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Thinking about Influence in DC
Highlights from my conversation with Alec Stapp
On the CSPI Podcast this week, I talk to Alec Stapp, co-founder of the just launched Institute for Progress. You can listen to it here, or watch the video below.
It was a fascinating conversation, as Alec provided some interesting ideas about how to have influence in the real world, something I’ve thought a lot about. I’ve been paying attention to the political “discourse” for almost two decades now, and over time I’ve come to have less interest in theoretical debates and philosophizing for its own sake. I’m not that old, but I’ve seen debates come and go, countless essays refuting bad ideas that nonetheless continue to have influence, and countless unquestionably good ideas that would help a lot of people for little cost go nowhere. We have too many thinkers and essayists, not enough doers. This may be a bit hypocritical coming form me, yet another thinker, but I at least try to tie my writings to actual policy recommendations and put forward advice that can be useful to politicians and activists who agree with me on important issues.
Alec is definitely a doer. We first met last year during Tyler Cowen’s conference for Emergent Ventures winners, and that’s where I first learned about the Institute for Progress. As I told him during the podcast, the rest of us may think of him as an ambassador for rationalists in a city that has been dominated by other ideas. I found it very interesting to pick his brain on how DC works and how he thinks about policy change more generally. I recommend listening to the whole thing, but if you don't, some highlights from the conversation are below, broken up by topic and lightly edited for clarity. The YouTube video is at the bottom of the page.
To read more about the Institute for Progress, see the introductory essay by Alec and Caleb Watney here.
Starting a Think Tank
Richard: Why start a think tank out of all the things you could do with your life?
Alec: It’s a great question, from two angles I guess, one personal and one more macro-level. On a personal level, you should think about as an individual in your own career how you can have the most impact. What skills you have that differentiate you from others, the classic ‘what’s your comparative advantage?’ in the marketplace. Both me and my cofounder Caleb Watney, we worked in think tanks for the last five or six years in DC. We’ve seen a lot of that ecosystem. That’s where our skillset comes from, doing a lot of research and advocacy on technology and innovation issues. We’ve seen the inner workings of how these organizations work, we’ve had the pleasure of working at a lot of great institutions.
But once you’re on the inside, people like us who have a lot of strong opinions – Caleb and I both have interests in a lot of different policy areas beyond just narrowly defined technology and innovation policy – and so we’ve been talking for a couple years now about “What if one day we did our own thing? How differently would we run it?”
The cool thing about starting a new institution is you can start with a clean slate. Taking over something that is pre-existing, it would be a lot harder to turn it around or change the inertia or momentum of the pre-existing institution. We were excited to start from a clean slate, hire the very best people from day one, start a new mission, and build out a new institution.
We also felt an increasing desire for new institutions in DC. A lot of people are very excited about funding, supporting, and promoting work from new organizations as well. So we thought the time was right for that and decided to pull the trigger last summer.
Richard: Yeah, I encourage people to read your mission statement. “Progress is a policy choice” by you and Caleb. You guys are focusing on three topics mostly. Is it exclusively those three? How hard of a rule is that? If someone comes at you with something great about housing to do a report… Because you guys do that construction stuff, right? And that doesn’t fall under metascience, biosecurity, or immigration…
Alec: Correct. They’re actually the starting areas. Our long-run plan is to be a general-purpose think tank and work on every major policy area that we deem as important and where we can add value to the debate. Our mission statement is very broad; we are a think tank dedicated to accelerating scientific, technological, and industrial progress while safeguarding humanity’s future. So it’s very broad and can encompass many things.
The first three policy areas that you mentioned. So metascience: how do we fund science, how do we change the incentives of science? Immigration: how do we get more, in particular, scientists, doctors, engineers coming to the US? How do we be proactive about high-skilled immigration? The third area, biosecurity, a lot of that is how do we prevent future pandemics? How do we mitigate their effects? And how do we accelerate some of the low-hanging fruit in biotech? How do we do really cool things with mRNA technology or CRISPR?
So those are our three areas to start. We want to be able to show progress, to show our model works in those areas, and kind of focus the organization on three areas we deem important, neglected, tractable, which is kind of an effective altruist framework for thinking about which issues to work on. But we definitely plan on adding new areas over time. You mention housing, I would say urbanism as a policy category area is one of the likeliest areas we expand into next, and I would likely add climate and energy as well as an area we think is sufficiently important that if we found the right person to lead that area for us, we’d add it pretty quickly.
How DC Really Works
Richard: This might be a boring question for someone familiar with the inner workings of DC, but what goes on behind the scenes of a successful think tank in trying to influence policy? And what are you guys going to do that is the same or different?
