Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Origin of Wealth

There are certain books that change the way you look at the world, fiction, non, bio, poetry, whatever. I don't have that many, some I've mentioned here, some I haven't, To Kill a Mockingbird, stuff by Richard Russo and John Jay Osborne, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, The Evolution of Cooperation, Taylor Branch's trilogy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, Isaiah Berlin's essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Richard Fox's bio of Reinhold Niebuhr, my first intro to cognitive science. Some I'm not going to mention because I'd never live it down.

The books that have had the biggest impact on me as a group, however, have been those connected to the research on complexity, nonlinear dynamics, and applications to the world, like artificial societies and the punctuated equilibria that constantly shake our world, unpredicted by the wise people who proclaim their linear, staid truths. I can't say they changed my world view as much as gave structure and verification to the way I've been cursed to see the world from pretty much my beginning. It's just been nice to see that I'm not the only crazy person.

What's been lacking in the complexity literature has been the synthesis that's been needed to pull the threads together into a whole that can serve as the new paradigm for all future study, including criminology and any research into corrections sentencing. The folks at the Santa Fe Institute have been doing incredible work on this, and individual writers have published books using nice examples. But nobody has combined it in one source in a way that leaves no excuse for pretending that a coherent body of knowledge isn't ready for application.

Until now.

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric D. Beinhocker is the book that has done it. It's a very long book, and I'm not silly enough to try to summarize in a couple of paragraphs the accumulation of evidence and structuring of the new perspective that he's put together here. He effectively dismantles the present discipline of economics (I hurt my shoulder punching the air with every shot) which has bizarrely held "gold standard" status in the social sciences for far too long, outlines the work in complexity previously done, shows how the complexity models explain social and economic development far better than others, and outlines the strategies that businesses and organizations need to follow to adapt effectively to the environments that confront them.

Most of all, he crumbles the "liberal-conservative" dichotomy that has crippled our confrontation of the problems that clearly face us, including (by implication) the problems we have in corr sent policy. One of the more direct applications is his treatment of the impact of trust or lack of it in building constructive communities and the loss of legitimacy of institutions when a culture doesn't maintain strong communities. This comes after the discussion of the role of social technologies, including law and justice institutions, in providing the structure for ordered progress.

Beinhocker might or might not be shocked to be told he'd written a social policy book, given that his book's closest parallel is The Wealth of Nations, which has set our social policy for good or bad for centuries. But, with this synthesis, we can hope that the work being done will broaden, especially as funerals clear out the old, incapable of change guard, both in academe and policy. The old paradigms from econ, criminology, poli sci, etc. that do not incorporate the new knowledge are already being shown deficient and barely relevant, and so are the policies based on them.

The new paradigm will teach us to expect ebbs and flows of social problems and our success dealing with them as matters of course, that punctuated equilibria are common in social interaction (meaning that the efforts to address crime, for example, that coincide with the jumps will unfairly and unwisely be considered successful or not when they had little to do with anything at all). It will encourage constant monitoring of the ebbs and flows of our environments, never being comfortable with the status quo because it will change, and a more contingent and adaptable approach to our actions. Most of all, it will let us know that "truth" in our policymaking is just dangerous human hubris and, hopefully, teach us to be more accepting of our human fallibility.

Complexity studies and applications will change (are changing) the way we understand the world and are capable of doing in it. It's just a question of how long it takes. Those who get it sooner rather than later will beat the ones who lag. The reason it hasn't reached the broad culture and audience is that no one has put it all together before. Beinhocker has.

Don't be left behind.