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.

Utopia Already

 “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born you’d choose now.”

Pres. Barack Obama, 2016

It’s been a good month for optimists in my reading pile. Utopia is already here, they say, and we’ve got the facts to prove it.

Enlightenment NowHarvard Professor Steven Pinker is his own weather system. Bill Gates called Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now  “My new favorite book of all time.”

Pinker begins cautiously:  “The second half of the second decade of the third millennium would not seem to be an auspicious time to publish a book on the historical sweep of progress and its causes,” he says, and follows with a recitation of the bad news sound bytes and polarized blame-shifting we’ve (sadly) gotten used to. But then he throws down the optimist gauntlet: “In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong — wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong.”

He makes his case in a string of data-laced chapters on progress, life expectancy, health, food and famine, wealth, inequality, the environment, war and peace, safety and security, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge and education, quality of life, happiness, and “existential” threats such as nuclear war. In each of them, he calls up the pessimistic party line and counters with his version of the rest of the story.

And then, just to make sure we’re getting the point, 322 pages of data and analysis into it, he plays a little mind game with us. First he offers an eight paragraph summary of the prior chapters, then starts the next three paragraphs with the words “And yet,” followed by a catalogue of everything that’s still broken and in need of fixing. Despite 322 prior pages and optimism’s 8-3 winning margin, the negativity feels oddly welcome. I found myself thinking, “Well finally, you’re admitting there’s a lot of mess we need to clean up.” But then Prof. Pinker reveals what just happened:

“The facts in the last three paragraphs, of course, are the same as the ones in the first eight. I’ve simply read the numbers from the bad rather the good end of the scales or subtracted the hopeful percentages from 100. My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage. It’s to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room — indeed, an imperative — for us to strive to continue that progress.”

Pinker acknowledges his debt to the work of Swedish physician, professor of global Factfulnesshealth, and TED all-star Hans Rosling and his recent bestselling book Factfulness. Prof Rosling died last year, and the book begins with a poignant declaration:  “This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance.” His daughter and son-in-law co-wrote the book and are carrying on his work — how’s that for commitment, passion, and family legacy?

The book leads us through ten of the most common mind games we play in our attempts to remain ignorant. It couldn’t be more timely or relevant to our age of “willful blindness,” “cognitive bias,” “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles.”

Also this week, professional skeptic Michael Shermer weighed in on the positive side of It's better than it looksthe scale with his review of a new book by journalist Gregg Easterbrook — It’s Better Than It Looks. Shermer blasts out of the gate with “Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.” He also begins his case with the Obama quote above, and adds another one:

“As Obama explained to a German audience earlier that year:  ‘We’re fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,’ adding ‘that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.’”

A similar paeon to progress begins last year’s blockbuster Homo Deus (another of Bill Homo DeusGates’ favorite books of all time). The optimist case has been showing up elsewhere in my research, too. Who knows, maybe utopia isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, maybe it’s already here.

Now there’s a thought.

All this ferocious optimism has been bracing, to say the least — it’s been the best challenge yet to what was becoming a comfortably dour outlook on economic reality.

And just as I was beginning to despair of anyone anywhere at any time ever using data to make sense of things, I also ran into an alternative to utopian thinking that both Pinker and Shermer acknowledge. It’s called “protopia,” and we’ll look at it next time.