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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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories