Potential U.S. Policy Focus Areas

Throughout the post, “we” refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project, previously known as GiveWell Labs.

Previously, we laid out our basic framework and reasoning for selecting U.S. policy causes to focus on for GiveWell Labs. This post goes through the specific causes that we’re most likely to commit to (and are accordingly performing in-depth investigations of, with some preliminary grantmaking, at the moment).

A few preliminary notes:

We are trying to evaluate causes to “commit” to (as discussed previously), and “committing” could end up meaning many different sorts of things in terms of what sort of work we support. In a given cause, we could end up focusing on (a) supporting better research to determine optimal policy; (b) supporting information, education, and advocacy to push for particular policies; (c) working within an already-changing policy landscape and trying to affect the details of how policies change; (d) something else. We’ve tried to assess the importance, tractability, and crowdedness of causes with this broad potential mandate in mind, and to focus on causes that seem to be quite broadly important/tractable/uncrowded rather than simply presenting an opportunity for a specific narrow intervention.

As discussed previously, the causes we find most promising generally stand out on at least one of our three key criteria: tractability, importance, and crowdedness. As such, our discussion of causes is organized by criterion — we discuss which causes stand out on each dimension, followed by discussion of other causes that we find worth discussing for other reasons.

Contents of this post:

A few key resources that provide partial support for much of the reasoning in this post:

Windows of opportunity: outstanding tractability

As discussed previously, it can be very difficult to predict whether and when a policy area might become tractable (i.e., when it might become possible for advocacy infrastructure to play a major role in how policy develops in that area) in the long run. Paying too much attention to very short-run tractability (for example, what issue is in the news or being debated in Congress at the moment) seems inappropriate given the nature of what we’re trying to do: pick areas to commit to and build infrastructure in for several years.

With that said, we’ve come across a few causes that seem to present unusual “windows of opportunity,” in which something highly relevant in the political landscape seems to be changing in a way that could make the issue unusually prone to change for the next several years (and possibly beyond), and we could imagine our involvement helping to shape the specific way in which changes play out.

Perhaps the best example we’ve seen is the criminal justice policy space, which we’ve done a medium-depth writeup on. This space came up as promising early in our conversations with generalists, and was particularly emphasized by Steven Teles. There has long been a humanitarian argument (generally emphasized by people on the political left) for the importance of reducing unnecessary incarceration and the suffering associated with it; what seems to have changed relatively recently, however, is a combination of historically high incarceration rates, declining crime rates, and state budget difficulties — accompanied by a growing interest among the political right in reducing incarceration rates if it can be done without reducing public safety (e.g., Right on Crime.) Between the excitement we saw about tractability and the concrete opportunities we saw to support promising-seeming approaches, we saw this cause as a good one for our first medium-depth investigation in the policy arena; having investigated further and made some grants, we believe there are many promising underfunded approaches, real opportunities to influence policy, and reasonably high humanitarian stakes. More at our writeup on this topic.

Other “window of opportunity” causes that have come up:

We have largely relied on impressions from our conversations with generalists in order to identify the most promising “window of opportunity” causes. Of these, our view is that criminal justice reform is the most promising, having equal or greater humanitarian significance and equal or lesser crowdedness compared to the others.

Ambitious longshots: outstanding importance

There are a couple of obstacles to identifying policy areas with outstanding importance:

Another challenge here is that from what we’ve seen, the causes that seem like strongest contenders for “most important” tend to have relatively poor, or at least highly ambiguous, scores on the other two criteria (more details below). We haven’t seen any such cause where we are (at this early stage) convinced of a clear opening for a philanthropist and an opportunity to make tangible progress.

With that said, we see some compelling reasons to get deeply involved with at least one “ambitious longshot” cause, even if the prospects for change seem doubtful and/or the space seems relatively crowded:

What follows is the set of causes that we believe to have overwhelming humanitarian importance (in the sense that an imaginable policy change would create large amounts of economic value and/or affect large numbers of people significantly). They are listed in order of how promising we find them, taking into account other criteria (tractability, crowdedness). Note that the way we’re using “importance” here attempts, when feasible, to incorporate not just the size of the problem, but the likely impact of an improvement in policy if the improvement could be implemented. (In other words, a major problem may still fall short on “importance” if it seems unlikely that one could identify a change in legislation with large expected impact on the problem.) With that said, there are many cases in which we know very little about the details of possible policy fixes, and try to approximate “importance” based primarily on the size of the problem and very rough intuition about how policy change might affect it.

