All Commentary
Monday, March 2, 2009

Black Swans, Butterflies, and the Economy

The Economy is a Complex System that Cannot be Planned, Designed, or Regulated into Perfection

One side blames the market. The other blames government. We get two causal stories going in opposite directions and a lot of animus. But both perhaps are missing something important in this titanic debate about our current financial crisis. It’s time we exposed a complicated truth about the economy of the 21st century.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is famous for introducing us to black swans. Though these rare creatures have long been used among academic philosophers to explain the shortcomings of reasoning by induction (“Every swan I’ve ever seen has been white, therefore all swans are white.”), Taleb uses the black swan as a stark metaphor for the inevitability of highly improbable events. In other words, black swans are rare, but one will swim by eventually.

As far as Wall Street—particularly the people with a large stake in getting things right—is concerned, this financial crisis involved a confluence of events. Some of these black swans were set in motion by government, like flexible lending standards to extend home ownership, Fannie and Freddie, and a mortgage-friendly tax code. Others were set in motion by willfully ignorant bankers, big shot risk-modelers, and people believing they could live beyond their means. It all came together in a fantastic cascade of failure. The trouble is, no one—neither government nor market actors—can predict such a large-scale event. Black swans happen.

The other important thing to remember is that the economy is a chaotic system. Most of the time chaotic systems achieve a sweet spot between order and chaos, which is a good thing if an economy is to be robust. Chaotic systems, though, change constantly and involve dynamics that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.

An Ecosystem, Not a Machine

Sadly, we’re getting a whole lot of precisely the wrong kind of thinking in response to this crisis. Indeed most of the bad thinking arises from viewing the economy through the lens of a false metaphor: economy as machine. We’ve heard pundits accuse the government or banks of being “asleep at the switch.” But in a complex system, there is no switch. We’ve heard people ask how to “fix it,” “run it,” or “regulate it,” suggesting if just the right sort of genius controlled the rheostats, we’d get just the right sort of economy.

The economy is not like a machine at all. It is rather more like an ecosystem that no one can run, fix, or regulate. The hubristic sort of person who thinks he or anyone can run an economy is the victim of what Hayek called the “fatal conceit.” If given power, the planner will end up making the rest of us the victims of his false metaphor.

It is ironic that Alan Greenspan—once adored by the press but now pilloried by it—is being blamed not only for wielding a laissez-faire ideology that supposedly caused the crisis, but also for failing to predict a black swan. Greenspan was a single, powerful government bureaucrat in charge of gathering enough data to determine the “right” interest rate for a multitrillion-dollar economy. Given the size of that task, he did pretty well for many years. But he was one man. He was housed in a government building. He held an unelected office and made decisions in a bureaucracy that has a monopoly on money and influences the price of credit, at least in the short run. One can hardly call that free-market fundamentalism. Whether Greenspan offered artificially cheap credit or not, interest rates were only one factor among many. To have asked him to predict the best of all possible worlds and adjust interest rates accordingly would have been to ask him to be an oracle channeling the knowledge only God would have. Greenspan is not omniscient. Nor is Bernanke. No one is. But to “run” an economy would require not only omniscience, but omnipotence as well—a power that would bend the actions of millions to its singular will.

Whatever your ideological persuasion, the economy is a complex system that cannot be planned, designed, or have its black swans regulated away. Far from the caricatures sketched in the papers, this is precisely what serious free-market types have been saying for years. That’s why it’s a little more than silly to blame free-market ideology for the current mess, and a little more than mendacious to claim that government fingerprints won’t appear all over the crisis when the postmortem is done.

Hunting Black Swans with Shots in the Dark

The timeless nostra of the politician are to prime the pump (machine metaphor) and to regulate. It seems so simple. But that response is deceptively linear. If you could ask FDR, might he now concede his policies stretched the Depression out for a decade beyond what was necessary? He listened to J.M. Keynes and a coven of interventionists. If we agree that our mixed economy is a complex system, then we also have to agree that the benefits the partly free market confers are an emergent property of that system. If we attempt to regulate away the rare, unforeseen black swan event, the costs of our hubris will be terrible, for we will regulate away untold benefits, too.

In the real world the question may come down to whether we should accept a couple of years of painful market adjustments or decades of recession caused by the blunt instrument of politics. Devastating unintended consequences and unseen effects will follow government attempts to clean up a mess made in great measure by its own hand. Why? Because no one possesses a God’s-eye view of the economy. Government intervenes within the system as part of it, not from outside of it. Nor is the economy an instrument to be manipulated to positive effect—at least not over the long term. That is why Keynes got it so terribly wrong and why the economy must heal itself from within in a distributed, holistic way.

People want government, like God, to come down and fix the unfixable, or explain the inexplicable. That’s why they’re finding it easier to blame greed for our current financial crises. But greed is rather more like gravity: When you fall, you can blame either Newton or the banana peel on the ground.

The profit motive is a good thing when it operates in an environment where bad bets are punished with losses and good investments are rewarded. Only government can distort that healthy profit-and-loss system, giving people incentives to make bad decisions. And it’s in this environment that greed is no good to anyone. It turns out, however, that greed—or better, rational self-interest—can help our economy stabilize faster than government ever could. As the lubricant of our economic system, self-interest will cause a million market actors to recalibrate and to direct resources to projects that create value in our society. We the people will temper our irrational urges and mitigate our risks if government restores the rules that let profit and loss bring discipline. But if government continues to change the rules to bias the market in favor of irrational behavior, rent-seeking, and corporatism, the chaotic aspects of the system will continue to wobble out of equilibrium. Black swans will become commonplace.

Read this article in Portuguese here

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.