Sunday, 15 January 2017

Why neurosciences can't tell us much about ... human behaviour

There has been a spate of recent books on the insights of brain science on our behaviour. The main news is that we are probably not as independent from our brains as we think we are when making decisions. In fact, there is now good evidence that our brains decide things before we even start to think about things. If that sounds irrational, so it is indeed. Reasoning is out, impetus is in.

Whilst scientists appear to agree increasingly that our synapses fire before we can think about our options, the jury is out on whether this makes us better or worse when it comes to social behaviour. If neurosciences tell us that our brains make decisions for us and instead of us, do they have a tendency to select one option over another? Are our brains hardwired to be 'social' or 'altruistic' rather than 'egoistic' and 'selfish'?

Some neuroscientists draw on evolutionary biology and psychological experiments to answer this question. One of the more interesting attempts has been Donald Pfaff's book The altruistic brain. He develops a theory about why our brains are more likely to select the more 'altruistic' option in moments of snap decisions, rather than the selfish option.

Pfaff's theory combines evidence from evolutionary biology with recent findings from neuroscience  experiments (basically: people in MRI scanners pressing buttons), but his theory has a wider scope and it is there that it runs into considerable trouble. Here is why.

The holy grail of neurosciences but not much space for moral thinking
MRI scanner in action. Foto: NHS Choices

There may be sound evidence that our brains are designed in such a way as to pre-empt our reasoning. After all, it makes sense to have a brain mechanism to make the right selection from a range of difficult options when we are in immediate danger. The narratives of evolutionary biologists speak to this issue. We may be likely to protect our closest family members 'without much thinking' as this safeguards our genetic prospects.

Pfaff's theory however has a larger scope. He gives an instructive example in his book when talking about the firefighter Steven Siller who, on his day off, hears about the attack on the World Trade Centre, and spontaneously decides to pick up his gear and drive himself down to the centre of the attack to rescue people. Steven lost his life while helping others so Pfaff can justly claim that Steven's actions are undeniably altruistic.

But look more closely and Pfaff's theory of altruistic brain looks a bit more on shaky grounds. Neuroscience experiments say something about the predominance of altruistic or non-selfish behaviour in the moment before our thinking kicks in. That may account for Steven's actions in the moment he hears about the 9/11 attack. But Steven did not stop there. He now faced a long drive to the location of the attack which gave him plenty of opportunity to think hard about what he is doing and why. For this period of time when we contemplate and consider the right course of action, neurosciences can't tell us much. Our reasoning is safely removed from instant brain surges. After all, to assume this separation between the impetus of the brain and our reasoning is the precondition for neuroscientific theories of human behaviour in the first place. Pfaff therefore can't have it both ways. Our reasoning must, at some point, take over.

Claiming that our brains guide us in our behaviour prior to our considered rational thought can only extent to the domain of instant behaviour. Where behaviour is considered, thoughts always trump the predominance of brain matter.

Since Pfaff does not want to accept this, he would need to tell us why the brains' altruistic preferences extend not only to the milliseconds before we make a decision but also to the hours and hours when we mull something over and consider our options (and often revise our behaviour).

Yet, that is not where the difficulties end since Pfaff wants to mould a behaviour moderating mechanism out of his theory. If we knew the brain activity that guides us (prior to rational thinking) to altruistic behaviour, perhaps we can, so he argues, subject criminals to neuroaltering procedures to strengthen their 'good' over their 'bad' behaviour?  Sounds familiar?

Yes, we have been here before. Pfaff walks the path of every other scientist who believes in the ability of his own theory to change this world to the better if only we apply the theory consistently and without much consideration for our own moral compass. Imagine if we could change people's brains, we could make this a better world.

But his thinking is based on a series of fallacious assumptions. The first one is that, if only we could eliminate 'non-altruistic' behaviour we will all live happily ever after. What he fails to understand is that 'good' behaviour only exists because we can point to behaviour that isn't such. Good things happen because we know what bad things look like, and vice versa.

