Sunday, 31 January 2010

Greed, fear, fight and flight; economy and the weather

For those of you following the English-language Polish blogosphere who've not yet bookmarked Politics, Economy and Society, I recommend you do so. The latest post proves (yet again) that the its anonymous author is an up-and-coming talent, a guy with the potential to become a significant figure in the world of economics, finance or politics.

Not only has he a keen and nuanced grasp of the intricate issues - he also addresses a global readership by taking the trouble to write in English. In short, he works hard. He's putting in his 10,000 hours.

This post is what good blogging is all about - showing that you don't need a contract with a major media group to let the world know that You Have Good Ideas. The post also shows the difference between a potential professor and a dull lecturer - the former can simplify complex issues and present them in a way that the averagely intelligent student can follow. The latter makes the complex issues seem more complex still.

His main point - that the current economic crisis was caused not by greed, but by lack of fear, is spot on.

Economics, after all, is the study of humans and how they interact with money. Humans, all 6.8 billion of us, like all other living things, are driven by two imperatives - to survive and thrive. Once survival is assured, we strive for more.
Poor man wants to be rich
Rich man wants to be king
King ain't satisfied until he rules everything
- Bruce Springsteen, Badlands
But beware hubris. Beware that moment when you think that you are the Master of the Universe, and that nothing can touch you. As that great English 20th century mystical philosopher, the Reverend W. Awdry, continually told his young readers, pride comes before the fall. "Look at me," wooshed James. "I'm a splendid red engine." And children would know, as they turned the page, that on the next one, James would run into a tar wagon, shoot off down a hill out of control, or end up spinning wildly on a turntable.

As mammals, survive and thrive is rooted in our flight-or-fight instinct; that knife-edge moment in the dealing room when a split-second decision can make a dealer a quick killing or can lose his clients millions of dollars.

Bartek compares forecasting the economy to forecasting the weather. But the economy, I would argue, is an order of magnitude less complex than the weather. Although one is a closed system, the other growing along with our population, the sentiment of 6.8 billion individuals is easier to predict than the world's weather. You can break that 6.8 billion down into many sub-groups; 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.9 billion Christians, 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day, 800 billionaires. Then sub-groups of sub-groups; potential Toyota Corolla buyers, for example, or National Geographic channel watchers, or users of a generic anti-inflammatory drug, or wearers of Levi jeans. Chinese ones, Christian ones, rich ones, poor ones.

The coming century will tell us far more about ourselves, what drives us, how much of what we are is determined by our genes, and how much by our environment and upbringing. Is there a laziness gene that condemns swathes of humanity to apathetic resignation to their economic fate? Or when societies get wealthier, does the drive, the appetite for risk, diminish greatly within the bulk of the population, leaving those with a biologically-greater need for the power and influence that wealth brings striving to get wealthier still? And in doing so take even greater risks? With other people's money? What makes a multi-billionaire drive himself for 14 hours a day to make another billion? What role does testosterone play?

My guess is that over the coming century, as we get to understand much more about ourselves as a species, about our biology and psychology, we will come to learn much more about how our global economy responds as a system to our individual greed and fear.

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