Basic Income On The Res

life-on-an-indian-reservation-752x501

Thomas Sowell has a platinum resume:  Marine Corps war vet, bachelor’s Harvard, master’s Columbia, Ph.D. U of Chicago, professor at Cornell and UCLA, Urban Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, books, articles….  You get the point:  when he talks economic and social policy, people listen.

seneca casino

The people at The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) were listening when they published a blog post earlier this year entitled “What We Can Learn From Native Americans About a Universal Basic Income.” The article describes the Seneca tribe’s practice of distributing casino money to its members, and focuses on the particularly disastrous provisions pertaining to the money for minors:

“Half the money for children under 18 is given to their parents, and the other half is put into a trust. When a Seneca youth turns 18 and can show that he or she has graduated from high school or earned a GED, he or she receives a lump sum of $30,000. Those who don’t get a high-school degree have to wait until they’re 21 to receive the money.

“Government officials and other members of the nation tell me that the best thing most young adults do with this money is to buy a new truck. These are kids who have never had very much before; so when someone hands them a huge check, they clearly don’t know what to do. Store owners report that young people will come in to buy candy, handing $50 or $100 without expecting any change. These young people seem to have no concept of saving or investing.“

I used to practice estate planning, and need to point out that the Seneca approach to minor beneficiaries unfortunately borrows the worst kind of legislation drafting laziness from intestacy law, uniform gifts to minors acts, and similar laws involving minors and money. Their experience therefore has nothing to do with UBI specifically. Of course dropping a wad of cash on an unprepared 18 or 21 year-old is a dumb idea. Of course the kids “have no concept of saving or investing.” (Like the rest of us do.) Moving on, the article cites more disasters:

The money “is almost never saved for education.

“Despite a vast apparatus to help Seneca members set up businesses, almost no one starts one.

“Unless people are employed by the tribe (either through the casino or in tribal government), they are largely unemployed.

“Theft is also a problem. One official told me that they have had reports of elder abuse where children and grandchildren were stealing payments from older members of the tribe.

“The results of all this can be seen in the poverty rates for the Senecas, which have continued to rise. Their territory is divided into two reservations. As of 2011, the Allegany reservation poverty rate was 33.3 percent and the Cattaraugus reservation poverty rate was 64.9 percent, the highest in Cattaraugus County. During the first decade that the casino was operating, the poverty rate in Cattaraugus County, which includes part of the Seneca Territory, increased from 12.8 in 2000 to 18.7 in 2011.”

Finally, the article ends by citing Thomas Sowell:

“Writing about the concept of a Universal Basic Income last year, Thomas Sowell summed up the situation: ‘The track record of divorcing personal rewards from personal contributions hardly justifies more of the same, even when it is in a more sophisticated form. Sophisticated social disaster is still disaster—and we already have too much of that.’”

The Sowell article cited by the IFS blogger was “Is Personal Responsibility Obsolete?” (Investor’s Business Daily, June 6, 2016). It begins this way:

“Among the many disturbing signs of our times are conservatives and libertarians of high intelligence and high principles who are advocating government programs that relieve people of the necessity of working to provide their own livelihoods.

“Generations ago, both religious people and socialists were agreed on the proposition that ‘he who does not work, neither shall he eat.’ Both would come to the aid of those unable to work. But the idea that people who simply choose not to work should be supported by money taken from those who are working was rejected across the ideological spectrum.”

And so we see the standard anti-UBI fightin’ words:

“divorcing personal reward from personal contributions”

“government programs that relieve people of the necessity of working to provide their own livelihoods”

“people who simply choose not to work”

“money taken from those who are working”

I confess, I can’t help but wonder what people who say those things think they would do with UBI money. Again moving along….

Other tribes also distribute casino money. The following is from What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?”, published by The New York Times as part of a 2017 series on economic inequality called “The Great Divide.”

“Scientists interested in the link between poverty and mental health, however, often face a more fundamental problem: a relative dearth of experiments that test and compare potential interventions.

“So when, in 1996, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains opened a casino, Jane Costello, an epidemiologist at Duke University Medical School, saw an opportunity. The tribe elected to distribute a proportion of the profits equally among its 8,000 members. Professor Costello wondered whether the extra money would change psychiatric outcomes among poor Cherokee families.”

