On the liberating character of complexity and abstraction

Mathematics is the art of giving similar names to things that are different
Henri Poincaré

I am currently covering my yearly quota of unuseful knowledge reading an introduction to metaethics. By this I mean, it is a knowledge that I do not pretend I will be able to use in my research or anything related to my profession at any point of my career. I just read it for fun and take a break from statistics, inequality, and extremism, which are the topics I read about these days.

Metaethics is a subject I have always being interested in exploring, especially after my girlfriend chose to think that being a Kantian groupie with existential accents was an intellectually acceptable stance.

It is a very obscure area of knowledge. Unlike other topics -say, political philosophy- I do not have too many preconceived ideas. Each time I approach a book, I have all kinds of commitments to different theories and views that I am naturally reluctant to give up altogether. When I read about statistics, I am now a committed Bayesian and that affects what I am ready to learn and understand every new piece.

While I have some intuitions about metaethics (thus my original interest), my views about it are very diffuse. Since I read Binmore’s Game theory and the social contract, I became particularly suspicious about moral claims made as if these were metaphysical absolutes that are usually formulated in the Kantian tradition. Another piece that drove my interest was this piece by Joel Marks Marks which challenged me to start thinking about morals in terms of tastes, and desires. The way I think about morals is as feelings, tastes which, as Marks suggest, are ‘window dressed’ as moral talk, but are actually ‘desires’ and motivations, not ‘beliefs’ about the world. These feelings are not, in my view, coming from heaven, and do not exclude all kinds of reasoning, or fully undisciplined. I think these can be transmitted using empathy, just as people become convinced that a work of art is beautiful if their tastes are educated to do so. To the extent that moral constructs works as abstract theories, logic and reasoning can be used to point out conflicting views. And, I find generically suspicious to speak of morals as if these were facts to be found out there. What lies below, in my view, are subjective (yet, potentially convergent) views about the world.

If you know anything about the subject, you probably will notice how rough the above views are, and to what extent there are potential tensions. The experience of reading about it is wonderful since it forces me to take a stance on issues I used to believe were compatible. For example, until now I thought that error theory, relativism, and emotivism were to a large extent the same approach thing, although error theory is a form of cognitivism and emotivism pretty much the opposite.

The learning experience is so rewarding because, while talking about morals and ethics, the discussion evolves on a completely different level. Cleavages in metaethics hardly map cleavages in applied ethics, but are extremely relevant to practical matters in that field. I realize that, to a large extent, many of the disagreements I have with my girlfriend on her political liberalism are driven by differences in metaethical sensitivities.

In math parlance, learning about a new field opens to your eyes new partitions of the sample space. It reorganizes discussions problems along completely new lines. It reshapes the structures and ideas you use to think about problems. I have had this experience each time I have started learning about a new subject, especially abstract topics. The more abstract, typically the more subtle the division, the more unconventional. Learning changes your view about the world, not only across pre-established dimensions, but by opening new ones and challenging ideas. The complexity created by the systematic re-organization and scrutiny of ideas is one of the more rewarding and liberating processes I can think of. It is liberating from simplicity and tribalism.

One of the reasons why I became fed up of writing politics is due to the tendency of ideological reductionism -the tendency to map all ideas on the left-right spectrum. I have always regarded my views about the desirability of redistribution or gender equality as neatly separated and logically independent from my views about elasticities and fiscal multipliers. I tend to think my moral intuitions about the former will remain, to a large extent, unchanged, but I would like my views about the latter to be highly open to new ideas and research. Of course, I understand an inevitable consequence of the collective action nature of the political process, this is perhaps the source of my disappointment.

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On the liberating character of complexity and abstraction

Melancholy, books, scholarship and science

I am these days spending the winter break at my hometown, in Spain. This has left me some time to inspect my books. It’s that there are several of them I had even forgotten that I possessed. It is impossible to avoid feeling some nostalgia looking at them.

There is this strange feeling of discovering a selection of reading made by a past self. Many of them are attached to past interests, that is, latent passions that I have abandoned due to lack of time, lack of usefulness. I remember, for example, a time when I wanted to learn about China, ancient Rome or differential topology.Next to me is for example Paul Veyne’s Le pain et le cirque an 800 pages book on the sociology of charity in ancient Rome, or John W. Milnor Topology from a differentiable viewpoint.

