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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.”

Ezra Klein

How many words in U.S. newspapers have been spilled on tax policy in the past five years? And how many words on CRISPR? Or meat alternatives? Or how AI may soon automate the majority of jobs?

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 human beings started to take control of human evolution; that we stood on the brink of eliminating immeasurable levels of suffering on factory farms; and that for the first time the average American might become financially comfortable and unemployed simultaneously?

Today’s guest is Ezra Klein, one of the most prominent journalists in the world. Ezra thinks that pressing issues are neglected largely because there’s little pre-existing infrastructure to push them.

He points out that for a long time taxes have been considered hugely important in D.C. political circles — and maybe once they were. But either way, the result is that there are a lot of congressional committees, think tanks, and experts that have focused on taxes for decades and continue to produce a steady stream of papers, articles, and opinions for journalists they know to cover (often these are journalists hired to write specifically about tax policy).

To Ezra (and to us, and to many others) AI seems obviously more important than marginal changes in taxation over the next 10 or 15 years — yet there’s very little infrastructure for thinking about it. There isn’t a committee in Congress that primarily deals with AI, and no one has a dedicated AI position in the executive branch of the U.S. Government; nor are big AI think tanks in D.C. producing weekly articles for journalists they know to report on.

On top of this, the status quo always has a psychological advantage. If something was thought important by previous generations, we naturally assume it must be important today as well — think of how students continued learning ancient Greek long after it had ceased to be useful even in most scholarly careers.

All of this generates a strong ‘path dependence’ that can lock the media in to covering less important topics despite having no intention to do so.

According to Ezra, the hardest thing to do in journalism — as the leader of a publication, or even to some degree just as a writer — is to maintain your own sense of what’s important, and not just be swept along in the tide of what “the industry / the narrative / the conversation has decided is important.”

One reason Ezra created the Future Perfect vertical at Vox is that as he began to learn about effective altruism, he thought: “This is a framework for thinking about importance that could offer a different lens that we could use in journalism. It could help us order things differently.”

Ezra says there is an audience for the stuff that we’d consider most important here at 80,000 Hours. It’s broadly believed that nobody will read articles on animal suffering, but Ezra says that his experience at Vox shows these stories actually do really well — and that many of the things that the effective altruist community cares a lot about are “…like catnip for readers.”

Ezra’s bottom line for fellow journalists is that if something important is happening in the world and you can’t make the audience interested in it, that is your failure — never the audience’s failure.

But is that really true? In today’s episode we explore that claim, as well as:

  • How many hours of news the average person should consume
  • Where the progressive movement is failing to live up to its values
  • Why Ezra thinks ‘price gouging’ is a bad idea
  • Where the FDA has failed on rapid at-home testing for COVID-19
  • Whether we should be more worried about tail-risk scenarios
  • And his biggest critiques of the effective altruism community

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

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel


Progressives and technology

Ezra Klein: 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.

Progressives and 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.” I really don’t like it. I think it’s a way we teach ourselves to be less compassionate.

Ezra Klein: 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: 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. 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’s important to me to be persuasive. This is something that I do think people miss a lot in politics. It is 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 don’t 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. 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.

How journalists decide what's important

Ezra Klein: 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 I think 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’ve 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 myself, 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?

There's an audience for important stuff

Ezra Klein: 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. But I can say with real certainty that 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.

Journalism business models

Ezra Klein: 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.”

Ezra Klein: I don’t think path dependence tends to end because you tell people, “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.

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.

Ezra Klein: 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. And then maybe the larger institution says, “That’s great. That’s working really well, let’s keep building on that.”

How much news should we consume?

Ezra Klein: It depends who you are and what you’re doing. And it 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.

Ezra Klein: 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, if 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 it’s 100,000 people saw this. And 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 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.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

This episode on YouTube

Intro to Ezra

Ezra’s recent articles

Episodes of Ezra’s podcast

Future Perfect

Prescient discussion of pandemics/coronavirus

80,000 Hours podcast episodes


Other links

Related episodes

About the show

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

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

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