Same idea, different tribe. How’d they do? We’ll find out next time.

The Success Delusion

poverty snareHow did the social safety net turn into a poverty trap? It was a victim of the success of the job as an economic force.

Psychologists call it “the success delusion.” You do something and get a result you like, so you keep doing it, expecting more of the same. It keeps working until one day it doesn’t. Do you try something new? No, you double down — it worked before, surely it will work again. You keep doubling down until you’ve made a mess.

You’re a victim of your own success. If you could listen, hindsight would tell you that there was more to it than what you were doing, that a lot of what happened was you being in the right place at the right time. You might believe that or not, but what matters now is that the times changed and you didn’t.

That’s what happened to social welfare. 40 years of post-WWII economic success positioned the steady job as the cornerstone of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, about the time the job was starting to lose its economic vitality, policy-makers doubled down on it:  work had raised the welfare of the whole world since the days of the telegraph and railroad, and surely it was still the best route out of poverty. So now we had workfare instead of welfare, and, as we saw last time, social welfare became “a system of suspicion and shame.”

get-a-job

Standin’ in line marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old lady’s eyes
Just for fun he says, “Get a job.”

That’s The Way It Is”
Bruce Hornsby and the Range

Rutger Bregman sums it up this way:

“We’re saddled with a welfare state from a bygone era when the breadwinners were still mostly men and people spent their whole lives working at the same company. The pension system and employment protection rules are still keyed to those fortunate to have a steady job, public assistance is rooted in the misconception that we can rely on the economy to generate enough jobs, and welfare benefits are often not a trampoline, but a trap.”

Utopia for Realists (2017)

Guy Standing explains it this way:

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation.”

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children.

“Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and of employment.

“To defend labour-based welfare, social democratic governments turned to means testing, targeting benefits on those deemed the deserving poor.

“The shift to means testing was fatal. As previous generations of social democrats had understood, benefits designed only for the poor are invariably poor benefits and stand to lose support among the rest of society.

“Ironically, it was mainly social democratic parties that shifted policy towards workfare, requiring the unemployed to apply for non-existent or unsuitable jobs, or to do menial, dead-end jobs or phony training courses  in return for increasingly meagre benefits.

“Today, we are living in a Second Gilded Age — with one significant difference. In the first, which ended in the Great Crash of 1929, inequality grew sharply but wages on average rose as well. The Second Gilded Age has also involved growing inequality, but this time real wages on average have stagnated or fallen. Meanwhile, those relying on state benefits have fallen further behind, many pushed into homelessness, penury and dependence on inadequate private charity.

“Since the 1980s, the share of income going to labour has shrunk, globally and in most countries of economic significance… The labour share fell in the USA from 53 per cent in 1970 to 43.5 per cent in 2013. Most dramatically, it slid by over twenty percentage points in China and also dropped steeply in the rising industrial giant of South Korea.

“Besides falling wages, there has been an increase in wage differentials and a less-documented decline in the share of people receiving non-wage benefits, such as occupational pensions, paid holidays, sick leave or medical coverage. Thus worker compensation, in terms of ‘social income,’ has fallen by more than revealed by wages alone.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — 34 industrialized member countries], including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job.

“The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

The Corruption of Capitalism (2017)

Not only are jobs doing a poor job at social welfare — for both employed and unemployed alike — but they are themselves an endangered species. More to come…

The Landlord’s Game

monopoly

“Buy land – they aren’t making it anymore.”

Mark Twain

You know how Monopoly games never end? A group of academicians wanted to know why. Here’s an article about them, and here’s their write-up. Their conclusion? Statistically, a game of Monopoly played casually (without strategy) could in fact go on forever.

I once played a game that actually ended. I had a strategy:  buy everything you land on, build houses and hotels as fast as possible, and always mortgage everything to the hilt to finance acquisition and expansion. I got down to my last five dollars before I bankrupted everybody else. It only took a couple hours. Okay, so the other players were my kids. Some example I am. Whatever economic lessons we might have gained from the experience, they certainly weren’t what the game’s creator had in mind.

