Complexity & the art of public policy: Solving society's problems from the bottom up by David Colander & Roland Kupers.

Author:Ceresa, Robert M.
Position:Book review

Colander, David, and Roland Kupers. Complexity and the Art of Public Policy: Solving Society's Problems from the Bottom Up. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. viii + 310 pages. Cloth, $29.95.

Economists Colander and Kupers offer a condensed historical account of traditions of thought that lay at the intersection economics, politics, and public policy. The account is meant to explain how and why relatively simplistic understandings of government and the market dominate approaches to public policy. The new mathematical modeling techniques in complexity science provide the occasion for the review and the book. The new techniques give policy makers the tools they need to understand how complex systems (things as a whole and the parts that make them up) behave or how they work. The way the separate parts of a thing (i.e., the people of society, in the case of this book) interact and result in a separate and distinct whole other thing (i.e., society), with its own internal dynamics, which, in turn, in circular fashion, influences the way its individual parts interact. Societies and their peoples are ultimately the things the authors seek to explain in the book. The math in complexity science is less a subject of the book than the understanding of society that the math makes possible.

The authors show how the deep understanding of society from classical economics--as an evolving, complex, interactive, functional whole structure or system with a culture all its own that includes government--was lost over time without the math to translate such a vision into formal models. With the new techniques, however, a new research, analytical, or theoretical framework opens the door to an older and broader classical cultural understanding of society and consequently the role of government in it, ideas about what government and public policy can and should do, and how they should do it, than is currently the norm. This revisited understanding of society and the role of government that was lost until now points to culture as a social space that policy makers often ignore. Culture comes more clearly into focus with the new techniques and the new understanding than with the old as important terrain upon which government power acts in manifold ways. Culture, then, is something policy makers should think more carefully about than they do and also consider putting to better use in a variety of ways.

What is the best way for government to act to influence...

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