Interviews with interesting people on science, ethics, and politics, with a focus on guests from Effective Altruism and Left-wing communities.
34 - Carl Robichaud on Oppenheimer and Dealing with Nukes
Carl Robichaud is the first person I go to on the topic of nuclear weapons. He has been working as a grantmaker and analyst of nuclear weapons policy for close to two decades. He co-leads nuclear security grantmaking at Longview Philanthropy, where I used to work as a media consultant. Prior to Longview, Carl led nuclear grantmaking for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
We recently saw Oppenheimer together and decided to have a discussion about the film, the real history, and nuclear weapons more broadly.
This episode is being released on the 78th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The Nagasaki bombing happened just three days later, after the Japanese emperor had already secretly decided to surrender. As we discuss, the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in war in the nearly eight decades since should be seen as a remarkable achievement, or a sign of extreme luck.
We have a spoiler-filled discussion of the new film Oppenheimer and the real history until 31:12, in case you’d like to skip ahead.
Alternatives to bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The controversial development of the hydrogen bomb
Oppenheimer's retrospective feelings about the bomb
Health effects of nuclear tests
Why the world isn't totally full of nukes
Whether ICBMs can be justified while nuclear subs exist
Why the US won't commit to no first use
How arms control agreements help get out of traps
Ukraine and the possible breaking of the nuclear taboo
Would we all die
Whether there's always a “guy in the chair”
What we should do
Aspiring for a world free of nuclear weapons
Calls to action
The decline of activist and philanthropic interest in nuclear weapons
Estimated nuclear warhead stockpiles, 1945 to 2022
“The Illogic of Nuclear Escalation” by Fred Kaplan in Asterisk Magazine
The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg
Humankind by Rutger Bregman
My discussion of the book with Rutger
“The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered” by Barton J Bernstein in Foreign Affairs
“Counting the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” by Alex Wellerstein in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
“The Puzzle of Non-Proliferation” by Carl in Asterisk Magazine
Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine by Mariana Budjeryn
80,000 Hours Podcast: Daniel Ellsberg on the creation of nuclear doomsday machines, the institutional insanity that maintains them, and a practical plan for dismantling them.
”Ronald Reagan’s Disarmament Dream” by Jacob Weisberg in the Atlantic
How many people would be killed as a direct result of a US-Russia nuclear exchange? By Luisa Rodriguez
Wikipedia: List of nuclear close calls
“39 years ago today, one man saved us from world-ending nuclear war” by Dylan Matthews in Vox
Longview Philanthropy: Nuclear Weapons Policy Fund
“The biggest funder of anti-nuclear war programs is taking its money away” by Dylan Matthews in Vox
General Advisory Committee's Majority and Minority Reports on Building the H-Bomb - October 30, 1949
J. Robert Oppenheimer - Address to the American Philosophical Society - delivered 16 November 1945, University of Pennsylvania, PA
33 - Habiba Islam on the Left and Effective Altruism
[This episode was recorded before the FTX collapse. It contains some discussion of Sam Bankman-Fried. Habiba has asked me to pass on that, to say the least, she no longer endorses what she says about Sam as an example of someone doing good. I've also linked in the show notes to her twitter thread with her thoughts on FTX.]
This episode is a long time in the making. We’re going deep on the intersection of effective altruism (EA) and the left.
When I tell people that I’m a leftist and into effective altruism, they’re often surprised. A lot of the recent criticism of EA from the left may make it seem like the ideas and communities are incompatible, causing people to genuinely ask, can you be an effective altruist and a leftist? I think you can. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real tensions between the two approaches to improving the world.
This is not meant to be a point by point rebuttal of any criticisms of EA or the left. Instead, I wanted to better understand myself how these ideas interact.
To discuss this, I brought on Habiba Islam. Habiba is a career advisor for 80,000 Hours, an organization that helps people find high-impact careers. 80,000 Hours grew out of the effective altruism movement, but Habiba also identifies as a leftist. As you’ll soon discover, Habiba has given these ideas a lot of thought and helped clarify a lot of longstanding confusions for me.
We go through our backgrounds with the left and EA and attempt to define each. We then go through hidden agreements EA and the left have, misconceptions each has about the other, and the real disagreements between EA in practice and the left.
