Eric and Kevin’s Most Excellent Career Adventures

thermos

 

lunch bucket

 

David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs is loaded with real-life job stories that meet his definition of “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” One of those stories rang a bell:  turns out that “Eric” and I had the same job. The details are different, but our experiences involved the same issues of social capital and upward mobility.

Eric grew up in a working class neighborhood, left to attend a major British university, graduated with a history major, landed in a Big 4 accounting firm training program, and took a corporate position that looked like an express elevator to the executive suite. But then the job turned out to be… well, nothing. No one would tell him what to do. He showed up day after day in his new business clothes and tried to look busy while trying in vain to solve the mystery of why he had nothing to do. He tried to quit a couple times, only to be rewarded with raises, and the money was hard to pass up. Frustration gave way to boredom, boredom to depression, and depression to deception. Soon he and his mates at the pub back home hatched a plan to use his generous expense account to travel. gamble, and drink.

In time, Eric learned that his position was the result of a political standoff:  one of the higher-ups had the clout to fund a pet project that the responsible mid-level managers disagreed with, so they colluded to make sure it would never happen. Since Eric had been hired to coordinate internal communication on the project, keeping him in the dark was essential. Eventually he managed to quit, kick his gambling and drinking habits, and take a shot at the artistic career he had envisioned in college.

My story isn’t quite so… um, colorful… but the themes are similar. I also came from a strong “work with your hands” ethic and was in the first generation of my family to go to college, where I joined the children of lawyers, neurosurgeons, professors, diplomats, and other upper echelon white collar professionals from all 50 states and several foreign countries, At the first meeting of my freshmen advisory group, my new classmates talked about books, authors, and academic disciplines I’d never heard of. When I tackled my first class assignment, I had to look up 15 words in the first two pages. And on it went. Altogether, my college career was mostly an exercise in cluelessness. But I was smart and ambitious, and did better than I deserved.

Fast forward nine years, and that’s me again, this time signing on with a boutique corporate law firm as a newly minted MBA/JD. I got there by building a lot of personal human capital, but my steel thermos and metal lunch bucket upbringing was still so ingrained that a few weeks after getting hired I asked a senior associate why nobody ever took morning and afternoon coffee breaks. He looked puzzled, and finally said, “Well… we don’t really take breaks.” Or vacations, evenings, weekends, or holidays, as it turned out.

A couple years later I hired on with a Big 4 accounting firm as a corporate finance consultant. My first assignment was my Eric-equivalent job:  I was assigned to a team of accountants tasked with creating a new chart of accounts for a multinational corporation and its subsidiaries. Never mind that the job had nothing to do with corporate finance…. Plus there were two other little problems:  I didn’t know what a chart of accounts was, and at our first client meeting a key corporate manager announced that he thought the project was ridiculous and intended to oppose it. Undaunted, the other members of the consulting team got to work. Everybody seemed to know what to do, but nobody would tell me, and in the meantime our opponent in management gained a following.

As a result, I spent months away from home every week, trying to look busy. I piled up the frequent flyer miles and enjoyed the 5-star accommodations and meals, but fell into a deep depression .When I told the managing partner about it, he observed that, “Maybe this job isn’t a good fit for you.” He suggested I leave in two months, which happened to be when our consulting contract was due for a renewal. Looking back, I suspect my actual role on the team was “warm body.”

Graeber says that, at first blush, Eric’s story sounds like yet one more bright, idealistic liberal arts grad getting a real-world comeuppance:

“Eric was a young man form a working-class background.. fresh out of college and full of expectations, suddenly confronted with a jolting introduction to the “real world.”

“One could perhaps conclude that Eric’s problem was not just that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for the pointlessness of the modern workplace. He had passed through the old educational system … This led to false expectations and an initial shock of disillusionment that he could not overcome.”

Sounds like my story, too, but then Graeber takes his analysis in a different direction:  “To a large degree,” he say, “this is really a story about social class.” Which brings us back to the issues of upward mobility and social capital we’ve been looking. We’ll talk more about those next time.

In the meantime, I can’t resist a Dogbert episode:

Dilbert

Upward Mobility — Pop Music Style

I had a different post planned for this week, but then I heard a song over the gym soundtrack last week that perfectly illustrates the dynamics of social capital and upward mobility and the perils of the rags-to-riches journey. It also captures an attitude that often accompanies that feeling of having your nosed pressed up against the glass:  wanting to move up but feeling blocked. That’s a lot of economics to pack into one pop song, so I just had to feature it.

