Time to complicate things

If we stop trying to simplify our economic models, we can improve policy.

According to the increasingly influential school of complexity economics, decisions that at the "micro" level might seem rational, when they become manifest at the "macro" level produce outcomes that are detrimental to all. Several "rights" often combine to produce a "wrong". This can help to explain problems like why there is such an unequal distribution of wealth in many developed economies and why some regions remain depressed for long periods of time.

Neo-classical economics finds it difficult to account for such emergent problems because it is based on a framework of simple, bilateral exchanges between individuals (people and firms). It is forced to regard economy-wide problems as the result of some external disruption to the normal running of free bilateral exchange. As a result, it has failed to develop an adequate theory that makes a connection between individual decisions and developments in the aggregate economy.  

The new fields of complexity theory and network theory help us to understand the economy as a dynamic network, rather than as the static model of bilateral exchange, which underlies orthodox economics. With this new understanding, we can start to develop policy options that might respond more effectively to problems like inequality of wealth.  

Although the school of complexity economics and the idea of emergent phenomena are relatively new, the recognition of system-wide economic problems is clearly not. But, for a long time, most economic thinking has held that many of our fundamental challenges, such as inequality and climate issues, are the result of market failures and can only be solved by using the power of the state to correct any such failures.  

A complexity perspective suggests the state’s top-down bureaucracy cannot, as it currently operates, offer effective and sustainable solutions to emergent economic problems. The state's policy-making incorporates the idea that society acts like a machine that responds automatically to a stimulus (such as a tax cut) in the same way each time, in large part because mainstream economics has taken a very narrow view of human nature and interaction. This has been explored most recently by Paul Ormerod in his book, Positive Linking.

Complexity theory is based on the core observation that social systems are dynamic, evolving networks in which individual and collective behaviour can shift and change rapidly and unexpectedly. The fluidity of this system means attempts to control an economy by gathering data, making forecasts and developing policy will always be subject to a high risk of failure. Mechanistic approaches to policy can be extremely problematic, for at least four broad reasons:  

  1. Idiosyncrasies matter and it is a near impossibility for a centrally determined policy to remain sensitive to local circumstances.
  2. Remotely set targets can be inaccurate proxies for real aims.
  3. Network effects can drown out the very incentives that form the core of most policy responses.
  4. Incentives are often set as if people were selfish maximisers of their own utility - but this is very often untrue.  

The neoclassical approach is comforting in the sense it implies that following simple, easy to devise, mechanical policy rules can solve some problems. But it is misleading because the economy does not work in the way it suggests, which often leads to inappropriate policy ideas. With the complexity approach things are, roughly speaking, the other way around. It suggests policy responses to certain problems will be hard to draw up, and the right answer might be found only after experimentation, simulation, and pilot studies. But the policy formed as a result is more likely to be suited to the policy challenge.  

The new fields of complexity and network theory advocate building up an understanding of the real world from the ground up. In doing so, they paint a picture of the real world that is much more recognisable than the abstractions of neoclassical economics. As such, they have the potential to offer new approaches to seemingly intractable policy problems, and, because these approaches are inherently apolitical, they ought to be of interest to all political parties.

This is an edited extract of a chapter from IPPR’s forthcoming book, Complex New World: translating new economic thinking into public policy. For more see here.

A bifurcation diagram showing a common representation of chaos theory. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Adam Lent is the Director of Programmes at the RSA. Greg Fisher is the Managing Director of Synthesis.

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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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