When I first got into EA and left politics, I had grand plans to try to reconcile the two. I felt like EA’s commitment to prioritization, responding to evidence, and doing whatever works could help make the left better at achieving its goals. And I thought that the left’s ability to build movements, shape narratives, analyze power, and understand history could shore up some major blindspots within EA. Time has tempered my ambitions a bit, and I think there are good reasons why the left and EA will and should remain distinct things. But there is still a lot each can learn from the other.
Left critiques of EA:
2015 LRB essay on effective altruism: Stop the Robot Apocalypse
Jacobin: Against Charity: Rather than creating an individualized “culture of giving,” we should be challenging capitalism’s institutionalized taking.
Paper: Effective Altruism and Anti-Capitalism: An Attempt at Reconciliation
Vox: Caring about the future doesn’t mean ignoring the present: Effective altruism hasn’t abandoned its roots.
Winners of the EA Criticism and Red Teaming Contest
Jacobin: The Socialist Case for Longtermism
Book: The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution
TED Talk: How civilization could destroy itself -- and 4 ways we could prevent it | Nick Bostrom
Book: Four Futures: Life After Capitalism
Paper: The Fallacy of Philanthropy by Paul Gomberg
Wikipedia: TRIPS Agreement
Effective Altruism Forum: Growth and the case against randomista development
Effective Altruism Forum: Tax Havens and the case for Tax Justice
Effective Altruism Forum: Cause area proposal: International Macroeconomic Policy
How Rich Am I? Find out how rich you are compared to the rest of the world – are you on the global rich list?
Slow Boring: The rise and importance of Secret Congress
32 - Rutger Bregman on Why People Are Decent, Effective Altruism, and Causing Tucker Carlson’s Meltdown
Rutger Bregman is the bestselling author of Utopia for Realists and Humankind: a Hopeful History. He has been profiled in the New York Times and interviewed on the Daily Show. Rupert Murdoch has been spotted reading his book, and Tucker Carlson called him a “fucking moron.”
I first came across Rutger years ago when a friend was reading Utopia for Realists. The book, which argues for UBI, open borders, and a 15 hour work week, intrigued me, but I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read it.
He popped back up on my radar when he appeared at Davos, the annual gathering of the super-wealthy, and lambasted his audience for not talking about taxes. The viral moment he created led to an invitation onto Tucker Carlson’s show, where Rutger’s challenge to the Fox News host led to what can only be described as a meltdown. In our interview, Rutger goes deeper into the full story of both events than I’ve seen anywhere else.
We spend the bulk of the interview discussing his book Humankind, which argues that people are actually pretty decent, but power corrupts. This is one of my favorite books, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
We wrap up with a discussion of Rutger’s relationship with effective altruism, the philosophy and social movement trying to do as much as possible to improve the world.
In particular, we discuss:
His career and the publication of Utopia for Realists
The unlikely success of the book
His trip to Davos
Making Tucker Carlson lose his mind
Veneer theory and why Rousseau is underrated
How people actually behave in disasters
Why carpet bombing cities backfires
Why distance kills
The domestication of humans
Why socializing makes us smart
The problems with Milgram's shock experiments
The replication crisis
Criticisms of Rutger’s portrayal of hunter gatherer life
His journey to effective altruism
His ideas for solving EA’s billionaire problem
His plans for an EA-adjacent book
The broader changes to EA over the years
Hijacking status for good
How committing your career to helping others might actually make you happiest
Discourse on Inequality
The Doomsday Machine
The Secret of Our Success
The Dawn of Everything
The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months
The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe
Giving What We Can
TMIPIK - Leah Garcés on Working with Factory Farmers to Help Animals
If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich?
Famine, Affluence, and Morality
Yes, it’s all the fault of Big Oil, Facebook and ‘the system’. But let’s talk about you this time
31 - Alexander Zaitchik on How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and author with work in The New Republic, The Nation, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Zaitchik has written two books, one about Glenn Beck and another exploring Trump’s America. He’s working on a third, out in January 2022, called Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine, from Aspirin to Covid-19.
This episode is about one of the most important stories in the world right now: global vaccine production and distribution. Alex wrote a long-form investigation in the New Republic called “How Bill Gates Impeded Global Access to Covid Vaccines”, which goes deep into the global intellectual property paradigm that is limiting vaccine production and the people who defend it.
We recorded this episode before the US announced support for some kind of waiver on vaccine patents. It’s important to note that the US did not back the TRIPS waiver proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020. The US is also reportedly concerned that sharing information would undermine American competitiveness with China and Russia in biopharmaceuticals. The idea that it would be bad if more countries developed the ability to make advanced vaccines is emblematic of the harms of prioritizing profit-making in an industry so essential to human wellbeing. A source in the Biden administration also said the negotiations are expected to take months.