I talked about all of that in the very first post in this series just a bit over a year ago, when I wondered out loud whether money can make us happy:

“I mean, all these famous (and mostly rich) people are entitled to their opinion,  but  we’d like to find out for ourselves if money could make us happy — we’re pretty sure we could handle it.”

Rapper Travie McCoy was pretty sure he could handle it, too. He wrote a song saying so — the one I heard at the gym —  then lived his own upward mobility rise, fall, and eventual comeback. His experience couldn’t be more different than that of the 9.9 percenters we heard from last week. Apparently the social capital of the pop music red velvet rope club isn’t the same as the club covered by Forbes.

McCoy teamed up with Bruno Mars to do the song back in 2010. Obama was president, we were just coming off the Great Recession, it was five years after Hurricane Katrina and four years before Bruno Mars did his first Super Bowl halftime. Last time I checked, the song’s official video was closing in on 330 Million views. Obviously it hit a sweet spot. The song made an appearance on Glee– the unofficial version I found had nearly a million views — more hitting a sweet spot.

Judging from what happened next, McCoy might have been wrong about whether he could handle it. A “whatever  happened to Travie McCoy?” search suggests his big hit didn’t give him the life or make him the person he visualized in the song. Among other things, there was a steep decline into opioid then heroin addiction, but since then he has clawed his way back into the music scene.

We’ll let the song deliver its economic lessons on its own terms. If you want to take a short break for a catchy tune, you can watch either the official video or the unofficial Glee version below. (The latter is an excellent cover, with the lyrics spruced up for prime time TV, as reflected below.)

Billionaire

Billionaire Glee

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
Yeah, a different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire

Yeah I would have a show like Oprah
I would be the host of everyday Christmas
Give Travie a wish list
I’d probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt
And adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had **it
Give away a few Mercedes like here lady have this
And last but not least grant somebody their last wish
It’s been a couple months that I’ve been single so
You can call me Travie Claus minus the Ho Ho
Get it, hehe, I’d probably visit where Katrina hit
And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did
Yeah can’t forget about me stupid
Everywhere I go Imma have my own theme music

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I’ll be playing basketball with the President
Dunking on his delegates
Then I’ll compliment him on his political etiquette
Toss a couple milli in the air just for the heck of it
But keep the five, twenties tens and bens completely separate
And yeah I’ll be in a whole new tax bracket
We in recession but let me take a crack at it
I’ll probably take whatever’s left and just split it up
So everybody that I love can have a couple bucks
And not a single tummy around me would know what hungry was
Eating good sleeping soundly
I know we all have a similar dream
Go in your pocket pull out your wallet
And put it in the air and sing

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen
Oh every time I close my eyes I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night all right
I swear the world better prepare for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad!

More upward mobility stories coming up — one of them is my own.

Mobility and Meritocracy

we are the 99% 2

Occupy got the math wrong. They weren’t the 99%, they were the 90%. And that extra 9% makes things much worse for them.

Of the top 10%, the stratospheric 0.1% wears a visible-from-space economic inequality target. Not so the 9.9%:  they’re folks like you and me — the Horatio Alger heroes of our times, people like Peter Boies (we met him last time). Ironically, though, a closer look reveals that they’ve done such a perfect job of upward mobility that they’ve pulled up the ladder behind themselves. They didn’t mean to, that’s just the way it worked out. Which means the 90% are quite likely to remain the Heathcliffs of the world, blocked by the red velvet rope, barred by the glass ceiling.

Clubber_LangSays who? Says the 9.9%, and they ought to know. They’ve become the New American Meritocracy — or Aristocracy, depending on who’s analyzing the data. And now that they’ve got the Central Park view, the rest of us have to deal with the implacable security guard. (I saw one of those once, at the entrance to a 5th Avenue luxury condo high rise. He looked like Clubber Lang from Rocky III, had positioned himself feet defiantly apart and arms crossed in the main entrance revolving door, so that you had to move him to move it. Don’t even think about it.)

I learned about this new social class recently from three different sources. The first was Richard V. Reeves and his book Dream Hoarders and his Brookings Institute monograph Saving Horatio Alger (we looked at those last time). The second was philosopher Matthew Stewart, author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. The third was Steven Brill, founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall–and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America.