It is also enjoyable to discover this selection, just as if I was gossiping someone else’s library in search of some good book. I find myself thinking ‘Oh, these are really great choices, I really I should find time to read these’, forgetting that, of course I find them great since they were chosen by me!

I used to cultivate the (flawed) idea that having a minimal understanding of these esoteric topics was an absolute requirement for any cultivated person, let alone for a researcher. Even now I found myself toying with the idea that, perhaps, if I think about working on preferences for redistribution ‘perhaps it could be useful to read Veyne’s book. Perhaps I could use its insights to think about charity and the political economy of redistribution in America!’.   Get behind me, Satan!

One of the reasons why I went into academia is because I loved to read and to learn. There was also this stuff about changing the world. But the reason why I can stand so much time working without becoming insane is because I like to read, to know, to understand. Recently, I learned that my fetish professor when I was an undergrad, Pedro de Vega, had died. He was the first professor I had. He taught us constitutional law, and introduced us to the history of political ideas. I remember being massively impressed by the breadth of his knowledge, although I am sure I would find it much more limited now. He belonged to that generation in which university professors were scholars, intellectual, meaning, individuals who were expected to feel comfortable in many fields and being smart.

The world of research has made massive progress getting beyond that paradigm. Currently, you are not valued for being smart or wise but by being good at writing papers- and make no mistake, the two do not alway coincide. Depth is valued over breath of knowledge. Researchers are much less intellectuals or scholars, and much more workers with a broad division of labor. Works are succinct and concise, instead of encyclopedic. This is encapsulated in a piece of advice a professor of mine always repeats ‘One idea/topic per paper/book/career’. I really think this is great progress.  I have met many people who were brilliant in their field, who contributed and produced valuable research and deserved thus being at the top, but -I am pretty sure of this- could not tell what the field of metaphysics is vaguely about. This is efficient, it is productive, it provides the right incentives. It is the scientific mode of production, after science stopped being ‘natural phylosophy’.

For people with my taste, of course, this incentive structure has made life much less pleasant. I still try to read at least one philosophy book and one novel every year and listen to as much history (in audioboooks) as I can on my way to the department.

 

Melancholy, books, scholarship and science

Ten books and ten papers for political economists

As the readers of this blog know, I have a bit of an emotional relationship with the stuff I read, and with my books in particular. With a friend, we were discussing the possibility of organizing a list of good reads that have been particularly influential in the way we think about the world and research in general. In one way, I couldn’t be more enthusiastic, as if there is something I love is talking/bragging about books, papers, and music. On the other hand, selecting a list involves excluding so many readings I would like to include that I can only feel it is extremely unfair.

To facilitate this task, I have followed some rules: a) I only selected readings in English b) I tried them to reflect a mixture of my interests, my background, and my current orientation. I have tried to avoid including readings that do not reflect my profile as a political economist, even if they have been influential in the way I think (for example, wonkish books on the philosophy of language or ethics :/) c) I have included only ten works in each category and not one more d) The selection tries to include an interdisciplinary dimension. e) I have included books that I think political economists would benefit from reading, independently of whether they work on my field or not.