The second grave error he makes is to assume that 'altruistism' is something that we can just point to when we see it (unfortunately, Pfaff also uses the terms 'reciprocal' with 'altruistic' interchangeably which is problematic since not all reciprocal behaviour is altruistic). But altruism is not a fixed entity, it requires interpretation and people often profoundly disagree about what constitutes altruistic behaviour and what does not. In fact it takes a lot of thinking (cue our capacity for rational thought) to determine what is altruistic course of action in a given situation. And. ultimately, we might come to different conclusions and agree to disagree of whether or not something is altruistic. Neurosciences can't help us in this search for intersubjective truth.

There is a fundamental revelation in the Christian doctrine of original sin that reflects this issue of uncertainty. If you look beyond the narrow theological interpretations of the fall of man, one can see that it hints at an irreducable aspect of the human condition. It is the inability to agree and say with certainty what is good or bad (metaphorically also represented in the Tower of Babel and the proliferation of many languages). Neurosciences won't help us to return to a state of innocence. It is up to us, rational human beings, to argue about what is good and what is evil. No MRI scanner can help us in this quest.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tracy Emin and William Blake - from unmade minds to unmade beds

Liverpool Tate are currently running one of those 'compare and contrast' exhibitions that have a slightly didactic thrust. They managed to obtain Tracy Emin's piece My Bed and have surrounded it with sketches and paintings by William Blake from their archives. The connection is supposed to have something to do with the presence or absence of the artist but, the best one can say is that this connection is mainly present through its absence.

At best provocative. Tracey Emin's My Bed -
Foto: Tate Liverpool

Putting the works of two artists together in an exhibition is always a risky thing to do and I am not sure Emin's work will ultimately benefit from this recent attempt to draw parallels where there are few or none. What the exhibition demonstrates most of all is the enormous explosive imagination of Blake and his breathtaking artistic inventiveness that allowed him to borrow (and shape) mysticism and philosophy even centuries later. In contrast, Emin's Bed looks at best 'provocative' rather than a piece of groundbreaking or revolutionary art.

Michelangelo Pistoletto: Venues of the Rags
Foto: AK
But then again, the curator's choice of Emin and Blake in one exhibition may have been slightly unfair to Emin given that hardly any artist could hold their own in comparison to Blake's restless mind and his artistic output. The comparison between Emin and Blake also falls down on a different matter and that is the supposed link between a piece of (largely) conceptual art and sketches/paintings. As far as conceptual art is concerned, Emin is herself not the most entertaining or the one with sufficient depth. Interestingly, as a brief walk about on the other floors of the Tate Liverpool reveals, other pieces show more affinity to Blake's philosophical musings than Emin's. Even a funny piece like Michelangelo Pistoletto's Venues of the Rags has more entertaining value than Emin's work. And Rebecca Horn's Scratching Both Walls at Once evokes feelings of haunting and dread.

Reaching out. Rebecca Horn's Scratching both Walls at Once
Foto: AK

The comparison finally grinds to a screeching halt in a second room where Emin's prints are juxtaposed to some of Blake's. The comparison is not a kind one to Emin and cruelly demonstrate the lack of depth and artistic vacuity of her print work. The exhibition should act as a warning to potential curators: do not match up what is best kept separate.

Speenhamland and Free Trade

As the debate about free trade versus protectionism rages on, it may be useful to cast an eye back to another period in history when protectionism was en vogue.

Karl Polanyi wrote about it eloquently in his The Great Transformation. The essential tension that made protectionism ultimately unworkable, he wrote in 1945, was that capitalism requires three conditions to be met to function properly: labour should find its price on the market (unhindered individual or collective negotiation of wages); capital and good can be exchanged unhindered (free trade without tariff and custom barriers); and the creation of money should be subject to an automated mechanism (an exchange rate established on the currency market or, previously, a fixed rate such as the gold standard).

To implement but one, free trade, without the other (to tether one currency to another without means of adjusting, or to deny labour to find its price in free and fair negotiations) is to set capitalism up to fail. Polanyi illustrates his argument with a detailed analysis of the Speenhamland practice, something that figures little in history books but was discussed and debated vigorously in 19th century economics. Speenhamland was essentially a system of wage subsidy, where wages would be supplemented by a form of outdoor relief by local taxpayers. In essence, Polanyi writes, it achieved two counter-productive things. First, it undermined the ability of people to negotiate their wages (individually or collectively) to accomplish a fair price for their labour. But, second, it also tied their labour to a specific place, making it impossible to move. The Speenhamland system thus created capitalism without a free and unhindered labour market.

