Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Will on the Limits of Predictability

Here's a nice meditation by George Will in Newsweek, a glimpse of a glimpse of the fringes of the sheer complexity of the ever-shifting topology of the global economy. Commenting on the ideas of Robert Weissenstein, a chief investment officer in Credit Suisse Private Banking, Will highlights “the enormous iterative impact of everything we hold and do.” He points to the unanticipated consequences of seemingly unrelated innovations and how they create (and destroy) opportunities in a manner reminiscent of Burke's splendid series, "Connections."  It sounds what could be a healthily cautionary note for zero-sum, fixed-"pie" static-model economic thinkers with a mind to tinker with the workings of the marketplace in an effort to control it.

The oft-cited example of this unpredictability is the devastating effect which the advent of the automobile had on the buggy whip industry ("Think of the jobs!!"). The point of the article is the non-linear, unpredictable downstream effects of events and innovations, driving new growth, even as they annihilate previous growth drivers. It's the global economy as a dynamic and evolving landscape, in which dynamic and evolving things live. And die.

It is no more predictable than were the consequences of increasing amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere, billions of years ago, which killed off virtually all of the primordial anaerobic life forms that made up the vast bulk of the Earth's biosphere. It was a Disaster! But, of course, aerobic life forms were able to utilize and dissipate energy far more effectively, leading to greater diversification and complexification, ultimately producing the spectacularly successful dinosaurs...

Complex systems like organisms and species and economies are like that: they are inherently unpredictable, dancing always on the edge of chaos. And that's where evolution happens, on the margins.

If we let it, such can be a profoundly humbling perspective on our efforts to predict and control, and on the hard limits with which those efforts will inevitably collide.

I suppose "that's why we have a Tea Party."

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