Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
We always ask for audience questions for upcoming guests, and we’ve never had a bigger response than we did for today’s guest Ezra Klein.
That maybe isn’t too surprising, Ezra is one of the most prominent journalists in the world, and one of the most high-profile people to take the implications of effective altruism really seriously in their own life and career.
Normally it might be really tough to get an interview with someone like Ezra, but he actually reached out to us because he’d been reflecting on how the effective altruist lens on things ought to influence media coverage and wanted to share his thoughts.
As a result we got into some pretty novel topics, including:
- Ezra’s model of how journalism ends up talking about less important topics somewhat just by accident
- How many hours of news the average person should consume
- Where the progressive movement is failing to live up to its values
- And his biggest critiques of the effective altruism community
We’re actually releasing this at the same time that we’re premiering the last hour at the Effective Altruism Global: Reconnect conference.
So if you’d rather see Ezra and my beautiful faces as you listen, you can find a link to the video in the associated blog post.
Alright, without further ado, here’s Ezra Klein.
The interview begins [00:01:14]
Robert Wiblin: Ezra Klein is an American journalist. He first rose to prominence in the mid-2000s for his individual blogging, before being picked up to blog for The American Prospect and then The Washington Post. In 2014, he left The Washington Post to co-found the news website vox.com, where he worked as executive director and hosted the fabulously popular podcast The Ezra Klein Show. While at Vox, Ezra helped start the Future Perfect vertical, which does journalism with an effective altruist flavor, and in my view is some of the most valuable reporting out there. In 2020, he published the book Why We’re Polarized, and then just a few months ago, he left Vox to start a new column and host a revamped Ezra Klein Show at The New York Times. An impressive 40% of the incoming Biden administration follow Ezra on Twitter. But really the most important thing is that he’s a regular listener of the 80,000 Hours podcast. Thanks for coming on the show, Ezra.
Ezra Klein: I’m thrilled to be here. I’m a big fan of the show.
Robert Wiblin: Alright. I hope to get to talk about what you think are the most pressing policy issues in the U.S. today, and how we can get more journalism that covers the world’s most consequential problems in a sophisticated way. But first, as always, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important to do?
Ezra Klein: So, a couple of things. One is that I’ve been at The New York Times now, or producing stuff for The New York Times now for…God, four, six weeks? It’s hard to tell time. And so one thing I’m just trying to do is figure out in a proactive way, what is the agenda of my own column and podcast going to be? And this is going to be something I’m sure we’re going to talk about here. It’s one reason I was so excited to come on the show. I’ve been thinking… It’s a tremendous privilege and honor to have access to a platform like that. And I want to make sure that the way I’m approaching the column and the show reflects that. It’s something I think about… Nick Kristof, my colleague there — I’ve always looked at, I’ve always read Nick. And I feel that every morning he wakes up, and he feels the moral weight of having that column on him. And he tries to do something with that moral weight.
Ezra Klein: And I want to make sure I’m doing that. It’s very easy to just get reactive to the news and so on. So, part of what I’m doing right now is just trying to figure out what is the structure of that column going to be? What is its agenda going to be? What are the topics I want to be covering there that I feel are under-covered in the rest of the news? And then in the podcast, that’s like a whole different ball of wax, but I’m sort of trying to revamp my approach to booking there. I want to be doing more big evergreen episodes, and then more stuff that is idea-based, but around the news. So, I just did a really good episode I thought with David Wallace-Wells and Leah Stokes that was using the Texas crisis to make a much broader conversation about climate change. So, this may be a boring thing for me to say in terms of what I’m working on, but I’m doing right now, a lot of meta work on how my work should look and be framed at The New York Times.
Most important current priorities for the U.S. Government [00:03:49]
Robert Wiblin: Alright, perfect. We’ll come back to that in the section on journalism, and how to get more of the good stuff. But first I want to talk about the thing that you’re most familiar with, and have the greatest expertise in, which is digging into the weeds of U.S. policy and government. So yeah, I’m particularly keen to hear what you think are the most important priorities for the U.S. Government now, I guess from the effective altruist perspective of maximizing the wellbeing of people and animals, or improving the long-term trajectory of humanity.
Ezra Klein: So, one thing I always push — and I’ll give you more unusual answers to this in a second, but this is my endless argument — the single biggest priority in American governance is to make it possible to govern in America. I talk all the time about getting rid of the filibuster, but it basically doesn’t matter which issue you’re thinking about. It’s all downstream of being able to pass things regularly through the U.S. Senate. If you can’t do that, then we have all these great arguments about everything — ”Should we do child allowances?” “What should we do in terms of foreign aid?” — but if you can’t get 60 votes for anything, nothing happens. So, being able to make governance a more rapid feedback loop between what the people try to elect into power and what they want. Then things happen.
Ezra Klein: And then the U.S. Congress can go back and update, iterate, repeal, etc. That’s how things work everywhere else, and that is also how they should work in American government. So, I think of that as actually a threshold question. So, certain threshold questions about how American government is working or not working, it’s really important to solve them — because once you open them up, then you open up a lot of other things.
Ezra Klein: But I did want to give you an answer that is maybe more in the effective altruist niche lens, but that I’m thinking about and I want to be doing some writing about in the coming weeks or months. You know probably that I’m a vegan, and that I’ve done a lot of work on animal suffering issues. And obviously that’s a really politically tough space. There’s a tremendous amount of suffering there. And I’ll say by the way, not just a tremendous, but actually like an unfathomable amount of animal suffering, but also a lot of human suffering. For instance, you might’ve heard of the coronavirus pandemic, which comes out of a wet market in China. But if you look at the different virus strains the CDC is following as potential pandemic threats, 70% of them are zoonotic. And if you look at say like the UN recommendations for how to prevent the next pandemic, I think two of the top five have to do with dealing with the way we’re treating animals. I mean, factory farms in particular are just an extraordinary breeding ground — not just for virus mutation by the way, but for antibiotic resistance. So, I’ve been in this space a little bit. And what I can tell you from it is that you’re not going to get everybody to be vegan, and people really do not like it when you try to make them be vegan.
Ezra Klein: So, to the extent I’m optimistic on anything here, I’m very optimistic, like truly, truly I’m thrilled about the pretty rapid advances being made in plant-based, and cell-based meats. I think it is possible that within a reasonable timeframe, you can do a lot there. But one issue in that space, which if you say, talk to Bruce Friedrich, the head of the Good Food Institute, he’ll tell you, that it’s basically all closed research. So, there’s venture capital flowing into Beyond Meat, into Impossible Foods, into Hampton Creek [Editor’s note: Hampton Creek is now called Just, Inc.], into Memphis Meats… but they’re all private companies trying to get rich. And they actually are fighting with each other. I mean, there’s an interview with the Beyond Meat CEO on Nilay Patel’s podcast. And I mean, he was just trying to cut Impossible Foods off at the knees.
Ezra Klein: So, I think it’s really important to have public money going into cell-based meat research, like billions and billions of dollars to accelerate this field, so that the findings in it are open source, meaning people can benefit from them, they can be used by all kinds of different companies. It’s a platform to stand on, the way we do with other things — including, by the way, pharmaceuticals. It wouldn’t take that much money to be dealing with orders of magnitude more research than we currently have. And clearly there’s a market for this. Clearly there are fast advances being made in it.
Ezra Klein: So I think you could really imagine something where somebody slips a rider into a bill that puts over the next 10 years, $5 billion or $10 billion into the space through — it could be the National Science Foundation, or the National Institutes of Health — and it would have a really big impact. So that’s like a nice, I think huge-return, small-lift policy intervention that could be made. Iif it worked… I mean, a world where 50% of meat consumption — not even 100%, just 50% — has moved to this stuff is going to be a lot less suffering, environmentally much better, better for health, a bunch of different things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. In a recent interview with Lewis Bollard he was pushing this as a potentially really valuable policy thing that people in the effective altruism community could promote. Because what’s a relatively tiny amount by the standards of the U.S. government — and even by the science and R&D budget of the U.S. government — would imply a tripling or quadrupling of all of the funding that’s going into plant-based meat and cellular agriculture and so on. And it’s the kind of thing… Spending $10 billion on that over a period of years isn’t going to engender massive opposition necessarily. So it’s something that seems like politically feasible.
Ezra Klein: I’ll say as a meta point on this, and on a bunch of other things — and I am thinking this has probably been a good answer to your first question too, because I’m thinking about how to integrate this better into my show and column — I am pretty persuaded that progressives (which I count myself as one) need to develop a better theory of technology. When I look at the set of issues I care about solving, like really am worried about, animal suffering is one of them, but climate change is another, a lot of dignity of work issues about how work is done, and inequality. I think with basically all of them, the politics don’t work without tremendous advancements in technologies. So in climate change, we need to see continuation of not just renewable energy research and the prices of that space coming down, but also just like the infrastructure.
Ezra Klein: Cement, for instance, is a huge problem. I just heard a great statistic on this from David Wallace-Wells, that if cement were a country, it would be the third largest emitter. And we don’t really have a good answer right now on cement, how to do cement in a low-emissions way. So, you really do need a lot of research there. I just mentioned — which also does of course relate to climate change —meat. I think the only path forward for that is going to be through technological advancement. Obviously AI, this is a big question of the show. It’s something that I go back and forth on in my own views about, but it is coming. Putting aside the question of AI that could destroy the world, AI that could take up a lot of jobs is coming — is here, in certain respects. So being prepared for that, thinking about it, thinking about how you want to direct it, what kinds of regulatory structures you want around it is really important.
Ezra Klein: Within the progressive movement I think there’s an understandable and quite deep skepticism of technology. I think it’s very dominated by certain kinds of negative feelings, which are one, towards billionaires getting rich on technology, and then two, towards social media platforms that we’re all on, but also people are not very happy with. But I think that to solve some of the big problems, you want to have a forward-looking theory of what technology can do, a forward-looking theory of how the government can direct funding and energy in that direction. Right? So say for de-carbonization. And then also a theory of like, how are you going to deal with the negatives of that? Job displacement and other things. And if you just wait to be overwhelmed by technological change, your politics around it are going to be really poor for all kinds of reasons.
Having a positive vision of the future [00:10:48]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. One way that I feel kind of alienated from mainstream political discourse is that I think in a sense it’s just not sufficiently optimistic about how amazing the future could be in hundreds of years’ time. Like it could take a while, but it is totally foreseeable that we can use science and technology to end climate change, to end factory farming, to cure most of the diseases that trouble us today, to reduce aging so people can live healthily to 100, to produce new antidepressants that massively improve mental health… All of these things would just be like a continuation of the progress we’ve seen in the last 200 years. But I don’t get a sense that people want to grasp for that, or like really have a positive vision for how the future could be just dramatically better than things are today.
Ezra Klein: I think it’s a really tricky space politically. Obviously I do want to grasp for that, and I’m talking about some of the ways I have my own vision of that nature. I will say that this is — discourse-wise — a really tricky thing. Because among other things, there’s a lot of pain and suffering right now, as you know. So when you’re dealing with a world where a lot of people haven’t hugged their parents in a year and tons of people are out of work, and we’ve had a huge rise in extreme poverty, but a hundred years from now, everything can be great… People, they don’t just not listen to you. They get really angry. I once heard Larry Summers describe this. He was talking about debts, but as a focus on the abstract posterity, which I thought was a very funny way of putting it. You need to somehow balance making clear that you are concerned about and there with people in their suffering now, before you can start talking about how their descendants may not be suffering later.
Ezra Klein: And again, that’s why I would like to see a really different view of how progressives should interact with technology now, because I don’t think this is a 100-year or 200-year play. I think this is a 10 year play in many cases. I think there’s things that AI can do that can either lead to yawning inequality in 10 or 15 years, or could actually help a lot of people quickly. I think the meat space — that is a lot of human suffering. If we were able to prevent the next pandemic, if we were able to prevent antibiotic resistance from taking off, if we’re able to make it so workers don’t have to have these terrible jobs in slaughterhouses and we can instead transition that industry to something better, you can prevent a lot of suffering. Then they can also get…people are getting cheaper, better, healthier food. That’s fantastic. So, sometimes I actually think people want to throw the ball too far down the field on technology. It’s great. Let’s have a 200-year view. Let’s have a 100-year view, but let’s have a 10-year view. Let’s have a five-year view. And you need to convince people that you understand what they’re going through now, and that your view of how you can make things better in 10 years is a view for them, not just a view for how things can be better for Rob and Ezra in 10 years.
