Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Hooray! It's The Committee To Save The World!

In 1999, three men in suits shared the cover of Time magazine. One man suppressed a smirk, as if he were a math geek who had just solved a problem everyone else said was too hard. Another grinned like a cat with a full belly. The third looked lumpy and glum. In the words emblazoned on the cover, they were "The Committee To Save The World." Truly, they were supermen. But where are they now? The G20 finance ministers met in Paris recently to talk about the meltdown of 2008, the imbalances in the global economy today, and the threat of disasters to come. The meeting produced only an ambiguous statement but Jim Flaherty, Canada's finance minister, boasted that Canada was instrumental in brokering the agreement -and would continue to push toward Flaherty's goal of an international system for identifying dangerous imbalances and correcting them before anything explodes. Doesn't that sound like a job for The Committee To Save The World? After all, The Committee saved the global economy during the Asian meltdown of the late 1990s. Or so Time said. If they saved us before, they can do it again. Right? Sadly, Flaherty must find new superheroes, for The Committee To Save The World is no more. The third member of The Committee -the lumpy and glum one -was Lawrence Summers. In 1999, he was the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, then Secretary. His career has been up and down since. More down than up. The second was Robert Rubin. He was Treasury Secretary in 1999. Later, he joined Citigroup and made more money than a Roman emperor. But today, he's best known as the guy who convinced Bill Clinton that derivatives didn't need to be regulated. Which is a big reason why 2008 blew up real good. The smirking superhero was Alan Greenspan. It's hard to remember now but there was a time when we worshipped the man. He was a genius. He knew everything. Or almost everything. For one thing, he didn't know that unregulated shadow banking combined with easy money would produce an explosive capable of demolishing the global economy. That was rather a big thing to not know. Having been thoroughly discredited, The Committee To Save The World will never again be asked to save the world. So who will? Someone else. Jim Flaherty and the G20 will find them. And you can be sure they'll be brilliant. Maybe Time will put them on the cover, where they can smirk, knowing that they are the smartest guys in the room -any room -and they have got it all figured out. Just like The Committee To Save The World. One would think there's a lesson here. But apparently Jim Flaherty and those who agree with him can't see it. Stand back and look at the global economy from the perspective of the natural sciences and it's clear that for all its impressive scale it's just another complex system. Which is to say that, like ant colonies and weather, it is more than the sum of its parts. Much more. Research on complex systems is -big surprise -complex. But it has produced one simple and clear conclusion: It is wise to be humble. Don't think you know what all the bits and pieces in a complex system do. Don't think you know how all the bits and pieces interact. And most importantly, do not think you can fully predict the behaviour of a complex system. Or control it. Consider seismology. We can improve our understanding of plate tectonics. We can improve our estimation of earthquake probabilities. But we cannot know when and where earthquakes will strike. That's the nature of complex systems. You would think everyone would know this by now. Remember Long-Term Capital Management? It was a hedge fund founded in 1994 with the help of two Nobel Prize-winning economists. LTCM had it all figured out. It made a killing. But in 1998, something happened which the smart guys' math said was impossible. LT-CM lost billions and collapsed -and may have taken Wall Street with it if it hadn't been bailed out. That was hardly the first such shock of its kind. The stock market crash of 1987. The emergence of stagflation in 1973. Over and over again, smart guys who were sure they had it all figured out were stunned when things that could not happen did. Of course admitting uncertainty and unpredictability does not mean we can do nothing. Building codes dramatically reduce the damage done by earthquakes, and insurance makes it possible to clear the rubble and re-build. So, too, in economies, there is a role for regulation of the sort Flaherty envisions. But what about insurance? Governments themselves can act as insurers. They did in 2008. But of course that was something of a fiction. The money governments spent to save the financial system was borrowed. Ordinary people and their children will be paying it off for decades. That's not fair. Or wise. The wizards of the financial system got rich taking on the risks that ultimately blew up in 2008. By not making them pay for the cleanup, governments gave them a powerful incentive to do the same again. Or worse. The alternative is to require the financial system to pay insurance premiums: A tiny tax on financial transactions would allow governments to create substantial reserve funds which could be used in the event of financial meltdowns. French President Nicolas Sarkozy continues to push a variant of this idea. Flaherty and others are adamantly opposed. The better solution, Flaherty says, is a Committee To Save The World. They'll get it all figured out. Sure they will.