Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Complexity Made Simple

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist is by far my favorite public intellectual.

He is in my opinion the most elegant communicator in the print media. He has an unmatched capacity to communicate very complex ideas in the most simple and accessible style, without being simplistic. Most people, especially journalist and other kinds or writers, just cannot.

In an Op-ed article, The Lost Decade, in writes in the last couple of sentences, “The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads. “
I read this and I think of how we educate our children, the challenges we face as human kind and wonder what the future holds for us.

David’s Brooks’ central argument is that because of our constricted and mechanistic view our solutions are often incommensurate with the problems at hand.

In reference to the global financial crisis, David Brooks observes that most economist think the next few will be bad with a chance of getting worse. The reason the crisis will get worse is because it has many fronts or currents, which merge and are self-reinforcing. The product, not sum, is therefore emergent. The emergent condition is more terrible than the sum of its parts.

It is the product of the complex interplay between them. To put it in fancy terms, the crisis is an emergent condition — even more terrible than the sum of its parts. In a candid indictment of global leadership, David Brooks notes that the ideologues who dominate the conversation can not think in holistic, emergent ways.

Use the fable of Ghor, the blind men and the matter of the elephant; Brooks illustrates the folly of reductionist approaches to solving emergent problems. Like blind men without any knowledge of the form or shape of an elephant – we grope sightlessly gathering information by touching – we persuade ourselves that we understand the whole.

President Obama’s stimulus package did little to create jobs and inspire investors. But rather than acknowledge that other emergent factors were at play, the administration just called for more stimulus spending. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans believe that lower taxes and less regulation will get the US economy kicking again.

The US economic crisis if fueled by many currents, which merge and feed off each other. These include depressed consumer demand, credit crunch, collapse of housing market, high consumer debt, regulatory burdens, skills mismatch and the turmoil in the EU. No single one of these currents prolongs or sustains the economic crisis.

And then David Brooks delivers the most brilliant lesson in complexity and systems thinking. And he writes, “when you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.”

David Brooks has offered the most accessible and non-technical lesson in complexity and systems thinking. This should be the primary role of the media in a modern society; inform and educate the public.

Three cheers to David Brooks!

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