Announcing Balsa Research
What are the most important policy changes America should make and how can we make them happen?
If we do not address the deep dysfunctions of our government and its policies, we put our democracy and entire civilization at risk. People whose lives are getting worse, who have no hope and cannot envision a future, inevitably turn to authoritarianism. A focus on telling people how terrible and fascist Donald Trump is did not work well in 2016 or 2020 and is not the best way to keep him out of the White House in 2024. It will not help us prosper and overcome political differences. Even if he is kept out in 2024, either we turn things around or things will keep getting worse.
My new project, together with Moshe Looks and Alyssa Vance, is to chart paths forward to improve federal policy, and lay groundwork to implement those improvements. That means taking into account political feasibility. It means getting the proposals and messaging into the hands of candidates. It means commissioning academic studies quantifying costs and benefits and advance drafting of legislative language.
Consider the pandemic. Our government’s actions these past two years not only failed to make the pandemic better, they often actively made the pandemic worse while spending trillions. Our response to a potential next pandemic, monkeypox, was similarly botched.
Some of my most read posts point out clear cases where the government makes things worse, like car seat mandates so bad they serve as contraception, a law that makes it impossible to maintain modern ports in working order for basically no reason, and rules against container stacking that did major damage to our supply chains.
A few years ago I would have left such tasks to ‘the adults in the room.’ There are no such adults. Someone has to, and no one else will. If you tell me someone is already on the case and Doing the Thing, this means little. The situation is not ‘handled.’ Elites have lost all credibility.
I also believe that almost all existing organizations nominally dedicated to such purposes face poor incentive structures due to how they are funded and garner attention, and are not testing the hypothesis that the problem could be solved. I will test that hypothesis.
There is far more hope for improvement than almost anyone realizes. Lobbying when done right is remarkably cheap and effective. Secret congress can be productive. Many marginal improvements are highly valuable, with no substantial downsides and compounding benefits.
Low-hanging improvement is often as simple as not restricting supply and not subsidizing demand. A sample: Reforming NEPA, the NRC, zoning and the FDA including a right to try for drugs, pandemic preparedness, repealing protectionist policies (Jones Act, Dredge Act, ‘made in America’, etc), ending qualified immunity and civil forfeiture, legalizing marijuana, avoiding 100%+ marginal tax rates, increasing high-skill immigration, fixing student loans, and NGDP level targeting by the Federal Reserve. The civil service and procurement urgently need reform.
Campaigns bleed tons of value all the time, leaving large room for improvement. Big mistakes made the difference in 2016, almost did in 2020 and are likely again in the future.
We need your help - growing the team, engineering new software, analyzing policy space, finding experts, making connections, commissioning academic studies, drafting laws, writing up results, refining messaging, ultimately lobbying and working with campaigns, and of course raising money.
If you are interested in hearing more please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and start the subject line with the most relevant category: policy (include what area if applicable), tech, media, networking, lobbying, campaigning or money, and then tell us about yourself and what interests you, or fill out this Google Doc.
> That means taking into account political feasibility.
That makes everything much more complicated and much less intellectually interesting. It is likely to corrupt your thinking about the world. It’s also a waste of time because it’s just too hard to achieve anything that way.
If you really want to make politics better, you can achieve more by working on things like open source P2P projects that can’t be regulated, black-market vaccine distribution or Sci-Hub than by engaging with the political system in conventional ways to change the regulations.
I predict with extremely high confidence (>97%) that the three of you will not achieve any policy change similarly good to repealing child car seat laws, repealing the Foreign Dredge Act, adopting level targeting or getting vaccines approved one month earlier, whichever of those is easiest.
Speaking of easily avoidable mistakes, starting out your essay talking as if the worst problem facing America is/was Donald Trump was an enormous one. Millions of people you could have made common cause with instantly categorized you as "oh, one of those" and hit the back button. I recommend revising your approach to not mention Trump at all, even indirectly. It's easier than you'd think!