Books

  • German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism, by Schorske: The title is not very seductive. It would look that, unless you are highly interested in the story of socialism, there is no point of reading it. I disagree. One of the books that did not make the cut and that has highly influenced me suggests that good history works are like case studies that feed your intuition that you may then build into theory. The history of the Great Schism (between reformism and communism) in the SPD is full of interesting lessons that show up in all types of social contexts. How do social movement behave? What role does their ideology shape in organizing that behavior? How Do they confront strategic decisions?  How does a party reconcile its internal and external contradiction? Bonus point: if you read Roemer’s seminal book on party competition, one of his models is based on this book
  • Search of Modern China, Jonathan Spence: I read this book some years ago, and it remains one of my favorite history books. I have included it partly for the same reasons as Schorske’s: it is a great history about the road to modernization of a country. But also, I think that political economist should read, at least a little bit, about societies that are substantially different from theirs to avoid the sin of being to provincial in their way of thinking.
  • Codes of the street by Elijah Anderson: this book is an ethnographic study of the Philadelphia’s ghetto. As someone coming from the other side of the methodological continuum, I found this book wonderfully written, and informative. Given that I work mainly on inequality, having some sense of what people think and feel like behind the numbers seemed important to me.
  • Democracy and the Market: Przewroski is probably one of my favorite social scientists and I wanted to include at least one of his works in the list. I read D&M  8 years ago, with enormous excitement. It was the first Przewoski book I read, I remember it had all kind of insights and ideas that fed my understanding of how democracies interact with the market.
  • Power, a radical view, by Stephen Lukes: Being a political economist, it is unavoidable to talk about power. A friend recommended it to me long ago. He suggested that a) It was a good exposition of the idea of subgame perfection and b) It put substantial order in the debate separating the three dimensions of power. His words have stayed in my mind each time I think about the relationship between theory and empirics. Most of what you do in political science is about off-the-path stuff, that is, subgame perfection. Interestingly, Lukes does this coming from the ‘radical’, political theory tradition.
  • Making sense of Marx, by John Elster. Karl Marx is, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, the most influential and insightful thinker in history of Western civilization. Yet, nowadays, its ideas are only studied by obscure political theorists who, together with its critics, claim that most of Marx ideas are at odds with modern social science. A group of brilliant people spent some time examining this claim and trying to reconcile and translate many of Marx’s ideas with modern social science.   This, and its baby version were the books with which I became familiar with the work of the September Group.
  • Economic theory and cognitive science, by Don Ross: when I started studying economics, I was feeling uneasy about the contradiction between the ‘behavioral’ economics approach, and my feeling that mathematical models of rationality were compelling
  • Identification for prediction and decision, by Charles Manski: Everything today is about causal identification. When thinking about causal inference, the names that come to mind are people like Donald Rubin, Guido Imbens, or Josh Angrist. Even in econometrics, Manski is mostly known for his work in discrete choice. However, I find Manski’s work on identification the closest one to my taste. I understand why his ideas are less attractive for researchers. The Mostly Harmless  gospel is optimistic: it shows in an accessible fashion the thousands of things that can be achieved with all sorts of research designs. Instead, Manski emphasized that every single piece of identification implies more or less strong assumptions are not testable, and often you can at most achieve set identification. I find Manski’s pessimism compelling, and a necessary cure.
  • Statistical rethinking, Richard McElreath: One of the greatest achievements for me of the last year and a half has been the incorporation of the bayesian set of tools into my work routine. I owe much of that to this book. I want to write a review some day. It deals with things at a very practical (i.e. not mathematical) level, but introduces pretty advanced ideas about inference, information theory, computation (with plenty of examples), and hierarchical models. It is probably the best book on statistics I have ever read and with no doubt the one with which I have learned the most.
  • Advanced R, Hadley Wickham: I wanted to include at least one book on programming, as I spend most of my time now doing this. I also think programming is a basic skill for any researcher. Social scientists owe a lot to Hadley, and any of his other books could be in this list (his ggplot2 book is wonderful too). But I preferred this one, because the book is actually about computing and the R language. The book is wonderfully written and, unlike other programming books, it can actually be read (not just consulted as a cookbook). You will learn a lot from reading, at least several of the chapter.

Papers:

