Economics – telling stories to anyone who’ll listen

Meika commented on the previous post here about the ability of economists to predict the economic crisis – ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. Does this really apply to economists? Well, yes it does and here’s a little anecdotal evidence… Continue reading “Economics – telling stories to anyone who’ll listen”

The financial crisis: Why did no-one see it coming, and why did economists get it so wrong?

Why didn’t the experts see it coming?, asked the Queen of England, and the British Academy wrote a letter to explain. Of the lead up to the global financial crisis they wrote:

“It is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris.”

Meanwhile, economist Paul Krugman asked a similar question – how did economists get it so wrong –  and came up with an answer to do with the difference between salt water and fresh water (apparently one turns you Keynsian and the other turns you neo-classical). Krugman noted the failure  of neoclassical economics to account for the apparent irrationality of the market, and proposed as a remedy the emerging sub-discipline of behavioural economics.

When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly.

Both these approaches – that of the British Academy highlighting wishful thinking and hubris, and that of behavioural economics highlighting cognitive biases – make the great mistake of assuming that there is a single ‘ideal’ rationality,which real humans happen to be incapable of attaining. Continue reading “The financial crisis: Why did no-one see it coming, and why did economists get it so wrong?”

Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?

A new book called Good Intentions proposes that Christians should stop judging economic matters on the basis of pre-conceived moral positions and start judging them on the basis of what actually works. A prime example is the debate about the minimum wage… Continue reading “Good Intentions: is rational choice the only choice?”

Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told


Virtual goods make money

In a recent post about the profitability of online social networks in the US, China and Japan, venture capitalist Bill Gurley presents evidence that the more financially successful social network sites are those that downplay advertising revenue and focus on revenue from virtual goods. He points out that Users in Second Life are doing $450m annually in this business and taking out of Second Life $100m a year.

But why would anyone buy them? Continue reading “Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told”

Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?

Pickering Traction Engine Rally, P. StevensonIs energy efficiency a key factor in reducing greenhouse emissions?

Matthew Taylor of the RSA thinks home energy efficiency should take priority, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute is also very keen on large scale efficiency gains.

The Jevons Paradox is the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of yet more coal. Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increased the use of coal in England and William Jevons’ (1835-1882) book The Coal Question noted this. but Jevons  also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, truly inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. He wrote: Continue reading “Energy Efficiency: Running to stand still?”

How to avoid nasty surprises

by Kevin N MurphyThe company had a “uniquely entrepreneurial culture” that made it a paragon of business success. According to management guru Gary Hamel, it was ‘leading the revolution’. Unfortunately the company in question was rotten to the core and ultimately became one of the most notorious business failures of the decade. The company, of course, was Enron. Hamel later said,

“Virtually everyone inside and outside the company was surprised.”

The message of grid-group cultural theory is that a focus on one means of organising to the exclusion of all others will tend to look like success – at least to those who share that worldview. But in the long run, the pressure of reality will impinge, and what looked like an asset will be revealed as a liability. The theory holds that there isn’t just one worldview – there are four, and we ignore this plurality at our peril.
Alan Greenspan had a similar surprise at an even larger scale as the US economy began to unravel. In April 2008 he wrote that events had left him ‘surprised and appalled’, and yet

“My view of the range of dispersion of outcomes has been shaken, but not my judgment that free competitive markets are by far the unrivalled way to organize economies.”

By October 2008, though, this shaken intellectual edifice had fallen completely:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity — myself especially — are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

From the perspective of the Four Cultures, Greenspan’s one-eyed, single-minded pursuit of deregulation, far from being a positive attribute, was surely going to end in tears. As Joseph Stiglitz put it,

“key regulators like Alan Greenspan didn’t really believe in regulation; when the excesses of the financial system were noted, they called for self-regulation — an oxymoron.”

