Leaving the LibDems

After the Brexit referendum, back in June 2016–I remember the moment when I realised that Leave was going to win: I was in a restaurant in Lima, Peru, with my wife’s family, following the news thanks to their Wi-Fi–I felt to urge to be more involved in politics. I had followed politics for a while, but the anger from the result of the referendum–I could almost hear people saying “we don’t want you here”–demanded more. Needless to say this initial reaction was unfair and imprecise, and I feel somehow proud of realising that those that voted for Brexit are not simply “racist” earlier than most people I know (someone I know asked for a different cab driver once he realised that he had voted for Leave). Yet I became a member of the Liberal Democrats Party.

Why the LibDems? At the moment, it seemed like they were the only party empowering the values of reason and rationality; the values of the Enlightenment. They were in the right side of legalising gay marriage, they seemed sensible in terms of economic policies–I might be found more to the right but barely dogmatic on that front,–and they were, obviously, unambiguously pro-remain. For  three years I have been a member, even though I did not share part of the strategy in the Brexit topic. I happen to believe that Brexit has to occur, and the only way it should be stopped is if there are elections and a party promising to stop the departure from the European Union wins most seats; in other words, I don’t share the idea of a second referendum. But this was not my reason to leave the party. The reason was my commitment to secularism.

I see secularism as a key foundation of any liberal democracy. Religion cannot be granted any special right in the public sphere. There are no greys here–granting religion any concession (for instance, shielding it from criticism) is a defeat of reason. I should have maybe paid more attention to it when I joined the party: Tim Farron, its leader back then, ended up resigning because he was “torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.” It turns out that your beliefs do influence your politics after all! But, as I said, he resigned, which seems a good development. But in the last months the party has shown, again, that its commitment to secularism is fading.

What is Islamophobia? Going with the Wikipedia page, it is the “fear, hatred of, or prejudice against the Islamic religion or Muslims generally.” The term conflates two different things: hatred / prejudice of Islam and hatred / prejudice of Muslims. The term is, hence, not very useful. Is someone who hates religion in general Islamophobic? According to the definition, yes. Yet I would hypothesise that this is not what people refer to when using this adjective. But recently an all party parliamentary group studying this issue has proposed a new (or complementary) definition for the government to adopt: “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.

This seems a clear case of setting up the stage for the logical fallacy that if A implies B, then B implies A. It is true that those that hate Muslims (and this is, crucially, what we want to combat) also hate “expressions of Muslimness”, such as the hijab. But it does not follow that those that hate the hijab, for instance, also hate Muslims. A hatred towards certain religious practices need not be rooted in racism. In a secular society, the freedom to criticise especially religious practices is, yes, sacred–obviously not sacred in the religious sense, but in the sense that it is a defining block of such society. Attacking religious practices is foundational in a secular society.

The LibDems, among other parties, adopted the definition and urged the government to do the same. This is, by all means, a departure of its Enlightenment values. An open letter asking the government not to adopt the definition can be found here. It explains in more detail the dangers of such definition. It saddens me, really, to see elements of the left–in this case, by far its best party–capitulating to religious ideologues like this. I think that this explains my early-20s attraction towards a more libertarian position; I have always suspected that part of the left is less committed to individual rights that what they claim to be. Good examples of this can be found in the cases of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

I attended a recent gathering of atheist and ex-Muslim Youtubers (I am technically a millennial so I am allowed to do these things). Someone (white and with no Muslim background) asked an ex-Muslim in the panel what he could do to help given the fact that charges of Islamophobia were sure to follow any criticism of the religion, especially by a white person. The answer was illuminating: white people are not special on this regard either. The charge of Islamophobia is also levied against ex-Muslims or even Muslim liberals who criticise certain practices of the religion. My conviction that I did the right thing cancelling my membership to the LibDems was strongly reinforced.

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Free will

“Do you believe in free will?”

“Yes, I have no choice”

Christopher Hitchens

What is free will? Free will is the ability to choose between different courses of action unimpeded (wikipedia). But what does it mean to be unimpeded? Unimpeded by what? This topic is fascinating to say the least, as it goes to the core of our identity. What are we? Let us go through the concept of free will with a simple example: tea or coffee?

We have the feeling of free will. When I woke up this morning, I could have chosen tea for breakfast. No one was there to impede it. Yet I did not. I chose coffee. The “strong” version of free will, libertarian free will, claims that nothing other than myself caused this choice. If I went back in time, in exactly the same situation a millisecond before the choice, I could have chosen otherwise.

