October 18, 2018

The Rentier Economy: A Primer (Part 2)

My plan for this week’s post was to present further data about the extent of the rentier economy and then provide a digest of articles for further reading.

Turns out that wasn’t so easy. The data is there, but it’s mostly buried in categories like corporate capitalization, profits, and market concentration. Extracting it into blog-post-sized nuggets wasn’t going to be that easy.

Further, the data was generally only footnoted in a maelstrom of worldwide commentary. Economists and journalists treated it as a given, barely worthy of note, and were much more interested in revealing, analyzing, and debating what it means. The resulting discourse spans the globe — north to south, east to west, and all around the middle — and there is widespread agreement on the basics:

  • Economic thinking has traditionally focused on income from profits generated from the sale of goods and services produced by human labor. In this model, as profits rise, so do wages.
  • Beginning in the 1980s, globalization began moving production to cheap labor offshore.
  • Since the turn of the millennium, artificial intelligence and robotics have eliminated jobs in the developed world at a pace slowed only by the comparative costs of technology vs. human labor.
  • As a result, lower per unit costs of production have generated soaring profits while wages have stagnated in the developed world. I.e., the link between higher profits and higher wages no longer holds.

Let’s pause for a moment, because that point is huge. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT, wrote about it in their widely cited book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014). The following is from a chapter-by-chapter digest written by an all-star cast of economists:

Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress.

On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Okay, point made. Let’s move on to the rest of the rentier story:

  • These trends have been going on the past four decades, but increased in velocity since the 2007–2009 Recession. The result has been a shift to a new kind of job market characterized by part-time, on-demand, contractual freelance positions that pay less and don’t offer fringe benefits. Those who still hold conventional jobs with salaries and benefits are a dying breed, and probably don’t even realize it.
  • As non-wage earner production has soared, so have profits, resulting in a surplus of corporate cash. Low labor costs and technology have created a boom in corporate investment in patents and other rentable IT assets.
  • Rent-seeking behavior has been increasingly supported by government policy — such as the “regressive regulation” and other “legalized monopoly” dynamics we’ve been looking at in the past few weeks.
  • The combination of long-term wage stagnation and spiraling rentier profits has driven economic inequality to levels rivaled only by pre-revolutionary France, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20s.
  • Further, because the rentier economy depends on government policy, it is particularly susceptible to plutocracies, oligarchies, “crony-capitalism,” and other forms of corruption, leading to public mistrust in big business, government, and the social/economic elite.
  • These developments have put globalization on the defensive, resulting in reactionary politics such as populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and trade protectionism.

As you see, my attempt to put some numbers to the terms “rent” and “rentier” led me straight into some neighborhoods I’ve been trying to stay out of in this series. Finding myself there reminded me of my first encounter with the rentier economy nine years ago, when of course I had no idea that’s what I’d run into. I was at a conference of entrepreneurs, writers, consultants, life coaches, and other optimistic types. We started by introducing ourselves from the microphone at the front of the room. Success story followed success story, then one guy blew up the room by telling how back in the earliest days of the internet, he and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz spent $250K buying up domain names for the biggest corporations and brand names. Last year, he said, he made $76 Million from selling or renting them back.

He was a rentier, and I was in the wrong room. When it was my turn at the mic, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. Welcome to the real world, my idealistic friend.

As it turns out, following the rentier pathway eventually leads us all the way through the opinionated commentary and current headlines to a much bigger worldwide issue. We’ll go there next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

The Rentier Economy — Primer Part 1

As we saw last week, the original Monopoly game — then known as The Landlord’s Game — offered a choice of two different games, one played under “Prosperity” rules and the other under “Monopoly” rules. The post-WWII economic surge was a real-life Prosperity game: it generated a rising tide of economic benefit that floated all boats across all social classes. The surge peaked in the 1970’s, and since then the Monopoly rules have increasingly asserted themselves, resulting in, among other things, stagnant employee compensation (except for the top 10%) and rising returns to capital owners — the lion’s share paid in the form of rents. The latter reflects the rise of a “rentier economy.”

First, we need to define “rent”:

Economists use the term ‘rent’ in a special way. For them, rent refers . . . to the excess payment made to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital) due to scarcity.

The scarcity factor that gives rise to rents can be natural, as with the case of land.

But rents can also arise from artificial scarcity — in particular, government policies that confer special advantages on favored market participants.

The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality, Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles (2017).

And “rentier”:

A rentier is someone who gains income from possession of assets, rather than from labour. A rentier corporation is a firm that gains much of its revenue from rental income rather than from production of goods and services, notably from financial assets or intellectual property. A rentier state has institutions and policies that favour the interests of rentiers. A rentier economy is one that receives a large share of income in the form of rent.

The Corruption of Capitalism, Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, Guy Standing (2016)

Economists didn’t see the rentier economy coming. They especially didn’t foresee how government policy would create it. The following is from The Corruption of Capitalism:

John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the mid-twentieth century, famously dismissed the rentier as the ‘functionless investor’ who gained income solely from ownership of capital, exploiting its ‘scarcity value.’ He concluded in his epochal General Theory that, as capitalism spread, it would mean the “euthanasia of the rentier,” and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity value of capital:

“Whilst there may be intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of land, there are no intrinsic reasons for the scarcity of capital. . . . I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work.”

Keynes was mistaken because he did not foresee how the neoliberal framework built since the 1980’s would allow individuals and firms to generate ‘contrived scarcity’ of assets from which to gain rental income. Nor did he foresee how the modern ‘competitiveness’ agenda would give asset owners power to extract rental subsidies from the state.

Eighty years later, the rentier is anything but dead; rentiers have become the main beneficiaries of capitalism’s emerging income distribution system.

The old income distribution system that tied income to jobs has disintegrated.

