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Book cover from Economics Nobel prize (2008), Paul Krugman (link): Paul R. Krugman, “The Self-Organizing Economy“, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. What follows is the entire excerpt review on his book, by Cosma Shalizi, a friend and colleague, done in March 1996 with minor corrections in 1997 and 2006:
[…] Paul Krugman cannot be accused of lacking good opening lines:
Is an economic slump like a hurricane, or is it more like an earthquake? Is a growing city like an embryo, or is it more like a meteorite?
Obviously some explaining needs to be done here.
The term “self-organization” seems to have entered the language in a 1947 paper in the Journal of General Psychology on cybernetic mechanisms of adaptation, though related ideas are considerably older. It has, of course, become a buzzword, indeed an indispensable element in modern techno-cant – I was once on a mailing list where some people proposed to write a “self-organizing” novel – but a lot of real science carries on under the label, in some remarkably different fields:
[W]hat links the study of embryos and hurricanes, of magnetic materials and collections of neurons, is that they are all self-organizing systems: systems that, even when they start from an almost homogeneous or almost random state, spontaneously form large-scale patterns. One day the air over a particular patch of tropical ocean is no different in behavior from the air over any other patch; maybe the pressure is a bit lower, but the difference is nothing dramatic. Over the course of the next few days, however, that slight dip in pressure becomes magnified through a process of self-reinforcement: rising air pulls water up to an altitude at which it condenses, releasing heat that reduces the pressure further and makes more air rise, until that particular piece of the atmosphere has become a huge, spinning vortex. Early in the process of growth an embryo is a collection of nearly identical cells, but (or at least so many biologists believe) these cells communicate with each other through subtle chemical signals that reinforce and inhibit each other, leading to the “decision” of some cells to become parts of a wing, others parts of a leg. [pp. 3–4]
This is vague, for which I am grateful, since sharpening the notion of self-organization into something quantifiable is the subject of my thesis. But let us draw a veil over this and press on.
There’s a sense in which economists have been studying little but the “spontaneous formation of large-scale patterns” ever since Adam Smith and the creation of self-regulating markets, but Krugman is not interested in convincing his profession that it has been speaking prose all its life; it would, in his words, “be entitled to change the channel.” Rather he wants to look at the way economies organize themselves in space and over time, which they do in a most conspicuous way. (There is, however, a brief discussion of technological lock-in in chapter six.) Krugman picks out three examples in particular: the way cities differentiate themselves into specialized districts; the power-law distribution of city sizes; and business cycles.
That cities – even Los Angeles – are not homogenous lumps, with everything mixed together, seems to have been true from earliest times. Some of this is simply because different locations have different advantages – dockyards go by the water, fortresses on heights, and brothels and bars near fortresses. Some of it is due to zoning boards, planning commissions, real-estate magnates and red-lining, to say nothing of the police and cross-burning – whether such forces contribute to urban self-organization is a delicate question, and in any case Krugman is silent about them. Still, this leaves a lot of differentiation which seems to be due to nothing but self-reinforcement, which (unlike zoning boards and red-lining) has actually been studied in economic theory, especially by economic geographers, for some time. (Krugman is at pains to point out that self-organization was not unknown to economists before the arrival of missionaries from Santa Fe.) He begins his discussion of this with so-called “edge cities,” and then passes on to a marvelously elegant illustration from Thomas Schelling’s marvelously elegant book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, which suggests how the former (requiring that at least 37% of your neighbors be like yourself) can lead to the latter (massive segregation). He then dives into a discussion of “urban morphogenesis” directly inspired by Turing’s classic work on embryological morphogenesis. He assumes his city is one-dimensional and either infinite or circular, but claims no more value for it than that of qualitative illustration; I can think of physicists who should be so modest. Self-organization happens here because the initial random noise contains components which correspond to many different patterns in nucleo, and the dynamics are such that some of these get magnified faster than others. The pattern which grows fastest ultimately dominates the system, which is called “pattern selection” in traditional reaction-diffusion systems. [Note containing the words “Fourier decomposition.”]
A power law distribution means that the number of objects whose size is at least S is proportional to S^a, for some (hopefully negative) constant a. It happens that the size of cities obeys a power law known as Zipf’s law, which is usually stated thus: the size of a city is inversely proportional to its rank order so that, for example, the 100th largest city is a tenth the size of the 10th largest city. This rule is almost exactly true of the sizes of American cities (it corresponds to a value of a of -2), and has been for at least a century. Physicists have liked power laws ever since Galileo, and recently we’ve developed a taste for power law distributions; Prof. Per Bak and his disciples sometimes seem to want to claim everything obeying a power law distribution for “self-organized criticality.” Krugman explains the power law distribution as an outcome of growth processes where the expected rate of growth is independent of the size already attained. Such processes do, in fact, generate power laws, and have been known to for some time – Herbert Simon proposed one, “in a completely impenetrable exposition,” in 1955. Alas, none of them are as regular as the empirical data!
