Free Will and the Brain

Tyler and I have been arguing about free will for decades. One of the strongest arguments against free-will is an empirical argument due to physiologist Benjamin Libet. Libet famously found that the brain seems to signal a decision to act before the conscious mind makes an intention to act. Brain scans can see a finger tap coming 500 ms before the tap but the conscious decision seems to be made nly 150 ms before the tap. Libet’s results, however, are now being reinterpreted:

The Atlantic: To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

…In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

The Atlantic piece with more background is here. A scientific piece summarizing some of the new experiments is here. Of course, the philosophical puzzles remain. Tyler and I will continue to argue.

Uber and Lyft drivers as employees: check your mood affiliation at the door

A reminder that if drivers become employees and so no longer can be on both Uber and Lyft, welfare will be lower with higher prices and higher wait times. See this paper. papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cf In Australia, driver multihoming is baked in.

That is a tweet from Joshua Gans.  Keep in mind Uber or Lyft could simply insist on “unihoming” as a condition of employment, as indeed George Mason will not let me take a part- or full-time job teaching at another university.

Brazil is not entirely an environmental villain

It is unfair to single out Brazil for criticism. It is one of the world’s greenest countries: over 60 per cent of its territory is covered with natural vegetation, its agriculture grew based on productivity gains and technology rather than land expansion, and about 45 per cent of its energy comes from renewables, compared with a global average of 14 per cent. It also has one of the world’s most stringent land usage regulations, known as the forest code. How many farmers around the world are required to leave aside 20-80 per cent (depending on the biome) of their native forest land?

That is from Sylvia Coutinho from the Financial Times.

China-U.S. trade war insurance fact of the day

An increasing number of US universities are looking to buy insurance policies against a drop in revenue from international students, fearing they are overexposed to China at a time of mounting trade tensions between Washington and Beijing.

A 10 per cent decline in new international student enrolments at US universities — which rely heavily on revenue from Chinese and Indian students — over the past two academic years has already cost the US economy $5.5bn, according to a report from Nafsa, previously known as the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers.

Two colleges at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — the Gies College of Business and the College of Engineering — bought insurance in 2018 worth $60m from USI Insurance Services in Champaign, Illinois. The policy pays off if both the colleges suffer an 18.5 per cent decline in revenue from Chinese students year over year due to a government action such as visa restrictions or a “health event”.

The correct inference, I think, is that some of these colleges already have spent that supposedly forthcoming tuition money.

Here is more from Priyanka Vora at the FT.

Corn markets in everything

Farmers across the U.S. have stumbled onto a fertile side hustle at a time when prices for their crops are low: cramming produce into an air gun and charging people to fire it into the sky.

Growers of corn, apples and even pumpkins place the agricultural ammo at the base of a long tube, sometimes with the help of a ramrod. Then they use an air compressor to build up enough pressure to send the fruits or vegetables flying hundreds of feet, where they land with a satisfying splat.

“Why not shoot it?” says Fred Howell, owner of Howell’s Pumpkin Patch in Cumming, Iowa. “We’re fat Americans and we play with our food.”

It’s a way to keep jaded teens and bored adults coming back to spend time and money on the farms while the youngest members of the family are happy petting sheep.

Here is the full WSJ story, via the excellent Samir Varma.

What kind of industrial policy does America need?

That idea is making a big comeback, but let’s make sure we understand the status quo first.  So runs my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Perhaps most important, it should be recognized that the U.S. already has an industrial policy — and has for some time. It is a collection of programs and policies at the federal and state level, many of which are highly imperfect, and so the focus should be on fixing what is already in place.

The first and perhaps most significant component of U.S. industrial policy is a high level of defense spending, much higher than that of any other country. The spinoffs of this spending famously include the internet of course, but also early advances in computers and some later advances in aviation. Today’s orbiting network of satellites is in part a spinoff from the space program, which was partially motivated by military concerns.

It’s not yet clear whether current defense spinoffs will prove as innovative and as potent as those  of the past, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Procurement cycles for weapons can stretch to a dozen years or more, yet technologies are changing far more quickly.

So if I were designing an “industrial policy” for America, my first priority would be to improve and “unstick” its procurement cycles. There may well be bureaucratic reasons that this is difficult to do. But if it can’t be done, then perhaps the U.S. shouldn’t be setting its sights on a more ambitious industrial policy.

I also consider the NIH and the biomedical establishment, and America’s extensive system of state colleges and universities, as part of what is already a quite ambitious “industrial policy,” even if we don’t always call it that.

