The Esoteric Social Movement Behind This Cycle’s Most Expensive House Race
Before running for Congress in Oregon’s newly created 6th Congressional District, Carrick Flynn spent seven years as an academic researcher studying the various ways that artificial intelligence could transform the future of life on Earth. The impacts of these new technologies, Flynn discovered, range from the disruptive — such as truckers losing their jobs to self-driving big rigs — to the truly dystopian, such as robotic weapon systems capable of making life-or-death decisions without the input of their human creators.
“That’s really bad,” says Flynn, matter-of-factly.
On the campaign trail, however, Flynn has had to contend not with deadly robots but with his own type of boogeyman: His largest donor, Sam Bankman-Fried, the eccentric 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire who is chief donor to a PAC that has given over $10 million to Flynn’s campaign.
Bankman-Fried’s support for Flynn has baffled outside observers and energized Flynn’s opponents, who have cast the billionaire’s intervention as a shady effort by a carpetbagging crypto-baron to influence cryptocurrency regulation in Washington. In February, a rival campaign manager denounced Bankman-Fried as “a tax-dodging billionaire” with “no place in Oregon politics,” and predicted that “the people of the 6th District are not going to let [Bankman-Fried] buy a seat for his friend regardless of how much he spends.” (Flynn says he has never spoken to Bankman-Fried.) The local media have cast an equally skeptical eye, publishing articles with headlines like “How Oregon’s New Congressional District Could Become a Colony Ruled by a Distant Crypto Prince” and raising questions about Flynn’s political credentials.
But this focus on Bankman-Fried’s background in crypto has obscured another — and even stranger — element of the billionaire’s support. Both Flynn and Bankman-Fried are adherents of a niche philosophy known as “effective altruism,” which advocates using quantitative analyses and evidence-based reasoning to maximize social good and mitigate long-term threats to humanity.
According to members of the effective altruism community, Flynn’s campaign is only the most visible part of a broader effort to grow effective altruism’s political footprint in Washington. In recent years, a collection of individual effective altruist and effective-altruism-aligned organizations have been spending big to build out a network of advocacy groups and think tanks focused on translating effective altruism’s philosophical principles into policy — principally in the areas of biosecurity, pandemic prevention and emerging technology policy. This effort marks the movement’s first major effort to expand effective altruism’s reach beyond philanthropy — where it has championed some counterintuitive ideas about charitable giving — into the messy and pragmatic arena of politics.
For some effective altruists like Flynn and Bankman-Fried, the next step in this push is to put an effective altruist into Congress. But what happens when their hyper-rational and efficiency-obsessed approach to doing good collides with America’s most irrational and inefficient governing institution? And if Flynn succeeds in becoming the first effective altruist in Congress, can he actually make it any more effective?
In 2011, an Oxford University philosopher named Derek Parfit published the second volume of a three-volume series titled On What Matters. In the book’s final pages, Parfit wrote that humankind in the 21st century was living through “the most dangerous and decisive period” of its existence so far, an era in which the “scientific and technological discoveries of the last two centuries” have given humankind “even greater powers to transform, not only our surroundings but ourselves and our successors.” Parfit called this moment “the hinge of history,” suggesting that the choices that humanity makes during the coming century will set it on a path either toward permanent flourishing or toward imminent destruction.
Parfit’s theory found a receptive audience among a small group of philosophers, philanthropists and economists working in a new school of thought called “effective altruism.” Part philosophical project and part social experiment, effective altruism was founded in the late 2000s by a handful of Parfit’s colleagues at Oxford who used quantitative analyses and evidence-based reasoning to figure out how to do the most good for the greatest number of people. Outside the classroom, effective altruists conducted complex randomized control trials of different charitable inventions to figure out which charities were helping the most people.