While Andrew Carnegie and friends were getting rich building American infrastructure, industry, and institutions, American society was experiencing a clash between the new rich and those still living in poverty. In 1879, economist Henry George proposed a resolution in his book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy.

“Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces – poverty and progress – together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighborhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.”

From “Monopoly Was Invented To Demonstrate The Evils Of Capitalism,by new economist Kate Raworth.[1]

George’s book eventually reached the hands of Elizabeth Magie, the daughter of newspaperman James Magie and a social change rabble-rouser in her own right. Influenced by her father’s politics and Henry George’s vision, she created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and gave it two sets of rules, intending for it to be an economic learning experience. Again quoting from Ms. Raworth’s article:

“Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there – and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

“The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes.

“The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

“Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.”

“Chase wealth and crush your opponents” — that was my winning Monopoly strategy. It requires a shift away from the labor economy — selling things workers make or services they provide — to the rentier economy — owning assets you can charge other people to access and use. The scarcer the assets, the more you can charge. Scarcity can be natural, as is the case with land, or it can be artificial, the result of the kind of “regressive regulation” we looked at last time, that limits access to capital markets, protects intellectual property, bars entry to the professions, and concentrates high-end land development through zoning and land use restrictions.

Artificial scarcity can also be the result of cultural belief systems –such as those that underlie the kind of stuff that shows up in your LinkedIn and Facebook feeds:  “7 Ways to Get Rich in Rental Real Estate” or “How to Create a Passive Income From Book Sales and Webinars.” In fact, it seems our brains are so habitually immersed in Monopoly thinking that proposals such as Henry George’s land ownership  tax — or its current equivalents such as superstar economist Thomas Piketty’s wealth tax, Harvard law and ethics professor Lawrence Lessig’s notions of a creative commons, or the widely-studied and broadly-endorsed “universal basic income” — are generally tossed off as hopelessly idealistic and out of touch.

More to come.

[1] Kate Raworth holds positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. We previously looked at her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist  (2017).

Monopoly: The Ultimate in Upward Mobility

monopoly

The Horatio Alger rags-to-riches ideal was born in the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons. A century and a half later, it remains an enduring icon of the American Dream and still makes for inspiring stump speeches.

If only it were true.

Truth is, something more powerful than pluck fueled the Robber Barons, and continues to fuel today’s Meristocrats and Robber Nerds. Yes, things like ingenuity, vision, determination, and hard work have had a lot to do with it, both historically and currently, but the essential element for creating mega-companies (sometimes whole new industries) and staggering personal wealth has been none other than government policy, which by definition favors selected economic activities over others.

A trio of distinguished economics and political science professors[1] provide one of the more provocative summaries of this economic reality in their book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (2009). Harvard sociologist Steven Pinker described it this way: [2]

“The economists Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast argue that the most natural way for states to function, both in history and in many parts of the world today, is for elites to agree not to plunder and kill each other, in exchange for which they are awarded a fief, franchise, charter, monopoly, turf, or patronage network that allows them to control some sector of the economy and live off the rents (in the economist’s sense of income extracted from exclusive access to a resource).”

Medici

This practice is sometimes called the “Medici Cycle,” after the famous Florentines:

“In Towards a Political Theory of the Firm, [ Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business] theorizes that firms use their economic power to acquire political power. They then apply that political power to achieve greater economic gains, which in turn helps them acquire ever more political power. It’s a cycle Zingales likens to the Medici dynasty of 15th-century Florence, Italy. The Medicis leveraged their lending relationships with the Roman Catholic Church into considerable political influence in Renaissance Europe.”[3]

As an example, consider how Andrew Carnegie made his money:

“The competitive strategy of the steelmakers in 1875 was simple:  Collude and fix prices…. Carnegie was invited to join the newly formed Bessemer Steel Association. The association was a cartel, and in the days before antitrust laws, completely legal. Rather than compete tooth and nail for every bit of railroad business, it made far more sense for the steelmakers to establish quotas to limit the total supply in the market. By agreement, each firm was to produce its quota and sell into the market at agreed-upon prices.” [4]

The upside is that Medici Cycle government policies have supported all kinds of timely innovation and inventions, social and cultural trends, and quality of life improvements. The downside is what happens when monopolistic are allowed to go unchecked for too long. Researching this article, I came across several recent expressions of concern that this is happening on many levels in the current U.S. economy:

1)         In their book  The Captured Economy:  How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality (2017), Brink Lindsey and Steven M. Teles[5] describe their concern with  “regressive regulation” — monopoly-perpetuating policies — especially these four types:

  • “subsidies for financial institutions that lead to too much risk-taking in both borrowing and lending;
  • excessive monopoly privileges granted under copyright and patent law;
  • the protection of incumbent service providers under occupational licensing; and
  • artificial housing scarcity created by land-use regulations.”

