Meet the person who wants to bring effective altruism to Congress.
This year, Oregon gained a new congressional district, the state’s Sixth District, and the competitive race to fill it has drawn national attention. That’s largely thanks to the presence of one candidate, a previously obscure lawyer and activist named Carrick Flynn, who has a background in international development work. And that attention is largely due to the millions of dollars Flynn has drawn from a controversial source: the young cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.
Bankman-Fried, who founded the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, has publicly pledged to give away 99 percent of his wealth in his lifetime and has emerged as one of the biggest donors in the effective altruism (EA) community, with a particular focus in pandemic protection. That has led to an increasing role in political funding — he was one of the biggest backers of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign — and he is the chief donor to a political action committee that has given $10 million to Flynn’s House campaign.
The outside money to Flynn’s campaign has drawn sharp criticism from his opponents in the race, though Flynn states that he hasn’t actually met or even spoken to Bankman-Fried. Their connection is mainly a shared involvement in effective altruism, a philosophical and social movement that emerged out of Oxford University in the late 2000s, one that helped drive Flynn’s decision to run for Congress and could help guide his work there should he be elected.
The basic claim of EA (which also informs the work here at Future Perfect) is that evidence-based reasoning can be used to figure out how to prioritize limited resources and find the most efficient ways to improve the lives of as many people and animals as possible. That includes finding ways to mitigate or prevent catastrophic risks to humanity’s future, an area that remains chronically underfunded and neglected by governments.
Pandemics are just such a neglected risk, and preventing them has become a major EA concern, one shared by Flynn. Pandemic preparedness is a longstanding priority for him — Flynn started working in the biosecurity community in 2015, and when Covid-19 hit, he immediately dropped his other priorities to focus on it. He was frustrated that even during a deadly pandemic, Congress gave expert proposals about prevention a lukewarm reception at best, and says that he hopes he can play a role in Congress as the champion for the issue.
If Flynn wins his Democratic primary on May 17 and then the general election later this year, it will be a test for whether EA ideas — and money — can be effective in government, and not just philanthropy. Flynn spoke with Vox’s Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg and Dylan Matthews on Zoom last week about his campaign and his priorities. (Disclosure: Miranda is a former colleague of Flynn’s spouse, Kathryn Mecrow-Flynn.) A lightly edited transcript follows.
You’ve talked about pandemic preparedness as being a major motivation for your campaign. Tell us a bit about your previous work in that area.
I got involved in pandemic prevention as an area in about 2015, when I moved to Oxford. I was working with Andrew Snyder-Beattie, who is now the program officer in charge of biosecurity at the Open Philanthropy Project.
Then I moved on to Georgetown, where I was working on semiconductors and some AI stuff. During that time, I was still involved a little bit [in biorisk] but I basically dropped off. Then when Covid broke out, Andrew came back to me and he basically said, “Carrick, this is the time, I want my A-Team. Come in. You’ve got to do it.” So I left Georgetown and I jumped in and I took a run at [pandemic preparedness work].
There was a really good team assembled. We took the technical recommendations of about 145 of the world’s best experts on these fields, and we condensed them down into digestible policy components. We attached a budget to it. And then we went on to try and sell it to the White House and to Congress. The White House snapped it up — they loved it. This is why it’s in Biden’s pandemic prevention plan. They changed it a little bit, but the core was still there.
Then we went and shopped it to Congress. No one opposed it, but we didn’t find a champion. They were oddly unmotivated. We hired a lot of lobbyists, very serious folks who’ve done this professionally for the health care industry, and tried to push it through. It just didn’t go through.
Before I was running for Congress, a lot of people suggested I should run, for a lot of reasons. For me, though, the thing that really stood at the front of my mind was just knowing [that bill] is in there. It’s such a good bill. It probably would prevent almost any pandemic. It’s expensive, but it’s several orders of magnitude cheaper than the cost of a pandemic, not to mention the horrifying cost in lives. And it seems as though it really did need a champion.
I’m curious how you talk about issues like pandemic preparedness, or the long-term future with voters. My experience of House races is that people are usually talking about their kids’ education, about health care, about these immediate material things. How do you make the case that this is worth your time, and part of what it means to represent them?
My first priority is pandemic prevention. There’s a window for that that’s already closing and we need to get it through as quickly as possible. So if I am elected, the first thing I’m going to do is go all in to get that passed.
More broadly, I think economic growth, the progress studies approach — making sure that we are investing in good research, that we’re getting good jobs back, that we’re not having laws and regulations that are making people artificially poor or resulting in homelessness —these things really matter a lot.
Beyond that, a lot of the technology concerns also meld in with economic concerns in terms of automation: the unemployment from that, but also the opportunities, which is if you get these cool technologies out, there’s whole new industries. If you have good economic growth and whole new industries, then you can jump over the dangerous gap where you’re relying on fossil fuels. You can get to clean technologies; we don’t have to do any sort of degrowth thing. We can get to a point where we’re able to actually start sequestering carbon.
I’m in Oregon. We’ve had wildfires. We have floods all the time because of the environmental damage. When I was nine I was left homeless by a flood for about seven months. My mother was then left homeless 11 years later while I was in college by another flood, by the same river. Both were “500-year” floods. That’s a serious climate problem. Focusing on that stability as well as prosperity is something that everyone likes and resonates with everyone.
If you talk to people about what they care about for a while, almost everyone starts converging on something like their kids, or their grandkids. I think when they’re reflective on it for a little bit, that’s the thing they really care about. And then the issues that really flow most into that become the ones that they really hold tightly. I think respecting that and engaging with that and trying to get that right is something that’s very important to me.