And this is from The Captured Economy:

The last few decades have been a perplexing time in American economic life. Following a temporary spike during the Internet boom of the 1990’s, rates of economic growth have been exceptionally sluggish. At the same time, incomes at the very top have exploded while those further down have stagnated.

As a technical matter, rent is a morally neutral concept. . . . Nevertheless, the term ‘rent’ is most commonly used in a moralized sense to refer specifically to bad rents. In particular, the expression ‘rent-seeking’ refers to business activity that seeks to increase profits without creating anything of value through distortions to market processes, such as constraints on the entry of new firms.

Those advantages can also take the form of subsidies or rules that impose extra burdens on both existing and potential competitors. The rents enjoyed through government favoritism not only misallocate resources in the short term but they also discourage dynamism and growth over the long term. Their existence encourages an ongoing negative-sum scramble for more favors instead of innovation and the diffusion of good ideas.

Economists have had an explanation for the latter trend, which is that returns to skill have increased dramatically, largely because of globalization and information technology. There is clearly something to this explanation, but why should the more efficient operation of markets be accompanied by a decline in economic growth?

Our answer is that increasing returns to skill and other market-based drivers of rising inequality are only part of the story. Yes, in some ways the US economy has certainly grown more open to the free play of market forces during the course of the past few decades. But in other ways, economic returns are now determined much more by success in the political arena and less by the forces of market competition. By suppressing and distorting markets, the proliferation of regulatory rents has also led to less wealth for everyone.

To be continued.

 

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

The Landlord’s Game

“Buy land – they aren’t making it anymore.”
Mark Twain

You know how Monopoly games never end? A group of academicians wanted to know why. Here’s an article about them, and here’s their write-up. Their conclusion? Statistically, a game of Monopoly played casually (without strategy) could in fact go on forever.

I once played a game that actually ended. I had a strategy: buy everything you land on, build houses and hotels as fast as possible, and always mortgage everything to the hilt to finance acquisition and expansion. I got down to my last five dollars before I bankrupted everybody else. It only took a couple hours. Okay, so the other players were my kids. Some example I am. Whatever economic lessons we might have gained from the experience, they certainly weren’t what the game’s creator had in mind.

While Andrew Carnegie and friends were getting rich building American infrastructure, industry, and institutions, American society was experiencing a clash between the new rich and those still living in poverty. In 1879, economist Henry George proposed a resolution in his book Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy.

Travelling around America in the 1870s, George had witnessed persistent destitution amid growing wealth, and he believed it was largely the inequity of land ownership that bound these two forces — poverty and progress — together. So instead of following Twain by encouraging his fellow citizens to buy land, he called on the state to tax it. On what grounds? Because much of land’s value comes not from what is built on the plot but from nature’s gift of water or minerals that might lie beneath its surface, or from the communally created value of its surroundings: nearby roads and railways; a thriving economy, a safe neighborhood; good local schools and hospitals. And he argued that the tax receipts should be invested on behalf of all.

From “Monopoly Was Invented To Demonstrate The Evils Of Capitalism,by new economist Kate Raworth.[1]

George’s book eventually reached the hands of Elizabeth Magie, the daughter of newspaperman James Magie and a social change rabble-rouser in her own right. Influenced by her father’s politics and Henry George’s vision, she created The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and gave it two sets of rules, intending for it to be an economic learning experience. Again quoting from Ms. Raworth’s article:

Under the ‘Prosperity’ set of rules, every player gained each time someone acquired a new property (designed to reflect George’s policy of taxing the value of land), and the game was won (by all!) when the player who had started out with the least money had doubled it. Under the ‘Monopolist’ set of rules, in contrast, players got ahead by acquiring properties and collecting rent from all those who were unfortunate enough to land there — and whoever managed to bankrupt the rest emerged as the sole winner (sound a little familiar?).

The purpose of the dual sets of rules, said Magie, was for players to experience a ‘practical demonstration of the present system of land grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences’ and hence to understand how different approaches to property ownership can lead to vastly different social outcomes.

The game was soon a hit among Left-wing intellectuals, on college campuses including the Wharton School, Harvard and Columbia, and also among Quaker communities, some of which modified the rules and redrew the board with street names from Atlantic City. Among the players of this Quaker adaptation was an unemployed man called Charles Darrow, who later sold such a modified version to the games company Parker Brothers as his own.

Once the game’s true origins came to light, Parker Brothers bought up Magie’s patent, but then re-launched the board game simply as Monopoly, and provided the eager public with just one set of rules: those that celebrate the triumph of one over all. Worse, they marketed it along with the claim that the game’s inventor was Darrow, who they said had dreamed it up in the 1930s, sold it to Parker Brothers, and become a millionaire. It was a rags-to-riches fabrication that ironically exemplified Monopoly’s implicit values: chase wealth and crush your opponents if you want to come out on top.

“Chase wealth and crush your opponents” — that was my winning Monopoly strategy. It requires a shift away from the labor economy — selling things workers make or services they provide — to the rentier economy — owning assets you can charge other people to access and use. The scarcer the assets, the more you can charge. Scarcity can be natural, as is the case with land, or it can be artificial, the result of the kind of “regressive regulation” we looked at last time, that limits access to capital markets, protects intellectual property, bars entry to the professions, and concentrates high-end land development through zoning and land use restrictions.

Artificial scarcity can also be the result of cultural belief systems — such as those that underlie the kind of stuff that shows up in your LinkedIn and Facebook feeds: “7 Ways to Get Rich in Rental Real Estate” or “How to Create a Passive Income From Book Sales and Webinars.” In fact, it seems our brains are so habitually immersed in Monopoly thinking that proposals such as Henry George’s land ownership  tax — or its current equivalents such as superstar economist Thomas Piketty’s wealth tax, Harvard law and ethics professor Lawrence Lessig’s notions of a creative commons, or the widely-studied and broadly-endorsed initiation of a “universal basic income” — are generally tossed off as hopelessly idealistic and out of touch.

