Is Economics Built On A "Monumental Mistake?"
Can we rely on Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to lead markets to "the best" overall outcome? Darwin's insights say no.
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
This is diablog 8 between David Sloan Wilson (DSW) and me (JB).
1) JB: You’ve called an idea that’s cherished in economics “a monumental mistake.” Specifically, the belief that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” ensures markets self-organize for the best overall outcomes.
2) JB: Biological self-organization — Darwin’s “invisible hand” — often delivers disaster. What can self-organization, or spontaneous order, in biology teach economics?
3) DSW: Self-organization isn’t intrinsically good (it can be functional or dysfunctional).
4) DSW: It is indeed a monumental mistake to think that unbridled self-interest will robustly benefit the common good. Instead, it can cause dysfunctional self-organization.
5) DSW: Nevertheless, biology provides breathtaking examples of invisible hand self-organization. Multicellular organisms and social insect colonies work beautifully as multi-agent societies without their members having the welfare of their society in mind. We can say that confidently because cells and insects don’t even have minds in the human sense!
6) DSW: Self-organization leads to group-functional outcomes in these examples because the group is the unit of selection. Lower-level behaviors that work well at the group level are winnowed from the much larger set of behaviors that don’t work. But when biological systems are not units of selection, e.g., most ecosystems, they don’t function well as units, as you correctly say.
7) DSW: Like bodies and beehives, human groups function well to the degree that their properties have been winnowed by between-group selection. [Friedrich] Hayek saw this evolutionary aspect of economics, but few understand it correctly.
8) DSW: The bottom line: Spontaneous order worth wanting is possible, but it must be selected. That sounds contradictory, but it makes perfect sense, evolutionarily.
9) JB: I get that that’s how it works in biology. But economists, despite sometimes using biology-like language, are mainly physics-like thinkers. And spontaneous order in physics isn’t “selected.”
10) DSW: You’re right. Economists will never get it right until they switch their mentality from physics to evolution (see Newton pattern vs. Darwin pattern).
11) JB: Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy distinguishes two “invisible hand” types. Sometimes individual incentives combine to generate good group outcomes. Sometimes they undermine group goals. Bad invisible hands create spontaneous disorder, which local incentives can’t cure (see Markets Dumb As Trees?).
12) DSW: Exactly. Incentives are like mutations. For every one that works, many are counterproductive.
13) JB: Smith’s invisible hand claims selfish incentives have the unintended consequence of group-level benefits. But Darwin’s invisible hand shows they often don’t. Meanwhile markets shouldn’t be interfered with, because of bad “unintended consequences.”
14) DSW: Oddly muddled. Complex systems always include indirect effects (which public policy must monitor and mitigate).
16) DSW: An evolutionary or empirical/behavioural perspective would never make that error.
17) JB: And unlike the rest of biology, humans aren’t limited to mindless random trial and error and “selection.” Our evolved learning, foresight, and coordination abilities mean we can intelligently guide systems away from ruin (vigilantly adjusting to mitigate bad, unintended consequences).
18) DSW: True. But only if we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes.
Earlier diablogs covered: (1) evolution’s score keeping (relative fitness), (2) its built-in team aspects, (3) its self-destructive competitions, (4) its blind logic, (5) how division of labor complications, (6) why economics needs a version of evolution's "inclusive fitness," and (7) why whatever your politics, you need needism.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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