2)         Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute issued a 2015 report that lists numerous government policies that support or deter monopoly. You can download the full report here or read a Business Insider article published earlier this month that serves as a sort of executive summary of the report, and also brought it up to date:  Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz Says The US Has A Major Monopoly Problem.

3)         This recent article from The Institute For New Economic Thinking describes the derivative problem of “monopsony”:

“Center stage in the meeting of the Federal Research Bank of Kansas City’s annual symposium in Jackson, Wyoming this August was a discussion of the repercussions of having a small number of companies dominating the labor markets where they hire workers–what economists call ‘monopsony.’”

In a nutshell, the problem with monopsony is that, “When a small group of companies can dominate a labor market, wages—and workers—suffer.”

4)         Finally, state-supported monopoly is also evident in the current “rentier economy,” which, as the Steven Pinker quote above indicates, is the result of government policy that grants “exclusive access to a resource.” This is another instance of “regressive regulation.”

We’ll be looking more at the rentier economy in the weeks to come. But first, next week we’ll find out about a surprising twist in the original version of the Monopoly board game. In the meantime, you might enjoy my latest LinkedIn Pulse article The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.

[1] Douglass C. North is co-recipient of the 1993 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He is Spencer T. Olin Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, St Louis and Bartlett Burnap Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Barry R. Weingast is Ward C. Krebs Family Professor in the Department of Political Science and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. John Joseph Wallis is Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

[2] As described in Enlightenment Now:  The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker (2018).

[3] From this post on the CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor blog.

[4] From Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017). I’m not the only one who didn’t learn about this in my American history class. See this interview with the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

[5] The authors combine for one of the more unique economic collaborations I’ve come across in my research They’re a pair of political science professors at Johns Hopkins University who are also associated with the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. Brink Lindsey is a libertarian, so no surprise there, but Steven M. Teles is a liberal, and together they offer an mix of perspectives that provides heartening evidence that not everyone of conflicting persuasions is so entirely polarized that they can’t tlk to each other or agree about anything.

The Pledge

andrew carnegie

19th Century Steel Baron Andrew Carnegie was (a) more than okay with the right to make as much money as you want; but he (b) was not okay with spending it any old way you like. He had some very specific notions about the latter:[1]

“By the late 1880s, Carnegie’s place as one of the wealthiest men in the United States was cemented… With the time afforded him as the controlling shareholder, Carnegie put forth theories on capitalism. the human condition, and the American Republic. In 1889, Carnegie wrote an article simply titled “Wealth” — it would soon become known as “Gospel of Wealth….” In it he offered an unapologetic defense of the system that enabled great wealth such as his.

“[Carnegie believed that] the price for… material progress — ‘cheap comforts and luxuries’ — was great wealth inequality… Any thinking person, Carnegie surmised, would conclude ‘that upon the sacredness of property civilization itself depends — the right of the laborer to his hundred dollars in the savings bank, and equally the legal right of the millionaire to his millions.’ But his defense of capitalism was a setup for a most startling conclusion.

“In the article Carnegie argued that the greatest of men, capitalists, should be unencumbered to accumulate wealth. But once great wealth was achieved, these men should, during their lifetimes, give it away. As the possession of wealth was proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability, it made little sense that it should be bequeathed to descendants. Inherited wealth would undermine the argument that those with wealth earned it, deserved it.

“Next, he held that if men waited until death to give the money away, less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned. While Carnegie viewed wealth as a symbol of intellectual mastery, the actual possession of it should be considered only a trust fund, with ‘the man of great wealth becoming mere trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could for themselves. The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.’