At this point Krugman tells us that what we have just seen are order from instability (“When a system is so constituted that a flat or disordered structure is unstable, order spontaneously emerges.” – p. 99) and order from random growth (“[O]bjects are formed by a growth process in which the expected rate of growth is approximately independent of scale, but the actual rate of growth is random.” – p. 100). He declines, thankfully, to call these universal laws of self-organization, but he does suggest they are “principles,” or rather common ways of self-organizing.
Temporal self-organization in the economy is more familiarly known as business cycles, or yet more familiarly as booms and crashes (err, depressions; err, recessions; err, slumps; err, slow-downs). Since Keynes (at least) the idea that these are in some way self-reinforcing has been common, and Krugman resurrects a body of Keynesian theory from the ’50s, “non-linear business cycle theory.” This is of the order-from-instability type, and so predicts a characteristic size to business cycles, which, on a comparison of 1933 with the recent unpleasantness, or even the early 1980s, is less than plausible. Krugman also presents an order-from-random-growth theory – really percolation theory in wolf’s clothing – which avoids that problem at the cost of “[making] less contact with what seems to happen during a boom or slump,” and predicting a power law distribution for business fluctuations, which is not observed. Charitably, Krugman chooses to “regard them both more as illustrations as how one might approach self-organization in time than as finished statements of how one actually ought to do it.” Some such theory will be necessary if we are not to continue treating shifts in aggregate demand as external shocks administered, perhaps, by the vengeful specter of Karl Marx.
If this were a formal and comprehensive treatise, I would be disappointed by the passing over of evolutionary and institutional economics; the cavalier starting of models from tabulæ rasæ rather than already-differentiated settings; the fact that most of the models are what in physics would be called “phenomenological,” i.e. they don’t try to connect to the underlying mechanisms, such as markets; the absence of even qualitative comparisons with empirical data; and the indifference to exogenous forces, natural , social or political, which in practice are very important in all of the topics Krugman discusses. But this is not a formal and comprehensive work; that will have to wait for a good many years. It is a self-described “discourse” of exactly a hundred pages, a very brief introduction and an appeal for further development, for the work which will make the treatise possible. As befits such a book, Krugman’s writing is clear, informal and concise (but then, it usually is). His attitude towards the mathematics is that it should be used and not seen; accordingly we get the hypotheses once as stories (“I do not want to dignify them by calling them models”); a second time with a bit of calculus; and a third time in an appendix for those who want the nitty-gritty. (Even there he draws the line at Fourier decomposition and linear stability analysis; phase space and attractors are explained verbally, and well, in the body of the text.) The economics should be accessible to anyone who’s taken Econ. 1, and probably many (such as your humble narrator) who haven’t. The book will be of particular interest to those crossing the bridge from economics to self-organization and dynamics in either direction, but most educated readers should find it informative and engaging. […] Cosma S. Shalizi, 1996.
Two “The Economist” covers. The first one was manually created and posted by Richard Dawkins himself, … – yes – the evolutionary Biologist. The second one is real as well recent (as of April 4th) – UNDER ATTACK, a 14-page special report on the rise and fall of the wealthy. Do note the Blackberry on top of the dead guy in the front and the skyline of London’s Canary Warf financial district in the background (via HS Dent blog). The Laissez-faire Economy lead to all this (more).
It’s not everyday we see a 40 year ideology collapsing through a dramatic act of contrition. It has happened just a few hours ago (check video above), yesterday in the “financial crisis” congressional hearing in Washington (23. Oct. 2008). Moreover, what seems remarkable, is that the recognition comes from one of his most universally respected founding fathers and defenders.
Alan Greenspan was the longest serving chairman in the Federal Reserve board history (1987-2006), and during this 18-year period of time he were perhaps the leading proponent of de-regulation along with libertarian capitalism, vividly expressed on his “The Age of Turbulence – Adventures in a New World” 2007 book, advocating above all issues, Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” that markets can regulate themselves. As it’s known, for his whole adult life, the former Fed chairman has been a devotee of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who celebrated free-market capitalism as the world’s most moral economic order and advocated a strict laissez-faire approach to government regulation of the marketplace. Ironically, he was a regulator that did not believed in any regulation at all.