Last Thursday, the Gates Foundation reversed course and supported a temporary suspension of IP rights on Covid vaccines. The Foundation’s statement cites the number of cases in Brazil and India as a reason to support the suspension. But Bill Gates was pushing against any efforts to suspend IP protections right until the US supported some kind of waiver. Gates’ firm position for over a year has been that IP protections play zero role in limiting vaccine supply, but now his foundation supports suspending those protections because we need to increase vaccine supply so badly. Either Gates recently came across some really persuasive evidence, or public opinion actually can still matter.
As I record this, India is being ravaged by Covid. Yesterday, nearly 400,000 new cases were reported, a number which almost certainly represents a small fraction of true cases. Less than 10 percent of the country has received even one dose of vaccine. Hospitals and crematoria alike are overwhelmed and there is an acute shortage of wood due to the sheer number of deaths. Domestic policy failures of the Modi government play a big role in this story, but so too do the choices of pharmaceutical firms and their client governments like the United States and other rich countries.
We cover a lot of ground and dispel a lot of myths propagated by the pharmaceutical industry.
We specifically discuss:
Gates’ heavily managed perception as a do-gooder
His approach to public health and what opportunities it forecloses
How Gates' ideological investments run deeper than his financial ones
The affirmative case for IP protections in drug development
The problems with that case
Alternative models of incentivizing drug development
The incentives the current system creates
A brief history of drug development in the US
How the US military developed a majority of successful vaccines made in the 20th century
The story of South Africa and AIDS drugs
The TRIPS waiver proposal
Whether it's true that IP is the reason we aren't maximizing vaccine production
Moderna’s empty promise to not enforce their patents
The argument that profit motives haven’t been strong enough
The PR boon vaccines have been for big pharma
What a fully public response could have looked like
A response to Gates’ argument that IP is necessary for quality control
How a tech billionaire became the de facto global public health czar
The role he really plays in the public health space
I think this is one of the most important episodes of the show so far. So much rides on whether governments make de
30 - Tobias Leenaert on the Pragmatic Path to a Vegan World
Tobias Leenaert is the author of How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach, which has been translated into five languages. He is the cofounder of ProVeg International, which aims to reduce the consumption of animal products by 50% by 2040. Tobias also writes the Vegan Strategist blog, where he shares strategies for convincing people to reduce their animal product consumption.
the difference between pragmatism and idealism in animal advocacy
why intentions matter less than we think
“vegalomania” and whether a vegan diet is really the healthiest
when behavior change leads belief change
how vegetarians reduce almost as much harm as vegans
how reducetarian do more for animals than vegans
how much easier it's gotten to be vegan
veganism's bad brand and why so many people hate on vegans
a thought experiment for vegans
why strict veganism can be counterproductive
how you can help animals without being a vegan or vegetarian
where analogies between animal agriculture and other crimes break down
how to be an effective animal advocate
what he’s most looking forward to
I think this episode is useful for both vegetarians and vegan activists and people who are interested in consuming less animal products but aren’t sure how.
Vegetarians reducing almost as much suffering as vegans
60% of veggies ate meat in last 24 hrs
MOST AMERICANS DIDN'T APPROVE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. BEFORE HIS DEATH, POLLS SHOW
Chomsky on the lack of early meaningful opposition to the Vietnam war
Rules for Radicals
29 - Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes, the Iraq War, protest music, and the music industry under socialism
Conor Oberst is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the last twenty years. Best known for his work with Bright Eyes, Oberst has also collaborated with Flea, Jim James, Alt-J, and Phoebe Bridgers. His most recent song, “Miracle of Life”, featuring Bridgers, raised money for Planned Parenthood and opposed Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Oberst sat for an interview with me this fall as the first in a series for Jacobin. An edited and condensed transcript can be found here. We talked a bit about politics (Oberst made public stances against the Iraq War and supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020) and a lot about music.
I’ve been a big fan of Bright Eyes and Conor’s solo work for years now, so it was a real treat to get to chat with him.
Be sure to check out Bright Eyes's first album in 9 years, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
As always, you can find me on Twitter @GarrisonLovely
When’s the next ep coming out
I originally found this podcast because one of my favorite magazine authors was interviewed here. Every episode I've listened to so far has been interesting - a good deal moreso than a lot of shows I've heard. Highly recommend!