Robert Wiblin: Do you worry that we could look back in 20 years’ time, and say we were worried about all these things about Trump — like indeed serious concerns — but we were rapidly heading towards a time when machines could do almost all the jobs better than people could do, and we were just going to have mass unemployment, and it was going to be unclear what the future of human work would be, and we talked about it a bit? Like we thought it was kind of interesting, but no one was really developing an agenda for how to develop it, how to deal with this world. And in the middle of it, it was hard to do, but that strikes me as one where… You know, what if GPT-3 just turns out to be the stepping stone on the path to a machine learning technology that can replace humans in a vast way? And we’ve just not been doing that much about it.
Ezra Klein: Yeah. Listen, I agree with this. I mean, what’s the old Stewart Brand line, “The only real news is science”? I don’t agree with that in its strong form, but there’s a weak form where I think you have to agree with that. I worry a lot about the idea that we’re missing the thread of our own era. Now I wouldn’t use Trump as the example — what the U.S. president is doing is important, including for some of these issues you’re talking about. But I often wonder… Let me put it this way: How many words in U.S. newspapers — digitally, let’s say — have been spilled on tax policy in the past five years? And how many words on CRISPR?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: And when people look back on this era, is the interesting thing going to have been fights over whether or not the top marginal tax rate was 39.5% or 35.4%, or is it going to be that for the first time human beings were taking control — in ways that we really have no ethical or conceptual framework for dealing with yet — of human evolution? And for that matter also of other species’ evolution. And by the way, you can look at this on the negative side too, right? I mean, there’s a mass extinction going on and we don’t write that much about that. I think it’s probably always true that in any era, people are focused on the stories that feel immediately of importance to them in their lives right now, and not so much on the broad scope and sweep of humanity. But I also think — and I mean this is part of the vision of starting Future Perfect at Vox, and part of what I’m trying to think about in my columns now — that you do want to be balancing the natural tendency to focus on the things that have an emotional immediacy to you with also the things that are going to be really important in 10 or 15 years.
Ezra Klein: And that also means then developing a view, like developing a theory of what will be important. And that’s hard too, by the way, right? I mean you had mentioned AI. Should I be focusing in a scarce world on AI, CRISPR, cell-based meat, or antibiotic resistance? I don’t know, it’s tricky. And so, I don’t want to say that there’s a simple way to do this, but this is sort of what I was getting at early on when I was talking about creating a framework of importance for my column, but also for the news. I’ve been an editor in chief at Vox. I ran Wonkblog at The Washington Post. I’ve been involved in coverage decisions for a long time. I know this world very well. The hardest thing to do in journalism as the leader of a publication, or even to some degree as a writer, is to maintain your own sense of what is important, and not just be swept along in the tide of what every…of what the industry, the narrative, the conversation has decided is important.
Ezra Klein: I’ll give one very small example, because I think it’s good to implicate people here who I think may be feeling a little smug in this conversation. I’m on Twitter. And all I see lately is just an extraordinary amount of energy from venture capitalists and technologists and smart economists going towards arguing about whether or not Clubhouse is good. I do not have a very strong view on Clubhouse. It seems fine to me, it reminds me a lot of Quora actually, in its early days. And I liked Quora, but the point is there is nobody who does not get very obsessed with the stuff that is of immediate impact in their lives. It is a really difficult discipline to maintain a long view. And so I’m not saying I have it, but I don’t want to pretend like even the people who professionally seem to have it… Like it’s very easy to get distracted by the latest shiny thing and controversy.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think that those people would say that it was journalists who picked the fight in the first place, by criticizing Clubhouse, but regardless. It’s that kind of disagreement between different tribes that just ends up grabbing your imagination and attention and then—
Ezra Klein: But this is the thing, everybody is attracted to controversy. And that’s actually… It’s not an accident. People focus on the issues you’re talking about, and not on others. There is not a lot of controversy day-to-day, let’s talk about politics again, right? Political journalists attract to controversy. Primarily controversy comes from people fighting over things that are happening right now, because that’s where you have organized interests and so on. So as soon as people start fighting, everybody starts paying attention. And so, one of the ways the attentional agenda is hijacked is by controversy. The abstract posterity has more trouble generating controversy in the here-and-now than the here-and-now does.
Political polarisation [00:18:01]
Robert Wiblin: Did you see this study that Dylan Matthews from Future Perfect recently posted on Twitter, they were trying to figure out whether when journalists covered some policy issue, there was more likely to be policy improvements or policy reform within that area. And they found that the more coverage a topic got by journalists, the more you just saw polarization and disagreement and controversy — in fact, reform became less likely the more something was discussed. I’m not sure what their identification strategy was exactly, but I could imagine that it could turn out when we do further research that journalism on politics is ultimately creating more gridlock or maybe preventing legislation passing. I suppose the filibuster would have to be removed to begin with, but…
Ezra Klein: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. So, I haven’t seen the individual study. Obviously Dylan is one of my favorite people in the world, and is a hero. I haven’t seen the individual study, but I would say that’s the theme of my entire book. I say this right at the beginning of the book, that I wrote Why We’re Polarized from the experience of continuously watching issues come into public debate, there being a wide space of positive-sum conversation about them at the beginning, and by the end, they’ve collapsed into zero-sum. Now I would say that the identification strategy is obviously going to be off here. My experience of this process in real time is that it’s not just the journalists, right? Journalists start covering something in part because the political system turns its attention to it.
Ezra Klein: One of the key things in an era of high polarization — and then in particular when you combine an era of high party polarization with gridlocked political institutions, which is filibuster and other things — is that, once something becomes, I always called it the ‘political eye of Sauron,’ once the political eye of Sauron turns onto an issue, that issue polarizes immediately. And so, one of the mistakes activists make all the time — although it’s a very understandable one — is they think the good thing for their issue would be to get it a bunch of attention. And so a lot of activist strategy is built around trying to put issues on the agenda, but oftentimes if you’re successful in that, it means your issue becomes too polarizing to pass.
Ezra Klein: Let me give one example I always think about with this. So, early on in Barack Obama’s presidency, everybody’s theory was that Barack Obama is a generationally skilled communicator, which he definitely was. And the thing you want to do is have him communicate about your issues. And when Democrats have a gigantic majority in Congress that actually works, there are different strategies when one party has both power and the capacity to govern — because then if you get an issue onto their agenda, they can actually do something about it. So they passed the affordable care act, Dodd-Frank, all this stuff, but of course, then in 2010 Republicans took the house. And so then from there on out, Democrats didn’t have control of government in any way where they could govern. So in Obama’s second term, something you see is that a lot of the things that move forward, Obama made a very specific effort to hang back from. So take immigration reform, which doesn’t end up passing the house, but really impressively does pass this huge bill out of the Senate with bipartisan coalition, Obama lets John McCain, Marco Rubio, a bunch of Republicans be the leaders on immigration reform rather than coming out and giving a bunch of barn-burning speeches about it. Because if he came out and tried to lead and take credit for this bill, he knew it wouldn’t pass even in the Senate.
Ezra Klein: Now it doesn’t ultimately pass, but it’s a really interesting strategy, and I think something you see with Joe Biden right now, Joe Biden is not out there burning up the country like stumping for his agenda. He obviously is trying to pass an agenda, but I think there’s a growing recognition among certainly democratic political leaders that in a polarized era being quieter on things can be the better strategy.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I was going to say, Biden is just killing it at that. He seems to say very little; generate little controversy. And I guess I hope I haven’t… It hasn’t been interesting enough to follow, but I hope that good things are going on now, going on in the background. This speaks to the problem that when they’re just actually getting things done, it’s not actually that interesting to read about.
Ezra Klein: To me, again, this is a way that having so many veto points in government, government that has so much trouble working amongst polarized parties, and the filibuster betrays public accountability. Because I do think a better way for things to work is that issues go on the agenda, there is a big debate about them, and then like something happens or doesn’t happen. And then the public can judge what happened or didn’t happen. But as we’re saying, an adaptive strategy to the era we’re actually in is basically try to pass things quietly, and without anybody noticing. As a good example of this actually happening, I don’t think all that many people know, but we actually did a major update and overhaul of No Child Left Behind.
Ezra Klein: No Child Left Behind was incredibly, incredibly controversial in the aughts. A lot of Democrats ran against it in 2004. By the time it gets overhauled, I believe in 2015 by Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, basically like the president…I don’t want to say literally never talks about it, but does not ever try to make a political issue out of education there. Nobody does, it is done quietly, in back rooms. And fine, but I don’t think that’s actually a great way for things to work in general. I think it is a good strategy given how things do work right now, but this is part of why I keep saying that — among the other things — the filibuster degrades deliberation. Because the more you deliberate about things, the more likely you make a filibuster.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So just to explain to people who aren’t American politics obsessives, basically in order to pass any normal legislation through the United States Senate, you need 60 votes out of 100, and that’s a 60-person vote in order to end discussion so that you actually have a vote on a piece of legislation.
Robert Wiblin: You’ve been a very strong advocate for getting rid of that. And there’s obviously a lot of benefits. Something that’s a little bit surprising about advocating getting rid of that is that the Senate is the most skewed of the different branches of the U.S. government in terms of how much it benefits Republicans. I think it would be fair to say you support more of the democratic agenda than the republican agenda, but it seems like in a 50/50 split election, I think you would expect the Republicans to have about 54 seats in the Senate versus 46 seats or so for the Democrats. It’s a really quite big difference. Or there’s a huge skew because the smaller rural States are overrepresented and they tend to vote Republican. Why isn’t that the dominant consideration, that you’re just empowering and making it easier to do things well, but you’re basically empowering Republicans, I think, to pass things you wouldn’t agree with?
Ezra Klein: Yeah. You can 100% say that my advocacy of getting rid of the filibuster is in a way an advocacy against ideological interest. I don’t really believe it is, but I do believe getting rid of the filibuster requires you to do other things too. So, I am very concerned about this underlying skew. Another way I’d put it is that right now, the Senate is split in America, 50/50. The 50 Democrats represent 41 million more people than the 50 Republicans…41 million! That’s actually a pretty big number. So there’s a real problem here. One thing that getting rid of the filibuster could do though, is allow something that is an important reform and change for other reasons, which is statehood for D.C. You have about 700,000 people there who are flatly disenfranchised, most of them Black and Brown. And at least the offering of statehood to Puerto Rico.
Ezra Klein: And these are…I think something like 3 million people, it’s bigger than 20 States that currently have representation. This is a genuine crisis of democracy to have that many people who truly do not have congressional representation, but are simply American citizens in this country. There is a lot you can do to balance out the way politics works. If you get rid of the filibuster right now, you couldn’t, say, do statehood for D.C., because you would need 60 votes.
Ezra Klein: That would not fully… I’ve seen a lot of analyses of this. That would not fully offset the Republican advantage in the Senate. But I would prefer to have feedback loops of policy accountability, even at the cost of there potentially being some minor advantage for Republicans in this. I have a lot of thoughts on this and they’re probably going to… They get boring and weedsy. People go back and forth on well, maybe it won’t help Republicans because they don’t actually want to pass as much legislation…
Ezra Klein: It’s all a little hard to say. I don’t think we know how it would play out in practice. I think we know this isn’t working, and when something isn’t working, it is worth trying a standard reform that is used in other places — and I think generally works for another place. And then I would just say, look at… It is possible the bias in the Senate is going to get worse in the coming years, but one reason it’s gotten so bad is a quite unusual restructuring of the coalitions generated by first Barack Obama, then Donald Trump in which it is very hard to tell what the real correct identification of this kind of voter is, but it’s a white low-trust voter.
Ezra Klein: Sometimes the thing people try to tag this to is lower education, but that doesn’t really quite capture it, which is one reason polls remained off in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2020. But it is a particular kind of voter with low trust in the political establishment who was more split between the parties before, but particularly moved towards the Republican Party under Donald Trump. It isn’t clear to me that’s going to be maintained in the 10-year timeframe. It could, but it isn’t obvious to me. So I don’t think we… I don’t think it’s a good idea to do all of your thinking about how politics should be structured based on potentially epiphenomenal moments in political coalitions.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. You might expect some regression to the long-term average.
