My favorite explanation of complexity is the pot of boiling water. When you put a pot of liquid water on the stove it is in a steady state. All of the collective molecules exist in liquid form, but as soon as you begin applying heat and pressure that state begins to change. At any point in time we can’t predict which molecules will make the transition. They exist at the edge of chaos. But provide enough heat and pressure and over time they will eventually turn into a gas. What happens then? Does the steam rise and eventually fall as water again? But, where and how? The only thing I do know is that it will never return to the exact same place it began.
And here we are. The image itself dances between actuality and metaphor. That is one of the confusing things about trying to use complexity science to describe economics. Most of the language around econ is in serious metaphor territory. Economic equilibrium—where we are tasked to imagine a ball gradually circling to rest at the bottom of the bowl—is such a metaphor. The econ prof who taught me equilibrium theory used the metaphor of a fulcrum to describe it, permanently implanting in my brain the image that a state of economic equilibrium was impossible to maintain. Which raised a multitude of questions about what it is we really want the economy to do for us.
Years ago when I worked in the IT department of a regional bank I had a conversation with one of the programmers about the nature of money. I told him the data we were manipulating was money and he took that as a metaphorical statement, when in actuality money no longer exists mainly as a symbolic physical item such as currency. Money is indeed nothing more than entries in a database. Banks no longer lend money out of collected deposits, they just make the required transactions as entries to the database. There are algorithmic necessities with which banks must comply—asset size, debt to asset ratios—no wonder banks are anti-regulation. But, for the bottom 99.9% of the economy those ticks are not symbols of how much power one wields in the world. For the bottom 50% or more those ticks are life and death.
Here we are. Individuals feel compelled to balance these gigantic computerized ledgers. We trade hours for enough ticks in the database to buy food, housing, education, health care, entertainment and our hours are increasingly worth less. But, where did that value actually go? My children work harder than I did for a smaller return. The younger generations no longer have the time to take part in the volunteer aspects of community that were so important to the way I was raised and the way I lived my life while raising my children. Volunteer jobs go unfilled and that work increasingly must be paid for with ticks from the database or go undone.
My local volunteer fire department is constantly advertising for volunteers. My children’s houses are nowhere as clean as my mother’s and grandmother’s were. We have long talked about the double and triple duty of mothers in this world where it takes multiple family members working in the paid economy to meet basic needs, but now in the COVID era they have to perform double and triple duty at the very same time. The strain on families is immense.
In Sheri Tepper’s novel Raising the Stones she imagines a god that makes the planet a better place, that brings out the best in people. Shouldn’t that be the purpose of god after all? Her definition of a god that works was frankly a god that gets the job done. What would an economy that gets the job done look like? What job would you and I like it to do?
Many, many white Americans want a return to the perceived security of a steady state. The Biden vote reflects this in the calls for decency, bipartisanship, and reconciliation. But, that pot has long since boiled over as my Grandma used to say. You know what though, we get to determine where we go from here. We get to envision the future. We are not predetermined. We get to open the paths to new economic niches, in the complexity science sense (reality not metaphor) that niches are created out of our ability to adapt to the edge of chaos and create something new where we thrive.
The most dangerous legacy of Marxism and left wing progressivism is the belief that whatever comes after capitalism is prewritten within the failures of capitalism itself. That the process is small steps to victory. Complexity science tells us that nothing is predetermined. There are no guarantees of outcome. The backlash could be worse than the Reagan backlash which led us to here and now.
But, we can’t know where the rain will fall. Complexity science also gives us tools in the characteristics of complexity. One of the tools we have is to continue to apply heat and pressure. One of the tools that we have is positive feedback loops within the system. If you don’t know how to do the work look around you. Black and other marginalized communities are already doing it. Amplify their work. Envision the economy that works for all of the people. Now more than ever demand it. That’s how we win.
This essay was originally published as part of The Edge of Chaos Blog Symposium
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