More to come.


[1] Kate Raworth holds positions at both Oxford and Cambridge. We previously looked at her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist  (2017).

 

Kevin Rhodes studies and writes about economics in an effort to understand the world his kids are growing up in, which is also the world he’s growing old in. You might enjoy his latest LinkedIn Pulse article “The Fame Monster: Rockstars And Rockstar Entrepreneurs.”

The Great Gatsby Lawyer

How okay are we, really, with the right of everyone (a) to make as much money as they want, and (b) to spend it any way they like? If we would limit (a) or (b) or both, then how and why?

Consider for a moment what your (a) and (b) responses have been to the upward mobility stories we’ve looked at so far: Richard Reeves, Matthew Stewart, Steven Brill. Travie McCoy. David Boies, Eric and I. Now consider this story from an article in Above the Law:

[P]ersonal injury attorney Thomas J. Henry threw a lavish bash to celebrate his son, Thomas Henry Jr.’s, 18th birthday. And the price tag for the Gatsby-mixed-with-burlesque-themed fête? A cool $4 million.

To rack up such a hefty bill, the event had lots of performers which included showgirls, aerial performers, art installations, and contortionists (oh my!). Plus, there were musical performances and celebrity guests.

And don’t think the over-the-top party was the only gift the birthday boy received:

The star of the party, who sat on a throne-like chair when he wasn’t dancing, was given a fully loaded blue Ferrari, an IWC Portugieser Tourbillion watch and a custom-made painting from Alec Monopoly.

Henry’s work as a trial attorney is obviously pretty lucrative. The big payouts he’s been able to secure for his clients have made him a member of the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum.[1]

Henry is known for throwing giant parties. Just last year, he spent $6 million for his daughter’s quinceañera. I guess we know which one is really daddy’s favorite.

The writer telegraphs her attitude about the story with the article’s tone and with the understated lead line, “this seems extreme.” Apparently she would cast a vote for limitations on (b). When I’ve shared the story with friends, the response is usually stronger than “this seems extreme.”

I wonder why. Maybe it’s because this looks like a case of conspicuous consumption, which never goes down well. Economist/sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term in his 1889 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, to describe how the newly prosperous middle class were buying things to communicate their move up the social ladder. The neighbors were rarely impressed — that is, until they made their own purchases, and then the game turned into keeping up with Joneses.

The conspicuous consumption shoe might fit here: Mr. Henry’s website tells a bit of his upward mobility story — German immigrant, raised on a farm in Kansas, etc. Or maybe there’s something going on here that transcends his personal story. In that regard, the term “affluenza” comes to mind.

The term “affluenza” was popularized in the late 1990s by Jessie O’Neill, the granddaughter of a past president of General Motors, when she wrote the book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence.” It’s since been used to describe a condition in which children — generally from richer families — have a sense of entitlement, are irresponsible, make excuses for poor behavior, and sometimes dabble in drugs and alcohol.

From an article by Fox News. See also these descriptions from CNN and New York Magazine.

Definitions of the term come loaded with their own biases, judgments, and assumptions. This is from Merriam-Webster:

Affluenza: the unhealthy and unwelcome psychological and social effects of affluence regarded especially as a widespread societal problem: such as

feelings of guilt, lack of motivation, and social isolation experienced by wealthy people

extreme materialism and consumerism associated with the pursuit of wealth and success and resulting in a life of chronic dissatisfaction, debt, overwork, stress, and impaired relationships

And this is from the popular PBS series that came out shortly after The Golden Ghetto:

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth.

Affluenza made quite a splash in the estate planning world where I practiced, spawning a slew of books, CLE presentations, and new approaches to legal counseling and document design. Affluenza went mainstream in 2014 with the highly-publicized trial of Ethan Couch, the “Affluenza Teen,” when a judge reduced his sentence on four counts of intoxicated manslaughter and two counts of intoxicated assault after an expert witness testified that his wealthy upbringing had left him so psychologically impaired that he didn’t know right from wrong.

For a great number of my clients, that their kids might catch affluenza was their worst nightmare.[2] Their fear suggests this consensus to Thomas Henry’s partying habits:

(a) it’s okay to make all the money you want,

(b) but it’s not okay if you use your money to make your kids a danger to themselves and to others.

I wonder — would it temper our rush to categorize and judge Mr. Henry if we knew his philanthropic history and philosophy? This is from his website:

Mr. Henry’s overall philosophy is that helping others when you have the good fortune of being successful is not an elective decision but a mandatory decision. People who achieve success have a duty to help others.

That statement closely mirrors the beliefs of Robber Baron Andrew Carnegie. We’ll look at that next time, along with the perceptions of other 0.01 percenters about the social responsibilities of wealth.


[1] The Forum’s website says that “fewer than 1% of U.S. lawyers are members,” which appropriately signals Thomas Henry’s position in the economic strata.

[2] I used to tell my clients that if I had a dime for every time a client said, “I don’t want my money to ruin my kids,” I would have been a rich man. That was hyperbole, of course: a dime each time wouldn’t have made me rich. On the other hand, a million dollars each time might have made me a billionaire. A billion is a BIG number.