Polanyi's example is instructive for the current debate on protectionism and free movement of people. Allowing goods, capital and services to move freely but denying the same right to people will achieve only one thing, to undermine capitalism to function properly. A fair market economy can only work smoothly if all three mechanisms of exchange (labour, goods and money) can move freely. Restrict one and you will cripple the others.

Protectionism vs. Free Market

The election of Donald Trump has thrown up serious questions about the commitment of the future US government to free market policies. Trump has repeatedly voiced his concerns about free trade agreements such as NAFTA and has indicated that negotiating other free trade agreements is out of the question. This does not bode well for the Brexiteers who find themselves in the awkward position to have advocated leaving the largest free trade zone (the EU) with the hope of engineering new ones with Britain as the driving centre. Given the preference of current populist leaders for protectionism, Britain could easily find herself in a free trade zone of one.

With public opinion increasingly favouring protectionist policies in the US and elsewhere, it may be worth reminding us of the rationale for free trade. The prime example of tariff and customs union remains the European Union which has underpinned the free trade agreement with a contractual framework ensuring that all participating countries implement the same standards of products and environmental protection. The idea was that free trade can only work for the benefit of all if everybody has to adhere to the same level playing field, hence free trade has to be supported by the same trading and production standards. How the Brexiteers will pull off a similarly comprehensive agreement with China, Australia or the Asian Sub-continent within the next couple of years is difficult to see. Although they have been critical of the pace of negotiation by the EU with Canada on the (finally agreed) CETA free trade agreement (it took the parties 7 years in total), the reason is less a unwieldy Bruxelles bureaucracy then to buttress the sustainability of any free trade deal with a comprehensive deal of similar standards on customer and environmental protection. Free trade is not worth the name if it only extends to exchange of goods. Those goods also need to comply with the same standards to ensure producers are on the same level playing field. Otherwise competition between free trade partners won't be fair.

The second issue relating to free trade concerns the movement of people. Brexiteers have been highly critical of the fact that free movement of goods and capital is linked in EU law to the free movement of people. They paint free movement of people as an anachronism in times of high geographical mobility. Where the world is on the move, countries need to regain control of their borders to steer migration.

The four freedoms of movement (capital, goods, services and people) are however linked within EU law for a specific reason, one that features less in the Brexiteers argument. It is one of equity between employers and employees, between capital and labour. To grant capital the right to move wherever it wants within a free market zone yet deny people the same right establishes serious imbalances between the two forces that shape our economic life. It is a question of equity to ensure that people have the same rights as capital.

The sum total of the Brexiteers case thus amounts to a muddled bag of inconsistencies. They would like to leave the largest free trade area to establish their own. They criticise the slowness of the EU's negotiating practice but fail to acknowledge the complexity of free trade agreements based on similar agreed product and protection standards which contribute to the protracted nature of these negotiation. They want more competition but trade agreements without similar standards will decrease the chances of fair competition between future trading partners. In addition, they want free movement of goods, services and capital (City of London) but deny the same right to people, therefore enshrining an imbalance in opportunities and freedoms between capital and labour. They want to boost free trade on a world wide stage at a time when the electorate in their ideologically closest ally (US) has given the strongest signal yet that protectionism is the word of the day. Britain may find itself in a world of its own, in a trade zone of one very soon if the Brexiteers' wish comes true.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

The pace of change ...

As everyone is scratching their heads wondering how we got here (The UK, a large economic power, leaving a single market and the US, the main superpower, having a president who would like to erect walls and impose tariffs) it may be useful to remember the following words.

'Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. [Its] common sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. ... It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down ... so as to safeguard the welfare of the community.'

'The rate of progress have turned the process itself into a degenerative instead of a constructive event. For upon this rate, mainly, depended whether the dispossessed could adjust themselves to changed conditions without fatally damaging their substance, human and economic, physical and moral.' (The Great Transformation, p.37ff)

Karl Polanyi wrote this in 1944. His words remind us of the destructive character of change if we do not mitigate its worst consequences on communities through governmental intervention. Whilst he wrote this about change that came in the wake of enclosures in England, it equally applies to today's transformation by immigration, globalised markets and rapid technological progress. The liberal case for unfettered change depends in large measure on tarnishing everyone who struggles with the speed of change as a reactionary, or worse a racist and xenophob. Karl Polanyi was none of that. But he did recognise that communities cannot survive unless the moral, social and economic fabric is altered gradually rather than being torn apart in the name of economic progress that only benefits a small professional elite.