This is, actually, not true. Our decisions to act start in the unconscious part of our brain, and it is only after the action has been initiated that we become aware of it. When I stared at my kitchen today, my unconscious brain “decided” to go for coffee; when I became aware of this, I thought: ok, coffee it is.

This is what Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) showed in their experiment. They asked participants to move their fingers whenever they decided to do so. The idea is to study which parts of the brain activate before the movement. The key bit, however, is awareness. When do they become aware that they have decided to move? Previous studies (most famously Libet and co-authors in the 80s) relied on the subject to report the time of awareness. Matsuhashi and Hallett (2008) introduced random signals and asked the subjects to cancel the movement whenever they heard one of these signals. The idea here is that you can only consciously cancel the movement whenever you are aware of its initiation. By analysing these patterns, one can estimate how in advance one becomes aware of the movement. It turns out that there is more than a second between our brain starts the process to move the finger and the moment we become aware of it.

True, the decision seems to come from the unconscious me, but how can I claim freedom in this instance? Imagine that I have a tumour in my brain that craves for coffee. Would I call this freedom? Is the tumour “me”? It seems unlikely. It would be something else, the tumour, deciding for me. But the processes that start my desire for coffee are equally, if not more, mysterious–and therefore I cannot claim any freedom.

One can see the link here with determinism. Is everything determined? If yes, then free will cannot exist. But note that even if there is room for indeterminism, free will does not necessarily follow (a classic “A then B does not imply No A then No B”). A usual source of indeterminism in the universe is quantum physics–but this introduces randomness. Randomness is not freedom–If I had tossed a coin to decide whether to go for tea or coffee (and had to obey the outcome), I would still not be free.

But we have this sense that, if we had known the future–for instance, if I had known that coffee would give me stomachache during the day–I would have chosen otherwise. This is true. In this sense, we can make different choices. But this relies on new information, which means that our brains are different–i.e., different than when we did not have the information–and hence we are not just rewinding time, we are changing the initial conditions. I am, therefore, in a different situation.

Libertarian free will, hence, does not exist. An argument against this claim is that if it does not exist, then nobody is responsible for their actions, and hence punishment is unfair. For instance, if I do not have free will, rather than deciding between tea and coffee in the morning I could have decided to rob a car. Should I be punished if I did? (I did not, by the way).

This argument is flawed to begin with because it claims that, since we do not like to consequences of the non-existence of free will, it has therefore to exist. But I would argue that there are other shortcomings. It highlights a religious concept of guilt and responsibility. Why should we punish someone who steals a car? Because he deserves it; he is evil; he’s committed a sin and has to be cleansed; thou shalt not steal. If he is, however, not free–this all breaks apart.

But this is not the reason to punish him; or, better yet, it is not the reason we should have to punish him. We punish him to deter this action–absent punishment, people would steal more. We also do so to deter him from doing the same. Because it was a conscious decision, we know that whatever process in the brain led to this action, it can be repeated in the future.

It is important to overcome this concept of libertarian free will. A lot of suffering comes from this flawed concept. But it cannot exist, and it does not exist. Our views of morality, justice, and the making of the good society need to be based on this reality.

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Abortion is a great example of a topic where the two sides argue from completely different perspectives. One side—pro-choice—argues that abortion is a private matter, and hence it is up to the woman to decide. The other—pro-file—claims that a fetus is a human life, and hence abortion is akin to murder. Is it possible to have a discussion about abortion that overcomes these positions? I would argue that there is. But, also, I would argue that this issue combines two moral biases, or bugs, that we face: our need for categorical answers and the role of purity.

The issue at hand is to identify when a human life starts. And here we run into the first problem: this question makes no sense. A human life gradually appears from the moment the egg is fertilised. We seek a discrete function, but it is continuous. Therefore, we have to define an arbitrary threshold—and that is OK. Notice that the two extremes of this debate have defined a threshold as well: one at conception (week 0) and the other one at delivery (week 40 or when the baby is born). In fairness, the pro-choice stance is generally against late-stage abortions absent medical reasons; yet slogans such as my body my choice are not so nuanced.

We need to define a threshold so that it can be written into law. But the difficulty on defining this threshold comes from our flawed moral intuitions. A key insight from The Moral Landscape is to view morality as one views health. Our moral intuitions, as our health intuitions, can be, and often are, wrong. These moral intuitions are an evolutionary trait. As is our desire for sweet food. Yet this desire can be bad for our health. In this case, a usual reaction for any given abortion threshold X would be to argue that someone whose pregnancy is at X + 1 is basically the same as someone at X. Sure, but we still need the X.