  • General Conditions for Global Intransitivities in Formal Voting Models, McKelvey: I have included McKelvey’s paper as a representative of the social choice / Rochester school literature. This strand of ideas -about cycling, instability, manipulability and the normative side in the form of social choice- is, in my view, at the very basis of the rational study of institutions. When I say at the basis, I mean it at the foundational, motivational sense: without the results from voting and social theory, the design of political institutions makes little sense.
  • Tirole  ‘The internal organization of government’: everyone should read some Tirole, at some point of her life. This piece if particularly relevant for political scientists, as it is about how governments and bureaucracies work. It provides the idea from first principles. I think the title is self-explanatory.
  • Claudia Goldin’s two review pieces about the economic history of American women (I and III wanted to include an ‘easier’ read and some economic history. Claudia Goldin is one of my intellectual heros. More importantly, if I had to name just one thing that dramatically changed in the XXth century in western societies, probably I would mention: the status of women. Besides being important on its own, its the engine of family structure (intrinsically linked to inequality), and represents a historical break with everything known before. Claudia Goldin shows how the main force behind that was technology. It is a great companion to Elster’s chapter on marxist theory of history.
  • Heckman’s the Scientific model of Causality: This paper is a comprehensive review of the theory of causal identification performed by one of the best econometricians of the last century. Heckmans represents the structural approach to econometrics, that suggests that theory and inference should be closely linked. My main problem with the Causal Inference approach that dominates is precisely that: there is little understanding of what the parameters, the ATE, actually mean. There is, moreover, little feeling of a need to go beyond the estimation of ‘causal effects’. My favorite quote from that paper goes something like that ‘Causality is in the model. Ambiguity in the description of the model leads to ambiguity in the conclusions’
  • Manski’s ‘Reflection problem’ paper: maybe this is cheating, since this paper is explained in the book I mentioned above. It is Manski’s most quoted paper, and a brilliant piece of work, showing how social interactions face enormous identification problems.
  • Practical Bayesian model evaluation using leave-one-out cross-validation and WAIC: I read this paper after reading the Rethinking book mentioned above. It introduces a systematic way of thinking about model selection implementing its most sensitive modality: out of sample prediction. It is easy, and there is an R package that implements it.
  • Elections as a conflict processing mechanism, by Przeworski, Rivero, Xi: I wanted to include at least one piece by Przeworski on democracy, and this one is probably the most recent one. Even if, as a political economist working on ‘pacified’ (stable democratic) societies I should not be particularly interested in the topic, I find Przeworski’s ideas about democracy foundational to the way I think. Just as it is important to know how other societies work, it is important to understand that the institutional equilibrium under which the current set of policies work is one of the many potential ones, and thus it is constrained by its sustainability conditions.
  • Social Assets, Mailath Postlewaite: a beautiful theoretical paper. It shows how traits (education, blue blood) may acquire and sustain value in equilibrium because of their ‘exchange’ value in the marriage market. I have put it here, not only because Georges and Andy are among the most brilliant minds I have seen in action, but the paper shows the versatility of formal modeling to represent situations that used to be only seen as the domain of sociologists.
  • Self-confirming equilibrium, Levine and Fudenberg: beliefs are hard to model. This paper is beautiful and, shows that there is hope in formal theory accommodating many ideas from social theories (ideologies, cognitive traps, etc). This paper was presented by Lupia and Zarinova in this PA
  • Whither political economy? by Antonio Merlo: I was not sure of whether this could be included in the ‘papers’ section, given that it is basically a manuscript of course notes, but this is my blog and my rules, so let it be. It covers a wide array of formal models of political economy in a very intuitive way. I particularly like the exposition of the theory of coalitions and careers (to which Merlo has been an original contributor).

 

Ten books and ten papers for political economists

What I have learned about the replication crisis in American politics

The current semester is ending, and with it, a chapter that I started about six months ago. As someone interest in the political economy of industrialized countries, I thought I could do little of interest if I did not have a minimal understanding America, which is also the country I live in.

In the last year I have seen or done several replication exercises.  When you are asked to do one of these for class, you usually choose one for which the data is available, and preferably the code too. In American politics, this is often the case: the data are pretty standardized and available. They are also pretty detailed. A good argument to study America is, in fact, that there are plenty of data available. And yet, systematically, results fail to replicate. Codes do not run. Arguments do not resist a second look.

This paints a grim picture of quantitative American politics.  Kids are taken through all those math and stats classes to end up not discovering much. But it gets worse. If this happens for the case of American politics, in which the community that is monitoring your work is large and the data are large in size, standardized and of the best possible quality,… what can we possibly expect from less quantitatively disciplined branches? Think of the case in which people conduct their own survey or experiments in exotic countries. Think of historians and anthropologists that have to rely on observation and ‘judgment’. Or just think of the case of hypotheses that are only vaguely defined and difficult to identify.

I had this thought reading again through this psychological analysis of how the Trump victory implies the victory of white male sexism and racism. I can perfectly see, of course, that there is some visible aesthetical and substantive distance between Trump and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But what people seem to imply is that this symbolic dimension, which is apparent, is likely to have a  causal relationship with what is going on in people’s minds. This is something that as a social scientist, I feel, I should expect to be backed by something else than just impressions.