Reeves, Stewart, and Brill are all members of the 9.9%. All three got there by rising up from below. And all three cite the same economic and related social data to support their conclusion that their class has barred the way for the rest of us. Pause for a moment and wonder, as I did, why would they write books and articles to implicate themselves in that way? It’s easy to suspect a bad case of Thriver (not Survivor) Guilt, but after reading their work, I think it’s because their success turned into an ideology buster:  not only are the Horatio Alger condos sold out, but Clubber Lang is barring the way to any newcomers, and that kind of thing just doesn’t happen in America.

Until it does.

I’ll let Matthew Stewart speak for the others, quoting from his article in The Atlantic:

“I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

“By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below.

“The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.

“So what kind of characters are we, the 9.9 percent? We are mostly not like those flamboyant political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. We’re a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might invite to dinner. In fact, we’re so self-effacing, we deny our own existence. We keep insisting that we’re “middle class.”

“One of the hazards of life in the 9.9 percent is that our necks get stuck in the upward position. We gaze upon the 0.1 percent with a mixture of awe, envy, and eagerness to obey. As a consequence, we are missing the other big story of our time. We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.

If you want more on this topic, I recommend starting with their articles, and then their books. They’re all well-researched and well-written, honest and personally disclosing, and economically and socially remarkable. Plus, for me personally, they illuminate a dimension of my own career and economic journey that were always a bit of a mystery to me. We’ll talk about that next time.

 

The End of Horatio Alger

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed. I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Teddy Roosevelt

horatio algerIn economic terms, a fair start is about equal opportunity. There’s no more enduring version of that particular ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. And according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin.

These days, however. it seems as though the notion of a fair start is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders, which we looked at briefly last time. Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the Red Velvet Rope Club himself:

As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.”

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education – that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our “creed,” the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims “All men are created equal.”

There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

  • Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did.
  • But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.
  • A new study co-authored by Stanford economist Raj Chetty describes an economic portrait of the fading American Dream; growing inequality appears to be the main cause for the steady decline

Reeves and Stanford’s researchers aren’t the only ones who feel that way. We’ll hear from a couple others next time.

Nose Pressed Up Against the Glass

nose against the glass

You’re on the outside looking in. What you want is only a window pane away, but it might as well be on Mars. Novelist Maria E. Andreu captures the feeling:

wuthering heights“There is a wonderful scene in the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights… in which Heathcliff and Catherine sneak on to the grounds of the Linton house at night. The Lintons, the rich neighbors, are having a grand party. Heathcliff and Catherine watch through the window, unseen. It’s exactly what’s meant by ‘nose pressed up against the glass,’ watching but not being able to participate.

“You can see a lot in their faces as they watch the others dance. Catherine, the daughter of a landed ‘gentleman,’ gets a look that lets you know that she’s intrigued, beginning to want to let go of her wild childhood and take her place in the Lintons’ world. Healthcliff, the servant who adores Catherine, knows that even if he could stop being poor, he would never belong there. He will always be watching from outside the glass.”

Nose pressed up against the glass — it’s an enduring image in literature and in life. Ms. Andreu continues:

“I’ve thought about this scene a lot. I’ve used the image in my writing. It illustrates how I’ve felt sometimes, able to see ‘the good life’ but not able to live it. Most of my life, the Heathcliff in me has weighed heavy inside my heart.”

But then one day the magic happened, and suddenly she found herself transported to the other side of the window pane:

“Yesterday, I got a rave review for my novel that comes out in a month and a half. In my email, I got an invitation to a launch party for another author’s book. I packed to go to a book signing and remembered I needed an extra outfit for an industry cocktail party and the ‘members only’ dinner afterwards with people from my publishing house.

“If that’s not being inside the party, I don’t know what is.

“Someone has opened the door of the party for some fresh air, seen me lurking, and extended a hand of friendship to let me in. It is an unbelievable feeling. I live a life of impossible splendor, of magical beauty, of infinite luck. And I am so deeply grateful.”