It is now quite a remarkable historic moment seeing former Federal Reserve chairman, a lifelong champion of free markets, publicly questioning the philosophy that guided him throughout his years as the world’s most powerful economic policymaker. A philosophy followed and strongly defended by him (along with many others like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan), at least in the last 40 years, as he himself acknowledged yesterday. Asked by the congressional committee chairman, whether his free-market convictions pushed him to make wrong decisions, especially his failure to rein in unsafe mortgage lending practices, Greenspan replied that indeed he had found a flaw in his ideology, one that left him very distressed. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology was not right?” he was asked:
“Absolutely, precisely“, replied Greenspan. “That’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence it was working exceptionally well“. Albeit he was surely one of the most influential voices for de-regulation: “There is nothing in Federal regulation that makes it superior to Market regulation”, said Greenspan back in 1994, in one among many of his past radical free-market statements.
I presume we now all wonder, where was Greenspan, when back in 2003 one of the most prestigiously recognized and legendary financial investors such as Warren Buffet, called credit default obligations and derivatives “weapons of financial mass destruction“? Or where was he when Princeton Professor of Economics, Paul Krugman – the recent Nobel laureate – said back in 2006 that “If anyone is to blame on the current situation (sub prime) is Mr Greenspan who poopooed warnings about an emerging bubble and did nothing to crack down on irresponsible lending“. Or what did he, Greenspan itself, said just a few days after ENRON collapsed?
People working in complex systems – and surely financial markets are one of them (yes, for the past 4-5 years including these present turbulent times I am working hard in this area as well) – for long know that any systemic structure could collapse if only positive-feedbacks are injected into them, creating an auto-catalytic snow-ball effect, leading among other things to a power-law like Black Swan. Indeed power-laws are a striking powerful signature. This is specially true when we address self-organization (read it in the present context as self-regulation). In order to be a truly self-regulated system, financial markets should also be embedded with negative-feedbacks as well, as I have addressed in a post about finance and complex systems one month ago. In fact, in order to emerge as a truly self-organized system, self-interest, should constitute just one among many of the ingredients over the entire financial system, and not the isolated unique ingredient. Self-interest promotes amplification and positive feedback, which is – as I recognize – necessary. However, left alone, promotes instead dramatic snowballing drifts over chaotic regimes, due to it’s intrinsic amplification. What’s amazing (at least for me), is that Alan Greenspan just recognized that in a tiny few seconds along his current discourse (check video above), pointing it to the precise key-word:
[…] I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders. […] So the problem, here is something which looked to be as a very solid edifice, and indeed a critical pillar to market competition and free-markets, did breakdown and I think that, as I said, shock me. I still do not fully understand why it happened, and obviously to the extend, that I figure out where it happened and why, … aaaaaa, … I will change my views. If the facts change I will change. […]
As a result, “the whole intellectual edifice” of risk management collapsed, Greenspan said. In what regards his unexpected words yesterday at the congressional hearing, at least, I frankly praise him for his huge intellectual courage and present honesty. In the end, it seems that during the past 18 years, former FED chair was nothing else then a simple-man driven by his own blind faith on markets, from which he apparently comes out now. Unfortunately, only now at a very high price. Meanwhile as we know, severe consequences are here to stay, as was already evident when Greenspan addressed the House Financial Services Committee on 2003 (video below). Let’s hope that all these will not be forgotten in 3 decades from now (though, I doubt it – after all, nothing really serious came out from the entitled 3-man dream-team Bush-Sarkozy-Barroso “new global finance order” summit at Camp David last weekend, as expected):
“You have told the American people that you support a trade policy which is selling them out.” – Rep. Bernard Sanders to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan on 7/16/03. Rep. Bernard Sanders (Independent-Vermont), now a US Senator, dresses down Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in front of the House Financial Services Committee on 7/16/03.
Now, above in the video, do you remember the words: Structured Investment Vehicle (S.I.V. or Conduits)? No? Okay, let’s now pass to a very brief and relatively more technical approach to it (as you will see it, reality transcends fiction) – CNBC via Youtube:
Care for more?
[…] From the ice-age to the dole-age
There is but one concern
I have just discovered: Some girls are bigger than others
Some girls are bigger than others
Some girls mothers are bigger than
Other girls mothers […]
The Smiths – “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others“, (Queen is dead) 1986. Song written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
________________ § ________________
Key: “S:” = Show Synset (semantic) relations, “W:” = Show Word (lexical) relations / S: (n) dole (a share of money or food or clothing that has been charitably given) / S: (n) dole, pogy, pogey (money received from the state)
________________ § ________________
(via William Gibson‘s blog)
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