 

The Matthew Effect

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance;
but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The Gospel of Matthew 25:29, Revised Standard Version

Economists call it the Matthew Effect or the Matthew Principle. Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton used the former when he coined the term[1] by reference to its Biblical origins.[2] The more pedestrian version asserts that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

According to the Matthew Effect, social capital is better caught than taught, better inherited than achieved. That notion is borne out by current economic and demographic data[3] showing that the only children with a statistically relevant shot at experiencing a better standard of living than their parents are the ones born with a silver spoon in their mouths — or, as David Graeber says in Bullshit Jobs, the ones “from professional backgrounds” where they are taught essential social capital mindsets and skills “from an early age.”[4]

Statistics are susceptible to ideological manipulation, but bell curves conceptualize trends into observable laws of societal thermodynamics. The Matthew Effect bell curve says it’s harder to get to the top by following the Horatio Alger path: you’re starting too many standard deviations out; your odds are too low. On the other hand, if you start in the center (you’re born into the top), odds are you’ll stay there.

That might depend, however, on how long your forebears have been members of the club. Globetrotting wealth guru Jay Hughes has spoken and written widely of the concept of “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” According to the aphorism, if the first generation of a family follows the Horatio Alger path to wealth, there’s a 70% chance the money will be gone by the end of the third generation, which means the social capital will be gone as well. That first generation might defy the odds through hard work and luck, but odds are they won’t create an enduring legacy for their heirs.

My own law career was an exercise in another folk expression of the Matthew Effect: “you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” (No, that’s not me in the photo — I just thought it made the point nicely.) My career finally hit its stride when I created a small firm serving “millionaire next door” clients — farmers, ranchers, and Main Street America business owners who became financially successful while remaining in the social milieu where they (and I) began. Nearly all of those families created their wealth during the post-WWII neoliberal economic surge, and are now entering the third generation. I wonder how many are experiencing the shirt sleeves aphorism.

Curiously, my transition out of law practice was also dominated by social capital considerations — in particular, a social capital misfiring. I had a big idea and some relevant skills (i.e., some relevant human capital — at least other people thought so), but lacked the social capital and failed to make the personal transformation essential to my new creative business venture.[5]

In fact, it seems the Matthew Effect might be a larger theme in my life, not just my legal career. In that regard, I was surprised to find yet another one of my job stories in Bullshit Jobs. This one was about a townie who took a job as a farm laborer. His job included “picking rocks,” which involves tackling a rocky field with a heavy pry bar, sledge hammer, pick axe, spade, and brute strength, in an effort to remove the large rocks and make it tillable. I’d had that job, too. I was a teenager at the time, and it never occurred to me that it might be “completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious” (Graeber’s definition), which is how the guy in the book felt about it. In fact, when I told my parents about my first day of picking rocks over dinner, my dad was obviously so proud I thought he was going to run out and grill me a steak. Obviously I’d made some kind of rite of passage.

Picking rocks is just part of what you do if you work the land, and there’s nothing meaningless about it. I enjoyed it, actually — it was great training for the upcoming football season. I can scarcely imagine what my law career and life might have been like if I’d felt the same way about my first years of legal work as I did about picking rocks.

The Matthew Effect has far-reaching social, economic, legal, and ethical implications for the legal profession, where social capital is an important client- and career-development asset. Next time we’ll look at another lawyer who, like David Boies, rose from humble origins to superstar status, and whose story brings a whole new set of upward mobility issues to the table.


[1] Merton was originally trying to describe how it is that more well-known people get credit for things their subordinates do — for example, professors taking credit for the work of their research assistants — the professors enriching their credentials at the expense of their minions’ hard and anonymous work. Merton might just as well have been talking about law partners taking credit for the work of paralegals, law clerks. and associates.

[2] As for why “Matthew” when the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke) have the same verse, I suspect that’s in part because Matthew is the first book in the New Testament canon, but it may also substantiate a derivative application of Merton’s law made by U of Chicago super-statistician Stephen Stigler, known as the Law of Eponymy, which holds that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” I.e., later arrivals collect the accolades the” original discoverer” never did. In that regard, Mark’s gospel is believed to have been written first, with Matthew and Luke’s coming later and deriving from it. That would make Mark the true original discoverer. That this economic phenomenon is not called the “Mark Effect” is therefore another example of Stigler’s law.

[3] See, e.g., the “Fading American Dream” graph and the “Geography of Upward Mobility in America” map in this NPR article.

[4] The phenomenon has been widely reported. See this study from Stanford and our trio to new Meristocrats from a few weeks back: Richard V. Reeves and his book Dream Hoarders and his Brookings Institute monograph Saving Horatio Alger (we looked at those last time). The second was philosopher Matthew Stewart, author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. The third was Steven Brill, founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America.

[5] I’ve told that story elsewhere, and won’t repeat it here, but if you’re interested in more on this issue, a look at that particular social capital disaster might be illustrative. See my book Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania.

 

Rebel Without A Cause

Continuing with David Graeber’s analysis of Eric’s job experience from last time:

What drove Eric crazy was the fact that there was simply no way he could construe his job as serving any sort of purpose.

To get a sense of what was really happening here, let us imagine a second history major — we can refer to him as anti-Eric — a young man of a professional background but placed in exactly the same situation. How might anti-Eric have behaved differently?

Well, likely as not, he would have played along with the charade. Instead of using phony business trips to practice forms of self-annihilation, anti-Eric would have used them to accumulate social capital, connections that would eventually allow him to move on to better things. He would have treated the job as a stepping-stone, and this very project of professional advancement would have given him a sense of purpose.

But such attitudes and dispositions don’t come naturally. Children from professional backgrounds are taught to think like that from an early age. Eric, who had not been trained to act and think this way, couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Like Eric, I couldn’t bring myself to do it either — although it was not so much that I couldn’t, it was more a case of not knowing how. I was bright enough, had a knack for the all-important “likeability factor” with clients and colleagues, and worked with lots of clients and other professionals who were members of the Red Velvet Rope Club. But like Eric, I remained on the outside looking in, and I spent a lot of time feeling envious of others who fit in so easily.

Those dynamics dogged the early years of my law career. In time, a general sense of inadequacy became depression, which I compensated for by nursing a rebel-without-a-cause attitude.