Ezra Klein: Yeah.
Animal rights [00:26:39]
Robert Wiblin: What’s something important that your political fellow travelers get really wrong, in your view?
Ezra Klein: Animal rights. Maybe since I’ve already said that, you want me to do a different one. But I do first want to say just animal rights.
Ezra Klein: I think this is just a tremendous quantity of suffering that a political movement that thinks of itself as concerned with suffering ignores. Not only ignores, but mocks and dismisses. A lot of people who think of themselves as good on all these issues, you say, “Well, how about we don’t torture so many chickens?” They’re like, “Oh, you crazy vegan.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: I really don’t like it. I think it’s a way we teach ourselves to be less compassionate.
Robert Wiblin: I notice there’s this challenge for someone who’s in a very influential and mainstream position like you, where you have this view that there’s this ongoing moral atrocity all the time, something that you could be talking about with people, something that you are disgusted by, and it’s maybe something that you should be doing more advocacy on, you feel this pressure, I guess, or you feel a pull to talk about it more, because it’s astonishing that people don’t discuss it and that more people aren’t on board. But then you don’t want to be ranting about that all the time, and giving up all of your influence, because you’re just regarded as the person who won’t shut up about veganism. Is there any kind of emotional tension that you feel with this on a regular basis?
Ezra Klein: Yeah. You could, in some ways, talk about nothing but this, as you say, but also there are a lot of other issues I do care about. It’s not like I don’t think climate change is important because I care about animal suffering. I care about human suffering too. Also I think there’s a lot of linkages.
Ezra Klein: My answer to this is that I do a lot of work on this issue. It’s a core theme of my podcast and has been for years. It’s part of why I really wanted Future Perfect to be created at Vox. I would say Vox, which I’m not there anymore, I don’t think there is a mainstream publication that does as much to cover animal suffering as Vox, full-stop. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s thanks to Dylan and Kelsey and Sigal and Albert, but it’s also part of my legacy there. It’s something I’m really proud of.
Ezra Klein: Now, at The New York Times I think if you check back with me in a year… I think you’re going to see over the next year that this is not going to be an absent thread in my coverage.
Ezra Klein: But it is important to me to be persuasive. This is something that I do think people miss a lot in politics. It’s not… I don’t want to say on some emotional level… Of course, we all want to be seen as good people and whatever. I do not want my effect on this issue to be that people know I’m a vegan. That’s not important to me. It’s not helpful to me really, as a human being.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: What I want my legacy on this issue to be is that I helped move policy in a positive direction, particularly probably on cell-based meat funding, but also moved people’s thinking on this.
Ezra Klein: I’ll say one other thing here, a very important part of my thinking on this is I think a place where the animal rights movement has gone awry is that it’s gotten weirdly obsessed with dietary purism. There are not that many other issues where in order to be understood as a serious advocate on the issue, you have to live in a pure way around the issue. A lot of people who care about climate change, myself included, take flights and live very high-carbon lifestyles, because they live in a high-carbon context. A lot of people who care about poverty, both global and national, do not fully absorb the implications of the pond experiment and donate 85% of their income to developing countries or to malaria bed nets.
Ezra Klein: But in animal issues, there can be a tendency to be like, “If you are not a pure vegan, well, what are you even doing here?” I think it’s a real mistake. It’s very hard to get people to live in a way that the society around them is not set up for them to live. Some people will do it. By the way, I always say this, I am not a perfect vegan. I always want to say this very clearly. I don’t think I’ve eaten meat in years, and I don’t think I’ve eaten eggs in years, but I occasionally will slip, or when traveling have a bit of dairy. I try to be as good as I can be in the context of how things work for me. I have a toddler, and he drinks some milk. It’s a whole thing. It’s difficult.
Ezra Klein: To me, it’s important, what I want to do is move people. If the way to do this is you get funding such that lab-based and plant-based meats accelerate super fast, and they’re better for you and more delicious and cheaper than the alternative, so they take up 30% of the market in 10 or 15 years, that’s much more valuable than another 1% of people going vegan.
Ezra Klein: I really want to try to be persuasive on this, and I really want to try to move policy on this. So I think it’s really important to not have one’s position on this — and I’m not calling anybody out here, I’m just saying this is my approach to it and why I don’t feel this is too rough of a tension — I don’t think what you want to be doing is posturing about how you’re the only person who understands the horrors of animal agriculture. I think what you want to be doing is trying to ask how you can move people’s opinions in a direction that will lead to less suffering for animals.
Ezra Klein: I have so much admiration for people like Bruce Friedrich, Leah Garces at Mercy For Animals, David Coman-Hidy at The Humane League, who are out there making the compromises, and building weird coalitions, and working within a system where they know they don’t get to be pure. I think that — in some ways — is the highest form of politics. To be just trying to make things better, even when that requires you to be accepting and making coalitions that are difficult for you. I just really want to give them a shout out on great work there.
Price gouging [00:31:59]
Robert Wiblin: Let me put a couple of wacky policy ideas to you that I think might be extremely important, but which people don’t think about that much, along the lines of CRISPR. I think it could be incredibly important to allow price gouging. I guess I should come up with a better branding for that, but basically to allow prices to be much higher—
Ezra Klein: You definitely should.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Gouging…sounds bad. But basically I think we could have a lot more preparedness for disasters as a society if we allowed prices for scarce and important things like face masks to become much higher during a pandemic, or for things that people need during a hurricane, the prices for those goods to rise a lot in the aftermath of a hurricane. It would give people an incentive to stockpile those things, so that they’re available and they can make… They can stick them all in the basement, and then they can be available for people, at least more available than they otherwise would be during a disaster. Also, it gives people a reason to quickly manufacture as many of them as they can, or move them from one place to another.
Robert Wiblin: Basically, by preventing price signals from operating during any kinds of natural disasters and other disasters like pandemics, we’re allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and giving up the benefits that a market system and market pricing would offer. But people just hate this. As far I know, nobody is on board with this agenda.
Ezra Klein: I don’t think it’s correct, to be honest with you. It’s not that I wouldn’t be on board with it necessarily if I thought it would work, it’s just that I don’t think it would work the way you think it will. Let me say a couple things here.
Ezra Klein: A policy that you think is a good policy, but that would be toxically unpopular and create overwhelming backlash, is actually not a good policy. This thing where human beings and their reactions to the things we do don’t matter, you really want to be… I always want to be very careful with that kind of technocratic, “No. You don’t understand. If I make it so face masks are now $2,000…” You can have effects from things like that that are devastating then to the things you care about. So it’s really important to think about what the political feedback loops are going to be with the things you support.
Ezra Klein: And then let me say to the second thing, what you’re basically saying here is that in the aftermath of a disaster, you need a way of making it clear, both before, when the disaster is hypothetical, and post, when it is actual, you need a way of making it clear that you’re going to be able to make money in this space. It is not in any way obvious to me that it is a better strategy to do that, particularly given the political issues here, or easier to do that by allowing price gouging, then by doing all kinds of other things. Like you could set up price systems in advance in government. Government can just spend money more easily to buy things, like the Defense Production Act should have been done on masking.
Ezra Klein: Masking is, in some ways, a reasonably good example. This is something where the market actually worked reasonably well here. I would like to see more innovation, but I don’t really see a reason to believe that it would have worked differently or faster if we had made masks unaffordable for lots of people. By the way, masks are a place—
Robert Wiblin: I think the number of masks would have been there. Actually more masks would have been available. So in one sense, they would be more affordable, but sorry. I’ll let you finish.
Ezra Klein: It’s possible, but I’m actually not sure. I would also note, you can sell masks of any price right now. There is a lot of like… I buy these masks, I forgot what they’re called, something with a G. They’re the only ones that don’t fog my glasses, but they’re $24 apiece. Compared to some of the other masks, that’s basically price gouging. I don’t really see the market as working poorly.
Ezra Klein: I do understand that you’re saying this on other things too. I think the canonical example of this is oil and gasoline in the aftermath of big disasters. I just think that running society like that, or trying to run society like that, tends to bring so much backlash that there are easier and more effective things to do through other kinds of more enlightened policy. I just don’t buy into the economist mindset quite that fully.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I support other efforts like government stockpiling of masks, but I was talking about this 10 or 20 years ago. Everyone knew that the government should be stockpiling masks against a pandemic, but it didn’t happen in almost any country, at least nowhere near a sufficient degree. So I feel like, given that we should expect government policy to fail in all kinds of ways, having this spillover mechanism where when we haven’t stockpiled enough, when the government hasn’t done enough in these other ways, that there is incentive for private actors to anticipate that, and then stockpile themselves in the hope of making a whole lot of money…
Ezra Klein: I would say that if you were a private actor who two years ago understood… Like, you got a message from the future that there was going to be a global pandemic virus. You’re 3M, let’s say, and future you comes back and is like, “Listen. I got some terrible news, but maybe good for you.” You had every incentive and good incentives to do a ton of research in building and piling up of masks. There was a lot of demand for them. It’s not like nobody can make money here.
Robert Wiblin: But people were arrested. People were arrested for selling them for 10 times the normal price.
Ezra Klein: No, I understand that. But there was a lot of money to be made not selling them for 10 times the normal price. The fact that there was a huge supply constraint meant that people were selling out of good masks. I don’t think you need the price gouging to do what you’re talking about here.
Robert Wiblin: Oh no. But that’s not enough, because in any year, of course, the odds of a terrible pandemic that’s going to sell out all of your face masks that you have sitting around is relatively low, which means you’re just accepting all of these holding costs, having to deal with the stock, allowing some of it to expire, having to buy new stuff. There’s all these extra costs that are involved in transferring goods across time to the point where they’re really needed. People won’t even compensate people for that, let alone having the greater foresight to have stockpiled things that otherwise wouldn’t be available. The more rare the event is, the more you need to be able to charge a premium on that rare occasion to cover all of the costs, and all of the scenarios where there wasn’t a pandemic and you just lost money.
Ezra Klein: Yeah. I think what I’m saying is that I think it would be more effective, because we are talking about two separate policies here… To your point that, well, the government didn’t stockpile masks; well, it also didn’t allow price gouging. So the thing you’re saying here is which avenue is better for the world you want to have. I think the avenue where we should have easier triggers in disaster relief spending to come in.
Ezra Klein: To be honest, when I look at failures over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and frankly, some others as well, I am more worried about regulatory structures that are not able to act fast enough, and are not able to change some of their ongoing processes given the trade-offs of speed in that moment, than I am about some of these other situations. I think the story on at-home rapid testing is a lot worse than the story on masking. So I just don’t see price gouging as, one, that effective, or two, that much of an important lesson of this pandemic. I would like to see people being able to sell tons of rapid at-home tests for all kinds of pricing, but the issue is the FDA won’t let them. So I’m more concerned… To be honest, this just isn’t one of my lessons from the pandemic.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I agree it’s a political non-starter in our culture. I guess maybe it just drives me up the wall as an economist. Why can’t people see things the way that—
Ezra Klein: I’ve known economists making this argument for price gouging for a long time. I do think that a lot of things about how human beings work drive economists up the wall. But there’s information in that. I don’t think that… You got to make the model accept how human beings work, not just be like, “Our human beings aren’t fitting the model. What the hell’s wrong with them?”
Robert Wiblin: Well, it’s very frustrating, Ezra. Alright. Yeah.
Rapid at-home COVID-19 testing [00:38:49]
Robert Wiblin: I was going to ask what is an important lesson to take away from the overall U.S. Government’s response to COVID-19, but I guess, yeah, that’s a good chance to talk about this rapid testing. Because I’ve talked in recent episodes about problems with the vaccine approval, and ways that the FDA has messed up, but we haven’t talked about testing. Could you go into that?