An arbitrary threshold needs to be defined, and we need to be comfortable even if X + 1 is almost the same as X. But some people would not accept this, as they see abortion as a sin. The concept of purity—sin can be seen as the destruction of this purity—is ingrained in the psychology of an important part of the population. The figure below, from Haidt and Graham (2007), shows that liberals and conservatives differ substantially in this point.


This, again, appears to be a failure of our moral intuition. Some people might argue that purity appeared as a way to enforce social norms. For instance, stealing is probably bad for the survival of a tribe. Hence, as years pass, and as the tribe punishes these actions, those with strong moral intuitions against stealing are more likely to succeed. This could be an explanation, but as mentioned earlier it is no different than our desire for sweet food. Put it differently, one could also use an evolutionary rationale for racism. Yet we (well, most of us at least) understand that it is morally wrong.

I find the topic of abortion to be a showcase of many of the failures of our moral intuitions, and a clear example of how much more we need to think about morality from an objective perspective. Or, at least, how much more we need to reduce the presence of religious concepts—purity, sin, commandments—when discussing about it.

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Justice, by Michael J. Sandel

Michael J. Sandel is a professor at Harvard University who has been teaching a course called Justice for many years. In it, Professor Sandel talks about the different approaches to morality and justice, from Aristotle to Rawls, Kant and Mills. And some years ago he condensed the course in a book called “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?“.

The book is a great read to understand the views of different moral philosophers on how justice should be organised. This is not an in-depth review of the different schools of thought, but more of an overview of them. I would maybe describe it as an in-depth introduction to moral philosophy applied to justice. It left me wanting to know more about certain philosophers, and I found that he puts more effort in challenging some ideas than others, but I learned a whole lot and it has made me rethink some of my convictions.

I am not going to write a long review because I would feel I am leaving too much out. Suffice to say that he talks about utilitarism, libertarism, Kant, Rawls, and Aristotle, and how their approaches informed morality and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. He talks about affirmative action, patriotism, abortion… The natural blend between philosophy and legal matters is what makes this book outstanding.

Take, for instance, the idea of Aristotle that one needs to define the telos, or the purpose, before understanding whether something is right or wrong. And take the case of Casey Martin, a professional golfer that had serious problems to walk. As a result, he asked for permission to use a golf cart during the tournaments, a request that was denied on the basis that the rules do not allow it. He took the case to court and referred to the Disability Act of 1990, which required reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, provided the change did not fundamentally alter the nature of the activity.

So the case was about the telos, or nature, of golf. Does the nature of golf include walking from hole to hole, as some golfers testifying against Casey argued? The Court finally ruled in favour of Casey arguing that the nature of golf is shot-making, and adding that the effort of walking during the 18 holes is “nutritionally less than a Big Mac”.

But Justice Scalia disagreed. His point was not that the telos of golf included walking—it was that there is no such thing as an objective telos of games (other than amusement) and hence there is no basis to critically assess their arbitrary rules. In other words, if the PGA claimed that cars cannot be used, then this is it since any rule governing games is arbitrary and not part of their telos.

It’s this applied way of discussing philosophical ideas that sets this book apart. A highly recommended read.

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Economics of voluntary information sharing

Almost a month ago now I attended the wonderful 3rd Bristol Workshop in Banking and Financial Intermediation at the University of Bristol. I was there to act as discussant of a paper titled Economics of voluntary information sharing, presented by Jason Sturgess from Queen Mary. Other names in the workshop included Marie Hoerova, Jean-Charles Rochet, o Javier Suarez.

The goal of the paper is to understand why banks might want to share information about their borrowers with other banks. In some countries, the sharing is mandatory—in Spain, for instance, banks send the information of their borrowers, such as loan amounts, identify, and repayments, to the credit register. This has allowed wonderful empirical banking papers in the recent years (AER, Econometrica, JPE).

But in other countries, such sharing is voluntary. And why would a bank share information with other banks about its own borrowers? Because it would get more information in return. In particular, the moment you join the credit bureau, you have access to the information of all the members. This might be very useful especially if you are a small bank.

Let’s say you are a small bank. New borrowers knock on your door to ask for credit. What do you know about them? Very little, since they are new to you. You have no prior relationship, and hence you cannot see how much they’ve been earning, whether they have paid the previous credit on time, etc. For all you know, they can be someone rejected from their previous bank for not paying. You are faced, hence, with adverse selection. If you could identify which borrowers have previously been rejected from those borrowers that are simply looking for new credit, life would be easier. And that’s what the credit bureau provides.

This is, in theory, less of an issue for a big bank that has a high market share. The reason is that this bank already knows many borrowers, and hence whenever a new borrowers shows up they are less likely to be a rejected one. And, by sharing information, the big dominating bank would be losing substantial information advantages.