Alec: It’s hard for outsiders to understand how it works. Some of our friends are in Silicon Valley working in tech or adjacent fields, and they’re often skeptical of DC. It’s known as the swamp, it’s known as just gridlock, nothing gets done in DC, it’s mostly a barrier or bottleneck to progress or innovation. They don’t see it enabling a lot of stuff. We think that’s misguided, or at least a distorted view of what happens in DC.
First what we do differently: We do a lot of the standard think tank things in terms of research and advocating directly in person on The Hill or at government agencies. But we’re actually tilted more towards the behind the scenes game, because we’ve built a structure for our think tank where the stakeholders are aligned with us on that.
What I mean by that is that the traditional think tank funding model is being funded by individuals, corporations and foundations – some mix of those three funding sources. And oftentimes you’re working with professional program managers at those organizations who need to justify their own jobs. They need to tell their boss, “here’s an output I got from the think tank on X, Y, or Z issue.” It’s extremely hard to measure actual policy impact. Did that legible output actually affect the policy output? It’s very hard to know. And oftentimes the person doesn’t really care about the policy impact. They’re more just like, “do a good job and makes the bosses happy,” which is reasonable of course.
We actually really care about having policy impact, and not maximizing just for explicit deliverables. Like you know, there are a lot of webinars during COVID, we think webinars are overrated as to whether people actually watch or attend them. It’s an easy thing where people can check a box for a donor and say “we did a thing we committed to doing.” Or we’ll let you write research papers, but should we commit 12 months ahead of time to writing a 40-page paper on X topic? Not necessarily if it’s not the right time to deliver new research on that, or if the legislative cycle is not attuned to it.
We’re doing much more flexible behind-the scenes-things, like working closely with legislative staff. The way policymaking works in DC now is every year we have a few must-pass pieces of omnibus legislation where they just pack everything from a ton of different policy areas into one bill. So can you insinuate yourself into that process, tweak things on the margin here or there, edit language, make helpful recommendations. You often can’t drive that process because then you’re an annoying voice in the room. But if you align yourself with the policymaker staff and say “what are your guys’ goals?” Ok, here is where we have overlap. We can help you, we can be, the term is legislative subsidy, to you all. We can help you with expertise, we can help you with time and resources to help you advance your goals so long as they overlap with our think tank’s goals.
There’s a lot of that quiet behind-the-scenes work, and there is a lot of coordinating with other partners. So as a small new think tank, we rely on working with all the other think tanks, like the Federation of American Scientists, Schmidt Futures, Zach Graves from the Lincoln Network is on our board as well, on the center right he does great work for his think tank. Often you can have more of an impact in the DC policy world if you’re coming as a chorus of voices and saying “we all as ‘experts’ agree this is the best policy.” And that helps push the ball forward with staff.
Richard: That’s interesting. So you guys are working on the margins, you’re suggesting things, you’re providing ideas to the staff. But who writes the meat of the bill? It’s the staff for like… Ok you have a congressman, you have Smith, so he has somebody on his staff. They’re not like career professionals, Smith finds them. Smith and Jones are congressmen and Smith and Jones, their top legislative person basically writes it. Is there a specialized bureaucratic class that writes the laws in this country? Is that how it works, or are there career officials? Explain it to me like I know nothing, because I don’t.
Alec: It’s a great question. These are not career civil servants like you’d find in regulatory agencies that have been around for 40 years and stick with the same jobs regardless of who wins elections. These are politically appointed staff, so the people who are writing the bills are either on committees, which are the most important staffers, or not. A committee, say if it’s a bill related to health care from the health committee… the committee staff there probably take point on controlling the legislative text of that particular bill. And then obviously, leadership offices. Bills in DC are very leadership-driven. A lot of rank and file members now complain “I don’t have input in the process,” but it’s just the reality on the ground because it’s this, again, omnibus must-pass situation, the leadership of both parties, whoever’s in power, they want to have tight reigns on the actual drafting process and the horse-trading process.
And so, talking to the staffers and leadership officers on committee staff is the most important thing, and those people often have been around for a long time, so they have a lot of expertise. I don’t want to conflate them with the “deep state” or civil servants for decades, but they often have a lot of experience. It really is a highly technical skill, how to write legislative language correctly that won’t break other pieces. They’re all interconnected and interdependent upon each other. Every clause is referencing another clause, and so it’s highly technical language. Some of the think tanks we respect the most have people on staff at their think tanks who have had that job before when they previously worked on Capitol Hill. Having people like that in your network who can know what a helpful suggestion is versus an unhelpful suggestion during that process is really key.
