Cutting through the branch we're standing on

I didn't think this sort of thing happened in real life: an old friend of the family (who I haven't seen in many years and am banking on not reading this blog!) seriously injured his neck recently. He was up a tree, chainsawing branches - and chainsawed through the one he was standing on. Picture the moment where, as inexorable gravity took hold, he realised what he'd done.

We're doing exactly the same to the planet. See, I bet you saw that coming huh? An amusing little story twisted into a trite greenie parable. Well fuck you too. Here's another analysis showing how many different ways in which we're cutting through the branch we're standing on. But we're showing no sign of changing our behaviour. Obama's going pro-coal where it's a vote winner - and understandably enough, given the amount of jobs tied up in it. The Spanish coal mining strikes against subsidy cuts show the same thing. I'm not saying it's easily solved. But we're still cutting through the branch we're standing on.

General noises from the UK government sound like this: "going green is all very well, but not during a recession - we have to get our priorities straight." Upon attempting to alert the guy in the tree that he's cutting through the branch he's standing on, he shouts back, "that's all very well, but I can't stop now - I'm about to run out of fuel!" That's the logic we're dealing with. It's wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.

As many of the previous P3 comments I've reposted here hint at, I'm not enamoured with the usefulness of declaring that we have to end growth. I think discussion of growth directly is probably a distraction - something that would take care of itself if we got the other things right. (Micro-thought-experiment: what would having a net zero growth target actually achieve?) But we're not even marginally addressing the scale of the problem, not even planning for the fact that we're not addressing it. Hansen's recent work on the shift in temperature distribution nails the problem: extremes are slowly becoming the new normal, and we're pushing that harder and harder as we continue to actually increase the yearly rate of emissions output. Genius!

It's a perfect storm of a problem and, as I've been wibbling about, having a go at climate skeptics is a complete cop-out. Einstein's quoted as saying (h/t MT): "I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy." Arguing forever with people who think the concept of 'planet' is a deep-green-commie conspiracy, that the greenhouse effect is open to democratic vote, that people like me are just seeking rent from the st... (OK, that one's true. Shh, don't tell.) Anyway, yes: pointless and easy and we should have little patience with ourselves if we get too distracted by it - the hard problems are elsewhere. It's the vast majority of people worrying about it but (as the climate change idiots article says) just getting on with our lives. It's the businesses and policymakers and the fact that politics doesn't stop functioning the way it does just because we're driving its underlying operating system to burn-out.

The most complex of these is just so far beyond where we're currently at that, at the moment, I think it rules us out of the picture: long-term climate stability is going to require net-zero carbon, including a series of carbon sinks and any number of possible carbon sink technologies. How could we possibly achieve that on a global scale? It would appear to require a kind of global cybernetic equilibria. I mean, hmm - that doesn't seem very likely does it? It makes building the Roman Empire seem like assembling a Wendy House. I reckon we'll get to plain ol' Gaia feedbacks of the type described in the tipping point article above before we're anywhere near systems for managing our own feedbacks.

Getting ahead of ourselves a bit there. Need to start by keeping the carbon in the ground. Need to stop cutting through the branch we're standing on.

Oh good, another P3 short essay on economic models

Well, as long as it keeps on tricking me into writing shit down, I'll keep on unashamedly writing stupidly long comments no-one in their right mind would wade through and posting them here. Makes me feel like I'm keeping busy! That said, in a zero-sum world where I could be writing papers or blathering on blogs, I wonder which I should be doing...?

We've got into discussions on P3 before, here and here, though not really coming to any conclusions. But you'll see we've picked up on a fair few things you've mentioned - one of my bugbears being the misuse of Friedman's 'F-twist' argument, claiming he says "unrealistic assumptions don't matter" (something I also repeated until, looking for ways to think about model-building, I actually read what Friedman said, which is subtly but vitally different to the caricature so often used to paint economists as naive Vulcan-like imbeciles.) A lot of that's come from my (still not quite finished!) thesis work; I've stuck the current version of the navel-gazing model chapter here. There's a lot of overlap, even many of the same quotes, with things your blog's discussing.