So the three of us having this conversation are all part of the effective altruism world. We all speak that vernacular. So we’ve all read cause reports over the years making the case for different kinds of interventions to make the world a better place.
What convinced you that this is the highest-impact thing you could be doing, among the many ways that you could be having an impact? Do you think it’s important to have someone with an EA sensibility in Congress?
I think it’s really important to have people who are very committed to focusing on careful prioritization and careful evidence-based approaches. I’m not sure that necessarily means you have to be from EA, exactly.
For me in particular — it actually wasn’t my idea. I’d moved back to Oregon because I could work from home, and I didn’t want to keep living in DC. Then a new congressional district kind of opened up under me. And all sorts of people from all different areas of my life were like, “You have to run. You have to run. You have to run.” And I’m not a politician. But enough people said it to me that I started asking other people, people who I really respect, if this is something I should consider. A lot of these people are very into effective altruism reasoning.
I got such a strong, resounding “yes,” and they would have reasons why they thought this was good. So that helped a lot, talking to people with judgment I really trust.
One of the reasons why the pandemic prevention thing was useful is that I actually do think pandemic prevention is worth literally trillions of dollars in the expected value that comes if we can get this thing passed. Pandemics are so bad and there’s reason to think, with climate change and technological advances, that this is going to keep happening and get worse. The cost of it is so low. If I got elected and I had some small chance of being able to actually get this thing passed, the value of that would be everything, you know? It certainly was enough to make me overcome a personal reluctance.
The effective altruism mindset is very global: It’s trying to help all humans, all of the animals, people who are in the future and not born yet. A lot of your previous work has been on global-scale problems. But in Congress, you would also be representing 700,000 specific people and their specific concerns, and would have a responsibility to attend to them and their local issues. I’m just curious how you think about making that shift.
It doesn’t, to me, feel like a shift. My goal is always to try and do a lot of good. And that almost always means that you have some domain in which you’re working, and to try and do a lot of good in that domain.
When I was in Kenya, I was really trying to help the kids in this school and the women at this maternity clinic. It’s not to the exclusion of everyone else, it’s just, this is my job now. When I was in India, I was trying to help rural children access health programs, get nutritional fortification, starvation re-feeding, vaccination, etc. In my mind, these people are my constituents, and I’m all in.
Now I’m in Oregon and I’m home. There’s a lot to be said for being home. I have this opportunity to help the people here and help them realize the things they care about — their children and their grandchildren’s futures — and to help the economy here, but not just here. This spills over, this is going to help all over the US, this can have great effects globally. It doesn’t feel like a tension. It feels like a continuation of the goal the whole time and the approach the whole time.
Sam Bankman-Fried’s PAC has spent over $10 million on this race, which is more than any independent group has spent in any other congressional primary. Your critics have more or less accused him of trying to buy the race for you. I wanted to give you a chance to respond to that and give your interpretation of his involvement.
First, I’ve never met him, I’ve never talked to him. I don’t have any information that anyone else doesn’t have. I actually don’t have any information that’s not public with, I guess, one exception, which is information I think other people think they have, which is they think I’m involved in crypto or something. That is not the case. I’m not a crypto person. I don’t know very much about it. I’ve never looked at regulations for it. I don’t think it’s a priority.
Left with that information, my take is speculative, but what I will say is it seems to me like Sam Bankman-Fried is someone who legitimately wants to prevent pandemics from happening again. I am on board. I love that, great goal. Let’s do it. I see why he would want to support me for that, since I’ve made this my first priority and I’ve got a history in this. He’s also supported other candidates and sitting congresspersons who have good pandemic prevention policies, with less money, but I can see why he’d want to give more to the person with more background in it.
Also, the race is pretty close. I’m probably winning, but not by a lot. So he might want to invest more funding in it.
In terms of the problems with campaign finance generally, I didn’t know it in great detail. I actually didn’t know how a PAC worked, and I didn’t know what was going on when suddenly there are people making ads about me. I got into the campaign without knowing how it worked.
It doesn’t look good. You go up to it close and you’re not like, “Oh this system works!” You’re like, “Oh, this is deeply flawed.” And there’s other ways [the system] is flawed as well. Individuals can self-fund. That’s a problem because it pushes poor people like myself out of the race. (That’s another myth. I made $40,000 last year. I am not the rich candidate, and I gave a lot of that away to charity.) We have things where there’s a local party machine that anoints a successor and then they have this apparatus around them. None of these things are good.
If I’m elected, I have every intention to get behind campaign finance reform. I would definitely jump on any bill like that. I am happy that within this bad system, everything that’s been said about me by myself, and by others advocating on behalf of me, has been true and has been positive. There’s been no attacks on anybody. It’s entirely been, “Here’s the policy positions, and here are the real priorities.”
As far as special interest groups go, I don’t like that as an institution. But possibly the best one I could imagine was one for “no more pandemics.”
For the record, what are your views on crypto regulation? Do you have views on crypto regulation at all? That’s the other frequent accusation, that you’re a stalking horse for Bankman-Fried to get his preferred regulations through.
Yeah, I hear that too. I don’t know enough about crypto to know enough about the regulations. After I got accused of this stuff, I started to go back and try and read about it. It was dense, I didn’t really care. If I’m a congressperson and this comes up, I will put my nose to the grindstone, I will learn this topic and I will actually figure out how to vote. I am not doing that on spec. I don’t want to spend my time on this, I don’t think this is that important.
As a heuristic, I would decide the way you should decide on normal financial regulations. Are you going to be ripping off working-class and middle-class people? Is this something that allows for a lot of exploitation? If it is, you have to regulate it and otherwise, you know, sure. You need financial markets. That’s about it. But in terms of what that actually means in crypto, I have no idea.
Author: Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg