Party Planning vs. Raising Kids

Lant Pritchett uses a starfish/spider analogy to illustrate differences between bottom-up/top-down systems.

Steve Landsburg explained that people mistake central planning as being something like planning a birthday party. Based on this vision, they think it can work well. You just need good planners. Landsburg says that folks who make such mistakes simply can’t imagine the complexities involved when hundreds of millions of people are added to the mix, so even good planners won’t do well.

Russ Roberts recently distinguished between engineering and economics problems in a post on Cafe Hayek, building off the following Soviet joke:

Yuri Gagarin’s daughter answers the phone.  ‘No, mummy and daddy are out,’ she says.  ‘Daddy’s orbiting the earth, and he’ll be back tonight at 7 o’clock.  But mummy’s gone shopping for groceries, so who knows when she’ll be home.’

Of course, her Mom may be an avid shopper. But, the joke was meant to convey that centrally planning something as mundane as producing products that people want, at reasonable prices and making them available in nearby stores is a much more vexing problem than sending man into orbit. Prices do a better job of coordinating that effort.

I made a similar point in a follow-up to the Landsburg post, because I’ve heard too many people use the “If we can send a man to the moon, then we can do anything” fallacy.

Though, I didn’t distinguish it then as an engineering problem. That is an important observation. It’s also a good question to keep in mind when people start using the man on the moon fallacy, are we solving an engineering or economics problem?

But, I still think some folks may have a difficult time understanding exactly how an economics problem differs from an engineering problem. For many, both fall into one category: complicated. So, if we can solve one complicated problem, why not another?

I think it might help to go back to Landsburg’s party planning analogy. An engineering problem is like planning your kid’s birthday party. It’s straightforward (place, invites, plates, cake, fun, done) and it’s a relatively short time commitment. The short time commitment is important. Any longer and it might be harder to get grandparents to help clean up or for guests to come.

An economics problem is more (though still not quite) like raising kids. That’s much more complex than planning a two-hour party. It doesn’t end. It’s not easy.

Just when you think you figure it out, it changes. Why? Because kids are human and they go through phase. They have preferences. They respond to rewards and punishments — differently to different ones. They make decisions. They like what they like. They change. They will fight you. They won’t always do what you tell them. You need to let them make mistakes and learn for themselves, even though it is painful to do so.

Now, I say it’s not quite like an economics problem because people can do a good job of raising kids. Though, there aren’t many truth-telling parents who will say that it’s easy.

So, an economics problem is much more like being tasked with raising all of the kids in your town, or maybe your state, or more.

Multiply the frustrations, the reactions, the support, attention and love required by a thousand or a million kids.

We’re all smart enough to know that’s impossible. We would never sign up for it because we know we’d do those kids a major disservice. Hmmm…..

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We win with markets

Paul Rubin made a great point in his Wall Street Journal op-ed (thanks to Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek, for pointing to it).

Economists should point out that what makes markets thrive is cooperation, while competition plays a supporting role. This might help the perception of markets. As an example:

…we might say that a poor person has been outcompeted in the market. Or we might say that a poor person cannot successfully cooperate with others because he lacks valuable skills and has little to sell.

Again, the words matter because viewing the circumstance in terms of competition could lead to penalizing those who are viewed as outcompeting him, even though they did nothing wrong. It might even lead to banning certain terms in transactions—with minimum-wage laws, for instance—that make it even more difficult for the poor person to cooperate. The cooperative metaphor, by contrast, would suggest that the solution is increasing the skills of the poor person, giving him something to sell on the market.

Unfortunately, Rubin would still need to convince many other economists that minimum wage laws make it more difficult for the poor person to cooperate.

Greed is not unique to capitalism

A discussion I heard on the radio today between a self-described socialist and a radio talk show host reminded me of this post about greed.

It also brought into a focus an important point that many people miss and may even be a source of dislike or distrust for capitalism.

The point is that greed is not unique to capitalism. Many people seem to think it is. Or maybe they mistake any money-making endeavor for capitalism.

There are greedy politicians, greedy not-for-profit chairmen, greedy welfare recipients and greedy welfare administrators. There were greedy kings, greedy socialists, greedy communists and greedy fascists.

When a corrupt politician sells his vote, that’s not capitalism. That’s corruption. And it’s greed.

What is unique to capitalism is its ability to harness greed for the greater good, as Walter Williams discusses in the post I linked to.

It does this by encouraging people to produce something of value — using what is rightfully theirs’ — for others to satisfy their greed.

One reason bottom-up does better: Try, try, try again

In this post, I wrote that bottom-up systems tend to do better than top-down systems. In the following post, I expand on the #1 reason why I think that is.

I use to think feedbacks were the most important difference between productive and unproductive organizations or systems.

I don’t anymore.

I still think feedbacks are important and much can be gained from addressing feedback problems. But, I think something else makes the difference between good and bad: The number of trials.

I credit Nassim Taleb for planting this thought in my head. In one of his books he said something like capitalism doesn’t work because of profits and losses [feedbacks], it works because it induces a lot of trials and some of those happen to work.

I think Jeff Bezos understands this idea about trials. But, I don’t think many others do.

We see success stories after the fact and credit visionary leadership, brilliant insights and clever innovations, but this is too simple of a view of what really happened.

Since Taleb planted this idea I started noticing other things about success stories.

