Haldane’s The dog and the Frisbee

Andrew Haldane The dog and the Frisbee

Haldane argues in favour of simplified regulation. I find the conclusions reasonable, but have some quibbles about the details of the argument. My own view is that much of our financial problems have been due – at least in part – to a misrepresentation of the associated mathematics, and so I am keen to ensure that we avoid similar misunderstandings in the future. I see this as a primary responsibility of ‘regulators’, viewed in the round.

The paper starts with a variation of Ashby’s ball-catching observation, involving dog and a Frisbee instead of a man and a ball: you don’t need to estimate the position of the Frisbee or be an expert in aerodynamics: a simple, natural, heuristic will do. He applies this analogy to financial regulation, but it is somewhat flawed. When catching a Frisbee one relies on the Frisbee behaving normally, but in financial regulation one is concerned with what had seemed to be abnormal, such as the crisis period of 2007/8.

It is noted of Game theory that

John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern established that optimal decision-making involved probabilistically-weighting all possible future outcomes.

In apparent contrast

Many of the dominant figures in 20th century economics – from Keynes to Hayek, from Simon to Friedman – placed imperfections in information and knowledge centre-stage. Uncertainty was for them the normal state of decision-making affairs.

“It is not what we know, but what we do not know which we must always address, to avoid major failures, catastrophes and panics.”

The Game Theory thinking is characterised as ignoring the possibility of uncertainty, which – from a mathematical point of view – seems an absurd misreading. Theories can only ever have conditional conclusions: any unconditional misinterpretation goes beyond the proper bounds. The paper – rightly – rejects the conclusions of two-player zero-sum static game theory. But its critique of such a theory is much less thorough than von Neumann and Morgenstern’s own (e.g. their 4.3.3) and fails to identify which conditions are violated by economics. More worryingly, it seems to invite the reader to accept them, as here:

The choice of optimal decision-making strategy depends importantly on the degree of uncertainty about the environment – in statistical terms, model uncertainty. A key factor determining that uncertainty is the length of the sample over which the model is estimated. Other things equal, the smaller the sample, the greater the model uncertainty and the better the performance of simple, heuristic strategies.

This seems to suggest that – contra game theory – we could ‘in principle’ establish a sound model, if only we had enough data. Yet:

Einstein wrote that: “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them”.

There seems a non-sequitur here: if new thinking is repeatedly being applied then surely the nature of the system will continually be changing? Or is it proposed that the ‘new thinking’ will yield a final solution, eliminating uncertainty? If it is the case that ‘new thinking’ is repeatedly being applied then the regularity conditions of basic game theory (e.g. at 4.6.3 and 11.1.1) are not met (as discussed at 2.2.3). It is certainly not an unconditional conclusion that the methods of game theory apply to economies beyond the short-run, and experience would seem to show that such an assumption would be false.

The paper recommends the use of heuristics, by which it presumably means what Gigernezer means: methods that ignore some of the data. Thus, for example, all formal methods are heuristics since they ignore intuition.  But a dog catching a Frisbeee only has its own experience, which it is using, and so presumably – by this definition – is not actually using a heuristic either. In 2006 most financial and economics methods were heuristics in the sense that they ignored the lessons identified by von Neumann and Morgenstern. Gigerenzer’s definition seems hardly helpful. The dictionary definition relates to learning on one’s own, ignoring others. The economic problem, it seems to me, was of paying too much atention to the wrong people, and too little to those such as von Neumann and Morgenstern – and Keynes.   

The implication of the paper and Gigerenzer is, I think, that a heuristic is a set method that is used, rather than solving a problem from first principles. This is clearly a good idea, provided that the method incorporates a check that whatever principles that it relies upon do in fact hold in the case at hand. (This is what economists have often neglecte to do.) If set methods are used as meta-heuristics to identify the appropriate heuristics for particular cases, then one has something like recognition-primed decision-making. It could be argued that the financial community had such meta-heuristics, which led to the crash: the adoption of heuristics as such seems not to be a solution. Instead one needs to appreciate what kind of heuristic are appropriate when. Game theory shows us that the probabilistic heuristics are ill-founded when there is significant innovation, as there was both prior, through and immediately after 2007/8. In so far as economics and finance are games, some events are game-changers. The problem is not the proper application of mathematical game theory, but the ‘pragmatic’ application of a simplistic version: playing the game as it appears to be unless and until it changes. An unstated possible deduction from the paper is surely that such ‘pragmatic’ approaches are inadequate. For mutable games, strategy needs to take place at a higher level than it does for fixed games: it is not just that different strategies are required, but that ‘strategy’ has a different meaning: it should at least recognize the possibility of a change to a seemingly established status quo.

If we take an analogy with a dog and a Frisbee, and consider Frisbee catching to be a statistically regular problem, then the conditions of simple game theory may be met, and it is also possible to establish statistically that a heuristic (method) is adequate. But if there is innovation in the situation then we cannot rely on any simplistic theory or on any learnt methods. Instead we need a more principled approach, such as that of Keynes or Ashby,  considering the conditionality and looking out for potential game-changers. The key is not just simpler regulation, but regulation that is less reliant on conditions that we expect to hold but for which, on maturer reflection, are not totally reliable. In practice this may necessitate a mature on-going debate to adjust the regime to potential game-changers as they emerge.

See Also

Ariel Rubinstein opines that:

classical game theory deals with situations where people are fully rational.

Yet von Neumann and Morgenstern (4.1.2) note that:

the rules of rational behaviour must provide definitely for the possibility of irrational conduct on the part of others.

Indeed, in a paradigmatic zero-sum two person game, if the other person players rationally (according to game theory) then your expected return is the same irrespective of how you play. Thus it is of the essence that you consider potential non-rational plays. I take it, then, that game theory as reflected in economics is a very simplified – indeed an over-simplified – version. It is presumably this distorted version that Haldane’s criticism’s properly apply to.

Dave Marsay