Consumers seem to like search engine advertising

We analyze a large-scale field experiment conducted on a US search engine in which 3.3 million users were randomized into seeing more, or less advertising. Our data rejects that users are, overall, averse to search advertising targeted to them. At the margin, users prefer the search engine with higher level of advertising. The usage of the search engine (in terms of number of searches, and number of search sessions) is higher among users who see higher levels of advertising, relative to the control group. This difference in usage persists even after the experimental treatment ends. The increase in usage is higher for users on the margin who, in the past, typed a competing search engine’s name in the search query and navigated away from our focal search engine. On the supply side, higher level of advertising increases traffic to newer websites. Consumer response to search advertising is also more positive when more businesses located in the consumer’s state create new websites. Quantitatively, the experimental treatment of a higher level of advertising increases ad clicks which leads to between 4.3% to 14.6% increase in search engine revenue.

Overall, patterns in our data are consistent with an equilibrium in which advertising conveys relevant “local” information, which is unknown to the search engine, and therefore missed by the organic listings algorithm. Hence, search advertising makes consumers better off on average. On the margin, the search engine does not face a trade-off between advertising revenue and search engine usage.

That is from Navdeep S. Sahni and Charles Zhang, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us*

That is the new book by Paul Tough, I read it through in one sitting.  The back cover offers an appropriate introduction to the work:

Does college work?  Does it provide real opportunity for young people who want to improve themselves and their prospects?  Or is it simply a rigged game designed to protect the elites who have power and exclude everyone else?

That may sound a little overwrought, but this book actually delivers a quality product on those questions.  In addition to the well-selected anecdotes, Tough also engages seriously with the research of Raj Chetty, Caroline Hoxby, and others.  He is also willing to report politically incorrect truths (for instance the percentage of black attendees at top colleges who are from Africa or the Caribbean) without gloating about it or slanting the evidence, as is so commonly done.

Here is one short zinger to savor:

At the University of Virginia, only 13 percent of undergraduates are eligible for Pell grants — a lower rate than at Princeton University or Trinity College.  At the University of Michigan, the figure is 16 percent.  At the University of Alabama, the flagship public institution of one of the poorest states in the nation, the median family income for undergraduates is higher than at Bryn Mawr College.

Definitely recommended.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

Stable Money Implies an Inverted Yield Curve

Suppose we had stable money. It’s then obvious that long-term savers would prefer long-bonds to rolling over short bonds. If held to maturity, the long-bond guarantees a known rate of return and payout at the time it is bought while the rolling of short-term bonds exposes you to risk. Thus, in a regime of stable money, long-term savers should prefer long-bonds and the yield curve should normally be inverted. That’s the essence of an excellent post by John Cochrane:

If inflation is steady, long-term bonds are a safer way to save money for the long run. If you roll over short-term bonds, then you do better when interest rates rise, and do worse when interest rates fall, adding risk to your eventual wealth. The long-term bond has more mark-to-market gains and losses, but you don’t care about that. You care about the long term payout, which is less risky. (Throw out the statements and stop worrying.) So, in an environment with varying real rates and steady inflation, we expect long rates to be less than short rates, because short rates have to compensate investors for extra risk.

If, by contrast, inflation is volatile and real rates are steady, then long-term bonds are riskier. When inflation goes up, the short term rate will go up too, and preserve the real value of the investment, and vice versa. The long-term bond just suffers the cumulative inflation uncertainty. In that environment we expect a rising yield curve, to compensate long bond holders for the risk of inflation.

So, another possible reason for the emergence of a downward sloping yield curve is that the 1970s and early 1980s were a period of large inflation volatility. Now we are in a period of much less inflation volatility, so most interest rate variation is variation in real rates. Markets are figuring that out.

Most of the late 19th century had an inverted yield curve. UK perpetuities were the “safe asset,” and short term lending was risky. It also lived under the gold standard which gave very long-run price stability.

Existential risk and growth

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Leopold Aschenbrenner:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

Bravo!  44 pp. of brilliant text, another 40 pp. of proofs and derivations, and rumor has it that Leopold is only 17 years old, give or take.

If you happen to know Leopold, please do ask him to drop me a line.

For the pointer I thank Pablo Stafforini.

Special Emergent Ventures tranche to study the nature and causes of progress

I am pleased to announce the initiation of a new, special tranche of the Emergent Ventures fund, namely to study the nature and causes of progress, economic and scientific progress yes but more broadly too, including social and cultural factors.  This has been labeled at times “Progress Studies.

Simply apply at the normal Emergent Ventures site and follow the super-simple instructions.  Feel free to mention the concept of progress if appropriate to your idea and proposal.  Here is the underlying philosophy of Emergent Ventures.

And I am pleased to announce that an initial award from this tranche has been made to the excellent Pseudoerasmus, for blog writing on historical economic development and also for high-quality Twitter engagement and for general scholarly virtue and commitment to ideas.

Pseudoerasmus has decided to donate this award to the UK Economic History Society.  Hail Pseudoerasmus!