Economies are graphs, study them as graphs

Economies are graphs. The workings of economies would be better illuminated if economics were developed as a study of graphs, the things with nodes and edges, instead of aggregate stocks and flows.

A person is a node in the graph. Real value (goods and services) flows from one person to the other in a direction that we label with an arrow, and sometimes money flows in the opposite direction. The purpose of money is to shortcut loops or debts of value reciprocity that would otherwise take too long to balance. When you want interdependence you don’t settle in cash, which is why you don’t pay for gifts or for the services of family members and co-workers.

An artisan is a person who delivers value directly to customers and gets paid immediately or soon along the same arc. In a market, like a Sunday fruit market, arcs are transient but in other situations arcs are long lived and capture trade relationships including trade debt. Customers can put up money at the end of arcs to motivate them, and we call this demand. The social function of money is largely to motivate value arcs that would otherwise be hard to negotiate. The fact that money sometimes accumulates is an aberration.

A market is a device for arc formation. A variety market such as a bazaar or department store serves to reveal and create the value arcs that meet demand, by rewarding certain links among the vast space of possible production. It’s a network phenomenon with persistence, like learning in the brain. The kind of commodity market much loved by economists is a much lesser creature. It aims to create and destroy arcs instantly, in atomic transactions, to avoid long term graph formation and only accumulate the money imbalance. At best it’s an inefficient method for optimising aggregates.

Companies and families are structurally the same, in that individuals send value to each other according to internal relationships without getting paid by the receivers. They’re explicitly not markets. Money arrives at some distinguished nodes and gets shared along different arcs than the value flow. People tend to identify and be invested with their outgoing value arc, not the incoming money arc – this is what I do, not that’s what I get paid – and when the opposite happens it’s a dysfunction.

People pass incoming value as well as add their own, such as when a leader or seller delivers a finished item, or when an academic synthesises the wisdom of others. Value creation is a graph process quite distinct from money capture. Everyone understands value creation by aggregating flow on their graph and most approach it with a well-developed moral sense, egalitarian or biased. Few people have the inclination or low morals to monopolise money capture in the opposite direction.

Value flows will in general be unbalanced, from the more to the less productive, in an economy or any meaningful subgraph or time period. They have to be unbalanced if they are optimally large. Debt will maintain unbalanced flows that may be desirable, but is not a device to achieve balance or fairness. We have to set up, as societies, the value flows that we want including unbalanced transfers for education, misfortune, or old age.

Money accumulates because the settlement of transactions is not perfect and economic graphs such as firms are set to aggregate this imbalance, though not as a direct mirror of value flow. Wealth aggregates to different people and more unequally than their value contribution, because graphs have evolved to make it so. There’s no guarantee or even tendency for wealth to mirror value creation in the long run; there are just emergent graph effects and motives to steer them.

Value flows matter. Money flows in the end should not, although today they do. In the short run and all other things being equal, money and finance serve to motivate and adjust value flows differentially. Beyond that, any large accumulation of wealth or debt is emergent and arbitrary. It should not be treated as power or bondage, but as a relative claim to future flows made self-limiting by inflation.

Someone who is unemployed has no outgoing arcs. No-one wants their value output, perhaps because they have no incoming arcs either: No training, no colleagues or equipment, etc. A menial service worker or someone in a predatory profession like a spammer recognises that they transmit zero or negative value. All are unhappy, in the psychological sense of lacking purpose or value, even if some money somehow flows in their direction by other means.

What about a person who cultivates themselves, through erudition or physical training? In graph theory that’s a node with an arc pointing to itself, and can be formalised the same as other value transfers. Perhaps value towards self will later join output for others, such as when studying before publishing. Leisure is then either a restorative value transfer, i.e. useful, or if it achieves nothing it’s the absence of value flow.

In either case, utility is a relatively transient attribute of the self. It’s things like energy, joy, hunger, tiredness, sleep, etc. People consume value including leisure to increase their utility and partly damage it by working, mostly in a daily or weekly cycle. Work is a disutility insofar as it damages us, and a utility when it makes us greater. In a graph theory of the economy utility is more of a temporary, limiting but also self-correcting, state of individuals than something that could be amassed, precisely calculated, or time shifted.