In my view, the main lesson about the replication crisis in quantitative science is not that quantitative work is hopeless, it is that conclusions, especially those in public debate and non-quantitative literature, are to be doubted proportionally on their strength.

What I have learned about the replication crisis in American politics

Living in Trump America

Post- Trump victory America is indeed becoming a somewhat weird place. There is, of course, alt-right people coming out, and weird people in the government. But there is something else.

I have been a long time defender of the idea of political correctness in public debate. PC is a deprecated concept, but as most social institutions, it fulfills a function. It regulates relationships. It establishes minimal rules of respects. It works as a fire alarm when you are touching a delicate subject. I am mostly happy, for example, with discussions about the role of genes in social success been considered as a out of the public debate. I have myself struggled for a long time to understand what heritability actually means -in terms of causality or its (ir)relevance for public policy- and I don’t think much can come from people misunderstanding the topic. Pretty much the same goes for gender. I am mostly OK with the blank slate idea being the official truth given what I think is the alternative. As James Tobin allegedly once told to Robert Nozick ‘There is nothing more dangerous than a philosopher that has read a bit of economics’.

The day after the election I was in a graduate seminar on American politics. Most people were devastated. Some were crying. We spent a large portion of the class doing therapy about the election results from a purely political point of view. I don’t think I really need to reiterate that no one, again, no one, except perhaps the color person in the class, has more reasons to be concerned about the result in the election than me, foreign-born socialist. Yet, I was struck by the fact that it was taking for granted that everyone in the room was strongly anti-Trump. In my mind, this is somehow a break of a basic social rule of respect. You don’t assume that other people think like you. And if you engage them, you do it respectfully.

The post-election in my environment has been a reflection of that same situation. People have demonstrated on campus. I have got emails from the university asking us to be strong. In general, there is a huge, brutal, violation of neutrality in the public space and a denial of legitimacy to what seems to me be the result of a democratic process.

Why does this happen? My conjecture is that we live in a bubble. Since I started to become interested in Americans politics, I have made the effort of asking people if they knew of someone who planned to vote for Trump. No one did. At two degrees of separation from me, there is no one willing to acknowledge that they are part of the almost 50% of Americans who elected that guy. No one knew Trump voters and, for that reasons, we underestimated what could be understood from surveys.

In social science there is that strange fine line between understanding and justifying, and I think I cross it too often. Some day I may become a moral void. But I somehow feel very uncomfortable with the standard view on why Trump won (‘racism’ ‘liberal elite contempt’ ‘politics of resentment’, ‘losers from globalization’). I feel all these narratives are morally tainted. They are not informative.

And here goes the thing: it’s hard to dispute them. People have strong feelings about Trump. Democracy, and especially academia even more, is supposed to be about having a certain degree of openness to understand the other.

Living in Trump America

Some unconventional reflections about democracy and the Trump phenomenon

As a person with a latin name, I really fear the possibility that next week Trump will win. This is not trivial. At least in the medium term, my future is tied to America and any substantive change in how USA treats non-national would affect me, personally. I say this to just state that, besides thinking that Trump represents the very opposite of everything my limousine liberal soul believes in, I have a very credible stake about this.

And yet, there are certain things that I can but  uncomfortably acknowledge about what the Trump phenomenon says about American Democracy- perhaps about democracy in general. In particular, there two important claims about democracy that I believe are challenged: its openness and contestability, and its neutrality.

Consider contestability. Trump is an outsider. He is a person that, for a long time, did not think about running into politics, but had a public or semipublic profile. As a result, he has a record. He has written, said and done things that he never anticipated would have any effect on his future. In part, of course, these things reflect the horrible individual he is. But in part, it reflects the fact that no one, except someone that has been looking forward to go into politics for a long time,  could resist the type of oppo-research that Trump has suffered. The result is probably an ugly conclusion: there is a strong insider bias in running for office.

Neutrality is pretty much the same thing. I am personally amazed by the degree of opposition that everyone but Trump supporters has shown to Donald Trump. Sure, Donald Trump has worked very  hard to piss everyone off. But again, making abstraction of his horrible views about everything, it illustrates the fact that you of the limitations of running for office: even if you are able to gather the votes, you are going to face a substantial amount of opposition if you propose things that are unpalatable for the wrong people.