The most recent article of yours shares some of the same view of modelling in general. I'm not sure whether this eco-economics attack on modelling stems from quite the same source as MT's skepticism, would be interested to dig more into that. I think this starts getting close to the heart of this, which again comes down to what we're claiming models are *for* (which I waffle on about interterminably in that thesis chapter.) You quote the Daly/Solow argument (Daly: "If we want a bigger cake, the cook simply stirs faster in a bigger bowl and cooks the empty bowl in a bigger oven that somehow heats itself.") But you don't provide Solow's response; quoting meself quoting Solow:

"Solow's reply to this highlights a recurring argument used to defend the abstract nature of many economic models - critics are taking them too literally, and not considering how the models are used: 'We were trying to think about an interesting and important question: how much of a drag on future growth, or even on the sustainability of current production, might be exercised by the limited availability of natural resources and the inputs they provide? ... The role of theory is to explore what logic and simple assumptions can tell us about what data to look for and how to interpret them in connection with the question asked' (Solow 1997 p.267/8). Solow goes on to point out that the argument should be about how substitutable renewable and non-renewable resources are, given that the former are likely to be highly capital-intensive. (Ibid.) He appears to be saying that his critics have mistaken economists' models for their actual understanding of the world, rather than tools that aid that understanding."

Which is what I was arguing Krugman also says in the comment above, and what Friedman was saying way back in the 50s (though whether Friedman follows his own advice, I'm not qualified to say - I only really know his stuff from his 'essays on positive economics'). E.g.: when assuming s = 1/2gt^2, "under a wide range of circumstances, bodies that fall in the atmosphere behave *as if* they were falling in a vacuum. In the language so common in economics this would be rapidly translated into: the formula assumes a vacuum. Yet it clearly does no such thing."

And of course there are plenty of circumstances where it would be a completely inappropriate way to think about falling objects. But that doesn't make using it 'naive' or invalid, any more than using temperature and pressure measurements does (when we know that at atomic reality is more complex).

I haven't got to the bottom of this stuff to my own satisfaction at all. It would be great if we could carry on exploring them here at P3, but I wonder if that might require some kind of agenda!? I wouldn't mind starting with actually working up a common understanding of some economic models as they are. Stephen, it sounds like you have a solid economic background. I don't really; I've gone off and done this by myself while my supervisors looked on horrified, and found it immensely tricky to find economists to check my understanding with (perhaps my own networking failings, I shan't blame economists' closed-shop attitude!)

Some suggested things to discuss: understanding a basic general equilibrium model, how they've been used, how they're related (or not) to the actual policy workhorse DSGE models, what other models inform policy; whether economic training in these models is (as Krugman's own view seems to suggest) more a set of shared heuristics almost incidental to how economists are apprenticed in a policy episteme - so it's not 'about the truth of the models' so much about training and embedding policymakers. Which would mean we could attack the models til the cows come home and we'd be missing the point. You can actually see how that might function in a completely different context: Lansing's work on Balinese rice management, where a shared collective model allows autonomous ritual actions to both re-create the landscape and manage water to maximise crops/minimise pests across the Subaks. There's no 'correct' top-down model, there's a shared social technology tied into a specific landscape, kept alive in people's minds through ritual. Lansing calls it 'sociogenesis': "when Balinese society sees itself reflected in a humanised nature, a natural world transformed by the efforts of previous generations, it sees a pattern of interlocking cycles that mimic these cycles of nature" (priests and programmers p.133). Mainstream economics may partly work the same (esp. ritual!) but on quite a different scale (and of course with the open question of whether it's capable of ending in a cyclical self-maintenance or is instead a global virus; cf. Agent Smith).

It'd be good to explore a recent-history example of an economic model's impact: Krugman's core model again. Since 1991 it's gone from 'thought experiment to lure economists into thinking about geographical questions' (while also radically changing the profession's view of the central dynamics of international trade) to a World Bank report on geography coming straight from it, despite Krugman's own apparent caution on using it - and a continued suspicious lack of empirical support that shouldn't be a surprise given it was only ever meant as a toy model to make a point. (I've never quite understood what Krugman's own view of this is; initially caution and a notable silence as the Nobel prize arrived and some of the key ideas got absorbed by the body politic. But I'm sure he'd have some clear Views on it.)

And to ask the same question again: given all this, what role do we actually think models can / should play in both analysing and organising society? I have a book in front of me by Stan Openshaw, an ex-professor from my department, called "Using models in planning" (1978). A quote:

"Without any formal guidance many planners who use models have developed a view of modelling which is the most convenient to their purpose. When judged against academic standards, the results are often misleading, sometimes fraudulent, and occasionally criminal. However, many academic models and perspectives of modelling when assessed against planning realities are often irrelevant. Many of these problems result from widespread, fundamental misunderstandings as to how models are used and should be used in planning."