These analyses yielded some counterintuitive conclusions. In one study, a pair of economists found that investments in deworming medicine did more to raise school attendance in Kenya than investments in textbooks and teachers. Another analysis, published by an effective altruist organization called GiveWell, found that charities that distributed anti-malaria bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa saved one life for every $4,500 spent. Based on these findings, some effective altruists have argued that individuals can do the most good by simply making a lot of money — by entering high-earning professions with the goal of donating the majority of their earnings to charities, a strategy called “earning to give.”
In the past decade, effective altruism has spread beyond the academy, giving rise to an international grassroots community of academics, researchers, bloggers, billionaires, philanthropists, podcasters, journalists, nonprofit workers and amateur philosophers who collectively identify as “EAs.” These EAs have created an extensive network of academic research centers, charitable foundations, internet forums and annual conferences dedicated to EA’s mission.
As the movement has grown in size, its ideas have evolved with it. Now, a second wave of EAs, building upon Parfit’s “hinge of history” thesis, have embraced a set of philosophical principles called “longtermism,” which posits that safeguarding humanity’s long-term future is the single most important moral problem of our times. In the academic realm, proponents of longtermism have gathered primarily around Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, where a handful of moral philosophers have popularized the idea that EAs should focus not only on improving the lives of people who are alive today but also on safeguarding the existence of the hundreds of trillions of people who could be born into the future. As a consequence, longtermists argue that philanthropists should spend the bulk of their resources to mitigate existential threats to humanity’s long-term survival — things like nuclear war, climate change, global pandemics and AI-related apocalypses.
Which is why Carrick Flynn has spent so much time thinking about robots.
Raised in a small logging town in Oregon’s Coastal Range, Flynn attended the University of Oregon on a scholarship from the Ford Foundation before enrolling in Yale Law School, where he earned his J.D. in 2011. After graduating from Yale, Flynn began a career in international development, working for organizations in Kenya, Liberia, Timor-Leste, India, Malaysia and Ethiopia.
It was in Ethiopia that he first learned about effective altruism.
“I came across a blog post or something, and that led to some podcasts, and I sort of kept pulling on the thread and more and more came out,” says Flynn of his first exposure to EA. “I will say it’s probably the most influential school of thought or body of ideas I’ve ever come across, in terms of how I prioritize and think about what I’d like to do in the world and make up my life.”
Inspired by effective altruism and its focus on improving the long-term future, Flynn left Ethiopia in 2015 to take a job as a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute. At Oxford, Flynn began working on issues related to artificial intelligence and pandemic prevention, and he eventually helped found an affiliated research institute dedicated to AI. In 2018, he left Oxford for Washington D.C., where he continued his work at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
Flynn’s research interest collided with reality in the spring of 2020, when the onset of the coronavirus pandemic confirmed what Flynn and his colleagues had been saying for years: that the global pandemic mitigation system was woefully inadequate to prevent a major pandemic. Flynn describes watching the failures of the international effort to contain the spread of Covid as “horrifying.”
“There had been people screaming bloody murder about it,” says Flynn. “I know — I was in the community of people screaming bloody murder about it.”
But even more disheartening, says Flynn, was the subsequent refusal among U.S. lawmakers to take any meaningful steps to improve the country’s pandemic preparedness system — even as experts warned that future viruses could be much deadlier than Covid.
From his job at Georgetown, Flynn had a front-row seat to the political inaction. In early 2021, Flynn helped draft a report that included a plan for $65.3 billion in new federal investments to prevent future pandemics. The White House published the report in a slightly modified form in September of 2021 as its 27-page American Pandemic Preparedness Plan.
When Flynn and his colleagues took the plan to Congress, though, they were met with stony indifference.
“I remember one staffer, he asked me, ‘Yeah, sure, it sounds fine, I guess. But do they make any of this PPE in my district?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. … But I do know that you lost well over a thousand people just in your district,’” Flynn recalls. “They just sort of lost track of the thread or something.”
A few months later, Flynn, who had moved back to Oregon with his wife during the pandemic, decided to launch his congressional campaign.