Ezra Klein: Testing… I want to note there’s disagreement here. I’m obviously not an epidemiologist. I’ve talked to enough people, and I have gotten pushback from smart people on this too. There are people who think the FDA’s been right on rapid at-home testing. But I am, at this point, not one of them. The FDA has held testing to basically a diagnostic standard, and has asked, “Are these tests things that we would agree to use in a doctor’s office?” For various reasons, there’s a high bar for that. You might argue there should be a lower one, but there’s a reason, I think, there’s a high bar.
Ezra Klein: A lot of people have been making this argument — and Michael Mina at Harvard has been a leader in this — that when you’re dealing with population-level health, you need to make different trade-offs. So a test that is rapid, that is repeatable, and has a high false positive rate could be totally fine, because you could take… You get one, maybe it’s a false positive. You use four more test strips. If four out of five of them are positive, or four to five of them are negative, then you take that, and maybe then you even go to the doctor and get a PCR test.
Ezra Klein: The FDA, on this particular issue, my read of it is that they have been following their systems. In many cases, they’ve been accelerating their systems. They feel like they are working their tails off and doing an incredible job. In certain ways, they have, but I think some of their systems we have seen are not the right systems, and they’re not the right way to think about this. For instance, at this point I’m not even sure the FDA should be the one looking at something like rapid at-home testing. There are all kinds of things we sell to people and let them take the risk on it. So that is definitely one lesson.
Ezra Klein: A secondary lesson is, obviously, just pandemic preparedness. We were running… We could talk about coverage of coronavirus specifically, but we ran a piece in Future Perfect from Ron Klain, who’s now the White House chief of staff, years ago, about the ways in which we were under-prepared for the pandemic. I think we’ve seen some of them. Something that was a known problem was a lack of genomic testing across the country. Right now, as different strains are mutating, we’re seeing some of the issues with that absence. It is a little hard for me, I will say, to separate what are policy problem lessons of the pandemic in America, from the very unusual governance personnel we had in place in America during the pandemic.
Ezra Klein: I want to note that, look at Europe. There are things we did better and things we did worse. I think for a lot of the period, we did a lot of things worse than Europe. The one thing I give the Trump Administration credit for here, Warp Speed and the very heavy buy-up of supply was incredibly, incredibly useful. So I think we’ve looked a lot better than Europe, certainly better than the E.U. structure, not the U.K. at this point, on vaccination. So I do give them credit there. There were a lot of things we should have done better, but a lot of them have to do with coordination between different levels of government, and consistent messaging, and structures where people are getting good information quickly. It is not clear to me that we had a policy or systems failure there, as opposed to a personnel failure. It’s quite unprecedented and unusual to have the president saying, “It is not my job to help these governors who don’t like me during a pandemic.”
Ezra Klein: I don’t want to put this all on Trump. This was hard. There was a lot going on here. There are a lot of other failures to talk about. But it is a little bit difficult sometimes for me to look through the haze of the weirdness of the personnel we had, to see, “Well, what would have been different if Mitt Romney had been president?” I’m not even saying a Democrat here. What if we were in the second term of Mitt Romney, how would this have gone differently, is, to me, the really interesting counterfactual.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. There were definitely personnel issues, shall we say. But I think the issues with the CDC and the FDA can’t mostly be blamed on the Trump Administration specifically. It seems like that would have happened probably under any other president. Where the CDC dramatically slowed down, held back testing, stopped other people from testing. They were acting as if there was a conspiracy to prevent people from finding out that COVID-19 was here. I don’t think that was the case. I think it was incompetence.
Ezra Klein: I’m not sure you can separate those things. This is a trickier part of this. I think people have in their heads a heuristic that Republicans are good at deregulation and Democrats love regulation. So if we had a problem of excessive and slow regulation, definitely wouldn’t have been any better under Democrats.
Ezra Klein: CDC and FDA had different failures. I don’t know the counterfactual. I want to say we’re talking in a world of hypotheticals here. But do I believe that… Let’s put this differently. Do I believe that if Joe Biden was president and Ron Klain, who is as knowledgeable about pandemic response as anybody in this country, had been his chief of staff, and there was a really good relationship between the White House and the FDA and the CDC… Of course, as you know, there was a horrific relationship between the White House and the CDC in particular during this period under Donald Trump. It is really hard to get bureaucracies to move and to change.
Ezra Klein: I actually did an interview with Klain at some point where he had a really nice line on this. He said, “Even if you are the president, and you are standing on the table, and you are screaming, ‘This is a horrible problem, and the government needs to do something about it, and we need to get all together here,'” he said, “The government bureaucracy, it can work pretty well in that circumstance. But if you are the president and you are saying publicly, ‘I don’t want to see these numbers. I don’t want you scaring people and tanking the stock market,’ and you have a bureaucracy that already is demoralized and messed up,” and the CDC director was muzzled for a lot of this period, we know that, “then things are going to work really badly.” So I think, to me, a really interesting question right now is what happens to the FDA under Biden? Does it move faster or slower? They’re going to have to show this.
Ezra Klein: I’ve had Vivek Murthy on my show. He has said the FDA, in his view, is being too slow and conservative on rapid at-home testing. There has already been at least one rapid at-home test accepted now, since Biden has come in, but it’s not the kind that I would like to see. So we’re going to see if this changes.
Ezra Klein: There are a lot of failures here. I’m agreeing with you broadly on particularly some FDA failures. But I do think we do not know the counterfactual of what if you had a president and a structure that respected and had a good relationship with its own bureaucracy, managed it effectively, and was putting pressure on in the right ways, as opposed to the wrong ways. The fact that a bureaucracy that complex at a time of that level of stress was performing badly under bad kinds of pressure, pressure to perform badly, it’s not shocking. It can only tell us so much.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. On the FDA, I feel like the last year has just driven me into becoming a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic, where everything that the FDA does drives me crazy. I have no objectivity anymore, because some of the things they do just seem so inexplicable, and so harmful, and to have killed so many people that I don’t know whether… Am I crazy, or is the world crazy?
Robert Wiblin: I’m at the point where I’m just like the drug part of the FDA should just be shut down, and then we have to start from scratch. Because it seems like the incentives that they’re following, and the processes that they’re following, are just so dangerous to society. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Ezra Klein: I do. I have very conflicted thoughts on it, because there’s a part of me that’s where you are. Then there’s the reporter part of me that is always like, “Okay. These are smart people who know more about the issue than you. What are they seeing that you’re not?” Here’s one thing I will tell you they are seeing that you and I are not. So far, it is the case, thank God, that the vaccines that have come out have worked really, really well. That’s true for Pfizer, for Moderna, for Johnson & Johnson, and I think ultimately it will be true to some degree for AstraZeneca/Oxford. Even so, depending on your poll, somewhere between 20% and 40% of Americans say they are not going to take this vaccine, it is not safe.
Ezra Klein: You and me, I’m sure we both read Marginal Revolution, and we’re in Twitter conversations about how terrible this is, and, “Why doesn’t anybody allow price gouging?” and, “Why isn’t everybody rational?” Public health experts operate under the constant, unbelievable level of terror, not that Robert Wiblin is not going to take a vaccine, but that something is going to go wrong with a vaccine, and 50% of the country is going to say, “Absolutely fucking not.”
Ezra Klein: So there are certain things where I’m like, “Why are they taking so long to schedule a meeting? That can’t possibly be…” My friend, Matt Yglesias, had this line. He’s like, “Are they getting there by stagecoach? Why is this meeting so slow?” But there are other things where the conservatism is coming from the simple fact, to put this bluntly, they deal with the consequences of a failure in a way you and I don’t. You and I are sitting here, like, “Go faster. The trade-offs are obvious here.” They are saying, “Actually, no. The trade-offs are not obvious. If this goes wrong, we can have vaccine hesitancy that destroys the entire effort.” So it’s not… I don’t want to fully be on… I am not fully on their side, actually. I think there’ve been a lot of issues. If you look at my columns, I’ve been calling out the FDA, not trying to defend them, but given where you were on this, I wanted to push back in the other direction.
Ezra Klein: I think that there is a very different kind of feedback they are getting, and a kind of thing they fear, which is not that just the vaccine will be three weeks slower than it should have been, but if they are wrong, if they did not get enough data, if they missed something, they are going to imperil the whole effort, and that will also kill a gigantic number of people. So it’s hard. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess when I hear that, I think, well, I would just move to a completely different system where people can take whatever things they want, and then the FDA can certify the ones that they think are safe. If people decide to take things that the FDA hasn’t certified, then it’s their responsibility, and it’s their skin in the game to do their own research and figure out whether it’s safe. Then you and I could potentially opt in to take the vaccines based on the papers that we’ve read. Later on, the FDA will certify that it’s safe for everyone else to take, the people who are more cautious. But that’s just such a different framework than the one in which the FDA operates.
Ezra Klein: I have a different version of this. I would be interested and have tweeted a bit about this… Different people have suggested it. I saw it from Scott Sumner not that long ago, this idea of regulatory reciprocity. I think he had, “What if you had a situation where if any of the top 20 countries, measured by GDP, their regulatory authority had cleared something, then we would say you can sign a waiver and take it?” I don’t think I would say 20. I would say, “Why don’t we start with three?” Why don’t we say if the U.K., the E.U. have approved something, or the U.S. obviously, you can take it. I don’t see any reason to believe the U.K. or the E.U. … In fact, if anything, I think the E.U. has performed worse than America’s FDA in this period.
Ezra Klein: That said, again, I think the much more laissez-faire approach you just took, I think it falls to the same issue that I just said. Look, man. Think of how much information and resources you have at your disposal, how smart you are, the podcasts you run, who you can get to talk to you. A lot of people get sold snake oil. It’s one thing if that snake oil is homeopathic bullshit that just doesn’t work. It’s another thing if it kills them. It’s another thing if they got bad information, and then also the rest of us are reading that there’s an outbreak of 75 deaths because of a… I do think you have to think about politics as working off of animal spirits a little bit more than you do. I think this has come up a little bit in this conversation. You have a very economist view of this stuff. If things get out of control in public messaging… As an economist, you know, this is where animal spirits comes from, if things get out of control, you can crash the financial market. You can crash a public health response too. So I’m not saying they’ve been appropriately conservative, but I am saying I think you’re being a little inappropriately non-conservative.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’d love to push back on that. I understand the arguments in favor. I just think the amount of damage that’s being done is underestimated, and would do better to go in a different direction. But I want to leave some time to talk about journalism and how to improve public discourse in general.
How journalists decide what’s important [00:50:13]
Robert Wiblin: In your email to me a few weeks ago, you said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about how effective altruism can and should influence media coverage.” What did you end up concluding about that? How do you think you can get more coverage of the most important issues in The New York Times more broadly, just beyond choosing topics for your own column?
Ezra Klein: Well, I don’t know about The New York Times more broadly, because I have made the decision to step out of management for a while, and am exulting in the capacity to just worry about my own things. But let me talk about what I was thinking about there and what I’m still thinking about, because I do think about this broadly. The question here is, how does journalism — capital J, journalism as an industry, how does it decide what’s important? How do we decide given everything that could be on the front page, given that everyday could be, “And this many people died of malaria today too,” how do we decide what is there? And the answer is complicated. The answer is some mixture… And it’s by the way, non rigorous and not a framework that we would ever publish publicly, and not something where I think we even hew very well to our own public rhetoric about it.
Ezra Klein: It is some mixture of a subjective judgment of importance, a subjective judgment of how interesting something is, how interesting it will be to the audience. And by the way, I think that’s become stronger in the age of social media. Where there’s more of a sense of, everybody is talking about X, and so of course you have to put something about X on your homepage. But X is often something dumb, and so maybe it wasn’t that important. And then, and this one’s really important to me, path dependence. Things that we have believed to be important in the past, we tend to give an easier ride to being important in the future. Something that I’ve been signaling in this conversation is I think taxes in general are less important than the D.C. political debate makes them seem.
Ezra Klein: But that comes from… For a very long time they have been important, we have forever had taxing debates in Washington, there are a lot of committees that do it, there have been periods when the debates we’re having over the tax code were really central to how the economy would perform, we’ve done really big reforms that were needed at other times in our history. And so issues we know about and have an entire superstructure for considering — congressional committees, think tanks, experts, etc. — get a lot more play than issues that don’t have that structure. So take AI here. I certainly think AI is more important than marginal changes in taxation over the next 10 or 15 years, but there’s very little infrastructure for considering it. There isn’t a committee in Congress that primarily deals with AI, it’s a sub-issue of some of the backwater technology committees, there aren’t… In the executive branch, it’s not really anybody’s distinctive job, there aren’t big think tanks on this.
