Lurking somewhere between a hot dog and a credit derivative, profound and potentially radical insights into the nature of our financial system are just waiting to be put to use. With some creative repurposing of already existing financial technologies, it might be possible to move wealth around in a way that makes the entire world better off. To figure out why, just take a look at the mathematics of the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of the universe.
Lecturer Benjamin Lozano of UC Santa Cruz’s history of consciousness department is doing exactly that. For the past few years he’s been reading up on finance, postmodern philosophy and a branch of mathematics known as Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) in an attempt to rethink what our financial system is capable of.
His research has led him to believe that credit derivatives — the financial instruments widely demonized in recent years due to the major role they played in the 2008 financial crisis — could be the key. We just need to use them more wisely, and more creatively. To do that we need a different understanding of these instruments, which Lozano refers to collectively as “synthetic finance.” The focus of his research and the subject of his forthcoming book On Synthetic Finance, is providing that understanding.
“Synthetic finance is very radical,” Lozano said. “Rather than simply blaming it over and over for the financial crisis, we should start to more creatively imagine the ways it could be used.”
His jumping off point is DST, which studies how systems evolve and change over time. A system can be as big as the universe or as small as an egg. The evolution of all complex systems — including, Lozano would argue, our financial system — share common characteristics.
Among other things, DST describes how systems generally move from a very high degree of symmetry to a lower degree as they evolve and become more complex. At the time of the Big Bang, for example, the temperature of the universe was so high that the four fundamental forces of physics — gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak nuclear — were unified. The universe at this time was perfectly symmetrical, but as those forces differentiated it became less so.
The process by which an egg becomes a fully-formed animal happens much the same way. You start with the cosmic ooze of the egg — think stem cells — which has the potential to become any type of bodily tissue and is thus highly symmetrical. That ooze then progressively differentiates into blood, brain, bones, tendons, etc. as the organism develops. Less symmetry, more complexity.
That concept of symmetry is particularly exciting to Lozano, because more symmetry means more potential. Once an animal is fully-formed the things it can do are pretty much set in stone. When you’re working with ooze though, anything is possible.
After years of research, from where Lozano is sitting derivatives are beginning to look a lot like ooze.
“When you start to ontologically examine finance — its assets and its progressive differentiation — what you realize is there’s a whole set of unactualized but very real capacities to use financial assets in ways that have more equitable, broader distributive purposes,” Lozano said.
There are lots of types of derivatives, but they all share common characteristics that make them very different from other, simpler types of financial exchange, like buying a hot dog or a home. A derivative’s value depends on that of other financial assets. All derivatives create a cash flow that can theoretically go on forever. Even stranger: you don’t really exchange money for a derivative — the derivative is the exchange itself.
Using concepts from Group Theory — a branch of mathematics used in DST — and geometry, Lozano attempts to show that these qualities and others mean derivatives have an incredible degree of symmetry, and thus an incredible range of possible uses.
At this point, you might be wondering how exactly Lozano happened to fall down this particular rabbit-hole. He holds bachelor’s degrees in theology and philosophy, and a Ph.D. in politics from UCSC, but he’s studying math and finance. What gives?
In a word: Gilles Deleuze. Lozano had been fascinated with math and finance for a long time, but it was this postmodern French philosopher and his 1968 book “Difference and Repetition” that inspired the approach Lozano took with his research on derivatives.
In that book, Deleuze uses concepts from almost every branch of the hard sciences to philosophically examine the nature of the world.
“He’s not just developing a philosophical system in his own mind, the way a lot of other philosophers do,” Lozano said. “He mastered all the mathematics and science, and then gave them philosophical transformation.”
In his own way, that’s exactly what Lozano is attempting to do with finance. Ultimately he hopes a better understanding of derivatives will lead to a better application of them.
For example, with derivatives it might be possible, for the first time in human history, to create wealth in the process of redistributing it. How exactly you might do that is the topic of his next book. But changing the conversation is the first step, Lozano said.
“How can a lizard ever know there is a capacity for a mammal to regulate his or her internal body temperature? How can the slime mold explain, retroactively to the single cell organism, all the amazing things it’s capable of?” Lozano said. “We’re still thinking about synthetic finance the way the slime mold, or the lizard, would think about it. We need to stop thinking like lizards, and start thinking like mammals.”