Stiglitz says,

“This is not the first crisis in our financial system, not the first time that those who believe in free and unregulated markets have come running to the government for bail-outs. There is a pattern here, one that suggests deep systemic problems…”

Sadly, though, Stiglitz’s solutions to the financial crisis are cosmetic, not systemic. Worthwhile though they may be in their own right, they will do little to improve the systemic problems with a political and financial culture that refuses to see that there is more than one way – or two at a push – of doing things. Stiglitz’s approach – a financial product safety commission, a financial systems stability commission and so on – is typical of the now commonplace shift from an Individualist culture (deregulation, free-market, unbridled competition) to a Hierarchical culture (re-regulation, constrained market, suspicion of competition).

Mary Douglas, the originator of the grid-group paradigm, showed that there is far more to life than just hierarchies or markets, but neither Greenspan or Stiglitz seem able to see that. Set in proper context, markets and hierarchies are just two of a wider suite of responses to the challenge of organising.

And until we move beyond the limited range of responses currently on offer, towards solutions that make the best of all four of the cultures Douglas identified, we’ll just keep on being surprised.

See also:

Mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

science pendulum by midiman

The trouble with a bi-polar view of the world is that there only ever seem to be two rival ways of doing anything. The choices are strictly limited. In the midst of the financial crisis, the pendulum has swung from the private sector ownership of banks to public sector ownership, as though these were the only two conceivable possibilities.

Grid-group cultural theory offers an analytical prism through which to see that there are not two but four ways of organising (and of disorganising) anything. The Individualist approach (Privatise!) and the Hierarchical approach (Nationalise!) are complimented by the Fatalist approach (it’s all a lottery!) and the Egalitarian approach. For reeling financial institutions it’s this latter that now has great potential.

While private banks are go under and governments struggle to work out how to salvage the wreckage into nationalised institutions, the mutual sector has survived relatively unscathed and remains robust. Now it the time to consider expanding it, not least by re-mutualising the institutions that were aggressively de-mutualised during the zenith of free-market triumphalism.

The mutual option has been overlooked or denigrated for a long time because it reflects neither the Individualist nor the Hierarchical worldview. It is an Egalitarian way of organising, with owners, tellingly, being termed members.

But mutuality doesn’t really need cheerleaders. As mortgages and other forms of loans increasingly dry up, people are likely to get together to solve the problem themselves. After all, this is how the mutual sector arose in the first place. The chief question is whether or not those who are opposed on ideological grounds to Egalitarianism, will now get out of the way.

Having said this, it would surely be damaging to the overall ecology of finance if mutuality, or for that matter any other model, were to come to dominate. This is unlikely in the long term, given the fluid and dynamic nature of the environment in which it finance operates. The short term danger is that, refusing to see that we always have four options, we may seek to promote one alone, to the exclusion of all else. This is the recent history of the financial sector and it hasn’t been pretty. As the Cultural Theorists might say, the only thing worse than a clumsy but workable solution is the elegant but disastrous failure we see all around us.

See more on clumsy solutions.


Fatalist economic policy in Australia

windfalls by ApiumAs part of an economic recovery package worth $42 billion, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is going to give handouts of cash to Australians to the value of $12.7 billion. This has been derided by sceptics as ‘the next blind throw of the dice‘.

It could perhaps be more helpfully seen as another example of fatalist activism – a throw of the dice, but not necessarily blind. Faced with a seemingly intractable and capricious situation which Australia has little control over (the global economic downturn), government policy in the Fatalist mode seeks to introduce yet more capriciousness – ‘contrived randomness’ is the phrase coined by Oxford Professor of Government, Christopher Hood. Perhaps it is some good luck meant to balance out the prevailing bad luck.

Certainly, to this recipient of the ‘bonus’, the world seems a little more capricious than it did yesterday. The effect of the handout is similar to the feeling of winning a very small lottery prize. As an unexpected windfall it devalues just a little the idea of budgeting. Should I expect another handout later in the year – or not?

Is this a good use of public money? One newspaper article claimed that after the last such  ‘economic stimulus package’, spending on gambling rose by $40 million. I find it almost impossible to see how it can contribute effectively to improving the economy. But then, I’m not persuaded by the Fatalist worldview, so the logic of this move seems incomprehensible to me.

In Australia, the original Fatal Nation, this kind of thing happens all the time.

See also:

How to be a Fatalist

Fatalist policy in action