Biological Principles for Economic Design
What evolution can teach economists, & LEP goes into private beta
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & some bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans.
Today is a good day; a day on which inhaling draws ordinary particles into my body, wherein they transform, and I exhale particles of jubilation, powered by the sheer vibratory grandeur of existence.
After many, many months of research, writing, design, & daydreaming, the Library of Economic Possibility is taking the next step towards launch - a private release for beta testing.
Details below, but if you’re interested in receiving early access to our prototype in exchange for feedback & letting us know what bugs you discover, shoot me an email (with a few sentences on why something like LEP might interest you).
I’ve also just published an audio reflection on my recent podcast with Michael Levin, plus some extras, available for Patreon supporters. If you’d like access to that, you can become a Patreon supporter here.
Ok, in we go.
Biological Principles for Economic Design
Going into my conversation with Michael Levin, my intent was to circle the broad them of ‘biological principles for economic design’. I thought we could scale his research from biological systems to economies, using the same guiding principles to inform the design of each. If evolution figured out how to grow systems of collective intelligence, and has been successfully doing so for billions of years, maybe we can take a few pointers when thinking about economic policy, given that the economy may similarly be a system of collective intelligence, a whole built of agential parts.
That’s not quite what happened, we mostly covered different terrain, but after stewing for some time, and publishing a reflection, I’ve got a few takeaways.
His research on collective intelligence rests on gap junctions as bridges that create shared information pools, and stress that acts as a sort of cognitive glue. Together, these cause a ‘mind meld’ that combines agents into larger, hyper-agents (collective intelligences).
But gap junctions don’t exist at the more-than-human scale, so we can’t see economies in exactly the way say he sees, for example, biological tissue. But!
If the mechanics aren’t quite transferrable, the higher-level, systems view may be. Levin’s work suggests that evolution doesn’t select particular adaptations suited for particular environments. Instead, evolution simply creates flexible, problem-solving agents that can adjust on the fly (this is a common schtick of his on other podcasts).
So when I, as an insect, am born with a mutation where my eye appears on my legs, or my wings are malformed (but happen to look like the big eyes of a scary predator), the rest of the body can adjust, and still function as a successful organism, despite any malformation.
The more variation an organism can endure and still function well enough, the wider a range of mutations any organism can accommodate, allowing evolution to cast a wider exploratory net to rein in adaptations from the wide possibility space.
For economics, one question would then be: how can we design environments that produce maximally flexible, problem-solving agents who can adjust on the fly?
In our conversation, I suggested that providing a baseline of stability that can endure any variation in one’s life is one function of a good social safety net. If we had a solid foundation of unconditional programs like basic income and universal healthcare in place, then any individual life could more safely engage in risky experimentation1.
Allowing for a wider range of experimentation of ways to live one’s life would also allow social evolution to cast a wider net. The capacity to endure greater social variation allows for larger exploration of what may prove socially adaptive2.
How else might economics interface with the directive of creating flexible, problem-solving agents who can adjust on the fly?
The reflection on my conversation with Michael explores this question by drawing on material from my conversation with Ruben Laukkonen on meditation & predictive processing (long-term, I’d love to do more of this, splicing past podcasts together to illuminate the ties that run through them).
The Library of Economic Possibility (Prototype) Is Moving Into Beta Testing
After many months of researching, writing, and building, our LEP prototype is finally moving into private beta, and soon after, going public.
It’s been a long road. We announced our intentions almost one year ago, launching our landing page, and getting interviewed by Yancey Strickler (cofounder of Kickstarter, and an advisor to LEP + early donor via the Bento Society).
We’re thrilled to take another step, and are looking for folks interested in receiving early access to the prototype. In exchange, we ask that you report the bugs you’re sure to discover, plus any general feedback.
If you’re interested, shoot me an email with a quick description of why something like LEP might be useful or interesting to you. While this prototype is only a faint whisper of the platform we hope to build, it’s a start, and that is cause for jubilation.
As the accelerating weirdness of the past two years ratchets upwards, I’ve remained confounded that there appears to be no central platform that gathers and spotlights high-leverage economic possibilities, and provides an overview of what the empirical evidence has to say about them.
Think-tanks write about policy, but the information gets drowned in a backlog of articles, lost amidst waves of content. Wikipedia is good, & provides decently robust access to empirical evidence, but it’s overwhelming, tough to navigate, & we think we’ve improved on how to interact with linked information.
LEP’s homepage will always offer a laser-focus right to the policies (I’m showing you an antiquated design from part of the homepage, with a lot of placeholder or outdated content, just to give the idea):
We’re eager to launch and provide a rich source of information on basic income, codetermination, and land value taxation, each of which offer a different kind of high-leverage approach to changing the structures that drive the evolution of the economy.
Afterwards, and if we secure additional funding, we plan to add new policies on a rolling basis, including everything from public investment banks, antitrust regulation, to value-added taxation.
If you’d like to follow along, you can join LEP’s newsletter here.
That’s it for now. As a parting note, here’s a great scene from Richard Linklater’s animated, labyrinthine, wonderful philosophy film, Waking Life, where Caveh Zahedi speaks with David Jewell about ‘Holy Moments’ (which I take as a great framing of what makes Annie Dillard’s writing so freaking potent):
Until next time,
Some would argue that too much unconditional resource provision would do the opposite, allowing individuals to sit back, avoid risk, and just unproductively enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. I have my qualms with this perspective, and with the premise that unproductive enjoyment is to be shunned, but that’s for another time. Years ago, I framed this problem a little more formally under the heading of ‘the free rider problem’