While he's writing about town planners, the same applies. We don't really understand how this is meant to work. It happens anyway, but without asking about this, we're stuck in this strange place where one side carry on using their models while others keep on going "ha! look at those stupid assumptions!" - as if by some miracle of alchemy, the models being criticsed will crumble like vampires at dawn. Kuhn's stuff makes clear it doesn't even quite work like that in the physical sciences: the relationship between discovering problems, errors, better models and the structure of a discipline is way more complex. If that discipline is then tangled into political power, there's a whole other bunch of stuff going on...

Global Warming Policy Foundation graph in context

A while back I worked on a time series interaction tool for messing about with climate data. (It's a java applet, so you'll need java installed in your browser to see it; should look something like the pic in this post.) It isn't quite there - the keyboard controls (see 'controls' tab in link above) are clunky and unintuitive, it needs more direct click-and-drag.

But I thought I'd just share one fun part of it. First-off, here's the global warming policy foundation's front page. Note the top-left graphic (and here's a perma-copy in case they change it.)

Now, in the time series visualisation, click the 'GWPF' tab - you should see the first pic in this post. The tab's instructions provide you with links to see how the GWPF's graphic fits in with the dataset they're using (hadcrut3vgl, confirmed through email) - you can toggle between their graphic and the full dataset with the 'click here to toggle' link (or click on the graphic itself and use 'q' to toggle the view).

So does the 'story' they're telling with the graph hold out? Well, they don't say what that story is directly, of course - but it's implicit in the orange line at 14.5 degrees. An email from the GWPF confirmed it has 'no particular function' but emphasises that there's been an apparent 'warming standstill' since 2000.

In context of the whole dataset, that selection immediately looks rather odd, though, doesn't it? The eleven years of this century sit high, for the obvious reason that -

"including 2011, all eleven years of the 21st century so far (2001-2011) rank among the 13 warmest in the 132-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century, 1998, was warmer than 2011"

Clicking the second link in the visualisation (to find the overall OLS trend) gives that some more context. The GWPF graph looks at 11 years. If you look at 11 year trends over the whole dataset, they go against the full trend 34.2% of the time - in just over one in three years. One of these covers the GWPF's data selection. Is there a 'warming standstill' every time that happens?

The answer depends on what we know about the physical system, and what the forcings are. This is a point I was trying to make with the first two tabs (the cell 1 and 2) using daily temperature data from York University Electronic Department's weather station archive. Skipping to 'the cell (2)', you can do the same thing (alt + vertical drag) to get an intuitive sense of where the seasonal 'signal' appears out of the noise: it shows both the OLS trendlines starting from each datapoint, and points showing the polarity of the trendlines (the 'smoother'). Dragging will get you from apparently random day-to-day noise to the seasonal temperature curve. The size of the trend width appears on the top bar.

This sort of kinetic understanding is something I find useful for myself: seeing that an ordinary least squares calculation can clearly pick out the seasonal signal at the right trend, and seeing how going under or over a certain value either moves towards noise or towards a less clear seasonal pattern (until at the extreme, a single trendline appears to have a positive slope over four years of York data... )

Compare that to the GWPF approach: you get a very clear season 'signal' at about 180 days (to eyeball - this is not robust of course!) At that width, you get counter-trends happening at about 34% if they're 22 days long. (Use the large trend for 180 day width and the small trend, CRTL+drag, for the 22 days. Small counter to large % appears top-right.)

So by the GWPF's logic, would it be 'season standstill' every time a 22 day stretch went against the seasonal trend? No, of course not. This is a point made many times by others (most amusingly by The mysterious correlation between amount of sunshine falling in York and the average temperature is no mystery at all: the regional climate is being 'forced' by the sun's energy. Regional seasons are a quite complex process (e.g. the sun's energy arrives in pulses as the Earth spins every day), yet we get this extremely regular aggregate property: a clear temperature sine-wave over the year.

Co2 forcing is in some ways even more straightforward: more energy will continue to enter the atmosphere as long as we carry on adding the stuff - and then for some good while afterwards. Quite how long depends on what other processes come into play. That's the really fun stuff, and the most uncertain. But the link between energy imbalance, re-equilibriating and temperature change is as robust as the seasons.

Using too short a trend is meaningless. Making strong claims about standstill based on too short a trend is ignorant, wilfully or otherwise.

Any views on whether the viz tool works or not gratefully received. As I say, better controls = No 1 thing to do.

P3 comment: money as a useful illusion (and not really an illusion).