Ezra Klein: I know there are a couple out here in the Bay Area that look at it, and in Oxford, but it’s not something where Brookings has a gigantic AI program. There aren’t as many interests coming in on it. And so that issue where things that have been important in the past have a superstructure for pushing importance in the future — relationships with journalists, think tank reports that are coming out, lobbyists who are talking to members of Congress on it. All of that, it really matters. And so that’s why I think a lot about frameworks. And one reason that I wanted to create Future Perfect at Vox is as I began to learn about effective altruism, one of my immediate views on it was, “This is a framework for thinking about importance that could be a different lens we could use in journalism.” It could help us order things differently.
Ezra Klein: Politics has its ordinal ranking of priorities, and effective altruism has its ordinal ranking of priorities, more or less. I’m not saying in any place it’s all written down and agreed upon, but I think you get it in the water. And it’s not even that I think I fully agree all the time with effective altruism’s ordinal ranking of priorities, it’s that I think it is another really valuable lens and should be one that we actually explicitly put into newsrooms to cover, in the same way that people who are a political journalist have the political lens. So that’s part of the way it influences my work. I talk to effective altruist people, I ask them what they think is important. And in the back of my mind, I ask am I actually covering these things or not? And if I’m not, then do I have a good excuse for why I’m not? Am I sure that the work I’m doing is more valuable than that would be?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I always want to look for what’s the systematic reason that the incentives line up such that some things get covered. And you were saying one reason is path dependence, that whatever’s been covered in the past tends to carry on. Things that were in the curriculum a hundred years ago are sometimes still in the curriculum today even if you wouldn’t add them if you were going from scratch. But the problem seems pretty fundamental because most people read the news not necessarily for information that they’re going to take action on, it’s more for entertainment. Recently it’s been because people are terrified and they want to understand things, but more often people are reading it out of general interest. They just want it to be interesting or to be entertaining. And if that’s the pull from consumers, so that’s what they’re demanding, then for businesses that are trying to provide that, the journalism doesn’t have to be about the most pressing issues and how to solve them, or even just the most pressing issues in general, it can be about whatever, whatever people can spin as entertaining. Do you agree that that’s a fundamental issue?
Ezra Klein: That is true. Yeah, but I would think about that a little differently. I think it is important to admit that there is a part of why people read the news that is entertainment and hobbyism. You’re not going to get rid of that, but it’s only one thread. People want a mix of stuff. And we’ve always had this, we have sections in the news. And so the fact that you have a style section and a culture section, and the magazine that comes out on Sunday where you have long-form interesting work, and you also have the A section and A1… What you want to be doing is having the right mix across the entire product. Because also, for what you’re talking about, let’s say you blow the whole thing up and you say, “I’m going to rigorously only cover the most important stories in the world.” Well then nobody reads your publication. Is that actually a good… You actually need to cross-subsidize things. It has forever been the case that political coverage has more power in local newspapers because sports coverage is also in the paper.
Ezra Klein: People who wouldn’t come to an all-local political corruption news outlet do come to learn about the local sports team, and then when they see a political corruption story, that corruption has power because the people in power know that everybody coming to the paper to check out how the sports team did saw it. So you are dealing with an ecosystem, a bundle that needs to be taken seriously. My issue is more with the part of that bundle that imagines itself as, “We do the important work.” Do we actually have the right priority structure? And I would say in general that we don’t. We sometimes do, and I think probably the past year with coronavirus and things, we’ve been better, but I think there’s a lot of path dependence, a lot of pretending the controversy is a driver of importance. And also just sometimes a lack of creativity in how to do coverage that is a problem.
Ezra Klein: But it has always been my belief, it was, I think, proven out at Vox, I see it currently at The New York Times in my columns. If you do important stuff well, there’s an audience for it always. And I do think it’s harder sometimes to do well, you can’t just drift off of the fact that everybody’s talking about something and so they might click on it pretty easily. But I’ve always said this, this was one of my refrains at Vox as an editor: If there is something important happening in the world and you can’t make the audience interested in it, that is always your failure and it is never the audience’s failure. It is our job as professional writers and video makers and podcasters and whatever to make this stuff appealing and things people like engaging with, as opposed to things that are complicated, boring, and that turn them off.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s a productive attitude to have as a content producer, but there’s a lot of issues where it’s a lot harder. Some things are so much easier, much more grabby to the human mind than others. And yeah, you just have to recognize that it’s going to be potentially challenging to fund a coverage of really boring or really unpleasant things. People don’t want to read about factory farming I think because it’s extremely unpleasant and it’s challenging for them. And that makes it hard to finance on a commercial basis.
Ezra Klein: Although, I’ll tell you, animal coverage does great.
Robert Wiblin: Really?
Ezra Klein: Animal suffering issues, they do great. I’m not saying you’re incorrect, it is a broadly believed thing that nobody’s going to read this stuff. And I can say with real certainty that actually they do. And by the way, particularly within the effective altruism world, it is very much the case that some of the things that effective altruists care a lot about are like catnip for readers. So for instance, I think in many ways, existential AI risk gets too much coverage compared to what might AI do over the next 20 years. Not to say it gets too much funding, I know, I know, but it gets a lot of coverage. But one reason it gets a lot of coverage is that it’s super interesting. It’s like reading the news stories that come before the Terminator saga.
Ezra Klein: And so why isn’t there then more just broad coverage of AI? I think that actually has a lot more to do with path dependence than it does with reader interest. I think a lot of things we cover in journalism are less intrinsically interesting than, “Are we creating superintelligent computers, and will those computers kill us?” But there are a lot of people who have been working at outlets for a long time who cover Congress, and not a lot of people who cover AI. And so that’s actually something that in 30 years may just be different — but there is a lag in the institutional structure. It’s hard to get journalists to cover stuff they don’t know. This is just an institutional management thing, but it’s often hard to be the first to move people onto new beats. And then also if your business model is under stress, which is true for almost everybody in journalism, it’s really hard to then take fliers on new beats.
Journalism business models [00:59:23]
Robert Wiblin: So the framing you’re taking on this is different and maybe better than the one that I’ve usually had in my head, because I’ve usually thought about this as, “How do you get more funding or more advertising revenue so that you can fund more people like Dylan Matthews and Kelsey Piper working at Future Perfect covering those issues?” But you’re thinking more like, there’s already people who think of themselves as covering the most important issues in a sophisticated way. And sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re covering things that actually aren’t that important, and maybe we could switch them and get them to think about the other issues that are more important.
Ezra Klein: I would think of that as a process, actually. That one of the points of Vox, one of the points of Future Perfect is to change journalism more broadly, not just within the walls of the institution, but to create models of things that other people are going to use. I would say that if you look at explanatory journalism, it looks different from before we launched at Vox, it’s everywhere. And people have learned a lot of those lessons in the way we tried to do them. And then, I think this is less true for Future Perfect yet, but to your point, we built Future Perfect on an alternative funding stream. I worked with The Rockefeller Foundation to get the seed funding for that organization, and it has a more diverse set of philanthropic funders now.
Ezra Klein: But if it keeps growing, which I hope it will — and by the way, I think that’s a totally reasonable way to fund journalism — if it keeps growing, over time, other places will compete, maybe not just your philanthropic dollars, but just by making that something that their advertising dollars cover. And of course, by the way, Vox advertising dollars also cover Future Perfect, everything is cross-subsidized. But yeah, I don’t think what you’re saying is wrong, what I would say is I would think about that as a process. I would think about how it is very helpful when trying to get a new form of coverage off the ground to create a funding model for it. But once that funding model is created, if it is successful, at some point it is going to just become part of the core operations of the institution.
Ezra Klein: So a good example here, I would say, is poverty and inequality coverage. There is — if you look around the media — a lot of coverage of poverty and inequality issues funded by foundations. The Ford Foundation did a big project a couple of years back. At the same time, there is a lot of poverty and inequality coverage that is not funded by foundations. It’s just, “You’re an economy reporter, report on some poverty stuff.” And so what you want is that mix, but that comes once you’ve won the war over whether or not this is a core issue that is simply part of a responsible news package.
Robert Wiblin: I’m super interested to know if there’s any other lessons you… You found out that animal welfare, factory farming stuff does quite well. What other really important issues do surprisingly well with the audience and actually have legs?
Ezra Klein: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have a list like that. I think animals is actually at the top of my list of things people are quite wrong about. With other things it tends to depend really on how you do it. And so there are a lot of issues where there’s a huge amount of variance in how well things do. And it just depends on whether you framed it well, or whether the spirits of the internet picked it up or not. And so there aren’t that many where it’s just a cheat code to writing about it. There are people who do well, it’s very easy to get traffic for writing about Elon Musk, for instance. There are certain things that if you can attach them to somebody, that will make it easier to get attention. But there aren’t that many things where I think there’s a broad issue that if only we covered it, everybody would love reading the article. I don’t think there’s that many $20 bills down on the journalism floor, but there’s doing things better and worse.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any things where it’s the other way around, where you might expect it to be popular, but actually it just regularly tanks? I think in my interview with Kelsey Piper a few years ago, said that she was always disappointed with the traffic numbers I think on the global development stuff. She would write these very good sophisticated articles about what works in global development, and she just found it very hard to get lots of readers for those.
Ezra Klein: Yeah, I think global development is probably the best answer to that. Again, I want to be really clear, it’s not impossible. We have had great readership for global development things, there’s a lot of ways to try to approach it, but it is hard to get people interested. It is hard to get an American audience interested in problems afflicting people somewhere else. That is just true. And I think it relates to pretty normal things in human nature, but that’s a fact.
Robert Wiblin: So in terms of the broader group of people in the media who think of themselves as covering really important issues, they want to deal with what are the most important issues and what do people really need to know in order to make the world better, what can be done to get them to cover issues that… In as much as they’re mistaken, in as much as we have some wisdom to share about what actually is more important than what they’re already covering, what do you think could be done to change the path dependency to get us out of the path that we’re currently on?
Ezra Klein: So I’m going to press on the point you made a second ago, I think it would be really good if something that effective altruists tried to do was create business models for the kind of coverage they would like to see. I think media is often a public good, I think it really can focus attention, I think it can very much focus political attention and change the outcomes of legislation. And so at a time of a lot of media stress, I think for a lot of funders it would be a really high-return, low-dollar investment. Maybe I’m talking about my book here, because now I’m a New York Times columnist, you’re not going to be funding me. I think it’s worthwhile to try to create these models. I don’t think what’s going to happen is you’re going to call people up and be like, “You’re doing your coverage all wrong,” and they’re going to say, “Oh, thank you for telling me my life’s work is garbage.”
Robert Wiblin: I hadn’t thought of that.
Ezra Klein: I don’t think path dependence tends to end just because you tell people to snap out of it. I think that what happens is new institutions arise that force everybody else to competitively react. So I think Future Perfect is having some of this effect, and I think there is a lot more opportunity, including in Future Perfect itself.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any thoughts on what those models might be? Philanthropy seems pretty promising. I think Open Phil has funded… Well actually, no sorry not Open Phil, a different group funded Future Perfect, but Open Phil recently funded a series of articles on factory farming, I think in The Guardian. And it’s amazing to me how cheap it is to pay writers to do journalism, or how many stories you can get and how many views you can get for a relatively small amount of donor funding. Are there any other business models people should think about here other than foundation funding? And I guess just trying to do it commercially?
Ezra Klein: I think foundation funding is good. I like the model of trying to build institutions inside institutions. So I think one way foundations often think about this is, “We’re going to go to The Atlantic and we’re going to partner, and there’s going to be 15 articles over the next year on the racial wealth gap.” This is a hypothetical, I want to note. And that’s a good thing to do, and then that orients the coverage in that way, it creates resources to do more reporting. Doing this coverage well can be not expensive by the terms of foundation funding, but expensive by the terms of journalism budgets. But I think there’s real value in going bigger than that and creating institutions and sections that have an editor, that have writers who are dedicated to this. So it’s not the fifth thing they’re doing because they have to fulfill the terms of this foundation partnership. But there’s actually a group of people who are committed to this issue and then can prove out that it works unusually well.
