Field of Science

Evolution and Interdependence

So President Bush has finally taken a complex systems view of the economy:

Stupidity aside, he's entirely correct: our economy is highly interdependent. We discussed this situation last post, now I'd like to give some perspective on how interdependence comes to be.

Our economy, like life, is an evolutionary system, featuring competition, innovation, and adaptation to internal and external challeges. And I think some of the difficulty in understanding the current financial crisis comes from a misconception about evolution.

We usually think of (biological) evolution as a species-level process: each species makes its own incremental improvements in search of competetive advantage. But this is too simple a picture. Species do not evolve in isolation; they co-evolve in concert with all they interact with: plants, animals, microbes, and even minerals. In this co-evolutionary process, species develop relationships with each other; sometimes competitive, but often symbiotic or mutually beneficial in some way.

In the long run, co-evolution seems to produce increasing interdependence. Consider that all life started out as single-celled organisms, and that the co-evolution of these organisms led to multicellularity, which is a form of indterdependence so advanced that the component cells can no longer live on their own. On a larger scale, multicellular organisms co-evolved to form ecosystems. While not as interdependent as a multicellular organism, an ecosystem still has the property that if you remove enough vital components, the whole system fails.

An interesting thing happens now. As interdependence grows, so does the scale at which evolution occurs. Life started with cells competing against cells, grew into organsims competing with organisms, and now, in a sense, we also have ecosystems competing with ecosystems. The rainforest, for example, is competing with the desert in Africa. If the rainforest fails, so do all species that live there.

A similar process happens with economies. They begin with small, relatively self-suffient businesses. These businesses develop relationships with each other, co-evolve, and grow webs of interdependence. In the US, the webs have become so complex that an obscure industry known has mortgage-backed securities has sunk our entire economy.

So here too, evolution has "scaled up." It's no longer just companies competing against companies, it's also our whole nation's economy competing against those of other nations, and indeed the whole world's economy competing against, well, itself.

I don't think interdependence can be avoided, but it certainly needs to be understood. When people speak of the "free hand of the market" correcting our economy's mistakes, they're thinking of individual companies competing idependently, and failing to grasp the reality that, to some extent, our economy lives or dies as a whole.

Too Important to Fail?

The federal government is set to take over mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Earlier this summer, the government rescued the investment bank Bear Stearns. In each case it was decided that, even though the companies were in trouble of their own making, the damage caused by their failure would be too great for the economy to bear.

Strictly speaking, this isn't how our economy is supposed to work. It's supposed to be survival of the fittest: the companies that make the best decisions survive, and others fail. In this way good practices are rewarded, better business models evolve, and society progresses.

The problem is that, as part of this evolutionary process, the US economy has become increasingly interdependent. Companies need each other to survive, so that if a big one goes down it could take others with it. In the cases of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Bear Stearns, it was deemed that the failure of these companies would take out entire sectors of the economy, and as a country we couldn't let that happen.

I won't argue the merits of these decisions, but I'm interested in what they say about our economy. We're accustomed to thinking of our economy in terms of a system of competing animals. If one dies, others arise to take its place. But it may turn out our economy is more like another system: the human body, wherein if one part fails, the system suffers as a whole.

If this is true, then the whole of economic theory is based on an incorrect assumption. We may have some fundamental rethinking to do about how our economy works and why.