Another comment at P3 for this article, reposted...
"Money is something of a shared delusion which we continue to share because of its utility... What was missing was 'credit', but that is simply an artifact of the game, not a real thing."

I took from your point, MT, that money is dangerous *because* a (delusionary) social construct. But it's only a shared delusion in the same way that language is - which is to say, so essential to us as a species that it can't really be considered delusional. A manifestation of that like money may be dangerously abstracted, but real as anything else we create with language structures.

There's an almost infinite space of ways in which we can collectively manage resources. Language and symbol (including money) are like a flock in that space. The elements have to be in close relation to each other, as it's their inter-relations that define them - the separate elements mean/do nothing in isolation. (I have some vague memory of this being a Wittgenstein point about language.)

But money is abstract compared to other structures we use (I've wiffled before about specific examples like Balinese rice management analysed by Lansing and Kremer in Priests and Programmers and Perfect Order, or van der Ploeg's work on Andean potato cultivation, which you can read in the Google book of 'Seeing like a State' here - only a few pages, but Scott does a great summary).

There's a parallel in Milgram's work on obedience to authority:

"While structures of authority are of necessity present in all societies, advanced or primitive, modern society has the added characteristic of teaching individuals to respond to impersonal authorities. Wherea submission to authority is probably no less for an ashanti than for an American factory worker, the range of persons who constitute authorities for the native are all personally known to him, while the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title." (p.137).

I don't think this means abstract resource management systems (like money) should necessarily be 're-embedded', though there are plenty of people who do (e.g. this on reputation currencies. Blech.) But - to take a specific example - if you think the future is likely to include computers, we'd be hard pushed to come up with anything better than money for organising their development & construction. Even a single component like a hard drive has production and design spread across a number of countries. If you could map the computer you're using now into money and information exchanges, how far would the network go, how many connections would there be? What else could achieve that?

The financial system's sort of combined a metastasised cancer with a worm-hole into another universe, where it grew uncontrollably and parasitised its useful social function. It shouldn't be beyond our wit to fix that.

Perhaps the oil question is actually relatively easier. Maybe no market mechanism (or other complex resource management structure) can deal with it. Perhaps it's simply a case of slowly making everyone realise it has to stay where it is, and declaring its extraction off-limits - as we do in National Parks now (though in how many places is that being reversed?) The message is at least very simple: we either keep it where it is, or we set up the conditions for unthreading civilisation. The question then becomes about how best to communicate that message? I can't help but think, however much I enjoy my ergonomic on-screen pontificating, this is going to require direct action. Think about how much difference the occupy movement made to the conversation about inequality. A liveable climate is more important than this.

Agent-based navel gazing: thesis ch.4

I've been giving copies of thesis chapters to people, but I haven't written about them properly here or got anything published yet. (Or indeed finished the corrections yet...) My unpleasant inner IP-protector is demanding some record I actually wrote it. So, chapter 4 attached: model-navel-gazing a-go-go. Apologies for lack of attached bibliograpy.

'Green from the grassroots': Elinor Ostrom's last article

Elinor Ostrom died of cancer yesterday, aged 78. She published a final article, 'green from the grassroots': original here, and below also. If only organic change will work, we need to get working. No waiting around for international agreements to fix things.

Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake. We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.

We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.

Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements. Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail.

The good news is that evolutionary policymaking is already happening organically. In the absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases, a growing number of city leaders are acting to protect their citizens and economies.

This is hardly surprising – indeed, it should be encouraged.

Most major cities sit on coasts, straddle rivers, or lie on vulnerable deltas, putting them on the front line of rising sea levels and flooding in the coming decades. Adaptation is a necessity. But, with cities responsible for 70% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, mitigation is better.

When it comes to tackling climate change, the United States has produced no federal mandate explicitly requiring or even promoting emissions-reductions targets. But, by May last year, some 30 US states had developed their own climate action plans, and more than 900 US cities have signed up to the US climate-protection agreement.

This grassroots diversity in “green policymaking” makes economic sense. “Sustainable cities” attract the creative, educated people who want to live in a pollution-free, modern urban environment that suits their lifestyles. This is where future growth lies. Like upgrading a mobile phone, when people see the benefits, they will discard old models in a flash.

Of course, true sustainability goes further than pollution control. City planners must look beyond municipal limits and analyze flows of resources – energy, food, water, and people – into and out of their cities.

