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Agent-based models to help economics do a better job

23 January 2017
by Guest author

Richard Bookstaber, University of California

Economics has not done a very good job of dealing with crises. I think this is because there are four characteristics of human experience that manifest themselves in crises and that cannot be addressed well by the methods of traditional economics.

The first of these is computational irreducibility. You may be able to reduce the behaviour of a simple system to a mathematical description that provides a shortcut to predicting its future behaviour, the way a map shows that following a road gets you to a town without having to physically travel the road first. Unfortunately, for many systems, as Stephen Wolfram argues, you only know what is going to happen by faithfully reproducing the path the system takes to its end point, through simulation and observation, with no chance of getting to the final state before the system itself. It’s a bit like the map Borges describes in On Rigor in Science, where “the Map of the Empire had the size of the Empire itself and coincided with it point by point”. Not being able to reduce the economy to a computation means you can’t predict it using analytical methods, but economics requires that you can.

The second characteristic property is emergence. Emergent phenomena occur when the overall effect of individuals’ actions is qualitatively different from what each of the individuals are doing. You cannot anticipate the outcome for the whole system on the basis of the actions of its individual members because the large system will show properties its individual members do not have. For example, some people pushing others in a crowd may lead to nothing or it may lead to a stampede with people getting crushed, despite nobody wanting this or acting intentionally to produce it. Likewise no one decides to precipitate a financial crisis, and indeed at the level of the individual firms, decisions generally are made to take prudent action to avoid the costly effects of a crisis. But what is locally stable can become globally unstable.

The name for the third characteristic, non-ergodicity, comes from the German physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who defined as “ergodic” a concept in statistical mechanics whereby a single trajectory, continued long enough at constant energy, would be representative of an isolated system as a whole, from the Greek ergon energy, and odos path. The mechanical processes that drive of our physical world are ergodic, as are many biological processes. We can predict how a ball will move when struck without knowing how it got into its present position – past doesn’t matter. But the past matters in social processes and you cannot simply extrapolate it to know the future. The dynamics of a financial crisis are not reflected in the pre-crisis period for instance because financial markets are constantly innovating, so the future may look nothing like the past.

Radical uncertainty completes our quartet. It describes surprises—outcomes or events that are unanticipated, that cannot be put into a probability distribution because they are outside our list of things that might occur. Electric power, the atomic bomb, or the internet are examples from the past, and of course by definition we don’t know what the future will be. As Keynes put it, “There is no scientific basis to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” Economists also talk about “Knightian uncertainty”, after Frank Knight, who distinguished between risk, for example gambling in a casino where we don’t know the outcome but can calculate the odds; and what he called “true uncertainty” where we can’t know everything that would be needed to calculate the odds. This in fact is the human condition. We don’t know where we are going, and we don’t know who we will be when we get there. The reality of humanity means that a mechanistic approach to economics will fail.

So is there any hope of understanding what’s happening in our irreducible, emergent, non-ergodic, radically uncertain economy? Yes, if we use methods that are more robust, that are not embedded in the standard rational expectations, optimisation mode of economics. To deal with crises, we need methods that deal with computational irreducibility; recognise emergence; allow for the fact that not even the present is reflected in the past, never mind the future; and that can deal with radical uncertainty. Agent-based modelling could be a step in the right direction.

Agent-based models (ABM) use a dynamic system of interacting, autonomous agents to allow macroscopic behaviour to emerge from microscopic rules. The models specify rules that dictate how agents will act based on various inputs. Each agent individually assesses its situation and makes decisions on the basis of its rules. Starlings swirling in the sky (a “murmuration”) is a good illustration. The birds appear to operate as a system, yet the flight is based on the decisions of the individual birds. Building a macro, top-down model will miss the reality of the situation, because at the macro level the movements of the flock are complex, non-linear, yet are not based on any system-wide programme. But you can model the murmuration based on simple rules as to how a bird reacts to the distance, speed and direction of the other birds, and heads for the perceived centre of the flock in its immediate neighbourhood.

Click to see ABM in motion. Original file on Reddit

Likewise, the agent-based approach recognises that individuals interact and in interacting change the environment, leading to the next course of interaction. It operates without the fiction of a representative consumer or investor who is as unerringly right as a mathematical model can dream. It allows for construction of a narrative—unique to the particular circumstances in the real world—in which the system may jump the tracks and careen down the mountainside. This narrative gives us a shot at pulling the system back safely.

In short, agent-based economics arrives ready to face the real world, the world that is amplified and distorted during times of crisis. This is a new paradigm rooted in pragmatism and in the complexities of being human.

Useful links

Richard Bookstaber video contribution, OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC)

Richard Bookstaber will be giving a conference within the framework of the OECD NAEC initiative in Paris in June 2017. His latest book, discussing the ideas outlined above, has just been published by Princeton University Press: The End of Theory: Financial Crises, the Failure of Economics, and the Sweep of Human Interaction

The OECD organised a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September 2016, at OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

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