Richard: I keep going back to the idea of who the policy staff is and what they’re doing. So you said they’re 25 years old and they’re underpaid, which seems very important. It seems like they’re the ones who basically write the laws for the country and they’re basically underpaid 25-year-olds right out of college. Is that right? Or are there more experienced people working above them? I’m trying to see the lay of the land and how it works.
Alec: Yeah, maybe I’ll say that the median staffer is a 25-year-old on Capitol Hill. But definitely, the people who are doing the primary drafting are often older, mid-30s I would say, and do often have a decade of experience or more because it’s such a complex, demanding job. But their support staff and the teams of people in the congressional offices, these are mostly people in their 20s. I saw a report recently that the median house staffer’s salary is under $60,000, it’s like $58,000 per year or something.
Alec: Which isn’t that… one, it’s below median household income in the United States. Then you also have to remember that DC is an expensive cost-of-living city and these are almost exclusively college-educated and sometimes graduate-educated jobs. So the opportunity cost is much higher, they could get paid more in the private sector. And the hours are grueling; on Capitol Hill they often have to work evenings and weekends. It’s insanely demanding and they need help. If you can be helpful to them in the right way and it helps them advance their goals, you can be much more successful.
Richard: And the people who get these jobs… If you’re a Supreme Court clerk, usually you’re the person who went to the top law schools and you were first in your class, then you go clerk for Ginsburg or Scalia, not anymore, but other Supreme Court justices. Are these people, are they hiring state school graduates? If you’re the smartest conservative at Harvard, is going on a policy staff something you would do, or not really? I’m trying to get an idea of the kind of people who fill these jobs.
Alec: I would put them in two different buckets. The Supreme Court clerks are in a whole category of their own, they’re almost supposed to be hiring the top conservatives or liberals graduating from Ivy League schools who served on law reviews and things like that. There are so many more jobs on Capitol Hill, staffers, communications staffers, legislative directors…
Richard: How many? How many would McConnell have, how many would Schumer have, how many would the typical congressman or senator have, just ballpark, you don’t have to give me exact numbers.
Alec: I think for leadership it’s more than a dozen, maybe a couple dozen. And then for these smaller rank and file members they have six to ten full-time staff. Then you also have to remember that committee staff are full-time. So there are people who just work for the committee, not necessarily a particular member of congress. Those are the more senior jobs, the jobs that pay more, the most desirable jobs in DC. Both the majority and minority party on the committee have their own staff as well, whether they’re in the majority or minority determines how many paid staff positions you get for that. So yeah, it varies widely by how senior is your member on certain committees and are they leadership, of course.
For those jobs, for the entry-level jobs, the sorting mechanism is much less “did you go to an Ivy school” and much more “are you willing to work for $30,000 a year in Washington DC even though you’re a college graduate,” which… we advocate all the time, it’s not a primary issue for us, but we’re definitely supporters of increasing pay for these kinds of positions because we want, one, the best people, we want to be able to recruit the best to serve in government, and two, you don’t want the filtering mechanism to be whose parents can give them money to support paying their rent in DC when it’s so expensive and things like that. So often it’s who is willing to take the unpaid internship, who is willing to work long hours for low pay, and it creates bad outcomes sometimes.
The Politics of Immigration
Richard: One thing I really like about your think tank, it’s very meta-aware of what it’s doing in the sense that you’re saying “we have these issues and we picked these issues for these specific reasons,” and you even do a little bit of political analysis of what makes sense and what’s feasible and what’s not.
So when I look at the three main topics, you start with biosecurity, metascience, and immigration. It seems to me that two of them are not clearly politicized, right? Metascience and biosecurity, I don’t think anyone’s gonna get hot on cable news over either one of those things. Immigration is a little bit different. The border is the most polarized thing, illegal immigration is the most polarized… You often find even denunciations of high-skilled immigration among Republican congressmen and media personalities.
So what was the thinking behind including immigration as an issue with the other two?
Alec: Yeah, I agree with your assessment there, I think it’s definitely more polarized and partisan than our other two of the three starting issues. I think one, it’s just a recognition of how important we view this issue. So using that framework of neglected, tractable and importance, this is one of the less tractable but it’s just so important. The amount of human capital and talent we have in this country really is a driving factor in future innovation and economic growth. Recognizing this is just extremely high on the importance scale.
We’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on the high-skilled end of the immigration debate, which we think is more tractable, rather than the rest of the debate. You mentioned the border, which is very controversial as a topic. Very heated, extremely partisan. We support immigration at all levels, but we want to move the ball forward where we can. You can do that in two ways on high-skilled immigration. Obviously legislative, or through executive action.