Incidentally a lazy person is someone who, for one reason or another, needs to consume more leisure to restore their utility. To be more productive, learn to rest more efficiently. Firms that emphasise the quality of the work experience recognise this. Grim dwellings for the poor destroy utility.

Most value flow is not in markets with transient arcs and immediate settlement but along economic relationships that have some permanence: Family, work, knowledge, reputation, trust, social contribution. People like to adjust their graph connections to gain higher status, but they don’t seek an extemporaneous, fully market disciplined existence.

Although utility and value transfers are in the here and now, people desire security for the future. The need for security is a preference for being included in the value graph of the future. People invest in their position in the graph of the present, by and large the outgoing value arcs, during their productive years, and expect some reciprocity i.e. to receive flows value in young and old age.

Ordinarily we treat these as social value-debts shared by the immediate graph neighbourhood: Family, professional guild, nation or other social group. Increasingly we’ve treated these time shift problems as money-debts: Student loans, private savings. Since the purpose of money is explicitly to avoid permanence or long-term reciprocity, this fails to engender security. Far too much money is amassed to achieve security for a few, creating a massive loss of utility. And that, too, is an aberration.

Economies are graphs. Study them as graphs.

The American Dream will have to be revised

The republican party lost the election despite fielding the most competent, centrist, and generally acceptable candidate since Bush sr, or even including him. The hate fringe didn’t help the GOP, but it’s not what lost them the election either. The republicans still got nearly half the vote despite including individuals who would alienate more than half of the population. It’s not the individuals, it’s the policies that lost the elections.

The issue at the heart is the future vision for the individualist and affluent society that we call the American Dream. All can see that the dream has ran into problems lately. Instead of delivering prosperity and self-actualization America seems mired in social stress and inequality. The parties differ as to what to do about that. The democrats feel that the Dream has veered and want to do a course correction. The republicans are panicking and would desperately step on the gas.

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On Debt

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, and with a raging sovereign debt crisis in Europe, notably Greece, it’s worth stopping to consider what debt is. Even as so much is written on the subject, when I read journalistic or even some economists’ accounts of the debt crisis I’m left feeling that they don’t understand what debt is, or rather that they bring a moral frame to the concept that is unhelpful and out of touch with reality.

There are only three formulations of debt, as an economic transaction between strangers, that are moral and advisable:

  • An investment future: If you have a pile of cash, the net present value of keeping it as cash for a year is a few percent below face value, because of inflation and the risk it might be stolen or destroyed. You can give it to someone who can realize a better NPV and share some of that with you, so you both win. You could give it to Facebook in exchange of stock, or to a bank that invests in sub-prime mortgages. You could give it to the government of Germany, or of Greece. These differ in risk and return, and the market does a rough job of pricing them, but it’s always your investment decision. You can ask politically for an investment to be insured, or bailed out, and that simply means socializing losses by inflation or other means. Often, this is the right thing to do.
  • An option to sell: A secured debt, such as a mortgage, is really an option to sell the collateral to the bank at some future date, for some variable amount that’s equal to your then outstanding obligation. Again, it’s a business decision. The lenders should plan according to the possibility that they may get the full payment schedule or the collateral, presumably whatever is worth less in the ensuing economic conditions. If they forecast that poorly, well, too bad. There’s nothing moral or otherwise beholding of the borrower in a secured debt arrangement.
  • Due payment: Invoices for goods or services are a short term loan from the supplier to the client, granted as part of the cost of doing business. This debt does carry moral weight because it affects the cash flow of both parties a great deal and because only the value of the relationship, and a firm’s reputation, really compel a firm to pay it.

These are acceptable, modern forms of debt. Notice that, apart from the case of honorable business debt, there’s no moral angle to it. If you have surplus you give it to someone in the hope of achieving a better NPV, and maybe you get that or you don’t. There are no reckless borrowers or predatory lenders, and debt is not some kind of crushing moral obligation in this world. Continue reading