The network effect

And what it means for policy

Economics assumes that individuals operate autonomously, isolated from the direct influences of others. But today’s social and economic worlds are not like this. The choices people make are directly influenced by others through "social networks" – not merely Facebook but, more importantly, real-life social networks such as family, friends and colleagues.

Network effects have been pervasive throughout history. Humans, whether Hittite potters three and a half millennia ago or traders in financial markets today, have a propensity to copy the behaviour of others around them. On the financial markets, this herd mentality can lead all too easily to the booms and crashes we have experienced in recent years.

Networks are especially important in finance. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, it precipitated a crisis that almost led to a total collapse of the global economy, and it was precisely because Lehman was connected into a network of other banks that the situation was so serious. Incredibly, neither the system of financial regulation that was in place, nor the thinking of mainstream economics that influenced policy so strongly, took any account of the possibility of such a network effect. Ironically, policy makers and the financial establishment thought that risk could be mitigated by spreading it across the system. They misunderstood completely the dynamics of financial networks and the possibility that such networks might not reduce risk but could create upheaval.

A world in which network effects drive behaviour is completely different from the world of conventional economics. Network effects require policy makers to have a markedly different view of how the world operates. They make successful policy much harder to implement but they also help explain many policy failures.

The intellectual underpinning of the burgeoning activity of the state has been provided by mainstream economics. Paradoxically, a theoretical construct that purports to establish the efficiency of the free market has been used to justify an enormously enhanced role for the state. The concept of "market failure", at first sight a critique of free market economics, has provided powerful backing to state intervention. When markets have not functioned in the real world as the theory suggests they should, then regulation, taxes, incentives of all shapes and forms have been used in an attempt to make the imperfect world conform to more closely to the perfect one of economic theory.

We have now had over sixty years of this vision. Yet the stark fact is that the combination of large- scale state activity and a mechanistic intellectual approach to policy-making has not delivered anything like the success hoped for. Deep social and economic problems remain. For example, the average unemployment rate in the UK in the six decades before the Second World War was 5.5 per cent – virtually identical to the average rate for the six decades since. Rational planning and clever regulation did not prevent the biggest economic recession since the 1930s from taking place in 2008/9.

It is time for mainstream economics to adopt a model of the world that more closely approximates the reality of networks.  A fundamental feature of any system in which network effects are important is that it is ‘robust yet fragile’. Most of the time, the system is stable and resilient to shocks. But every so often a particular shock can have a dramatic effect and the behaviour of individuals across the network will be altered. These events are extremely difficult to anticipate, and hard to control when they do occur.

But the network view highlights the importance of social norms in determining the success of legislation. When network effects are present, the most effective policies are unlikely to be generic changes to incentives, as per the mainstream view. Careful analysis and targeting become the order of the day. Fewer resources used more intelligently can potentially lead to much more effective strategies. The silver bullet of this approach is that there are no silver bullets. Instead, we need to rely much more on the processes of experimentation and discovery.

The focus of policy needs to shift away from prediction and control. We can never predict the unpredictable. Instead we need systems that exhibit resilience and robustness on the one hand, and the ability to adapt and respond well to unpredictable future events on the other.

Paul Ormerod is an economist and author of Positive Linking: How networks and nudges can revolutionise the world.

This is an edited version of a chapter from IPPR’s forthcoming book, Complex New World: translating new economic thinking into public policy. For more see http://bit.ly/IPPR9499

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.