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New economic thinking and the potential to transform politics

Indian Stock Dealers Keep A Watch On Share Prices At The… News Photo Getty Images UK 149968062 175015 252x300 New economic thinking and the potential to transform politics  Economic ideas matter. For two centuries political debates have been framed by economic arguments – markets versus states; right versus left. But economic thinking is changing, and it is paramount that policy and politics change along with it. Yet few politicians are even aware of these economic developments, although their implications for politics are potentially transformative.

New economics can offer us a better toolkit to analyse and develop policy. In 2006, economists at the Federal Reserve analysed what would happen if the then-growing US housing bubble burst. The answer that came back was ‘not much’. The traditional economic model they used assumed that everyone would behave rationally, markets would function efficiently, and the system would smoothly self-correct.

We all know what happened. When the bubble burst it wiped out $10.8 trillion in wealth in the US alone. In Europe, the President of the ECB remarked, ‘I found the available models of little help. In the face of the crisis, we felt abandoned by conventional tools’. Yet a crisis is exactly when a model should be at its most helpful.

So what would new economics have done differently? A team of researchers at Yale and several other universities have constructed a detailed bottom-up model of the housing market which shows the bubble in a new light. Unlike conventional top-down models, which show gentle self-correction, the team’s ‘agent-based model’ showed the bubble bursting and markets crashing. The team modelled various policy responses to the housing bubble using real data.  Conventional wisdom has been that sustained low interest rates following the 2000 dot-com crash were the primary cause of the housing bubble.  But in the model raising the interest rates did not prevent a bubble forming, but tighter regulation of banks almost completely eradicated it.

This suggests better ways to frame economic policy in relation to the housing market. But, in coming years, similar work will undoubtedly highlight ways to improve policy in other areas.  For example, the European Commission has funded a similar modelling effort to better understand and prevent financial crises, and these techniques are being applied to areas ranging from climate change, to health policy, to better understanding how economies grow.

Second, in addition to providing new models for understanding specific issues like the financial crisis, new economics offers a different way of thinking about policy more broadly.

Traditional economics views the economy in a fairly mechanistic way, ignoring what George Soros calls the ‘reflexivity’ of the economy: a two-way interplay between perceptions and actions which can send the economy off on a course very different from that predicted by traditional models.

New economics can take account of some of the complexity, unpredictability and reflexivity of the economy to take us beyond a mechanistic view of policy. Rather than finding a specific problem and following one policy to solve it (or not), we should create portfolios of small-scale experiments, building on those that work whilst rejecting those that don’t. Policies and institutions should be made as adaptable as possible. California’s building codes have succeeded in reducing energy consumption by setting standards which automatically ratchet up as technology improves. This allows regulations and state-of-the-art building practices to co-evolve. Policy-makers must begin to see themselves as ‘system stewards’ rather than social engineers. They should aim to provide the conditions which allow socially favourable outcomes can emerge from the interactions of the system’s stakeholders.

Finally, new economic thinking could provide the foundations for an entirely new species of politics which does not correspond to a left-right framework. This isn’t merely a centrist compromise. Rather it is a different frame work that agrees with the right on some things, with the left on others, and neither on still others.

New economic work shows that Hayek was ahead of his time in his insights into the power of markets to self-organise, efficiently process information, and innovate.  But new economic work also shows that Keynes was ahead of his time in his concerns about inherent instabilities in markets, the possibility that markets can fail to self-correct, and the need for the state to intervene when markets malfunction.  New economics offers the promise of a new synthesis that goes beyond the insights of figures such as Keynes and Hayek and re-frames historic left-right debates.

A new narrative of politics could develop out of such a shift.  For example, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, in their book the Gardens of Democracy advocate a move from mechanistic ‘machine-brain’ narratives in politics towards a ‘gardener’ mind-set, with the state playing the role of a gardener, helping create the conditions in which the private sector and civil society can flourish.

New economics still has some distance to go to mature as a body of economic theory, and no doubt it will take time to further develop the policy and political implications of these ideas. This journey may not end our political debates, but it has the potential to make them far more productive for society.