My experience didn’t have to be that way. Consider, for example, the story of super-lawyer David Boies. Like Eric and me, Boies was also born to working class parents and grew up in a farming community, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Chrystia Freeland introduces him this way in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else(2012):

As the world economy grows, and as the super-elite, in particular, get richer, the superstars who work for the super-rich can charge super fees.

Consider the 2009 legal showdown between Hank Greenberg and AIG, the insurance giant he had built. It was a high-stakes battle, as AIG accused Greenberg, through his privately-held company, Starr International, of misappropriating $4.3 billion worth of assets. For his defense, Greenberg hired David Boies. With his trademark slightly ratty Lands’ End suits (ordered a dozen at a time by his office online), his Midwestern background, his proud affection for Middle American pastimes like craps, and his severe dyslexia (he didn’t learn how to read until he was in the third grade), Boies comes across as neither a superstar or a member of the super-elite. He is both.

Boies and his eponymous firm earned a reputed $100 million for the nine-month job of defending Greenberg. That was one of the richest fees earned in a single litigation. Yet, for Greenberg, it was a terrific deal. When you have $4.3 billion at risk, $100 million — only 2.3 percent of the total — just isn’t that much money. Further sweetening the transaction was the judge’s eventual ruling that AIG, then nearly 80 percent owned by the U.S. government, was liable for up to $150 million of Greenberg’s legal fees, but he didn’t know that when he retained Boies.

What did Boies have that Eric and I didn’t? Well, um, would you like the short list or the long? Boies is no doubt one of those exceptionally gifted and ambitious people who works hard enough to get lucky. I suspect his plutocrat switch was first activated when his family moved to California while he was in high school, and from there was exponentially supercharged by a series of textbook upwardly mobile experiences: a liberal arts education at Northwestern, a law degree from Yale, an LL.M. from NYU, joining the Cravath firm and eventually becoming a partner before leaving to found his own firm.

That’s impressive enough, but there’s more to his story: somehow along the way he was transformed into the kind of person who belongs — in his case, not just to the 9.9% club, but to the 0.1 %. Yes, his human capital was substantial, but it was his personal transformation that enabled him to capitalize (I use that term advisedly) on the opportunities granted only by social capital.

And now, if the 9.9 percenters we heard from a couple weeks back are correct, the pathway he followed is even more statistically rare (if that’s even possible) than when he travelled it — in part because of an economic principle that’s at least as old as the Bible.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Eric and Kevin’s Most Excellent Career Adventures

       

David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs is loaded with real-life job stories that meet his definition of “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” One of those stories rang a bell: turns out that “Eric” and I had the same job. The details are different, but our experiences involved the same issues of social capital and upward mobility.

Eric grew up in a working class neighborhood, left to attend a major British university, graduated with a history major, landed in a Big 4 accounting firm training program, and took a corporate position that looked like an express elevator to the executive suite. But then the job turned out to be… well, nothing. No one would tell him what to do. He showed up day after day in his new business clothes and tried to look busy while trying in vain to solve the mystery of why he had nothing to do. He tried to quit a couple times, only to be rewarded with raises, and the money was hard to pass up. Frustration gave way to boredom, boredom to depression, and depression to deception. Soon he and his mates at the pub back home hatched a plan to use his generous expense account to travel, gamble, and drink.

In time, Eric learned that his position was the result of a political standoff: one of the higher-ups had the clout to fund a pet project that the responsible mid-level managers disagreed with, so they colluded to make sure it would never happen. Since Eric had been hired to coordinate internal communication on the project, keeping him in the dark was essential. Eventually he managed to quit, kick his gambling and drinking habits, and take a shot at the artistic career he had envisioned in college.

My story isn’t quite so… um, colorful… but the themes are similar. I also came from a strong “work with your hands” ethic and was in the first generation of my family to go to college, where I joined the children of lawyers, neurosurgeons, professors, diplomats, and other upper echelon white collar professionals from all 50 states and several foreign countries, At the first meeting of my freshmen advisory group, my new classmates talked about books, authors, and academic disciplines I’d never heard of. When I tackled my first class assignment, I had to look up 15 words in the first two pages. And on it went. Altogether, my college career was mostly an exercise in cluelessness. But I was smart and ambitious, and did better than I deserved.

Fast forward nine years, and that’s me again, this time signing on with a boutique corporate law firm as a newly minted MBA/JD. I got there by building a lot of personal human capital, but my steel thermos and metal lunch bucket upbringing was still so ingrained that a few weeks after getting hired I asked a senior associate why nobody ever took morning and afternoon coffee breaks. He looked puzzled, and finally said, “Well… we don’t really take breaks.” Or vacations, evenings, weekends, or holidays, as it turned out.

A couple years later I hired on with a Big 4 accounting firm as a corporate finance consultant. My first assignment was my Eric-equivalent job: I was assigned to a team of accountants tasked with creating a new chart of accounts for a multinational corporation and its subsidiaries. Never mind that the job had nothing to do with corporate finance. Plus there were two other little problems: I didn’t know what a chart of accounts was, and at our first client meeting a key corporate manager announced that he thought the project was ridiculous and intended to oppose it. Undaunted, the other members of the consulting team got to work. Everybody seemed to know what to do, but nobody would tell me, and in the meantime our opponent in management gained a following.

As a result, I spent months away from home every week, trying to look busy. I piled up the frequent flyer miles and enjoyed the 5-star accommodations and meals, but fell into a deep depression. When I told the managing partner about it, he observed that, “Maybe this job isn’t a good fit for you.” He suggested I leave in two months, which happened to be when our consulting contract was due for a renewal. Looking back, I suspect my actual role on the team was “warm body.”