We have created a collection of back-of-the-envelope estimates on the likely impact of policy reform in different areas, which informs the comments below in general, though we do not place much confidence in the particular estimates.

Labor mobility

It appears to us that moving from a lower-income country to a higher-income country can bring about enormous increases in a person’s income (e.g., multiplying it several-fold), dwarfing the effect of any direct-aid intervention we’re aware of. As such, labor mobility seems to us to be an enormously high-stakes issue, whether based on our own back-of-the-envelope calculations for possible legislative changesacademic estimates that sufficient increases in immigration could create value on the order of 50% of world GDP, or just the observation that changes on a per-person-affected basis are impressive.

Additionally, it appears to us that there is relatively little attention paid to this cause in some sense: the humanitarian benefits of migration seem to receive little discussion and emphasis generally, we have not identified any other philanthropic funding focused on labor mobility as an anti-poverty issue, and we note that immediately prior to our involvement, Michael Clemens’s work on this issue at Center for Global Development was in the relatively unusual position of not having specific private support (though it had been supported previously).

With that said, there is another sense in which this cause is quite “crowded”: U.S. immigration policy more broadly is an extremely salient and heavily contested issue, with significant philanthropic involvement as well as interest in allowing more migration from the business community. The debates taking place at the moment seem to center mostly around the treatment of undocumented immigrants, with labor mobility as a secondary issue. Thus, the question of how “crowded” this space is — and what a new funder might be able to contribute — remains very much an open question for us, and one that we are trying to address with deeper investigation and declared interest in funding.

There are a couple of other challenges with this area:

Macroeconomic policy

Macroeconomic policy appears to be an area with extraordinarily high stakes, in that a small number of decisions can arguably have substantial effects on national (and global) growth and unemployment.

Our aim in this space would likely be focused on generating better information and new ideas, rather than coming down on one side or the other of a partisan battle.

The question of whether we ought to consider this space “crowded” is a difficult one.

We are currently conducting deeper investigation accompanied by readiness to provide funding. We expect to learn more about what gaps and opportunities exist.

Foreign aid and global poverty

We have had a number of conversations about the policy landscape around issues directly affecting the global poor, such as the U.S. foreign aid budget and allocation, trade policy related to the developing world, etc. (We have unfortunately not been able to publish notes from a number of these conversations; others are linked to from our shallow writeup on this topic.)

We see this general cluster of issues as having potentially overwhelming importance, because of the direct relevance to the global poor (whose numbers and degree of poverty both exceed those of the U.S. population).

Our impression is that there is a substantial amount of philanthropic involvement in this area, and a relatively strong infrastructure that analyzes and advocates for policies that benefit the global poor. This infrastructure includes The Center for Global Development (CGD), a think tank we perceive as highly intelligent and effective in developing new ideas; we have supported CGD and may increase our level of support over time, but we also note that CGD has expressed a lack of desire to expand much further. It also includes the ONE Campaign (with a budget of roughly $30 million/year, supported by the Gates Foundation and others) and a network of large aid organizations. It has been argued to us that this infrastructure has been highly successful in preventing cuts to foreign aid despite recent concern over budget balance, and we find this a strong argument. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made influencing policy in this space a clear priority.

As such, we aren’t sure how much can be accomplished by a new funder in this space, at least at the level we’re currently contemplating (in the $5-25 million per year range). A few possibilities we’ve considered:

Because we perceive the infrastructure in this space as relatively strong and successful, we’ve considered providing funding and spending time in this area as a way of learning more about what a strong advocacy infrastructure looks like.

Improving democracy

We’ve been following the Hewlett Foundation’s evolving initiative on aiming to improve the general functioning of the U.S. democratic system, particularly with regard to the highly polarized current environment. We have reviewed an early report on this initiative (not public) and spoken with Daniel Stid and Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer about it.