Worldwide, we are seeing a heterogeneous collection of cities interacting in a way that could have far-reaching influence on how Earth’s entire life-support system evolves. These cities are learning from one another, building on good ideas and jettisoning poorer ones. Los Angeles took decades to implement pollution controls, but other cities, like Beijing, converted rapidly when they saw the benefits. In the coming decades, we may see a global system of interconnected sustainable cities emerging. If successful, everyone will want to join the club.

Fundamentally, this is the right approach for managing systemic risk and change in complex interconnected systems, and for successfully managing common resources – though it has yet to dent the inexorable rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Rio+20 has come at a crucial juncture and is undoubtedly important. For 20 years, sustainable development has been viewed as an ideal toward which to aim. But the first State of the Planet Declaration, published at the recent mammoth science gathering Planet Under Pressure, made it clear that sustainability is now a prerequisite for all future development. Sustainability at local and national levels must add up to global sustainability. This idea must form the bedrock of national economies and constitute the fabric of our societies.

The goal now must be to build sustainability into the DNA of our globally interconnected society. Time is the natural resource in shortest supply, which is why the Rio summit must galvanize the world. What we need are universal sustainable development goals on issues such as energy, food security, sanitation, urban planning, and poverty eradication, while reducing inequality within the planet’s limits.

As an approach to dealing with global issues, the UN Millennium Development Goals have succeeded where other initiatives have failed. Though not all MDGs will be met by the target date of 2015, we can learn a great deal from the experience.

Setting goals can overcome inertia, but everyone must have a stake in establishing them: countries, states, cities, organizations, companies, and people everywhere. Success will hinge on developing many overlapping policies to achieve the goals.

We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system.

Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.

Running the experiment

Via, the Climate Action Tracker group take a look at where emissions are going given current policy. Note, it's emissions per year. P3 even comes up with a new word for it: a tragictory. Mmm, mellifluous.

We were looking at some of the basic sums elsewhere. It's starting to seem inescapable: short of some miracle, we're going to run the experiment.

It's occurred to me recently that skeptics and deniers can't be blamed for this. I know: there's a powerful, moneyed lobby that's out to spread FUD into everyone's hair. But actually, as many are often keen to point out, there is plenty of money being spent on the 'other side'. I wonder whether (a bit like taketheflourback's contribution, but at a different scale), they've done everyone a favour. Like a global immune response: we should be forced to defend what we think is true, and doing so is the only way to make the body politic's response robust. (Climate scientists already have such a system, mind: I'm talking about the rest of us.)

Climate skepticism and outright denial might just be a convenient scapegoat. If it hadn't existed, I suspect Climate Action Tracker's graph would look exactly the same. As yet - politically, governance-wise - we don't know how to deal with this. At heart, many of us don't want to.

That isn't any reason to stop trying, of course. Anything that can be done, long-term, is going to help - and could make the difference between extreme social cost and utter calamity. Though we would probably be looking at the former, even if carbon emissions were magically halted tomorrow: the climate system's a huge, fast-moving tanker with plenty of inertia in it. But - and I imagine military planners are way ahead of me on this - realistic planning for severe impacts is likely needed. We're upping the risk every year we continue to fumble with this, and risk is very expensive. Eventually, risk turns into out and out destruction.

As if my own mental attitude could make any difference to all this: I still rather naively believe that nihilism is the biggest danger we face. It's a lazy response, more than anything: a pretence that we don't give a shit, used to mask the fact we're desperate for someone else to solve the problem - that Someone In Charge must have a handle on this, surely? We can just relax and live our lives.

Message to future self: how did that work out for you?

Rothamsted and GM linkinz

Spent far too much of today obsessively staring at tweetdeck when I should either a) have been doing work or b) have actually gone to the Rothamsted protest. Arse. Some good ol' fashioned productivity-boosting helped.

Massive police presence kept the crop safe. I very much doubt that will stop a few from going back later on and having a go. Anyway, a bunch of links from the last few days (using lovely html export from my new favourite online tool,

Questions from Rothamsted

A Feynman quote, via Robert Wilson: 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.'

This weekend's protest at Rothamsted has reduced a labyrinthine issue to a single outcome: trashed, or not trashed? In our house, we're clear that GM itself is a technology like any other. Fire can cook food, keep you warm or burn your house down. Every single tech we've discovered since has followed much the same pattern. The critical factor is us. (update via Robert: "Related Feynman anecdote. A buddhist monk said to him 'the keys to the gates of heaven also open the gates of hell'.")

But that Feynman quote makes me want to spend a little time picking apart my own assumptions. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd just get the questions down while they're sloshing about.