Eric Beinhocker is Executive Director, The Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford

This is an edited version of a chapter from IPPR’s forthcoming book, Complex New World: translating new economic thinking into public policy. For more see spacer New economic thinking and the potential to transform politics  http://bit.ly/IPPR9499spacer New economic thinking and the potential to transform politics

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  • atimoshenko

    Any speculator-dominated markets (modern financial markets are an example, but it can also be a market for tulip bulbs) – i.e. markets in which the majority of trades are between parties, neither of which transform the good being sold or alter the logistics of selling a transaction in which it is trivial to imagine the buyer and seller identities being reversed.

    Such markets fail to self-correct because the practical way to value the good being traded is to estimate the future value that another speculator is likely to agree to, with that future value being estimated as a function of yet another future value of yet another speculator in a self-referntial loop.

    Intervention is not necessary as ad hoc tweaking, but in a re-writing of the rules such that velocity and liquidity are reduced and the scope for speculative profits destroyed.

    As another example, markets in which there is high concentration on one side of the trade (buyers or sellers) but not on another are usually also sub-optimally efficient as the (semi) monopolists or monopsonists will tend to acquire asymmetry in political or informational advantages, but this is not exclusively a market problem – Big Tobacco and Big Government, say, have the same problems for the same reasons.

  • Cracknell123

    To be a gardener one has to be completely in control of the vision. Plant and tend a single flower in a small pot the chances are you will have some success but to plant and tend 3 acres, with multiple species and unless you are in control of the vision you will likely be out of your depth within the first year.
    Regulators responsible for observing and moving the goal posts in response to industry developments and innovation need to be of equal intellect as those driving the vehicle. At present we have someone operating the brakes and someone steering but not necessarily with the same objective. I agree that neither right, left or center have managed to respond effectively to the crisis. Equally I believe there is reticence on part of politicians and society to welcome the ‘civil society’ as a true contender to economic sustainability.
    But if we let the gardener’s be of inferior stock to those generating the next set of plants we will all suffer. Pay differentials perpetuate imbalances and promote short-term goals over the wider vision – we are a million miles away from seeing how unsustainable a society we are creating when we live with such extremes. Some balance is required and that for many is an unpalatable concept since it sound like the failed talons of state intervention over and above free markets. But something has to give.

  • atimoshenko

    Any speculator-dominated markets (modern financial markets are an example, but it can also be a market for tulip bulbs) – i.e. markets in which the majority of trades are between parties, neither of which transform the good being sold or alter the logistics of selling a transaction in which it is trivial to imagine the buyer and seller identities being reversed.

    Such markets fail to self-correct because the practical way to value the good being traded is to estimate the future value that another speculator is likely to agree to, with that future value being estimated as a function of yet another future value of yet another speculator in a self-referntial loop.

    Intervention is not necessary as ad hoc tweaking, but in a re-writing of the rules such that velocity and liquidity are reduced and the scope for speculative profits destroyed.

    As another example, markets in which there is high concentration on one side of the trade (buyers or sellers) but not on another are usually also sub-optimally efficient as the (semi) monopolists or monopsonists will tend to acquire asymmetry in political or informational advantages, but this is not exclusively a market problem – Big Tobacco and Big Government, say, have the same problems for the same reasons.

  • greggf

    Well atimo, I’m flattered that you have to answer me 3 times over but I would expect you to address my question.
    Tulipmania and the South Sea bubble markets were hardly “designed”, and anyway self-corrected perfectly as all bubbles do. So I’ll have to assume you can’t address my question…….!

  • atimoshenko

    Glad that you’re flattered (though I have no idea what is going on with Disqus on this site), but you seem to be throughly confused about both the article and my comments. No one is arguing that markets are designed to fail, just that they can sometimes fail as designed. Just like the original Tacoma Narrows Bridge was not designed to collapse, but collapsed because of poor design (and then needed to be redesigned). I thought this would be obvious.

    And if your idea of self-correction is that of “eventually life goes on, somehow” then everything self-corrects and humans have no business ever inventing anything.

  • greggf

    But Atimo, for the last time, those markets didn’t FAIL, they rose and then fell on supply and demand factors as is their wont. They worked perfectly all on their own without any intervention except the mass participation of investors.
    And that’s my point, QED

  • atimoshenko

    We design and introduce markets for their ability to set prices as accurately as possible given all known information. When they set prices that clearly diverge from what the information indicates, they fail. It’s not rocket science.


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