Graeber says that, at first blush, Eric’s story sounds like yet one more bright, idealistic liberal arts grad getting a real-world comeuppance:

Eric was a young man form a working-class background… fresh out of college and full of expectations, suddenly confronted with a jolting introduction to the “real world.”

One could perhaps conclude that Eric’s problem was not just that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for the pointlessness of the modern workplace. He had passed through the old educational system . . . This led to false expectations and an initial shock of disillusionment that he could not overcome.

Sounds like my story, too, but then Graeber takes his analysis in a different direction: “To a large degree,” he say, “this is really a story about social class.” Which brings us back to the issues of upward mobility and social capital we’ve been looking at. We’ll talk more about those next time.

In the meantime, I can’t resist a Dogbert episode:

 

Upward Mobility — Pop Music Style

I had a different post planned for this week, but then I heard a song over the gym soundtrack last week that perfectly illustrates the dynamics of social capital and upward mobility and the perils of the rags-to-riches journey. It also captures an attitude that often accompanies that feeling of having your nosed pressed up against the glass: wanting to move up but feeling blocked. That’s a lot of economics to pack into one pop song, so I just had to feature it.

I talked about all of that in the very first post in this series just a bit over a year ago, when I wondered out loud whether money can make us happy:

I mean, all these famous (and mostly rich) people are entitled to their opinion, but we’d like to find out for ourselves if money could make us happy — we’re pretty sure we could handle it.

Rapper Travie McCoy was pretty sure he could handle it, too. He wrote a song saying so — the one I heard at the gym — then lived his own upward mobility rise, fall, and eventual comeback. His experience couldn’t be more different than that of the 9.9 percenters we heard from last week. Apparently the social capital of the pop music red velvet rope club isn’t the same as the club covered by Forbes.

McCoy teamed up with Bruno Mars to do the song back in 2010. Obama was president, we were just coming off the Great Recession, it was five years after Hurricane Katrina and four years before Bruno Mars did his first Super Bowl halftime. Last time I checked, the song’s official video was closing in on 330 Million views. Obviously it hit a sweet spot. The song made an appearance on Glee— the unofficial version I found had nearly a million views — more hitting a sweet spot.

Judging from what happened next, McCoy might have been wrong about whether he could handle it. A “whatever happened to Travie McCoy?” search suggests his big hit didn’t give him the life or make him the person he visualized in the song. Among other things, there was a steep decline into opioid then heroin addiction, but since then he has clawed his way back into the music scene.

We’ll let the song deliver its economic lessons on its own terms. If you want to take a short break for a catchy tune, you can watch either the official video or the unofficial Glee version below. (The latter is an excellent cover, with the lyrics spruced up for prime time TV, as reflected in the lyrics below.)

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
Yeah, a different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire

Yeah I would have a show like Oprah
I would be the host of everyday Christmas
Give Travie a wish list
I’d probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt
And adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had **it
Give away a few Mercedes like here lady have this
And last but not least grant somebody their last wish
It’s been a couple months that I’ve been single so
You can call me Travie Claus minus the Ho Ho
Get it, hehe, I’d probably visit where Katrina hit
And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did
Yeah can’t forget about me stupid
Everywhere I go Imma have my own theme music

Oh every time I close my eyes
I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night oh right
I swear the world better prepare
For when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I’ll be playing basketball with the President
Dunking on his delegates
Then I’ll compliment him on his political etiquette
Toss a couple milli in the air just for the heck of it
But keep the five, twenties tens and bens completely separate
And yeah I’ll be in a whole new tax bracket
We in recession but let me take a crack at it
I’ll probably take whatever’s left and just split it up
So everybody that I love can have a couple bucks
And not a single tummy around me would know what hungry was
Eating good sleeping soundly
I know we all have a similar dream
Go in your pocket pull out your wallet
And put it in the air and sing

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad
Buy all of the things I never had
I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine
Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen
Oh every time I close my eyes I see my name in shining lights
A different city every night all right
I swear the world better prepare for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire
Oh ooh oh ooh for when I’m a billionaire

I wanna be a billionaire so frickin’ bad!

More upward mobility stories coming up — one of them is my own.

The End of Horatio Alger

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed.
I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to
win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

~Teddy Roosevelt

In economic terms, a fair start is about equal opportunity. There’s no more enduring version of that particular ideal than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message. And according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin.

These days, however, it seems as though the notion of a fair start is a thing of the past — so says Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders, which we looked at briefly last time. Reeves begins by confessing that his disenchantment over the demise of the Horatio Alger ideal will no doubt seem disingenuous because he didn’t grow up American and is now a member of the Red Velvet Rope Club himself:

As a Brookings senior fellow and a resident of an affluent neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of DC, I am, after all, writing about my own class.

I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. (Also, I was born on the Fourth of July.) There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

My new country was founded on anti-hereditary principles. But while the inheritance of titles or positions remains forbidden, the persistence of class status across generations in the United States is very strong. Too strong, in fact, for a society that prides itself on social mobility.

Reeves also wrote a Brookings Institute monograph called Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream, in which he said the following:

Vivid stories of those who overcome the obstacles of poverty to achieve success are all the more impressive because they are so much the exceptions to the rule. Contrary to the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in America now — forces related not just to income and wealth but also to family structure and education — that put the country at risk of creating an ossified, self-perpetuating class structure, with disastrous implications for opportunity and, by extension, for the very idea of America.

The moral claim that each individual has the right to succeed is implicit in our “creed,” the Declaration of Independence, when it proclaims “All men are created equal.”

There is a simple formula here — equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility — which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed.

Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty — the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself” — with societal equality. It is a philosophy of egalitarian individualism. The measure of American equality is not the income gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

The problem is not that the United States is failing to live up to European egalitarian principles, which use income as a measure of equality. It is that America is failing to live up to American egalitarian principles, measured by the promise of equal opportunity for all, the idea that every child born into poverty can rise to the top.