“Politics was not the plan at all — I was very much a behind-the-scenes policy wonk,” says Flynn, who has only voted twice in Oregon in the past 14 years, according to voter files. “[But] if I have even a 20 percent chance of getting in this position where I could potentially do so much good — if I could actually move forward Biden’s pandemic prevention plan — that would make everything worth it.”
In Oregon, Flynn has risen to the top of a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls vying to represent the state’s 6th Congressional District, which stretches from southwestern Portland through Polk and Yamhill County, including the greater-Salem area. A recent poll found Flynn in a tight race for the nomination with Oregon state representative Andrea Salinas ahead of the May 17th primary.
Much of the national coverage of Flynn’s campaign has focused on Bankman-Fried’s decision to spend over $13 million to support Flynn and a slew of other Democratic candidates through a PAC called Protect Our Future. Bankman-Fried’s support for Flynn is not his first foray into national politics: He spent over $5 million to support Joe Biden’s campaign during the 2020 election cycle, and has testified in front of Congress about cryptocurrency on three difficult occasions, including as recently as Thursday. But his support for Flynn is by far his largest and most unconventional political invention yet. With less than a week before the primary, Protect Our Future has spent over $10 million on Flynn’s campaign alone — over three times as much as any other House candidate has received in outside spending. Bankman-Fried did not respond to a request for comment.
Flynn, who has also won the backing of the House Majority PAC, says he was only peripherally aware of Bankman-Fried before entering the race.
“I knew about him as a person who made a ton of money doing crypto stuff as part of an earning-to-give thing,” says Flynn, who says he has never met or spoken to Bankman-Fried. “I mostly knew that as an interesting novelty — like ‘Wow, that’s weird.’”
“Weird” is perhaps an understated way of describing Bankman-Fried, whom a recent profile in Bloomberg described as “a thought experiment from a college philosophy seminar come to life.” The son of two Stanford law professors, Bankman-Fried developed an interest in effective altruism as an undergraduate at MIT. Inspired by the earning-to-give model, he spent three years on Wall Street before founding Alameda Research, a cryptocurrency trading firm, in 2017. Two years later, Bankman-Fried and his business partner, Gary Wang, used the proceeds from Alameda Research to launch FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange headquartered in the Bahamas.
Although the total value of Bankman-Fried’s assets can fluctuate by billions of dollars depending on the state of the cryptocurrency market, Forbes estimates his net worth to be somewhere around $24 billion, which would make him the 58th richest person on the planet.
True to the effective altruist credo, Bankman-Fried has publicly pledged to give away 99 percent of his wealth in his lifetime, and he reportedly donated upward of $50 million to various causes in 2021, according to Bloomberg. Within the EA community, Bankman-Fried has taken some unorthodox positions about how large-dollar philanthropists should spend their money. In particular, he has been critical of EA’s hesitancy to spend big on politics and policy, a tendency he ascribes to EAs’ preferences for causes that guarantee tangible and easily quantifiable benefits, like anti-malaria beds and antiworming pills.
“[Public policy] is an enormously influential area, and it’s one that I think there [aren’t] enough effective altruists getting into right now,” said Bankman-Fried during a recent interview with 80,000 Hours, a popular podcast among EAs. “My instinct [in the political realm] is yes, we don’t know what we’re talking about there in some ways — but come on, we can make guesses.”
And Bankman-Fried has not hesitated to put big money behind his guesses. After Covid hit the United States in 2020, he provided the seed capital for Guarding Against Pandemics, a pandemic preparedness advocacy group now run by his brother Gabe, and its associated PAC. The group has been growing its lobbying footprint in Washington, and in May, it hired the powerful lobbying firm Ridge Policy Group, run by former DHS Secretary and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, to oversee its advocacy efforts on the Hill.
Bankman-Fried has also given an undisclosed sum of money to a new bio-security think-tank in D.C. called the Institute for Progress. The organization’s leaders, Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp, are both EAs who share Bankman-Fried’s conviction that EAs should be doing more to leverage the power of public policy to mitigate long-term threats.