All these stories can be empirically assessed with the data that Jose Liberti, Jason Sturgess, and Andrew Sutherland employ in the paper. They have the information contained in the credit bureau. As such, their information is restricted to current members—not all banks have joined it—but these members provided all the past credit history, not only from the moment they joined. Hence, they can study why banks decide to join earlier or later, what happens to credit supply after a lender joins, etc.

The paper confirms many of the previous intuitions—which are formalised in several models in the 90s and early 2000s. Given the granularity of the data, they are able to control for many potentially confounding factors. In the jargon of the sector, they can use plenty of fixed effects. This has been the trend in the last decade or so in empirical banking, as we saw the explosion of papers using national credit registers (I got some as well). What this paper brings to the table is the notion of voluntary information sharing, which I found very novel and extremely interesting.

As I final note, you can see below a picture of the place where we had dinner the day before the workshop.


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Glenn Loury

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Social Sciences at Brown University. He got his PhD in Economics from MIT in 1976. By 1983, he had two QJEs, one REStud, one AER, and one Econometrica. Yep. These are four of the so-called “Top 5” journals in economics (the other being JPE), and the vast majority of the profession never gets to publish there even once. He was the first African-American to get a tenured position at the Economics Department at Harvard University.

To say that I admire Professor Loury is an understatement. Not only is his academic career something to look up to, his thinking around issues of race stands out enormously among the usual commentators. For the last years he has been hosting the Glenn Show at Bloggingheads.tv. His conversations with John McWhorter are fantastic. He also has the habit of steelmanning “adversary” positions; this is a huge novelty, as we are used to the complete opposite: to debate against a strawman. He, instead, takes the strongest version of the rival argument and tries to debunk that.

If you want to know more about his thinking, the Glenn Show is a great place to start. He has also delivered multiple lectures that are available in his website. This one with McWhorter, for instance, is brilliant. There is a recent interview in The Chronicle Review. He also appeared in the Making Sense (then Waking Up) podcast by Sam Harris. And he is preparing his memoirs titled “Changing my Mind” which I am eager to read.

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Deep Work, by Cal Newport

I came across Deep Work around a year ago. It was a great time to find out about the book: I was the course director for two undergraduate degrees at Cass and it was becoming difficult to deal with all the work. More than that, it was difficult to combine the nature of the different types of work: research, on one hand, requiring patience, motivation, and trial and error. And a job such as course director on the other hand, which meant dealing with the latest problems that appeared. Not that we had a lot of problems, just the regular amount. In any case, I realised how much my job—the research part—needs deep work. And, more importantly, how little of it I was doing.

Since then, I have been trying—and succeeding more often than not—to schedule blocks of at least two hours to work without interruptions daily. No checking email, no checking web browser, nothing. This means that there is no dopamine release during that period—that is, there is no short-term compensation—but it is the way to make actual progress. The pace at which I am able to work has improved; while still far from my target, the difference between 2017-18 and 2018-19 is significant.

The author of Deep Work is Cal Newport, a Millennial computer scientist that does not have a Facebook account. Deep Work is a book about work that requires deep concentration. In the hyper-connected environment of today, which extends to the work places—hot desks, instant messaging—it turns out that deep work is becoming more and more valuable. This might not always be clear. I have been told, for instance, that I take too long to answer emails sometimes. I have also been asked to put my name in my Twitter account. All these from my colleagues. But it turns out that what institutions end up valuing is what is produced through deep work.

This realisation seems trivial. But what is less trivial is to realise how much of our day-to-day job departs from this principle. Dopamine is again partially to blame: the satisfaction of completing tasks makes us feel better. But it accomplishes very little and, importantly, does not increase our long-term satisfaction. Not at all.

The tension, however, is clear. Some time ago, in a different institution, I remember attending a training about time management and the difference between urgent and important work. Cal Newport talks about deep vs shallow work, but the tension arises from the fact that shallow seems to correlate with (perceived) urgency, while deep and important go usually together.

The book provides evidence from research about the productivity problems from switching tasks constantly and working in a state of semi-distraction. It also provides tricks to overcome these issues. Maybe the most important is “the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches”. This is what many high performance intellectuals, such as Adam Grant, from Wharton, do.

I could talk a lot more about this. I think it is a topic that links to the lack of meaning that many people of my generation are facing. It links to recent advances in neuroscience which allows us to understand ourselves better. It links to the concept of flow, and how fulfilling it is. But this is not the place and there are thoughts that are still under development. The book is great, I highly recommend it especially if your job involved a significant amount of intellectual work.

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