We’d feel the same way, if we ever got so lucky. (Assuming we’ve been working hard enough to get lucky — here’s The Quote Investigator on where that saying came from.)

hard work luck

In economic terms, the distance between Heathcliff and the Lintons is a matter of social capital. Ryan Avent, author of The Wealth of Humans, distinguishes between human capital and social capital. Human capital, he saredys, is a particularly focused and useful form of knowledge that an individual gains through education, hard work, experience, on-the-job training, etc. It’s the hard work part of the formula. Social capital, on the other hand, is the opportunity part, and it’s not just personal, it’s cultural. Avent says it’s “like human capital… but is only valuable in particular contexts, within which a critical mass of others share the same social capital.”

red velvet rope 2

For those not already in the social capital club, converting human capital into social capital requires upward mobility. Ms. Andreu’s upward mobility moment was getting her “members only” invitation — official permission to duck under the red velvet rope and join an exclusive gathering where she could schmooze the “others [who] share the same social capital.” Heathcliff, on the other hand, never got his upward mobility moment. As a result, there wasn’t just a glass window pane between him and the Lintons, there was a glass ceiling.

625-01092012

Nose pressed against the glass… glass ceiling… we’ve heard those expressions before. Nowadays, another glass metaphor has entered the economic lexicon:   the “glass floor, which protects the upper middle class against the risk of downward mobility.” (My emphasis. The quote is from Dream Hoarders:  How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves.)

Hoping to move up? Afraid of moving down? These days, it’s hard to do either. And if you’re hoping to move up, there’s one additional, elusive element required for membership in the red velvet club:  the notion of identity — the need to be the kind of person who belongs there. In this short video (click the image below), Michael Port, author of the bestseller Book Yourself Solid, asks, “What makes [red velvet rope people] who they are?” He answers that it’s “their quality, their characteristics, their personality — things that are innate, are part of who they are as people, not necessarily their circumstances.”

red velvet rope

We’ll be looking lots more at upward mobility and social capital in the weeks to come.

The End of the Firm

industrial revolution factory

 “The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smallest details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to higher-ups. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing — and so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.”

Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985)

Peter Drucker’s famous dictum  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” established math and management as the indisputable co-sovereigns of the modern workplace. As it turns out, Drucker apparently never actually said that[1], but the concept has dominated the workplace since the advent of factories and railroads, telegraphs and electricity. Consider, for example, what it’s like to work at Amazon.

amazon 2

But, while math and management prospered together under the Industrial Revolution’s mechanistic worldview, today’s digitally-driven marketplace demands a freshly-nuanced management style, or in some cases, no management at all. Either idea challenges an even more foundational historical assumption:  that commerce is best conducted by a firm that must be managed. Eliminate the firm and you eliminate the need to manage it. Get rid of both, and you have an unimaginably different “description of the modern workplace” than Bob Black wrote about 33 years ago.

Last time, we looked at an article by science writer and artificial intelligence engineer George Zarkadakis called “The Economy Is More A Messy, Fractal Living Thing Than A Machine.” In it, he says this about the firm:

Ever since the invention of the assembly line, corporations have been like medieval cities: building walls around themselves and then trading with other ‘cities’ and consumers. Companies exist because of the need to protect production from volatile market fluctuations, and because it’s generally more efficient to consolidate the costs of getting goods and services to market by putting them together under one roof.  So said the British economist Ronald Coase in his paper ‘The Nature of the Firm’ (1937).

“Why do firms exist?” asks Ryan Avent in his book The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016). He provides the same answer as Zarkadakis:

According to a 1937 paper by Nobel Prize- winning economist Ronald Coase, it’s to bring all the necessary people, processes, and information under one roof, instead of contracting it all out. In exchange for the convenience of one-stop shopping, one-size-fits-all,  employees trade their independence and the possibility of greater personal market returns for the firm’ management structure and financial capital, which — as long as they conform to the company culture –  the way we do things around here — promises to keep them on task and to deliver a paycheck in return.

Today, however, the new “gig economy” is fast making that unimaginable the new normal — and that’s only the beginning, says Zarkadakis:

Now, in an era of Ubers-for-everything, companies are changing into platforms that enable, rather than enact, core business processes. The cost of reaching customers has dropped dramatically thanks to the ubiquity of digital networks, and production is being pushed outside the company wall, on to freelancers and self-employed contractors. Market and price fluctuations have been defanged as machine learning and predictive analytics help companies manage such ructions, and on-demand services for labour, office space and infrastructure allow them to be more responsive to changing conditions. Coase’s theory is nearing its expiry date.