“Public policy is still extremely important and still underrated” by most EAs, wrote Watney in an email. “A lot of these U.S. policy interventions or policy advocacy movements have much fuzzier payoffs and probabilities of success — but they’re just as important for shaping the future and doing good in the world.”
Bankman-Fried isn’t the only EA ramping up his giving in Washington. Since 2019, Open Philanthropy, an EA-aligned grantmaking organization backed by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and run by GiveWell’s founders Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld, has donated over $100 million to Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, Flynn’s former employer at Georgetown. In 2021, Open Philanthropy also gave $2.1 million to the Institute for Progress for “conduct[ing] research and advocacy on policies relevant to a number of [Open Philanthropy’s] grantmaking areas.”
These EA-backed groups have become sources of talent as well as policy expertise in Washington. In March 2021, the White House tapped CSET’s founding director Jason Matheny for a dual appointment on the National Security Council and in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Like Flynn, Matheny has been an active member of the effective altruist community, having worked as a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute before joining CSET.
“I think we’ve seen more and more people realizing that the government, policy, and politics is an incredibly powerful lever for doing good,” says Gabe Bankman-Fried. “This country kind of demands [that] more people who care about improving it get involved in the policymaking process.”
And thanks to their deep-pocketed backers, these organizations have potentially unlimited staying power.
“We’re going to be around for a while, and we’re going to do everything we can to elect and support leaders that care strongly about [pandemic prevention],” he adds.
Oregon’s 6th Congressional District leans slightly Democratic, meaning that if Flynn wins the Democratic primary, he would be well-positioned to secure a seat in Congress following the November general election.
Once in Congress, though, Flynn would become a junior member in Congress — a governing body that most Americans view as neither effective nor altruistic.
To get meaningful things done, Flynn says he plans to use a strategy drawn directly from effective altruism’s playbook: focus on policy issues that are important, tractable and neglected. As Flynn explained, members of the EA community use these three criteria — known as the “ITN framework” — to decide which causes would benefit from more resources. From an EA’s perspective, the most investment-worthy causes meet all three of these criteria: They present a readily available solution, solving them would do a significant amount of good, and they haven’t attracted significant prior investments.
In the public policy context, Flynn says, the ITN framework suggests that lawmakers who want to have the most long-term impact should focus on low-profile, high-payoff issues that fly mostly under the public’s radar — pandemic preparedness being the perfect example.
“With Biden’s pandemic prevention plan, no one ever opposed it, or at least we never talked to anyone who opposed it. … Everyone’s just sort of like ‘meh’ about it,” Flynn says. “If no one cares [and] if it’s not a thing where there’s an opposition, then it might not be that hard, if you’re willing to champion it, to actually get it across the finish line.”
And according to Watney, Flynn might just be onto something.
“In the press, you hear about high-salience political objectives that are probably moving very slowly or failing very quickly … but under the radar, there are billions of dollars for programs that are passing through the appropriations process and new agency initiatives that are piloted or scaled out with Congressional direction,” wrote Watney. “Members can have a lot of impact by saying, ‘Actually, this is my one idiosyncratic issue that I really care about and I want this to get passed into the final version of the bill.’”
This phenomenon — which some observers have dubbed the “Secret Congress theory” — suggests that the most efficient way to get legislation across the line isn’t to draw lots of attention to it, as many lawmakers and policy advocates often assume. Rather, it’s to do precisely the opposite: keep an issue out of the public eye and prevent it from being coded as partisan.
“[There are issues] that are sort of not popular or don’t draw a lot of attention, but they matter, right?” says Flynn. “And if I care about it mattering and I don’t mind toiling away in the shadows and not getting a lot of play on CNN or something — well, I could actually maybe do a lot of good that way.”
Flynn says he first saw that sort of impact that even one person could have on major pieces of legislation while working at Georgetown.
