Sunday, July 5, 2015

"On the Move, A Life" by Oliver Sacks

In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks ends his story by explaining that to him story telling and writing are a natural human disposition. He describes in all the book the learning life that in his case is the foundation of this natural disposition. The book is the story of his youth in England, his professional life in the USA, and finally his many journeys and connections with academics, professionals and ordinary people. He writes openly about his sexual life and his experiences with drugs, and how everything was part of an immense learning material. The reader that is familiar with his previous work can revisit stories like those of Awakenings, or the stories of blind people who can suddenly see, just to be overwhelmed and needing to go back to blindness. But those who have not read the stories before can enjoy a wonderful book about an extraordinary life. Sacks is empathic with his patients and is empathic with the readers. He is also open about the difficult relationship he had with some of his colleagues, like those who did not approve of his popularity, or others for the envy that sometimes plagues the work of academic or professional institutions. It is the story of the life of someone who has reasons to be proud of what he has done, but it is also explained with modesty and humour. Dr. Sacks will perhaps leave us soon, but his readers, current or future, will always be able to go back to his words.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A tale of two trilemmas

I am honoured that Branko Milanovic spent some time thinking about a question I asked in his recent talk at IESE in Barcelona. This is the result of his thoughts. After explaining the two trilemmas (his and Rodrik’s), he reflects on the fact that the point they have in common is globalization, and that in practice more than clear corners of the trilemma we have some intermediate or fuzzy realities, such as not very democratic international institutions. 
What the trilemmas show is that while they are useful constructs to try to understand things, reality is more complicated to be shoe-horned into the schemata. In effect, in both cases, the three cartouches that we drew above continue to exist (none has been “deleted” as we would expect in a real “solution”) but are being redefined. 
Here we have perhaps the foundations of an interesting debate with the more optimistic although perhaps unjustified view of Josep M. Colomer about global institutions. Still, I believe that both trilemmas are useful to describe the tensions we live in. It seems difficult to me to understand some of the pressing issues in Europe (Greece and immigration) without thinking of the trilemmas. Rodrik has a recent piece on the federal deficit in Europe. In it, he seems for the most part to be willing to abandon national sovereignties (the opposite of what he does in his book "The Globalization Paradox") although at the end of the article he goes back to federal pessimism, which I guess has intensified with the drama in Greece. The current situation there reflects precisely the social costs of the “federal deficit.” But given the ghosts of Europe, and given Milanovic’s trilemma (which I interpret as walls to globalization being incompatible with technology and inequalities), I dare to simplify even more than using trilemmas: it’s misery or democratic federalism... But OK, accepting that reality is more complex.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The missing "Yes" in the Greek referendum

In the hurried and chaotic referendum called by the Greek government on Sunday there are two "No" votes and so far only one "Yes" vote. There are two different positions asking people to vote no. Alexis Tsipras and Syriza ask people to vote no (to a question that is impossible to understand) to the Troika conditions, but with the willingness to keep Greece in the eurozone. But others, such as economist Paul Krugman, ask people to vote no and be ready to abandon the euro. These are two very different positions. Krugman is consistent with his position in the Scottish referendum: a currency union is incompatible with national sovereignty (which is why he criticized the position of the Scottish nationalists in that referendum, implicitly supporting the "No to independence" campaign). And he is consistent with Rodrik's trilemma: globalization, democracy and the nation-state are not simultaneoulsy compatible. We can choose only two of them, and in this case Krugman advocates in practice disconnecting Greece at least in part from globalization. Only in part, because his claim is that with a new currency Greece would boost its exports, although of course losing any influence on common policies to solve international and global market failures, including the one of its oligarchy sending their money to other countries (Branko Milanovic commented recently on the implications of the absence of a global federalism for the Russian oligarchy). The position of Tsipras, however, creates the fiction of an absence of trade-offs: he wants his country to stay in the euro, and at the same time proclaims its national sovereignty in terms of fiscal and other policies. In front of these "noes", there is so far only one yes: the yes of Angela Merkel and the troika, asking Greek citizens to vote yes to austerity policies and the tough conditions of creditors and the current governance of the euro zone. It would be very useful to have another "yes" campaign. A campaign that solves Rodrik's trilemma in a different way from the one envisaged by Krugman: let's ditch the fiction of national sovereignty. Let's keep democracy and globalization and build a transnational federalism where the eurozone has a significant budget and where creditors and debtors reach transparent agreements that are validated by democratic institutions, to share the costs of the crisis so that the most vulnerable sectors of society cease to pay for the bulk of them. This is a "Yes" vote that should be defended by the European social democracy. I remember that at one point in the Scottish campaign Krugman said that he had a preference for large democratic aggregates. Perhaps he has lost hope on turning Europe into one such large democratic aggregate, but many people in Europe, me included, have not lost this hope, perhaps because we are more aware of the ghosts of European history.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Not interested in non-federal solutions

