Come home, Paul Krugman


I hate to say it, but economist, New York Times columnist and partisan talking beard Paul Krugman is a smart guy. After all, they don’t hand out Nobel Prizes based on looks. For proof, see 1902’s winner for literature.

It’s hard for me to admit this because, as a strong believer in fiscal conservatism, I am Krugman’s political polar opposite. The proton to his electron. The ant to his grasshopper. The Alex P. to his rest of the Keatons.

But in 1996, he had different beliefs about how the economy works — beliefs that I share and that have since been proven to be correct.

In 1996, Krugman authored a book (based on lectures) called, “The Self-Organizing Economy.” It’s a hard book to find these days. There are only a few on Amazon and they’ll run you $69, hard-cover only. And even if you can get your hands on a copy, it is a heady, difficult read. Even the dust jacket screams, “I am Fifty Shades of Boring.” But inside the book, Krugman dives into what was then an emerging science called Complexity.

Complexity itself is, well, complex. It’s best explained as the study of big, messy systems — like the weather, traffic or, in Krugman’s case, the economy. Complexity examines how these systems can organize themselves in recognizable ways, and how order can arise from disorder — all without a centralized plan or planner.

Though not too long, “The Self-Organizing Economy” is a beast. Reading it will remind you of one of those dreams where you have to take the final exam for a class you never attended. The first and final chapters elegantly explore the ways economies organize themselves and find order from instability. But it’s the chapters in between that take effort. They’re full of academic theories, computer models and big, scary mathematical formulas. It’s in those chapters, though, that Krugman makes a strong case that cities, when left alone, organize themselves in recognizable ways. In other words, businesses and people group themselves into business districts and neighborhoods without being aware of what they’re doing and without the guidance of government. In the book, Krugman also suggests that the growth of cities may occur in a way that is mathematically predictable. Like I said — heady stuff.

But as time went on, Krugman seemed to lose interest in Complexity. It’s hard to find much else from him on the topic, and in November of 2010, he seemed to reject the science entirely. He wrote on his blog, “Oh, and about … complexity and all that: I was one of the people who got all excited about the possibility of getting somewhere with very detailed agent-based models — but that was 20 years ago. And after all this time, it’s all still manifestos and promises of great things one of these days.”

At this point in the story, it’s tempting to pounce, and push Krugman on how he reconciles his political beliefs with his earlier work. But that would be petty. And the story doesn’t end here.

Around the time Krugman was distancing himself from his earlier efforts on his blog, the biggest authority in Complexity published findings that validated “The Self-Organizing Economy.”

Whether he knew it or not, Paul Krugman’s attempt to understand how cities work was part of an effort that has spanned centuries. People from Friedrich Engels to James Joyce have used art, math and science to try and crack the code of cities (the book “Emergence” by Steven Johnson has some fascinating stuff on this). And, finally, in 2010, the Santa Fe Institute gave us a glimpse of the city’s DNA by reprising some of Krugman’s work.

A team at the Santa Fe Institute led by Geoffrey West proved that we can predict how cities will grow — something Krugman had suggested 14 years earlier. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The researchers also found that by collecting massive amounts of data they could make predictions. For example, if given a single piece of data — say, the population of a city — they could tell you how many gas stations it had. Or, if you gave them the average amount of steps per minute the residents take, they could tell you the average wage of employees in the city. They found that all this data was interlinked and predictable. Their findings are nothing short of jaw-dropping. (For a better explanation, check out the “Cities” episode of NPR’s Radiolab or Geoffrey West’s TED talk.)

As far as I can tell, Krugman hasn’t commented on the Santa Fe Institute’s findings, nor has he shown any re-engagement with Complexity. And it’s both difficult and unfair to guess what he might think of the findings that support his work. But we’re left with some questions. Does Krugman still believe that economies organize themselves? Has his increased political engagement affected his views? And if he found himself caught between his political beliefs and scientific ones, why did he choose his political ones?

I believe that exploring Complexity could help inform policies, solve urban problems and give us a better overall view of the world.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, Paul Krugman can help. If he would just (intellectually) come home.

Craig Kirchoff is a complexity hobbyist and lives in Alexandria, Virginia. He will never win a Nobel Prize.

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