Right now, there are a few bills going through Congress that have elements and provisions that increase the number of green cards available for high-skilled immigrants, especially for STEM graduate students, so we’ll see if those actually get to stay in the final bills as they get passed. Whether they do or not, we think there’s a lot of scope for action on the executive side. And so this is where, because it’s the executive in a Democratic administration, it doesn’t matter that much if it activates the right in a negative polarization sense because the scope for action is so large.
And so we think, on the O-1 Visa for example, the Biden administration announced reforms just a few days ago that they’re trying to make a more explicit process for immigrants with extraordinary ability to come to the United States. It’s an uncapped Visa program, and the hardest thing about it is people don’t know what it means to have extraordinary ability. How do you define that? Well, an adjudication officer determines if you fit the bill, and these applications are often about 400 pages because people don’t know what they need to prove. So the Biden administration is adding clarity to that, which we think is amazing because there is huge value in them bringing the next startup entrepreneur, the next engineer or scientist to the United States. We are the global R&D lab, we create so much technology that is really a public good for the world, and we want to keep the US at the frontier of technology.
And the last thing that I’ll note, if you look at polling, immigration is obviously controversial. A majority of Americans support either keeping immigration levels the same or increasing them, but the minority who are opposed to immigration often rank it as a more important issue. So there’s an intensity of preferences mismatch here even though the majority of Americans do support immigration. But if you ask them about high-skilled immigration, the margins go way up and even a majority of Republicans support increasing high-skilled immigration. Across Americans as a whole, it’s greater than 70% of Americans that support high-skilled immigration and think it strengthens our country. So by focusing on that issue, we think we can get more bipartisan support and make it a more tractable issue.
Richard: Another thing that’s fascinating in your introductory article… You talked about the Secret Congress, can you talk a little about that and how that figures into your thinking?
Alec: Yeah for sure. This is an idea we actually borrowed from Matt Yglesias and Simon Bazelon, they published this in Matt’s Substack newsletter called Slow Boring, I believe last summer. It’s been pretty influential in our thinking. It’s basically spelling out, again, how does modern legislating work in DC? Obviously we can have a whole different conversation about rulemaking and the regulatory process post-when a bill becomes a law, but at the legislative stage how does a bill become a law in the modern American context?
Matt and Simon persuasively argue there’s a weird paradox where the issues that are talked about the least, especially on cable news or by political pundits, those are the issues that you can actually move the ball forward and are more tractable because it doesn’t activate all this negative polarization. Secret Congress means you don’t want to talk about it too much, because that increases the odds you’ll actually get things done.
Ezra Klein had a piece in the early Obama years about the bully pulpit, it was published in The New Yorker. It was just talking about how when Obama talked about, made a big speech about a big piece of legislation, political scientists analyzed that and showed the odds of it passing actually went down because that activated negative polarization.
The one spin on this thesis, and I don’t think this section made it in the launch essay, we cut a bit of our theory of change and stuff, but what we would add to that is we think there’s a sweet spot of salience. Because lots of people will tell us “why would you do a think tank? Why would you put it on Twitter if talking about things makes them less likely to happen? Should you just shut down what you’re doing and not participate?” And we’re a little biased, because this is our job, but we do think there’s actually a sweet spot of having some salience but not too much. The sweet spot process is, I think, in this horse-trading, omnibus, must-pass legislative process, and again, these are like the annual appropriations bills, the Defense Authorization Act. A reconciliation bill is treated as almost a quasi-must-pass legislation because it’s the one opportunity to get your wishlist passed each year.
In these contexts, you do need to persuade staffers and professionals in DC that your ideas are high priority. And as the cutting happens from the topline revenue levels and there’s a lot of horse-trading happening, your idea doesn’t get dropped and left behind as the train leaves the station. We think that’s why the elite conversation on Twitter matters so much, actually participating in the discourse matters. Because during a Democratic administration you need to convince Democratic staffers and their bosses that these are popular ideas for the party, at the very least won’t hurt them during elections and will hopefully help them during elections, and that it’s within the Overton Window and this is what a good Democrat or good Republican would be willing to endorse in this process. The thing you don’t want to do is push it so hard it gets on Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson. If you want any bipartisan support for your bill, which you don’t always need but sometimes do, that’s the kiss of death. And so we think there’s a sweet spot right in the middle.
Richard: The theory is sort of in tension with democratic ideals about how things are supposed to work, right? If the elites can get together and reason with each other they can do smart things. If the masses notice too much it’s going to screw everything up, right? How do you think about that? Is it sort of a tension you just have to deal with? You’re not a political philosopher so you don’t have to answer for this, you’re just a person trying to have an impact in the real world. But how much do you think about this, and do you think about it?