Monday, 7 November 2016

The agonising choice

If sanity prevails and the pollsters are right then Americans will elect the first woman president tomorrow. By voting for Hilary Clinton, the majority of voters will reject misogyny, overt racism and dog-wistle politics, and instead give a mandate to the most competent and experienced politician who ever stood for office. And yet, they will also have elected a politician with one of the most obnoxious personalities and probably one of the most corrupt one of modern times. I do not envy American voters having to chose between Scylla and Charybdis. With Trump they would elect somebody who makes you worry about the welfare of people. With Clinton they would elect somebody who makes you worry about the welfare of American politics.

Clinton's problem - a lack of honesty
Copyright Washington Post
Despite Trump's best efforts to give the election away to the Democratic candidate, the polls still indicate that the final tally in the electoral college may be close. That is quite an achievement on the side of Hillary Clinton and her team who have been up against one of the least accomplished Republican candidates, someone who failed to get the support of his own party and managed to alienate more than half of the general population with derogatory comments about women and ethnic minorities. In short, pretty much any candidate would have had decent chances against Trump and it speaks of the widely held mistrust against her, that Clinton will probably just about scrape into the highest office.

So, what went wrong in an election that was her's to lose all along? There appear to be reasons that have to do with the nature and history of the candidate as well as some reasons that relate to Clinton's policies. Let's look at the latter first.

The American society and economy never quite recovered from the shock of the 2008 crisis. Whilst the Obama administration showered some industries with subsidies and bail outs, it could not arrest the long term decline of manufacturing that had started in the 1990s. Whatever you think about the forces of globalisation (cheaper consumer prices in the shops; mobility of labour and capital), it left an entire stratum at the bottom of society bereft in a sea of hopelessness. Those who benefited from globalisation were largely the intellectual and professional elites in urban places. Neither Clinton nor the Democratic Party in general ever found a formula to address the concerns of those left behind.

That should not surprise us. Liberals (the American left) are most comfortable with the language of universal rights, unfettered by notions of place and belonging. It is this universalist perspective that prevents them to grasp the anger amongst many Americans with illegal immigration which, incidentally, provide the large Latin American workforce cleaning the houses and mowing the lawns of the country's elite.

It is this vacuum that Trump managed to fill and which, whatever the electoral outcome, politicians on both sides need to find answers to if they want to prevent a repetition in four years time of the dog-whistle politics so successfully championed by the billionaire.

The second aspect of Clinton's candidacy and the deep reservations it evokes amongst Americans is personal in nature. Clinton comes with baggage, not least a philandering husband, and the thought of Bill Clinton roaming the White House to sexually target young female interns fills most ordinary people with horror. Yet, the personality problem extends beyond her husband and goes to the very core of her own character. Hilary Clinton must appear to most Americans as one of the most dishonest politicians of modern times. Lying her way through the Benghazi Committee hearings must surely be the pinnacle of a political career that was marked by deviousness, double-dealing and betrayal. Despite having deleted thousands of official emails, and thereby violated any rule in the book for government officials, her sense of entitlement to the presidency is palpable and must be grating for everyone who thinks that politicians are in office by virtue of the democratic will of the people. Her lies and distortion would be the stuff of comedy (see Saturday Night Live) if they would not have been so serious and contributed so much to the disenchantment of Americans with politics in general.

In the end, it must be the most agonising choice Americans ever faced: to chose between a Republican who is unfit for the office of President and a woman who is a disgrace to her fellow Democrats. One hopes that a majority prefers the corrupt liar over the misogynist.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Where did it all go wrong? The Labour Party after the second coming of the Messiah

As Labour MPs pick up the pieces after their battle with the left wing extremists led by their leader and his enforcer John McDonnell, it may be time to take stock and assess where to go from here.

The (second) election of Jeremy Corbyn (to his supporters, the second coming of the Messiah) demonstrates a deep shift in party politics. The question is whether this transformation of the Labour Party heralds a fundamental change in the attitudes of the wider electorate as well, signaling the long expected ‘move to the left’ once announced by Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Milliband.