“Carnegie was hailed by newspapers, socialists, workingmen, and, more discreetly, even his fellow capitalists… for such enlightened views.”

Carnegie’s legacy of endowments endures to this day. (I have clear childhood memories of our small town Carnegie library.) Carnegie’s fellow Robber Barons created similarly enduring legacies, such as those reflected in the following names:  Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Ezra Cornell, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and James Duke.

Carnegie’s philosophy also endures today. albeit expressed in terms  more in tune with the ethos of our times. Consider, for example, the Giving Pledge, formed “in an effort to help address society’s most pressing problems by inviting the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to commit more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during their lifetime or in their will.”

As of May 2018, 183 individuals or couples from 22 countries had taken the pledge, representing total net worth closing in on a trillion dollars. Some of the Pledgers are household names; most aren’t. I randomly clicked several of their photos on the Giving Pledge home page, which takes you to their statements about  why they took the pledge. Noticeably absent is Carnegie’s belief that capitalists are “that the greatest of men,” that “the possession of wealth [is] proof to society of great achievement, aptitude, industriousness, and ability,” or that wealth is a “symbol of intellectual mastery.” Nor is there an expressed fear that “less competent men unused to large sums would squander it thoughtlessly, however well-intentioned.” Instead, there’s a certain humility to many of the statements:  they often mention lessons learned from forebears or other role models, and often express gratitude for having been “blessed” or gotten lucky, such as this one:

“Allow me to start by saying that I am not sure I am a worthy member of this group of extraordinary individuals. I consider that I have been lucky in life.”

Other predominant themes in the statements are (a) a recognition that attaining great wealth is not solely a matter of rugged individualism, but that cultural and historical context deserve a lot of credit, and (b) a belief that giving back is a way to honor this reality. I.e., wealth made possible by historical and cultural circumstance ought to benefit all members of that culture, including the most needy. As it turns out, this isn’t just a kind-hearted philosophy of life, it’s a statement of the economic terms upon which much wealth has in fact been created and in the past and continues to be created today.

State-sponsored policies that favor timely and innovative ideas and technologies represent a significant type of societal support for wealth creation . We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan, (2017).

What is “The Economy” Anyway?

Throughout this series, we’ve heard from numerous commentators who believe that conventional economic thinking isn’t keeping pace with the technological revolution, and that polarized ideological posturing is preventing the kind of open-minded discourse we need to reframe our thinking.

In this short TED talk, the author[1] of Americana:  A Four Hundred Year History of American Capitalism suggests that we unplug the ideological debate and instead adopt a less combative and more digital-friendly metaphor for how we talk about the economy:

“Capitalism… is this either celebrated term or condemned term. It’s either revered or it’s reviled. And I’m here to argue that this is because capitalism, in the modern iteration, is largely misunderstood.

“In my view, capitalism should not be thought of as an ideology, but instead should be thought of as an operating system.

“When you think about it as an operating system, it devolves the language of ideology away from what traditional defenders of capitalism think.”

The operating system metaphor shifts policy agendas away from ideology and instead invites us to consider the economy as something that needs to be continually updated:

“As you have advances in hardware, you have advances in software. And the operating system needs to keep up. It needs to be patched, it needs to be updated, new releases have to happen. And all of these things have to happen symbiotically. The operating system needs to keep getting more and more advanced to keep up with innovation.”

brain tilt

But what if the operating system has gotten too complex for the human mind to comprehend?  This recent article from the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado[2] observes that “Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master,” then asks, “Have we finally reached our limits?” The question telegraphs its answer:  in many respects, yes we have. Consider, for example, the air Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that’s responsible for keeping us safe when we fly:

“TCAS alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules. In fact, this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore.

“While the problem of avoiding collisions is itself a complex question, the system we’ve built to handle this problem has essentially become too complicated for us to understand, and even experts sometimes react with surprise to its behaviour. This escalating complexity points to a larger phenomenon in modern life. When the systems designed to save our lives are hard to grasp, we have reached a technological threshold that bears examining.

“It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable.”

The article cites numerous other impossibly complex systems, including the law:

“Even our legal systems have grown irreconcilably messy. The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety.”