Ezra Klein: And then maybe the larger institution says, “That’s great. That’s working really well, let’s keep building on that.” So I would say the thing I think people underestimate here in terms of its value is actually institutions inside institutions. Creating a new institution is possible, but that’s a lot of work from scratch and you’ve got to build your audience from nothing, you have to build a social media team, you have to build potentially an advertising team, etc. Who’s doing your CMS, how are you doing technical support? There’s a lot more that goes into making these things work than people realize. Who’s doing your legal side? So bigger organizations already have that, and already want to do more than they’re able to do currently. And I think it would not take a ton of investment to be able to create more experimentation in this space.
Ezra Klein: Now I will say, the one thing that funders always have to be knowledgeable about and thoughtful about is, journalism really does have walls between how we fund things and what the things are. And so you can’t always expect the coverage is going to say exactly what you want. Maybe you fund something that’s on AI, and the writer comes to the view that AI risk is overstated. That stuff can and should happen. You’re trying to fund journalism here, it’s not advertisements. But in general I think pointing more coverage at the right things is great.
Ezra Klein: And so take global development, it does somewhat worse than traffic. It doesn’t do unbelievably badly in traffic, and it can be really, really important if the right people read it. So creating a group inside an institution that focuses entirely on global development coverage, and just doesn’t need to worry about traffic, is good for everybody. It’s good coverage from the institution’s point of view, it’s good for the world. It shouldn’t be the case that everything needs to support itself on advertising and scale.
Robert Wiblin: You had a particular vision for Vox in the early days. Are there any parts of that vision that haven’t yet eventuated, but are things that a listener could potentially work on and might succeed at creating?
Ezra Klein: I don’t know if you’ll succeed in creating it, but there’s a very core part of that vision that didn’t work. So when we launched Vox, the way we thought about it — and this was very, very dear to my heart — was we thought about explanatory not as an approach to all products, but as actually a core product. The idea was that you would have these continuously updated topic guides, these resources. So as Sarah Kliff is covering the Affordable Care Act and everything that changes with it, she’s basically continuously updating what’s…I don’t want to call it a Wikipedia article, because it’d be written by Sarah fucking Kliff, but the single best guide to the underlying topic anywhere.
Ezra Klein: And I think a really big problem in journalism is that the audience is often coming to the stories midstream. So you’re coming in and there’s all this jargon you don’t understand, there are players whose roles you don’t know, what you need is really good topic information, but it’s hard to find. Wikipedia is okay, and it’s, as an institution, extraordinary — but for any individual thing it can often be disappointing. And so we had this whole product called card stacks. And some of them really worked, we had an ISIS card stack that got tens of millions of views, it was just a great product by Zack Beauchamp. There were a lot of issues with it, one, it’s unbelievably resource intensive. But two, the big thing that happened is that we launched Vox before the great platform fracturing. So before Facebook instant articles, and Flipboard, and Google AMP, and Apple News…everybody’s reading stuff not on your core platform anymore.
Ezra Klein: So in many cases, the number of people reading on your website is a half of the number of people reading it. And so things that are bespoke product innovations that then do not translate everywhere else become a really hard way to justify investment. There are a lot of things that worked at Vox — there are a lot of things that I didn’t imagine that we did that worked beautifully, but that was the thing that was really important to me, and still to me feels like an unsolved problem in journalism. Let’s say you don’t want to know what’s up in coronavirus today, you want to know about coronavirus. And not something somebody wrote about it 20 months ago, but updated to today. How should I understand this whole thing? Where do I start? I think that’s often something we’ve failed at.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, for me that is Wikipedia. I found that very often, if there’s a current event or something going on, a person, whatever, it’s much better just to look it up on Wikipedia. During the coronavirus pandemic, I literally was just constantly reading the coronavirus or COVID-19 Wikipedia entry. And that was much better than trying to track things through the newspaper. So I wonder if there’s an opportunity to try to build that out within Wikipedia, and that could be a way to get explainers, and to some extent Wikipedia could be like a—
Ezra Klein: Maybe you want to fund people to be helping with Wikipedia. But I think there should be competition to Wikipedia. Not because I want to take down Wikipedia, I love Wikipedia, it’s an extraordinary thing, it’s one of the great marvels of the internet age. I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be your only option. And by the way, some people have done it as well. I want to call out here, I think also on coronavirus, Our World in Data‘s primers are extraordinary. They don’t do that on every issue, but you see how effective that’s been on that particular issue.
Ezra Klein: So this is a big project, you need a lot of money to do it well, given the range of things you might want to do, because it’s very easy to talk about the 10 biggest issues, but there’s a lot of things to our whole conversation here we’re covering that are not the 10 biggest issues. And so then you really get into resource constraints. But yeah, that’s something that I still care about, I still don’t quite understand the model for, and I still feel is unsolved. Again, with the exception of the great work Wikipedia does.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is there anything else you want to say on Our World in Data? I’m hoping to get Max Roser or someone else from there on the show at some point because their traffic is unbelievable. I don’t remember the numbers off the top of my head and maybe they’re not public, but they’re getting a lot of traffic on a really quite small budget. And obviously they’re providing fantastic information to people, potentially really helping them to understand the world. So I see that as a huge success in journalism of a kind.
Ezra Klein: Yeah, I think they are fantastic. I don’t have a ton more to say, except that I really appreciate what they’ve done and they should come on to the 80,000 Hours podcast.
How much news should we consume? [01:11:50]
Robert Wiblin: How many hours of news do you think a typical person should consume each week?
Ezra Klein: Ooh, that’s interesting. I don’t know. It depends who you are and what you’re doing. And also depends, do you enjoy consuming news or not? I think the bigger question actually is for a given number of hours of news, how are you consuming it? A lot of people, I think, think they’re consuming news and what they’re consuming is political entertainment, and that’s different.
Robert Wiblin: That’s what I’m doing a lot of the time.
Ezra Klein: Right. There’s some noise in the signal of Twitter, but if the way you get your political news is Twitter, I would say you’re not really getting news at a depth that maybe you think you are. It’s a feeling of knowing everything, but what you know is a conversation, not the depth behind the conversation. And I can tell you — because I know a lot about Twitter analytics — most people don’t click through the links. There are a lot of links on Twitter, there’s not a lot of readership through links on Twitter. So that’s one thing.
Ezra Klein: I think it’s really important for people to try to consume some local news. Your diet of information should not be all national and international. If it’s so heavily weighted there that you basically don’t know the name of — let’s say you’re in America — your state Senator, and your representative, you need to make sure you’re reading something local so you’re developing that set of ideas and political identity. People have a lot more power and effect on their local politics, so I think that’s really important.
Ezra Klein: I don’t think people need to consume more news than they want to consume, but I think a lot of people are consuming news in an inefficient, polarizing, and addicting way that makes us all feel bad. And look, I’m part of this system too. I talk about this a lot in my book, but I’ll say just for Twitter. I have gone back and forth for years on what my relationship with Twitter should be. I have a very big Twitter audience, I think 2.7 million people — probably they’re all bots. But I can go to Twitter and I can write a thread in five minutes and it’ll get thousands of retweets and I can look at the analytics and see, 100,000 people saw this. It feels great, but I don’t think it’s a good ecosystem. I think that most people on there a lot feel agitated and upset, I think it pulls bad behavior out of people.
Ezra Klein: So for a long time, I basically stopped tweeting except for articles, but I also felt that I wasn’t in this conversation. My basic view on it right now is that the news and the conversation (capital C) has migrated to not-great platforms, and there’s not really great answers for individuals about what to do about it. But if you’re an individual consuming the news, I don’t think you necessarily need to be there. And you’ll get more out of reading… I actually really like reading some of the news apps. So if you look at my phone, I have Vox‘s homepage saved as a tile, I have The New York Times app, and I have The New Yorker app. And I really like the three of those. And I actually find apps to be a really nice reading experience. Although Vox doesn’t have an app, it has a nice responsive website. And so that’s how I do a lot of my consumption. And then of course I have The Los Angeles Times app, which is where I get a lot of my California news.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. Yeah, it’s an interesting point you made about how people should potentially look at state and local news more. People often won’t follow it because they think, “Well, it’s not as important as the issues that are happening nationally.” But because everyone has piled in so hard to the national stuff, in fact, these local things are so neglected that one person who takes a great interest in them, the one person who knows a ton about this local issue at the council can potentially have much more influence over that than they could over anything nationally. And so even if the stakes are a hell of a lot smaller, maybe the expected value is higher just because you’re doing something that is being inappropriately neglected by others.
Ezra Klein: Yeah. There’s a book by a political scientist named Eitan Hersh called Politics is for Power. The core idea of the book is political hobbyism. And his idea is that there’s a huge difference that most people don’t intuitively feel between engaging in politics as a practice of power, trying to attain or understand power to change outcomes, and just cheering on your team. And a lot of people who think they’re politically involved, they’re not, they’re what he calls hobbyists, they’re there for entertainment. I have some issues with where Hersh has gone from here, I think he’s gone in a way that’s a little bit too dismissive of some of the way people do their decision making and structure this, but it’s a good provocation.
Ezra Klein: And one of the things about local politics is I think local politics often connects you to power. This question of why are things happening, and what can I do about it? Whereas I get mad about Donald Trump and Russia — and sure there’s good reason to be mad about Donald Trump and Russia, I’m not one of the people who think that was a story that shouldn’t have been heavily covered — but it also wasn’t something that you were going to do anything about. If you were on Robert Mueller’s team and you already knew you were voting against Donald Trump, you had no real effect in that story. I understand why you want to be informed about the world, but if all of your stuff is like that, I think it’s worth asking.
Ezra Klein: And you get a very different view of politics by being engaged in your local area. So obviously I cover national politics in America, and that connects me to the big Republican/Democrat cleavages. And I think the Republican Party in recent years — particularly in the Trump era, but not only in the Trump era — has gone off the rails in a really irresponsible, scary way. And so when I cover national politics, the sins of the Republican Party are very foremost in my mind. But one reason I think it’s very healthy, actually, to watch local politics is that… So I live in California, which is a very blue state, and I live in San Francisco, which is a very blue part of a very blue state. And there are real failures of not just governance, here. More than there are failures of governance — because I actually think a lot of the leading California politicians have a good angle on things — there’s a lot of failures of actual progressive on-the-ground action and decision making.
Ezra Klein: I just wrote a piece for The New York Times about this problem of what I call ‘symbolic liberalism and operational conservatism’ in California. It’s where people have a “Black lives matter/No human being is illegal” sign in their yards, but then they’re part of a community that has single-family zoning and that is organizing against any affordable housing developments — and the average house costs $922,000. That’s not progressive in my view. That’s actually a really bad way of doing it. It’s a nice, restraining thing for me to keep an eye on what’s happening around me, both because I can be hopefully influential in it in certain ways, but also because there are different problems in different places, different problems in different constellations of power. My views about the problems of the national political collision are different actually than my views about the problems in California. And I think it’s a good habit of mine to make sure you’re not overly bought into just one cleavage.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I spend a lot of time consuming news, but on reflection I do think it’s probably a fairly poor use of my time, because just so often I’m reading things like… Well, I can’t vote in U.S. elections, but even if I could, I’m not on the fence about whether to vote for Trump or not. So it’s not really… Most of this stuff isn’t news that I can use. And I’m honest about the fact that I’m reading a lot of this stuff either as disaster porn or because I just find it really interesting as a kind of entertainment, bloodsport sort of thing. I find it very hard to break that addiction. I know some people who basically don’t consume news almost at all, and I think, good for them, by and large, because it helps them to preserve their attention to do other really useful things. Yes, maybe they lose out here and there, but in general, I suspect that it allows them to accomplish more good rather than less.
Ezra Klein: I think that’s right. I talk in my book about this story that was in The New York Times a couple of years ago I think it was called The Man Who Knew Too Little. It’s about this guy, and there was big internet hate over this, but it’s about this guy, he was a former Nike executive and when Donald Trump got elected, he moved to some rural area and he basically — not just stopped consuming news, I don’t mean he just stopped reading the news, he wouldn’t even let anybody tell him about anything. He would drop friends if they tried to talk to him about the news. He would only go to the coffee shop really early, and they knew not to let them see the paper. Like he actually tried to create a bubble for himself where he 100% wouldn’t know what is going on.
