The economy as an evolutionary system

A developing interest of mine is that of complex adaptive systems. Like language, ant colonies and the immune system, the economy is such an evolutionary system. As Plektix explains in a very interesting article:

Successful businesses grow in size and their practices are imitated by others; unsuccessful businesses vanish. This process has led to many good business practices, even in the financial sector.

However, evolution does not always yield the best outcomes, in biology or in economics. Our recent crisis illustrates two key limitations of evolutionary systems, limitations which allow bad ideas to evolve over good ones.

The first problem has to do with time lags. Suppose Financial Company A comes up with an idea that will yield huge sums of money for five years and then drive the company to bankruptcy. They implement the idea, obfuscating the downside, and soon the company is rolling in cash. Investors line up to give them money, magazines laud them, and other companies begin imitating them.

Not so Company B. Company B believes in long-term thinking, and can see this idea for the sham it is. They persue a quiet, sound strategy, even when their investors begin pulling money out to invest in A.

We would like to think that in the end, Company B will be left standing and reap them benefits of their foresight. But there is a fundamental problem of time-scales here: by the time A folds, B may already be out of business, due to lack of interest from investors. In theoretical terms, there is a fundamental problem when the evolutionary process proceeds faster than the unfolding of negative consequences. In these situations, good ideas never have a chance to be rewarded, evolutionarily speaking.

One might argue that investors, not to mention government regulators and ratings agencies, should have forseen the flaw in A’s plan. But this highlights a second limitation of the evolutionary process: it favors complexity. Simple bad ideas can be detected by intelligent agents, but complex ones have a chance to really stick. If Company A’s idea was so complicated that no one aside from a few physicists could figure it out, investors and regulators could easily be fooled.

This certainly ties in with a previous post of mine about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and how we should be minimising short-term, high risk investments in order to better protect us when an economic bust does occur. Our understanding of the economic system is limited at best — and is damaged by this mirage hoisted on us by overzealous individuals, who believe random events are non-random. Still, asking for rationality to prevail in the economic-based decisions is as distant as it is in religious circles. God help us.

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