There’s a lot of data to back up what Reeves is saying. See, e.g., this study from Stanford, which included these findings:

Parents often expect that their kids will have a good shot at making more money than they ever did.

But young people entering the workforce today are far less likely to earn more than their parents when compared to children born two generations before them, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

A new study co-authored by Stanford economist Raj Chetty describes an economic portrait of the fading American Dream; growing inequality appears to be the main cause for the steady decline

Reeves and Stanford’s researchers aren’t the only ones who feel that way. We’ll hear from a couple others next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Check out his latest LinkedIn Pulse article: “Rolling the Rock: Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.”

Nose Pressed Up Against the Glass

You’re on the outside looking in. What you want is only a window pane away, but it might as well be on Mars. Novelist Maria E. Andreu captures the feeling:

“There is a wonderful scene in the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights . . . in which Heathcliff and Catherine sneak on to the grounds of the Linton house at night. The Lintons, the rich neighbors, are having a grand party. Heathcliff and Catherine watch through the window, unseen. It’s exactly what’s meant by ‘nose pressed up against the glass,’ watching but not being able to participate.

“You can see a lot in their faces as they watch the others dance. Catherine, the daughter of a landed ‘gentleman,’ gets a look that lets you know that she’s intrigued, beginning to want to let go of her wild childhood and take her place in the Lintons’ world. Healthcliff, the servant who adores Catherine, knows that even if he could stop being poor, he would never belong there. He will always be watching from outside the glass.”

Nose pressed up against the glass — it’s an enduring image in literature and in life. Ms. Andreu continues:

I’ve thought about this scene a lot. I’ve used the image in my writing. It illustrates how I’ve felt sometimes, able to see ‘the good life’ but not able to live it. Most of my life, the Heathcliff in me has weighed heavy inside my heart.

But then one day the magic happened, and suddenly she found herself transported to the other side of the window pane:

Yesterday, I got a rave review for my novel that comes out in a month and a half. In my email, I got an invitation to a launch party for another author’s book. I packed to go to a book signing and remembered I needed an extra outfit for an industry cocktail party and the ‘members only’ dinner afterwards with people from my publishing house.

If that’s not being inside the party, I don’t know what is.

Someone has opened the door of the party for some fresh air, seen me lurking, and extended a hand of friendship to let me in. It is an unbelievable feeling. I live a life of impossible splendor, of magical beauty, of infinite luck. And I am so deeply grateful.

We’d feel the same way, if we ever got so lucky. (Assuming we’ve been working hard enough to get lucky — here’s The Quote Investigator on where that saying came from.)

In economic terms, the distance between Heathcliff and the Lintons is a matter of social capital. Ryan Avent, author of The Wealth of Humans, distinguishes between human capital and social capital. Human capital, he says, is a particularly focused and useful form of knowledge that an individual gains through education, hard work, experience, on-the-job training, etc. It’s the hard work part of the formula. Social capital, on the other hand, is the opportunity part, and it’s not just personal, it’s cultural. Avent says it’s “like human capital . . . but is only valuable in particular contexts, within which a critical mass of others share the same social capital.”

For those not already in the social capital club, converting human capital into social capital requires upward mobility. Ms. Andreu’s upward mobility moment was getting her “members only” invitation – official permission to duck under the red velvet rope and join an exclusive gathering where she could schmooze the “others [who] share the same social capital.” Heathcliff, on the other hand, never got his upward mobility moment. As a result, there wasn’t just a glass window pane between him and the Lintons, there was a glass ceiling.

Nose pressed against the glass… glass ceiling… we’ve heard those expressions before. Nowadays, another glass metaphor has entered the economic lexicon: the “glass floor, which protects the upper middle class against the risk of downward mobility.” (My emphasis. The quote is from Dream Hoarders:  How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard V. Reeves.)

Hoping to move up? Afraid of moving down? These days, it’s hard to do either. And if you’re hoping to move up, there’s one additional, elusive element required for membership in the red velvet club:  the notion of identity — the need to be the kind of person who belongs there. In this short video (click the image below), Michael Port, author of the bestseller Book Yourself Solid, asks, “What makes [red velvet rope people] who they are?” He answers that it’s “their quality, their characteristics, their personality — things that are innate, are part of who they are as people, not necessarily their circumstances.”

We’ll be looking lots more at upward mobility and social capital in the weeks to come.

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Check out his latest LinkedIn Pulse article: “Rolling the Rock: Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.”

Who Controls the World?

One fine afternoon autumn day in Cincinnati I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I didn’t know it then, but I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action. Schools of fish, ant colonies, human brains — and even the financial industry — all exhibit this behavior. And so does “the economy.”

James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund, and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd. in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager. He begins his TED Talk with two quotes about the Great Recession of 2007-2008:

When the crisis came, the serious limitations of existing economic and financial models immediately became apparent.

There is also a strong belief, which I share, that bad or over simplistic and overconfident economics helped create the crisis.

Then he tells us where they came from:

You’ve probably all heard of similar criticism coming from people who are skeptical of capitalism. But this is different. This is coming from the heart of finance. The first quote is from Jean-Claude Trichet when he was governor of the European Central Bank. The second quote is from the head of the UK Financial Services Authority. Are these people implying that we don’t understand the economic systems that drive our modern societies?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course:  yes they are, and no we don’t. As a result, nobody saw the Great Recession coming, with its layoffs carnage and near-collapse of the global economy, or its “too big to fail” bailouts and generous bonuses paid to its key players.

Glattfelder tackles what that was about, from a complex systems perspective. First, he dismisses two approaches we’ve already seen discredited.