Again, I would not like to feel that I am regretting any of this. I am not, if only for very selfish reasons. But think of a thought experiment. Assume a not too crazy scenario in which Sanders had been the democratic nominee, while someone reasonably moderate (cannot think of anyone now) had been the Republican one.  How would the media, interest groups and even the two main parties have treated him? I would like to answer that it would have been a fair way, but I am not sure.

In the same vein, I can’t avoid being disturbed by the timely involvement of the FBI by dropping information about HRC. It is just fantastic the degree of involvement in the campaign of non-political forces.

As a counterexample, in Spain, a group of former communists with a large record (a record that can be found on youtube) of supporting dictatorships or protodictatorships and saying this that were highly unpalatable for the general public, founded a party and took over a substantial part of the left-wing electorate. Some of the media found some not very cool things online, such as weird tax records and the like -in fact, things that could be found about any outsider. But nothing of the sort of what has been organized against Trump (with a clear sequencing, a strategic dropping of revelations etc) has taken place.

As I was writing this post, I should say I am not sure about which scenario I prefer. But the point rest: many of the points we believe about contestability and neutrality of the democratic system are, I think, proved to be more limited than what it could look like on the surface.

Some unconventional reflections about democracy and the Trump phenomenon

The tyrany of immediacy (homestuff)

Today has been my second day in a row of working ”offline”. I am going through a bottleneck of work and I really, really need to focus. I read somewhere that Hadley Wickham did something along these lines (allocating certain times of the day to doing certain this -he has an app that delivers his email twice a day, he does not check social network when he wakess up, etc.  I thought that this could be a good opportunity to start this type of routine. I have thus tried to establish some simple rules to implement an efficient work routine:

  1. Start working at 8 am.
  2. Stop working at 11pm, no matter what.
  3. Checking my email and my phone at most twice in the day, and not answering anything until the end of the day unless it is urgent.
  4. Work with the ”Self-control’ app (which disables many websites, such a twitter, facebook or the several blogs I read) on until I stop working.
  5. Make breaks every 2 hours at most and walk around my house or stretch a bit.
  6. Whenever I have to ‘look for something’ in the internet (‘let’s see what data I can find for this project’), allocate some reasonable amount of time in advance and then stop no matter what.
  7. Whenever I am working and something comes to my mind, write it down in a piece of paper and keep doing what I was working in.
  8. Keep my computer off whenever it is not necessary (when reading, for example).

The result has so far been great. Not only have I been much more productive, I also feel much less stressed, in spite of the huge amount of work I still have left. It’s just common sense: more work means more stress, more productivity means being able to achieve given the the same time-budget, so less stress.

It’s hard to believe this can work, but if you think about it as a challenge, just as people say ‘I have quitted smoking’ or ‘I have been sober for X days’, then it works pretty well.

But what I wanted to talk today is about the standard idea that one is expected to be on call 24/7. Of course, it’s written nowhere, but over my whole day, there is a large number of reasons why I can get distracted: a lot of mentions on facebook, twitter, emails that arrive, slack messages, etc. Given that I work with my laptop most of the time, there is a . If I answer them all, then I probably well get even more answers, and so on. This is extremely disrupting, not just in terms of time, but also mentally. I also think that if you answer instantaneously, you feed the expectation that you will answer fast.

It’s not the first time I have the thought that this IT revolution has had mixed benefits. Yes, it is easy to coauthor papers with people located remotely and be in a distance relationship, but at the same time, it obstructs with your life. I sometimes miss the time in which people met at a precise place and fixed time one or two days in advance, instead of assuming that one must reconfirm that same morning and call to tell where one is waiting. Or, I miss when people asked for appointments one week in advance instead of bugging you through facebook- I had this conversation with my girlfriend yesterday: I really do not consider facebook a proper way of contacting someone professionally. I do many of these things myself, but very few of these things are urgent.

Just as I issued the commitment sometime ago to ”write more often” (of which this post is a by-product), I commit here to emancipate myself from the tyranny of immediacy . 

 

 

 

The tyrany of immediacy (homestuff)