Steven Pinker, author of the recent optimistic bestseller Enlightenment Now (check back a couple posts in this series) suggests in an earlier book[3] that the human brain just isn’t equipped for the complexity of modern life:

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo Sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.”

In other words, we have our limits.

Imagine that.

So then… where do we turn for appropriately complex economic thinking? According to “complexity economics,” we turn to the source:  the economy itself, understood not by reference to historical theory or newly updated metaphor, but on its own data-rich and machine-intelligent terms.

We’ll go there next time.

[1] According to his TED bio, Bhu Srinivasan “researches the intersection of capitalism and technological progress.”

[2] Samuel Arbesman is the author. The Center’s mission is to “propel the future of technology policy and innovation.”

[3] How The Brain Works, which Pinker wrote in 1997 when he was a professor of psychology and director of The Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

Economics + Math = Science?

mathematical equation

The human brain is wired to recognize patterns, which it then organizes into higher level models and theories and beliefs, which in turn it uses to explain the past and present, and to predict the future. Models offer the consolation of rationality and understanding, which provide a sense of control. All of this is foundational to classical economic theory, which assumes we approach commerce equipped with an internal rational scale that weighs supply and demand, cost and benefit, and that we then act according to our assessment of what we give for what we get back. This assumption of an internal calculus has caused mathematical modeling to reign supreme in the practice of economics.

The trouble is, humans aren’t as innately calculating as classical economics would like to believe — so says David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, in his new book Bullshit Jobs: :

“According to classical economic theory, homo oeconomicus, or “economic man” — that is, the model human being that lies behind every predication made by the discipline — is assumed to be motivated by a calculus of costs and benefits.

“All the mathematical equations by which economists bedazzle their clients, or the public, are founded on one simple assumption:  that everyone, left to his own devices, will choose the course of action that provides the most of what he wants for the least expenditure of resources and effort.

 “It is the simplicity of the formula that makes the equations possible: if one were to admit that humans have complicated emotions, there would be too many factors to take into account, it would be impossible to weigh them, and predictions would not be made.

“Therefore, while an economist will say that while of course everyone is aware that human beings are not really selfish, calculating machine, assuming they are makes it possible to explain

“This is a reasonable statement as far as it goes. The problem is there are many dimensions of human life where the assumption clearly doesn’t hold. — and some of them are precisely in the domain of what we like to call the economy.”

Economics’ reliance on mathematics has been a topic of lively debate for a long time:

“The trouble… is that measurement and mathematics do not guarantee the status of science – they guarantee only the semblance of science. When the presumptions or conclusions of a scientific theory are absurd or simply false, the theory ought to be questioned and, eventually, rejected. The discipline of economics, however, is presently so blinkered by the talismanic authority of mathematics that theories go overvalued and unchecked.

“In 1886, an article in Science accused economics of misusing the language of the physical sciences to conceal ‘emptiness behind a breastwork of mathematical formulas’. More recently, Deirdre N McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics(1998) and Robert H Nelson’s Economics as Religion (2001) both argued that mathematics in economic theory serves, in McCloskey’s words, primarily to deliver the message ‘Look at how very scientific I am.’

“After the Great Recession, the failure of economic science to protect our economy was once again impossible to ignore. In 2009, the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman tried to explain it in The New York Times with a version of the mathiness diagnosis. ‘As I see it,’ he wrote, ‘the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.’ Krugman named economists’ ‘desire… to show off their mathematical prowess’ as the ‘central cause of the profession’s failure’.

“The result is people… who trust the mathematical exactitude of theories without considering their performance – that is, who confuse math with science, rationality with reality.

“There is no longer any excuse for making the same mistake with economic theory. For more than a century, the public has been warned, and the way forward is clear. It’s time to stop wasting our money and recognise the high priests for what they really are: gifted social scientists who excel at producing mathematical explanations of economies, but who fail, like astrologers before them, at prophecy.”

The New Astrology:  By fetishising mathematical models, economists turned economics into a highly paid pseudoscience,” Aeon Magazine

Economists may bristle at being compared to astrologers, but as we have seen, their skill at prediction seems about comparable.

In the coming weeks we’ll look at other models emerging from the digital revolution, consider what they can tell us that classical economic theory can’t, and how they are affecting the world of work.