Ezra Klein: And there was a big internet hate on this guy. And I get it obviously — like, yeah, real nice for you former Nike executive, well-off white guy, who’s decided you don’t need to know anything happening. But at the end of this piece, which is by Sam Dolnick, it talks about how what he was spending all of his time and money doing was trying to restore, I think it was a wetland, right near his house. Right? So he was trying to take this area, I think there had been mining there or something, and make it into a nature preserve that people could come and enjoy. And one of my provocations in the book is, are you really doing so much better of a job making things better for people than that guy? Like, if you’re getting mad and sending mean tweets to @realDonaldTrump — back when you could do that, I guess — are you having a better effect than this guy? And my point is not that you should create a no-news bubble for yourself, but that we should be tough on ourselves about what kind of political engagement we have. Are we really trying to change things? And if we’re not, is that what we intended? It’s fine. If you want to say, I don’t like sports, I like politics. Like, I’m not going to tell you that’s a… You’re allowed to do that. That’s no problem. But if what you’re saying to yourself is “I care about making things better for the global poor” or “I care about climate change”… Are you actually doing anything about it? Do you really care about those things, or is that just the rationalization for why you like your political sports teams?
Biggest critiques of the effective altruism and rationalist communities [01:20:40]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s move on and talk about effective altruism and longtermism. What is your biggest critique of the EA community or 80,000 Hours’ advice, if you have any?
Ezra Klein: I think there are probably a couple that I would offer. And I say this — again, I think people can tell that I like this world and am engaged with it, and so I say this with love, not with bitterness. And also you asked. Okay?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: So a couple things. One, I think that in sort of direct EA, there is a little bit too much focus on what is measurable. There are a lot of things that are simply hard to measure, and that doesn’t mean they’re not important. And then simultaneously, because there’s a real focus on what is measurable, I often see people trying to measure the unmeasurable in a way that to me looks like a very false sense of precision.
Ezra Klein: So, I really like Toby Ord, for instance, I had him on my show when his book came out. I appreciate that he’s got that table in there of his best guesses on how likely things — that he has no actual data on — are to happen. I think there’s something disciplining to that, but I think it’s really important to notice too that there can also be something deceptive in your own thinking to that. Like, it’s all well and good to say, “I’m only putting 1 in 30 down here because I want to tell you in a clear way what my chances are,” but I can tell you the way a lot of people read that is it looks a lot more convincing than when it says, “I think there’s a low but real chance of this happening.” And so I think that both being unwilling to deal with the unmeasurable, but then also trying to create false precision around the unmeasurable, can be bad habits.
Ezra Klein: And then the other thing, it’s probably a little bit related, but it’s not the same, and this is sort of EA/rationality. I think it is very easy to tip into embracing an aesthetic of rationality that is not itself actually rational, and it closes you off from other forms of knowing. Like, among other things, I think there’s an incredible, incredible, incredible resistance to information that comes in a high-feelings way, and I am saying this purposefully like a robot to you.
Robert Wiblin: Totally, yeah.
Ezra Klein: People really want you to perform as if you are a human computer, and if somebody comes and they’re yelling, and they’re upset, and they’re crying, or whatever the online equivalents are, there can be a real like, “Oh, ho, ho, ho. You’re not having a rational argument with me.” Not being able to hear people who are upset and not being able to hear people who haven’t been trained in the particular style of argumentation that you favor is a way of missing super important information about the world. And like I say this as somebody who is very good at rational argumentation, quite enjoys having it, and is well-trained in it. I’m a professional arguer, I’ve had my share of debates. But you can really miss things if you can’t hear information and if you can’t hear a signal that doesn’t come to you wrapped in the stylistic and cultural packaging that you’re used to. And one of my big concerns with the rationality community is that they mistake a kind of, again, like an aesthetic, a patina of rationality for actually being rational. And a lot of actually being rational is understanding how little you know, and how limited your own perspective is.
Ezra Klein: I always loved… Tyler Cowen once said on my podcast the rationalists should call themselves the irrationalists. By the way, I like these folks. I read Scott Alexander. I’ve known Julia Galef for a long time. I like this world and think there’s a lot of value in the way they argue, but I also think sometimes they’re too closed-off to counterarguments that come in these ways. So those are my critiques.
Robert Wiblin: Effective altruists love self-critique. Like always the most popular things on the Effective Altruism Forum are people criticizing, I don’t know, our advice, the ways we do things wrong. And it’s like, yeah. It’s actually an interesting fetish that I think has developed. And there’s also a way it can be dangerous because, of course, it feels so satisfying to talk about how bad you are, to flagellate yourself. I wonder whether sometimes it can be like, it makes you feel redeemed somehow for your mistakes or feel like well I can’t be that bad myself if I’m criticizing myself. But yeah, so anyway, people love it. So, if you could think of any more, please, please—
Ezra Klein: I’ve read some of those threads. It’s… Again, a little bit to what I was saying, there’s a beloved nature of critique that is recursive to itself. Like critique that is like, “I am the more rational.” I’ll say one last one. I think there’s a very heavy emphasis on cognitive bias in this community. And the best people in it do all that reading and understand the limits of our cognition and become much more humble about their thinking. And the people who I think really go awry, get this feeling of like, “Well, I know everything about cognitive bias now. And so my thinking is so much more elevated.” And I often will watch these people and nobody becomes more self-deluded than that.
Ezra Klein: I’ll note there’s a related thing in politics where — and this is endlessly proven out now — people with the highest levels of political information tend to exhibit the highest levels of partisan self-deception. This is a very hard line to walk, but there is nothing more dangerous than thinking you know a lot, and nothing more dangerous, particularly, than thinking you know a lot about how you think. You really need a lot of humility. And so at the best I think the rationality community imposes humility on itself, and at the worst, there’s a performance of imposing humility that’s a way of not actually having humility, right? That is a way of, you know… I’ve known forever at Wonkblog and other things, things seem more convincing if you put them in chart form, like they just look more official.
Ezra Klein: I appreciate that Scott Alexander and others will sometimes put ‘epistemic status, 60%’ on the top of 5,000 words of super aggressive argumentation, but is the effect of that epistemic status to make people like, “Oh, I should be careful with this,” or is it like, “This person is super rational and self-critical, and actually now I believe him totally”? And I’m not picking on Scott here. A lot of people do this.
Ezra Klein: Larry Summers did this all the time. He was known in the administration for… He would constantly, when people were saying something, be like, “Well, what probability do you put on that?” And so people are just pulling like 20%, 30%, 70% probabilities out of thin air. That makes things sound more convincing, but I always think it’s at the danger of making people… Of actually it having the reverse effect that it should. Sometimes the language of probability reads to folks like well, you can really trust this person. And so instead of being skeptical, you’re less skeptical. So those are just pitfalls that I notice and it’s worth watching out for, as I have to do myself.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. A tricky thing with any large group of people is that they tend to be very different from one another. So there’s definitely some people for whom these critiques are relevant and there’s people who are almost like the exact opposite. It’s just what happens when you have—
Ezra Klein: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Robert Wiblin: —thousands and tens of thousands of people. It is very interesting though, I feel like the effective altruism community focuses on extremely measurable things, and then completely unmeasurable things.
Ezra Klein: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: And it’s surprising that there aren’t more things that are in the middle, because you’d think that most things would be kind of measurable, and I wonder whether there’s a systematic reason why.
Ezra Klein: That’s a little bit like what I was saying, that I think it’s interesting, there’s less focus on 20 years from now in AI and jobs than I would think there would be in this community.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think that it has actually changed. There’s been this merger in the last couple of years between the people who are concerned about long-term stuff in AI and people who are concerned about the immediate-term stuff in AI, because it seems like they’ve come up with research agendas that have just turned out to be two sides of the same thing. It’s really quite interesting. Yeah. I’ve done an interview with Brian Christian who wrote The Alignment Problem, which kind of describes this phenomenon of how it’s like… It’s almost funny. It’s almost hard for me to remember five years ago how these two camps seemed to be really at odds with one another, and now they just all seem to be singing from the same song sheet. So, that seems like progress to me, anyway.
Ezra Klein: I need to read that book. It’s been recommended to me by everybody I trust. It’s just like, I need to read The Alignment Problem.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Just on the bias thing that you mentioned earlier, I think I would go further in your actual critique of the bias literature and people reading about cognitive biases. I think that it’s almost not useful at all, because well, to begin with, obviously, this kind of psychology research often just doesn’t replicate. So I suspect that for many of these effects it will turn out in 10 or 20 years’ time that we won’t think that they’re real. But even among those that do exist, the model that people have in their heads with biases is like, “I am mostly thinking right. But then occasionally, I’ll have a bias in a specific situation. And then I will learn to catalog all of those. And then when I’m having one of those, I’ll correct this thing because now I’m going to be like, plus 10%, and then I’ll downgrade at 10% and I have the right answer.” But the reality is you’re just swimming in these potential errors or you’re just using all of these processes that are very imprecise all the time, and you get rid of one bias and there’s just going to be another.
Robert Wiblin: Like, it’s not that you have one bias at a particular point in time that you can access. It’s like there’s 20 things going on at any point in time and getting rid of any one of them doesn’t really help all that much. And I think you do just end up with this illusion that you’re thinking better than other people. I think that it’s very important to try to be more rational and try to have better ways of reaching that answer. But I think trying to do this correction for biases, it’s mostly a poor use of people’s effort.
Ezra Klein: Yeah. And mostly, it just ends up with the people correcting for other people’s biases. Like in practice, everybody’s like, “I really understand that I can be thinking this way, but what I’m really seeing with you right now is a lot of motivated reasoning.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, yeah.
Ezra Klein: And it’s true, right? Like, I mean, it’s usually true, and I’ve always said on some of this research, I have a chapter of my book that’s about some of this stuff in the political context, and I say that this research is like staring into the abyss. The more you get into it, the more you realize there is no escape, and even the ways you would escape tend to make you more vulnerable. And yet also, somehow we have to operate in a world where some things are true, where we, at least, are willing to say, some things are true.
Ezra Klein: There is no doubt that I have a lot of political biases that inform my writing, and also, at some point, I need to be willing to say, “I think the way that Republican politicians in Texas responded to the freeze was really bad.” And am I biased in saying that? Yes. Am I pretty confident of the empirical evidence for saying that? Yes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s still true.
Ezra Klein: It’s just hard. My lesson on this stuff for myself is the place this literature should leave you in is a place of profound discomfort with yourself. And if it’s making you feel real good, then you’re probably not absorbing it correctly.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a more optimistic story to be told here if you look at the heuristic literature, because there’s all these studies to try to find like, ooh, here’s how people mess up and get things wrong. But it’s also extraordinary how often people can get incredibly complicated things right very quickly, and how they’re managing to do these shortcuts that avoid doing very complicated analysis, but still get a pretty good enough answer very fast. I think there’s a whole path that we could have gone down like, how do people think right? How do they do a really good job? And then try to celebrate that and expand that. Maybe it’s just easier to study ways that people get things slightly wrong in these bizarre experimental setups that probably don’t generalize very well. I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just more fulfilling to criticize. Yeah, I don’t know exactly why we went down that track rather than appreciating the ways that people are good at reasoning.
Ezra Klein: Negativity biases is an important bias.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s a very great point.
Ezra Klein: Particularly in other people.
Ezra’s thoughts on longtermism [01:30:58]
Robert Wiblin: You mentioned The Precipice by Toby Ord. How much have you engaged with the arguments for and against longtermism? And do you have any critiques of it or reservations?
