80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#94 – Ezra Klein on aligning journalism, politics, and what matters most

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

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.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

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.

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

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

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