How effective altruists ignored risk

Carla Cremer in Vox:

In May of this past year, I proclaimed on a podcast that “effective altruism (EA) has a great hunger for and blindness to power. That is a dangerous combination. Power is assumed, acquired, and exercised, but rarely examined.”

Little did I know at the time that Sam Bankman-Fried, — a prodigy and major funder of the EA community, who claimed he wanted to donate billions a year— was engaged in making extraordinarily risky trading bets on behalf of others with an astonishing and potentially criminal lack of corporate controls. It seems that EAs, who (at least according to ChatGPT) aim “to do the most good possible, based on a careful analysis of the evidence,” are also comfortable with a kind of recklessness and willful blindness that made my pompous claims seem more fitting than I had wished them to be.

By that autumn, investigations revealed that Bankman-Fried’s company assets, his trustworthiness, and his skills had all been wildly overestimated, as his trading firms filed for bankruptcy and he was arrested on criminal charges. His empire, now alleged to have been built on money laundering and securities fraud, had allowed him to become one of the top players in philanthropic and political donations. The disappearance of his funds and his fall from grace leaves behind a gaping hole in the budget and brand of EA. (Disclosure: In August 2022, SBF’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.)

People joked online that my warnings had “aged like fine wine,” and that my tweets about EA were akin to the visions of a 16th-century saint. Less flattering comments pointed out that my assessment was not specific enough to be passed as divine prophecy. I agree. Anyone watching EA becoming corporatized over the last years (the Washington Post fittingly called it “Altruism, Inc.” ) would have noticed them becoming increasingly insular, confident, and ignorant. Anyone would expect doom to lurk in the shadows when institutions turn stale.

More here.