Alec: Yeah that’s a fair tension to point out. I would say one, I would put more of the onus on… there are a lot of demagogues out there. I’m not a big fan of the populist spin in either party. They exploit things in bad faith. Yes, you can get a lot of people riled up, which in some sense is democratic, but I think oftentimes it’s just a highly distorted and bad-faith process. Two, I would say looking at what’s popular, what actually gets done, is preventing the next pandemic… would that be popular if you polled Americans?
This current pandemic cost the American economy $16 trillion, an estimate from Harvard economists last year. Excess death numbers, a million Americans have died, Ok? So should we spend $6 billion a year over ten years to prevent or extremely mitigate the next pandemic? I think that’s a great investment, it would very likely be popular if you talked to a lot of Americans, but it’s just not a short-term enough window for the current process to recognize or prioritize so… It’s our job to help bring in those future horizons and say, “there are really long-run things that matter a lot.” If you were able to have a conversation with the average American, I think you could actually persuade them these are popular and good for the country. But the short-term, narrow political incentives don’t always create that great policymaking outcome. So that’s how we insert ourselves into the process.
Too Much State Capacity?
Richard: Let me ask you a question on biosecurity. Do you feel like… my thinking on COVID has developed over the course of the pandemic. Early I was big into state capacity, we need to do a better job and all this stuff. Then I saw some aspects of state capacity, I saw that we were not very good at doing cost-benefit analysis. In that context, state capacity can be a double-edged sword. It can be good or it can even be bad.
Something like Omicron, it’s more mild; we caught it early so we shut down travel from these countries. We disincentivized them from tracking new variants and then we did more NPIs, where I think the cost-benefit on those don’t make a lot of sense. And if we’d just never known Omicron existed or we weren’t finding new variants, maybe we’d avoid some damaging policies. Do you worry about our ability to do cost-benefit analysis, and whether more state capacity can actually make policy worse if we don’t get that fundamental issue right?
Alec: It’s certainly possible, but I think at the federal level, the thing you want… I know that a lot of more libertarian-leaning folks are worried about state capacity in terms of lockdowns, the ability to restrict freedoms. When I think of state capacity, especially in the context of the CDC and FDA, what I’m thinking of is more competence and independent decision making, and the ability to think long-term and anticipate future problems. I would style that as a form of state capacity.
To use the variants example: I think probably the single most effective policy of the entire pandemic has been Operation Warp Speed. It brought us three safe and effective vaccines in nine months when the average expected time is years, if a vaccine is ever produced for a novel virus. And so an amazing success, beat almost everyone’s expectations, and the reason it was able to be so successful is because it leveraged the demand-pull power of the federal government, de-risking it for these manufacturers and saying, “we are incredibly committed to buying hundreds of millions of doses of a safe and effective vaccine.” It’s kind of easy to measure what safe and effective is. Some innovations like the next iPhone, it’s hard to describe what that will look like before. With a vaccine, you know how to measure in a clinical trial what safe and effective look like. So it’s the perfect candidate for advanced market commitments, this idea of promising, committing ahead of time, to purchase large quantities of a good or service.
We need to do more of that. We need Operation Warp Speed for a lot more things. I’m thinking of rapid tests, I’m thinking of medical masks. We need to be stockpiling these things so that they’re really accessible. Obviously the core problem here, on at least rapid tests, is that we didn’t authorize enough vendors. In the peak of the Delta wave we only authorized three manufacturers in the United States and dozens were available in the UK and the EU. Again, they’re not risk-seeking, they’re risk averse as well and they’re highly developed countries but they just authorized more manufacturers and rapid tests were available for a few dollars or given away for free by the government.
And so the ability to anticipate problems, stockpile appropriately, and use demand-pull mechanisms like innovation prizes, advance market commitments, milestone payments and things like that, that’s the kind of state capacity we’re definitely interested in building within the FDA and CDC.
Richard: I get that, and I trust you guys and your ideas on these things. I just worry about our politics. Sometimes I worry that there’s only like… it’s a binary thing. Either you’re at 0 and you’re not worrying about it, or you’re at 1 and you’re worrying about it. You’re trying to do something smart, do the cost-benefit analysis, do the stuff that works and don’t do the stuff that doesn’t work. I trust you pushing on that, I’m just so worried maybe we have to go to 0 or 1, that’s a pessimistic view of our politics. But yeah, you’re trying to make our politics better so you’re not going to be as pessimistic as me.
Full conversation can be watched below.