The so-called ‘gig economy’ is only the beginning of a profound economic, social and political transformation. For the moment, these new ways of working are still controlled by old-style businesses models – platforms that essentially sell ‘trust’ via reviews and verification, or by plugging into existing financial and legal systems. Airbnb, eBay and Uber succeed in making money out of other people’s work and assets because they provide guarantees for good seller-buyer behaviour, while connecting to the ‘old world’ of banks, courts and government. But this hybrid model of doing digital business is about to change.

Avent concurs, and describes two key dynamics of the new anti-firm business model:  operating culture and rent: — how a business gets things done, and whether it owns the kinds of assets it can let others use, for a price:

Current workplace trends are bidding fair to tear down the firm model of operating. If you take employees out from under the firm umbrella — make them mostly freelancers, outsource jobs to countries on the make — then what’s left of value is mostly the company’s way of getting things done and the assets for which it can charge rent, in the economic sense of billing a premium for scarce assets. How assets become scarce becomes an essential policy-making function. These become essential “intangible” or “social” capital, replacing “human” capital.]

We’ll be talking more about social capital, rent, and other changing dynamics of the workplace.

[1] According to the Drucker Institute, Drucker never actually said that. And see this Forbes article for a rousing condemnation of the idea.

Who Controls the World?

swarm of Starling birds (2)

One fine afternoon autumn day in Cincinnati I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I didn’t know it then, but I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action. Schools of fish, ant colonies, human brains… and even the financial industry… all exhibit this behavior. And so does “the economy.”

who controls the world TED talk

James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager. He begins his TED Talk with two quotes about the Great Recession of 2007-2008:

“When the crisis came, the serious limitations of existing economic and financial models immediately became apparent.”

“There is also a strong belief, which I share, that bad or over simplistic and overconfident economics helped create the crisis.”

Then he tells us where they came from:

“You’ve probably all heard of similar criticism coming from people who are skeptical of capitalism. But this is different. This is coming from the heart of finance. The first quote is from Jean-Claude Trichet when he was governor of the European Central Bank. The second quote is from the head of the UK Financial Services Authority. Are these people implying that we don’t understand the economic systems that drive our modern societies?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course:  yes they are, and no we don’t. As a result, nobody saw the Great Recession coming, with its layoffs carnage and near-collapse of the global economy, or its “too big to fail” bailouts and generous bonuses paid to its key players.

Glattfelder tackles what that was about, from a complex systems perspective. First, he dismisses two approaches we’ve already seen discredited:

Ideologies:  “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Mathematics:  “You can think of physics as follows. You take a chunk of reality you want to understand and you translate it into mathematics. You encode it into equations. Then, predictions can be made and tested. But despite the success, physics has its limits. Complex systems are very hard to map into mathematical equations, so the usual physics approach doesn’t really work here”

Then he lays out a couple key features of complex, self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

Applying this to the financial industry, he describes how his firm studied the Great Recession by analyzing a database of controlling shareholder interests in 43,000 transnational corporations (TNC’s). That analysis netted over 600,000 “nodes” of ownership, and over a million connections among them. Then came the revelation:

“It turns out that the 737 top shareholders have the potential to collectively control 80 percent of the TNCs’ value. Now remember, we started out with 600,000 nodes, so these 737 top players make up a bit more than 0.1 percent. They’re mostly financial institutions in the US and the UK. And it gets even more extreme. There are 146 top players in the core, and they together have the potential to collectively control 40 percent of the TNCs’ value.”

737 or 146 shareholders — “mostly financial institutions in the U.S. and the U.K.” — had the power to control 80% or 40% of the value of 43,000 multinational corporations. And those few hundreds — for their own accounts and through the entities they controlled — bought securitized sub-prime mortgages until the market imploded and nearly brought down the global economy valued in the tens of trillions dollars — giving a whole new meaning to the concept of financial leverage. In what might be the economic understatement of the 21st Century, Glattfelder concludes:

“This high level of concentrated ownership means these elite owners possess an enormous amount of leverage over financial risk worldwide. The high degree of control you saw is very extreme by any standard. The high degree of interconnectivity of the top players in the core could pose a significant systemic risk to the global economy.”

It took a lot of brute number-crunching computer power and some slick machine intelligence to generate all of that, but in the end there’s an innate simplicity to it all. He concludes:

[The TNC network of ownership is] “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”

The same is true of the mesmerizing flock of birds I watched that day:  here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain it[i].

[i] What I saw was a “murmuration” of birds — see this YouTube video for an example — which is explained by a form of complex system analysis  known as “swarm behavior.”