I noticed that for every success, there were dozens or more failures. Successful people are often brilliant. We conclude that to be the cause of their success, but that doesn’t account for the failures that are often led by equally bright people. Why did one succeed while the others didn’t? That gets tougher to distinguish.

A story Taleb tells about dolphins illustrates this well. We hear about dolphins pushing to shore people who are stranded at sea and conclude dolphins know what they’re doing and are kind and gentle. Maybe that’s true. But, we don’t hear from the folks when the dolphins took them the other way. Maybe the dolphins that pushed to shore just got lucky.

I also started noticing that success stories often includes information about how the discoveries were not planned, but were accidentally stumbled upon while the great leaders were trying to do something else. Sometimes these leaders even resisted going the direction the discovery led them because it didn’t fit their original vision.

Finally, I started seeing the dumb luck that is a part of almost every success.

When I look at success, I try to remember its causes can be elusive and that the easy explanations are usually incomplete.

Capitalism works well for us because it encourages a lot of trials.

I believe organizations can improve (not guarantee) chances of long-term success by employing the same incentives as capitalism. Encourage a lot of trials. Let failures fail and reward success.

We even have evidence of this respect for trials embedded in common, inspirational phrases like:

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again
  • Fail often to succeed sooner
  • If you fall off the horse, get back on

But, perhaps one quality of the successful that I may have overlooked is that they aren’t afraid to fail.

You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take. – Wayne Gretzky

I didn’t fail the test, I just found a 100 ways to do it wrong. -Ben Franklin

I’ve never been afraid to fail. -Michael Jordan

Fragile society

Bad stuff happens. It’s how you respond and adapt to that bad stuff that matters.

Nassim Taleb coined the term Anti-Fragile in his latest book, Anti-Fragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. It’s a concept worth remembering.

I recognized anti-fragility around the time of Enron. While people were wringing their hands about how something like Enron could happen, I pointed out that corruption, deceit and failure happen all the time in every form of society.

The results are not pretty. But, we were lucky in capitalism that it was contained to a small segment of the economy and didn’t have much impact on overall society. In fact, the economy was resilient enough that it was hardly a blip.

Not only that, but we learned from it.

People learned the important anti-fragile lesson of not putting all your eggs in one basket, as many Enron employees had done by investing all of their 401k’s in Enron stock.

We also learned to be even more skeptical of things that seem too good to be true.

Those are good lessons in any form of society.

Contrast that with the Soviet Union. When it went down, the whole ship sunk.

As we make government more central in our lives, we should recognize that we also make society more fragile, less anti-fragile.

Why didn’t I think of that?

Immerse yourself in a game as you run with the Zombies, Run! app. On your run, you’ll get to pick up munitions for your base and outrun heavy breathing zombie herds.

What a fantastically creative way to shake up those boring trods and add some sprints and interval workouts.

Sometimes innovations seem so obvious. I’m amazed it took so long for something like this to emerge. Can’t wait to see what follows.



Innovation Clinic

In a recent issue, Forbes held a valuable camp on innovation.

First, I agree with what Leonard Schleifer, CEO of Regeneron (a drug research company), had to say about innovation in his Entreprenuer Clinic in Forbes.

I believe that companies rot, and they rot from the top down. Too often the keys to the kingdom are given to commercial folks who don’t value long-term research. When you don’t value something, you don’t get good results from it, and the bottom line is that then, all of a sudden, the long term becomes the short term, and you don’t have anything.

“Focus” is a dirty word for us, okay? It’s a big mistake to think that you can pick the very best thing that you should focus on and then ignore all the other things. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pick only the things that work in our business? Amgen’s new CEO, I heard, said they only were going to work on the things that work. Good luck to him. We are just not that smart.

Second, the short description of the article, The Secret to Unleashing Genius, says a lot:

Companies suffer when the boss comes up with all the new ideas. Shrewd leaders build organizations that think for themselves.

I’ve seen my share of executive teams where the long-term turned into the short-term and they didn’t have anything and where they were never willing to admit that they are just not that smart.

I think realizing that, is the key that the “shrewd leaders” understand and why they build organizations that think for themselves.

However, in depressing news, Forbes had this article where Google appears to be headed the other direction in what Larry Page described as “more wood behind fewer arrows”.

Google previously had a rule that you could spend up to 20% of your time on side projects. Now they are pulling that rule back a bit. The author of the piece asks a good question:

Now that Google has put some rules  around “20% time,” the one day a week an employee spends on side projects, people are having a field day forecasting the end of innovation at the company that claims to “use their powers for good, not evil.” To those people, I ask one question: Can a company in today’s highly competitive environment survive if they allow 1/5th of their employees’ time to be devoted to work that has no clear alignment with the company’s strategy?

Her answer: “of course not.”  I think there’s a better answer: Google’s stock price. Apparently it has been working for them, so far. In the words of Leonard Schleifer, ‘good luck to him.’

Update: Brian Carney and Isaac Getz agree with my take on Google’s rule change in the Wall Street Journal.


Mark Perry links to three examples of how the market is the best regulator and our best friend (though, admittedly, the kind of friend many people like to dump on).

Chris Berg explains why Capitalism is Awesome (HT: EconLog‘s Alberto Mingardi). Worth a read. It’s not the necessarily the Facebooks and the Apples, but the guys trying to make a better shelf.

A short video of Jim Buchanan on the illusion of the public interest (HT: Cafe Hayek‘s Don Boudreaux):


Unintended consequence of Obamacare?

I yawned when I read this. Did you?