young people, I might be the president today, but then when it got to old people, I did much worse.

Rob Wiblin: Interesting. Yeah, I think Wales and Scotland have recently created commissioners for future generations. So I think when they pass new legislation, the commissioner can comment on what impact this will have on the unborn — whether it raises or lowers their wellbeing — and the government’s meant to consider and respond to that. Seems like it’s kind of a small step in the right direction of taking seriously these billions of people who we’re going to have impacts on.

Andrew Yang: I love it. I wish there was a future lobby here in the US.

Humanity Forward

Andrew Yang: We have a real-life lobbying firm with a budget in the low millions right now. It’s punching way above its weight class because when they meet with congressional offices, they’re very benign: they’re just giving them data, being like, “Hey, cash relief is popular in your district. Here are some of the stories, here are some of the people and the members’ office.”

Andrew Yang: Because if you were a congressional policy staffer or whatnot, and you were dealing with like a Humanity Forward org that was just feeding you positive information about things, that’s a hundred times more pleasant than dealing with the tobacco lobby or the financial services lobby, where they’re like, “Hey, change this rule, do this, don’t change this rule. It’s going to hurt us.” And then you’re like, “All right, all right, all right.” Then Humanity Forward comes in like, “Hey, some of these things would be really good for people” and you’re like, “Oh, cool.”

Andrew Yang: So when you talk about something that we could do to actually get this in front of policymakers, I’m super excited. Of the things I’ve done, I am perhaps most proud of Humanity Forward — that we have professional lobbyists. Because if you’re standing outside chanting and screaming, it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? At this point it doesn’t matter. But if you manage to make it seem like it’s going to help people stay in office — it’s going to be politically advantageous, and it’s going to help people too — then they’re like, “Okay, I can do this and it actually serves my goals.”

Andrew Yang: So if you want to help on that front, you can check out humanityforward.com. It’s a 501(c)(4). And then we also have a 501(c)(3) foundation that just has cash relief pilots and then tells people’s stories. Can you believe that we have these benign things?

Andrew Yang: People think about me in the Forward Party and democracy reform right now, Rob, but there are four legs to this stool I’m trying to build. Leg number one is this lobbying firm, Humanity Forward. Leg number two is the (c)(3), which is a foundation. Leg number three is the Forward Party as this political movement that most people now associate with me. And then leg number four is going to be a media organization that tries to put out some of these messages.

Government science funding

Andrew Yang: We should be investing much more in basic research — the stuff that, right now, is not naturally fundable and doesn’t have any clear commercial upside. The stuff with a commercial upside, we know the companies will pile onto. So if we could invest in some of the foundational research, and then make it long term and sustainable so that people can dedicate their careers to it, that would be the biggest difference maker.

Andrew Yang: And I have some access to this, because my father worked in Tom Watson’s research labs at IBM for a couple of decades and generated 69 US patents. And so that was one of the biggest commercial orgs. But the government should be trying to return to that. In an ideal case, it ends up in the commercial orgs. And that’s cool, you know what I mean? The government’s job is to try and prepare the track, and then if someone like Elon runs around with the research X years later, then that’s the point, that’s the goal.

Rob Wiblin: A criticism I’ve heard of how government science funding works in general and in the US, is that there’s been a big tendency or a big trend over time to give more and more money in these very large grants to very senior scientists in their 50s and 60s — but on the basis of very large grants that they’ve written up and applied for in processes that take years.

Rob Wiblin: And basically this means a neglected opportunity is finding the young gun, the 25-year-old who you know is great in their area, and just saying, “Here’s a million dollars, go figure out what you think is most exciting.” And being flexible about it and being fast and investing in people who are new and have ideas that not everyone will love. And some people on the panel might think it’s silly, but actually taking more risks.

Andrew Yang: Oh, I would love that. If I were president, I’d be freaking machine gunning million-dollar grants to the up-and-coming 25-year-olds. As you can tell, maybe there’s a consistent theme in this convo, but I’m not a huge fan of this super seniority system that dominates access to resources in the US.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. The thing is, you don’t have to hate it. I appreciate there’s room to give people who are 60 big grants to —

Andrew Yang: Oh, I don’t want to take it away.

Rob Wiblin: Don’t want to destroy it.

Andrew Yang: I just want to complement it, or upgrade it or update it. Yeah, there’s some 65-year-old scientist that deserves every bit of what they’re getting. We just got to speed it up.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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