It seems to us that federal politics are currently deeply dysfunctional, and we could imagine enormous gains (though it is hard to lay out the likely specifics of such gains) if we could help ameliorate this issue. However, “size of the problem” is only one part of our definition of “importance.” The other part — “likely impact of hoped-for legislative reforms” — is much less clear for us. It seems to us that past attempts at reforming the political system as a whole haven’t clearly done more good than harm (see, for example, points 1 and 2 at Wonkblog’s discussion of U.S. political dysfunction, which I see as a good concise summary of the major potential factors overall). Reviewing the fairly broad list of potential interventions laid out by Hewlett (in its not-yet-released document, and summarized to some degree in our conversation notes), we are ambivalent regarding what the likely impact of legislative reforms would be, assuming political victory.

“Crowdedness” is somewhat difficult to assess for this cause. The Hewlett Foundation seems likely to make it a real priority, and to try to interest other foundations in it too, which could dramatically increase the amount of philanthropic investment. It’s hard to say, at this point, to what degree this will happen and how much space (and what sort of space) will remain for us to potentially fill.

Overall, we are glad to see that the Hewlett Foundation is taking on what we believe is one of the world’s most pressing issues, and we plan to follow its work with interest. At this time, we see greater likelihood of getting heavily involved (in the sense of “committing” to) the causes listed above, though that may change as we continue to follow Hewlett’s work.

Climate change

We have done a shallow-depth investigation of climate change, an area that gets a great deal of philanthropic attention compared to all of the above causes. The potential impact of climate change mitigation is enormous, but not (by our estimates, based on mainstream projections) clearly larger than that of other causes we’ve classified as “ambitious longshots.” We do see a case that climate change deserves special attention because of its potential as a global catastrophic risk: there is a risk that mainstream projections are badly off and that the consequences will be much worse than currently projected. We will discuss this aspect of climate change (and the interventions we feel are most appropriate to deal with this relatively low-probability, high-impact scenario) in an upcoming discussion of global catastrophic risks.

Tax policy

Tax policy, like macroeconomic policy, has theoretically huge economic stakes and a good deal of attention from intellectuals. We see it as having substantially more attention from funders and nonprofits, and (likely as a consequence) fewer gaps in the work done by intellectuals (particularly with regard to developing workable policy proposals). We also see less room for impact from new academic research on related matters, as the main bottleneck to improved policy seems to be politics (in particular, resistance from groups like Americans for Tax Reform to changes that would involve new taxes or reduced tax expenditures) rather than knowledge. We have done a shallow investigation of this area and will be writing it up in the future.

Green fields: outstanding “room for more philanthropy”

We’ve identified a small number of causes that seem to have at least moderate importance and potential tractability, while being extremely “empty” — very little infrastructure in place pushing for what we would see as positive policy change.

One such area is what Steven Teles calls “rent seeking.” The broad idea is that there are some industries in which government regulation has been captured in a manner that makes it unnecessarily difficult and expensive to provide a service, so the existing providers of this service benefit from inefficiently low levels of competition. Consequently, existing providers tend to push for preserving and expanding such regulation. A classic example would be that of taxis: an artificially restricted supply of taxi medallions makes it artificially difficult and expensive to become a taxi driver, and the existing medallion owners have an interest in continuing to artificially restrict the supply. This dynamic results in unnecessarily high taxi costs, low taxi supply, and fewer job options for people who would consider being taxi drivers. It’s been claimed that similar dynamics apply, to varying degrees, to a broad range of occupations, both lower-skilled and higher-skilled (such as doctors, dentists, lawyers, and accountants).

Prof. Teles believes that there is little in the way of concentrated advocacy groups to counteract “rent seeking” in occupational licensing (by arguing for less protective regulation and more permissiveness in who can e.g. drive taxis), and that even creating a small advocacy infrastructure could make a big difference in combating artificial supply restrictions. Most importantly, a small number of victories at the local and/or state level could (he argues) raise the general profile of these issues, create a model for people in other areas, and lead to “compounding” policy change at the state and local level. We expect that efforts focusing on higher-skilled occupations would have quite a different profile than efforts focusing on lower-skilled occupations, and we do not have a strong sense of which is likely to be more promising.

We have had an initial conversation with Institute for Justice about this topic, and may look into it further.