  • Is lab-and-field-trial based plant science too centralised to provide the adaptive outcomes our food systems we'll need in the next fifty years? (I'll get on to that one first, going back to the whole 'adaptive landscape' thing and bouncing off the IAASTD's take on biotech.)
  • Is GM technology in any way a unique risk, comparing to other plant tech (that, for decades, has included some pretty brutal radiative and chemical genome-mashing to introduce variation). Is that a plus-point for GM or just an indictment of all industrial plant science? (And impact-wise, don't forget to compare to more basic plant-based stupidity displayed way-back when. 'Splendid invasiveness' indeed - unlike any wheat cultivar I've heard of thus far.)
  • Are the crop-trashers actually right to claim - as Jenny Jones intimates - that you can't extract plant science from the corporate system? ("This research project at Rothamsted may be publishing its work openly, but we can't escape the fact that it is part of a wider approach to agriculture that is no use to poor farmers and to our future food security until we deal with the commercial problems.") Or as Simon Lewis puts it, 'Perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%'. Relatedly, what private agri-companies and organisations are doing especially good things, and what marks them out?
  • Lastly: have the geekmob been manipulated - Theoden to a shadowy - network's - Wormtongue? Have we been played like a cheap pianola, to quote Douglas from Cabin Pressure? Unsurprisingly, I currently think 'no'. This looks like verdict by innuendo. But there's a bigger problem: how to think about, and deal with, networks of influence? The net is perfect for producing webs of insinuation from connections, many often the product of single 'enthusiasts'. But then, it's a networked world. How the bejeesus can science and policy function in that miasma? It is also much more personal, though: in situations where a choice has to be made, maybe we don't make the right one. Feynman is right for science as for anything else; gotta do our best to make sure we're not fooling ourselves. But how? Is lack of dialogue between sides over Rothamsted more apparent than real? Is it just the world we live in now: self-reinforcing ghettoes? If ways are found to move this conversation forward between currently opposed groups, perhaps something positive will come from all this. A reason to engage the Green Party, not withdraw?

Order / planning etc (old 'about' page)

Just sticking this here for the record as I'm gonna update the 'about' page.

In the early 20th century, Ludwig Von Mises started off the 'socialist economic calculation debate'. He claimed that a planned economy was not only undesirable, but logically impossible. Friedrich Hayek - another Austrian economist - took up the argument and ran with it.

Hayek argued that society was just too complex to plan. Human minds - smaller, less complex systems - could never grasp the intricacies of the whole. For Hayek, this meant that all planning was the road to serfdom.

In the past ten to fifteen years, many people working on computation and society have found Hayek's writing prophetic. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Hayek seemed to have an understanding of society as an evolving process, and of people as bounded in a 'sensory order' from which they must get all their information. He was, perhaps, an agent-based thinker - one who could see the limitations of economic theory at the time, but lacked the tools we have now to investigate these ideas robustly.

An absolutely terrifying amount of work is being done on agent-based modelling, artificial/synthetic societies and the agent-based and cognitive foundations of economics. But that old 20th century question - what, actually, is the possible scope of planning? - might be a good way to focus all this. Is society really too complex to (for example) carefully plan for UK housing, or plan for a food market that protects the most vulnerable while defending local markets from being undercut by state action? Or was Hayek right - any attempt must be anti-market, and anything anti-market must be oppressive? And, anyway, don't we already plan? And, also, can modelling really answer this kind of question?

Or there's a totally different way to look at it. Stephen Lansing, in his book Priests and Programmers, tells the story of the Balinese water temple system: thousands of small temples co-ordinate water flow, in an overlapping patch-work of local choices, from volcano crater to sea. With no central oversight, a fine balance between pest control and rice-growing is struck. But then top-down Green Revolution methods came along and broke it - yields dropped as pests partied.

Lansing worked with ecological modeller James Kremer. The model they built made visible something that had long been invisible to policymakers: just how the system coordinated water flow and fallow periods. They helped reverse major institutions' views of the traditional system, which has since been reinstated.

The Balinese water temple system seems closer to Hayek's view of the market as a 'spontaneous order' than it does to a planning regime. Both are effective because they are decentralised; both can be broken by top-down imposition. So the really important question might be: can you plan for spontaneous order? Can it be grown - to meet a specific goal - like a vine on a trellis? When should we rely on this kind of decentralised system, and when might good ol' central command be better? And should we stop fetishising the price system, since Bali shows there are other ways - with less working parts that can go wrong - to make a productive distributed system?

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