Achilles v Ulysses and Complexity, according to the OECD

October 12, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Just been browsing a new OECD book on what complexity and systems thinking mean for policy-making. It consists of ‘a compilation of contributions from a series of seminars and workshops on complexity issues over the past two years. It reflects the combined wisdom and perspectives of an internal and external network of researchers, academics and policymakers.’

The pieces are short (couple of pages each) and come from some big and varied names: Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England looks at long-running critiques of economic frameworks; Deborah Gordon, a leading biologist studies ants and systems that operate without central control; Cesar Hidalgo, a statistical physicist from MIT investigates the complexity of the products a country produces and consequent levels of inequality.

Some of the contributions are a bit speech-y and flimsy, but the cumulative impact of reading them is to see an influential community of decision makers/influencers really grappling with how this new thinking can help dig us out of the mess we are in (economic, climatic, political).

There are some good one liners – a Chief Statistician of the OECD urges wonks everywhere “to measure what we treasure and not treasure what we measure” – and the occasional bit of good writing. My favourite was from the OECD’s Patrick Love on ‘what Homer can teach us about complexity’ (that’s Homer from The Odyssey, not The Simpsons). Love contrasts The Iliad (linear, simple, Brad Pitt type hero in Achilles) with The Odyssey (non-linear, complex), concluding:

‘We can learn a final lesson from Homer in the character of his heroes. Achilles is arrogant, immature, impulsive, self-centred (“the best of the Achaeans”, making you wonder what the rest of them were like). He’s strong and is good at killing people but ends up dead. Ulysses is clever and is good at persuading people. He is modest and he listens to advice. He worries about others. And he navigates his way back to Ithaca and Penelope. In a complex world, today or as described by Homer, you will achieve more through strategy and resourcefulness than by brute force.’

But what really exercises him is bad writing (he works for the OECD’s Comms team, so probably suffers a fair bit on that score):

‘Policy experts, like experts in other fields, often defend their poor communication by explaining that the subject is complicated and shouldn’t be dumbed down. Here’s an extract from Einstein’s critique of Newtonian cosmology in Relativity: The Special and General Theory: “If we ponder over the question as to how the universe, considered as a whole, is to be regarded, the first answer that suggests itself to us is surely this: As regards space (and time) the universe is infinite. There are stars everywhere, so that the density of matter, although very variable in detail, is nevertheless on the average everywhere the same. In other words: However far we might travel through space, we should find everywhere an attenuated swarm of fixed stars of approximately the same kind and density.”

Practically any adult or young person who can read can understand Einstein’s point, however complicated the subject. Here by way of contrast is the OECD explaining a fundamental concept in economics: “…the relative cost differences that define comparative advantage, and are the source of trade, disappear once one reaches equilibrium with free trade. That is, the two countries in the trading equilibrium in Figure 1.2 are both operating at points on their PPFs where the slope is equal to the common world relative price. Thus comparative advantage cannot be observed, in a free trade equilibrium, from relative marginal costs.” Can you tell from this if we’re for or against free trade?’

Lovely stuff, and props to the OECD for letting him take the mick in public.

And as we don’t have nearly enough about ants on this blog, here’s Deborah Gordon’s 15m Ted talk