Ideologies: “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Mathematics: “You can think of physics as follows. You take a chunk of reality you want to understand and you translate it into mathematics. You encode it into equations. Then, predictions can be made and tested. But despite the success, physics has its limits. Complex systems are very hard to map into mathematical equations, so the usual physics approach doesn’t really work here.”

Then he lays out a couple key features of complex, self-organizing systems:

It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.

Applying this to the financial industry, he describes how his firm studied the Great Recession by analyzing a database of controlling shareholder interests in 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs). That analysis netted over 600,000 “nodes” of ownership, and over a million connections among them. Then came the revelation:

It turns out that the 737 top shareholders have the potential to collectively control 80 percent of the TNCs’ value. Now remember, we started out with 600,000 nodes, so these 737 top players make up a bit more than 0.1 percent. They’re mostly financial institutions in the US and the UK. And it gets even more extreme. There are 146 top players in the core, and they together have the potential to collectively control 40 percent of the TNCs’ value.

737 or 146 shareholders — “mostly financial institutions in the U.S. and the U.K.” — had the power to control 80% or 40% of the value of 43,000 multinational corporations. And those few hundreds — for their own accounts and through the entities they controlled — bought securitized sub-prime mortgages until the market imploded and nearly brought down the global economy valued in the tens of trillions dollars — giving a whole new meaning to the concept of financial leverage. In what might be the economic understatement of the 21st Century, Glattfelder concludes:

This high level of concentrated ownership means these elite owners possess an enormous amount of leverage over financial risk worldwide. The high degree of control you saw is very extreme by any standard. The high degree of interconnectivity of the top players in the core could pose a significant systemic risk to the global economy.

It took a lot of brute number-crunching computer power and some slick machine intelligence to generate all of that, but in the end there’s an innate simplicity to it all. He concludes:

[The TNC network of ownership is] an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.

The same is true of the mesmerizing flock of birds I watched that day; here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain it[1].


[1] What I saw was a “murmuration” of birds — see this YouTube video for an example. It is explained by a form of complex system analysis  known as “swarm behavior.”

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Check out his latest LinkedIn Pulse article: “Rolling the Rock: Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.”

Reframing “The Economy”

We’ve seen that conventional thinking about “the economy” struggles to accommodate technologies such as machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence — which means it’s ripe for a big dose of reframing. Reframing is a problem-solving strategy that flips our usual ways of thinking so that blind spots are revealed, conundrums resolved, polarities synthesized, and barriers transformed into logistics.

The Santa Fe Institute is on the reframing case: Rolling Stone called it “a sort of Justice League of renegade geeks, where teams of scientists from disparate fields study the Big Questions.” W. Brian Arthur is one of those geeks. He’s also onboard with PARC — a Xerox company in “the business of breakthroughs” — and has written two seminal books on complexity economics: Complexity and the Economy (2014) and The Nature of Technology: What it Is and How it Evolves (2009). Here’s his pitch for reframing “the economy”:

The standard way to define the economy — whether in dictionaries or economics textbooks — is as a “system of production and distribution and consumption” of goods and services. And we picture this system, “the economy,” as something that exists in itself, as a backdrop to the events and adjustments that occur within it. Seen this way, the economy becomes something like a gigantic container . . . , a huge machine with many modules or parts.

I want to look at the economy in a different way. The shift in thinking I am putting forward here is . . . like seeing the mind not as a container for its concepts and habitual thought processes but as something that emerges from these. Or seeing an ecology not as containing a collection of biological species, but as forming from its collection of species. So it is with the economy.

The economy is a set of activities and behaviors and flows of goods and services mediated by — draped over — its technologies: the of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies its needs. They include hospitals and surgical procedures. And markets and pricing systems. And trading arrangements, distribution systems, organizations, and businesses. And financial systems, banks, regulatory systems, and legal systems. All these are arrangements by which we fulfill our needs, all are means to fulfill human purposes.

George Zarkadakis is another Big Questions geek. He’s an artificial intelligence Ph.D. and engineer, and the author of In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence (2016). He describes his complexity economics reframe in a recent article “The Economy Is More A Messy, Fractal Living Thing Than A Machine”:

Mainstream economics is built on the premise that the economy is a machine-like system operating at equilibrium. According to this idea, individual actors – such as companies, government departments and consumers – behave in a rational way. The system might experience shocks, but the result of all these minute decisions is that the economy eventually works its way back to a stable state.

Unfortunately, this naive approach prevents us from coming to terms with the profound consequences of machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Both political camps accept a version of the elegant premise of economic equilibrium, which inclines them to a deterministic, linear way of thinking. But why not look at the economy in terms of the messy complexity of natural systems, such as the fractal growth of living organisms or the frantic jive of atoms?

These frameworks are bigger than the sum of their parts, in that you can’t predict the behaviour of the whole by studying the step-by-step movement of each individual bit. The underlying rules might be simple, but what emerges is inherently dynamic, chaotic and somehow self-organising.

Complexity economics takes its cue from these systems, and creates computational models of artificial worlds in which the actors display a more symbiotic and changeable relationship to their environments. Seen in this light, the economy becomes a pattern of continuous motion, emerging from numerous interactions. The shape of the pattern influences the behaviour of the agents within it, which in turn influences the shape of the pattern, and so on.

There’s a stark contrast between the classical notion of equilibrium and the complex-systems perspective. The former assumes rational agents with near-perfect knowledge, while the latter recognises that agents are limited in various ways, and that their behaviour is contingent on the outcomes of their previous actions. Most significantly, complexity economics recognises that the system itself constantly changes and evolves – including when new technologies upend the rules of the game.

That’s all pretty heady stuff, but what we’d really like to know is what complexity economics can tell us that conventional economics can’t.

We’ll look at that next time.

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Check out his latest LinkedIn Pulse article: “Rolling the Rock: Lessons From Sisyphus on Work, Working Out, and Life.”