I don't claim any expertise in the Greek crisis. I believe there is a consensus that the euro zone is disfunctional as a monetary union, and that to survive it requires a political and fiscal union. In their absence, it would be better to abandon the project. Many of us believe that a political and fiscal union are necessary, not only to make a monetary union sustainable, but because they are ways to make possible the dream of a united Europe that leaves behind centuries of fragmentation and violence. Austerity policies have failed, and in this Paul Krugman is right. To the extent that the leaders of the Union are trying to keep pushing these policies, they are wrong. But some claim that the agreement was within reach when the Greek government suddenly called a referendum because it didn't want to face the political consequences of accepting the agreement. Those of us who live in countries dominated by nationalist controversies know about the dangers of playing with plebiscitarian democracy. Democratic radicalism is sometimes incompatible with democratic quality. I wish that some sort of agreement still takes place that allows for debt restructuring and credible reforms supported by the citizens of creditor and debtor countries. The Greek government, in the meantime, has done many things I didn't like, like for example approaching Vladimir Putin. I don't understand why Tsipras reached an agreement with the nationalist right instead of the center- left. I also know that all this happens because of the lack of credibility of precisely the center-left, but I cannot see how the situation can be improved without a role for realistic center-left policies that are truly committed with a fair, democratic and federal Europe.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Readings in modern political economy

I have been traveling this week, and brought with me a few books and papers to keep reading in airports and planes. I read a book on the political and institutional aspects of global projects written mainly by engineers with an open mind for interdisciplinary work with economists, political scientists and other schoalrs. Some of the authors were present in the meeting I attended to build a global database of infrastructure projects. The authors emphasize the complexity of institutional arrangements that accompany this kind of undertakings. The ideas suggest that promoters and investors should anticipate the existence of resistances by stakeholders and improve the mechanisms to engage with them and predict their behaviour. More than insulated experts deciding and regulating projects, we need engaged experts who communicate with communities and work with them. On methodology, I have been reading a book on field experiments and their critics, with articles defending and criticising the use of randomized control trials and related techniques. It contains a very interesting skeptical piece by Angus Deaton among other interesting chapters. Finally, I have also been reading the book "Imperfect Union," about the role of special districts in the USA. These districts are specific jurisdictions that manage schools, water projects, infrastructures and many other services. The author reports that these districts have the problem that they tend to be captured by special interests, because only those who intensely benefit from them incur the costs of monitoring and voting for them.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Status and identity wars

Dan Kahan, Paul Slovic and other researchers in the Cultural Cognition Project that I mentioned in my previous post emphasize that many disagreements come down to different cultural views, which are defended in status battles. People in these battles try to feed their identities and then use all kinds of argumentative tools to promote them. As we know from experience, it is very difficult to convince others who have different cultural view points. All this is intuitive and I agree with them. Some details do not seem to me as convincing in their arguments. They give a very specific idea of cultural world views. They would have two dimensions, one from individualism to communitarianism, another from hierarchical to egalitarian. But why two dimensions and not more? It seems that these world views would be exogenous and the result of social norms in fixed groups. However, the history of the last two centuries in Europe has seen many people changing their cultural world view, some even going from the support of democracy and solidarity to the support of fascism. I agree that what people do not seem to lose is their concern for their identities and their status. As a result of these ideas, these scholars propose that we should encourage consensus building and the acceptance of the fact that we have different cultural values instead of hiding them. That sounds good, but we should work on filling the details.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Personal experience, prejudice and scientists’ judgements

The work of legal scholar Dan Kahan and social psychologists and other behavioural scientists that collaborate with him, and the research project around The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University is a great source of insights about biases and their origins in cultural values that are difficult to reconcile. One of the examples given by Kahan is the use even by the best scientists of personal experience as a source of empirical evidence. Scientists should know that personal experience is incomplete and usually untimely, and cannot be used to make inferences. However, it is not uncommon (I can see it many days at my University) to hear scientists and scholars make statements from a very narrow sample of examples based on their personal experience. Sometimes this translates into absurd prejudices or statements based on national or professional stereotypes that one would imagine that had been eradicated from universities in the Middle Ages. The problem is that scientists are more affected by overconfidence than lay people. Therefore although scientists may be affected by biases less often than lay people, when they are affected they may be more overconfident about their biased judgements. Lay people are more aware of their limitations. That may explain perhaps why some of the best scientific minds have cooperated in the past with dictators and genocides. Kahan and his co-authors are therefore sceptical that isolated expert agencies can have the answer to many regulatory or policy problems, since they may run the risk of being biased in a way that makes correction of errors more difficult. There is no doubt that expert scientists have a role to play in policy, but there should be mechanisms in place to check their overconfidence, especially when they depart from their narrow fields of expertise.