There was a time when I was vacationing, near the Bosque del Apache
wildlife preserve. There were literally thousands of birds.
Most were snow geese or sandhill cranes. There were
a lot of people, too.
But off a ways, there was a trail. It went, among other
places, to a spot called Solitude Canyon. Sounded good.
Even better, there was an overlook. On a hill, high
above the bosque, it was possible to see the preserve. The
thousands of birds appeared as white and gray pixels, rendered on a
On the way back, I came to a point in the trail. There was a
post with a little arrow, pointing to the right. A few people
had gone that way. To the left, there were many more
A time for pondering. Evidently, many persons had read Robert
Frost’s poem, The
Road Not Taken:
TWO roads diverged in a yellow
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Being the sorts who would amble away from the crowds, away from the
honking of geese and crooning of cranes, through Solitude Canyon, they
naturally came to the sign directing them to go right, and went left
I, too, wanted to take the one less traveled by.
But in order
to do that, I would have to go in the direction the sign said to go.
That would make me a conformist, obedient. All the
mavericks had taken the road less traveled, thereby making it the one more
It’s a world turned upside down, I say.
I merrily hopped right over the post.
Enough of this prosaic, one-dimensional thinking.
Meanwhile, our world has moved on to a new season. And we
have a guest. It is the recession of 2001. You see,
the 2001 recession has become a “double-dip” recession, shaped like,
well, a “W.” We never really got out of the 2001 mess.
Rather, we ran up astronomical debts, making it look as
though things were getting better. Eventually we exceeded the
maximum debt that the world could bear. Some call it peak debt.
From Robert Frost, My
MY Sorrow, when she’s here with
Thinks these dark days of autumn
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to
She’s glad the birds are gone
She’s glad her simple worsted
Is silver now with clinging
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her
Figuring out the applicability of this poem to our current situation is
left as an exercise for the reader. It is not
terribly difficult, but it may require solitude.
Frost spent some of his early career at Michigan, so he understands
I grew up in Michigan — not far from Detroit — during the OPEC oil
embargo, so I understand
something about economic downturns. But I would not go so far
to say that I understand economics. It intrigues me, though,
because of the plain fact that economics is nothing more than a branch
of psychology. It is really the study of a narrow slice of
What is less obvious is that economics is very much like ecology, which
is another subject that interests me.
Ecology is all about organisms developing strategies to optimize
success in the face of a changing environment. A brief study
ecology will show that there is no single optimum strategy.
is more pertinent at the moment, though, is the fact that the best
strategy today may not be the best strategy tomorrow.
is like that as well. Sure, ecology and evolution are
characterized by the phrase, survival of the fittest.
the traits that maximize fitness are not some sort of platonic ideal
that, once attained, provide endless success.
Indeed, the history of life on this planet shows that all strategies
eventually fail. For while, it might be best to take the road
less traveled. But that only works until everyone else
out. Then you have to find another way.
People who argue about the merits of capitalism vs. socialism,
deregulation vs. central control, supply-side vs. demand-side
economics, as so forth, are all stuck in one-dimensional thinking.
Lets all stop trying to figure out what the right answer is.
The right answer depends on what time it is; that is, it
changes over time.
A lot has been written about physicists leaving academia and going over
to Wall Street. Mark Thoma, writing at Economist’s View, has
about allegations that these math whizzes are partly to blame for the
financial meltdown. Over at Physics Buzz, this allegation is called
a “cop out.” The phenomenon of physicists leaving academia is
Thoma, in my view, is on to something when he says:
Systems with agents who can respond to changes in
their economic environment are very different from the types of
physical systems quants are used to working with. Starting with reduced
form techniques rather than structural/behavioral models and attempting
to exploit trends that are uncovered from backward looking procedures
runs the risk of going very wrong if the response of agents in the
model drives the economy away from its historical precedent. Much of
what was done amounted to this approach no matter how dressed up it was
mathematically. When the economy did, in fact, diverge from past trends
as agents responded to the changed economic environment brought about
by those attempting to exploit trends in the data, the models,
In biology, it is normal for agents to respond to a changed
Nature is an endless game of cat-and-mouse, but the cats and the mice
keep evolving. Financial markets are inherently biological
systems, thus it would make sense to model them the way that ecologists
Does this means that all the physicists should leave Wall Street, to be
replaced by biologists? Not at all. As many have
pointed out, the problem is not the models, the problem is in how the
models are employed.
Consider the situation with gambling in casinos. The casino
does not need to win all the time. They merely have to tilt
the odds a bit, so that they win more than they lose. It is
tempting for investors to adopt a similar mindset. The model
does not have to be perfect; all it has to do, is tilt the odds in your
favor. So long as nothing catastrophic happens, you will come
out ahead in the long run.
The fly in the ointment is the simple fact, that catastrophic things do
happen. And that is where the mindset of the ecologist or
evolutionary biologist is helpful. Such people know perfectly
well that catastrophic events happen.
Persons with a cursory knowledge of these disciplines tend to think in
idealized terms. For example, many persons who are
superficially familiar with evolution tend to think in teleological
terms: that as evolution progresses, it leads to organisms that are
Evolution, of course, does not lead to higher and higher organisms.
Rather, it leads to organisms that have a temporary
based upon what conditions were like in the past.
Persons with a cursory knowledge of ecology will know about symbiosis.
They will know of three types of symbiotic relationship:
commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism. With a sophomoric
of understanding, it is tempting to think that organisms will tend to
evolve toward a mutualistic relationship; that is, a relationship in
which both parties benefit. After all, a parasite that is too
demanding might very well kill its host.
Consider, now, the relationship between financial institutions (banks,
investment firms, insurance) and the rest of the economy.
Clearly, these institutions can function in one of three
ways. They can act mutualistically, such that both parties
benefit; they can interact commensally, such that one side benefits but
the other is unaffected; or they can act parasitically.
Which model will they use? Probably, it depends upon the
Last month, Greenspan was shocked
to realize that lending institutions did not act in a manner that
protected their shareholder’s equity. In ecological terms, he
was shocked to see them acting as parasites. But really, what
would prevent such behavior? In biology, there is nothing to
prevent it. You might think that organisms would evolve in
such a way, that they would not suck too much blood, thereby killing
the host. But things like that happen all the time.
It may limit the success of the parasite; it even may lead to
extinction, of one — or both — parties.
Indeed, ecosystems do have points of balance, where harmony abounds.
It is nice when this happens, even beautiful. But
there is no force, natural, spiritual, or otherwise, that causes
such a balance. It is accidental. The appearance of
beauty may give the impression of an invisible hand, or watchmaker, or
whatever analogy suits you. But that is illusory.
The harmony can collapse in an instant, particularly where exponential
growth is involved, and there is an inflexible limit to
The road less traveled by? That is an illusion too.
We are all traveling on the same road.
Species do become extinct. Remember, it happens all the time.
In fact, the rate of extinction is increasing exponentially.
Another bit of poetry:
ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
High on Nardil and June
light I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
I don’t think that Nardil is the solution to our problems, but the
maples and the wood thrush might help. That is why I worry
about species extinction. The economy will crash.
We will run out of cheap oil. Those things, we can
do without. But we need the trees and the birds.