Author: Steven J. Cernak
Two months ago, I encouraged all readers of this blog to read Complexity-Minded Antitrust by Nicolas Petit and Thibault Schrepel. As I explained in that article, I think their suggestion that antitrust lawyers and policymakers should consider applying learnings from complexity theory to antitrust questions was a good one.
I hope you heeded my suggestion. Over 1300 others have at least downloaded the article. After reading the article, I wanted to get smarter about complexity as well. I had dipped my toe in the complexity water during my graduate economics studies and early legal career but that was decades ago during complexity’s infancy. How had it developed and how might it apply to antitrust issues?
To get back up to speed, I read several books on the topics. Below, I outline my thoughts on each of them. I encourage other antitrust experts to read these or other materials to stay abreast of where our field might be (should be?) heading. If you have other suggested readings, please let me know.
First, take a look at Neil Chilson’s Getting Out of Control, his short and easily readable book on emergent order that I reviewed for this blog last October. As I described in that review, Chilson uses everyday examples to define emergent order and distinguish it from randomness and designed order. He then builds on those definitions to discuss an example of emergent order near and dear to all antitrusters, the price system. From there, he derives principles for anyone (like antitrust enforcers?) dealing with emergent order to observe: expect complicated results even from simple actions; push decisions down to actors with local information; and be humble. Short, sweet, and by an author with FTC experience, this book is the one to read if you only read one.
Second, I re-watched Understanding Complexity by Scott Page, one of The Great Courses that I had purchased several years ago. I thought this course was a great summary of complexity, how it relates to many disciplines, and how its concepts can apply in many everyday settings. Page defines the attributes of complex systems—diversity, connection, interdependence, adaptation—and distinguishes such systems from others that are really just complicated. From these tools, he derives now familiar concepts like tipping and path dependence and explains why truly complex systems can be harnessed, perhaps, but not controlled. I recommend this course for an easy-to-understand but more complete and formal view of complexity.
(Disclosure: Scott Page lived a few doors down from me in my University of Michigan dormitory. In a hallway full of smart young men with great enthusiasm for Michigan athletics, Page was one of the smartest and most enthusiastic.)
I was disappointed in Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. While I was looking for a general description of complexity and its roots, this book went farther afield than I wanted or could appreciate. It covers many disparate subjects—genetics, evolution, biology—and has some interesting history of the science and some of its pioneers; however, Mitchell spends more time talking about that history and justifications for why complexity might be its own separate discipline than I found interesting. I can only recommend it for those interested in math history.
On the other hand, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers covered just the right amount of complexity background, history, and context before applying it to various public policies. Antitrust gets a brief mention with a very short summary of the U.S. Microsoft case. More generally, the authors try to use complexity theory to begin the development of a third way of thinking about public policy choices, what they call laissez faire activism, as compared to defaulting to having either the market or the federal government do everything. Here are some of the key points that I think make this book, right after Chilson’s, one that antitrust folks should read:
- The economy and various parts of it can be non-linear and able to self-organize and, so, able to be influenced but difficult to control;
- Complexity theory and math can clarify choices but will not prescribe solutions;
- There is a potential tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency that businesses (especially those that misunderstood all aspects of the Toyota Production System) and policymakers should consider;
- Economic policy is not all of social policy and increasing material welfare is not the single goal of society;
- Path dependency can exist but not in all cases
Finally, I can recommend Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by, again, Scott Page, only if you really want to go deep in the weeds on complexity or are managing a group. I had another, more personal, reason for wanting to read it.