“Staffers would come to me with like a draft bill, and they’d be like, ‘Hey, if you want to just mark this up, if we don’t like your changes, we’ll just remove them,’” Flynn recalls. “And I’d add things to them, and most of the time they stayed, and I got increasingly brazen and added increasingly more things, and they would stay — and I was just some random research faculty at Georgetown, and this was important stuff.”
One topic you won’t find Flynn spending much time talking about on the campaign trail is cryptocurrency regulation, the issue that has turned Bankman-Fried into a object of curiosity in Washington.
Nevertheless, Bankman-Fried’s support for Flynn’s campaign has fueled suspicions among progressives that Flynn is merely a puppet to advance Bankman-Fried’s preferences on cryptocurrency rules. A recent article in the influential progressive magazine the American Prospect noted that Bankman-Fried’s donations to Flynn come as “‘[c]rypto regulation is at the precipice of being debated in Congress” and observed that while his donations “ostensibly … support candidates who favor ‘pandemic preparedness,’” they also “suspiciously [line] up with the establishment-progressive divide.”
Flynn — who identifies as “not a crypto guy” — says he understands voters’ suspicion but insists he doesn’t harbor any pre-determined position on potential crypto legislation.
“I have a framework for [evaluating] all financial regulation, which is … that it’s not gonna harm the working class or the middle class [or help] shysters taking advantage of people,” says Flynn. “I think it makes sense to have like a base cynicism, but I think at some point, if you’re finding that Protect Our Future sponsors people who do pandemic prevention, and, like, have no crypto background at all — there’s a point at which you say, ‘Oh, maybe this isn’t the thing I initially thought.’”
Protect Our Future’s candidate selection criteria aren’t as transparent as Flynn’s comments would suggest. Both Protect Our Future and Guarding Against Pandemics have endorsed Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), who, in addition to being an advocate for pandemic prevention, has become a pro-crypto voice within the Democratic Party. (Neither group has spent any money to support Torres, who is running unopposed in New York’s 15th Congressional District.) Protect Our Future also spent over $1 million to support incumbent Democratic Shontel Brown’s successful campaign against progressive challenger Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, despite the fact Brown has not been a leading voice on pandemic preparedness.
“There are a number of factors that go into our endorsements, including voting history, policy platforms, viability as a candidate, and public service and professional experience — but first and foremost, a commitment to supporting more federal funding for pandemic prevention and leadership on issues that will help prevent or mitigate the consequences of a future pandemic,” said Michael Sadowsky, the president of Protect Our Future, in a statement.
For his part, Flynn says that he agrees with his critics that campaign finance is in serious need of an overhaul and says he would support a campaign finance reform bill if elected.
“My feelings on campaign finance reform before getting involved in politics were that it was really important and that it [was] not well done. Having seen it up close, it is so much worse than I expected,” says Flynn. “All I can do is work within the domain of influence that I have and try and use that as best I can to get a good outcome.”
Gabe Bankman-Fried’s message to skeptics of his brother’s true political motives? Wait and see.
“I think over time, people will see that … what you see is what you get,” he says. “[Sam] is in the digital asset space to be a successful business person to make a lot of money to donate it to prevent pandemics as well as other issues he cares about. That’s always [been] his primary driver. That’s always been my primary driver.”
Ten years after its publication, Parfit’s “hinge of history” thesis appears to have found an analog in contemporary American politics. On both the left and the right, Americans feel that they are living through a uniquely dangerous moment in the country’s history, one in which the hinge of history appears to be pointing in the wrong direction.
Flynn, however, remains confident that even a small number of lawmakers, armed with the ideas of effective altruism, can bend the hinge away from destruction and back toward flourishing.
“[Congress] has so much influence over so much of the economy [and] so much of foreign affairs that if you can be good on the margin — if you can be that little voice — that can be huge,” says Flynn. It’s just a matter of “working with the chaos to try and find these opportunities as they arise.”