Other causes in this category:

​Other causes of interest

We are interested in a few other causes that don’t fit into any of the above categories.

Some major issue areas that we are less likely to prioritize

There are other issue areas that we may investigate at some point, though we consider them less promising than the issues listed above.

Other causes we may focus on in the future, but are not including in the categories above

Helping to strengthen a broad political platform. It can be argued that the strongest impact of philanthropic engagement with policy has been long-term promotion and development of a movement. (For instance, Steve Teles has notably made this argument with respect to the conservative legal movement). Rather than picking individual policy issues in which to invest, a philanthropist with interests in a number of a causes and clear set of values might achieve more by promoting their general values, along with the people and organizations that share them (since much of the long term benefits of investment in a given area may be in the form of empowering the particular individuals who receive support, who may go on to other things). However, we do not feel that our values are broadly shared by any existing, easily located major political movements.

In particular, we generally favor policy focused on benefiting low-income and otherwise disadvantaged people, even when it involves active government — an attitude often associated with the U.S. political “left” — but we place particularly high value on the developing world. Additionally, we place high emphasis on the value of economic growth and innovation (which we feel are likely to benefit future people). In the long term, we could imagine exploring the possibility of helping to promote a political platform consistent with these values and trying to find, connect, and support people and organizations supporting this platform. We’re aware that people who share these values will have many disagreements over policy, but feel that there could nonetheless be major benefits to laying out, and promoting, a platform that emphasizes both global humanitarianism and economic development.

We think of this as a long-term possibility with highly uncertain value. We are doing some very preliminary work now to explore the idea, but feel that more direct engagement with specific issues will make us better-informed, better-connected, and overall better-positioned to explore such a possibility further down the line.

Policy related to global catastrophic risks. We are treating “global catastrophic risks” as a separate category of work at the moment, and we will be writing more later this year about our likely priorities in that category. So far, we haven’t identified clear cases in which a particular policy change seems highly important for one of what we consider the most important global catastrophic risks (other than climate change, discussed above), though this may change. We’re looking to build our general capacity for policy-oriented philanthropy by working on other causes, and will hopefully be well-positioned to do relevant policy-oriented work if and when it becomes important to do so.

Policy related to scientific research. We see policy around scientific research (for example, the budget, mandate and policies of the National Institutes of Health) as potentially extremely important, but at this time we don’t feel that we have strong enough scientific advisory capacity to have a good grasp on the relevant issues. We are building our scientific advisory capacity via separate projects, and will be writing about this more in the future. Again, we will hopefully be well-positioned to do relevant policy work if and when it becomes important to do so.

Other categories. This post has focused exclusively on our medium-term plans for U.S. policy. We continue to explore a broad variety of other sorts of philanthropic work, which we will be writing about in the future.

Bottom line and our plans from here

We’ve spent a good deal of time investigating potential focus areas in U.S. policy, and we have a very large number of questions remaining. There are many causes that we have much to learn about on many dimensions, including both questions like “How should policy change and why?” and questions like “How can a philanthropist increase the odds of a particular policy change?” One of the aims of this post is to stimulate discussion and help determine which questions are most important to focus on. Our hope is to finalize “commitments” to causes by the end of this calendar year.

Our current working agenda is as follows:

Deep investigations of cause areas: looking actively for funding opportunities and being highly open to funding them.

Medium-depth investigations of cause areas: having 5+ conversations per cause area to get a good sense of the overall landscape.

Shallow-level investigations of cause areas: having a few conversations to get a basic picture of an area. We hope to look into some of the causes we have done little investigation of, such as health care policy. However, this area is a lower priority than the above, and we aren’t sure whether we’ll get to it this year (whereas we do expect to make significant progress on all of the above points).

Hiring. Having a decent sense of our likely interests, we are working on hiring U.S.-policy-specific staff, so that when we do make commitments, we’ll have the staff available to execute on them. We have a major hire starting in June whom we will be writing more about in the future.

Limited time and capacity. At the moment, we are executing on the above agenda; if and when we complete currently-in-progress items and have more capacity, we may promote some causes from the “medium” to the “deep” level of investigation or (less likely) from “shallow” to “medium.” However, around the end of the calendar year, we expect to use whatever information and staff we have at that time to make commitments.