Complexity Theory is the New “Great Flare” in Economics

I just finished readingĀ Complexity and the Economy by W. Brian Arthur, and like almost all of his work, it was very enlightening. His publications are also a joy to read because his writing is on par with some of the best novelists I have read, in my humble opinion. Many thoughts and passages caught my attention throughout the book, but I found the following paragraph particularly novel-like and thought-provoking.

“Economics as a discipline is often criticized because, unlike the ‘hard sciences’ of physics or chemistry, it cannot be pinned down to an unchanging set of descriptions over time. But this is not a failing, it is proper and natural. The economy is not a simple system; it is an evolving, complex one, and the structures it forms change constantly over time. I sometimes think of the economy as a World War I battlefield at night. It is dark, and not much can be seen over the parapets. From a half mile or so away, across an enemy territory, rumblings are heard and a sense develops that emplacements are shifting and troops are being redeployed. But the best guesses of the new configuration are extrapolations of the old. Then someone puts up a flare and it illuminates a whole pattern of emplacements and disposals and troops and trenches in the observers’ minds, and all goes dark again. So it is with the economy. The great flares in economics are those of theorists like Smith or Ricardo or Marx or Keynes. Or indeed Schumpeter himself. They light for a time, but the rumblings and redeployments continue in the dark. We can indeed observe the economy, but our language for it, our labels for it, and our understanding of it are all frozen by the great flares that have lit up the scene, and in particular by the last great set of flares” (p. 143).

In my opinion, complexity theory or complexity economics is the next “great flare” in economics, and when (if) it becomes mainstream economics, my hope is that it will naturally take us past the machine-like view of the economy into a deeper, more appropriate view of the economy as a continually evolving complex system. This will also hopefully move us beyond the religious zeal to which we tend to adhere to the “great flares” that can be cataclysmic in the worst of its applications into a more open-minded understanding of economics and its application to public policy and our everyday lives.

I also love the fact that he mentions folks like Ricardo, Marx, and Schumpeter as one of the theorists who launched some of these “great flares.” In mainstream macroeconomics, these three economists get very little, if any, mention in the textbooks. IN fact, I looked in some of my macroeconomics textbooks last semester, and in some they were not mentioned at all. In fact, I could not find one that mentioned Marx. If Ricardo and Schumpeter were mentioned, they received a paragraph worth of text, at best. Even more surprising to me was that the history of economic thought books I have do not give Marx and Schumpeter full chapters. I agree with Arthur that these men forth theories that were “great flares,” and as such, they should be part of required economic education.