Ezra Klein: I don’t think I have a critique of it, to be honest. I think that… I have engaged with the arguments of longtermism to the extent of a person who’s interested in those arguments. And I think that whatever small, like around-the-edges disagreements I have with any particular argument — which people in this community are very willing to hear, like I love talking to Toby — I think the general push from the longtermists is incredibly, incredibly important. We’re obviously not taking this stuff seriously enough by any means. So I don’t really have a critique about it. I mean, I think you can get into a kind of mathematical blackmail situation where when you start running the numbers on the endless future potential of humanity, then any unbelievably infinitesimal change in modernity, it has such an out-sized impact that, well, it’s of course worth doing, over doing anything else. I don’t buy that for a bunch of different reasons, including that I don’t think we understand all that well how to actually have those effects. And something Dylan has written that I’ve always thought is quite smart is that, let’s say you’re dealing with a question between putting $5 billion into something that is longtermist, or putting $5 billion into say a child allowance.
Ezra Klein: You may… For some set of kids, it actually may be better to be helping them be more educated and healthier now, so they can then like, using the better resources of 30 years from now…right? So to the extent this stuff ends up biting, I don’t even think it’s always clear which direction it bites in, knowing the long term is important. Maybe the best way to secure the long term is to secure the right now. But I don’t want to use that as a strong critique. I think this is functionally a really correct way to think, and on a lot of these issues, we don’t do nearly enough.
Ezra Klein: So to give a couple of examples, we just need to be doing so much more on the question of synthetic biological weapons. That is just one of these ones where I don’t even think you need to get into like, will we ever invent general intelligence AI? It is entirely plausible, really, really in the near term — like plausibly now, even — that with pretty routine ingredients, terrorists could create things that would kill billions of people. And it’s terrifying. I think one of the best parts of Toby’s book is the part looking at some of the pandemic threats that have come up. And, for instance, I think it was, it’s either H1N1 or H5N1, I think it was, it’s a swine flu, as I remember, with a 70% lethality rate if it gets to humans. But it doesn’t pass human to human. But then some researcher trying to study it passed it through 10 ferrets and made a version of it that can pass human to human, which caused an uproar in the research community. It’s just terrifying to think about. So there are a set of threats that are obvious, that would really, really affect the long term, and we should take it profoundly more seriously than we do.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve just done an interview with Andy Weber, who used to work in the Department of Defense, where he lays out, basically, what he thinks is potentially a permanent solution to this issue of synthetic biology being so risky — and he thinks it’s very risky today and will be worse in 10 years — which is using nanopore sequences to just constantly monitor new viruses and new bacteria that are circulating, and then using mRNA, having massive ability to quickly manufacture mRNA vaccines. Because now we can just crack out new vaccines really quickly just based on the DNA strand. And he basically thinks that could take these kinds of bioweapons off the table, which is a really exciting avenue of research within science and technology.
Ezra Klein: And we should do it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: And obviously, it’s not like it wouldn’t be useful to have a lot of mRNA vaccination capacity, so let’s do it.
Robert Wiblin: Do it.
Ezra Klein: So yeah, I want my position understood here, it’s not… I have some on-the-margins disagreements about certain ideas of longtermism, but longtermism is an incredibly, incredibly healthy intellectual force, and it’s among the things that I would like to be an ally of in the public conversation, not somebody trying to poke holes in it.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any effective altruism-ish projects that you’ve considered doing, but decided against?
Ezra Klein: I don’t know. I mean, no, Future Perfect was the big one that I’m proud to have been a part of and proud that they’ve done such an extraordinary job, and I read it every day and love it, and hope it continues to thrive. And then obviously, my own work, to me, is sort of a project of trying to make the world a better place.
Should we be more worried about tail-risk scenarios? [01:35:13]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, for decades people have been worried about the next pandemic and how bad it will be. Often those people are viewed as Cassandras or they’re viewed as people who were just always worried about stuff, always worried about tail risks, they’re quirky, can we really trust their judgment, etc. But they’ve been proven right last year. And many of those people have also, at the same time, been worried about other kinds of tail risks, like what if we have a nuclear war with Russia by accident? Or what if we go to war with China over Taiwan, even though we didn’t really plan to? Or what if AI really does go off the rails and cause massive problems? Has the last 18 months made you reconsider whether maybe we should just be more worried about wacky tail-risk scenarios? Maybe the world’s more variable and dangerous than we think?
Ezra Klein: Yes and no. Let me frame differently what I think that the epistemological failures were here. So, everything you’re saying is true, but I would say even a lot of the people who missed this believed all that abstractly. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about media failures around coronavirus, and so, like at Vox, for instance, I personally did a long video with Bill Gates about the next pandemic (accompanying article), the next respiratory pandemic, which got millions of views years ago, then we did a Netflix episode on pandemics, and we did this Ron Klain thing on pandemics. I think actually very few places had done as much shaking the trees being like, “Listen, a pandemic is a serious threat.” And at the same time, while we had some early coverage of this that was good and some that was not as perceptive, we were not able to see immediately that this was going to be the one.
Ezra Klein: And I’ve been thinking a lot about how do you not make that mistake? And one of the difficult things here was even coming from a view that pandemics are a gigantic threat, and one of them is likely to kill millions and millions of people within the next 10 or 20 years, when this one started up, the way journalism is optimized to work, you call a bunch of experts and say what they tell you. And the public health community was playing this down for a long time. We were hearing like, “Oh, worry more about the flu and wash your hands. Oh, this could be a problem, but there’s not going to be human-to-human transmission.” And it’s all well and good to say, obviously, people got that one wrong, but what is the heuristic you would use to overrule the experts in a case like this in the future? Like what would I tell a young journalist? Such that in the many, many, many things we look at where every year as a journalist, you deal with a lot of things, it could become an unbelievable crisis. The number of things that might become the next financial crisis that I get pitched on in three months is big. And I never quite know. Right? They’re all convincing arguments. Like I’ve spent some time looking into the—
Robert Wiblin: One day, one of them will be right.
Ezra Klein: And some of them have been right, right? But a lot of them, way more of them, have been wrong. And so have a number of possible pandemic threats, by the way. And there’s a big theory of a food supply crisis about eight months ago now that didn’t pan out — in that way, at least. And so it’s really hard.
Ezra Klein: So I think you want to listen to people who’ve shown really good habits of thinking here. So I just did a podcast with Zeynep Tufekci about how she thinks. And she is somebody with a track record, I think, of getting a lot of big things right over an extended period of time. Some of the people you talk about, I should note, and this is one issue, do not get a lot of things right. They got one big thing right or a couple of big things right, and they also get a lot of big things wrong constantly. And so as a journalist, it’s hard to know what to do with that. Like journalism, the way I would put it, it’s optimized to get 19 out of 20 things right. But the time it’s going to fail, it’s going to be really bad because it’s going to be when all the experts are failing too.
Ezra Klein: And then there are people who are optimized to get three, or four, or five out of 20 things, like really unusual things right, and it’s okay if they got a bunch of things wrong. That’s not a knock on them. It’s actually a kind of thinking we need. It’s a very different incentive structure. But it’s not always clear what to do with somebody who is right about this, but also wrong about a bunch of other things. I don’t mean to say, like… I hope this doesn’t come off as defensive. It’s something that I’m wrestling with a lot, because I think about it in terms of what advice would I give journalists to use for the future? So, I think there’s some people you should come out of this having a higher trust in, like Zeynep. I think in general, one thing to feel is if everybody is saying — and you also believe — something is going to go wrong, believe it. Don’t just keep saying it, like really believe it in your bones. So something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is everybody tells me antibiotic resistance is a terrible problem that is looming in human civilization, and I would tell you, if you ask me, that antibiotic resistance is a terrible problem looming for human civilization. But do I believe it? Am I actually acting like I believe it?
Robert Wiblin: Are you doing anything?
Ezra Klein: Like, am I super on the alert for any information that that problem is coming up? You know, similar to the synthetic biological weapon conversation we just had. It has the same qualities to it. And then on the other hand, one of the tricky things is if I just move up my constant level of alarm about all looming threats and keep writing columns about how you need to be super scared about things, are people going to tune me out?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Ezra Klein: It’s a genuinely tricky space.
Expertise among journalists [01:40:03]
Robert Wiblin: One thing I wonder is it seems like the journalist doing pandemics in The New York Times should ideally be a world expert in pandemics who can form their own view about whether the experts are getting this right and can do research and figure things out — rather than just a dilettante who has to go to a press conference with some public health people, and then writes down what they say, but doesn’t feel in a position to question them.
Ezra Klein: No. That’s very unfair. A lot of these people at high levels really are excellent at these issues, and really did do a lot of research. I mean, Julia Belluz at Vox had covered pandemics for years. She had a great piece very early in this. It was called something like, ‘Eight Ways a Coronavirus Could Play Out,’ and there were four about how it could become a global pandemic, and four about how not. It was great probabilistic coverage. I really want to push on this. Journalists who are very expert in some topics — and I count myself in certain topics as one of them — you still talk to a lot of experts to try to inform yourself, because it’s a lot to trust yourself on. It’s one thing to be a columnist and be like, “I got some views on stuff.” But if you’re writing in the news section of The New York Times, you can know a lot, but you have to, as a good Bayesean, to maybe put this in more of your language—
Robert Wiblin: Believe it, yeah.
Ezra Klein: —like you have to put some weight on what all these other people who do this research themselves tell you.
Robert Wiblin: Totally.
Ezra Klein: That’s a tough space.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I didn’t want to suggest that all journalists were in that situation. I think Julia is an example of someone who has more subject expertise, and for that reason, was able to do better coverage. My impression, generally, is that the people who knew more about the field going in produced better coverage, and got the right answers sooner than people who were just going in afresh.
Ezra Klein: I think yes and no. I’ll give a non-journalist example, but people have I think correctly noted… Some of the people you’re talking about as being prescient were on this faster and better than Fauci was. They didn’t have more…and nor did a lot of people… But I do think there’s an interesting question here. There were people who had a lot of knowledge who got this fast and people who had a lot of knowledge who got this slow. And in some ways, the question was not even the knowledge. In some ways, the question was, how do you understand the information coming out of China, for instance, and how do you weight what they’re telling you? And what do you think is true about preparedness? And I just think it’s complicated.
Ezra Klein: I don’t want to absolve anybody. I just want to say my only point is that I think there are real failures we need to learn from here in journalism, like is true whenever we get something really big wrong. This is just one of the places where I’ve had a lot of trouble thinking of what would be the rule I’d give for a young reporter. Somebody who’s very senior in the field and super experienced, that’s one thing, that’s a different set of issues. But how do we teach the next generation of journalists not to miss something again? But when that thing is being… It’s just hard. It’s just a tricky question as an editor.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Unfortunately, we’re up on time. For people who were interested in this, I can really recommend the interview that you did with Zeynep. I thought it was fantastic. I’m hoping to get her on the show as soon as possible.
Robert Wiblin: Just one final question: You’re insanely productive, constantly producing content, articles, podcasts, tweets… How are you managing to do that while also having an 18-month-old child? It seems like it’d be very difficult to balance all of the things you’re trying to accomplish.
Ezra Klein: Well, my subjective experience of myself is that I’m always getting a lot less done and feeling more harried and behind that I’d like to, so I appreciate it. I don’t know. Sometimes I get this question and I’m glad I looked very productive to others, and sometimes I feel I’m not as productive to myself. I think the thing that I am pretty good at is I’ve got a really, really rapid cycle from when I want to do something to when I’m executing on it. I don’t spend a lot of time in meta analysis, I don’t get in my own way that much. I’m a pretty fast writer. And then the other thing is I’m pretty focused.
Ezra Klein: You were talking about reading the news. I actually read a lot less news than people might think. At least general news. I have the things I’m working on, and I read really intensively in them, and then I let a lot of other things go by. And that means there are things that everybody else is talking about that I don’t know about, but it’s helpful. And I really try to say to myself, like every week work-wise I need to do one excellent column and two excellent podcasts, and everything needs to be oriented towards that happening. And then tweets and everything else, that’s extra. Most of it is distraction. But if I’m focused, I can do that, and if I’m not focused, I can’t. And so that’s where the rubber hits the road.
Ezra Klein: But yeah, I will say there’s no doubt that having a young child is wonderful in a bazillion ways, and I certainly wouldn’t trade it to be a little bit more productive, but it does change the way you work. It really does force decisions you didn’t have to make before when you could just cordon your time out in all directions.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Ezra Klein. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours Podcast, Ezra.
Ezra Klein: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Rob’s outro [01:44:37]
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