There can be no doubt that societies in the developed world have undergone a significant alteration of the political radar since the economic crisis in 2008. What used to be an attitude to wealth and income inequality best described by Tony Blair as ‘relaxed’ made way to a vibrant debate on social justice. At the forefront of this debate is the issue of wage stagnation since the 1990s in the US and  as Thomas Piketty argued, the growing income inequality fuelled by rising income from assets.

Where the picture veers into the strange is when we look at the responses to the crisis by the individual parties. Centre right parties moved gradually to the centre and tried to develop policies to counter wage stagnation, broadly trusting in the power of the economy to lift everybody’s boat at some time.

The left of centre parties, many of which were in fact in power when the crisis hit, showed a staggering lack of ideas. Gordon Brown’s inaction at the moment of economic disaster was symptomatic. Tired of Brown’s dithering, his chancellor, Alistair Darling, had to take the reigns and protect the banking sector by bailing out some of the largest lenders. The next two years were largely wasted with inactivity by the Labour government. Not a single policy was launched by the Brown government to counter the growing wage gap. It was as if Labour politicians who had started their tenure in 1997 with so much gusto were frozen like rabbits caught in the headlights before the car bumps them off the road.

Following the 2010 election, the Conservatives continued to move into the centre with modest welfare reforms under George Osborne, the introduction of the national living wage and fiscal consolidation. The next five years are generally acknowledged to have been a wasted opportunity for the Labour Party. Under Ed Milliband’s leadership an endless number of policy reviews was conducted with very little outcome or impact. As the next election was nearing, Labour struggled to put a manifesto of pledges together that amounted to a coherent programme for government. Instead it opted for an oversized tombstone inscribed with several vacuous statements that prompted ridicule and laughter in the wider public.

Thus, in a sense, Jeremy Corbyn’s election to leader was actually the first proper response of the Labour Party to the economic crisis and its related problems such as wage stagnation and income inequality. And this is where the story assumes surreal proportions. Instead of embarking on a profound reassessment of Labour policies and a wider debate on how to tackle social injustice under conditions of low productivity, how to address the disappearance of low skilled jobs and the rise of the professional classes under conditions of a fiscal straightjacket that is likely to continue for the next decade, Labour members opted for a type of unrestrained sloganism, a simplistic populist left wing version of Donald Trump. The most notorious aspect of this move to populism is the striking absence of any hard thinking about policies, the slavish adherence to abstract slogans, and a determination not to let reality impinge on the simplistic worldview those slogans purport.

An important side effect of this return to the 1970s is that Corbyn’s ideas show little traction with the working class voters he pretends to represent. As so often before, the proletariat appears to refuse to play along with the Marxist leaders. Corbyn acolytes appear to be mainly young middle class voters who should have little investment in a Marxist worldview that assigns to them a diminishing political role as the proletariat ‘gains class consciousness’. But then, as so often, paradoxes abound in English Socialism, once led by an aristocrat, Tony Benn, who virulently campaigned against the very educational standards he benefited from.

Where does that leave the political landscape in England? Labour’s move to the extreme left may just open up some electoral space for moderate social democrats and liberals. LibDem’s leader Tim Farron seems to sense that when he appealed to disenchanted moderate Labour voters to join the Liberal Democrats. It is customary in the British media to write off the LibDems but the party still has a significant number of councillors and some parliamentary representation (at Westminster and in Cardiff), more than other fringe parties such as the Greens and UKIP. Councillors are usually the knights in shining armour when it comes to trudging through the English rain to deliver leaflets to potential voters or placing calls to the ‘pledged voters’ to go to the polling booths. So, the LibDems are electorally in a better position than the Greens and UKIP.

The biggest threat to Conservative rule is however amy come from inside the Tories themselves, through a prime minister who ditches the moderate compassionate Conservatism that served David Cameron so well in the last 6 years. Part of the reason why Labour shifted to the extreme left was that the Conservatives firmly occupied the centre ground with progressive policies once popular under Labour, such as national minimum wage, welfare reform and the academy programme. The biggest mistake Theresa May could do is to vacate this centre ground and encourage moderate Labour politicians to formulate their own policies. Let’s hope she is a closet Cameroonian.